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Analysis: Giants pass rush vs Patriots passing key to Super Bowl

New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady takes part in a practice for the NFL Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis
New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady takes part in a practice for the NFL Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis

(Reuters) - Sunday's Super Bowl 46 appears set to boil down to the same fundamental clash of strengths seen four years ago when the New York Giants upset the New England Patriots in the Big Show.

The pass rush by the Giants will be pitted against the pass attack of the Patriots, with the winner of that battle to seize the upper hand in the National Football League title game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Giants won that match-up in the Arizona desert in 2008 with a fierce rush that led to five sacks of three-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Tom Brady in a 17-14 stunner that deprived New England of a perfect 19-0 season.

Some of the names have changed on the Giants' defensive line, with young Jason Pierre-Paul terrorizing opposing quarterbacks instead of Michael Strahan, but their pressure can be intense with a charge that can include four defensive ends.

"The way to kill the snake is to take off his head," said defensive captain Justin Tuck about the goal of harassing Brady.

The pressure is on Brady and his brilliant coach Bill Belichick to slow down the defensive charge of a Giants' team that can score under the confident play of quarterback Eli Manning and his explosive crew of receivers, including the emerging Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks.

New England, whose tandem of Belichick and Brady have combined to win the most NFL games ever, are slight favorites over coach Tom Coughlin's Giants in the latest installment of Boston-New York sports wars.

Brady and Belichick are not aiming at perfection as in 2008, but a victory over the Giants would allow them to match the fabled coach and quarterback duos of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana (49ers), and Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) with four Super Bowl rings.

With time to operate, Brady can cut up any defense with pinpoint passing, an ability to recognize coverages and his variety of talented targets including tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and slot receiver Wes Welker.

The fitness of Gronkowski, who has just returned to practice after suffering a sprained left ankle in the AFC title victory over the Baltimore Ravens, is a huge factor.

The towering tight end led the NFL in touchdown catches with 17 and is Brady's favorite go-to guy when the Pats get close to the end zone.

Another weapon in Brady's arsenal is use of the hurry-up offense and the threat of effective, inside running by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, whose lengthy moniker inspired his nickname of Law Firm.

Brady is a master of running the two-minute drill, and shifting to that form of attack makes the Giants keep the same players on the field rather than rotating their pass-rushers to keep them fresh and confuse the opposition.

"I think it forces the defenses to play at a different tempo where they can't fall into a natural rhythm," Belichick said on Friday. "They have to be ready for things to speed up, be ready for things to slow down and have different personnel groups.

"It just puts a little more stress on our defensive opponents to prepare for more things. If we can do it better than they can, it's an advantage."

New York entered that last title game with a question mark over quarterback Eli Manning, who was just emerging after an inconsistent start to his professional career.

A more polished Manning comes to this title game in control of a potent passing attack of his own, and he might look to exploit emergency cornerback Justin Edelman, who has filled in on defense despite his primary role as a receiver and punt returner.

Manning set an NFL record with 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes this season and led seven late game-winning drives.

"Our leader, our quarterback, has been a very cool customer and has done very well late in the fourth quarter," said Coughlin.

Both teams struggled on defense early in the season but have come on strong.

New England, ranked a lowly 31st in the league in yards allowed per game at 411.6, have given up 325 yards a game in the postseason and are on a 10-game winning streak.

New York yielded only 67 points during their current five-game winning streak and have registered 20 sacks in that span.

Both teams are riding high, with Brady telling Patriots fans to get ready for a big party after they return home, while Giants defensive tackle Chris Canty told New York fans to plan on attending their ticker tape parade.

(Reporting By Larry Fine; Editing by Ian Ransom)