First-look preview: NFC Championship Game

It's the 49ers and New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game with a ticket to the Super Bowl on the line, and to begin the week leading up to Sunday's showdown at Candlestick Park we take an early preview look at several aspects, including keys to the game, the pivotal individual matchup, and who holds the edge in six vital categories (where TSX says the Niners hold a 3-1-2 advantage).

Game time: Sunday, 3:30 p.m. PST
Site: Candlestick Park in San Francisco
TV: FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver)
Records: Giants, 11-7, champions of NFC East; 49ers, 14-3, champions of NFC West
Last week's NFC semifinals: 49ers defeated New Orleans Saints 36-32, Giants defeated Green Bay Packers 37-20.

Keys to the game: The Giants have been in playoff mode for the past four weeks, so keeping up the energy and intensity for a cross-country trip bears watching. New York is peaking at the right time, in part because the team is as healthy as it has been all season. The defensive line is flying to the ball, allowing the secondary to focus on coverage. Niners QB Alex Smith is hardly among the league's elite passers yet, but he did make plays when the team needed them against New Orleans. The Giants' system isn't as complex to digest, but they have far better individual pass rushers, making it imperative for RBs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter to have success out of the gate. The Giants' offense has been far more potent with RB Ahmad Bradshaw healthy and providing some pop to the ground game. QB Eli Manning has a trio of dangerous receivers, but the 49ers' secondary is coming off an outstanding effort against the Saints. San Francisco will be aggressive, hit hard and try to punch the Giants in the mouth – figuratively – and see how they respond.

Matchup to watch: Giants WR Hakeem Nicks vs. 49ers CB Carlos Rogers: Both teams have grown and changed since the 49ers' 27-20 victory over the Giants at home in Week 10. That includes Nicks playing by far his best football of the season in the playoffs. Rogers had two interceptions in the first meeting.

Player spotlight: 49ers LBs Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman: They teamed for 25 tackles in the Week 10 game. If they're putting the clamps on the ground game, it forces the Giants to become far more one-dimensional.

Fast facts: San Francisco has won four of the eight playoff meetings, although the lone previous NFC Championship Game meeting was a 15-13 Giants victory in 1990. ... The 49ers make their first NFC Championship Game appearance since 1997.

Who will win and why: Vernon Davis did his best Dwight Clark impersonation last week, while Eli Manning is rewriting Phil Simms' Giants records. These franchises have locked horns in many epic playoff games, and this shapes up as another, with the 49ers getting the edge through turnovers, special teams and home-field advantage. The TSX pick: 49ers 23, Giants 21.

Who has the edge?

When the Giants run the ball: The re-emergence of Ahmad Bradshaw has contributed significantly to the Giants' four-game winning streak. The balance has helped ease the pass rush against QB Eli Manning. But this is by far the best run defense the Giants have faced during their four-game winning streak. The Saints also came to San Francisco trumpeting the quiet productivity of their ground game. The 49ers promptly held New Orleans to 2.6 yards per carry and made the pocket very uncomfortable for Drew Brees. Edge: 49ers

When the Giants pass the ball: 49ers S Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are aggressive in run support and can cause receivers to hear footsteps on the back end. But it really comes down to how stingy the run defense is, because the Giants have a trio of receivers in Hakeem Nicks, Victory Cruz and Mario Manningham who can win one-on-one matchups. Manning has joined the ranks of the elite, and will look to exploit CBs Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver in three- and four-wide sets. Edge: Giants

When the 49ers run the ball: Frank Gore had a sore knee in the first meeting, when he didn't register a yard on six carries. This time around, he's healthy and will provide a stiff test for the Giants, who were slashed for some big gains in Green Bay last week. Gore is known for his hard running between the tackles, but he also can plant his foot in the ground on a stretch play and hammer a cut-back lane. EDGE: 49ers

When the 49ers pass the ball: Like the Giants, it hinges on how well Gore and Kendall Hunter do in the ground game. Alex Smith rose to the occasion last week, but TE Vernon Davis remains his only consistent weapon. His wideouts don't get quick separation and protection will be a significant issue on long passing downs. Edge: Even

Special teams: San Francisco forced two special teams turnovers against the Saints and PK David Akers and P Andy Lee are All-Pros kicking at home. WR Ted Ginn is also always a threat to pop a big return. Giants PK Lawrence Tynes and P Steve Weatherford are solid, but Will Blackmon doesn't bring any pop to the return game. Edge: 49ers

Coaching: Old school vs. new school. Tom Coughlin has been around this block several times before, preparing teams for conference championship games. Jim Harbaugh is intense, has his team incredibly well prepared and the 49ers play hard every snap. Edge: Even

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