The second game on Sunday will feature Eli Manning and the New York Giants taking on the San Francisco 49ers. This is a matchup that I certainly did not anticipate, but both of these teams have proved me wrong and performed at their best when it has mattered the most.
In Week 10, the 49ers defeated the Giants 27-20. There are things to take away from that game, but a lot has changed as well.
The Giants are riding a tremendous wave of momentum heading into this game. They are coming off an impressive victory against the Green Bay Packers by a score of 37-20 last week, a game which arguably wasn’t even as close as the final score indicated. Meanwhile, the 49ers proved they can score with the big boys as they prevailed in a 36-32 thriller against the New Orleans Saints, a game which saw four lead changes over the final 4:02.
Manning threw for three touchdowns and 330 yards against Green Bay last week and was especially effective when throwing to his wide receivers. When targeting the trio of Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham, Manning completed an incredible 15-of-17 passes for 270 yards and those three scores.
While the passing game has been solid throughout the season, the league’s worst rushing attack has shown signs of life during the playoffs. Running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs have combined for 240 rushing yards and 4.9 yards per carry in victories over Atlanta and Green Bay this postseason. Bradshaw missed the Week 10 contest against the 49ers and will pose enough of a threat to keep the 49ers’ No. 1 run defense honest, which is critical due to Manning’s recent effectiveness with the play-action pass. Manning has averaged 15.6 yards per attempt on play-action passes this postseason.
San Francisco’s defense was outstanding for most of the game against New Orleans. With 6:50 remaining in last week’s game, the Saints lined up for a critical 3rd-and-9 on their own 22-yard line down 23-17. Up to that point, the high-flying New Orleans offense had scored only 17 points and committed five turnovers. The 49ers had held New Orleans to 302 total yards including 36 on the ground.
The Saints were 3-of-12 on third-down conversions, and Drew Brees had averaged just 5.6 yards per pass attempt. Then the wheels fell off defensively, as Brees completed nine of his final 11 passes for 169 yards and nearly ended the 49ers' season on two occasions with late touchdown passes. San Francisco will need to play well for 60 minutes on defense in order to earn their first Super Bowl berth in 17 years.
In the previous matchup against New York, standout linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis led the charge, combining for 26 tackles and a sack as San Francisco held New York to just 3.2 yards per carry on the ground. CB Carlos Rogers intercepted two Manning passes in their prior meeting and figures to see a lot of Cruz in coverage this coming Sunday, as Rogers often covers the slot against three-receiver formations.
This could leave Nicks matched up against Tarell Brown. This matchup may very well determine who wins this game. Nicks has been a flat-out beast this postseason, catching 13 passes for 280 yards and four TDs in two games. But Brown should be playing with a lot of confidence as he has racked up five interceptions in his last five games, including one last week.
Just as the 49ers’ prospects for victory seemed to be fading away at the end of last week’s game, the offense picked up the slack in dramatic fashion. Quarterback Alex Smith led the Niners on two scoring drives over the final four minutes. Much like Brees, Smith had been rather pedestrian leading up to his late-game heroics. Prior to the final two drives, Smith was just 17-of-32 for 164 yards, as San Francisco relied on their running game for much of the contest.
But the much-maligned Smith came through in the clutch, going 7-of-10 for 135 yards on the last two drives, including the game-winning touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with just 14 seconds left on the clock. Smith also added a 28-yard touchdown run with 2:11 remaining which gave the 49ers a momentary lead.
Running back Frank Gore paced the offense with 127 total yards against the Saints and the 49ers will look to feed Gore early and often against the Giants. In the Week 10 game against New York, Gore was held to zero yards on six carries before hyperextending his knee late in the first half.
Vernon Davis was a one-man wrecking crew against New Orleans, racking up 180 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He scored a TD against the Giants earlier in the season and New York has shown a propensity for giving up big plays to tight ends, so look for Davis to be featured prominently in the passing game.
New York’s defense has been on an amazing roll as of late. Including the regular season, they have held their last five opponents to an average of just 12 points per game and have been even better so far in the playoffs. First they pitched a virtual shutout against Atlanta in a 24-2 victory. Then last week they went into Lambeau Field and held Green Bay to just 20 points, quite the feat when you realize that during the regular season the Packers totaled the second-most points in NFL history, averaging 35 points per contest.
In last week’s divisional matchup, the Giants forced four Packers turnovers, registered four sacks and hit All-Pro QB Aaron Rodgers on five other occasions. They held Rodgers to season lows in both yards per attempt (5.74) and QB rating (78.5) while becoming the first team to force Rodgers into more than one turnover this season. The longest passing play the vaunted Packers attack was able to muster was a 21-yard reception by Randall Cobb once the game was well in hand.
The biggest advantage the Giants have is their ability to create pressure on the quarterback with just four rushers. New York used four or fewer rushers on over 80 percent of Rodgers’ passes last week, which enabled them more manpower to defend Green Bay’s wide receivers. If they can generate a consistent pass rush on Smith, San Francisco may struggle to put points on the board. I would look for San Francisco to attempt some screen passes to try to take advantage of New York’s aggressive front four.
This might not be the sexy matchup many people thought they’d see, but both teams are certainly worthy of being in this spot. The Giants defense is on such a roll right now that I just can’t see them giving up a ton of points. While Smith has come a long way this season and certainly proved he can at times go toe-to-toe with an upper-echelon quarterback, I’m not sure how he will respond to the pressure of the moment. If he struggles early, he could be in for a long day.
I certainly don’t see New York’s offense running roughshod over San Francisco’s defense, but I believe Eli Manning and Company will do just enough to win this game, setting up a rematch of Super Bowl XLII with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Prediction: New York 24, San Francisco 20