The Niners will need to pressure Eli Manning, as they did in their first meeting. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The 49ers and Giants know what to expect Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, and it isn’t finesse.
Each team knows the other is physical, plays strong defense and goes after the passer. This will be strength vs. strength.
“That is a worthy opponent,” San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters this week. “That is a scary opponent. We will have to come with every ounce of our ‘A’ game.”
This, of course, isn’t the matchup most fans would have predicted in the NFC title game. The odds favored a clash of high-powered offenses from Green Bay and New Orleans. But in beating the Packers and Saints last week in the divisional round, the Giants and 49ers made statements that defensive-oriented teams can make their presence felt in the NFL playoffs.
Now, each is one win away from the Super Bowl. Oddsmakers favor the 49ers by 2½ points in the game at Candlestick Park.
The Giants, who started the season 7-7, have come alive and are on a four-game winning streak having beaten the Falcons and Packers to get to Sunday’s game. Over that four games, the New York pass rush has revved up, compiling 17 sacks. The return of Osi Umenyiora has helped, plus the improved health of Justin Tuck and the great play of Pro Bowler Jason Pierre-Paul.
It’ll be up to the 49ers offensive line to protect quarterback Alex Smith and open running lanes for Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. Though Smith had a great game in the victory over the Saints, passing for 299 yards, the 49ers are still run-oriented. By establishing a ground game against New York, they’ll be able to control the flow of the game and keep Giants QB Eli Manning and a group of game-breaking receivers off the field.
Meanwhile, Harbaugh is hoping a storm brings rain this weekend to dampen Candlestick and provide a bit more of a home-field advantage for the Niners, who are 8-1 at home this season. Harbaugh told Bay Area News Group columnist Mark Purdy that Candlestick has become “a fortress” for his team.
In their win over the Saints last Saturday, the Niners fed off the crowd’s energy.
“Our fans turned that stadium into a fortress,” Harbaugh said. “It felt like somebody locked the gates and put us in here, and we got 70,000 and a city behind us.”
Though the 49ers beat the Giants 27-20 in November, San Francisco’s players and coaches believe the Giants have made big strides since. Plus, the Giants were without top running back Ahmad Bradshaw and Umenyiora then.
New York safety Antrel Rolle says his team is “not going to be denied” and is peaking at the right time.
“We know what to expect with them,” says Manning, who’s been bothered by the flu and a sore left shoulder but will play Sunday. “They’re a very sound team. They’re very good. They have good players. They play with great energy.”
In the first game against San Francisco, Manning threw for 311 yards and two TDs, but was intercepted twice.
There’s been some back-and-forth smack talk in the media and Twitter this week from Giants and 49ers players, but that won’t count for anything when the game kicks off. Former 49ers cornerback Eric Wright says it will be up to this 49ers team to show what it’s all about on the field.
“They’re talking crap,” Wright told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, in reference to some of the Giants. “OK, so the Niners are not getting their respect. But don’t talk back, don’t tweet, don’t talk crap. That’s what you do when you have a good team. Just go out there and kick their face in.”