It was one of the best games of the 2011 NFL season, and another chapter in the storied battles between two storied franchises. In the end, the San Francisco 49ers did enough to hold off the New York Giants, 27-20, a game that featured plenty of great plays on both sides of the ball.
The Giants head east with a 6-3 record and still in the lead of the NFC East. The 49ers at 8-1 are locked in on the NFC West title. More importantly, it was a crucial win in terms of playoff seedings, as it was a conference win and a victory over another potential playoff contender. Head-to-head matchups are the first tiebreaker.
Looking back, we see several factors that can be added into this ethereal mix that accounts for San Francisco’s success so far. They have exceeded preseason expectations by a huge margin; but even more so they continue to surprise.
In September, when they were 2-1, everyone said, “We’ll see.” At 4-1, it was we’ll see. At 6-1, “we’ll see.” Now at 8-1, can we say they are for real? Here are five things we learned from San Francisco's 27-20 win.
Eli Manning proved his capabilities; yes, he’s an elite quarterback. His TD throw to Mario Manningham in the third quarter and the pass to Hakeem Nicks in the middle of the fourth quarter were pure brilliance.
The thing is, on the first, Chris Culliver of the 49ers wasn’t in perfect position but he was close enough to require a perfect throw to beat him. Welcome to the NFL, rook. Manning’s touch was perfect. And the same for the throw to Nicks in the fourth quarter was spot-on, with Tarell Brown in on the coverage. In both cases, Manning made All-Pro throws to get the scores.
In the end, though, Manning threw for 311 yards. Two interceptions cost him. The last in part wasn’t his fault, due to Mario Manningham stopping his route. Manning finished 26-of-40 with two picks. Statistically, it wasn’t his best day. Guts-wise, he did much to prove he’s playing at a level equal to Rogers and Brady and Brees.
That the 49ers came out on top resulted from the fact that Manning had to make so many plays down the stretch. The final 4th-and-2 throw that was knocked down by Justin Smith ultimately proved to stop the Giants. Manning had to be perfect on so many tough spots, and it’s hard to maintain that level on every play.
There will be plenty of examination. Talk-show “experts” and football show “analysts” will comb over the remains of this game and point out the key plays. There were about 30 key plays.
But one that may be overlooked is the fact that the Giants, down by seven points with a little more than five minutes left in the game, forced the 49ers to punt from deep within their own territory. Andy Lee, the NFC’s best this year, uncorked a 57-yarder that, after a six-yard return, resulted in a 51-yard net change of field.
Then came the flag. New York’s Derrick Martin tackled (I believe) Delanie Walker as the 49er went down on coverage. That pushed the Giants back to their own 20, resulting in a 63-yard change in field position.
What did that do? It made Manning and the Giants make more plays under duress. To their credit, they did, but it was one play too many—Manning’s 4th-and-2 throw getting knocked down by Justin Smith being the end of their string.
That was a huge play. Martin's play that resulted in a penalty just increased their burden. It cost them.
Frank Gore’s ankle got worse, and then his knee got tweaked. So the league’s fourth-best runner was largely absent and finished with zero yards on six carries. This against a defense that was, statistically, rather soft against the run. How did the Niners move the ball?
Alex Smith stepped up and made good reads, good decisions and good throws. He finished 19-of-30 for 232 yards and one TD. Despite the memories of this game will be of Manning making clutch throw after clutch throw, statistically Smith outplayed the Giants QB. Smith’s rating for the game was 85.7 compared to 84.5 for Manning. Manning averaged 7.6 yards per attempt; Smith was at 7.8.
Smith suffered an interception but only because Ted Ginn Jr. turned his head and had the ball bounce off his facemask that led to an interception late in the first half. Moreover, Smith also ran the ball six times for 27 yards. One scramble late in the first half led to a score. More importantly, he didn’t force the ball. The Niners 2-to-1 advantage in turnovers proved critical.
Both coaches had issues. Tom Coughlin of the Giants was visibly upset when the Niners converted an onsides kick late in the first half. It turned out to lead to another field goal, but it showed that 49er coach Jim Harbaugh was willing to be aggressive and gamble. It worked.
At the same time, Harbaugh challenging the catch of Mario Manningham in the fourth quarter was ill-advised; it cost the team a timeout. But it also got his defense time to rest as the Giants moved down the field. Ultimately, the rhythm was gone for the Giants.
It cost the 49ers a timeout, but in the end it might have saved them a win.
On the other side of the field, Tom Coughlin not calling time out prior to the Giants’ final play on offense is worth questioning. Why not confer with Manning on the best play, with an option in case an audible is needed? Instead, tight end Jake Ballard got busted early by Patrick Willis, which in turn clogged the throwing lane.
Is that something to blame the coach? Perhaps not. But it might have been a position in which everyone is assured that the best play for the situation has been called.
The 49ers have won seven straight games and with an 8-1 record they have supplanted their place in the NFL playoffs. For people who have not seen much of this team this year, they might not believe the 49ers are capable of beating anyone, but it is a team that finds a way to win.
Despite the brilliance of Eli Manning, the 49ers beat the Giants, and it comes down to the fact that the Giants did move the ball—especially in the first half—but didn’t get TDs. Field goals were the difference.
From above, note that so many plays on both sides came under duress—Manning’s clutch second-half throws, Nicks’ TD catch, Manningham’s catches for the Giants, Patrick Willis’ speed and guile, the play of Kendall Hunter and Vernon Davis for the 49ers.
It wasn’t a perfect game for either side, but that’s the NFL. Few games go as planned; it’s the team that adjusts and finds a way. The Giants proved they are capable of beating any team in the NFC, and the 49ers proved they are capable of holding off one of the game’s best QBs.
Thanks to clutch play inside the 20, the Niners ended up with a key victory. It should last deep into the playoffs.