INDIANAPOLIS - The Giants receiving corps has developed into a formidable one as the season has gone on, particularly in the postseason. Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham are a varied and talented trio who have risen to the occasion for quarterback Eli Manning.
The Patriots secondary has been their weak spot all season, with injuries and ineffectiveness leading to 11 players making at least one start at cornerback or safety and 15 players taking at least one snap at the positions. It has stabilized over the last month, but there are still questions about just how solid a group it is.
The performance of each unit will go a long way toward determining the winner of Super Bowl XLVI.
On that most unpredictable of gauges - paper - the advantage would be squarely with the Giants.
Cruz has been a breakout star this season, with 82 catches for a franchise-record 1,536 yards and 9 touchdowns, a taller but no less shifty version of Wes Welker. Both recorded a 99-yard touchdown this season.
Nicks is considered the speedster, and he pulled in 76 receptions for 1,192 yards and 7 TDs.
Manningham’s numbers aren’t as imposing - he had 39 catches for 523 yards and 4 TDs in 13 games - but he is taller and stronger than his teammates, and has a touchdown in each of New York’s three playoff games.
They have accounted for 43 receptions in the postseason, and have caught seven of Manning’s eight TD passes.
The Patriots have settled into a rotation now that safety Patrick Chung has returned after losing nearly all of the second half of the season to a foot injury. Safety James Ihedigbo is a heady player, cornerback Kyle Arrington has been steady, and Devin McCourty has regained confidence with his new role as a sometimes safety in addition to corner.
Cornerback Sterling Moore has been solid and Julian Edelman has done an admirable job considering he began playing the nickel spot just a couple of months ago.
When the Patriots say the Giants have the best group of receivers they’ve faced this season, it’s more than the standard New England lip service.
“They all do different things very well,’’ said McCourty. “With Nicks, he’s a guy that can run and take it the distance, but he’s a stronger guy, he really goes up and battles for the ball, where Manningham really uses his quickness to his advantage, making guys miss coming off the line.
“But they all do some similar things very well. I think it’s how Eli spreads the ball out and uses all of them, that’s what makes them so dangerous.’’
“[We need to] play as disciplined as possible,’’ said Arrington. “Sixty minutes of disciplined football and not trying to do more than what you’re asked. If everybody does their individual job, wins their individual battle, we’ll be in good shape collectively.’’
Manningham hasn’t been shy about disparaging Edelman this week, saying the Giants know he’s not a nickel back by trade and they will target and try to expose the receiver/returner/defensive back.
But the fact that the Patriots had to turn to Edelman, plus the efficiency level at which New York’s offense is running is why one former defensive back thinks things are in the Giants’ favor, at least in this area of the game.
“These three wide receivers are very, very good,’’ said Solomon Wilcots, now an analyst for NFL Network and Sirius NFL radio. “They’re good in all areas - they’re great route-runners, they’re great hand-ball catchers, they’re great after the catch, much like the Green Bay Packers receiving corps. They’re very sound in what they do.’’
Wilcots pointed to the performance of Cruz, Nicks, and Manningham in the NFC title game, against a 49ers defense “much better than they’re going to face in this game.’’ The way Wilcots described it, Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride’s system in terms of receivers having to read the defense at the snap sounds similar to New England’s.
Perhaps facing their offensive teammates every day in training camp and in practice will work in New England’s favor, as the corners and safeties are used to facing players who will change their routes depending on what they see.
Or the improvisational way the Giants play will continue to help them.
“I’ve seen them run routes, they get a certain look and run the route and they’ll break it off if the safety’s over the top,’’ said Wilcots. “And then they get a different look and they’re running that route and no safety over the top, he just takes it right up the field deep.
“Whatever it is you do defensively, they tailor their routes to what they’re seeing from your secondary, which gives them a tremendous advantage. That’s why they’re explosive and Eli and his receivers are in synch with one another.
“They don’t know what they’re running until the ball is snapped and they leave the line of scrimmage. Which gives them an advantage. Most offenses, they’re going to run it, they do some ‘check with me,’ the quarterback may change the play and tell them what route to run, but once they leave the line of scrimmage it’s already decided what they’re going to do.
“But not the Giants. The Giants will snap the ball, they take off and then they see what’s going on and everybody makes an adjustment and they are very precise. That’s how they beat the 49ers. The 49ers defense, I can’t tell you how good they are. They’re much better than the Patriots. That to me is the scary part of this entire game.’’
Yet Wilcots acknowledged that the Patriots have one thing the Giants don’t: Bill Belichick.
“He’ll come up with something,’’ said Wilcots. “He’ll find something to not make it as easy as it seems like it’s going to be for the Giants wide receivers.’’
New England’s fate could well depend on just that.