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NFL Playoff Preview - N.Y. Giants (11-7) at San Francisco (14-3)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Considering the perilous position they held a month ago, the New York Giants' inclusion in the 2011 NFC Championship can be viewed as a big surprise.
Then again, practically no one had envisioned the San Francisco 49ers being simply one win away from their first Super Bowl appearance in 17 years prior to the start of this season.
Pegged by a majority of prognosticators to maintain the also-ran status the once-glorious franchise had been languishing in for most of the past decade, the 49ers shocked the NFL world by winning 13 regular-season games and earning the No. 2 seed for the NFC Playoffs in a swift and sudden turnaround under rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh.
The unexpected success continued in the postseason, with San Francisco ousting favored New Orleans in last weekend's Divisional Round to advance to the NFC Championship for the first time since 1997. Prior to this year's breakthrough, the Niners last reached the playoffs in 2002.
San Francisco earned a spot in Sunday's conference title bout with a thrilling 36-32 triumph over the high-powered Saints in which the two teams traded the lead four times in the final four-plus minutes. The 49ers trailed by three points with 1:37 left before quarterback Alex Smith directed a seven-play, 85- yard drive capped by a dramatic 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis with a mere nine seconds remaining on the clock.
"I can't remember winning a game in such spectacular fashion as this one," said Harbaugh, who garnered the nickname "Captain Comeback" during a 14-year playing career as a quarterback.
The victory improved the 49ers to 8-1 at Candlestick Park in Harbaugh's sensational debut, which includes a hard-fought 27-20 verdict over the Giants back on Nov. 13. That loss started a midseason downward spiral for New York in which the team dropped five of six outings to enter the final two weeks with an uninspiring 7-7 record and its playoff hopes on shaky ground.
The Giants rebounded with pivotal wins over both the crosstown-rival Jets and Dallas to capture the NFC East and the conference's fourth seed, then delivered an emphatic 24-2 drubbing of Atlanta in the opening round of the playoffs before stunning the defending world champion Green Bay Packers by a 37-20 count this past Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Quarterback Eli Manning tossed three touchdown passes for a third consecutive week and finished with 330 yards to pace New York offensively, while a resurgent defense forced four turnovers out of the normally-prudent Packers and sacked Green Bay triggerman Aaron Rodgers four times.
"I think we are a team that is ascending," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck remarked. "Obviously the last couple of weeks we have played pretty well in just about every phase of the game. It's going to be a really good game, but momentum for us right now is sky high."
Harbaugh agreed with Tuck's assessment.
"I think they're a healthier team than when we played them [in November]," he said. "This is a Super Bowl contending team. They don't make mistakes and turn the ball over to you. They're the opposite of that. They're an opportunistic football team, they're a hard-working football team, really at every position group."
Those same words could be used to describe the 49ers, who led the entire NFL with a plus-28 turnover margin over the course of the regular season and came up with five takeaways that were instrumental to their elimination of the Saints.
San Francisco will be aiming for its first Super Bowl trip since the 1994 season and can become the NFC's 11th different representative in the last 11 years with a win on Sunday. The Giants claimed the 2007 conference crown after a memorable 23-20 overtime besting of Green Bay in that season's title game and are 4-0 all-time in the NFC Championship.
The Giants and 49ers have a storied shared postseason history, with the two franchises facing one another in elimination games six times between 1981 and 1993 and again in the 2002 NFC Divisional Round. San Francisco won that last matchup by a 39-38 count after rallying for 25 unanswered second-half points, which gave the Niners a 4-3 edge in the overall playoff series between the clubs. The home team has prevailed in six of those seven encounters, with the lone exception a 15-13 New York win at Candlestick Park in the 1990 NFC Championship. The Giants also defeated San Francisco in a 1985 First-Round Playoff and produced a 49-3 pasting of the 49ers in a Divisional tilt the following year, while San Francisco emerged victorious in NFC Divisional Playoff battles in both 1981 and 1984 in addition to recording a 44-3 rout at Candlestick in a 1993 First-Round game.
San Francisco evened its all-time regular-season set with New York by virtue of the aforementioned Week 10 result, which halted a string of three straight setbacks to the Giants that included a 24-6 home loss in 2005. Counting the 2002 playoff defeat, New York had dropped four consecutive games to the 49ers at Candlestick Park prior to that outcome.
