After a stunning victory against the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, the Giants travel to another harsh environment to play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at 6:00 PM. The 49ers were a surprise team this year going 13-3 including a November 13 win at home against the Giants. In a very close game, the 49ers defense stopped Eli Manning on a fourth down and two to clinch a 27-20 victory. Now the two teams meet again with a Super Bowl appearance on the line
Both the Giants and the 49ers have made it this far thanks to great defenses. Led by four pro-bowlers (MLB Patrick Willis, DT Justin Smith, CB Carlos Rodgers and FS Dashon Goldson) the 49ers defense ranks first in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and second in points allowed. They also rank among the top teams in the league in sacks, forced fumbles, interceptions and are the best in the league in turnover differential (+28).
The 49ers do not have a high powered offense, and in their first matchup, the Giants took advantage of this holding them to four field goals and only two touchdowns. However, this was without their best offensive player, pro-bowl runningback Frank Gore, who missed the game with a knee injury. Gore carried the ball 13 times for 89 yards in their victory against the Saints and his presence will make passing the ball a lot easier for quarterback Alex Smith.
To win this game, the Giants will have to force Smith, a former first round pick, to lose the game for his team. Under first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, Smith has experienced a rebirth throwing for 3,144 yards, 17 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions. The Giants defensive front will need to put constant pressure on Smith and force him to make difficult throws and turn the ball over. To do this, they will rely heavily on Jason Pierre-Paul, who led this defense all year except against the 49ers when he was held to 2 tackles and no sacks. Pierre-Paul, along with Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, will match up against one of the league’s top offensive lines and will need to win the battle and apply pressure on Smith.
Besides Gore, the Giants will also have to find a way to counter tight end Vernon Davis who caught two touchdown passes and gained 170 yards against the Saints. In their first matchup, Davis was held in check most of the game except for a critical 31 yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
On offense, the Giants will not be able to rely heavily on their running game as they did against the Packers and the Falcons. Manning will have to win this game through the air by spreading the ball around to Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Mario Manningham and his tight ends Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum. The Packers and the Falcons put most of their focus on Cruz which allowed Nicks to score four touchdowns in just two playoff games. This game, he will likely be matched up against one of the league’s top corners in Carlos Rodgers which means Cruz will have more freedom to make plays out of the slot and will re-emerge as Manning’s top target.
This game should be close and may come down to Manning leading another fourth quarter drive to win his team the game. If he succeeds, the Giants will be back in the Super Bowl.
Projected Score: Giants 20, 49ers 16