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.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 9

The look says it all: Tom Brady played better than anyone else on his team, but too many mistakes and missed opportunities cost the Patriots Sunday against the Giants. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots’ 24-20 loss to the New York Giants Sunday featured several firsts. The Patriots lost at home for the first time in 21 games. The Patriots lost two games in a row for the first time since 2006. And the offense failed to score in the first half, also for the first time since 2006.

While Tom Brady did his best to overcome all of that, the defense – which admittedly played very well for the first half – faltered in the fourth quarter, allowing two late-game comeback drives.

Who’s going to Harvard, and who’s falling back on a safety school? Only my grades can say.

Quarterback: B+

Another game, another two-touchdown day for Brady. But it took him far too long to figure out how to beat the Giants’ defense, and he made too many mistakes while doing it. Both interceptions were Brady’s fault: he failed to account for linebacker Michael Boley to start the second quarter, who easily read Brady’s pass, tipping it to Mathias Kiwanuka. Deon Grant‘s interception later happened because Brady threw a bad pass to Rob Gronkowski deep and over the middle. The first pick killed a scoring opportunity, and the second led to the Giants’ first score.

Brady redeemed himself to some extent with two magnificent fourth-quarter drives, capping 80- and 64-yard drives with touchdown strikes to Aaron Hernandez and Gronkowski, but the defense couldn’t hold either lead. A month ago, this offense could put up 30 points or more without even trying. Now, 20 points is a chore. As the commander of this offense, Brady must shoulder the blame.

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