Amped-Up Harbaugh, 49ers Must Brace Themselves for a Giant Ambush

Michael ErlerCorrespondent IOctober 13, 2012

This is what I expect Harbaugh to look like watching the film on Monday but not for the reasons you'd expect.
This is what I expect Harbaugh to look like watching the film on Monday but not for the reasons you'd expect.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

There are three things to remember going into Sunday's 49ers tilt, where they'll face the New York Giants in a much-anticipated rematch of last season's NFC championship game: 1) October only means something in baseball, not football; 2) Giants coach Tom Coughlin, a student of history, is no dummy; and 3) Sometimes, you have to lose the battle to win the war.

You don't want to relive the game which ended last year's Cinderella run by the 49ers. I get that. But come on, there were so many ways they should've, could've won and so many breaks that went against them.

Really, all the interesting aspects of the game came after the score was already 14-10 in favor of the Niners, late in the third quarter. 

After both offenses were stymied on their ensuing series, the Giants got the ball back with 1:55 to go in the third quarter. On 3rd-and-5 from their own 32-yard line, Eli Manning, under duress, tries to squeeze a short post to Hakeem Nicks. Nicks cuts out his route prematurely, probably because, in his peripheral vision, he can sense 49ers safety Dashon Goldson making a beeline for him. 

As a result, corner Tarell Brown, who had played the route perfectly, had his hands on a potential interception that would've set up the Niners' 1st-and-10 at midfield. Unfortunately for Brown, Goldson clobbers him, not Nicks, and not only does the defense lose the interception, but more importantly, they lose Brown for the rest of the game to a concussion.

On San Francisco's ensuing possession, the Niners actually move to midfield, thanks primarily to an unnecessary roughness penalty on the Giants. They've got 3rd-and-1 on New York's 46, a great chance to convert a third down for the first time all game and get into scoring range for David Akers. All they need is one measly yard behind their mammoth offensive line.

Anthony Dixon got stuffed, and they punted once more. Gotta wonder why they ran behind Adam Snyder, their least physically imposing linemen, instead of Mike Iupati and Joe Staley on the left side. 

The defense forces a three-and-out, and the Giants punt. It appears to the naked eye that the Niners will take over at their own 36 with about 11 minutes to go. At worst, the offense will waste a couple minutes off the clock and boot it back to New York, forcing Manning and Co. to go 80 yards or so to win the game with about eight minutes left.

Except, Coughlin challenges the play, and it turned out that the oblong-shaped ball just nicked off Kyle Williams' leg. The Giants get a gift turnover out of nowhere. All of a sudden their offense needs a measly 29 yards instead of 80 to cash in. 

And of course they do, twisting the knife in the worst way, with Manning finding Manningham (that name sounds familiar for some reason) on 3rd-and-15 open against fourth corner Tramaine Brock.

Brock, as you might have guessed, was only in the game at that point because Brown was out.
The deep safety on the play was Reggie Smith, who was late to get over. In a related story, Smith is currently not in the league, having been cut in training camp by the Carolina Panthers.

Williams redeems himself somewhat by returning the ensuing kick 40 yards to the 45, and back-to-back runs by Alex Smith and Kendall Hunter chew up another 35 yards of turf. The 49ers have 1st-and-10 at New York's 15, and the Giants defense looks worn down and vulnerable to the run.

Smith passes to Frank Gore on first down for five. Remarkably, two more pass plays get called. Michael Crabtree's only reception of the game, for three yards, is not enough to move the chains, and Akers ties it up at 17.

Two more three-and-outs, and it's Giants ball at their own 26 with 3:04 to go.

Manning gets sacked for an 11-yard loss by his fellow Ole Miss alum, Patrick Willis, on first down. He dumps off a pass to Ahmad Bradshaw on the second play, and he gets quickly enveloped by Brock, NaVorro Bowman and others after a short gain.

The ball hits the turf, and Goldson falls on it.

The refs immediately rule that forward progress had been stopped, and it's a play that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh can't challenge under league rules.

I admit, at the time, I thought it was a good call, and I still do. I was on the sideline, and the play was literally five yards in front of me. On television, the fumble occurs maybe an instant after you hear the whistle. In real life, I distinctly remember Bradshaw's progress being stopped a good half-second before he lost the ball.

Still, the 49ers were close—so agonizingly close. That could've been the game, right there, without the offense having to do anything.

Even in overtime, on a 1st-and-10 play just 20 seconds in, the Niners had another glorious chance to intercept Manning.  This time, it was Carlos Rogers, who was burned by Victor Cruz the whole first half, who had the opportunity.

Manning tried a bomb to Cruz, but Rogers played it beautifully, got inside of Cruz and had the ball in his mitts on what would've been San Francisco's 33-yard line. Except, Goldson, again, interjected his helmet into the play, into Rogers' ribs specifically, and dislodged the ball. 

