By Paul Dottino
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No matter how you feel about the New England Patriots, there is no doubt that they consistently present the most multifaceted challenge in the league. The Pats (8-0) always have a realistic game plan to win, regardless of what their opponent may be able to take away from them.
Coach Bill Belichick is a master at figuring out how to use his team's strengths to his advantage while cloaking its deficiencies. And, of course, he's got a roster full of talented players to execute whatever formula he's concocted for that particular week.
But the game is not played on paper, which is why the Giants (5-4) are geared up for Sunday's battle at MetLife Stadium.
"In this day and age, being undefeated at this point of the season is quite an accomplishment in itself," Giants coach Tom Coughlin admitted. "We know the quality of the team. Excitement is a good word for us, energy-in-the-room kind of thing, is a very positive thing for us. We simply have to take care of our process, our production, better than we've ever done it before. That's really what the challenge is for our players, both in the classroom and on the field."
Here are three key matchups to watch:
1. Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Giants' back seven:
There are very few players in the NFL who can match up with Gronk, and the Giants don't have any of them. He leads NFL tight ends with 693 receiving yards, seven TDs and 13 catches of 20-plus yards, and he ranks second with 44 receptions. Did we mention he's also a strong blocker and is very hard to take down once he catches the ball?
The Giants' defense has allowed tight ends to grab a league-high 59 passes for 701 yards (second-highest) and five TDs. The best way to contain Gronk is for LB Devon Kennard to beat him up at the line, hand him off to a defensive back -- perhaps third safety Craig Dahl -- and then hope the pass rush can throw off QB Tom Brady's timing.
2. Giants QB Eli Manning vs. Patriots' back seven:
Given that the Patriots are scoring an NFL-high 35 points per game, you have to believe that the Giants' best chance to remain competitive is for Manning to get involved in a pinball game against Brady. And Manning's already proven he could go toe to toe against the Saints' Drew Brees, putting up a career-high six TD passes and leading the offense to 42 points at New Orleans.
So the Giants know they have the tools to compile some big numbers, and the Patriots are somewhat vulnerable through the air, allowing 245 passing yards per game (16th) and a 41 percent third-down conversion rate (24th). But Manning needs to attack early and often because the Pats also have 27 sacks (tied for second), and those are much easier to come by when their opponent's quarterback is in constant catch-up mode.
3. Giants CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie vs. Patriots' offense:
This is the most unique matchup we've ever listed. So let's explain. The Giants' offense may be able to compete in a race against Brady & Co., but it sure would help if the Giants' defense can limit the number of Patriots possessions by continuing its habit of creating turnovers. The Giants lead the NFL with 21 takeaways and are tied atop the league with 13 INTs and a plus-12 turnover ratio.
Rodgers-Cromartie (3 INTs) has been involved in a team-leading six takeaways, so he's their best bet to cause trouble for the Pats, who have committed a league-low five giveaways (two INTs, three fumbles lost). The Giants may need this figure to go as high as plus-3 to tip the scales enough in their favor, and that's going to be quite a challenge.
PREDICTION: Patriots 38, Giants 27
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