- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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What it means: The Giants, who lost four games in a row in late November and early December, who were 7-7 after their second loss of the season to the Washington Redskins, who finished 27th in the NFL in total defense and 32nd in rush offense, are going to the Super Bowl. It’s a testament to the greatness of their quarterback and an organizational philosophy of perseverance and self-belief. These are not the same Giants that struggled through so much of this season. This is a healthy, hungry confident bunch of Giants who believe no one can beat them.
Turnovers kill: The 49ers were plus-28 in turnover margin in the regular season, plus-4 in their first playoff game and had 11 total turnovers in 17 games this season prior to Sunday night. But they turned it over twice in this game -- a muffed punt and a fumble on a punt return by backup return man Kyle Williams -- and the second of those set the Giants up in position to win the game in overtime. The Giants did not turn the ball over once in this game, and for the second week in a row they won a road playoff game by winning the turnover battle against a team that almost never loses the turnover battle. The Packers, who they beat last week, were plus-24 in the regular season.
It's all on Eli: Quarterback Eli Manning has been the Giants' unquestioned MVP this year, and this game was a clear demonstration of the fact that this year's Giants' offense runs through him. The Giants tried to run the ball, and they got a couple of yards here and a couple there against the toughest run defense in the league. But it seemed like the main purpose of their running was to keep the 49ers' defense off of Manning and the passing game. When Manning was on his game and completing third-down passes, the Giants' offense was tough to stop Sunday. When the Niners kept stopping him on third down in the third quarter, the Giants' offense bogged down. And when Manning converted two third downs on the short touchdown drive that followed the 49ers' muffed punt in the fourth quarter, the Giants' offense came back to life.
Cruz control: Manning completed passes to eight different receivers, but second-year breakout star Victor Cruz was his favorite target. Cruz had eight catches on 125 yards in the first half alone and finished with 142 yards on 10 catches after the 49ers justifiably began devoting extra attention to him. You never know who's going to be the star in the Giants' receiving corps from one week to the next, but after two weeks in which Hakeem Nicks was the big-play guy, Cruz was the man in the NFC Championship Game.
Penalties kill: The Giants committed a number of bad penalties that cost them chances to get the 49ers off the field. They did a pretty good job of stopping the 49ers' offense for the game's first 52 minutes, allowing just the two big pass plays to Vernon Davis for touchdowns. But four of their penalties gave the Niners first downs, including a defensive holding penalty on the fourth-quarter drive on which the 49ers tied the game at 17-17.
Third and wrong: The Giants' defense was especially tough when it needed. The 49ers were 1-for-13 on third-down conversions, converting only right at the very end of regulation when the Giants were in ultra-prevent mode with no time left on the clock. The 49ers' defense was absolutely phenomenal in the second half, beating the Giants' offensive line up front over and over again. The Giants converted five of their first six third downs in the game, but then just two of their next 14 after that. Had the muffed punt not given the Giants a short field, it's possible the Niners could have pitched a second-half shutout. But the offense offered San Francisco little help, and a big reason for that was the job the Giants did against them on third downs.
What's next: The Giants will play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5 in Indianapolis. It’s the fifth Super Bowl appearance in Giants history. They are 3-1 in their previous four, including a victory over the then-unbeaten Patriots four years ago in Super Bowl XLII.