The final sequence, in which Williams fumbles another punt and sets up the Giants to win the game with a short field goal, is, to me, almost anti-climatic. By then, all the momentum was firmly on the Giants' side, and the result had a feeling of inevitability. 

The 49ers offense was doing nothing, completely unable to move the ball with a hobbled Crabtree on one side, the smurfish Williams on the other and a double-covered Vernon Davis up the middle. 

New York's pass rush was too strong, too charged up and they kept coming after Smith in waves. 

San Francisco's defense played heroically in the game for their part, magnificently in fact, but they were only going to be able to plug the dike for so long against Manning and his receivers. Most of New York's drives were stalling around midfield. Eventually, there would've been a blown coverage, a broken tackle, a pass-interference call, something. 

The 49ers had plenty of chances to put the game away, and they just couldn't do it. Either forces beyond our understand conspired against them, or Williams just picked a bad day to have a bad day. 

Either way, the Giants weren't the better team that day, just the luckier, more resilient one. 
Fast-forward to Oct. 14, 2012.

Alex Smith, Jim Harbaugh and the rest of the 49ers are at the peak of their powers. They signed Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs away from the Giants. The former has already contributed quite a bit while the latter is chomping at the bit to do so, against his former team.

The Niners offensive line is leaps and bounds better than last year's edition, thanks primarily to the upgrade of Alex Boone at right guard but also the continued development of Iupati and Anthony Davis, who both look like Pro Bowlers.

The running game is a tour-de-force, first in the league at 196.2 yards a game, including back-to-back efforts of 247 and 311 yards against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills

Smith is the highest-rated passer in the league, having improved his completion percentage considerably while continuing last year's habit of throwing approximately one interception per month. He's also connecting on a regular basis with wide receivers now, which is different and scary. 

The defense isn't forcing turnovers by the half dozen in games or producing a bunch of sacks, but they're still keeping the bad guys out of the end zone and have allowed a whopping three points the past two games. 

In short, the 49ers look like a juggernaut. 

The Giants, by contrast, look like they usually look this time of year. Just above water at 3-2, with a beat-up secondary, injuries at receiver (Nicks is questionable to play) and Manning almost single-handedly carrying them.

Coughlin has talked a good game during the week, playing up the underdog "nobody believes in us" angle and playing the role of a grouch looking to rally the troops.

I don't buy it.

If Coughlin is half the coach I think he is, I think he punted this game the second after the final gun sounded on last week's 41-27 Giants win over Cleveland.

Coughlin, the war buff and historian, probably remembers how his Giants reacted the last time they won a Super Bowl, capping off the 2007 season.

They had the league's best record in 2008, looking unbeatable at times, had a first-round bye in the playoffs and promptly laid an egg at home in the divisional round to the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Eagles, losing 23-11. 

Harbaugh speaks often of being a man who does not handle prosperity well, but the Giants, as a team, exemplify that trait. What good will it do them to play their guts out on Sunday, leave a gallon blood and a pile of limbs on the field to upset the 49ers on the road, only to lose to Washington the next week? 

No, Coughlin is too smart for this. 

He watched the 49ers tape. He's seen how dominant they are at the moment, completely healthy on both sides of the ball and how the offense totaled an absurd 621 yards against the Bills last week.

Coughlin sees Harbaugh practically frothing at the mouth, rabid in anticipation, aching for this rematch. He knows the whole 49ers team has circled this game on the calender for months, that the game can't possibly mean as much to his guys as it does to the players.

Here's one man's guess as to how this game plays out.

The 49ers unleash their most aggressive, ambitious, creative game plan yet, filled with fly sweeps and wildcats and Smith naked bootlegs and maybe even a deep toss or two to Randy Moss

I see Manningham involved, and also, in a surprise twist, Jacobs, with Ted Ginn benched to open up a spot on the active roster.

I see Williams taking over the returning duties full-time, kickoffs and punts—the latter specifically as Harbaugh's rebuke to the Giants that he's not afraid to tempt fate—and that Williams, his guy, is not afraid, period.

I see a charged-up 49ers defense hitting everything in sight, with Rogers sticking to Cruz like flypaper and Justin Smith slamming into Manning a time or three. 

Most of all, I see Coughlin responding to Harbaugh's show-everything game plan with a vanilla playbook straight out of the preseason. He'll growl on the sidelines, swear the green turf blue and look for all the world like a man ready to make his team walk home to New Jersey, but it will all be for show. 

It won't be until late Sunday night, or perhaps Monday morning, after Harbaugh puts on the film, when he'll realize that he's been snookered. There won't be one useful iota of Giants tape for him to salvage from Sunday's blowout. 

He'll smirk to himself, knowing that should another playoff meeting come to pass next January, that Coughlin will have seen the full arsenal of San Francisco's weapons and tricks, while he's seen hardly any of New York's. 

