XLVI Preview: Receivers

We’ve already established that the Giants and Patriots make their money throwing, not running, and that both teams have elite quarterbacks. Only the Packers averaged more yards per pass attempt than the Patriots and Giants during the regular season, as both pass offenses finished in the top five.

But what about the other the end of each high-voltage battery? Both units have been successful, but there’s a major difference separating the guys catching passes in East Rutherford and Foxborough.

The Pats have been killing it through the air despite not having a prototypical wide receiver since they traded Randy Moss last year. Lucky New York right? Perry Fewell’s defense doesn’t have to worry about the freakish Moss this time around. Unfortunately for Fewell, the Patriots have found two tight ends who have created matchup problems like no other duo in the league.

Combine Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez with slot superstar Wes Welker, and New England has a completely unique triple threat.

The sure-handed and crafty Welker has been around forever, but continues to be an enigma — he’s caught more than 110 passes in four of his five seasons in New England and finished second in the league with 1,569 receiving yards this season. He also led  all receivers with 11 catches and 103 yards when these teams hooked up in Super Bowl XLII, and did so again with nine catches and 136 yards when they met this season.

Gronkowski and Hernandez are revelations. Gronk was the 42nd pick of the 2010 draft; Hernandez went 113th. But in two years, the duo has combined to catch an unbelievable 256 passes for 3,346 yards and 40 touchdowns. This year, Gronkowski broke tight end single-season records for receiving yards and touchdowns.

No one can defend Gronkowski’s power and size, especially in the red zone. And few can match up with Hernandez, who has almost become trybid tight end/receiver/running back. And when Gronk, Hernandez and Welker are on the field at the same time, it’s a nightmare for defensive coordinators.

The Giants, on the other hand, have succeeded aerially with a trio of very prototypical but nonetheless freakishly good wideouts. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz emerged this season as one of the top playmaking duos in the league, catching 14 passes of 40 yards or more during the regular season. Both are yards-after-catch demons, and playing the best football of their careers. Throw in the super-athletic Mario Manningham, who already has three touchdown catches in these playoffs, and a New England defense that was ranked 31st through the air has a lot to worry about next Sunday.

Nicks has already scored four times in the playoffs, but he hasn’t even been Eli Manning’s top receiver. Cruz finished the regular season third in the NFL with 1,536 yards despite barely being a factor for much of September and October. Coming off a 10-catch, 142-yard performance against the 49ers, he’s easily the hottest offensive player in football right now.

New England’s top three vs. New York’s top three, 2011 regular season
Pats: 291 REC, 3,806 YDS, 33 TD, 13.1 YPC
Giants: 197 REC, 3,251 YDS, 20 TD, 16.5 YPC

New England’s top three vs. New York’s top three, 2011 playoffs (per game)
Pats: 19 REC, 231 YDS, 2.5 TD, 12.1 YPC
Giants: 14 REC, 232 YDS, 2.3 TD, 16.2 YPC

But while the Giants’ big three isn’t accumulating sheer numbers like New England’s is, they’ve had more support from ancillary options. Only one other New England player (Deion Branch) had more than 20 catches during the regular season, while New York had three. The Patriots had only six players with 10 or more receptions, while the Giants had nine.

For New York, Jake Ballard has worked as a very poor man’s Gronkowski, while Branch has worked as a very poor man’s Nicks. Branch has lots of playoff experience and has stepped it up this postseason (he had a 61-yard catch against the Broncos), but Ballard had a big game against the Pats during the regular season. So I’d say it’s close to a wash when it comes to the fourth option in either passing game (especially when you consider that Travis Beckum has played well with Ballard hampered recently by a knee injury).

The Giants, however, keep up through the air by using their backs a lot more prominently as pass catchers. In the playoffs, their backs have combined to catch 19 passes for 124 yards, including a 30-yarder from Manning to Ahmad Bradshaw. And as I noted in our running back preview New York’s backfield trio of Bradshaw, Brandon Jacobs and D.J. Ware accounted for 76 catches and 575 yards during the regular season. The Pats, on the other hand, have barely used their backs in the passing game.

Interestingly, the Patriots have been killed by pass-catching backs this year, while the Giants have been killed by tight ends. Something tells me both defenses will be forced to pick their poison on Super Bowl Sunday.

Edge: Patriots.