Mid-January. New York Giants vs. San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. Time to break out the parachute pants and the Huey Lewis records and party like it’s 1985. Yeah, the NFC Championship Game has gone retro. But although this matchup brings up a lot of old, cool memories, this year’s 49ers and Giants bring to the party plenty of their own 21st-century storylines.
With only two NFC teams left, we thought it’d be fun for the two division bloggers with teams left standing to break down the matchup for our NFC East (Dan Graziano) and NFC West (Mike Sando) communities. Sando has a hunch he knows whom the conventional wisdom is favoring.
Sando: You know the league is already printing Brady vs. Manning T-shirts.
Graziano: No way, man. No way the Pats keep winning playoff games with that defense. I don't know who will win our Giants-49ers game, but I feel pretty sure that whoever does will beat the Ravens in the Super Bowl.
Sando: I’ll agree with you on that Patriots defense, but I’m not sold on the Ravens, either. Perhaps that’s because I’ve seen them fall behind Arizona 24-6 and lose to Seattle. I’ve also seen a struggling Cardinals team lead the Giants by double digits in the fourth quarter. I’ve seen Charlie Whitehurst beat the Giants at MetLife Stadium, too. But, as the up-and-down Giants know, past performance doesn’t necessarily apply to the present.
Graziano: Ain’t that the truth. Just four weeks ago, this team was 7-7 and reeling from its second loss of the year to the Redskins. What’s happened since has been utterly amazing. The Giants have dominated the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons and Packers, basically ending all four teams’ seasons in the process.
Sando: The Packers? I remember them. Say, was that Evian water Eli Manning was sipping in the pocket at Lambeau? The treatment Green Bay's defense accorded him was truly first class. Loved the palm fronds. Seriously, though, I thought the game clock was going to expire on a couple of those Manning drop-backs. The 49ers' defense will make him work.
Graziano: There's no question Manning and the Giants will get a tougher test from the 49ers' defense. Even if you ignore the Packers' lack of a pass rush relative to what the Niners bring, how about the coverage and the tackling in the secondary? What the Giants see Sunday will be night and day compared with what they saw against a defense that ranked last in the league even while going 15-1.
Sando: Justin Smith and Aldon Smith play off each other so well. They combined for nine quarterback hits on Drew Brees. The 49ers were built on the philosophy that bigger, stronger athletes hold up better late in the season, when championships are won. They tackle with bad intentions. Pierre Thomas was the seventh running back they’ve knocked from a game this season. Six did not return.
Graziano: I think one of the more interesting aspects of this game for the Giants is that it's a totally different opponent from the ones they've been facing. They've had to beat Dallas, Atlanta and Green Bay the past few weeks -- all high-powered passing offenses with oodles of downfield weapons at wide receiver and tight end. As great as Alex Smith and Vernon Davis were against New Orleans, the 49ers just don't fit that same description.
Sando: The 49ers have followed their cross-bay rivals’ old mantra: Just win, baby. They’ve won so many different ways. They’ve got six fourth-quarter comeback victories. They’ve won 48-3. They’ve won 13-8. They’ve won 24-23 after trailing by 20. They held the Saints to 17 points through three-plus quarters, then somehow beat them in a shootout. The way everything fits together on offense, defense and special teams validates what left tackle Joe Staley said the other day. The 49ers are indeed a much more complete team than a lot of people realize. Their limitations have mostly hurt them on the road, where protecting the passer becomes a bit more challenging.
Graziano: The Giants' defense always feeds off its pass rush, and surely Smith will see much more pressure than he saw Saturday against the Saints. But I wonder whether the Giants need to dial back the aggressiveness a little bit to account for Frank Gore (who basically didn't play in the Week 10 game, collecting zero yards on six carries before leaving with an injury) and the more conservative 49ers' offense. They were so determined to prevent the big play in Green Bay on Sunday, and they managed to stay disciplined, keeping the safeties back and making sure to keep the play in front of them all day. The strategy will have to change against San Francisco, and I'm curious about the ways in which the Giants' defense might look and play different this week.
