Ladies and gentlemen, the grand finale of the 2011-12 football season is just hours away. As we prepare for Super Bowl XLVI, let's take a look at five key matchups between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants.
These matchups will ultimately determine the winner of this much-anticipated rematch.
The Patriots have perennially had one of the best offenses in the NFL ever since Tom Brady took over at quarterback, but one of the only things that has proven effective against the future Hall of Famer is a relentless pass rush.
That's good news for New York, because the Giants just happen to have one of the top pass rushes in the NFL. Guys like Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka have been a collective nightmare for quarterbacks all season—even through their struggles in the regular season—and they've been on top of their games here in the playoffs.
New England's offensive line is obviously going to have to block its collective heart out, but the bottom line is, the Giants are going to get to Brady, and when that happens, the big question will be how he will handle the pressure.
If he handles it well, the Patriots have a great shot at winning. If he doesn't, they will probably have a long night.
Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have really broken the mold of a two-tight end system this year. They are two of the top three pass-catchers on the team.
Meanwhile, the Giants have been suspect in the secondary to begin with this year, and Gronkowski and Hernandez are nightmares to try and match up with. If Tom Brady can get any time at all in the pocket, the Giants are going to have a really tough time stopping the Pats' offense.
New York's safeties and linebackers are going to have to be on top of their games to stick with those tight ends and limit them if the Giants want to win this game.
Guys like speedy linebacker Jacquian Williams and safeties Kenny Phillips and Antrel Rolle will be counted on to hold them down.
The New York Giants have some talented pass-catchers themselves in receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks.
Nicks and Cruz both had 1,000-yard seasons for the Giants and have both played lights out in the playoffs during New York's remarkable run.
Meanwhile, like the Giants' secondary, the Patriots have been one of the worst teams in the NFL in giving up passing yards, and that doesn't bode well against Nicks and Cruz.
New England's secondary is going to have to have its best game of the season to slow down this passing attack.
Eli Manning has gotten a lot of the credit for New York's strong offensive performance this postseason, but one of the biggest reasons for its success is the resurgence of the running game.
Backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs have both been effective lately, and it has opened up the passing game. If Bradshaw can get going on the ground and through the air, and Jacobs can be the bull he is supposed to be, the Patriots' challenging matchup will be compounded.
New England's defensive line has also played very well this postseason and held both the Broncos and the Ravens down, but in those contests, it didn't have to worry about the passing game nearly as much.
If the Patriots are able to stifle Jacobs and Bradshaw, they stand a much better chance.
One of the things New England has been able to do this postseason that it didn't do nearly as well during the regular season is get pressure on the quarterback.
Guys like Rob Ninkovich, Andre Carter, Mark Anderson and James Ihedigbo have been great at getting to the quarterback lately, but all that starts with defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
Wilfork has been a beast over the past couple of games, plowing through the offensive line and freeing up other pass-rushers to get their hands on the quarterback. He will play a pivotal role in how much pressure Eli Manning feels throughout the game.
If and when he has been pressured, though, Manning has responded pretty well. If he can quickly find open receivers, the Giants may be able to move the ball effectively even if the Patriots get consistent pressure.
If Wilfork and the Pats can dominate New York's offensive line and put Manning on his back time and time again, this will be New England's game to lose. But if Manning can stand in and deliver in the face of pressure, it could go the Giants' way despite the efforts of Wilfork.