Back on New Year’s Day, everybody had it figured out.
Well, we got half of it right.
The prevailing wisdom was that the overachieving 49ers, after all those years of frustration, would be happy just to be in a playoff game. They’d mail it in and go home early, satisfied to come back next year and build on their success.
And the Giants? We’d written them off after a midseason, four-game losing streak. Tom Coughlin was on the hot seat once again; his prospects for continued employment as bleak as his team's future.
Then both teams won four in a row at season's end. The Niners broke the Saints nine-game win streak in a game for the ages. The Giants decimated any hopes the Packers had of back-to-back Super Bowls.
And here we are. The Giants are talking smack. The Niners following the script the San Francisco Giants used in their unlikely march to a MLB championship in 2010.
The Niners are installed as two-and-a-half point favorites, but let's face it. Either team has the firepower to walk away with a “W.”
Who has the edge? Who will win?
Let’s see how the teams match up in five key areas and see.
Jim Harbaugh, the odds-on favorite for Coach of the Year, is solidifying his credentials as the next Bill Walsh.
With the help of O Coordinator Greg Roman, he’s nearly as inventive as the "Genius." One need look no farther than last week’s surprising Alex Smith keeper for a 28-yard TD and the Smith-Davis “Catch III” game-winner for proof.
And he may be an even better motivator than Walsh.
But Tom Coughlin’s no slouch. He may be the oldest coach in the league at 65, but he wears his age well, and his 11-year tenure as Giants head coach boasts an upset Super Bowl win in 2008 against the “perfect-season” Patriots.
Known as Colonel Coughlin for his disciplinary streak, he toned down his act in 2007 and has further mellowed since. He has his team in his corner. He’s also a hands-on, detail-oriented coach who brings his team ready to play.
A 49er victory set the Giants on a four-game losing streak earlier in the season, but the underrated Coughlin rallied his troops into the playoffs. He’s got his team peaking at just the right time.
But so does Harbaugh. His creativity and passion, and the continuing reclamation job he’s done with Smith in both mind and body, give him the edge here.
Eli Manning has been spectacular in his last four games. He torched the Packer defense last Sunday for 330 yards and three TDs. He’s backed up his early-season boast that he belongs in the elite class of NFL QBs.
The more modest Alex Smith has had a quieter year. His claim to fame is the fact that he takes care of the ball in the Niners’ mistake-free offense. He threw a mere five interceptions during the regular season, a franchise record, despite being sacked a league-high 44 times.
That seems to put the O-line at question. They gave up four sacks to the blitz-happy Saints last week but held at crunch time. And the team continued to open up the offense with Smith scoring on a beautifully conceived and executed bootleg. He also threw for 299 yards and three scores.
Smith's got an improving Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis (seven catches, 180 yards, three TDs last week) to throw to. Unfortunately, they pale next to the Giants WR trio of Nicks, Cruz and Manningham. Meanwhile, WR Ted Ginn has a banged-up knee and TE Delanie Walker, an excellent blocker and big cog in the 49er offense, is coming off an injury.
As for running backs, Frank Gore is a Hall of Fame lock, but the Giants’ Ahmad Bradshaw/Brandon Jacobs tandem is often overlooked on a more pass-oriented team. Though you’d expect the Giants to run less against a 49er defense so good against the run, the two are talented (28-155 against the Falcons two weeks ago) and could be a surprise.
Truth to tell, Manning is not as much better than Smith as many think. Watching Smith’s development this year has been nothing short of amazing. On the other hand, Gore is not as far ahead of the Bradshaw/Jacobs duo as some think. But the Giants’ WR trio certainly spells a significant edge and Eli, with protection from the O line, could light it up again.
The 49ers season long struggle in the red zone could also come back to haunt them.
The Niners gave up only 77 yards a game on the ground during the season. They gave up only 14.3 points a game.
The Giants gave up 25 a game, but they held the high-flying Packers to 20 last week and the Falcons to a deuce in the Wild-Card game.
Both defenses can rush the QB. New York's All-Pro DE Jean Pierre-Paul is a monster. Tuck, Uminyeura and Kiwanuka will join him in the outside charge while Chris Canty crashes the middle. They could rattle Alex Smith if he returns to his old ways.
The 49ers have a pass rush of their own featuring All-Pro Justin Smith and rookie LB Aldon Smith (14 sacks). All-Pro LB NaVorro Bowman led the team in tackles and running mate Patrick Willis is the best there is when healthy. And, contrary to what some say, the team is solid across positions.
S Dashon Goldson and CB Carlos Rogers were selected to the Pro Bowl and collected six interceptions apiece during the regular season.
Both teams tackle well and make plays, but the 49ers led the league with a plus-28 turnover ratio. The Giants are good, but the 49ers have an embarrassment of riches.
Both K David Akers and P Andy Lee are All-Pros for San Fran.
Akers set an NFL record with 44 field goals. Lee averaged 50.9 yards per punt with a 44.0 net and specialized in getting the team out of trouble when the offense faltered.
Special team ace Blake Costanzo made the Pro Bowl as an alternate. Ted Ginn Jr. returned two kicks for TDs against Seattle. If he can’t play, Kyle Williams is a dependable replacement. Both hold on to the ball.
For the Giants, Lawrence Tynes is solid. He made 19-of-24 field goals in the regular season, including a stretch of 11-of-12. He also converted all 43 PATs, keeping his franchise record going. He made all three FG attempts last Sunday. And don't forget his “Third Tynes the Charm” 47-yard field goal in overtime that won the 2008 NFC Championship Game in Green Bay.
Steve “The Body” Weatherford averaged 45.7 and 39.2 yards per punt this year. That's respectable but not quite what the Giants were expecting after last year's stellar season when he put 42 punts inside the 20 for the Jets.
The return game has been a revolving door for the G-Men. It's been four years since they took one to the Big House. For now, they seem to have settled on kick returner Jerrel Jernigan and punt returner Will Blackmon but who knows?
If the conventional logic that playing at home is worth three points is true, the 49er crowd may be worth an extra point or two. They were electric last week.
When the Niners had the ball "The Faithful" complied with the “Quiet-Offense At Work” scoreboard advisory. When the Saints got the ball, they screamed their heads off for the defense on every play.
Expect more of the same this week. The Bay Area has gone "49er crazy." According to Stubhub, tickets are $309 minimum for a single end-zone seat and $1,298 for a field box. Those figures will inflate as game time nears.
Rain is also predicted during the week and on Sunday. If it becomes an issue and affects field conditions, mudder Frank Gore could become a big factor. So could the Giants wide receivers. They know the routes they're running. The DB's don't.
After all those lost years, the 49ers are motivated. They also just beat the hottest team in football.
The Giants are confident after stomping the Packers on the road. They've also got playoff experience. Fourteen players remain from the 2008 Super Bowl squad.
But it rains on both teams. And both are sky high and on a roll. All things considered, home cooking could make the difference here.
The 49ers went 4-1 in the preceding categories, and while the Giant offense has a strong advantage over their SF counterparts, they must face the 49ers' staunch defense playing at home.
It’s also unlikely that Smith and the offense will fall back on old ways with Harbaugh in their ear and a newfound resolve in their hearts. Expect the unexpected.
The Niners have shown a knack for the surprise play at just the right time this year to seize momentum.
That said, the Giants are on a roll. It should be a close game. But defense wins championships, and with the 49ers special team superiority and penchant for takeaways, the home team should win.