NFC Championship Game breakdown: 49ers/Giants

Taking a look deep inside Sunday's NFC Championship Game showdown between the 49ers and New York Giants at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, with snapshot game details, series history, game plans, matchups to watch, NFL regular-season rankings for both teams, personnel updates and a look inside both camps before the much-hyped rematch that will send the winner to Super Bowl XLVI.


KICKOFF: Sunday, 3:30 p.m. PST
SITE: Candlestick Park in San Francisco
SURFACE: Natural grass
RECORDS: 49ers 14-3, champion of NFC West, No. 2 seed in NFC playoffs; Giants, 11-7, champion of NFC East, No. 4 seed in NFC playoffs
LAST WEEK: 49ers defeated third-seeded New Orleans Saints 36-32 in NFC semfinal; Giants defeated first-seeded Green Bay Packers 37-20 in the other NFC semifinal
NFL RANKINGS: 49ers: No. 26 in total offense, No. 4 in total defense. Giants: No. 8 in total offense, No. 27 in total defense
TV: FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver)

SERIES HISTORY: 36th meeting, including seven playoff games. The 49ers lead the overall series 18-17 and the playoff series 4-3. The 49ers beat the Giants 27-20 on Nov. 13 at Candlestick Park in the regular season when defensive end Justin Smith knocked down a pass on fourth-and-2 from the 49ers' 10 with 37 seconds left. The 49ers also beat the Giants 39-38 in the 2002 wild-card playoff game. In that game, the 49ers scored 17 fourth-quarter points to advance to the divisional round. New York is 5-11 overall at Candlestick Park (4-8 during the regular season and 1-3 in the playoffs).

KEYS TO THE GAME: The 27-20 loss at San Francisco on Nov. 13 should boost the confidence of Big Blue. Without RB Ahmad Bradshaw and limited by an offensive line pieced together because of injuries, the Giants drove to the 49ers' 10 in the final minute with 2nd-and-2 and a chance to tie but couldn't get the job done. Since that game, the line has jelled, WR Victor Cruz has put a case of the drops in his distant rearview mirror and Eli Manning has climbed near the precipice of joining a rare tier of signal-callers. The Giants can take plenty of lessons from last week's film of the Saints' gameplan. New Orleans found big plays in the middle of the field –- and multiple big hits from the 49ers' hard-hitting, risk-taking safeties. Manning won't back away from working the ball between the hash marks with San Francisco's wide-split safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, but his trump card is Bradshaw. Bradshaw is the team's best blocking back, and he surprises with his power to gain yards after contact. If Bradshaw and big back Brandon Jacobs can get going, Manning should thrive in play-action. He was 7-of-9 for 155 yards with two touchdowns working off play-action at Green Bay. Cruz is a flash in the open field and his burst off the line strains teams that bump receivers at the line without over-the-top help. The 49ers regularly walk a safety into the box in their eight-man front but tracking Cruz and Hakeem Nicks might force a change in approach. For all the attention the 49ers have received for dominant third-down defense, the Giants are just as impressive on first down offensively, averaging almost eight yards per play in the postseason on first down. When they do face long-yardage downs, Manning gets rid of the ball if there's nothing there, and the offensive line has allowed just 16 sacks in the last 13 games. The best way for the 49ers to put the brakes on the Giants' waves of pass rushers is to slam Frank Gore into the line and escort him through to the second level. The Giants are wary of long trap plays –- pulling the backside guard to lead Gore or Kendall Hunter – but won't tone down their Gore-centric defensive plan used in November. On a sore knee, he rushed six times for zero yards against mostly eight- and nine-man defensive fronts, including consistent use of a five-man defensive line. The 49ers feature TE Vernon Davis and don't have the playmakers outside to stretch the secondary vertically. The Giants were effective last week cluttering middle of the field to push Packers' receivers to the sideline, funneling passes outside the numbers. The longest completion by Aaron Rodgers was 21 yards. QB Alex Smith has absorbed the confidence instilled in him by the new coaching staff. His athletic skills were evident on the 28-yard touchdown run last week. Smith can lock onto Davis, but trusts him to come up with the ball using his muscle against cornerbacks and speed against linebackers. As matchups go, Davis is a ton. He's as fast as any player the Giants can find to cover him with raw strength to boot. The 49ers' offensive line, a crew of bulldozers built for power from left tackle to right tackle, can be limited in a high-tempo game. If the Giants jump to an early lead, Pro Bowl starter LT Joe Staley would be overmatched by DEs Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora in the 49ers' four-minute offense.

