As this season has transformed from mildly intriguing to the first stages of premature parade-planning for the 49ers, Sunday’s game marks yet another change … now we’re in the “Okay Niners,let’s see how good you really are” phase.
Facing the 6-2 New York Giants will present a significant challenge. That isn’t unlike the previous difficult challenges San Francisco faced against Dallas and at Cincinnati (although we didn’t have any clue how difficult that game would be back then, even after the 49ers won), Philadelphia and Detroit. Now after two games against hamstrung opponents that the Niners were expected to win, the Giants bring their east coast bluster and fancy passing attack to Candlestick.
Expectations could go one of two ways. Either the 49ers could win or lose with no consequence, seeing as they’ve shocked nearly everyone thus far with their record and they have a 259-game lead in the NFC West … or, they should absolutely win this game because they have the better defense and they’re at home.
Wait, the 49ers don’t have the better defense? Perhaps if you’re talking about glamorous pass rushers, the Giants can be considered superior. They’ve accumulated 28 sacks, the 49ers “only” 22. But in two basic, key ways, the 49ers have proven through the season’s first half that they have the more efficient group (more physical too, but that’s hardly objective).
Rushing yards per carry (defense)
Passing yards per attempt (defense)
The 49ers lost their only game due to their inability to prevent Tony Romo from completing long passes. The Giants probably shouldn’t even attempt to run on Sunday without Ahmad Bradshaw, but Hakeen Nicks is practicing (kind of) and looks to be a gametime decision that’s heavily trending toward “yes.” And Nicks is really, really good. Victor Cruz is a dynamic receiver in his own right. Mario Manningham picks up the scraps along and possesses an extremely cool name.
And don’t forget Jake Ballard, who made a really sweet couple of catches against the Patriots. That pretty much means he’s supplanted Jimmy Graham as this week’s “tight end we’re all predicting will dominate the league unlike any offensive weapon who’s ever existed.”
A lot of people are convinced that this game comes down to Alex Smith and whether he can have an “elite” performance, whatever that means. That’s completely ignoring what the Niners have been about all season. Only if everything goes completely wrong will Smith be forced to “win the game with his arm,” and besides that crushing sack early against the Redskins by Ryan Kerrigan — where it was almost impossible to believe Smith held onto the ball — the 49ers’ offensive line has protected him as well as any quarterback’s been protected over the last six weeks.
That’s not to say Harbaugh’s going to choose Sunday as the perfect time to unleash some new spread-style offensive scheme. He knows that if they try to get tricky against Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, his team’s sparkling turnover ratio could take a major hit. This game’s still going to be about tiring out the Giants’ talented front seven over the course of the game, then crushing their will to continue in the fourth quarter.
It’s also about field position, and as long as Andy Lee and David Akers are breathing they should be fine there.
One thing that’s risky to count on is the intangibles angle. It’s true that the Giants just won a huge, highly publicized game against the Patriots in Foxboro and are traveling across the country to face a team that they might not fear quite as much, both teams know what’s at stake — a possible No. 2 seed and a first round bye. The Giants will be ready.
While it’s smart to suspect that this game will be a close battle and extremely entertaining, there’s one wild card. Since the Giants will probably abandon the run at around 1:17 pm on Sunday, the 49ers’ chances rest on their ability to get pressure on Eli Manning without blitzing. They need guys in coverage (including Patrick Willis on Ballard), and they need to trust that their base defense will still pressure Manning into hastily-thrown passes off his back foot and get to him at least a couple times.
It’s a challenge, since the Giants have only allowed 15 sacks thus far (the Niners have surrendered 19), but with the 49ers improving every single week, one should be hesitant to say there’s anything they can’t accomplish at this point — especially on defense.
If the Giants get a heavy dosage of Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, with perhaps a dash of Parys Haralson thrown in, the 49ers will find themselves listening to the cheers of a joyous Candlestick Park crowd as they run out the clock at the end of the fourth quarter to push their record to 8-1. With Ray McDonald coming back this week to add some extra help to the defensive line, I have a feeling they will.
Prediction: San Francisco 49ers 24, New York Giants 20