NFC Conference Championship: New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers

There’s plenty of history in today’s NFC Championship battle, as the New York Giants clash with the San Francisco 49ers for the 7th time in the playoffs, but still no one could say that either of these teams would be left standing in this year’s NFL postseason to this point. However, after the Giants successfully shocked the Green Bay Packers 37-20 at Lambeau Field last weekend, and San Francisco squeezed out a miracle 36-32 win over Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, we stand left with two very scrappy teams who undoubtedly deserve to be here, even if it’s not what most sports fans would have expected for the NFC Championship game.

While many may still be suffering a bit of a letdown after holding on to expectations that we’d be seeing a full-on offensive showdown between the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints today, you’d best not rule today’s contest out as an exciting, intense football game, as these two teams showed plenty of heart and grit in their only meeting of the season, a 27-20 win for the 49ers. For the New York Giants especially today, they come into this match-up with a big chip on their shoulder and are riding the hottest hand in the league, coming off a game which they held the talented Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to just 20 points on their own turf, behind outstanding defensive efforts from sack-leader Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. While the Giants didn’t have an impressive defensive front for most of the year, ranking 29th in the NFL against the pass, and 19th against the rush, the last three games of the regular season combined with two victories in the postseason have proved to show that at the right time, this defensive unit is one of the best in the league, and will be a huge hurdle for quarterback Alex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers to overcome. They held the Redskins, Jets and Cowboys to 14 points or less to win 3 games at the end of the season and just squeezed into the playoffs, but in beating Atlanta 24-2 and Green Bay 37-20, they’ve shown that they are able to win ballgames with either their defense or their offense.

Along those lines, the first key to today’s game for New York is being able to contain the 49ers’ offense. San Francisco took huge advantage of sloppy play by the Saints, who surrendered 5 turnovers, but the real change in the game came as the Saints started to abandon their pass rush in the second half and set back in contain mode, which Smith was able to pick apart en route to a 299 yard, 3 touchdown day. The Giants, while having a crop of talented corners and safeties including Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips and Aaron Ross, will suffer a similar fate if they abandon their hard-nosed attack of the quarterback at any point in the game. The Giants were outstanding at getting pressure to the quarterback and forcing mistakes in the face of Aaron Rodgers, who’s Packer offense was contained to 241 yards through the air and 388 yards overall. With 17 sacks in the past 4 weeks, we don’t expect head coach Tom Coughlin to back away from dialing up the blitz pressure, as its been the Giants bread and butter during their 5-game winning streak. If the Giants can discourage the Niners’ passing game and force them into running the football a lot more than they would otherwise wish to do (SF went for just 20 carries and 77 yards in their lone meeting, a win, this year), Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter may not be able to hold up for long against the bruising New York defensive line and linebacker corps, and scoring drives may be few and far between. Forcing Alex Smith to throw under duress must be job one for the Giants defense.

Another important factor in today’s game for the Giants is not giving the 49ers extra chances with the football, and winning the turnover battle on the road. The Giants emerged victorious in their match-up with the Packers by handily winning the turnover margin 4:1, so it’s evident that in today’s game, the team that can pull in the most mistakes stands a very good chance of winning. San Francisco has been equally good at avoiding the big turnover, coughing up the ball just once last weekend to New Orleans, so it will be paramount for the Giants to come up big with a key interception or fumble to stop a drive or simply change momentum in this game. In order to do that, the Giants have to keep hitting, and keep hitting people hard. The 49ers are very opportunistic on defense, forcing 18 fumbles on the year and produced 23 interceptions, so the Giants will have to step up their game to be equally good at generating turnovers (10 forced fumbles, 20 INTs on the season).

On offense, Eli Manning has developed an outstanding report with Victor Cruz (89 catches, 1536 yards, 9 TDs, including playoffs), and has further talent to throw at including Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham and tight end Jake Ballard, but in order for the Giants to have success in the passing game, they have to find a way to generate some offense against the league’s stingiest rush defense of San Francisco, which held opponents to just 77.3 yards per game. As was evident in the game against New Orleans, forcing Drew Brees to constantly drop back and throw into coverage worked well into the 49er’s game plan, as their secondary is very speedy, and their defensive ends and linebackers are frightening in the pass rush. Therefore, the Giants must run as much as possible, even if it’s only to help keep the Niner’s defense honest. Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs do have the drive to pound out small gains against San Francisco, and while it will be tough to crack a defense that has given up just 3 rushing touchdowns on the year, setting up the play-action pass via the continuation of the run attack will help ease pressure on Eli Manning, and give him time in the pocket to throw downfield. While I no longer doubt Manning’s ability to perform in big games (he’s 6-3 in the postseason, and the Giants are 4-0 in NFC Championship games), I do question whether he can win a ballgame all by himself, especially after seeing both Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees fail to shoulder the load and carry their teams to victory. Therefore, no matter what, the Giants have to run the football at San Francisco, and have to build their confidence on offense behind at least a few good runs today.