FAST FACTS: The Giants are 4-1 on the road in the postseason under Tom Coughlin. ... The 49ers have 22 interceptions by defensive backs this season.

BY THE NUMBERS: .783 -- San Francisco's home winning percentage in the postseason since 1980 (18-5). 7.57 -- Average yards by the Giants on first down in the playoffs, second to only New England (8.83). On the other side of the ball, the Giants' defense is allowing 3.88 yards per play on first down, which is second to the Patriots, who are allowing 2.48 yards per play. 4 -- Number of consecutive postseason games the Giants have won with Eli Manning as their quarterback.

QUOTES TO NOTE
"Class, class team that also is a cruel team. They don't give you things. They don't let you have what you want." – 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh on the Giants
"We're 60 minutes away from our dream." – Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, when asked what it feels like to be in the NFC Championship Game

49ERS GAME PLAN: The 49ers are one of the best run-stopping teams in league history according to the statistics, and the Giants finished the season ranked 32nd in rushing. The 49ers would like to keep things that way and make Eli Manning beat them, which has been their strategy all season. The 49ers have proved vulnerable in the secondary this year. The Giants went with five-man lines and nine-man fronts in the last meeting on Nov. 13. That's unlikely to happen in this game because 49ers quarterback Alex Smith is improved and the 49ers weren't a huge rushing threat over the second half of the season.

GIANTS GAME PLAN: The Giants' offense will face perhaps the toughest defense to date, a rugged 49ers defense that creates all kinds of headaches for opposing offenses, and that rarely makes critical mistakes. For the Giants, the first and most important thing atop their list is ball security. The 49ers finished the regular season plus-28 in the giveaway/takeaway department, and last week against a very good Saints offense, they came up plus-4 while forcing five turnovers. During the regular season, the 49ers converted 38 of their opponent's turnovers into 108 points, or 28.4 percent of their total scoring. Another objective for the Giants offense will be avoiding third-and-long situations. The 49ers have stopped opponents on 44.2 percent of their third-down attempts when the yards needed was six or more; when the yards needed was five or less, the 49ers have only stopped opponents 28.1 percent of the time.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

--- 49ers front seven, which includes three All-Pro players, vs. Giants offensive line, which has allowed only 16 sacks in the last 13 games including playoffs

--- 49ers coverage teams which caused two fumbles last week, vs. Giants punt and kickoff teams, which struggle

Giants QB Eli Manning, who's having a prolific season, vs. 49ers secondary, which is prone to big plays but also makes a lot of plays with an aggressive style

--- Giants LB Michael Boley vs. 49ers TE Vernon Davis: The last time these two teams met, Davis, who mostly went against Boley, was held to just eight yards on one reception before a hamstring injury at the end of the second quarter forced the linebacker out of the game. Davis, who last week had seven receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns including the game-winner, went on to finish that game with three catches for 40 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown catch that put his team in the lead for good.

