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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A Nation Divided Makes Great Football

The Saints' Drew Brees is just too good a passer, with too many great receivers, to be contained by the 49ers in Saturday's divisional-round playoff game. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Eight division winners will fight for spots in the AFC and NFC Championships this weekend. The last time no fifth- or sixth-seed teams won their Wild Card playoff games was 2007.  Since the 1978-79 NFL playoffs – the first season with Wild Card playoff births (albeit just one per conference) – the higher-seeded teams have never won all their first- and second-round games.

At least one of the better-rested teams will very soon enjoy a much longer respite. Who will it be? Here’s my preview.

Saints vs. 49ers

Saturday, 4:30 p.m. at San Francisco

San Francisco has a very strong defense: first in rushing yards per game, second in points per game, fourth in total yards. Notice which category I left out? That’s right: passing yards per game. And they’re taking on New Orleans – the best passing team in the NFL. Drew Brees can shred even good secondaries like confetti. There are far worse pass-defenses (including New Orleans’), but the 49ers’ biggest weakness plays directly into the hands of the Saints’ greatest strength.

Meanwhile the 49ers average over 10 fewer points per game than the Saints. The 49ers’ offense is horrendous: their best wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, has caught just four touchdown passes, while QB Alex Smith is an untested, above-average quarterback who can only be used sparingly (just 197 yards per game). Frank Gore runs well, but the Saints defend against the run far better than against the pass.

San Francisco can’t match New Orleans’ scoring, so they’ll have to win it by forcing turnovers. Only problem: the Saints showed last week against the Lions that they too can intercept passes.Pick: Saints.

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