INDIANAPOLIS — 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."
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.
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.
INDIANAPOLIS — In this new NFL age of throw first and throw again, it's easy to forget to first rule of football: Defense wins championships.
Sorry Eli. Sorry Tom. There's no doubt you're both among the league's elite quarterbacks.
The Super Bowl, however, is going to be decided by defense, and the Giants are better than the Patriots right now. The proof is in the performance.
Take a look at the five-game winning streak that's carried the Giants (12-7) from a .500 team to a second Super Bowl in four years. The defense has given up only 67 points during the streak, not allowed more than 251 yards passing in any game, recorded 20 sacks and forced 11 turnovers.
And that's against some very good offenses, including the high-powered one in Green Bay.
To say the defense is confident heading into the Super Bowl would be an understatement.
"I feel like we're going to play our best game, so whoever is facing us better play theirs," defensive captain Justin Tuck.
There is no secret to the Giants' game plan: Stop the run, put the Patriots in passing situations and knock Tom Brady on his you-know-what.
Then do it again.
It's the game plan the Giants used four years ago in Phoenix in embarrassing the Patriots' offensive line, and the same one they used with a little less effectiveness in Foxborough, Mass., early in November during a 24-20 win.
In that more recent game, the Giants sacked Brady twice and had two interceptions. One sack led to a fumble recovery that set up a score.
Get to Brady and good things happen.
"We did some things that disrupted his timing," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "We caused him to stay jittery in the pocket. Hopefully we can do that again."
Brady and the Patriots will be facing an even better defense in the rematch. The Giants' front four is healthy and peaking.
Tuck has overcome the shoulder and groin injuries that bothered him in November. Osi Umenyiora is as healthy as he's been all season, and the defense has suddenly found itself after needing a rescue party for the first 14 games.
Not only is the front four playing well, the linebackers are stopping the run and the secondary is covering so well that quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Alex Smith rarely were able to hit their primary targets in the playoffs.
"To be honest, I think our confidence is very high," said second-year defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who led the Giants with 16 1/2 sacks in the regular season. "We know what we have to do and what's at stake."
If Brady meets the same fate as those other recent quarterbacks and he's ducking the pass rush, the Patriots are going to have big problems.
"That's where our energy comes from," Fewell said of his front four. "That's where our confidence comes from. That's where our swagger comes from, because those guys — unlike most teams you are associated with — they set the tone for us. They are the catalyst for what we do and how we do it."
The Giants also have gotten a little lucky heading into this one. Patriots All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered a high sprain to his left ankle in the AFC title game against Baltimore. It probably will reduce his effectiveness.
Offensively, Eli Manning has had a career year, and the Giants can match the Patriots point for point. With New York's running game struggling much of the season, the key will be keeping Manning upright. San Francisco sacked him six times and hit him 20 times overall in the NFC title game.
However, the Patriots D isn't in the same category as 49ers. The Patriots allowed the second-most yards in the NFL during the regular season, and their secondary repeatedly got burned for big plays.
Championships often are decided by a big play, and Cruz and Nicks have been turning little plays into touchdowns all season. There likely will be chances for more of those.