Sunday, January 22, 2012

Giants-Niners Preview

Finally, we have the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. In the AFC blog post yesterday, I made mention how only a select few make it to the AFC Championship game and win the game in the last 11 years. Well, the NFC has been the opposite, with 10 different Super Bowl representatives for the last 10 years. Today, the Niners can make it 11, or the Giants can be the NFC team with the most since 2000 with 3. Also, when seeing these two teams play in the playoffs, there's history. There's the 1990 NFC Championship Game, the hardest hitting game of all time (watch any Giants-49ers game from the late 80s, early 90s and you'll stop believing SF was a "finesse" team). There's Mark Bavaro dragging the 49ers defense, Montana to Rice in Giants Stadium and of course, the 2002 Wild Card game. What history will be made today? That's not one of them, but here are the five questions for this matchup.

1. Which team can establish the run better?

In the first game, which the Niners won 27-20, the Giants didn't have Ahmad Bradshaw, while the 49ers lost Frank Gore early. In the end, San Fran had Kendall Hunter make a big play on the ground, while the Giants didn't get that from Brandon Jacobs. The difference between these teams is that the 49ers have been outstanding on run defense, while the Giants in the regular season were far from it. During the playoff run, they showed they can shut a big-time runner down when Michael Turner was bottled up during the Wild Card game. Giants need more of the same today, as well as Bradshaw making things happen when the Giants are running.

2. How much will special teams matter?

Now I know that's a dumb question, because they always matter. However, if special teams becomes the deciding factor in this game, it's a MAJOR advantage to the Niners. Andy Lee can blast punts, and Ted Ginn Jr. can run them back. I'd say that David Akers is the weak link today because of his mixed history when kicking against the Giants, but he's home and it mitigate that a little. The Giants, on the other hand, have return men who I worry about catching the football then actually making a play, and a kicker in Lawrence Tynes, who Giants fans don't trust, even after kicking the team to the Super Bowl. I'm not saying the Giants can't make a special teams play, but if special teams makes a difference (think Texans-Ravens as an example), it helps the home team.

3. How does Eli Manning handle the San Fran pass rush?

They will make plays on defense. That's who the 49ers are under Jim Harbaugh. They got to Drew Brees (particularly Justin Smith) and frustrated him most of the day. Still, Brees found ways to get the ball to his big play guys to put the Saints in a position to win. Now, we have Eli, same type quarterback, who'll stay in the pocket. He now has to find his big WR's Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, not to mention secondary options like Mario Manningham and Bradshaw. And for the Giants, they need the Jake Ballard from earlier this year who made Giants fans forget about Kevin Boss. And if the Niners have one weakness on defense, it's Donte Whitmer's predisposition to go for highlight plays and failing (think Charlie Peprah last week on Nicks' first TD).

4. How do the Niners mitigate the Giants pass rush?

Last week, Alex Smith faced the Saints blitz late and took full advantage in the winning TD drive. The Giants, unfortunately for them, won't do a lot of blitzing. They can get to the QB with that front four, allowing seven defenders flood passing lanes, forcing QB's to be perfect on their throws. Aaron Rodgers couldn't do that last week, will Alex Smith have more luck. Elsewhere when the Niners have the ball, look for the Giants to double Vernon Davis. No way they let him beat them. Which will likely leave Michael Crabtree going against Corey Webster. Crabtree would need to win this matchup if the Niners are to win (or hope Aaron Ross plays him a few times and Smith realizes to throw to him at that point).

5. Who wins?

The Giants won't be frustrated if they can't get to Alex Smith early, if they can't run early, if they fall behind early. This is a team that will grind you down for four quarters and once they reach that 4th quarter, the Giants usually take control. Helps when your QB has the most 4th quarter TD's in a single season in NFL history. 49ers are a great team, but even though they're home, I don't think they are ready for the Super Bowl quite yet. Giants win 30-20.

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