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Sunday, January 15, 2012
NFC playoff Q&A: Old-school rules

By Jeffri Chadiha
ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- There is something poetic about how this postseason is shaping up in the NFC. All season long we heard endless platitudes about the explosive beauty of offensive football. Teams were throwing more than ever, scoring more than ever and making everybody believe that all you needed for a championship was a wide-open offense and a gunslinger under center. It now looks like somebody forgot to send that memo to the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. They're here because they still do things the old-fashioned way -- with bruising, ball-hawking defenses.

The 49ers were so lightly regarded heading into Saturday's NFC divisional playoff win that they used their underdog status as ample motivation to defeat the New Orleans Saints. On Sunday, the Giants traveled to Green Bay and revealed that the Packers actually weren't the same team that rolled to a 15-1 record in the regular season. So what does all this tell us now that the NFC Championship Game is set? Basically that there will be a lot of pushing, shoving, scuffling and trash-talking in Candlestick Park next Sunday.

The Giants are looking for their second Super Bowl win in five seasons and fourth overall. The 49ers are hunting for their sixth Lombardi Trophy, a feat that would feel even sweeter because they haven't been in the playoffs since 2002. Here are the questions that will matter most before they kick it off next weekend:

Alex Smith
QB Alex Smith and the 49ers can't afford to savor their divisional win over the Saints for very long.
1. Will the 49ers have an emotional letdown? No. As easy as it would be to think that San Francisco's 36-32 win over New Orleans took a lot out of the 49ers, you have to believe head coach Jim Harbaugh won't let that sweet taste of victory linger too long. All those tears tight end Vernon Davis shed after catching the game-winning touchdown pass from Alex Smith? He should have let those emotions go by the time he left the stadium. The elation quarterback Alex Smith felt after winning his first playoff game after years of being derided by local fans and media? He can only feel vindicated for so long. The danger for the 49ers is in letting themselves believe that Saturday's victory allowed them to tell the world how legitimate they truly are. Such thinking usually gets inexperienced teams beat in the next round and Harbaugh knows he'll need to avoid that trap. As running back Frank Gore said, "We have the right guy leading us. He knows how to get us ready to play every day and he'll do that again."

2. What can the Giants learn from their regular-season loss to the 49ers? Plenty. When the Giants return to San Francisco next weekend, they'll have the confidence of knowing how close they came to victory in Week 10. If not for a dropped pass by Mario Manningham late in that 27-20 loss -- and a tipped pass by 49ers defensive end Justin Smith on New York's final offensive play -- that contest easily could've gone into overtime and ended with a Giants win. The other thing the Giants showed in that game was the same quality that has been their calling card all season: a reluctance to wither when they trail in the fourth quarter. The Giants have been comfortable making late comebacks all season and they nearly overcame a 14-point second-half deficit in that contest. They aren't going to fold if the 49ers surge ahead early again.

3. How critical will Michael Crabtree's performance be in this game? Huge. Crabtree may be a talented wide receiver, but he was the only 49ers player on Saturday who seemed overwhelmed by the stage he was on. He dropped three passes against the Saints -- including two on one drive -- and didn't really factor into the game after his 4-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter (he wound up with four receptions for 25 yards). Crabtree seems like the type of prideful player who will use those errors as ample motivation in his next performance. If he doesn't, then the 49ers are going to have problems. The Saints' defense inexplicably let tight end Vernon Davis run wild against their secondary and New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams dialed up some of the worst-timed blitzes in playoff history. It's hard to see the Giants allowing Davis (seven receptions, 180 yards and two touchdowns) to go off like that two weeks in a row. Somebody else will have to step up in the 49ers' passing game. That person right now looks like Crabtree.

4. What kinds of problems will the Giants' defense create for the 49ers? Given that New York just stifled the defending champions on the road, it's hard to imagine the 49ers being more successful on their home turf. The last thing San Francisco wants is for the Giants' pass rush to get rolling against a 49ers offense that doesn't have many great weapons in its passing game. The Giants sacked Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers four times Sunday and they also forced four turnovers total (three fumbles and an interception). The good news for the 49ers is that they've taken better care of the football than any team in the NFL all season (with 10 giveaways during the regular season). The bad news is that a Giants defense that struggled earlier this year is peaking at exactly the right time. If the 49ers can't control the tempo of this game on the ground -- a factor that is even more important when considering Green Bay attempted only 16 running plays -- it won't be pretty.

