The Patriots return to Foxborough on Sunday for a game against the Giants, a team they haven’t faced since... well... never mind.
The 2011 Giants team shares a few similarities with that 2007 team, particularly along the defensive front. The Giants sit atop the NFC East at 5-2, with impressive wins over the Bills and in Philadelphia already on their resume. They haven't had a road game in over a month (Week 4 at Arizona), but their schedule is about to get a lot more difficult. After New England, they’ll face San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Green Bay and Dallas.
Here are three areas to watch for on Sunday:
* The biggest similarity between the 2007 Giants and this year’s team comes on the defensive line. The Giants send extra pressure on 30.1 percent of dropbacks (17th in NFL), so they generally rely on their front four to generate pressure on quarterbacks. New York’s defensive linemen have been very effective with 21.5 sacks, second only to division rival Philadelphia. Of those, 18 have come when the Giants have sent four or fewer pass rushers, a total that ranks behind only the Eagles and Lions. Their ability to create pressure without committing extra defenders has helped mask problems staying healthy in the secondary. The Giants were ravaged by cornerback injuries in training camp, including standout cornerback Terrell Thomas and first-round draft pick Prince Amukamara. However, the Giants defense boasts a -2 touchdown-interception ratio when sending four or fewer pass rushers, trailing only the Jets and Seahawks. More than anything else, that's the key on Sunday -- can the Patriots' offensive line keep Tom Brady upright and let him pick apart the defense?
* Eli Manning’s numbers have improved almost across the board, but the best indication of how Manning has matured as a quarterback this season has been in how he’s protected the ball. Against a standard four-man pass rush last season, Manning threw 19 interceptions, one every 18.8 dropbacks. This season, against the same standard rush, Manning has thrown only a pair of interceptions (both in a Week 5 loss to Seattle), one pick every 76 dropbacks. His decision-making last year especially got him into trouble over the middle. On throws inside the numbers, Manning threw 18 interceptions (6.6 pct of dropbacks) and had a -6 TD-Int differential, all of which was the worst in the league. Manning has only two interceptions inside the numbers this year, with a much-improved 1.8 interception percentage. Better receiver play has helped -- three of Manning’s 2010 interceptions were due to receiver drops compared with zero this season -- but Manning’s decision-making is a big reason why the Giants are the team to beat right now in their division.
* The Giants have needed Manning to be better this season, because their rushing game has been poor. Once lauded for their ability to mix Ahmad Bradshaw’s speed with Brandon Jacobs’ power, the Giants are averaging only 4.0 yards per rush this season (26th in NFL). The Giants' running game has lacked big-play potential. A year ago, the Giants registered 23 rushes of at least 20 yards. This season, they’ve managed only a pair of rushes for at least 20 yards. Giants running backs have also averaged only 1.7 yards after contact per rush, 24th in the league. Bradshaw’s status is uncertain for Sunday, as the running back was hobbled with a foot injury last Sunday against the Dolphins. As for Jacobs, the bruising back has been ineffective this season (3.0 yards per rush) and drew the ire of Giants fans after fumbling a hand-off on the opening series against the Dolphins on Sunday.