The Pats will face a number of obstacles in their path to New Orleans in February.
The New England Patriots are just a few steps down the long road back to the Super Bowl.
Despite a painful ending to last year's season, in which the Pats lost in the waning minutes of the title game, most fans can't wait for the season to start. That's because this year's team is equipped with an offense that can attack all three levels of an opposing defense, and a young D that already looks tougher and more aggressive than last year's edition.
While Pats fans wait anxiously for the September 9th opener against the Tennessee Titans, they'll have plenty of opportunities to evaluate their team's roster in the coming weeks with the Patriots' two remaining preseason games.
Fans should have their eyes on one matchup in particular: the final preseason dust-up between the Pats and the defending champion New York Giants.
While it's true that the preseason has little predictive power in terms of regular-season success, let's take a look at three reasons why Pats fan should keep a close eye on the preseason closer against the "Football" Giants.
Here's the most obvious reason to watch: it's a rematch of two of the greatest (or, if you're a Pats fan, worst) Super Bowls in NFL history.
If you're reading this article, you probably don't need to be reminded that the Giants have won both of these teams' matchups in the Super Bowl, including last season's 21-17 heartbreaker.
The Pats and Giants don't meet in the regular season, so unless they're destined for a third Super Bowl bout, this is the only time we'll get to watch last year's Conference champs battle it out against one another.
Pats fans will just have to make sure they have the remote handy, so they can change the channel anytime the broadcast team shows highlights of last year's game.
The primary weakness of the Pats' high-flying offense the past few seasons was its ability to adjust to defenses that can apply pressure on QB Tom Brady without blitzing.
It's a common weakness among NFL offenses, of course, but it's also one that has cost the Pats two Super Bowl titles.
The Giants feature a front-four that includes All-Pro pass-rushers Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul, two linemen that can beat their man one-on-one and get to the QB. It allows them to play nickel or dime packages that can blanket multiple skill players while still pressuring the passer.
There are three ways the Pats can slow high-powered defensive lines like that of the Giants (and the division rival Buffalo Bills).
First, they can run quick screens into the flat with second-year RB Shane Vereen, whose shiftiness could keep the linemen back on their heels. Second, they can gash a DB-heavy backfield with downhill running from RB Stevan Ridley, forcing their opponent to put larger (and slower) linebackers on the field. Finally, they can take a few deep shots downfield to WRs Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney, opening up the seams and slants for quick passing lanes to counter the defensive pressure.
The Giants game will serve as an early test as to whether this year's Pats have an answer to a high-pressure D that can decently cover the Pats' weapons.
It is indisputable at this point: Eli Manning is a top-five quarterback in the NFL.
He followed up a 2010 campaign (during which he threw a league-leading 25 INTs) with a fantastic year last season. During the regular season, he ranked in the top-10 in football in total yards, yards-per-attempt, touchdowns and QB rating. Then he followed it up with a stellar postseason, during which he threw nine touchdowns and just one interception en route to a Super Bowl MVP.
He'll serve as a litmus test for a defense that ranked second-to-last in total yards allowed last season.
This offseason, GM/Coach Bill Belichick revamped that struggling defense with additions to the front-seven and secondary. With an infusion of youth and athleticism (including first rounders DE/OLB Chandler Jones and LB Dont'a Hightower) the Pats' D hopes to generate pressure off the edge and lessen the burden on its secondary.
If the Pats' starters can get to Manning, disrupt his timing and shake him off his reads, it will bode well for their success this season.
That's why Pats fans should be especially interested in this game: no matter how elite their offense is, the Pats will only go as far as their young defense will allow.