”That’s a great win, that’s a great win for US! That was a great win for our team, that was a great team win. That’s a classy team over there. That’s a darn good team. That’s a physical team. Good chance they’ll be playing long into the playoffs, too. But you outplayed them. You outplayed that team, okay? And that’s what you had to do to win, that’s what you had to do to win this game.”
– From Jim Harbaugh’s postgame speech after the San Francisco 49ers defeated the New York Giants, 27-20, on Nov. 13.
After the lockout ended and we knew there was going to be an NFL season, not one person picked the San Francisco 49ers to win the NFC West. Most thought the Rams would take it. Others thought the Cardinals, with Kevin Kolb, might see the same kind of success they enjoyed with Kurt Warner. The Niners? No quarterback, no weapons, an injured Frank Gore and too little time. 8-8 … if they were lucky.
Now the Giants, who barely won a very mediocre NFC East, are coming to town as the favorites. Not in Vegas (where the 49ers are giving anywhere from 2-3 points depending on where you look), but the vast majority of people paid good money to follow the NFL think the Giants are the team of destiny, with fate preferring a Patriots/Giants rematch in Super Bowl XLVI.
The Niners were destined to be the underdog in some form or fashion. Had the Packers handled business, caught Aaron Rodgers’ passes and beaten the Giants like most thought they would, the 49ers would probably be getting at least 6 points, maybe 8.
But point spreads don’t matter with the Super Bowl on the line. Like Harbaugh, I too had a feeling the 49ers might face New York again this season. That was until the Giants — like many teams — fell on hard times after playing the Niners. The Giants lost three of their next four games after playing in The Stick a couple months ago, forcing them to rally in order to make the playoffs after coming to San Francisco with a 6-2 record.
Their last meeting
Both of these teams are different now, and not just because they’re both better than they were in November.
The Giants stacked the box against Frank Gore and succeeded, holding Gore to no yards on 6 carries before a knee injury knocked him out. Braylon Edward had his best game of the year (relatively speaking: 3 catches for 47 yards), and he’s gone. Delanie Walker was the 49ers’ leading receiver against the Giants — now the 49ers are hoping his jaw can withstand the pounding it’ll surely take if Walker resumes his roll as a TE/FB.
The Giants were without Ahmad Bradshaw, linebacker Michael Boley missed the second half due to injury and Justin Tuck was at less than full strength.
The going story, at least from New York’s perspective, is that the 49ers barely escaped with a victory after Justin Smith batted down Eli Manning’s pass that supposedly would have led to a Giants touchdown … as if the Giants would’ve certainly succeeded on the 2-point conversion and won 28-27 if not for Smith’s lucky swat.
Giants fans can point to Mario Manningham’s dropped pass in the end zone, but they were also gifted 3 points when an early lost fumble by Victor Cruz was called an incomplete pass, leading to a Giants field goal.
The true importance of that last game lies more on how each coaching staff uses the film. As for Sunday, here are a few of the variables people are focusing on:
This storyline’s a little bit overblown for a few reasons.
1. In recent years the drainage has been much better than it was during the 49ers’ glory years.
2. This isn’t one of those huge Northern California storms that causes flooding. It’s been raining fairly steadily since Thursday afternoon in San Francisco, but not all that hard.
3. Passing isn’t affected by rain like it is by windy conditions, according to Sean Payton.
As mentioned yesterday, I think a rain-soaked field causes the most problems for each team’s field goal unit. Since David Akers is a better kicker than Lawrence Tynes and Akers has played nine more games on grass this season, that’s where the 49ers have a true advantage. Wet conditions can lead to players losing their footing and/or fumbling, but it’s hard to pinpoint why that would affect one team more than the other.
Funny thing is, the Giants came into the Nov. 13 game with similar hype and bluster. Last time these teams faced, the Giants were coming off an emotional 24-20 win over the Patriots in a game that signaled the Giants’ revival after missing the playoffs in 2010.
This time, the Giants come in after saving their season with wins against the Jets and Cowboys, then throttling the utterly disappointing Falcons before rolling into Lambeau and shocking Green Bay in a game where it seemed like both teams switched uniforms.
