By Zach Finkelstein
On Sunday afternoon, the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers will face off at Candlestick Park for the chance to face the
New England Patriots AFC championship game winner in this season’s Super Bowl.
Find me someone who purports to have predicted a Giants-Niners title game, and I will show you someone who should quit his or her day job for a career in creative writing. Big Blue was such an underdog heading into its game against the formerly 15-1 (now 15-2 and done) Green Bay Packers that several of the Giants players’ wives refused to cancel cruise reservations, even with the knowledge that their men were one win away from playing for all the conference’s marbles (I kid). Second-seeded San Francisco was considered an underdog by many, as well, despite holding home-field advantage over the high-octane New Orleans Saints. And with that, let’s take a tale-of-the-tape look at what will be a rematch of regular-season foes:
Quarterback: The storyline heading into this game was several inches away from taking a completely different tone, had it not been for a batted-down pass off the right hand of San Francisco’s star defensive end Justin Smith in the closing seconds of Week 10. With his team trailing by a touchdown and only 10 yards away from sending the game into overtime, Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw a fourth-and-2 pass that Smith smacked to the ground to secure a 27-20 49ers win.
Despite that defeat, Manning enjoyed superlative late-game success throughout a regular season that ended with an NFL-record 15 fourth-quarter touchdown throws and a league-leading six fourth-quarter comebacks. Big Blue’s signal caller has been extremely successful during the postseason, as well, tossing for a combined six touchdowns and over 600 yards against Atlanta and Green Bay.
49ers quarterback Alex Smith was San Francisco’s savior against the Saints on Saturday, leading his team back from two deficits over the final four minutes of play. The seventh-year signal caller, who has been oft-criticized for lacking the capacity to coordinate key drives, threw for 299 yards and three scores against the Saints while recording nary a turnover. Smith only threw five interceptions all season and will look to be equally as stingy this Sunday.
Quarterback edge: Giants. Smith has upped his game, but Manning is the straw that turns his team’s offensive drink. Regardless, it will be fun watching a pair of top draft picks – Manning was first man selected in 2004, Smith in ’05 – duke it out on the title-game stage.
Running backs: Watching tape from their Week 10 win will not help the Niners plan for Blue Blue’s ground game, which has improved markedly since their first meeting. The Giants finished the regular-season dead last in rushing yards per contest – thanks in large to a paltry 3.6 yards per carry average through Week 15 – but have racked up 4.4 yards per rush since.
Its predilection for passing notwithstanding, New York will still need running backs Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Jacobs and D.J. Ware to produce in order to keep San Francisco’s staunch defense from guarding too heavily against the pass.
49ers feature back Frank Gore entered Round 1 against the Giants having rushed for 100 yards in a franchise-record five straight games. He finished with the worst performance of his career after limping for zero yards on six carries. Needless to say, injuries played a part.
Gore may have rushed for 89 against the Saints on Saturday, but he was largely ineffective save for one 42-yard rumble. If you deduct that gain from the totals, Gore’s average scamper vs. the Saints drops from an impressive 6.8 yards to a pedestrian 3.9. Because of this, the 49ers were forced to throw the ball 42 times, a strategy that would end in disaster if employed against the Giants. Gore reportedly sustained a leg injury on the final offensive drive vs. NOLA but says he will be ready to go against the Giants. Niners fans everywhere better hope that’s true.
Rushing edge: 49ers. Injuries aside, Gore gained 1,211 yards on the ground during the regular season and will be the best back on the field Sunday. San Fran also has a quick change-of-pace rusher in rookie Kendall Hunter.
Wide Receivers: Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are a scary sight for any opposing secondary, as the Giants’ wideout tandem can turn any short pass into a big play. Over the last four weeks, the duo has tallied touchdown receptions of 99, 74, 72, 66 and 37 yards. Nicks, who compiled 1,193 yards and seven scores through the air during the regular season, has led all wideouts during the playoffs with four touchdowns to go along with 13 catches for 280 yards. His partner in crime is nobody turned salsa-dancing superstar Victor Cruz, who lit up defenses with 82 catches for a franchise-shattering 1,536 yards as an NFL sophomore. The tandem will be challenged by a hard-hitting Niners secondary that specializes in forcing turnovers.
San Francisco’s top receiver, Michael Crabtree, caught a 4-yard, first-quarter touchdown pass against the Saints before transforming into a deer in the headlights. Targeted 10 times, the veteran wideout only managed to catch four balls for 25 yards, an unimpressive showing that was hurt by three dropped passes. Fortunately for the 49ers, tight end Vernon Davis recorded seven receptions for a career-high 180 yards – a new postseason record for tight ends. San Fran will need a better showing from the capable Crabtree – who compiled 72 catches for 874 yards during the regular season – if it wants in on the Super Bowl.
Receivers edge: Giants. Both Nicks and Cruz are better than Crabtree. Davis, however, will be the biggest offensive obstacle for Big Blue to hurdle if it wants to win.
Defense: Like the rushing attack, the Giants’ defense picked up steam as the regular-season came to a close. Bruised and battered for much of the year, the unit managed to pitch a playoff-opening shutout against Atlanta. The followup from the Falcons game was the ultimate accomplishment, however, as New York forced three fumbles while chasing quarterback Aaron Rodgers into a pedestrian passing performance that included one pick and four sacks. The Giants will be hard pressed to record four takeaways against the Niners, who have allowed an NFL-record low 10 turnovers all year (including the playoffs). If Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora – the Giants’ tremendous pass-rushing triumvirate – can smother Smith as they rattled Rodgers, then San Francisco will surely be in for an unpleasant game.
Simply put, the 49ers are still playing because of their staunch defense that surrendered the lowest yards (308.1) and points allowed (14.3) averages in the NFC. The unit is led by the aforementioned Justin Smith, a 6-4, 290-pound mountain of a defensive end who is perhaps the best player on his side of the ball in all the NFL. The veteran wreaked havoc on New Orleans’ offensive line Saturday, forcing Saints quarterback Drew Brees to play much of the game on the run.
The 11th-year pro heads a defense that features three other 2011 Pro Bowlers: Patrick Willis, a linebacker; Carlos Rodgers, a cornerback; and safety Dashon Goldson. Linebacker Aldon Smith, perhaps the league’s best rookie defender, is a fierce threat as well.
Defensive edge: 49ers. They’re an impregnable group that is especially relentless against the rush.
Special teams: Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes converted 19 of his 24 field goal attempts during the regular season, and punter Steve Weatherford recorded a career-best 45.7 yards/punt average (39.2 net). Big Blue’s return game was not particularly pretty, however; the unit finished the season ranked 29th with a 6.1 yard average on punts and 22nd with 23.3 yards on kickoffs.
49ers kicker David Akers set new NFL records with 44 field goals and 166 points, and punter Andy Lee led the league with a 50.9 yards-per-punt average. The Niners’ coverage teams controlled the Saints’ star returner Darren Sproles while forcing and recovering two fumbles on returns during the divisional round triumph. Ted Ginn opened the season by scoring on both a kickoff and punt — in a 58-second span — against the Seattle Seahawks. He finished it third and fourth in kickoff (27.6 yards) and punt returns (12.3), respectively. The Giants might be in trouble if Ginn’s knee (which forced him to the sidelines against New Orleans) is feeling better come Sunday. That is a big if, however.
Special teams edge: 49ers. (With or without Ginn.) They are special on special teams.