By Paul Dottino
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Are the Giants the hunters or the hunted?

It’s an interesting question, considering the New England Patriots are slight favorites to win Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday, although it appears most of the media analysts are picking the Giants to grab the ring in this rematch from four years ago.

Coach Tom Coughlin says he doesn’t care about the popular sentiments and has proclaimed his team the underdog – just as he did in 2007, when the Giants drove through the postseason and knocked off the unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. His players may not believe what he’s saying, though, because most of them have expressed confidence that they’ll win this game.

One thing is for certain: The players have taken to Coughlin’s request that they treat this battle in a business-like fashion, and they have had two very good weeks of practice.

Ok, so let’s get to the Giants’ three key matchups to watch:

1. Giants’ front four vs. Patriots’ offensive line. Brady is one of those rare quarterbacks who has the football acumen to make teams heavily pay when they rely on the blitz. Therefore, it is imperative for the Giants’ front four to get pressure on him without any additional help. Although defensive coordinator Perry Fewell may use plenty of disguises in his scheme, it’s much easier to defend Brady’s passing attack with seven defenders in coverage while the linemen pressure him in the pocket.

The artificial turf at Lucas Oil Stadium is a fast track and very well suited to the Giants’ speed rushers, who get off quickly at the snap. It’s not so much WHO gets to the quarterback as much as it is that SOMEBODY from the line causes Brady to hurry his throws.

2. Giants’ wide receivers vs. Patriots’ secondary. Again, this is a unit matchup rather than an individual one. The Giants’ combination of Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham may be the most dynamic trio in the NFL – each can get deep and each can make yardage after the catch.

Nicks, who had four TD catches in the playoffs, did not play when the Giants beat the Patriots, 24-20, on the road in Week 9. He’s confident he’ll have a big game against a Patriots’ secondary that ranked 31st in the NFL (294 yards per game). Manningham already has proven he can beat CB Kyle Arrington, New England’s best cover guy, during the regular season.

Bill Belichick likely will try to disguise his coverages and blitz packages – not so much to confuse QB Eli Manning (because the New England coach realizes that Manning carves up the blitz), but to see if he can perplex the receivers who are required to react off Manning’s audibles and hot reads.

The Giants’ receivers, especially earlier in the season, sometimes had difficulty running the correct routes for Manning. This problem not only results in wasted snaps, but also can lead to turnovers.

3. Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell vs. Patriots TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The Patriots are unique in that they heavily rely on their two tight ends to go vertically down the field. Veteran WR Deion Branch is the most dangerous deep threat, but he’s not a game-breaker and Pro Bowl pick Wes Welker is more of a medium-range target who runs great routes and compiles yardage after the catch when defensive backs take bad angles.

Gronkowski set an NFL record for tight ends with 17 TD catches this season and is expected to play despite being limited by a serious ankle injury. Hernandez, who is less of a blocker than his teammate, is used as an offensive rover and has taken snaps as a running back.

Both of these tight ends cause mismatches, making it critical that the Giants’ back seven does not make any mistakes when covering them. Fewell’s scheme is only half of the battle – the Giants can’t afford any confusion or busted coverages.

PREDICTION: Giants 31, Patriots 23

PREDICTION RECORD vs. the spread: 11-8

Will there be a Big Blue parade down the Canyon of Heroes? Make your Super Bowl prediction in the comments below!

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