WHAT’S AT STAKE: Just like all of the football know-it-alls predicted back in August, the New York Giants will battle the San Francisco 49ers for a shot in the Super Bowl on Sunday evening. The 49ers look to complete what’s been a remarkable turnaround from last year’s 6-10 debacle with its first NFC crown since the 1994 season.
Jim Harbaugh has gotten everything out of this team, and more specifically Alex Smith, that both Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary could not. Meanwhile, the Giants have won four consecutive elimination games – beating the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons and defending-champion Packers. Eli Manning has thrown for 607 yards, six touchdowns and just one interception this postseason and can set the all-time record for playoff road victories by a quarterback.
These teams matched up in Week 10, with the 49ers earning a marquee 27-20 victory. The Giants proceeded to lose the next four games, while the 49ers went about wrapping up the NFC West just a couple weeks later.
KEYS TO VICTORY: This is a much different Giants defense than the one San Francisco faced ten weeks ago. Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul are all healthy and making lives difficult for opposing quarterbacks. The Giants ranked second in the league in sacks during the regular season, so protecting Alex Smith will be paramount. While the Niners’ line has improved tremendously, they’ve still had difficulties in protection – specifically against overload blitzes.
The Giants love to rush four and drop seven, but it’s interesting to note that weakness for San Francisco and see if Perry Fewell tries to exploit it once or twice.
For the Giants, it’s going to be entirely on Eli Manning. The Giants ranked last in the league in running the ball, and the 49ers gave up the fewest rushing yards per game in the league. On paper, it’s a totally lost cause to pound the ball at a front seven featuring three All-Pros. New York’s wide receivers must beat San Francisco’s cornerbacks in man-to-man. It will be difficult for the Niners, who ranked a pedestrian 16th against the pass, to guard Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham for large stretches of the game. Don’t forget that Manning threw for 311 yards and nearly led the Giants down the field to tie the game in the waning minutes, picking up two fourth-down conversions along the way.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Antrel Rolle vs. Vernon Davis. From all indications, it sounds like Rolle will be responsible for guarding the 49ers tight end in man-to-man situations. The Giants must find a way to take Davis, Alex Smith’s security blanket, out of the ballgame. Davis torched the Saints last week to the tune of 180 yards and two touchdown catches, including the game-winner with nine seconds left.
The Giants have had their difficulties in the middle of the field this season, including against the 49ers back in November. Smith completed nine passes for 109 yards and one touchdown to Davis and fellow tight end Delanie Walker in the first matchup. Davis gave San Fran the lead for good with a 31-yard touchdown catch less than two minutes into the fourth quarter. Rolle, a former cornerback, has played well down the stretch and was responsible for guarding several of the Packers’ wide receivers last week.
The question will be if he can overcome an obvious mismatch in size. Rolle stands 6 feet even and weighs 206 pounds, while Davis is listed at 6’3” and 250 pounds.
BREAKOUT PLAYER: The 49ers hope it’s Frank Gore. In the first meeting, Gore limped off the field and was unproductive while on the field. He carried the ball six times for 0 yards. Kendall Hunter led the team with 40 yards and a score on the day. Gore gives the 49ers tremendous balance and allows Harbaugh the luxury of not putting the entire game on Smith.
For New York, keep an eye on linebacker Chase Blackburn – an extremely underrated addition to this defense. He was signed the week of the Green Bay game, picked up an interception and has started in the middle since. He will need to be stout against the run and help in defending Davis underneath.
QUOTED QUOTABLES: During this week, representatives from both teams have spoken to the media and given more than enough bulletin board material. Here are some samples:
“If he said that, I can only hope he’s saying it just because they want to get a home game. They better be careful what they ask for, because their wish is being granted, and we’ll see them come Sunday.” – Giants safety Antrel Rolle responding to Vernon Davis rooting for the Giants during a Fox Sports halftime interview
“They warned us that the guys would likely say some stuff in the media and leave it alone. That’s their blueprint. Whenever they have a big game, they talk, they talk. We’re not going to do that. That game is played on the football field.” – 49ers safety Donte Whitner
“”I like Ahmad Bradshaw, I like Brandon Jacobs but I feel like Brandon Jacobs is a little bit soft. He can’t get away from a defender. This guy is 265 and it upsets me when I see him get tackled by a guy that’s like 190 or 200 pounds.” – Former 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice