The trio of Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham may be the best wide receiver corps in the NFL; it is certainly the most talented group this franchise has ever seen. Nicks has been banged up this season, but when healthy, he is a true number one receiver, and his postseason performance has been nothing short of spectacular. Cruz burst onto the scene with his ability to turn short and medium passes into highlight reel touchdowns. Manningham has had a down season, but in many ways is a poor man's Cruz, and a solid number two in his own right.
Jake Ballard has been a nice surprise, although a knee injury has had him off his game in the playoffs. Bear Pascoe and Travis Beckum have made useful contributions, but if Ballard is not able to find his mid-season form (he had a huge game against the Patriots), the Giants' tight ends are nothing special.
Simply put, Rob Gronkowski is a robot, created to bring pain to opposing defenses and coaches. He blends inhuman size, speed and strength, and I'm pretty sure he can shoot lasers out of his eyes if the situation called for it. Throw in Aaron Hernandez, who may very well be one of the five most talented tight ends in the league, and you have a duo that is almost impossible to defend.
The diminutive Wes Welker is the perfect compliment to these two behemoths, as his quickness and ability to find soft spots in the defense make him one of the most difficult receivers to truly contain. Throw in Deon Branch, a savvy and sure-handed veteran who has the trust of Tom Brady, and you have the hardest group of receivers to defend against in the entire NFL. The only thing missing is a true deep threat, but with how talented the top three receivers are, that's just nitpicking at this point. In the regular season matchup, Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 21 receptions, 272 yards and two touchdowns.
If we were just discussing wide receivers, the Giants would have the clear advantage. But in today's NFL, and specifically in the Year of the Tight End, discussing receivers with no mention of tight ends is like discussing the best television shows and not mentioning Breaking Bad (I'm looking at you, Golden Globes).
All things considered, this is probably the closest call of any of the units. You can't go wrong either way, and each unit has its own pros and cons. The playmaking ability of Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks means that you are more likely to get a quick score out of the Giants' group. But the Patriots' three big weapons are so unique that it is almost impossible to guard all of them.
The one X-factor is obviously Gronkowski's health, which will remain a question mark until Super Bowl Sunday. If he is at or near full strength, I give the Patriots a small advantage. If he is ineffective, the Giants suddenly have this unit by a pretty wide margin. Since we just don't know, my rating will assume he is around 75-85% (but Gronkowski at 80% still might be a top-10 receiver), and therefore make this a wash. I hand down a rating of 9.2 to each unit.
Side note: if all of the similarities between this game and Super Bowl 42 weren't enough already, the fact that this week's biggest story-line is that an important offensive Patriot player is wearing a walking boot just puts it over the top.