Diary of a Giants Fan: Giants-49ers Playoff Preview
In the throes of some kind of inexplicably magical run, the New York Giants roll into San Francisco the hottest team in professional football. Winners of four straight, they look to extend that streak to five, win the NFC Championship game and head to the Super Bowl...Surprised?
9-7 teams don't do this, right? Teams with a home loss to the Seahawks don't do this, right? Teams with a four game losing streak that climaxed in a 432-10 loss to the Saints (that's how I remember it) don't do this. Teams who were absolutely throttled at home by the largely incapable hands of Rex Grossman and the Washington Redskins don't do this. Teams like this have a top ten pick and a vacancy at head coach. They certainly don't win their division. They certainly don't win a playoff game. They certainly don't go on the road and upset a 15-1 team that was so favored to win it all that two months ago the only guys betting against them were the same ones that bet on villains in Liam Neeson movies - Come on. Qui-Gon always gets his man..except when he pays Qui-Gon. Then he gets stabbed but good - Anyway, teams like this don't make a splash, right?
WRONG! They do all of those things! They win two straight at the end of the season to take their division. They dominate a top ten offense, giving up a safety just to drive home the embarrassment, in the first round of the playoffs before going on the road and putting up their best defensive effort of the year, splashing in a bit of quarterbacking excellence, and dominating the Green Bay Packers. And so here we stand. The NFC Championship Game, who thought I'd say that two months ago?
Like the Packer game, Sunday's contest is another rematch of a Giant loss; another chance to deliver a dose of sweet, sweet revenge; another game in which the Giants face a former foe with an entirely new lineup. The players are the same, the entire defense wasn't cut and replaced like I would have bet in November, but this Giant squad has evolved. Perry Fewell's defense seems to have found a brain, Kevin Gilbride has found the courage to use the running game he recently discovered he had, and this entire Giant team has found that their season still has a beating heart - You like that Wizard of Oz allegory I had going there?
As always there are a few keys to the game for the Giants if they wish to continue down this Indianapolis bound Yellow Brick Road - Side note: Perhaps the Wizard of Oz metaphors should stop. I mean, Super Bowl aside, I'm not sure Indiana is really Yellow Brick Road worthy. It just sounds like that should lead you somewhere magical. Indiana? More like beige road, or slate-grey, perhaps. But I digress...a lot.
If the Giants are to win, first they'll need someone on the staff to get Eli some Pepto. The quarterback left practice on Wednesday with a stomach bug, and I swear to God, if they lose this game because the All-Pro signal caller has indigestion, I will flip right out. Can we get the man some Canada Dry, please? Because the Giants are going to need him. After all, they're not playing the worst defense in the history of the NFL - a defense that may have been carved up by David Carr, Mike Cherry (if you know your career-Giant, 3rd string QB trivia), or really any of the lovely ladies that Jesse Palmer handed out roses to on his season of the bachelor. Don't get me wrong, Eli is doing work, but this Niner defense is a totally different animal.
First and foremost this team tackles incredibly well. They look to be one of the only teams in the league that still practices the long-lost art. They hit you hard, they get you to the ground and they do it on the first try. For that reason, the Giants can't rely on the big play in this game. This 49er defense won't be embarrassed by Cruz and Nicks like the Jets and Packers were. Instead, I think the G-Men will have to rely on a balanced attack. You can't expect Jacobs and Bradshaw to do much, but any success will go a long way toward keeping the Niners off balance and not allowing them to tee-off on an offensive line who's pass protection is suspect at best and non-existant at worst. Look, any win will have an awful lot to do with the arm of Eli Manning, but for the unit to play as big as they have, the running game has to be involved. Either way though, while this is a daunting matchup, this is still the same Giant offense that has been brilliant all season. If Eli is Eli, they'll be fine. They may have to be the typical Giant offense - one that matriculates the ball down the field rather than the explosive unit we've come to know and love - but I suspect they'll be alright.
Defensively? Look, we all know the Giant defense begins and ends with their pass rush. It remains the single most important part of their defensive game. This week, like last week, the Giants will have to do it in a specific way. Alex Smith has got the ability to run, so the Giants will need to get pressure from all angles and keep the, coming out of college over rated though now probably under rated, quarterback from escaping the pocket. Having said all that, I think the key to this game will be the Giant linebackers. The 49ers want to do two things, run the ball, and pass it to their tight ends. If perennial Giant X-factor Chase Blackburn, Williams and particularly Boley - who was injured last time the teams met and who figures to draw Vernon Davis - play well, I don't see the 49ers having a lot of success. Furthermore, the Niners have a lot of success on first and second down. Stuff the run on first down, keep receivers in front of you on second down, and force Alex Smith to beat you on third down. He may be under rated, but having beaten Tony Romo, Mark Sanchez, Matt Ryan, and Aaron Rodgers in 4 straight games, I'll take my chances with Alex Smith.
As for the game: Well, like the four before it, this one's a bit of a toss-up. Up until and even now after the Giants began to pull the rope-a-dope on the league, the Niners were the surprise of the season. No one saw this coming, and I think a lot of people spent the year waiting for the other shoe to drop hard and fast on Jim Harbaugh's squad. It's hard to say if that happens. This NFC Championship game will be a close, old-fashioned, defensive, knock down-drag out fight in the wind and rain of Candlestick Park - a real slobber-knocker, if you will. It'll be ferocious, it'll be physical, and it'll be close. Can you ask for more? Games like these are hard to call. But let me say this: If the Giants play the game they've shown the past four weeks - if they cover well, if they get after the quarterback, if they show a dynamic and balanced attack on offense, if Eli Manning is Eli Manning - it's hard to not see that shoe finally dropping (the Giants getting the win. Continuation of above metaphor). Defiantly as ever, Giants 24-17.
Check back here after the game for my recap - hopefully not a season recap - and as always, Go Giants!