NFC Championship: 6 Players Who Need to Improve from Divisional Round

Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IIJanuary 18, 2012

NFC Championship: 6 Players Who Need to Improve from Divisional Round

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    The time for back slapping and smiles has passed—we're mid-week, and all eyes gaze toward Sunday's NFC Championship showdown between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers.

    If either team is to advance, it will be because these players played better than they did last week.

    And if they do, I promise there is something even better on the horizon—a feeling more jubilant than the seeming perfection of last weekend's triumphs. 

Donte Whitner, S

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    You can't heap all the blame on Donte Whitner, but he did play an especially crucial role in San Francisco's defensive letdown at the end of the game.

    After starting the game with a strong—albeit, illegal—hit on Pierre Thomas to force a fumble inside the five yard-line, Whitner whiffed on two tackles that could have cost the 49ers their season.

    He let Darren Sproles scamper for a touchdown off a simple underneath pattern with four minutes left in the game and the team up six. Big no-no.

    He repeated the sin mere minutes later by going for the ball instead of securing the tackle on a deep pass to Jimmy Graham. Again with his team up more than field goal, Whitner's poor judgment allowed the Saints to take a late lead.

    Had Alex Smith and Vernon Davis not bailed him out twice, Whitner would have been the post-game goat.

    We've long known San Francisco's defensive weakness was against the pass, and in the crucial moments last Saturday, that bugaboo resurfaced.

    Eli Manning and the Giants present many of the same challenges the Saints did. There will be big-play attempts aplenty, and it'll be on Donte Whitner to stop them.

Justin Tuck, DE

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    The New York Giants defensive line made a couple of key plays, but they didn't provide the sort of nonstop pressure we've grown accustomed to seeing from this unit.

    Justin Tuck was particularly quiet. One week after registering two quarterback hits against the Falcons, Tuck finished with zero sacks, zero quarterback hits and just one tackle.

    If Tuck and company can get going early and harass 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, the Giants can force San Francisco to play conservative. They're a much less dangerous team when they don't trust Smith to drop back.

Michael Crabtree, WR

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    I'm not going gaga over Michael Crabtree's touchdown catch against the Saints.

    It was a four-yard slant that left Crabtree uncovered and unimpeded into the end zone. Nothing special.

    Take that touchdown away, and Crabtree's performance against the Saints was pedestrian. Three catches for about 20 yards and three dropped passes.

    New York will do their damnedest to eliminate Vernon Davis from the offense after his contributions last week. That leaves Crabtree with favorable matchups against a suspect Giants secondary.

    If he can take advantage of his opportunities, the San Francisco offense gets the balance it needs to thrive. If he can't keep a grip, the 49ers struggle to maintain drives.

Brandon Jacobs, RB

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    After a stellar start to the playoffs, Brandon Jacobs lost his footing in the Green Bay game.

    Aside from a 14-yard touch down run with the game already sealed, Jacobs managed just eight yards on eight carries.

    Hardly the production New York envisioned from their bull-rushing mega-back.

    But I think the San Francisco game sets up well for Jacobs. His size and running style draw comparisons to big backs like Marshawn Lynch and Stephen Jackson, both of whom had relative success against San Francisco over the season's final two weeks.

    Because the 49ers are so strong up front, they don't send numbers to stop the run. That means plenty of one-one, runner v. tackler showdowns in the middle of the field.

    Those are the types of battles Jacobs has the size to win, and if he can squeeze 20-to-30 extra yards out of this San Francisco defense, he gives the Giants a great chance to win.

49ers Offensive Line

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    There were bright spots for this group during last Saturday's victory, the brightest being Frank Gore's 42-yard run and Joe Staley's cut block at the end of Alex Smith's mad-dash to the end zone, but overall, their performance didn't sparkle.

    The 49ers failed to move the ball on the ground with any regularity on Saturday. As a result, they failed to register a single drive longer than eight plays.

    The quick-strikes were all well and good last week, but that hasn't been the offense's strength all year. Improvement along the offensive front goes a long way toward getting the 49ers back into their game plan.

Eli Manning, QB

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    This isn't a misprint.

    In order for the New York Giants to beat the San Francisco 49ers, they need Eli Manning to play better than he did last week.

    And yes, I'm talking about the Eli Manning who threw for 330 yards, three touchdowns and a 114.5 passer rating against the Green Bay Packers.

    And no, I'm not saying he needs to exceed those numbers. He does, however, need to at least put up comparable stats against a much better defense.

    What's more, he needs to do it against a defense whose only real weakness is its pass coverage. He's unlikely to get an assist from the ground game and should expect to drop back between 30 and 45 times over the course of the game.

    This game is on Eli's shoulders 100 percent, just as it was on Drew Brees' last week.

    As Manning goes, so goes the offense on Sunday.

    As the offense goes, so goes the team.