--- Giants run defense vs. 49ers RB Frank Gore. In their earlier meeting, Gore was injured and didn't have a single rushing yard on six carries before he was forced from the game. But this weekend will be a whole new ballgame as Gore is not only healthy, he's been running well. Last week, he led a 49ers' rushing attack with 89 of the team's 143 yards. The Giants' run defense, which two weeks ago held Michael Turner and the Falcons to just 64 rushing yards on 21 carries, yielded 147 rushing yards on 23 carries to the Packers, 66 of those gained by quarterback Aaron Rodgers. With defensive tackle Chris Canty nursing a knee injury - he is expected to play on Sunday - it will be interesting to see if Canty and fellow defensive tackle Linval Joseph can create congestion inside of the tackles, forcing Gore, who in his last nine games is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry (136 for 512 yards), to go wide.

Inside the camps


49ERS

Coach Jim Harbaugh wants two things in preparing for the New York Giants this Sunday at Candlestick Park in the NFC Championship Game. He wants it to rain on his team in practice, and he seemingly wants his team to be loose. He pretty much got both this week.

Harbaugh extended his Thursday news conference by asking a question of his own.

"Isn't anybody going to ask me about the weather?" he queried.

When questions were asked, he said, "I noticed when I was standing on my balcony today at about 6:20, 6:30 (a.m.), looked out and saw a very red sky," Harbaugh said. "That means, 'red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky in morning, sailor take warning.' So, I anticipate that we'll have some precipitation today, some weather, and that will be a great thing for us."

By mid-practice Thursday, light rain was falling. It rained heavily in the San Francisco Bay Area on Friday. The forecast for Sunday is for a 40 percent chance of rain. The 49ers have played all 17 of their games this season in fine weather.

Players seemed unfazed by the possibility of rain, particularly if it's light.

"You are going to call the same type of game you are going to call regardless (of weather). So, I really don't think too much is going to factor in," defensive lineman Justin Smith said.

While Harbaugh didn't mention how loose his team is, if they are following the example of their head coach, they are plenty relaxed. Harbaugh seemed more interested in talking about who the best baseball player of all time is, rather than his football team.

Harbaugh believes it's Willie Mays, and the coach was so interested in the discussion, he continued it in the lunch room. According to team president and CEO Jed York, Harbaugh pigeon-holed wide receiver Kyle Williams to talk baseball. Williams is the son of White Sox general manager Kenny Williams.

GIANTS

When it comes to the NFC Championship Game, the Giants are no stranger to playing in adverse weather conditions.

In January 2008, New York defeated Green Bay at Lambeau Field despite record-setting frigid temperatures to earn the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLII. This weekend, the Giants will head to San Francisco and face the 49ers at Candlestick Park in an atmosphere in which the weather is forecast to be rainy and windy.

"It's not going to affect us much," said safety Antrel Rolle of the forecasted conditions. "We've played in muddy games, rainy games, snow -- it doesn't matter what it is. We've all been a part of those games so I don't think the weather is going to have much of an effect on the game at all."

Many of the Giants said that if the field is treacherous, they'll switch to longer cleats in order to ensure better traction, something they'll test out prior to kickoff when they go out for pregame warmups.

However as far as altering their technique or approach to their individual assignments, the Giants say that if anything, the inclement weather can be a bonus because of the emphasis they'll need to take with ensuring they do all the little things that are pertinent to their position.

"I think it's just paying attention to details in your route," said wideout Hakeem Nicks on what the receivers would have to focus on in rainy conditions. "You've got to be more detailed in your route coming in and out of your cut, and look the ball all the way in because the ball could be a little wet. It's just a matter of having your nose over your toes in your route (and) not leaning back in your route. I think it's just a matter of concentration."

Nicks said that in the battle between a receiver and a defensive back that's played out in the rain, the advantage goes to the receiver because the former knows where the route is going. "DBs are just guessing or playing their coverage. So I always feel like it's to the receivers' advantage because we know what we're going to do during our routes."

Rolle, however, disagreed. "I don't feel that there are any advantages when you're playing the game of football. We're both going to be playing on the same field. (Wide receivers) know what they're doing when the field is dry. I think it's the same scenario, to be honest with you."

