Alex Smith scores on a 28 yard bootleg against the Saints
The 49ers surprised the football world by making two fourth-quarter comebacks to defeat the New Orleans Saints, 36-32. This was one of the most exciting games I have ever witnessed and brought back fond memories of the great 49er teams of the 80's and 90's with Joe Montana and Steve Young.
49ers' quarterback Alex Smith proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he could lead the team to victory when all the chips were on the table. Smith has learned his craft well from head coach Jim Harbaugh and the rest of the 49ers' offensive coaches.
Smith's development has been a story of perseverance and intestinal fortitude that nobody would have expected to occur, even a few months ago.
The 49ers will play host to the Giants and Candlestick Park will be rocking. The Giants are playing extremely well and have quarterback Eli Manning playing the best football of his career.
The fact that the 49ers defeated the Giants 27-20 in week 10 of the regular season is of no relevance at this point. Explosive running back Ahmad Bradshaw was out for that game and the Giants were still only about three inches from tying the game, as a long pass just bounced off Mario Manningham's fingertips.
The NFC Championship game will be a test of wills between two of the toughest, hardest hitting defenses in the league. The Giants are on a roll, but so are the 49ers. This game promises to be an epic battle.
Let's take a closer look at the key match-ups that will determine the outcome of this game.
Ahmad Bradshaw did not play in the first meeting of these two teams
The New York Giants employ a two pronged attack on the ground. Ahmad Bradshaw provides the speed and elusiveness, while Brandon Jacobs brings the power. In their first contest, Bradshaw missed the game due to injury and the 49ers were able to hold the Giants to only 93 yards rushing.
Bradshaw led the Giants during the regular season with 659 yards and nine touchdowns. Jacobs added 571 yards and seven touchdowns.
The San Francisco 49ers were the best in the league against the run, allowing only 77.3 yards per game. The front seven of the 49ers has done a tremendous job all season against the run. Against the Saints, the 49ers allowed only 37 yards rushing and made New Orleans a completely one-dimensional team.
Led by inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, along with a solid front three on the defensive line, the 49ers are very tough to run against. They allowed only one 100 yard rusher all season and that was Marshawn Lynch, in the 15th game of the season.
Although the task this Sunday will be tougher because Bradshaw gives the Giants more breakaway speed and is a big play threat, I expect the 49er defense to continue their season-long trend of stuffing the run.
Edge: San Francisco 49ers' front seven.
Frank Gore is looking to have a big game against the Giants
The 49ers' ground attack is very strong, as Frank Gore leads the way with 1,211 yards and eight touchdowns. Against the Saints, Gore rushed for 89 yards on 13 carries, including a huge 42-yard run in the fourth quarter that set up a David Akers field goal.
Kendall Hunter spells Gore and has 473 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Alex Smith has also made some big plays running the football, none bigger than his 28 yard bootleg for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Saints.
The 49ers' offensive line has improved throughout the season and a key of this game will be if they can open holes for Gore and Hunter. In the first meeting between these two clubs, Gore was nursing a sore ankle and only carried the ball six times, for zero yards.
If the Giants' defense can stop Gore and Hunter, it will force Alex Smith into long yardage situations, which you do not want to have against the tough Giants' pass rush. New York was 19th in the league in yards allowed on the ground with an average of 121.3 yards per game.
In their first meeting, the 49ers rushed for only 77 yards on 20 carries. They must do better than that if they hope to defeat the Giants this Sunday.
Slight Edge: San Francisco 49ers' ground attack.
Eli Manning has won a Super Bowl for the Giants
The New York Giants' passing attack scares me. Eli Manning is playing at an elite level and is one of the top five quarterbacks in the league. He completed 61 percent of his passes for 4,933 yards, with 29 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
Manning has four receivers who have over 500 receiving yards. The group is led by Victor Cruz, who has 82 catches for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. Hakeem Nicks has 76 catches for 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns. These two are extremely explosive and the 49ers' defense must find a way to contain them.
Tight end Jake Ballard is a threat, with 38 catches for 604 yards. Mario Manningham gives the Giants three excellent wide receivers. He has 39 catches for 523 yards. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw also figures into the passing attack with 34 catches for 267 yards.
For the second week in a row, the 49ers' secondary will be severely tested. The 49ers' nickel corner, Chris Culliver, will also be a key player in this game as the Giants often go with three wide receivers.
The 49ers did a fairly good job against the Saints, even though Drew Brees completed 40 of 63 passes for 462 yards and four touchdowns.
The key will be whether the 49ers' pass rush can get to Eli Manning consistently and disrupt him. If Justin Smith and Aldon Smith will need to harass Manning into rushing his throws and not allow him to get into a rhythm.
Edge: New York Giants' passing attack.
Vernon Davis moments after scoring the winning TD against the Saints
Alex Smith has emerged as a very solid NFL quarterback, under the tutelage of Jim Harbaugh. Smith makes good decisions and has shown the ability to fight through adversity and help his team win.
Against the Saints, Smith completed 24 of 42 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns. He also did not throw an interception, although he did have one fumble when he was hammered by a blitzing Roman Harper.
