SERIES: 8th meeting. Patriots lead series, 4-3. Despite the geographic proximity of the two, conference restraints have kept the Patriots and Giants from playing too often over the years. New York shut New England out in the initial offering in 1970 and went on to take three of the first four meetings by 1990. But the Patriots have bounced back winning the last three contests, including a 17-6 victory at Gillette Stadium in 2003. In that game, Matt Chatham had a key 38-yard fumble return for a touchdown on a wet field. That was actually the Patriots' biggest margin of victory in a series that's seen four games decided by a touchdown or less.
PREDICTION: Patriots 27-17
KEYS TO THE GAME: Patriots QB Tom Brady needs two TD passes to break Peyton Manning's (49) single-season record; WR Randy Moss needs two TD catches to top Jerry Rice's mark of 22. New England will come out looking to salt away those records -- and the single-season scoring record in the process, they need seven points -- and the game as quickly as possible, then turn to the game over to the backups. ... Coach Tom Coughlin has held the line publicly this week that the Giants will attempt to win the game. But with no playoff positioning at stake, he's expected to pull key players at some point -- perhaps whenever the game becomes a lost cause. The Giants are coming off a 291-yard rushing performance, and rookie RB Ahmad Bradshaw should again get significant carries as the team tries to control the clock without using Brandon Jacobs too much.
FAST FACTS: The Patriots have 71 TDs, breaking the 1984 Miami Dolphins' record of 70. ... QB Eli Manning needs one TD pass to join Phil Simms as the only Giants to throw for at least 3,000 yards and 20 TDs in three consecutive seasons.
--QB Tom Brady was limited in practice once again on Thursday. Despite the right shoulder that has landed Brady on the injury report every week this season, Brady figures to finish the season with his highest marks for completion percentage, passing yardage and passing touchdowns. With two touchdown passes Sunday, Brady would break the NFL record for most passing touchdowns in a season. Brady set the mark for combined passing (48) and rushing (two) touchdowns in a season (50) last week.
--TE Kyle Brady (foot) sat out Thursday's practice. Brady missed last week's game and is not likely to play in the season finale.
--RT Nick Kaczur (foot) did not practice on Thursday. His status is unknown for this week's game. Kaczur's needs to play and play well this week, as the Giants boast a wealth of pass-rushing talent on their defensive line.
--TE Ben Watson (ankle) looks to be getting healthier, as he was able to practice Thursday on a limited basis. Watson sat out the past two games but might be available Saturday night.
--TE Stephen Spach will likely receive plenty of playing time this week, even if Ben Watson (ankle) is able to return. Three and four receiver sets have been the Patriots' bread and butter this season, but they are not shy about using two or three tight ends, particularly in short-yardage situations. Spach has no catches this season but is a valued blocker.
--RB Brandon Jacobs (ankle, hamstring) worked fully in practice Wednesday and Thursday and shrugged off any suggestion that he will not be able to play. "This one is important, man," he said. "I know we can't do anything about our position (fifth-seed in the playoffs) but I sure don't want them to do this undefeated thing on our field."
--Head coach Tom Coughlin decided late Tuesday night that he would go "all out" to try to win the game, rather than rest his starters, especially those with minor injuries. "It's no different than if this was the third or fourth week of the season," he said. "We prepare for each of our games the same way. I don't know how else we could have gotten ready for this game. And yes, of course I am aware of the historical significance of what the Patriots are trying to do."
--P Jeff Feagles was momentarily injured last week vs. Buffalo, and that caused several moments of panic in the mind of K Lawrence Tynes. Feagles is his holder. "He's the best one I've ever worked with," Tynes said, "and nobody was happier when he stood up." Feagles, a 21-year veteran, had merely suffered a bruise on his thigh.
--QB Eli Manning, aware of the importance of the Saturday night game, nevertheless is also considering his options for the first playoff game, the following weekend in Tampa. "It will be nice to play in good weather," he said, "but we won't even think about that until we play this game as well and as hard as we can."
--RB Ahmad Bradshaw, one of two seventh-round rookies, exploded last week with a 17-carry, 151-yard performance. "It is the kind of impact we hoped Ahmad would provide us when we drafted him," said coach Tom Coughlin, who confirmed that Bradshaw will see considerably more work -- and touches -- from now on.
The Patriots have simple plans for their Saturday evening. Prepare for a football game, beat a Giants team seeking only pride and momentum, set at least three major offensive records, become the first team in NFL history to finish the regular season 16-0 and come out of the game relatively healthy.
Checking every item on that to do list is clearly a tall task, but the Patriots are in prime position to accomplish all their goals because of how well they've executed throughout the season. 15-0 is not something a team falls in to.
