The New York Giants are 60 minutes of football away from their second Super Bowl appearance in five seasons under the always focused, always prepared head coach Tom Coughlin, and standing in their way are the rejuvenated San Francisco 49ers, who have taken on the personality of their head coach – confident and energetic first year man Jim Harbaugh.
New York is coming off of four straight games of complete football, games in which they have been in more control of as a team than any we've seen all season, winning by an average of more than 17 points over the past four weeks.
Meanwhile, the 49ers advanced to the conference championship after their first round bye week with a thrilling 36-32 win over the New Orleans Saints with a last minute touchdown connection between Alex Smith and tight end Vernon Davis that has been labeled around San Francisco as "The Catch III".
Both teams are in high spirits and both teams are feeling confident, but the Giants know that only one team can walk out of this game a winner on Sunday evening.
Offensively, taking care of the football has to be the #1 priority
There is one thing this 49ers team thrives on and one way they win games – dominating the turnover battle. Defensively, they are coached to go after the football and hit hard to separate their man from the ball – and they do a hell of a job of that. With the weather conditions expected to be messy, the Giants have got to have an emphasis on ball security at the skill positions, and Eli Manning will likely be sure to tuck the football and take a sack over taking chances into coverage against this football team.
You've heard about it all week – these guys are +28 in the turnover margin. It's what they do. The Giants can not play into their hands. Patience and ball security will be key for this offensive attack.
Key in on the tight ends and running backs out of the backfield in the 49ers passing game
The 49ers are very straightforward in what they like to do offensively. They pound the run game, and use the short passing game to get Alex Smith into a rhythm and dominate the time of possession. That's their identity as an offense and the Giants will be looking to force them into doing things they aren't used to doing and getting them out of their comfort zone.
The Giants linebackers and safeties have to be very aware of the crossing patterns underneath and swing passes out of the backfield, and tackling is going to be extremely important in this game. The last time these two teams met the linebacker level did not tackle well – although those were under different circumstances, as Spencer Paysinger and Greg Jones saw a lot of playing time with Michael Boley hurt and Chase Blackburn still not on the roster.
Look, Alex Smith is very good at taking care of the football and he plays a smart football game. That said – the Giants will need to look to consistently force him to make stick throws down the football field, and tough throws on the sidelines and to the outside of the field, and take away those easy throws into the flats and over the middle. If they do, I expect to see a sputtering 49ers offense.
Bracket Vernon Davis in the red zone
Davis is playing the best football of his career right now and he and Alex Smith have formed some very good chemistry over the course of the season and you saw how far this duo has gotten last week against New Orleans.
Taking away Davis in the red zone will force Smith to likely look to the outsides on more difficult throws – like fades to the corner and slants into traffic – two routes Michael Crabtree is very capable of winning on, but also routes Corey Webster has shown the ability to defend very well in the red zone.
Davis can't be allowed to get going for this 49ers team, he's without a doubt the catalyst for the offense with his energy and big play ability.
Attack Carlos Rogers over the top
Watching the last game between these two teams, you notice a clear burst and acceleration advantage for Victor Cruz over cornerback Carlos Rogers – who he was matched up with for most of the afternoon. The 49ers were tied for third worst in the NFL with 12 pass completions allowed for 40 yards or more on the season. Look for the Giants to work some double moves and sideline routes in this matchup and see if they can get a couple of quick strikes on this 49ers defense.
THE GIANTS WILL WIN THIS GAME IF…
They take care of the football offensively and don't shoot themselves in the foot on special teams. Yes – in a playoff game of this magnitude, it can very well come down to that. The Giants are the more explosive offensive team, they have a clear advantage at quarterback, and their defense has been matched up with potent offenses in the past three weeks and has shown what it is capable of when at full strength and on the same page. The 49ers thrive on other teams mistakes. New York needs to come into this game patient and disciplined, and not play into that role.
BIG GAME CANDIDATE – S Antrel Rolle
Antrel Rolle has been coming on very strong over the last few weeks of the season and into the playoffs, and his focus and energy has been at an extremely high level. He did an unbelievable job matching up in coverage for the Giants against Greg Jennings last week in Green Bay, and had a huge fumble recovery that really took momentum away from the Packers. With the intensity and the way Rolle has been locked in, I wouldn't be surprised to see the big plays coming from #26 on the defensive side of the football in this game.
I like this matchup for the Giants. They have been playing the run very well defensively for the most part over the past month, and have the quarterback and big play weapons to take advantage of San Francisco where they are most weak – in the secondary. The conditions may be a little sloppy, which may take away from the Giants pass rush a little bit Sunday evening – but the Giants have the athletes to match up with the 49ers skill players, and the conditions really go both ways at the end of the day.
The Giants have got to take care of the football, they've got to make ball security a priority, and they can't hurt themselves with penalties and missed assignments. In other words – the Giants can't beat themselves. If they're clicking the way they have been this postseason, I don't think the 49ers can match up.
Giants 24, 49ers 13
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