Know Your Enemy: Giants Size Up 49ers

Will it be a San Francisco treat or trick?

By Josh Alper
|  Tuesday, Jan 17, 2012  |  Updated 7:51 AM PDT
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The Giants will have to come up with a way to keep Davis grounded this time around.

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There wasn't a Giants fan in the world who watched Saturday's game between the 49ers and Saints without a rooting interest.

They sat in front of their televisions and spent three hours as San Franciscans, pulling for the Niners with all their hearts because they were convinced that it would be better to go to California for the NFC Championship Game than to make a return visit to New Orleans.

The results of the regular season -- a 27-20 loss to the Niners, a humiliating blowout against the Saints -- were the reason for the choice.

It seemed to pay off for the Giants when the Niners pulled out the game in one of the more thrilling fourth quarters in football history.

For many Giants fans, that was enough to start booking tickets to Indianapolis, because, as you can't go 30 seconds without hearing these days, these aren't the same Giants that lost to the 49ers back in November.

Guess what, though? The 49ers fans spent Sunday rooting just as hard for the Giants and they aren't the same team that the Giants saw in the regular season either.

The Record: The 49ers earned the right to host the Saints last weekend by winning their final three games of the regular season, finishing 13-3 and then extending the win streak to four games with two comebacks in the final four minutes against the Saints. The Giants have had the good fortune of playing two straight teams that couldn't match their peak, but it looks like they will meet another team with good timing come Sunday evening.

The Coach: Jim Harbaugh took over a team that wasn't all that good a year ago, made minimal changes and earned predictions of a rough season for his efforts. He won 13 games, turned last year's washouts into this year's Pro Bowlers and ran away with the division behind a relentless personality that rankles some but impresses all.

It feels like we're watching the next great coach in Harbaugh, something that comes through most clearly in the physical way that they play each and every week. Being tougher than the 49ers isn't a formula that many teams have figured out this season and Harbaugh must get a significant amount of the credit for that.

The Offense: Harbaugh must also get a significant amount of credit for what's happened with Alex Smith this season. The perennial disappointment has gotten nothing but faith from Harbaugh, including a game plan that emphasized Smith while beating the Giants, and that faith paid off huge against the Saints last Saturday.

No one will mistake Smith for Eli Manning, but he has shown that he is able to do more than simply protect the ball while letting everyone else do the fireworks. Smith has made plays when he's needed to make plays and changed the perception of his entire career as a result.

Smith is helped greatly by a running game that is a big step up from anything the Giants have seen in their four-game winning streak. Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter can both rip off big plays, especially when defenses can no longer key on them at the expense of defending against the pass.

They are aided by a very good run blocking offensive line in that effort, but there have been breakdowns in pass protection in San Francisco over the course of the season. When everything was on the line and the Saints were bringing the house, though, they stood up and got the job done.

The Defense: In the year where offensive records fell by the bushel, it is somehow fitting that the NFC Championship Game is held at the stadium of the one team in the conference that rode their defense to the top of the food chain. While the Giants have played good defense for four weeks, the Niners have done it for 17 and they don't show much sign of slowing down.

Justin Smith is a worthy candidate for Defensive Player of the Year honors as he blows up the run and rushes the passer with equal ability. Aldon Smith had 14 sacks in the regular season as a rookie and the two of them, along with Ahmad Brooks and others, make it possible for the 49ers to follow the Giants' playbook by generating tremendous pass rush without bringing extra bodies.

That allows them to avoid major mismatches in the secondary, a strategy that led to two picks of Manning in the first meeting and the second most interceptions in all of football in the regular season. And, on top of everything else, you just can't run on them.

The Intangibles: While you would probably agree with the argument against another trip to New Orleans, any Giants fan who thinks this is going to be an easy win is more than a little misguided. Whatever you like about the Giants' chances -- the defense, the momentum, an offense that makes plays when it needs to -- is something you have to like about the 49ers as well.

As of right now, there is rain and wind in the forecast for Sunday's game. If the wind is such that throwing the ball is perilous, the 49ers would get an edge. Given the history of weather prediction, it's better to just play wait and see.

Unsung Hero: David Akers kicked more field goals than anyone in history this season and Andy Lee was the best punter in the NFL. Both men can take what seems like a big defensive stop and turn it into a positive for the Niners with their feet.

Key Matchup: If Jermichael Finley's hands were up to snuff on Sunday, the Packers might have had a fighting chance because he was open pretty regularly. The Giants can't afford to make the same mistake against Vernon Davis.

Davis destroyed the Saints last week, devastated the Giants in the regular season and the Giants will have to do a better job on the tight end this time without any obvious choice to defend him. Jacquian Williams hasn't distinguished himself and Antrel Rolle gave up just about every catch the Packers had on Sunday, but someone's gotta do the job or the Giants will suffer the consequences.

The Bottom Line: The 49ers look an awful lot like the Giants ... of 2008. Their defense is remarkably good, their running game can wear down the opposition and they've got a quarterback finding himself at the most crucial moment of the season.

The biggest difference is that they are the home team in this round of the playoffs, robbing them of a chance to play the underdog card that the Giants fetishized back then and again this season. But when you were picked to finish last in a sketchy division and start a quarterback that was written off like a tax shelter, do you really need any more fuel for that particular fire?

Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter and he is also a contributor to Pro Football Talk.

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