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Patriots Secondary Faces Challenge In Hakeem Nicks, Giants Receivers

Wide receivers Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham of the New York Giants have flat out dominated their opposition throughout these playoffs. As Jared Stegall writes, Feb. 5 will be judgement day for the New England Patriots secondary.

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Over the course of the 2012 NFL Playoffs, the New England Patriots have faced the popular and most talked about quarterback in the NFL. They beat him. The next week they had to face arguably the most feared defenses in the NFL. They beat them too.

Now that they reached Super Bowl XLVI, the Patriots will arguably face their biggest challenge yet as their weakest area on the team will be facing arguably the New York Giants' strongest. Next week, AFC Championship hero Sterling Moore and the Patriots secondary will have to face the Giants' receiving corp of Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham.

So far, this three headed receiving monster tamed by Giants quarterback Eli Manning has defeated everything in it's way to this point.

In the Wild Card playoff against the Atlanta Falcons is when this monster came to life. In the Giants' 24-2 victory over Atlanta, Nicks led the way with six receptions for 115 yards and two of Eli Manning's three touchdowns in that game. Manningham (4 rec. 68 yards) grabbed the other.

In the Divisional round game against the Green Bay Packers, Nicks showed he was once again the supreme receiver as he seven balls for 165 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Cruz became more involved in the lineup with five catches for 74 yards while Manningham came in at three for 31 with a TD.

Finally, in last weekends NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers, Giant receivers continued to be the difference in the offense. Cruz was Eli's favorite target on the day, as he caught a team high 10 balls for 142 even. Manningham continued his touchdown streak as he grabbed his third of the playoffs for his only catch of the game. Nicks, meanwhile was relatively shut down by Niners pro-bowl corner Carlos Rogers (5 rec. 55 yards).

Overall, this is how one would dissect this monster: Nicks, Mr. Consistency; Manningham, the End-Zone threat; and Cruz, the secret weapon.

As for the Patriots secondary, they've performed well as a whole, but have yet to face a challenge like this.

In the Divisional Round against the playoffs, a secondary containing primarily Kyle Arrington, Antwaun Molden, Devin McCourty and Pat Chung were able to hold Tim Tebow to 136 yards. That is, when the pass rush didn't get to him like they were basically all game long.

In the AFC Championship game against an average Ravens receiving corp and quarterback, this group was exposed. Anquan Boldin was most effective of them all as he had six catches for 101 yards while the big play threat Torrey Smith had three catches for 82 yards and a long touchdown. Tight end Dennis Pitta, who had been a non factor to this point, had five grabs for 51 yards and a TD.

Even though Sterling Moore made the most clutch play of the game for the Pats secondary, he and the rest of them had a long day out there. When you allow 306 yards and a pair of TD's to Joe Flacco, an average NFL QB, you know there's something worth worrying about.

Because of their lack of depth, the Patriots had Julian Edelman, a regular wide receiver, covering a former pro bowl receiver in Anquan Boldin at times. Devin McCourty, who's been converted to safety for the playoffs, often looked lost and allowed some big plays to Smith including a TD. With Chung, arguably their best defensive back, playing up over 50% of the time, the Pats secondary struggled in stopping the pass.

In steps arguably the hottest player in the NFL currently in Eli Manning and this ferocious wide receiving corp that will look to eat this Pats secondary up like they did every other secondary during these playoffs.

In the team's Week 9 game against Manning and the Giants, the Giants only had Cruz and Manningham available with Nicks out with an injury. Cruz had a very productive day with six catches and 91 yards with Manningham totaling three catches for 33 yards and a touchdown.

Ultimately, this game was won for the Giants on the final drive, where Sergio Brown was flagged for a pass interference call on third down. With the first down inside the Patriots' five, Manning connected with Jake Ballard in the corner of the endzone to secure the 24-20 win. Ultimately, you could say the Patriots secondary was a big part of why we lost this game.

Not to mention, this game was played without Hakeem Nicks. With the Pats already having obvious holes in the secondary in this game, one could only imagine how much bigger it would have been with Nicks in the lineup.

But the fact of the matter is, the Patriots defense has changed. They've got this new demeanor, a new swagger, so to say. Even though the secondary struggled in the AFC Championship game, the defense as a whole won the game. Since the Giants and Pats' meeting in Week 9, I guarantee you this defense is a different defense. A better defense.

However, these Giants receivers have gotten better to. Eli Manning, who has been as poised and as calm as Tom Brady has this postseason has made these receivers better and has given these guys more opportunity to shine.

Both teams have changed since their Week nine meeting. The Patriots secondary versus the Giants receiving corp has the making to be labeled as a David vs. Goliath label. The Almighty power force of these dominant Giants receivers that can stretch the field and score at will, up against a unit that contains a bunch of average Joe players no one other than Pats fans known. Like how the Giants viewed themselves in 2007, when they ultimately were crowned World Champions.

Come Feb. 5, we'll see if the Pats secondary can live up to this label and bring down this undefeated three headed Giant receiving monster.