San Francisco sits as the four-point favorite, according to Odds Shark, and head coach Jim Harbaugh will take his 5-4 team to face a New York squad that has lost four games in a row.
The 49ers might have saved their season, having defeated the Saints a week before. Yet considering the competition within their division, and the NFC in general, San Francisco can scantly afford to lose any momentum.
This momentum was bolstered by an early 14-0 lead over the Saints. It was further fueled by the dramatic overtime win against New Orleans, who hadn't lost a home game since December 2012.
Can the 49ers continue this trend in Week 11?
While the Giants are quickly losing any hope for a postseason berth in 2014, they do have good recent history against the 49ers. One needs to look no further than the 2012 season in which New York bested San Francisco twice—once on October 14 by defeating the 49ers 26-3 and then the painful 20-17 playoff loss on January 22 the season prior.
Of course, those are two different teams, and the context is vastly different.
Let's break down this critical Week 11 contest and see what the 49ers will need to do in order to maintain the current rhythm San Francisco will need in the second half.
Overcoming Defensive Adversity
San Francisco will now be without perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis (toe) for the remainder of the season.
This loss hurts the 49ers in a big way. It's hard to fathom that the team will not enjoy the tandem of Willis and NaVorro Bowman at all in 2014. Instead, the middle linebacking duties will once again fall upon Michael Wilhoite and rookie Chris Borland.
Borland has made a name for himself in recent weeks. He currently ranks second on the team with 38 tackles and led all 49ers with 17 tackles a week ago. Putting faith in the rookie will be much needed considering the significant loss of Willis.
While Willis' loss hurts, the 49ers do have some excellent news that partially offsets the veteran's loss. Pass-rushing outside linebacker Aldon Smith is set to return from his nine-game suspension, which will help bolster a 49ers defense that has mustered just 15 sacks on the year.
Smith stated, via Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, that he is in the best shape of his life.
“My body feels good, and I’m ready to go,” he said.
Barrows also reported that Smith has been working on some new pass-rushing moves and is eager to try them out against quarterback Eli Manning and the Giants' front five.
It is difficult to speculate just how much defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will use Smith in his first game back. He has been unable to practice with the team during the suspension and will likely need a little time to get back into the full-throttle swing of things.
But one can only fathom the pass-rushing prowess San Francisco will be able to employ with Smith's return. Envisioning combinations of Smith and rookie linebacker Aaron Lynch should be enough to put fear into the minds of opponents' quarterbacks.
The Giants have already allowed 20 sacks on the season.
But the pass rush will not be the only vital element to San Francisco's defensive game plan.
The 49ers' secondary has also endured a number of setbacks this season. Chief among these was the elongated absence of cornerback Tramaine Brock (toe). Brock has since returned from his Week 1 injury, but the 49ers defensive backfield has been tested this season.
Fortunately, they have answered.
Led by standout defenders Antoine Bethea and Perrish Cox, San Francisco's secondary has given up a mere 1,937 passing yards on the season. That's good for the fifth-lowest total in the NFL. Bethea and Cox have a combined seven interceptions on the year.
Bethea has been proud of San Francisco's defense, as shown in this video, which is special considering the multitude of setbacks this unit has endured over its first nine games.
But another important aspect to the 49ers' defensive approach will be how they limit New York's ground game. The Giants rank No. 19 in total rushing yards (938) and are averaging just 3.8 yards per attempt—ninth lowest in the NFL.
|Giants' 2014 Rushing Leaders|
While running back Andre Williams leads New York in carries (114), the 22-year-old back is averaging just 2.9 yards per attempt.
Fellow back Rashad Jennings (knee) is questionable for Sunday's contest. He was able to practice this week, per Larry Hartstein of CBS Sports, after missing the last four games.
San Francisco's run defense—No. 5 in the league in fewest yards against (821)—should have little trouble bottling up an underwhelming New York running game. This will feed right into a reinforced 49ers pass rush, setting up all sorts of defensive possibilities.
Maintaining Offensive Identity
The 49ers turned back to their strengths in Week 10. San Francisco's offense, under the direction of offensive coordinator Greg Roman, did not shy away from using running backs Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde—a tandem that combined for 117 yards and two of the three 49ers touchdowns.
