SAN FRANCISCO -- Cramping and in need of IV fluids, Ahmad Bradshaw headed into the locker room a few minutes before the final whistle Sunday, when Giants owner John Mara stopped him.
Mara embraced Bradshaw and whispered something in the running back's ear. He was clearly grateful for Bradshaw's 100-yard effort against one of the stingiest defenses in the NFL, and the Giants' complete performance in one of the franchise's most satisfying regular-season victories in recent memory.
Coach Tom Coughlin said nobody expected the New York Giants to beat the San Francisco 49ers this week. Well, certainly nobody expected this: a complete domination of the 49ers on their own turf, to the tune of a 26-3 beatdown of a team many considered to be the best the NFC has to offer.
The Giants delivered a statement -- not only to Jim Harbaugh's Niners, but to the rest of the NFL -- that the defending Super Bowl champions are alive and well.
"I don't think it was that subtle," linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said, when asked if the Giants gave everyone a subtle reminder of who the defending champs are. "You can talk and say everything you want but at the end of the day you got to line up on Sunday and prove it.
"I feel like we did a good job of backing up everything that we felt during the week."
What the Giants felt in the week leading up to this NFC Championship Game rematch was what never fails to stir Coughlin's team. Nothing drives the Giants more than a sensed lack of respect from either an opponent or the media, prompting a desire to prove people wrong and win under conditions that are supposed to be dead set against them.
The Giants heard all week long about how the 49ers felt last year's NFC title was stolen from them by the Giants, about how much better San Francisco got in the offseason and about how unbeatable the Niners had looked in outscoring their previous two opponents by a frightful combined score of 79-3.
"Most people against this defense didn't think we could do what we did," center David Baas said. "That's fine. That doesn't matter. This team knows what we can do."
"Secondly, I think it sends a message to everybody in the NFC," Baas continued. "Don't count us out because we're a very, very good team and we believe that."
What the 49ers ran into on Sunday was a possessed Giants team, which closely resembled the one that beat everyone in its path last January and February on the way to the Super Bowl.
The Giants gave the Niners a dose of their own medicine, by dominating a game with suffocating defense, and deflating an opponent with an efficient and controlling offense.
The best defense at Candlestick Park on Sunday belonged to Perry Fewell. His unit shut down a potent San Francisco running game, limited the 49ers to 80 yards rushing. It harassed the normally mistake-free Alex Smith into throwing three interceptions. Smith came into the game having thrown only one pick all season.
As for the much maligned and supposedly toothless Giants pass rush? Fewell moved some of his pieces around, by playing Kiwanuka up front more and using reserves like Adrian Tracy more, and the result was a revived quarterback attack.
The Giants collected six sacks on the day.
"I thought we forgot how to rush?" defensive end Osi Umenyiora asked onlookers on his way off the field and into the locker room.
The Giants' star D-ends had grown tired of hearing about how ineffective they had become. And yes, they were listening to all the criticism.
"I guess we got kind of tired of you guys talking about [it]," Justin Tuck said. "I saw us on some milk cartons."
The secondary was also motivated, to stop giving up big plays in the passing game and shut down San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis. Davis, who scored three touchdowns against them in two games last year, had only three catches for 37 yards.
And safety Antrel Rolle, who yearned to be placed in a role where he can be the ball hawk he wants to be, came up with two interceptions that set up two straight field goals, pushing the Giants' lead from 17-3 to 23-3 with 6:10 left in the third quarter.
If the game wasn't effectively over at that point, the Giants' offensive line made sure to slam the door. Bradshaw rushed for 50 of his 116 yards in the fourth quarter, against a defense that was yielding just 81.4 rushing yards per game this season.
How rare was Bradshaw's effort? He was only the second running back to break the 100-yard barrier against this defense in the 49ers' past 44 games.
The Giants' O-line was reminded often last week about how quarterback Eli Manning was hit 12 times and sacked six times in last year's NFC title game.
"I think everybody is sick and tired about hearing about last year," guard Chris Snee said. "The only way to put that to rest was to go out and [play]."
Manning wasn't even sacked once Sunday. In fact, Manning has been sacked only once in the past five games.
When the running game is clicking and Manning has time to throw, the Giants' offense is awfully hard to slow down -- even for an elite defense like that of San Francisco.
And when the Giants are highly motivated to prove something, Coughlin's team is extremely hard to beat.
"We knew last year, we knew it wasn't a fluke," Bradshaw said, of how some Niners felt they had the Super Bowl stolen from them last year. "We earned it. And it was the same today."
The Giants still have to play more consistent, and bring this type of effort against teams not as highly touted as San Francisco. They have to feel like they have something to prove every week -- even against an opponent that might not command as much respect or attention.
They have to win next week's pivotal NFC East showdown with the Washington Redskins, since they are 0-2 in the division.
But the Giants reminded everybody on Sunday just how incredibly dominant they can be.
Said wide receiver Victor Cruz, "The statement we made was that we are here to stay."