By HOWARD ULMAN, Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Rarely is Bill Belichick outcoached. Tom Brady almost never gets outplayed.
The brilliant coach on the sideline and his cerebral leader on the field — winners of three Super Bowls together — are still a notch above their NFL championship game opponent. That's why come Sunday the New England Patriots will beat the New York Giants, a title to be earned with brains as much as brawn.
And as a result of the discipline and preparation that Belichick has stressed in his 12 years as coach of this team.
"Nobody works harder than he does," Brady said. "I don't think there's ever been a time that I've shown up at the stadium and he's not there. He sees everything. He evaluates everything. He watches every bit of film that he can get.
"Over the course of the season, our teams have always seemed to improve."
It's been nearly three months since the Patriots lost — 24-20 to the Giants, who scored a touchdown with 15 seconds left. Since then, Brady has guided his team to 10 straight wins.
"It starts with his heart. The way he reads defenses, the way he directs and takes protections," guard Logan Mankins said. "I think everyone gets enamored with the talent side sometimes, but Tom might not be one of the fastest guys, but he's definitely one of the smartest guys and he has a strong arm.
"He can make all the throws. He reads defenses so fast. It makes him a special player."
The ability of the two-time Super Bowl MVP to instantly analyze what a defense is likely to do is a huge asset against the Giants. They sometimes use four defensive ends at a time and all are aggressive pass rushers.
But the Patriots have a veteran group of offensive linemen who can quickly figure out who to block. Brady was sacked an average of only twice a game in the regular season. In two playoff games, he's been sacked once. Even guard Brian Waters, in his first season with New England after 11 in Kansas City, has blended in well.
"I think he does a good job of studying the opponent that he lines up against," New York defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "He has a plan in his head about how he's going to block the opponent and he sticks to his plan."
Give Brady time and he can pick apart the Giants mediocre secondary and pile up points at the Patriots' regular-season rate.
They led the AFC with 32.1 points per game and are averaging 34 in the playoffs. That offense, which has run half its plays this postseason without huddling, keeps defenses from getting a breather and having the right players on the field for a particular situation.
The Giants couldn't even get much of a break with Rob Gronkowski's high left ankle sprain.
The All-Pro tight end is making daily progress and Brady almost certainly will have his most important receiver back, even if he's not at full strength.
Brady definitely will have NFL receptions leader Wes Welker and the other dangerous tight end, versatile Aaron Hernandez, who lines up all over the place — as a split or slot receiver, a running back and in the traditional tight end's spot close to the linemen. He's sure to keep the Giants defense guessing.
The Patriots defense?
It's been burned by big plays all season, especially the secondary. Will coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning test it early to see if it wilts in the glare of football's brightest spotlight?
The Patriots allowed the second most yards in the NFL during the regular season, but only the 15th most points and they've been much improved in the playoffs. And the Giants had the league's least productive running game.
The Patriots defense is also as healthy as it's been all season so it may not have to use wide receiver Julian Edelman in the secondary as much as it did in the AFC championship game against the Baltimore Ravens.
"I don't really think we focus on rankings or any of that," Patriots safeties coach Matt Patricia said. "All we are worried about is going out and trying to do the best that we can."
Turnovers are one of the most important factors in the outcome of a game and the Patriots led the AFC with a plus-17 differential, compared to plus-7 for the Giants. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has handled the ball 577 times in his four NFL seasons, all with New England, and never has fumbled.
"Early in the season, they wouldn't run the ball as consistent," Giants safety Kenny Phillips said, "but throughout the playoffs they are doing a lot better."
With a balanced offense, the Patriots can cool the aggression of the Giants pass rush. Devote too many players to charging Brady, and Green-Ellis can run free for big gains.
Finally, the Patriots, as much as they deny it, should gain motivation from their 17-14 loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl four years ago on a last-minute touchdown.
"Unfortunately, we know what it's like to not come out on top," tackle Matt Light said. "You want to make sure you don't put yourself in that position."
They won't, not with Belichick and Brady leading the way.
Final score: Patriots, 31, Giants 24.
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