That is not to say the Patriots have been flawless this season. A defense that has allowed 4.4 yards per carry must stop a dangerous Giants rushing attack. The Giants' physical offensive line clearly deserves a lot of credit for the team's success on the ground this season, but the Giants also boast outstanding backfield depth. Running back Brandon Jacobs has been a force whenever he's been healthy this season and rookie Ahmad Bradshaw has electric top-end speed. The pair combined for 296 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns last week. The backfield is so strong the Giants jettisoned current Packers starter Ryan Grant -- ninth in NFC in rushing despite starting only nine games this season -- in training camp.
Especially now that the game will be simulcast on NBC and CBS in addition to the NFL Network, Jacobs and his Giants teammates do not sound like they plan on letting the Patriots waltz to history.
"This one is important, man," Jacobs said. "I know we can't do anything about our position (fifth-seed in the playoffs) but I sure don't want them to do this undefeated thing on our field."
If the Patriots plan on doing their "undefeated thing" to the tune of 16-0, they will likely do it through the air. Not just to keep the Giants from pounding away with the running game, but because the Patriots offensive is so uniquely adept at passing the ball.
Quarterback Tom Brady is two aerial strikes away from breaking Peyton Manning's single season passing touchdown record of 49, set in 2004. 21 of those touchdown passes went to the resurgent Randy Moss, who needs two more to surpass the 22 touchdowns Jerry Rice caught in 1987.
Rice, arguably the greatest receiver in NFL history, was the name most often conjured up in Moss' 1998 rookie season. Moss helped the Vikings score an NFL record 556 points that year. After scoring only 11 touchdowns over the past two seasons in Oakland, Moss has helped virtually assure that the Patriots will break the '98 Vikings' mark this season. The Patriots sit on 551 points scored going in to Saturday's game.
For the Patriots to finish the season undefeated and remain formidable in the postseason, they will have to keep their key players healthy -- particularly Brady. Right tackle Nick Kaczur and tight ends Kyle Brady and Ben Watson are all hobbled, while the Giants boast two defensive ends (Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck) with double-digit sacks this season and a third, Michael Strahan, who holds the NFL record for most sacks in a season.
The Patriots' quarterback even made a half-serious plea for Giants coach Tom Coughlin to call off his top pass rushers for the finale.
"I think definitely Strahan and Osi should take the weekend off," Brady suggested. "I'd rest them. I know that, definitely not playing those two. They're great. They're great. They've got 40 sacks, I think, between Osi and Michael Strahan and Tuck. They can rush. They have some very experienced cover guys back there. It's a very veteran defense. I'll be lobbying for that.
"Coach Coughlin, if you're listening, definitely rest those guys."
Not likely to happen. Just another reason why this figures to be the most watched game in NFL regular season history.
The NFL has caved in to the demands of fans across the nation, both fans of the Giants and Patriots and football fans caught up in the drama of New England's attempt to become the first team in league history to finish with an undefeated 16-game season.
The Miami Dolphins of 1972 did it, of course, but the schedule was 14 games long in those years.
In any case, the Saturday night game is scheduled to be telecast on the NFL Network, and that was the problem. Relatively few fans around the country get the NFLN, as it is called. One estimate holds that fully 70 percent of viewer in the United States cannot get NFLN.
This is due, in a large part, to the economic bickering going on between the NFL and certain of the carriers, including Comcast and Cablevision.
But this game transcends nickel-and-dime disagreements, and on Wednesday NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell decided that, as someone in the league offices said, "enough is enough."
He decreed that not only NFLN but the CBS and NBC networks would be able to "simulcast" the game, with kickoff scheduled for 8:15 p.m. Saturday from Giants Stadium.
The chance to watch history created or denied, apparently, is bigger than the feud between NFLN and various carriers, and so the nation will be given the chance -- on free TV, no less -- to watch this hugely anticipated matchup.
There are several human interest angles, too. Giants head coach Tom Coughlin and Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick were colleagues on the Giants staff headed by Bill Parcells (1988-1990), and both admit that their duties involved hours of inter-unit work, since Coughlin coached the wide receivers and Belichick was the defensive backfield coach.
Belichick also still has a bit of beef with the Giants. When he was offered the head coaching job in Cleveland in February of 1991, weeks after the Giants won their second (and last) Super Bowl. He went to the late George Young, who was general manager, and informed him of that. He then said that he would turn it down if Young thought he might be next in line if and when Parcells decided to leave.
Young said he would not consider Belichick, indicating that he didn't think the young coach would be able to deal with the pressures of the job.
Just a little stage-setting, fans. It should be a good one.
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