By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are in the driver’s seat for the AFC Playoffs and remain the overwhelming favorite to represent the conference in the Super Bowl, so it’s not completely out of bounds to discuss which NFC team would present the greatest threat to them in the Big Game. The obvious choice would be the 13-2 Dallas Cowboys, but there’s only one team that would truly make a lot of New England fans squeamish at the mere thought of seeing them in Houston: those New York Football Giants.
Besides the quarterbacks, the Patriots and Giants are both drastically different teams from the last time they played each other in the playoffs. Super Bowl XLVI was nearly five calendar years ago and there has been all kinds of turnover. But here they are, perhaps on a collision course to complete the Brady vs. Eli trilogy.
Another Giant who remains from their 2011 Super Bowl championship squad is receiver Victor Cruz, who is certainly not the player he was five years ago – but he appears to still be as brash and confident as ever. Asked about a potential rematch (threematch?) between the Pats and Giants in Super Bowl LI, Cruz told the New York Daily News’ Seth Walder: “[The Patriots] don’t want to see us … I’m sure if you ask them [they’d say] they’d play anybody, they don’t care. I’m sure they don’t want to see us. That’s for sure.”
This is essentially harmless trash talk and the NFL is better off with guys like Cruz saying this stuff than spewing the same old clichés. But it’s my job to point out why he’s (probably) wrong, so here we go …
The rosters are almost completely different. Sure, maybe there’s a chance that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady get a little queasy at the thought of those two Super Bowl losses and would rather play someone else. But other than those guys, the Patriots’ roster is quite different from 2011. There are several players who remain from five years ago, including Rob Ninkovich, Devin McCourty, Matt Slater, Stephen Gostkowski, Pat Chung, and the IR’d Rob Gronkowski. But other than those guys – and Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon, who were rookies in 2011 – the roster has changed a lot, especially on defense.
The Giants, meanwhile, have had even more roster turnover since 2011. Manning and Cruz remain, as does pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul (also on IR, with the potential to return). There’s also tackle Will Beatty, linebacker Mark Herzlich, and Zak DeOssie, Pro-Bowl long snapper, the pride of North Andover, Mass. Besides Brady and Manning, though, there’s not a whole lot of significance to the rest of the players who remain from the teams’ last Super Bowl clash. About 85 percent of the players that would play in a Pats-Giants rematch would have no attachment to the last time they played in the Super Bowl.
Most importantly, the Giants defense that gave Brady fits in 2007 and 2011 is almost completely different now, although it’s still quite good. There is, however, another major difference on the Giants that should be an advantage to the Patriots …
Tom Coughlin out, Ben McAdoo in. The Giants under Coughlin were not the most consistent team – it led to a lot of 8-8 and 9-7 records – but most of the time they got into the playoffs, they turned into the toughest out in the NFC. He always gave Belichick tough games, Super Bowl or not. He was one of the few coaches in league history who actually knew what it took to beat the Patriots, and wasn’t afraid to attack them.
With McAdoo, there has to be much more uncertainty as to how he would handle a coaching battle against Belichick. On paper, that’s a decided advantage for the Patriots, when in the past that department was as close to even as you could get.
Cruz himself isn’t the threat he once was. Obviously, the Giants’ passing attack runs through Odell Beckham Jr. now. But you could be fairly confident in Malcolm Butler’s ability to contain him, as he did when the Patriots played the Giants last season.
Cruz’s breakout season in 2011 could turn out to be his best, as he battled multiple injuries and his receiving yards declined for three straight years after that. He has 37 catches for 579 yards and a touchdown in 2016, but his 37 catches have been on 68 targets – third on the team, behind Beckham and rookie Sterling Shepard.
So, despite Cruz’s little jabs at the Patriots over being scared to face the Giants again, they certainly wouldn’t be too worried about another Cruz salsa dance in the end zone. And as far as the Patriots wanting to avoid the Giants in the Super Bowl, he shouldn’t be so sure.
They also need to actually get there first.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.