Coughlin's no dummy. He knows the pathetic Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys won't be running away from the Giants. For all his rage and bluster, Sunday will be a glorified scrimmage, an opportunity to play some young guys, see how they do and get some first-hand scouting of the most dangerous opponent in the conference. 

The San Francisco Giants might win it all in October.

The New York Giants won't. 

Week 6 Power Poll

1. San Francisco (4-1): A controversial choice for No. 1, perhaps, but they’re fully healthy, have outscored their past two foes 79-3 and coming off a game in which they had 621 yards of offense. On the other hand, how good can Alex Smith be if the team had more rushing yards than passing yards last week you guys?

2. Houston (5-0): Brian Cushing’s ACL tear is an unfortunate injury, but as harsh as it sounds to say, inside linebacker is probably the easiest position to replace on a defense, and a guy like Barrett Ruud should give them 85 percent of Cushing’s production. Losing a corner or a guy like J.J. Watt would’ve been a crusher. More of a concern for the Texans is how out of it Andre Johnson looks these days.

3. Atlanta (5-0): Another close win for the Falcons, taking advantage of a Washington team that missed RG3 for the final third of the game. The offense looks incredible, there’s no debating that, but I still have my reservations about that defense, with its mediocre pass rush, inability to stop the run and no Brent Grimes at corner.

4. Baltimore (4-1): The Ravens have a maddening habit of playing down to their competition, particularly on the road, and they let the Chiefs hang with them all game last week with a game plan right out of 1960. Thankfully for them, they play the Cowboys at home on Sunday, and everyone wants to pound the Cowboys.

5. New England (3-2): The Patriots ran a play approximately every eight seconds against the Broncos last week, thoroughly had Denver’s guys flummoxed defensively and still needed a couple of miscues from Willis McGahee to win it. Their defense is improved from last season’s abomination but not by much.

 6. Chicago (4-1): A well-deserved “bye” for the Bears this week after they obliterated Jacksonville. OK, so maybe not that well-deserved. Still, it’ll give them a chance to get Matt Forte healthy and figure out what to do at receiver without Alshon Jeffery.

 7. New York Giants (3-2): Still dealing with injuries at receiver and in the secondary, but the same dictum we used for the Patriots applies to the Giants. If they can run the ball now, too, their offense is almost unfair. That being said, I think they go down and go down hard against the Niners.

8. Minnesota (4-1): They’ve won two straight blah games from Christian Ponder, the last one handily over the Titans. As the 49ers showed last year, a defense and a sound running game will take you a long way. Big game at Washington, the scene of Adrian Peterson’s gruesome knee injury last year.

 9. San Diego (3-2): I won’t ding them this week. They had the Saints on the ropes on the road, and the Superdome is a tough place to win, even if New Orleans was 0-4 at the time. Left tackle Jared Gaither’s injury is a concern, as is the fact that their entire coaching staff on the sidelines seemed to miss it.

 10.  Philadelphia (3-2): Mike Vick fumbles aside, they played quite well at Pittsburgh and outplayed the Steelers for the majority of the game. The defense just couldn’t make one big play in the end. One of these days, they’ll put a complete ballgame together, and their history against the Lions at home is quite good.

 11.  Seattle (3-2): This week’s big riser, the Seahawks are another club that can go a long way just keeping it simple. Watching their game against Carolina, I was struck by how strong Russell Wilson’s arm is for a little guy. The ball just explodes out of his hand. Once he figures out how to read a defense, watch out.

12.  Denver (2-3): Peyton Manning’s arm is still below-average, but it’s got more life than it did in the season opener against Pittsburgh, so that’s a good sign. The Broncos schedule has been absolute murder this year and will eventually get easier. Speaking of murder, McGahee’s mistakes killed them against the Pats.

13.  Green Bay (2-3): Greg Jennings is hurt, their left tackle is terrible, they need to find a running back desperately to balance out the offense, and now, B.J. Raji is out. What else can go wrong for the Packers? Oh, right, they’re at Houston Sunday night.

14.  Miami (2-3): The AFC’s answer to Seattle, the Dolphins had a huge win at Cincinnati last week. Wouldn’t have thought it before the season, but St. Louis-Miami is one of the more compelling matchups of Week 6. The winner has a solid shot to make the playoffs.

15.  Cincinnati (3-2): A solid club but not abundantly talented on either side of the ball. I wonder if Bernard Scott’s ACL will tempt them to throw it more because BenJarvus Green-Ellis is not getting it done. They were fortunate to beat the Brownies at home a few weeks ago.

16.  St. Louis (3-2): The loss of Danny Amendola hurts, and now, we’ll see what Sam Bradford and his receiving corps are made of. The numbers against Arizona last week were positively ghastly (in a win, no less), but they’ve had a week-and-change to work on it.