New York head coach Tom Coughlin sports a 4-1 career record against San Francisco, with one of those wins coming while at the helm of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1999, and improved to 10-7 in postseason play with last Sunday's triumph. Harbaugh had never previously opposed the Giants or Coughlin as a head coach before November's test, and last week's game marked his first playoff appearance as a man in charge as well.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
New York's recent surge has coincided with spectacular play under center from Manning (4933 passing yards, 29 TD, 16 INT), with the Super Bowl XLII Most Valuable Player having compiled 953 passing yards and an outstanding 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the team's last three wins, registering a quarterback rating of 114.5 or better each time. He's surely been aided by a receiver corps that's shown a flair for big plays, however, with former first- round pick Hakeem Nicks (76 receptions, 1192 yards, 7 TD) in particular having raised his game to another level. The third-year pro followed up a 115-yard, two-touchdown outburst against Atlanta by torching Green Bay's suspect secondary for 165 yards and two more scores on seven catches last week, becoming only the third player in league history to surpass the century mark in receiving yards twice in one postseason. The 49ers did a good job of keeping Nicks in check in the earlier meeting, but 2011 breakout star Victor Cruz (82 receptions, 1536 yards, 9 TD) and No. 3 wideout Mario Manningham (39 receptions, 4 TD) combined for 161 yards and a touchdown on 12 grabs while benefiting from single coverage in that contest. Manningham comes in on a nice roll as well, having hauled in a Manning touchdown strike in the two playoff games after missing considerable time down the regular-season stretch with a knee injury. The Giants could only muster 93 rushing yards against the 49ers' rugged defense in November's loss, though top back Ahmad Bradshaw (659 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 11 total TD) did not play that day due to an ailing foot. He's since returned to reform an effective duo with bruiser Brandon Jacobs (571 rushing yards, as the two have averaged 120 yards and nearly five yards per carry thus far in the playoffs.
A San Francisco defense that yielded the second-fewest points (14.3 avg.) in the league bent but rarely broke in the Week 10 showdown with New York, giving up 302 net passing yards but limiting the Giants to just one touchdown in four red-zone trips. The 49ers also came up with a pair of key interceptions of Manning, both of which were turned in by playmaking cornerback Carlos Rogers (43 tackles, 6 INT, 21 PD) as part of the offseason addition's terrific campaign. He and free safety Dashon Goldson (67 tackles, 6 INT, 11 PD) were the primary reasons why the Niners tied for second in the NFL in interceptions (23), while the strength and skills of rangy inside linebacker Patrick Willis (97 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and high-motor lineman Justin Smith (58 tackles, 7.5 sacks) enabled the team to hold the opposition to a scant 77.3 rushing yards per game and a total of three touchdowns on the ground prior to the playoffs, both of which were league lows. Young inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman (143 tackles, 2 sacks) did his part as well by leading San Francisco in tackles and joining Willis on this year's All-Pro squad, while rookie sensation Aldon Smith (37 tackles, 14 sacks) nearly matched an NFL season record for sacks by a first-year player in igniting a fierce pass rush that also gets interior support from Justin Smith and Ray McDonald (39 tackles, 5.5 sacks) as well as a further outside push from linebacker Ahmad Brooks (50 tackles, 7 sacks).
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Though San Francisco has been basically a ball-control operation that ended the regular season eighth in rushing offense (127.8 ypg), both last week's wild win and the first game with the Giants proved the team can air it out if need be. Alex Smith (3144 passing yards, 17 TD, 5 INT) threw for a season-best 299 yards and three touchdowns while adding a rushing score in an incredibly clutch performance against New Orleans, and the unheralded quarterback also came through with a 242-yard effort in the November victory over New York after Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore (1211 rushing yards, 8 TD, 17 receptions) was slowed by both a sprained ankle and a Giants defense that was determined to neutralize him. If that's again the case on Sunday, count on Smith to look often in the direction of Davis (67 receptions, 6 TD), fresh off a dazzling day in the Divisional Round in which the talented tight end set a new NFL postseason record for the position by accumulating an astounding 180 receiving yards and two scores on seven catches. He also recorded a 31-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter that gave the 49ers the lead in their Week 10 clash with New York, while fellow tight end Delanie Walker (19 receptions, 3 TD) contributed season bests of six receptions and 69 yards in that game. He's sat out San Francisco's last two tests with a broken jaw but is a possibility to return on Sunday, with wide receiver and return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. (19 receptions) also a question mark due to a knee injury. Gore seems to be over the health woes that plagued him in the season's second half, as his 127 yards from scrimmage (89 rushing, 38 receiving) against the Saints was his highest output since early November.
