By Paul Dottino
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All of the elements are there for a great game.
The Giants are heading to San Francisco for the third time in two years and the first time since thwarting the 49ers in overtime for the NFC Championship in January. Most of the starters have returned for both teams, so have the coaches. And, yes, there’s even a little extra fuel on the fire, thanks to former Giants WR Mario Manningham and RB Brandon Jacobs signing with the Niners during the offseason.
Perhaps the only thing missing from this game are the stakes – it’s only the sixth week of the regular season, although it’s very possible the winner will be able to call upon this result to help gain a tiebreaker advantage for the playoffs.
Here are three matchups to watch:
1. Giants offensive line vs. 49ers front seven. Eli Manning took a career-high 12 hits, including six sacks, in the NFC Championship game. It’s understood that the game went into overtime and he had to drop back more than 60 times. Several players have said that was the clearest sign of toughness Manning has shown since he turned pro. But do they really need him to do it again?
LDT Ray McDonald had 2 ½ sacks and RDT Justin Smith were disruptive and the Niners’ speedy linebackers – led by inside guys Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman – cannot be allowed to get blitz happy and beat Manning into the ground.
And we know Manning is going to have throw it at least 40 times because the Niners are only allowing about 80 yards per game on the ground.
2. Giants linebackers vs. 49ers running game. Again, we’re going to go with a generic matchup. That’s because San Francisco has a very diverse rushing attack – they’re no longer just a pound-between-the-tackles team relying on RB Frank Gore. They can attack the edges with RB Kendall Hunter and wildcat QB Colin Kaepernick, who has run for a score in each of the past two weeks.
Kaepernick is averaging 10.6 yards per carry on 10 rushes, and he’s got a strong arm, although he’s only 1-of-2 for 7 yards through the air. Regardless, the Niners have the best balance in the league – they run the ball 52 percent on first and second down combined. They own the time of possession over their opponents, 32:28 to 27:32, and QB Alex has thrown only one interception.
If the Niners have their running game going, it’s that much harder to beat them.
3. Giants special teams vs. 49ers special teams. This is the one facet of the matchup that most folks have overlooked this past week – and the two special teams fumbles the Giants recovered in the NFC Championship game were the difference that day.
Ted Ginn has taken over the punt return duties from Kyle Williams (who remains deep on kickoffs and twice was the culprit in the playoff game). Either player can take it the distance at any time. On the flip side, 49ers’ opponents are averaging 30.9 on 12 kickoff returns and have a TD and a 23.6-yard average on five punt returns, so rookie PR Rueben Randle and KOR David Wilson likely will have room to operate.
The Niners prefer to tilt the field in order to enhance the conditions for their style of play on both sides of the ball, so the Giants will try to take away this advantage.
Prediction: 49ers 27, Giants 17
Prediction record vs. the spread: 3-1-1
Your prediction? Let us know in the comments below!