Niners defensive end Justin Smith (94) is a force the Giants know they need to contain. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Sunday’s game against the Giants is just one game on a 16-game schedule.
Theoretically, it’s no bigger for the 49ers than the season opener in Green Bay or games against the Lions, Vikings, Jets or Bills.
But, realistically, many Niners players have extra motivation to beat the Giants at Candlestick Park. After losing to them in overtime in the NFC Championship Game in January, it’s understandable.
“I wouldn’t say it’s bitterness,” says 49ers strong safety Donte Whitner, of San Francisco’s attitude going into this matchup. “We can’t take bitterness into this football game. It’s disappointment. We understand we’re disappointed about that loss, and we want to go out there and win this one.”
The 49ers certainly are coming into the game as the hotter team, and oddsmakers have made them a 6½-point favorite. After beating Green Bay and Detroit to open the season, then dropping a game in Minnesota, the Niners are coming off consecutive lopsided victories over the Jets and Bills.
Against Buffalo, the 49ers offense was electric, with 311 yards on the ground and 621 total yards, a franchise record. Defensively, the Niners have given up just three points over the past two games and look perhaps even better than they did last season. They rank No. 2 in the NFL in total defense and No. 2 in passing defense.
Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh is a bit concerned that quarterback Alex Smith may not be completely healthy, having sprained the middle finger on his throwing hand last week, but Smith says it’s not a concern. He’s been throwing well in practice and says he’s fine.
“Alex is well documented how tough he is,” Harbaugh told reporters this week. “He talks about it not being a big deal. So we’ll see.”
The 3-2 Giants are coming off a 41-27 victory over the Cleveland Browns, and offense hasn’t been a problem for New York. The Giants are rolling up 429.2 yards per game (second in the league) and passing for 309 yards per game (third in the league). Quarterback Eli Manning has consistently played well in big games in his career, and he’s off to a good start this season. Already he has 10 TD passes, and receivers Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle have been getting open often for big plays. New York also ran the ball exceptionally well against Cleveland (243 yards), with Ahmad Bradshaw running for a career-high 200 last week.
But Bradshaw knows that running against the 49ers defense is always a challenge.
San Francisco is allowing just 81.4 yards per game, and lineman Justin Smith and linebackers Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith are extremely active and also provide a terrific pass rush out of the 3-4 defense.
“They’re just physical,” Bradshaw told the Newark Star-Ledger this week. “They’re strong. They shed blocks better than anybody in the league. They hit people up front and they come back to the ball. If the ball gets past them, they make plays downfield, even the big guys. So they never quit, they never stop.”
In the January matchup between the teams in the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers basically stuffed the Giants’ running game, then tried to put the pressure on Manning, sacking him six times.
Giants guard Kevin Boothe said this week that for New York to move the ball on offense and win, it’s going to need to make yards consistently on first down Sunday.
“That’s our challenge, to get yardage in the early down and distances,” he told the Star-Ledger. “Whether it’s run or pass to set up manageable third downs and situations like that where we can have an open playbook rather than everyone in the stadium knowing, ‘Hey, they have to be in shotgun, they have to throw the ball because it’s third-and-8-plus.”