The biggest question of Super Bowl week is no mystery to the Giants.
While the speculation regarding the availability of New England tight end Rob Gronkowski has been ceaseless, the Giants insist the case has been solved. They full expect the Patriots' record-setting tight end to be on the field when the teams clash Sunday in Super Bowl XLVI.
"Not to belittle the question, I really do think he'll play," Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said Wednesday at his news conference. "It sounds like he's making great progress."
Gronkowski, the Patriots' second-year tight end, suffered a high-ankle sprain in the AFC Championship Game against Baltimore. He returned to the game but has done little since. Gronkowski arrived here Sunday in a walking boot, which he had shed by Media Day on Tuesday.
New England Coach Bill Belichick has been typically tight-lipped when asked about Gronkowski's progress. Gronkowksi, who did not practice today, has said little more than, "I feel better every day."
The general consensus on both teams is that Gronkowksi will play, but it's difficult to predict how effective he'll be. And that could be a crucial factor in the Super Bowl.
Gronkowski, who is 6-6 and 265 pounds, this season emerged as one of Tom Brady's favorite targets. He caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns; the latter two figures were NFL records for tight ends. In the postseason, Gronkowski leads New England in all three categories with 15 catches for 232 yards and three scores.
"He brings a lot of different things to their offense," linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said, "so we'll plan for both scenarios and I know the coaching staff is hard working at that and we'll let them do their job."
"We faced some pretty good tight ends this season," safety Kenny Phillips said, "but he is definitely a new type of monster. He's huge. He's a big body, and he can run. He's a physical guy and he can catch the ball really well. He's definitely a match-up problem for most, but I think we're up for the challenge."
Gronkowksi is a handful by himself to cover. But he's not the Patriots' only dangerous tight end. His running mate, Aaron Hernandez, had 79 receptions and scored seven touchdowns in the regular season and has added 11 and one score in two playoff games. Those two players scored the Patriots' only touchdowns in their 24-20 loss to the Giants on Nov. 6.
"I think Gronkowski is really the true tight end," Phillips said. "Hernandez, he's really more like a receiver, so that's pretty much how to treat him. They're big tight ends. They're good tight ends. They do cause a lot of matchup problems for a lot of teams, but I think we've played a lot of great tight ends this season – (San Francisco's) Vernon Davis, (New Orleans') Jimmy Graham – so we are kind of used to seeing these guys. It doesn't matter if a safety or a cornerback or a linebacker covers them, it's something that you're doing. It will be a challenge, but I think we match up pretty good against them."
No other team has a tight end tandem like Gronkowski and Hernandez. They combined for 12 catches for 136 yards in the teams' first meeting and one of the most oft-asked queries this week is how the Giants plan to stop the dynamic duo on Sunday.
"If you take Gronkowski away, then Hernandez is available," Fewell said. "Well, if you take Hernandez away, then Gronkowski is available. Well, if you try to take both of those guys away, then (Wes) Welker is available. Then (Deion) Branch is available. They have so many different weapons, and you can't take all of them away, plus rush Tom. That monster that they have as far as the offense and the talent that they have, they use that as well as anybody in the league."
"Their tight ends, they propose a lot of threats," said linebacker Michael Boley, who will draw part of the responsibility for covering Gronkowksi and Hernandez. "Not just because they're two tremendous athletes, but because they both do a lot of different things as far as alignment. Alignment wise, that's where it all starts. They split those guys out as No. 1 receivers and they put them in slots like they're receivers. They try to cause mismatch problems, but I think the thing that helps us the most is we have a great linebacker corps. We also have three great safeties that can come down and get their hands on those guys to make it easier."
Those safeties – Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips and Deon Grant – said they used several strategies against the New England tight ends when they met three months ago.
"We mix it up," Grant said. "Sometimes, I would be on Gronkowski, sometimes I would be on Hernandez. We mixed it up a lot. I think that kept it off balance with me being able to play the run, switching up and blitzing sometimes, dropping into coverage and then playing man-to-man. It kept them off balance. Being physical at the same time threw their rhythm off a little bit."
"They spread them out," Phillips said. "They use them like they're receivers, line them up wide. They line them up at the No. 1 spot. They line them up in the slot. They try to make mismatch problems.
"As far as trying to cover those guys, you just have to be as physical as possible with them, especially Gronkowski. He's coming off an ankle injury. You're not going to intentionally try to hurt him, but the more physical you can be, I think it will help out a lot. I think we match up pretty well against them."
They better, because how well the Giants can cover Gronkowksi and Hernandez will be one of the key factors in determining the outcome of the Super Bowl.