NFC West: 2012 Quick Takes NFC

Quick Take: Giants at 49ers

January, 15, 2012
Three things to know about next Sunday's New York Giants-San Francisco 49ers NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park:

1. Home sweet home. Getting the NFC title game at home is a dream scenario for the 49ers. Quarterback Alex Smith has been much, much better at home this season and never better than he was when it counted against New Orleans in the divisional round. His fourth-quarter Total QBR against the Saints was 99.7, the third-highest in a fourth quarter this season. The figure was 78.1 out of 100 for the entire game, continuing a season-long trend. Smith's regular-season QBR was 71.6 at home, up from 29.3 on the road. Smith played well during the 49ers' 27-20 victory over the Giants at Candlestick in Week 10. Frank Gore left the game with an injury, leaving Smith to carry more of the load. He completed 19 of 30 passes for 242 yards with one touchdown, one interception, two sacks, no fumbles and six rushes covering 27 yards. His confidence should be higher than ever.

2. Manning-Brady Super Bowl talk. Think the 49ers noticed their underdog status at home against the lower-seeded Saints? Yes, they did. They can also expect to hear others salivating over a potential Super Bowl rematch between the Giants and New England Patriots. A storyline pitting Tom Brady against Eli Manning will have great appeal outside the Bay Area. If only the 49ers would go quietly. Recent history could be on the 49ers' side. The last time an NFC West team reached a Super Bowl, Arizona unexpectedly got the NFC title game at home against an NFC East opponent. The Cardinals beat the Eagles to advance, heading off an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl.

3. Big plays in focus. The 49ers' defense beat up the Saints for three-plus quarters, only to collapse late in the game as both teams suddenly found the end zone repeatedly. San Francisco gave up 12 pass plays of 40-plus yards during the regular season, tied for fifth-most in the league. The Saints managed none until hitting two for touchdowns in the final minutes Saturday. Manning completed passes for 36 and 32 yards against the 49ers in Week 10, but none longer. He barely overthrew a wide-open Mario Manningham for what would have been a long touchdown in the final six minutes. That is one area for the 49ers to watch against the Giants.

Quick Take: Saints at 49ers

January, 7, 2012
Three things to know about next Saturday's New Orleans Saints-San Francisco 49ers divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park:

1. Venue matters. The Saints have the hottest offense in the NFL right now, but the chilly San Francisco air could improve the 49ers' chances of cooling down Drew Brees. New Orleans averaged 41.1 points per game at home this season and 38 points per game in 11 total indoor games. The Saints played five outdoor games and averaged 23.8 points per game in the four most recent ones. They barely won at Tennessee (22-17) and lost at Tampa Bay (26-20) in their two most recent non-dome games. The 49ers have allowed 10 total points in their past three home games, albeit against limited offenses (Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Arizona). Turnovers were a problem at times for the Saints in their wild-card victory over Detroit. The 49ers led the NFL in takeaways with 38 (the Saints had 16). They led the NFL in fewest giveaways with 10 (the Saints had 19). Turnover margin is especially critical in this game because the Saints have so much horsepower on offense.

2. Season comes full circle. The 49ers' first exhibition game under new coach Jim Harbaugh turned into a debacle when the Saints overwhelmed Alex Smith and San Francisco's offensive line with constant pressure. Chatter after the game suggested Saints coach Sean Payton might have gone into the game determined to show up Harbaugh. Some of the postgame buzz in the Bay Area suggested Harbaugh might be in over his head early in the season. The fact is, the 49ers faced long odds playing a game so quickly after the lockout ended. They've known for weeks New Orleans would likely stand in their way at some point during the postseason. Expect a solid plan from Harbaugh, Greg Roman and the rest of the 49ers' offensive staff.

3. Patrick Willis in the spotlight. The 49ers' perennial All-Pro linebacker has waited five regular seasons for his first playoff game. He was a little rusty in Week 17 after returning from a hamstring injury that sidelined him most of December. The 49ers will need Willis to be at his best. This needs to be a signature game for him. With fellow All-Pro inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman making plays sideline to sideline, Willis has focused more on defending opposing tight ends this season. He helped limit Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew to a 5.3-yard average on eight receptions when the 49ers handed the Lions their first defeat of the season. I'm not sure how the 49ers plan to defend Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. Willis will presumably play a role.