Vince Wilfork (75) of the New England Patriots celebrates after defeating the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The New England Patriots defeated the Baltimore Ravens 20-23. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Defense wins championships. That is the long-held mantra of football coaches and analysts everywhere. Well, the New England Patriots are trying to win a 2012 Super Bowl championship against the New York Giants with a defense that ranked 31st of the league's 32 teams in yardage allowed per game in the 2011 season.
Tom Brady and the high-powered New England offense carried that sieve-like defense to a 13-3 regular-season record. In the postseason, the Patriots defense has -- statistically -- held up its end of the deal. In two postseason games the Patriots have surrendered 325 yards per game (down from 411.1) and 15 points per game (down from 23.1).
Here is my question, though: Are those numbers just a mirage based on who the Patriots have played in their two playoff victories, or has the New England defense improved enough to cause problems for the explosive New York passing attack?
Reality is that New England has faced two offensively-challenged teams in the playoffs. They defeated the passing-deficient Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos, 45-10, in the divisional round. Next, they defeated the Baltimore Ravens, 23-20, in the AFC Championship Game. Joe Flacco is a good quarterback, but the truth is he doesn't have much to throw to. Neither the Broncos nor the Ravens is exactly the New Orleans Saints or Green Bay Packers when it comes to offensive football.
More to the point, neither of those teams presents the type of challenge to a defense that the Giants do.
Neither Tebow, obviously, nor Flacco is in Eli Manning's class as a quarterback. Neither Tebow nor Flacco has the kind of weapons at his disposal that Manning does, either. Receivers Victor Cruz (82 catches, a franchise record 1,526 yards), Hakeem Nicks (76 catches 1,192 yards) and Mario Manningham (39 catches, 523 yards) are as good as any trio of wide receivers in the league. Manning completed 10 passes to Cruz against San Francisco, but more impressive is the fact that the Giants quarterback will throw to anyone. He completed passes to eight different receivers during the NFC Championship Game.
In the regular-season meeting between the Giants and Patriots, won by New York 24-20, Nicks did not play. Cruz still caught six balls, tight end Jake Ballard four and Manningham three.
The Giants can run the ball better than some believe, as well. They finished last in the league during the regular season, averaging 89.2 yards rushing. In the playoffs, though, they have run for 117.3 yards per game and averaged 4.2 yards per carry. That has given them the balance head coach Tom Coughlin craves.
Can the Patriots defense measure up? You can be sure that Bill Belichick will have a terrific plan. Can the Patriots generate enough pass rush, and do they have enough personnel in the secondary, to match up with what the Giants can -- and certainly will -- send their way on Super Bowl Sunday?
For me, this is one of the intriguing things we will have to wait to find out.