We’re mere hours away from kickoff for tonight’s showdown as New England gets set to battle the Giants, and here are some final thoughts on tonight’s game.

1) Patriots need to start fast in this game: The Giants are the only team to hold New England to 3 points through three quarters since 2008, when Matt Cassel found himself stymied over the same span against San Diego’s defense.  Should they win the coin toss they’ll likely defer, and their highest scoring quarter has been the second quarter, which is actually a trend that dates all the way back to 2006.  If they’re not able to score early and put up points and this one stays close late in the game, that definitely plays into New York’s hands.

2) This is a huge game for Wes Welker: Most of the talk this week has centered around Rob Gronkowski, but Welker has an incredible opportunity to earn his next contract with a big performance tonight.  Through two games it’s been all Gronkowski with their offense (he has 15 catches for 232 yards and 3 touchdowns), and with the Giants likely focused on trying to contain New England’s tight end, tonight’s game is an unbelievable chance for Welker to find space in the middle of the field and potentially break off a long play.  He’s proven all season that he’s the best in the league at what he does, and tonight would be a great time to show the world just how good he really is.

3) Look For Branch to sneak up on New York: Through the first 12 games of the season Deion Branch was targeted 15 times in the red zone with five touchdowns, but in the final weeks of the season he didn’t see his number called as often.  He was targeted just twice with one touchdown in the final four games down in the red area, and with all the focus on his teammates, he could potentially find himself with some one-on-one opportunities to make a play.  He’s a free agent after this season, and it’s a great chance to prove they should bring him back next year.

4) An X-Factor: Rob Ninkovich: One guy who really has stepped up during this postseason is Rob Ninkovich, and he’s done a great job defensively in bringing pressure as well as being one of their better tacklers.  In their first meeting he registered a quarterback hit and a fumble recovery, and obviously a big key to tonight’s game is going to be trying to disrupt Eli Manning and the Giants passing game.  He’s been great in the playoffs so far, and how Ninkovich plays on what is essentially the biggest stage he’ll ever see is going to be a huge factor.

5) Tonight’s a big game for Shaun Ellis: He spent years listening to his former coach Rex Ryan talk about how his team was going to win a Super Bowl, and now here he is playing in one for the Patriots.  We saw glimpses of the guy he can be during this postseason, and tonight would be a great chance to do to Eli Manning what he did to Tom Brady last year in the playoffs.


One big play could erase a tough year for Devin McCourty tonight. (FILE:Icon/SMI)

6) McCourty can erase a bad season with a great game tonight: Between his struggles defensively this season along with getting his shoulder separated by his own teammate, it hasn’t exactly been a season to remember for Devin McCourty.  After being moved over to the safety spot we’ve seen an improvement with McCourty over the course of these final weeks, and if there’s going to be a chance for the second year defensive back to go out on a high note, tonight would be a great time for it.  He’s one of their best open field tacklers and I have a tough time imagining that the promise he showed in coverage last season can just magically disappear.  A big performance tonight would be a great way to get his confidence back, and it could also potentially give him some momentum heading into next season.

7) The Ochocinco factor: Considering the number of times he’s been targeted this season (32) he could have easily doubled his reception total (just 15 catches this season) had he been in the right place for a lot of them.  And so goes the story for what has obviously been a frustrating season for Chad Ochocinco.  They were 0-for-5 targeting him during their regular season meeting, but a lot has certainly happened since that November game and you’d like to think that he understands things better now than he did back then.  He’s waited his whole career for tonight’s game, and he’s still got the speed and talent to at least give them one additional threat if he can isolate himself into some favorable one-on-one match-ups.  We’ve talked about the elusive “breakout game” all year, and if ever he needed one – tonight would be it.

8) BenJarvus Green-Ellis could carry them to a win tonight: Green-Ellis had some success running the ball against New York in their first meeting, carrying 12 times for 52 yards (4.3 avg) against the NFL’s 19th ranked rushing defense.  Fans have questioned all season if he’s a good enough long-term solution for this offense, but he’s continued to play well and has also been one of their most sure-handed ball carriers.  Establishing the run is such a critical factor in tonight’s game, especially if they’d like to control the clock and give their defense a rest in between possessions.  Add in the fact that running the ball helps in keeping New York’s defense off balance, and it would give Tom Brady a chance to potentially execute some play-action plays – which is something we haven’t seen much of  in recent weeks.  Several players mentioned this week that New England would be changing some things up in this game, and hopefully we see some of that tonight.

9) Time for Brady to shine: There’s been a lot of talk leading up to this game about the fact that Tom Brady hasn’t played well in big games, and that how he plays tonight could affect his legacy.  A lot of the talk stemmed from his 0 touchdown, 2 interception performance against the Ravens in the AFC Championship game.  If history is any indication, it’s not very often you see Brady with two straight bad games.  He’s one of the best in the league, and tonight’s game against New York has him with an opportunity to solidify his place in history as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever.

10) Big Vince has a big opportunity: Vince Wilfork is having one of his best years as a pro, and he did a great job of causing problems against Eli Manning in their regular season match-up.  Wilfork registered two quarterback hits and did a good job of collapsing the pocket the first time they played, and he’s one of the few remaining players who knows what it felt like the last time his team battled New York and lost in a Super Bowl.  He’s the leader they need tonight up front, and so far this postseason he’s played extremely well – almost to the point where he’s not getting the amount of recognition he really deserves.  They’re about to play in front of what will likely be one of the biggest audiences ever in the history of television, and if all goes well, he’ll show the world what fans in New England already know about him.

Do you have any thoughts on tonight’s game?  Drop a comment below and share what you feel is an important key to tonight’s game.