This approach played right into the strengths of San Francisco's offensive line—a unit that has largely been more effective in run blocking than in pass protection.
The O-line woes were a major question heading into last week, which followed an embarrassing eight-sack performance against the St. Louis Rams a week prior.
But a more balanced approach on offense fed right into what the 49ers do best.
"This is what we said we’re always going to do and we did it," said left guard Alex Boone via Taylor Price of 49ers.com. "[Roman] stuck to the game plan, and everybody up front mounted up. We knew it was going to be on us this week; and we came in here and ground-and-pounded and we did a helluva job doing it."
So how can the 49ers offense carry over this same approach to Week 11?
It should be noted that the Giants rank dead last in the league in yards allowed on the ground (1,302). They have also given up 13 rushing touchdowns—tied with the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons for most in the NFL.
|Giants' 2014 Run Defense|
|Week 1||@ Detroit Lions||76||2|
|Week 2||vs. Arizona Cardinals||124||1|
|Week 3||vs. Houston Texans||119||1|
|Week 4||@ Washington Redskins||86||1|
|Week 5||vs. Atlanta Falcons||90||1|
|Week 6||@ Philadelphia Eagles||203||1|
|Week 7||@ Dallas Cowboys||156||1|
|Week 9||vs. Indianapolis Colts||98||0|
|Week 10||@ Seattle Seahawks||350||5|
The average of 144.7 allowed yards per game on the ground should also play right into the 49ers' ability to run the ball.
Look for Gore and Hyde to be featured parts of San Francisco's offense. New York cannot stop the run, and a run-based offense is what the 49ers do best.
If the running game can be established, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the passing game should also be able to chip in to a good extent. The Giants have allowed 2,342 passing yards against—13th-most in the NFL—and are allowing 9.0 yards per passing attempt at MetLife Stadium compared to 6.8 on the road.
While pass protection has been an issue for the 49ers over the course of the season—31 allowed sacks never looks good—San Francisco can take some comfort in knowing that New York has also struggled in generating a pass rush. The Giants' 16 sacks are just one above the 49ers' 15. And New York isn't getting a player like Smith back in its ranks.
Perhaps the biggest pass-rushing threat will come from Giants defensive end Robert Ayers, who leads the team with 4.0 sacks on the year.
San Francisco's O-line will have to contend with Ayers and New York's pass-rushers. But the burden also falls upon Kaepernick, who needs to do a better job recognizing from where pressure will come and to be able to find his hot-route receiver in the face of a blitz.
If he can do this—combined with a strong effort from the O-line—sacks could be kept at a minimum, which would allow a balanced offense to thrive.
Have a Breakout Game
A 5-4 record reveals an accurate portrayal of the 49ers' season.
Barely above the .500 mark, San Francisco has been able to squeak by in almost every one of its victories. The 49ers have yet to have a "statement" game.
Take a look at the scoring results, courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference:
Much of this can be attributed to a weathering-the-storm theory. San Francisco had to overcome plenty of adversity and challenges during the first half. Opening up the second half with a gut-checking overtime victory in New Orleans did not necessarily provide the opportunity.
But New York does.
The 49ers are presented with an excellent chance to dominate an opponent in every aspect of the game. On paper, San Francisco is clearly stronger than New York—offense, defense and special teams.
We all know games are not won on paper. But this does lead us to believe that the 49ers are in a position to break out against a lowly Giants opponent.
San Francisco can put up some crooked pass-rushing numbers provided the combination of Lynch and Smith work out well. A stout run defense can limit any Giants' rushing efforts.
Big gains on the ground should help set up a balanced 49ers offense on the opposite side, allowing for timely uses of play action and read-option calls.
Most importantly, San Francisco has to play as if its back were up against the wall. Trailing the 8-1 Arizona Cardinals and 6-3 Seattle Seahawks within the NFC West, the 49ers need to treat this—and perhaps each remaining contest—as a must-win game.
Playoff stakes could very well hang on it.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers' news, insight and analysis.
Follow him @PeterPanacy on Twitter.