Regardless of the players' position, many of the Giants agree that if the 49ers home turf, which is grass, becomes wet and muddy, that footing is going to be a concern.

"If it rains, it will definitely be a challenge for us, but it's nothing that we haven't faced before," said defensive end Justin Tuck. "Whatever challenges come our way we'll have to just take them head on."

Personnel news


49ERS

--- LB Patrick Willis (knee) did not participate in practice later in the week after engaging in practice on Wednesday.

--- LB Larry Grant would replace Patrick Willis and did so with the defense not missing a beat when Willis missed the better part of four games with a hamstring injury earlier this season.

--- TE Delanie Walker participated in practice this week and feels optimistic he will play. Walker broke his jaw during a Christmas Eve game in Seattle and still needs doctor's approval to play.

--- K David Akers was called one of the best athletes on the team by coach Jim Harbaugh. He also said he could go down as one of the best kickers of all time.

GIANTS

--- DE Justin Tuck said he's come to the realization several weeks ago that he would not be 100 percent healthy this year. But that doesn't mean that Tuck, who traditionally has preferred to lead by example, can't be an effective leader. Instead the Giants' defensive captain learned that his teammates admired him more for his body of work rather than what he had done lately, and that they took note if Tuck became withdrawn. "They came to me and were like, 'You know what? You don't have to worry about that. We know you're not 100 percent, we know that doesn't stop you from being a leader,'" he said. "I guess I got that OK from other players to still be the vocal leader and still be showing leadership even though I wasn't doing it on the football field at times."

--- WR Victor Cruz has had a year that he'll never forget any time soon. Not only did Cruz's 1,536 receiving yards set a new Giants team record, shattering Amani Toomer's old mark by 193 yards, he also became a new father to a baby girl last week. When asked to reflect on the year he's had, the former Massachusetts star said it's been surreal. "A year ago I was just trying to find my way on this team and was trying to get off of IR and making sure I was healthy, getting ready for next year, watching the end of the season last year and seeing how that turned out," he said. "This year has just been a tremendous ride for me." As Cruz and the Giants prepare for the NFC Championship Game this Sunday, the Giants' leading receiver said he's not quite ready to make the transition yet to full-time diaper duty. I don't want it to end. We still have some goals in front of us and we want to complete those."

--- QB Eli Manning's 100.1 passer rating in road playoff games is the third highest total in NFL history (based on a minimum of 100 attempts). Speaking of Manning, he was back at Thursday's practice after having to leave early the previous day due to a stomach virus. Manning, who on Thursday said he felt 100 percent, took his full practice work load and will play on Sunday.

--- WR Hakeem Nicks, on what the Giants have done to reduce turnovers on offense this season: "From a receiver's standpoint, it was a lot of tipped balls, not looking the ball all the way in, making moves before you catch the ball, not tucking the ball after you catch it, and not getting to the depth point in your route and the ball comes too soon. So we just had to critique ourselves and get back to the basics -- work on the timing, work on looking the ball in once we catch it."

--- S Antrel Rolle, who went to his first Super Bowl as a member of the Cardinals, admitted that it was easy to think about the "what ifs" should the Giants defeat the 49ers on Sunday. However, he tried to put the thought process into perspective in realizing that the Giants still have a game to play before they can start thinking about the Super Bowl. "I think that's what keeps you driving, but at the same time we have to take it one game at a time, one play at a time," he said. "I think that is our primary focus and that's going to be our only focus going into this game."

--- RB Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) missed his second day of practice on Thursday. Bradshaw, who has been on a managed practice schedule for most of the year is likely to get some practice in before the game.

--- RB Brandon Jacobs, on comments made by former 49er and Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice that he plays "a little soft": "I still love Jerry Rice, but I bet you he won't tackle me."

--- DE Osi Umenyiora, who has battled with the Giants' front office over his contract, declined to discuss his future with the team beyond this year. "This is pleasure. You don't want to mix business with pleasure," he said.


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