While the 49ers want to establish the run on offense, the Giants' goal will be to stop it and force their opponent into obvious throwing situations where they can unleash one of the league's most productive pass rushes. New York has racked up 17 sacks over the course of its present win streak, with difference- making end Osi Umenyiora (25 tackles, 9 sacks) having tallied five in three games since coming back from an ankle injury and outside linebacker Michael Boley (93 tackles, 1 sack) -- who was sidelined for a good portion of the first San Francisco game with a hamstring problem -- notching a pair against the Packers a week ago. Umenyiora is part of a top-notch front line rotation that also contains second-year standout Jason Pierre-Paul (86 tackles), whose 16 1/2 sacks ranked fourth in the league in 2011, and steady veteran end Justin Tuck (37 tackles, 5 sacks), with Boley and strongside linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka (84 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) each holding valuable roles as run stoppers for a unit that held San Francisco to a modest 77 rushing yards in the first meeting. Safety Antrel Rolle (96 tackles, 2 INT) led the team in tackles during the regular season and may also draw an important assignment this week as the player most likely to shadow the dangerous Davis, with cornerback Corey Webster (51 tackles, 6 INT, 18 PD) expected to see a lot of Niners' top receiver Michael Crabtree (72 receptions, 4 TD).
This is an area in which the 49ers are without equal, especially when it comes to the kicker/punter combination of veterans David Akers and Andy Lee. Both received well-deserved All-Pro citations following record-setting seasons, with the ex-Philadelphia Eagle Akers setting a new league standard for field goals made (44) and attempted (52) and Lee's 44.0 net punting average also the best in NFL history. He finished the 16-game schedule averaging a whopping 50.9 yards per boot, while Akers also went 7-of-9 on three-point tries beyond 50 yards and was 4-for-4 on field goals in San Francisco's Week 10 win over New York.
San Francisco also possesses an impact returner in Ginn, who placed third in the NFC in both kickoff (27.6 avg.) and punt (12.3 avg.) runbacks and scored a touchdown in each category in a season-opening victory over Seattle. If he's unable to go this week, wide receiver Kyle Williams would take over punt duties while splitting kickoffs with rookie running back Kendall Hunter.
The Giants, who had a poor snap on an unsuccessful field goal attempt loom large in their one-point loss to the 49ers in the 2002 playoffs, were just ordinary in the special teams department during the regular season but are coming off a decent showing against Green Bay. Kicker Lawrence Tynes knocked home three short field goals, though he also had a 40-yard attempt blocked, while the reliable Steve Weatherford (45.7 avg.) averaged 48 yards with a 41.5 net on two punts in the win. Tynes was just 19-of-24 overall on field goals and a concerning 4-of-8 from over 40 yards entering the playoffs, however, and don't expect much from a New York return unit that ranked 22nd on kickoffs and 29th on punts this season. Reserve receiver Devin Thomas (24.3 avg.) and rookie Jerrel Jernigan (23.3 avg.) are the main kick returners, with journeyman corner Will Blackmon (4.2 avg.) signed in late November to handle punts.
As has usually been the case in games involving the 49ers, turnovers figure to have an awfully large say in which of these teams advances to Indianapolis. San Francisco was able to beat the Giants earlier in the season in part because Alex Smith threw one less interception than Manning, and both clubs benefited greatly from a bonanza of takeaways in their respective wins in the previous round. But if neither gains an advantage in that critical aspect, and that's a strong possibility when considering that New York has committed only two giveaways over its four-game tear, that should work in the Giants' favor. New York has a proven playoff performer in Manning and superior offensive skill players than San Francisco, and a pass rush that's also been a huge factor in Big Blue's recent success could very well make its presence felt once again here. All three of the 49ers' losses in 2011 have had the common theme of opponents getting heavy pressure, with Alex Smith having been sacked a total of 20 times in those games. If the Giants are able to turn their front four loose, continue to take care of the football and hit for a big play or two against a defense that showed some susceptibility in that area last week, their perfect record in NFC Championship games stands a good chance of remaining intact.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 27, 49ers 23
01/19 15:36:00 ET