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For Giants and 49ers, defensive ends key to NFC title tilt

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Sunday's NFC Championship Game between the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers will be a showcase for four of the best defensive ends in the game, and their aggregate impact could determine the outcome.

The driving force behind the Giants' late-season surge has been the dominant play of their trio of defensive ends -- Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and a healthy Osi Umenyiora. Their athleticism and versatility allow defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to use a variety of schemes in his four-man front to keep opponents off balance and quarterbacks under duress.

But what they possess in style points, San Francisco's Justin Smith possesses in shear brute terror. There is no guesswork with Smith. He's a Brahman bull on perpetual 5-Hour Energy who dominates with effort, violence and desire. As a 3-4 defensive end, Smith is more of a defensive tackle, who sets the stage for outside linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith to harass quarterbacks. His job description is to occupy two blockers so others can run free. Two blockers aren't enough, though, when Smith uses double teams as bowling pins.

He's done it all season (he's actually done it for years), but the 11-year veteran has rarely played this well on teams that have won anything. In the fourth quarter of Saturday's divisional-round victory over the favored Saints, Smith re-set Pro Bowl tackle Jermon Bushrod into quarterback Drew Brees' grill, then reached over Bushrod to pull Brees to the ground. It was one of those physical football marvels that people are still talking about.

Smith will come as no surprise to the Giants. He had one of his best games of the season when San Francisco defeated New York in November, totaling six tackles. He snuffed out a potential Giants' rally in the waning seconds when he batted down Eli Manning's pass on fourth down deep in Niners' territory. He seemed to almost always be in the right place at the right time.

Meanwhile, Pierre-Paul has come into his own in just his second NFL season, earning Pro Bowl honors and seemingly getting better every day. Tuck has been his usual steady self, despite battling injuries.

But things really took a turn for the better when Umenyiora came back from a high ankle sprain in time for the Giants to beat Dallas in the season finale and win the NFC East. In the three games since Umenyiora returned, the Giants have yielded 36 points and registered 12 sacks -- five by Umenyiora. The pressure generated up front has helped every level of the defense. This group isn't playing the same way it was when the Giants played San Francisco in November -- and the same can be said for the 49ers.

Defense has replaced Rice-A-Roni as the San Francisco treat. As a unit, the 49ers' D brings heat and punishment like no team in the NFL right now. Niners defenders feed off each other, and Smith is the consistent tone-setter. He's such a concussive threat that coach Jim Harbaugh even used him as a lead blocker on offense a few times against the Saints.

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Smith's nonstop effort coupled with unruly strength garnered him All-Pro votes at defensive end and defensive tackle this season. There was some confusion as to his actual spot, since he is a 3-4 defensive end but frequently lines up over the guard like a tackle. Ambiguity aside, opponents probably feel like they're dealing with two of him on any given play.

Smith is in such a different gear that a 49ers source told me last week that they have to back him down in the weight room, especially on the squat rack, because he's still trying to increase his workload instead of maintaining his strength for when it matters most. It's almost frightening to think how scary he'd be if he's truly leaving some of himself in the gym.

When things shake out Sunday and we know who is representing the NFC in the Super Bowl, quarterbacks Alex Smith and Manning, or tight end Vernon Davis or wideouts Victor Cruz or Hakeem Nicks will probably be focal points. These remarkable defensive ends, however, could be the ones who really tell the story.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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