Super Bowl Preview

Unless Vince Wilfork or another Patriot can disrupt Eli Manning, Manning will pick the Patriots apart in Sunday's Super Bowl. But the reverse holds for the Giants' pass-rush and Tom Brady. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Each conference’s representative in the last two Super Bowls have been identical. Both the Colts and Saints were pass-heavy offenses without much defense. Both the Steelers and Packers liked to build big leads early, then rely on opportunistic defenses to force turnovers in the second half. And this year, the Patriots and the Giants have incredible quarterbacks backed up by dominant receiving units.

Both teams try to run just enough to ease up the pass-rush, and both rely on pressure up front to bail out bad secondaries. Whichever team better executes their identical strategies will will the game.

Here’s my Super Bowl preview.

The Battle for the Line

Super Bowl XLVI will be won at the line of scrimmage. The Giants will try like hell to either hit Tom Brady or force him to throw before Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski inevitably get open. Even with the ankle injury, Gronkowski’s physical size makes him particularly tough on the Giants’ defensive backs, the biggest of whom are still four inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than Gronkowski.

The Patriots’ offensive line will face quite a challenge themselves, because not even the Ravens could match the pass-rush onslaught of the Giants’ linemen. Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Osi Umenyiora can all get to the quarterback, as can linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka. If the offensive line can control those four, Tom Coughlin may have to pull an extra linebacker out of coverage, freeing up one of the Big Three receivers, who are all lethal in single-coverage.

The Patriots have the personnel to counter the pass-rush, with Logan Mankins and Matt Light healthy again. Whether they can do so without drawing holding penalties is another question entirely.

Flipping things, Vince Wilfork has had a monster postseason on the Patriots’ defensive line, but he’ll need help to shut down Eli Manning. Some combination of Mark Anderson, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich will have to step up. If they can get to Manning early, they might rattle the sky-high confidence he’ll feel, having already beaten the two best teams in the NFC and beaten the Patriots in a Super Bowl.

A confident Manning is dangerous, because receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are very, very good. Even if the Patriots double-team them, either one could break away for 15- to 20-yard receptions without much difficulty. And considering the tackling problems the Patriots had with the Ravens, a 20-yard reception could easily become a 40-yard reception.

Rushing Protects the QB

Both teams may also try to weaken the pass-rush by running the ball. Neither team has a superior running back, but the Patriots’ rushers are certainly better. They also play complimentary football: BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a power runner who can pick up short-yardage first downs and never fumbles, while Danny Woodhead and rookie Stevan Ridley can burst through holes for bigger gains. New York’s Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw just aren’t as good.

The team whose offensive line really establishes a running game will control the clock, the pace and the pressure against its quarterback. That team will also probably win.

Special Teams Could Make the Difference

The Patriots have the better placekicker in Stephen Gostkowski, who converted nearly 85 percent of his field goals this season; the Giants’ Lawrence Tynes couldn’t even crack 80. And beyond 40 yards, Gostkowski went 10-for-13 to Tynes’ 4-for-8. The Super Bowl will be played in a dome, so weather won’t be a factor. If the teams try for longer field goals, Gostkowski should out-perform Tynes.

On kickoffs, however, the Patriots have to watch out for Devin Thomas. He’s a better returner than anyone the Patriots have, and the Giants are in general better on both kickoff returns and coverage.

Woodhead fumbled a kickoff against the Ravens, and the Giants beat the 49ers because of two special teams fumbles. That’s a bad combination for the Super Bowl.

Prediction: What Do You Expect?

If Manning wins, he passes Peyton Manning in championships. If Brady wins, he gets revenge for Super Bowl XLII. Either way, it happens on Peyton’s turf. That’s almost Shakespearean.

When push comes to shove, Brady can still make more plays than Manning can. And Bill Belichick is deadly when facing a team twice in a season, especially after losing the first matchup.

The Giants will start fast, but the Patriots will close the gap in the second quarter. Belichick will make terrific halftime adjustments, as he’s done all season, and the Patriots should take control late in the third.

Final score: Patriots 27, Giants 21.

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