The 49ers’ seasonal arc isn’t as interesting to many, partly because they’ve been so consistent. They won eight games in a row after losing to Dallas in Week 2. Then they lost in Baltimore after three days of “rest” and squandered a 19-7 lead in Arizona two weeks later. Since then, four straight wins.
I’ll be there, and if I was smart I’d bring earplugs. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I won’t be wearing any ear protection.
(Side note: a lot has been made of 49ers fans treating Saints fans rudely, with the police actually planning to wear Giants gear in order to catch idiots who get off on harassing people when they enjoy strength in numbers and liquor in bloodstream. There is absolutely NO NEED to try and mute what has turned into a mighty crowd. The key as fans: don’t yell at other people and, most importantly, don’t CURSE AT OTHER PEOPLE. Yell at the Giants’ players, overly celebrate when the 49ers do well, and leave other people alone. It’s not that hard.)
Despite what some guy from the Daily News says, 49ers fans aren’t soft. Candlestick isn’t a dome, but it’s going to be loud. Louder than Lambeau? Yes, because Niners fans are hungrier. Harbaugh had said this to say on Monday:
“Our fans turned that stadium into a fortress. That’s as good as it can get. Our crowd was behind us. Our players felt it. It was a great environment. It felt like somebody locked the gates and put us in here, and we have 70,000 and a city behind us. It just felt that way. It felt good. It felt like an advantage.”
Giants fans are feeling good, partly because this year’s reminding them of 2007.
Also, because their defense is stronger than New Orleans’ defense. They have a point. The Saints were pretty dreadful this year defensively, while the Giants have held the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons and Packers to 50 points in their last four games.
The 49ers probably won’t score 36 points in the NFC Championship Game.
However, the Saints have a better, more balanced offense than the Giants. The Giants’ receivers are better (although Marques Colston is as good as anyone the Giants feature), but the Saints still threw for more yards, scored more points and ran the ball much more effectively all season.
The Giants probably won’t score 32 points in the NFC Championship Game.
The Saints tried running for a little bit on the Niners, then gave up entirely after losing Pierre Thomas and having no luck on handoffs to Chris Ivory or Darren Sproles. Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs have performed better lately, and the Giants rushed for 172 yards against Atlanta.
It doesn’t matter. Nobody runs on the 49ers. Like the Saints, the Giants will become a one-dimensional offense early on.
Look for the Giants to target Chris Culliver and to put receivers like Cruz in positions to hurt the Niners with yards after the catch. Look for the 49ers to lean on Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis (who probably had his best game of the season against the Giants) and Ahmad Brooks (who quietly had an outstanding game against the Saints) to force Manning into rushed throws and the kind of excessive risk-taking that has led to the 49ers collecting more takeaways than any other team in the league.
The 49ers’ offense has gotten better as the year’s gone on, to the point where over the last four games, the 49ers are 8-13 scoring TD’s inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. But this isn’t about Alex vs. Eli, like so many want to believe.
This game — this entire season — is about the 49ers’ defense. If they give up yards, those yards come at a cost: pain. Their turnover ratio wouldn’t seem sustainable, except they stuff the run to such a degree that they force opposing quarterbacks to be perfect in the second halves of games.
If we’re talking about sustainable, how about the Giants getting this far with a negative point differential (394-400) during the regular season? No team has ever made the Super Bowl after allowing more points than they scored, and the only team that came close — the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, with a differential of 427-426 — is also the only team to ever earn a trip to the Super Bowl after allowing 400 points during the regular season.
The 49ers have the stronger defense, the better special teams and the better rushing attack. They learned their lesson after Jimmy Graham almost slayed them a week ago — the tackling will be crisper. Their secondary and offensive line, buoyed by outstanding coaching and rabid fan support, will play as well as they have all season.
The 49ers will outplay the them. They’ll outplay that team, okay? And that’s what they have to do to win, that’s what they’ll have to do to win this game.
Pick: San Francisco 49ers 23, New York Giants 17