A month ago, the New York Giants looked as though they were limping to the finish line. Now they've made it all the way to Super Bowl XLII.
What changed for the Giants? The answer is mighty obvious: The Giants' playoff run is almost entirely a result of the team's improvement in the passing game, with a little help from better run defense.
Based on yards per play, it looks as if the Giants have actually been worse on the ground, and worse defending the pass. However, as DVOA shows, those raw numbers have changed because of the quality of the Giants' last four opponents, not because the Giants are actually playing worse.
To do a better job controlling the Giants' offense, the Patriots need to big-blitz more often, sending six or seven pass-rushers at Eli Manning. Big-blitzing Manning was an important part of Minnesota's game plan when the Vikings whipped the Giants 41-17 in Week 12, and Washington also used it to beat the Giants in Week 15.
During his recent four-week stretch of strong play, Manning improved against the conventional pass rush, but he still had problems with the big blitz. Here is a look at Manning's performance by number of pass-rushers, using both net yards per play and defensive stop rate (explained here).
In the first Patriots-Giants game, the Patriots sent six pass-rushers only once in the first half, but six times in the second half. On those seven plays, Manning completed three passes out of six, with a sack, for a net average of 0.7 yards per play. (The last Patriots big blitz did result in a 3-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress, which made the game 38-35.)
According to our adjusted line yards stats, this game features the NFL's top two run-blocking offensive lines, and both teams are particularly strong running up the middle. The Giants are also one of the league's top three defenses at stopping runs up the middle, while the Patriots' defense was a mere 20th. However, the Patriots run up the middle (or behind the guards) a lot more often than the Giants do -- 58 percent of the time for the Patriots, compared to just 39 percent of the time for the Giants.
The Giants' defense should be worried about two trends -- one that didn't change in the playoffs, and one that did. Both trends play right into the strengths of the New England offense.
The Patriots were the NFL's best offense in the red zone, while the Giants had a poor red zone defense (23rd in DVOA against the pass, 30th against the run). This is one thing that has not changed in recent weeks. New England, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay got past the Giants' 18-yard line a total of 10 times. Eight of those drives ended in touchdowns, two in field goals.
The Patriots were also the NFL's best offense on third down. During the regular season, the Giants were very good at stopping the other offense on third down. In the past four weeks, while everything else was going right for the Giants, their third-down defense deteriorated significantly.
The pass rush was a major reason why the Giants' defense was so strong on third down during the regular season. The Giants led the league in sacks, and were one of just three teams with more sacks on third down (27) than first and second downs combined (26).
(Speaking of the Giants' pass rush: If the Giants win, Michael Strahan will join Reggie White, Richard Dent and Lawrence Taylor as the only Super Bowl champions on the list of the NFL's top dozen sack artists of all time.)
The Patriots were second in sacks, right behind the Giants, and the New York offensive line hasn't protected Manning that well in recent weeks. In the first eight games of the season, the Giants had an adjusted sack rate of 3.8 percent, sixth in the NFL. In the final eight games of the regular season, the Giants had an adjusted sack rate of 6.2 percent, 18th in the NFL. In the playoffs, the Giants have an adjusted sack rate of 6.1 percent.
New England has a major advantage when it comes to field position from kickoffs. That may sound strange, given that Domenik Hixon's kickoff return for a touchdown was one of the most important plays during the first Giants-Patriots game. However, this was the only kickoff return touchdown scored by the Giants all season, and the only one allowed by the Patriots all season. If we combine Hixon's stats from New York and Denver, the Patriots' kickoff return men averaged more yards per return (25.2) than Hixon did (24.9).
The Patriots also have the superior kicker. Stephen Gostkowski averaged 64.5 yards per kickoff, while the Giants' Lawrence Tynes averaged just 61.8 yards. Just for good measure, the Giants also allowed more yardage per kick return (23.1) than the Patriots did (22.1).
Don't expect to see a lot of flags thrown in this game. The Giants and Patriots finished 27th and 28th in penalties, respectively, and penalty rates around the league drop during the postseason -- especially for offensive holding. Gregg Easterbrook noted in his latest TMQ that New England has not been called for offensive holding this postseason, but the same goes for Dallas, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Washington.
Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of Pro Football Prospectus 2007 and 2008.