Sando: The Giants are so much healthier on defense this time around. They ran out of linebackers against the 49ers last time, and it killed them on Kendall Hunter's big TD run. They were also without Ahmad Bradshaw, although I don't think the Giants' ground game is all that relevant. Beating the 49ers requires striking through the air. The 49ers were 12-0 when allowing more than 2.6 yards per rush and 11-1 when allowing more than 55 yards rushing. They were even 3-1 when opponents had 25-plus carries. But the 49ers either lost or barely won when opponents averaged 7.0 yards per called pass play and/or completed 65 percent of their throws. Manning hit those marks almost exactly the last time.
Graziano: Well, as much as the Giants' run game has improved in the past six or seven weeks, they are still a passing team. Manning got more than 4,000 yards for the third year in a row and nearly got to 5,000. He has all of his wide receivers healthy. And, in their past four games, the Giants have had TD passes of 99, 74, 72, 27, 66 and 37 yards. The four big ones on that list were short passes that Victor Cruz or Hakeem Nicks caught, then took to the house thanks to some poor coverage and/or tackling by the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons and Packers. From what I saw from Carlos Rogers and the Niners on Saturday (sorry, can't resist a Rogers reference for my angry Redskins fans), the Giants should have a tougher time finding those kinds of opportunities this time around.
Sando: That is mostly true. The 49ers have given up big plays on occasion, though. We all saw it Saturday when Brees suddenly struck for 66- and 44-yard touchdowns. The 49ers gave up 12 pass plays covering at least 40 yards this season. Only four teams gave up more (the Giants gave up seven).
Graziano: I think at this point I'd call the Giants "opportunistic," and what goes along with that is playing smart and disciplined. They stick patiently and confidently to their game plan until an opportunity presents itself, then they pounce. This is a new development in the past few weeks..
Sando: The 49ers are the most opportunistic team in the league. They led the NFL in turnover differential. Unlike the other teams high on that list -- Green Bay, Detroit and New England come to mind -- the 49ers backed their opportunism with fundamentally sound defensive play. They brought added pressure only about 20 percent of the time. In Justin Smith, they have the best defensive player in the playoffs and possibly the league. They have two All-Pro inside linebackers. They hawk the ball through physical play in the secondary. And with forecasters calling for several days of rain, the Giants' receivers will have to deal with slick conditions compounded by a late kickoff. Crowd noise won't help, either.
Graziano: Easy there, big guy. It's like I tell my readers: Just because I say something good about one team doesn't mean I'm saying the inverse about another. You seem fairly confident the Niners will win, whereas I still find myself on the fence. So, if you had to play devil's advocate, what's the home team's biggest concern Sunday? What do the Niners have to make sure doesn't go wrong?
Sando: That's me, Mr. 49er. I had them winning 6-7 games this season, but I like to tell people I meant six plus seven. I was 50-50 on Saints-49ers and wound up picking San Francisco because of the home field and because, in a blind-squirrel moment, I thought Davis would show up big, especially in the red zone. This one seems like another close call. The 49ers' pass protection is a concern. The team gave up 20 sacks in its three defeats and 28 in its 14 victories. The Giants can win this game if their talented front gets after Alex Smith. They should double-cover Davis and take their chances with the wideouts. The Giants also have the quarterback and wide receivers to score points on anyone.
Graziano: I feel your pain, dude. In October, when the Giants showed up at No. 10 in the Power Rankings, I wrote, "If the Giants are a top-10 team in the NFL, then I'm a pineapple." This has earned me no small amount of justified grief from my Giants fans. Two weeks ago, I did my predictions video as a pineapple.
I guess if I got a call this week from Jim Harbaugh and he said to me, "Dan, you've seen the Giants a lot. What's the most important thing I need to make sure and tell my team this week?" I'd say the most important thing he can do is make sure no 49ers think they know anything about the Giants based on the Week 10 game. Because this Giants team bears almost no resemblance to that one.
I'd also thank Harbaugh for asking, and make sure he knew how flattered I was that he sought my advice.
Sando: Thanks, Dan. Hold on a sec. Tom Coughlin's trying to Skype me again.
Graziano: Ssssh! Don't tell him I talked to Harbaugh! I think the game comes down to turnovers. If Eli reverts to outdated perceptions and throws two or three picks, the Giants likely can't overcome that. But if the Giants play smart and get a few of their own takeaways, as they did Sunday, they're tough to stop right now.
Sando: I’ll buy that. The 49ers have committed only one turnover since Week 12. Some might say that makes them due. I’m more inclined to say it makes them dangerous.