Giants vs. 49ers: 10 Key Niners in NFC Championship

Josh Toyofuku@jtoyofuku8Contributor IIIJanuary 20, 2012

Giants vs. 49ers: 10 Key Niners in NFC Championship

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    The San Francisco 49ers are fresh off their biggest win in over 10 years, a thrilling 36-32 victory over the New Orleans Saints.

    Now, the 49ers will take on the New York Giants—the team that took down Aaron Rodgers and the mighty Green Bay Packers—in the NFC Championship. The two teams met in Week 10 where the Niners took down the Giants 27-20. But the Giants look very different than they did back then, thanks to their improved run game and pass rush. Eli Manning is just as good as ever and the 49ers will certainly have their hands full.

    Let's take a look at the key Niners players to watch for on Sunday.

NaVorro Bowman, Inside Linebacker

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    NaVorro Bowman has been one of the best inside linebackers throughout the 2011 season. He led the 49ers with 143 tackles and also racked up two sacks, defended seven passes and recovered three fumbles.

    In the 49ers victory over the Saints, Bowman was very active and accounted for 11 tackles. For San Francisco to win and advance to the Super Bowl, Bowman needs to be just as active for the dominant 49ers defense.

Frank Gore, Running Back

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    Frank Gore had one of the best seasons of his career in 2011 by rushing for 1,211 yards and eight touchdowns. He was the leader of the league's eighth-best rushing offense and a key component of the 49ers' regular-season success. 

    Last weekend against the New Orleans Saints, Gore only rushed for 89 yards and didn't score once. In order for San Francisco to advance, Gore needs to play very well this Sunday against the New York Giants.

Justin Smith, Defensive Tackle

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    Justin Smith has been a jack of all trades for the 49ers in 2011—he was selected as a first-team All-Pro as a defensive tackle and a second-team All-Pro as a defensive end. He was able to do that by playing end in the Niners' 3-4 defense and tackle in the 4-2 defense.

    In his combination role, Smith racked up 58 tackles and 7.5 sacks in the regular season. Smith has come up with many big plays for San Francisco and will likely be a serious name up for 2011 Defensive Player of the Year award.

    After three tackles and one crucial sack against the Saints, Smith needs to play even better to try and shut down the Giants' Eli Manning.

Vernon Davis, Tight End

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    In 2011, Vernon Davis didn't play up to the standard he had set for himself in past seasons but he has turned up his play at just the right time.

    Davis has been one of Alex Smith's most reliable targets all season, catching 67 passes for 792 yards and six touchdowns. Last weekend, Davis made the biggest catch of his entire career when he caught a 14-yard touchdown pass over the middle with nine seconds left to put San Francisco on top for good.

    Davis finished his first playoff game with seven receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns. His performance was key because of the relatively quiet day had by wide receiver Michael Crabtree.

Patrick Willis, Inside Linebacker

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    Patrick Willis is the face of the San Francisco 49ers defense and he needs to show it on every single down.

    Last weekend against the New Orleans Saints, Willis had eight tackles which was the third most on the team that day. In the regular season, Willis had 97 tackles, four forced fumbles, two sacks, one interception.

    Willis needs to be active against the Giants offense to stop their ground game and turn New York into a one-dimensional offense.

Michael Crabtree, Wide Receiver

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    Michael Crabtree hasn't had the career that many envisioned he would have when he left Texas Tech for the NFL. In 2011, his best season, he racked up 874 receiving yards and scored four times.

    Against the Saints, Crabtree only had four receptions for 25 yards and a touchdown—not exactly production you want from your top receiver. Alex Smith needs more downfield targets than just Vernon Davis, so it's time for Crabtree to step up now that the games really matter.

Aldon Smith, Outside Linebacker

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    Aldon Smith has had an outstanding rookie season in which he has 37 tackles and 14 sacks while rotating between outside linebacker and defensive end.

    Smith needs to play well coming off of a good showing against the Saints where he finished with three tackles and a sack. Getting to Eli Manning early will be a very big key to beating the Giants, and disrupting the quarterback is Smith's specialty. 

David Akers, Kicker

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    David Akers was a great pickup made by 49ers last offseason after finishing 24th in field goals made in 2010.

    Akers led the league with 44 field goals made and had a conversion percentage of 84.6 percent. He also hit every single one of his extra-point attempts. Last week Akers was perfect, hitting three field goals and three extra points.

    Points are points, and in the playoffs, consistency matters so much more. Akers needs to be just as consistent this weekend to help San Francisco advance.

Alex Smith, Quarterback

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    In last week's 49ers victory over the New Orleans Saints, quarterback Alex Smith played the game of his career.

    Smith completed 57.1 percent of all of his passes for 299 yards. He averaged 7.12 yards on each pass attempt and threw three touchdown passes while compiling a passer rating of 103.2. Smith also rushed for a 28-yard touchdown.

    The former No. 1 pick has really blossomed ever since the arrival of head coach Jim Harbaugh before the 2011 season started. Now, Smith has to prove he can be the elite quarterback the Niners thought they were drafting in 2005.

    He can do so by leading them to the Super Bowl.

Jim Harbaugh, Head Coach

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    Jim Harbaugh changed the culture of the 49ers the second he was named head coach on January 7th, 2011. Even though the Niners were expected to be a bad team in 2011 and with a shortened training camp, he led the team to a 13-3 season and the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

    He already proved that he could turn around a team that finished 6-10 in 2012.

    He already proved that he could coach the 49ers to a playoff victory.

    But can he coach them to the Super Bowl? If anyone could do it in their first season as a head coach in the NFL, it sure seems like Harbaugh is the guy.

    I guess we'll just have to wait and find out.