For the San Francisco 49ers, the game plan won’t be too much different than that of the Giants. They have to apply plenty of pressure on Eli Manning to keep him scrambling, and that will start with another game dominated by the San Francisco linebackers including leading tackler NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, sack leader Aldon Smith (14 sacks) and Ahmad Brooks. This Niners team hits about as hard as any club in the NFL, so even when Manning is able to throw downfield, expect big clean-up efforts via safety Donte Whitner (if you haven’t seen this guy hit people this season, watch for #31), Dashon Goldson (6 INTs) and Carlos Rogers (6 INTs). Forcing fumbles will need to be a priority for the Niners as well, so hard hitting finishes to tackles will be something to watch for today. Aside from the physical nature of the game on defense, San Francisco also must do well to keep the Giants one-sided, and force them to throw as much as possible. Stopping the run and shutting down Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs shouldn’t be too big of an issue for the elite Niners’ rush defense, but finding a way to contain Eli Manning and the Giants receivers will be more of an issue (49ers allowed 302 passing yards, 2 TDs to Manning in Week 10). Remember, though the Giants lost that game, the difference may have been one dropped/slightly overthrown ball that would have been a touchdown to Mario Manningham late in the 4th quarter. With a Giants team that knows how to rally late in games, San Francisco must keep an eagle-eye on all of New York’s receivers, as anyone of them could be a target for a 4th quarter miracle catch should the game be close in the waning moments.

Keys to the San Francisco 49ers’ game on offense starts with being able to run the football much better than they did the last time these two teams met. The Giants, while playing very good defensively down the home stretch, still have the league’s 19th ranked rush defense that is allowing 121 yards/game and gave up 147 on the ground to the Packers last week, who are not known to run the football hardly at all. With Frank Gore, there is always the threat of a looming injury late in the season, but with everything on the line tonight, we can expect him to be sledding full steam ahead in today’s game, and hopefully avoid a big injury that forces the load onto back-up running back Kendall Hunter. Both backs have good hands that can be used out in the flats, and against a Giants team that loves to apply pressure, the dink-and-dunk passing game could work well, especially to limit the amount of damage the Niners rushers will inevitably receive as they get through the line. Further, setting up the run could help to open up space for the biggest weapon San Francisco has; tight end Vernon Davis. The New Orleans Saints had no match for the size and abilities of Davis last week, who went bananas for 7 catches, 180 yards and 2 TDs, and has two 100+ yard games in the playoffs now. If Davis is allowed to break free as pressure is forced to the running game, the Giants will be playing back on their heels trying to contain the big pass play to the big tight end. While San Francisco does have other weapons downfield including Michael Crabtree and Ted Ginn, tonight’s game will depend on the success of Vernon Davis, who must have another huge game and be involved in the scoring for the Niners to prevail at home.

Betting Lines for the New York Giants vs. San Francisco 49ers at Sportsbetting Sportsbook

The San Francisco 49ers enter tonight’s NFC Conference Championship match-up as the slight favorite on the money line, getting -125 odds to win while the New York Giants visit with +105 odds as the underdog. Against the spread, the 49ers get just -2 points to have to make up, while the Giants play with +2 points of their own for underdog pickers. In a game that figures to be highly defensive throughout, the 41 points on the over/under is going to be a tough one to call, but as we’ve seen late in games this playoff season, scoring tends to open up as games have been close down to the wire and defensive efforts start to ease as the games wear on. While I expect scoring to be tough to come by early, the second half should open up enough for both teams to break past 20 points and beat the over/under just barely.

Our Pick to Win:

While San Francisco is at home, and is riding behind a great defense, the Giants simply look to be the hottest team in the postseason that is peaking at just the right time under head coach Tom Coughlin. While Niners’ coach Jim Harbaugh has turned his club around into a serious contender, the fact that the Giants are coming in with a huge boost of confidence winning on the road, and playing some of the best defense of the postseason bodes very well for underdog pickers tonight. I like New York to take this game in a close battle, covering the points spread and further beating out the over/under on a strong performance late in the game by Eli Manning. The Giants will bend but won’t break to Alex Smith and the San Francisco offense, and the tides will turn on this series between two great teams, with a 27-20 win this time in favor of the New York Giants.

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