Matchups for the NFC championship game Sunday between the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park:
When the Giants have the ball
The Giants scored 394 points and were extremely efficient down the stretch to win the NFC East. They’ve continued that in the playoffs, mixing in big plays with ball security, getting huge contributions from WRs Hakeem Nicks (88), Victor Cruz (80) and Mario Manningham (82), and just enough rushing from Ahmad Bradshaw (44) and Brandon Jacobs (27).
Eli Manning (10) makes it all work, and has been brilliant for much of the season, even as the Giants (11-7) struggled to get into the postseason. Manning’s calm demeanor rubs off on his teammates, and he’s become particularly adept on third downs and in fourth quarters. He set an NFL regular-season record with 15 touchdown passes in the fourth period. Manning has been the definition of clutch.
He’s also gotten more comfortable with his offensive line, led by G Chris Snee (76) and T David Diehl (66). That line was leaky midway through the schedule, but improved when everyone got healthy.
Coach Tom Coughlin prefers to use the ground game, especially the power run, to set up passes. While Bradshaw and Jacobs have been decent and sporadically broke some long gains, the Giants have profited most on Manning’s arm. Look for them to attempt doing so again because the 49ers (14-3) have the league’s best run defense, led by All-Pros DT Justin Smith (94), LBs NaVorro Bowman (53) and Patrick Willis (52), the most dynamic defender in this game.
Having seen how well New Orleans did with TE Jimmy Graham last week, New York will get Jake Ballard (85) involved, particularly if he can keep one of the linebackers or safeties occupied. That would force the 49ers to have single coverage on one of the Giants’ dangerous wideouts, and all three have shown breakaway ability in such situations.
Still, the Niners, who allowed an NFC-low 229 points, have strong coverage backs in CB Carlos Rodgers (22) and S Dashon Goldson (38), each of whom had six interceptions. San Francisco also might be the best tackling team in the NFL, and S Donte Whitner’s (31) hit on Pierre Thomas last week displayed that.
Thanks to rookie Aldon Smith (99) and Justin Smith up front and LB Ahmad Brooks (55) in a turnaround season, the 49ers have a dangerous pass rush. Watch for Aldon Smith on edge rushes and some stunts, and for Justin Smith just about anywhere.
When the 49ers have the ball
If the Niners establish the run with Frank Gore (21), who rushed for 1,211 yards and eight TDs, and can spring backup Kendall Hunter (32) a few times, it will make QB Alex Smith (11) more effective. In by far the best season of his seven-year career, Smith has avoided turnovers, made more precise throws than ever and been patient. He also can use his legs, as he showed with that masterful sweep for a 28-yard TD against the Saints.
Playing it smart on offense is San Francisco’s style — out of necessity and thanks to the coaching acumen of Jim Harbaugh. The receiving corps, other than TE Vernon Davis (85), is mediocre. Davis is a special talent and was a game-breaker against New Orleans, bringing himself to tears. If he is able to bring New York’s secondary to tears, the Niners will be in great shape.
But safeties Antrel Rolle (26) and Kenny Phillips (21) have shown better coverage skills in the last month than at any previous time, and we might even see CB Corey Webster (23) covering Davis at times.
Smith’s O-line is as good as Manning’s, with T Joe Staley (74) and C Jonathan Goodwin (59) the standouts. They must neutralize the Giants’ potentially overpowering pass rush led by All-Pro DE Jason Pierre-Paul (90), DEs Justin Tuck (91) and Osi Umenyiora (72), and revitalized LB Michael Boley (59). If backup TE Delanie Walker (46) can go after breaking his jaw — he says he will play — it will help the passing game immensely.
The Giants stumbled often in pass coverage for much of the season, but came on in recent weeks against the likes of Tony Romo, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers. If Alex Smith has to put up the ball 35 or more times, New York could be in good position to make its second Super Bowl in four years.
The 49ers have an All-Pro kicker in David Akers (2) and punter in Andy Lee (4). Need we say more about their kicking game?
Akers set a league mark with 44 field goals, in part because San Francisco bogged down in the red zone too much. He also has kept his range despite being in his 13th season.
The Niners return game isn’t spectacular, although the inconsistent Ted Ginn Jr., who is slowed by a right knee problem, did break two returns for scores. Their coverage squads are very strong.
Lawrence Tynes (9) has made almost as many clutch field goals as Akers, and his kickoffs have improved recently. Steve Weatherford (5) has been terrific in the second half of the season as the punter.
Don’t look for the Giants to break many long runbacks; they’ve gotten little production from anyone they’ve tried at it. More significantly, they didn’t give up any TDs on returns.
It’s been perplexing for months that many Giants fans were eager for a coaching change, especially when the team hit the meat of the schedule and lost four straight. Coughlin stayed the course, never panicked, made sure his players kept their focus and look where he has them now. For the last four weeks, the Giants have been perfectly prepared, resourceful and more energetic than their opponents.
Harbaugh’s first pro season as a head coach has been wildly successful. He changed the attitude in a once-divisive locker room, made his players believe in themselves, and provided a steady presence for the likes of Alex Smith, Davis and WR Michael Crabtree (15). He has a difficult chore coaching against a master such as Coughlin, but Harbaugh certainly won’t back down.