Vernon Davis came up big for the 49ers. He caught seven passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Davis' 14-yard touchdown reception with nine seconds left to play will go down as one of the top plays in 49er history.
It will be very difficult for Davis to duplicate this type of performance against the Giants. I expect them to bracket him and not allow him to beat them. It will be up to Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman to find ways to get Davis isolated in one-on-one match-ups.
The 49er wide receivers were held down against the Saints as Michael Crabtree led the way with four catches for only 25 yards. Crabtree had a particularly difficult day, as he was unable to come down with three passes he should have caught.
If the 49ers are to have success against the Giants, Crabtree will have to come through and have a big game. During the regular season, the Giants ranked 29th in the league against the pass, allowing an average of 255.1 yards per game through the air.
Someone else will need to step up in the passing game for the 49ers also. That could be Kyle Williams or the combination of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter.
The Giants held the vaunted Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers to only 264 yards passing. Their pass rush collected four sacks but had numerous hurries and hits on Rodgers after he released the ball.
The Giants have an outstanding pass rush, led by Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. Pierre-Paul is one of the top pass rushers in the league with 16.5 sacks and Umenyiora has nine.
The 49ers' offensive line must give Alex Smith time to throw. Unlike the Saints who blitzed constantly, the Giants will try to get pressure on Smith with mostly just their four man pass rush. If the Giants are successful, it will enable them to drop seven men into coverage and make it harder for the 49ers to hit any big plays.
The 49ers' offensive line has improved over the course of the season. Their ability to open running lanes for Frank Gore and keep the Giants' pass rush away from Smith will be one of the biggest key to the outcome of this game.
Edge: New York Giants' front four.
David Akers set an NFL record for most field goals made this season
In a game where the offensive and defensive match-ups are very close, special teams can make a huge difference. This is an area where the 49ers excel.
David Akers led the NFL in field goals made, setting a record. He is a Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection. Punter Andy Lee had the best punting average and net punting average in the league. He was also a Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection.
Akers generally kicks the ball deep into the end zone and if he doesn't, he kicks it high, allowing his coverage unit time to get down the field and make the tackle. Lee's punting has been outstanding and a big weapon in winning the field position battle.
The 49ers' coverage units are excellent and are a big reason for the success of their special teams.
The Giants' kicker Lawrence Tynes and punter Steve Weatherford are decent, but not in the same class as Akers and Lee.
The return game is an area which favors the 49ers. Ted Ginn is explosive and has averages of 27.6 yards on kickoff returns and 12.3 yards on punt returns. The Giants' return men are significantly below these averages and with the 49ers' stellar coverage units, I see this as a big advantage for San Francisco.
Edge: San Francisco 49ers' special teams
Dashon Goldson returns an interception against the Saints
The San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants are both well-coached teams.
49er head coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio have done a tremendous job teaching their players and instilling confidence in them. Game plans are usually excellent and in-game adjustments are very effective, also.
Tom Coughlin, head coach of the Giants, has his team playing their best football of the year. He also led the Giants to a victory in Super Bowl XLII, in February 2008. Many of the players on that Super Bowl championship squad are on this current Giants' team.
Playoff experience definitely favors the Giants, but the 49ers will have the home-field advantage. Against the Saints, the 49ers' fans were extremely loud the entire game. I expect them to be even louder for the NFC title game this Sunday.
Turnovers could also play a huge role in this game. The 49ers led the league with a plus-28 turnover margin during the regular season. This is a very opportunistic team and they pride themselves on taking the football away from an opposing offense.
That formula for success worked again this past Saturday, against the Saints. Although the Saints out gained the 49ers 472 yards to 407 and had 26 first downs to the 49ers' 17, it was the 49ers who won the ballgame.
San Francisco forced five New Orleans turnovers and gave up only one of their own. The plus-four turnover margin was a deciding factor in that game.
If the 49ers are able to win the turnover battle with a plus-two or greater, they will have an excellent chance to win this game.
The weather this past Saturday when the 49ers played the Saints was absolutely beautiful. There is a storm coming in later this week, so expect the field, which is usually pretty wet anyway, to be even wetter. This could help the 49ers, if players like Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks are slowed.
The game time of 3:30 p.m. in San Francisco also means that the wind will most likely be a factor. I know that the Giants frequently play in inclement weather on the east coast, but the conditions should favor the 49ers.
The 49ers worked very hard to get the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. With Green Bay's loss, the 49ers are rewarded with two home playoff games. Do not underestimate the advantage this gives the 49ers.
Victor Cruz is a threat to score every time he touches the ball
At the start of the playoffs, the odds would have been very long for the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants to be playing for the NFC Championship. Conventional wisdom had the Packers and Saints battling it out, but the 49ers and Giants did not adhere to those predictions.
The 49ers and Giants had the two best defenses in the NFC playoffs. They are both hard-hitting, tough and physical defensive units.
In many ways, this game promises to be a battle of wills. Which team will impose their will on the other?
I believe this will be a very hard-fought, tight game. It promises to be an epic battle.