Drew Brees
The 49ers' Justin Smith was a pass-rushing force against Drew Brees and the Saints.
5. Can Justin Smith be stopped? No. It's hard to find ends in 3-4 defensive schemes who are athletic, disruptive and relentless. The 6-foot-4, 285-pound Smith is all that and he makes life easier on everyone else in the 49ers' pass rush. Remember, he wasn't facing some no-name novices in Saturday's win over New Orleans. He was taking on two Pro Bowl guards (Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans) and a Pro Bowl left tackle (Jermon Bushrod). In the end, Smith gave them all fits, with Bushrod having the hardest time slowing him down. The Giants are likely to find themselves facing a similar dilemma, especially because the 11-year veteran is so determined to capitalize on this postseason appearance. "He had only played in one playoff game in his career and he was 0-1," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "Our main goal from the first day of training camp was to get him back into the playoffs and get that goose egg off the board. And we did that."

6. Does Tom Coughlin have the coaching edge in this contest? Yes. Give Jim Harbaugh credit for turning around the 49ers in his first year and assembling impressive game plans each week. Just don't think that Coughlin doesn't have as many tricks up his sleeve in this one. The best thing Coughlin has going for him is that he knows how to keep his team focused in hostile environments. He led the Giants to their Super Bowl win during the 2007 season by winning three straight road games and he's had this bunch on point since they were fighting for their playoff lives with two weeks left in the regular season. The fact the Giants are so calm and effective in clutch situations also speaks to their preparation. This team won't be daunted by having to make a long trip to reach the Super Bowl again. In some ways, that challenge might help Coughlin motivate them even more.

7. Does Alex Smith have another clutch performance in him? Yes. For all the criticism Smith has taken in his seven-year career, he looked very much like the 49ers' leader Saturday. He twice led them back from deficits in the final four minutes and his 14-yard, game-winning touchdown pass is now a part of 49ers' lore. All season long, Smith had been dismissed as merely a game manager capitalizing on a strong running attack and a vicious defense. But he clearly understands that championship teams have quarterbacks who elevate their play at this time of year. He may not have beaten Drew Brees in the statistical department (he threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns, while Brees had 462 yards and four scores), but Smith never cared about that. The most important numbers for him Saturday were interceptions (he had none) and total points. As Harbaugh said afterward, "I think it's time Alex got a little credit around here."

Bradon Jacobs
Brandon Jacobs and the Giants need to run the ball effectively to keep the pressure off Eli Manning.
8. How critical will the Giants' running game be in this contest? The Giants aren't winning this game without a strong combined effort from Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw and D.J. Ware. New York ran for only 93 yards in that regular-season loss and the 49ers love to make teams one-dimensional. In fact, one of the more underrated aspects of San Francisco's win over New Orleans was the hit that 49ers safety Donte Whitner put on Saints running back Pierre Thomas in the first quarter. Thomas never returned, the Saints lost their best inside runner and Brees wound up throwing 63 passes. The Giants have an elite quarterback in Eli Manning. He'll be more dangerous with the kind of balance he has been getting over the past few games.

9. What is the wild card in this game? Special teams. The 49ers have the edge here and that will be a deciding factor in the game. Kicker David Akers set an NFL record with 44 field goals and punter Andy Lee turns field position in a hurry (he led the league with a 50.9 yards-per-punt average this season). The 49ers' coverage units also are arguably the best in the NFL. They controlled New Orleans returner Darren Sproles on Saturday while also forcing and recovering two fumbles on Saints returns. If they create more takeaways against the Giants, it will be a long day for New York. If dangerous 49ers returner Ted Ginn Jr. is healthy -- he left Saturday's game with a knee injury -- he could make that day even longer.

10. Who is going to the Super Bowl? The Giants look strong, but the 49ers have everything going for them. They're at home. They're playing with confidence. And they have the better defense. San Francisco was good enough to go into Green Bay to get a win if its playoff road led in that direction. Now that the 49ers don't have to go that route, their magical season continues with a trip to Indianapolis.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.