17.  Arizona (4-1): I suppose this is as good a spot to put our final 4-1 team as any. Can you tell I’m a mite concerned about the state of their offensive line? They’ve allowed 17 sacks the past two games, and their top two runners are hurt. Lose to the moribund Bills at home and the ship be sinkin.’

18.  Dallas (2-2): Tony Romo’s had two full weeks to sit on that five interception stink-bomb against Chicago. There’s been controversy over whether he did or didn’t hang up on the Ravens beat writers during a conference call. Now, he gets to visit a Baltimore team that’s a bit grouchy after their own crummy performance against Kansas City. Should be a fun one.

19.  Pittsburgh (2-3): The secondary is in shambles, Troy Polamalu is hurt, the offensive line is so-so and all their running backs seem better as receivers than runners. They’ve got half a bye to sort themselves out before a big Sunday-nighter at Cincinnati. Also, Ike Taylor is kind of terrible.

20.  Indianapolis (2-2): Stirring win aside, don’t kid yourself, they still have problems galore up and down the roster. Heck, even Donald Brown will be out for a few weeks. Still, all it would take would be a win against the lowly Jets to get above .500.

21.  Washington (2-3): Break after break seems to go against this outfit, as they were very much in the game against the Falcons before RG3 suffered a concussion. Maybe they’d have better karma if they changed their nicknames? C’mon guys, it’s 2012.

22.  Tennessee (2-4): Kept their season temporarily alive against the Steelers on Thursday and Chris Johnson even looked like he had some juice in his legs with a couple of nice cutback runs. More importantly, however, was the revival of Kenny Britt. Some real talent on this offense if they could stay healthy and block up front.

23.  Detroit (1-3): Maybe Jahvid Bell plays on Sunday, maybe he doesn’t, but Lions’ problems on offense have more to do with Matthew Stafford and his receivers and the play-calling in general. The Eagles’ speed on the perimeter seems like a bad match-up for that secondary.

24.  New Orleans (1-4): They can’t run the ball or play a lick of defense, but would you really bet your life on your team beating them? If nothing else, all their games are interesting and come down right to the end. It’s fair to say they’ve been unlucky, and that eventually the breaks will come back their way.

25.  New York Jets (2-3): Even without any discernible offense or Darrelle Revis, they still hung with Houston last Monday, and it’s remarkable how well they cover as a team, even without a pass rush. Look for them to frustrate Andrew Luck to no end on Sunday. Also, I kind of want to see Tim Tebow play because it would just be more interesting, for better or for worse.

26.  Tampa Bay (1-3): Smarting off a couple of tough-luck losses to the NFC East, the Bucs are recuperated after a bye week, and if they’re worth a damn at all, they’d better beat the Chiefs at home.

27.  Carolina (1-4): Their defense wasn’t half bad against Seattle, but they were done in by a lousy game from Cam Newton, whose passing mechanics continue to be an eyesore. At this point, it’s becoming tougher and tougher to defend their coaching staff, as their game plans continue to be awry. Losing center Ryan Kalil won’t help matters.

28.  Buffalo (2-3): Should be quite the battle at Arizona between the resistible force (the Bills pass rush) vs. the movable objects (the Cardinals offensive line). I don’t know what’s more damning for the Bills, that they gave up 97 points combined to New England and the Niners, or 48 in Week 1 to the Jets.

29.  Kansas City (1-4): Call me crazy, but I like them on the road at Tampa Bay. Brady Quinn can’t be any worse than Matt Cassel has been. He simply can’t be.

30.  Oakland (1-3): Crazy conspiracy theory: Maybe the refs are calling fewer penalties on the Raiders this year because Al Davis has passed on? It’s not like it’s helping them win games.

31.  Cleveland (0-5): Not only do I believe the defeated Browns would beat my No. 32 team, but they’d do it handily. Heck, they might beat the Bengals on Sunday.

32.  Jacksonville (1-4): Good lord. Just move to London already and be done with it. And see if you can sign Rory Delap to play quarterback. 

Week 6 Picks: 

Philadelphia 30 (-4), Detroit 20

Indianapolis 19 (+3), New York Jets 16

Atlanta 41 (-11), Oakland 17

Cleveland 27 (+2), Cincinnati 23

Miami 20 (-5), St. Louis 13

Kansas City 20 (+5), Tampa Bay 17

Baltimore 27 (-4), Dallas 20

Arizona 23 (-4), Buffalo 16

Seattle 26 (+4), New England 24

Washington 20 (-2), Minnesota 17

San Francisco 30 (-7), New York Giants 16

Houston 27 (-4), Green Bay 20

San Diego 30 (+1), Denver 24

Week 6 W-L: 1-0 (1-0 vs. Spread)

2012 W-L: 51-27 (11-3 Last Week)

2012 Vs. Spread:  40-35-3 (7-7 Last Week)


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