EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Expect the unexpected. The Giants do. That mad scientist in New England is turning wide receivers into defensive backs and moving a 325-pound tackle all over the defensive line and switching from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 and back again all on one drive. Anything is possible.
"You never know what's going on in their minds up there," New York guard Chris Snee said on Thursday.
It is Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl, after all. Prepare for everything. Be surprised by nothing. The Patriots are, to put it mildly, flexible defensively.
Two of the keys to Super Bowl XLVI between New York and New England will be which team can better contain the run and pressure the quarterback. Although the Patriots gave up a whopping 411.1 yards per game during the regular season, they have clamped down in the postseason. Against Denver and then Baltimore, they played more multiple defensive fronts than they did earlier in the season.
In the playoffs, the Patriots' base defense has been more of a 3-4, because it gives them stronger edges in the running game. Against Denver, the Pats were worried about letting QB Tim Tebow get outside for big gains. Against Baltimore, they didn't want RB Ray Rice to bounce to the outside.
In the first half against Baltimore, the Patriots held Rice to just 21 yards on 10 carries. His longest run was a 7-yard gain. The Ravens came out throwing in the second half, and New England played more four-man fronts with nickel and dime coverages. Still, the Patriots mixed in plenty of three-man fronts --using Mark Anderson and Rob Ninkovich as their speed rushers -- and moved Vince Wilfork all over the line.
That many looks can be a nightmare for offensive linemen, because the calls at the line are different depending on the formation and what technique the defensive linemen are playing. But the Giants' linemen would not concede that. To a man, they all said the only headache with facing the Patriots is having to prepare essentially for two different defenses.
Giants left tackle David Diehl, left guard Kevin Boothe, center David Baas, Snee and right tackle Kareem McKenzie played only 18.1 percent of the snaps together during the regular season. But they have played 94.9 percent of the postseason snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
When Wilfork moves from tackle to end, McKenzie will be the matchup. When Wilfork is at tackle -- as he was on the fourth-and-6 play late in the game when he blew up Baltimore center Matt Birk to pressure QB Joe Flacco -- Baas will carry much of the responsibility.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, in the regular season and the playoffs, Wilfork has played 310 snaps at left tackle, 233 at left end, 199 at nose tackle, 188 at right tackle and 105 at right end.
Whether the Patriots are in a 3-4 or a 4-3, Baas said, the Giants' approach will remain the same.
"Follow our rules, stick with our game plan, be assignment-sound, and come off the ball," Baas said.
"You can give us anything you want," he added. "Honestly, if we're prepared and we execute our game plan, then they can do whatever they want and it won't really matter."
The Patriots opened the season as a 4-3 defense -- in part, Belichick told Sirius XM NFL Radio's "Movin' the Chains" program in October, because of the lost offseason and truncated preseason. The Pats' coach said he thought it would be too difficult for the new players to pick up a 3-4 base and a 4-2-5 nickel package, particularly when the Patriots play so much nickel.
"There are so many intricacies to a 3-4 defense that I just didn't know if we'd be ready to handle them this year," Belichick told the program's hosts, Pat Kirwan and Tim Ryan. "Probably wouldn't have been, to be honest with you."
At that time, Belichick said the Patriots would "transition and build into some of our odd fronts," and that certainly has been the case.
While watching film Tuesday of New England's defense against Baltimore in the AFC title game, ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said one of his biggest questions about the matchup between the Giants and Patriots is what kind of defense New England would play. The Giants' wide receivers are far superior to those of the Broncos or Ravens. Jaworski noted that if the Giants opted for a three-receiver set against the Patriots' base 3-4, Victor Cruz would be covered by a linebacker.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin would take that matchup all game long.
In the game against the Giants in Week 9, the Patriots played primarily 4-3.
"There's always new stuff, and we know that going into the game," Snee said. "With them having played a little more 3-4 look last weekend, you don't know what you're going to get. The good thing is we have two weeks to practice against every front imaginable, and I'm sure we will."
"This is the Super Bowl, man," McKenzie said. "Anything can happen. You don't know. What are they going to save it for? They're definitely not playing after the Super Bowl, so anything they can draw up or any ideas they can come up with, pretty much they're going to do it."
Because each game is a tabula rasa for Belichick, the Giants don't know what to expect other than the unexpected.
"I don't know," Snee said when asked what he thought the Patriots would do. "I really don't know, but like I said, we'll prepare every front, every blitz that they've shown and probably some ones that they haven't shown or won't show. We'll prepare for everything."
And be surprised by nothing.
Ashley Fox is an NFL columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @AshleyMFox.