The Giants boasted a physical, intimidating defense with athletic linebackers and stout linemen capable of stifling the NFL's most productive offenses. San Francisco featured a high-powered passing attack led by an eventual Hall of Fame quarterback in his prime with receivers capable of turning short passes into big gains.
When the 49ers host the Giants in the NFC championship game Sunday for a shot at the Super Bowl, the matchup conjures memories from a previous era of this great rivalry – even if the roles are somewhat reversed.
The elite quarterback now is New York's Eli Manning, who connects on big plays to Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz in a similar fashion to how Joe Montana and Jerry Rice did for the dominant Niners in the 1980s.
San Francisco's current front seven led by relentless defensive lineman Justin Smith, rookie pass-rushing specialist Aldon Smith and fierce linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman resembles that old Giants group featuring Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson. Smith, Willis and Bowman each were first-team All-Pros this season for a San Francisco team that had five of them, the most in the NFL.
And who could have predicted this surprising pairing?
The Giants (11-7) toppled defending champion Green Bay 37-20 last Sunday when everybody figured the road to the Super Bowl would go through Lambeau Field. Instead, New York is traveling West to San Francisco to face the upstart 49ers (14-3) in a meeting of franchises with so many fresh faces on the big stage.
Jim Harbaugh's ''mighty men'' as he calls them stunned Drew Brees and the favored Saints 36-32 when Alex Smith hit Vernon Davis for the game-winning 14-yard touchdown with 9 seconds remaining.
Smith and Manning each orchestrated five fourth-quarter comebacks during the regular season, yet Manning missed in a 27-20 loss at San Francisco on Nov. 13 when Justin Smith batted away his last-ditch pass attempt on fourth down in the waning moments.
''This is about the NFC championship. It's an opportunity to get this win and go on to the Super Bowl,'' Manning said. ''We played them once before. We know they're a good team. There's no denying that. They're playing great football. They're playing with great confidence. It's going to be exciting going out there and having another shot and seeing what we can do.''
Niners long snapper Brian Jennings is the only one left on either side from San Francisco's last trip to the playoffs in January 2003, when the 49ers rallied for a stunning 39-38 comeback victory against the Giants at Candlestick Park. San Francisco also had beaten New York during the regular season that year. In the rematch, the Niners rallied from a 38-14 deficit in the third quarter to record the record the second-biggest comeback victory in NFL playoff history.
The 49ers lost in the NFC playoff semifinals the next week at eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay, and had not been back to the playoffs until stunning the favored Saints last week by scoring two touchdowns in the final 2:11 of play.
It's sold out for Sunday's game with rain in the forecast as the 49ers host the NFC title game for the first time since 1997 – which also was the last time they played for the conference championship. Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. will serve as honorary captain after team president and nephew, Jed York, called him immediately after beating the Saints with the thoughtful invite.
Fittingly, DeBartolo owned the team from 1977-2000, when the 49ers won five Super Bowls. He was affectionately known as ''Mr. D'' to his players and coaches.
The only other time these two franchises faced off in the conference championship the game finished in memorable fashion. On Jan. 20, 1991, Roger Craig fumbled with the 49ers leading 13-12 late in the fourth quarter and attempting to run out the clock. That allowed New York to drive for the winning field goal in the final seconds of a 15-13 victory that denied San Francisco a chance at a third straight Super Bowl title. New York then went on to beat the Buffalo Bills to capture its second Super Bowl.
These teams met six times in the playoffs between the 1981 and `94 seasons with the winner going on to win the Super Bowl four times.
There shouldn't be too many elements of surprise Sunday considering how recently they last played, though Harbaugh is always good for a few tricks.
''That first game has nothing to do with what happens Sunday night,'' Giants safety Antrel Rolle said.
Davis had a career day against New Orleans with seven catches for 180 yards – the most yards receiving by a tight end in a playoff game – so the Giants certainly will try to neutralize him and put constant pressure on a never-more-confident Smith.
Harbaugh has used the phrase ''don't overcook it'' with is players as a reference to sticking with what got them this far in a remarkable turnaround season.
''Burnt meat, stale bread doesn't taste real good,'' Harbaugh said. ''Like to get it just right. Not undercooked, not overcooked.''
In that November game, the 49ers won their seventh straight and did so without relying on star running back Frank Gore, whose franchise-record streak of five straight games with 100 yards rushing ended with a knee injury and his first career game with zero yards.
Forget about it. He's ready to roll this weekend.
''He makes a big difference and there is not a question about that,'' Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. ''If you look at the way he is utilized and how much they put on the runners when they come in, how much emphasis they put on the run game, he is certainly someone you must pay attention to.''
New York is riding its own impressive roll.
Manning threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns against the Packers as the surging Giants won their fourth straight game. He'd love to win another Super Bowl ring to go with the one he has for the 2007 season.
''The Giants, we saw them earlier in the season and they're playing at a much higher level, especially these last four or five games they've played, done an outstanding job, and we are too, you know?'' San Francisco left tackle Joe Staley said. ''I think we're a different team than we were earlier in the season, playing a lot better, with a lot more confidence.''
In fact, the 49ers have already more than exceeded expectations for Harbaugh's first season. They won the NFC West to end an eight-year playoff drought and the same stretch without a winning record. On top of that, they earned the NFC's No. 2 seed and home-field advantage. That proved huge in eliminating New Orleans.
''Nobody really gave us an opportunity to be in this position, nobody gave us an opportunity to beat the Saints. Nobody thought we would,'' said safety Donte Whitner. ''Now we're sitting here with a home game, home-field advantage, you have the Giants traveling here and if you win you go to the Super Bowl. It's hard not to think about that. I would be lying if I said we weren't thinking that one win gets us in.''
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
The Giants scored 394 points and were extremely efficient down the stretch to win the NFC East. They've continued that in the playoffs, mixing in big plays with ball security, getting huge contributions from WRs Hakeem Nicks (88), Victor Cruz (80) and Mario Manningham (82), and just enough rushing from Ahmad Bradshaw (44) and Brandon Jacobs (27).
Eli Manning (10) makes it all work, and has been brilliant for much of the season, even as the Giants (11-7) struggled to get into the postseason. Manning's calm demeanor rubs off on his teammates, and he's become particularly adept on third downs and in fourth quarters. He set an NFL regular-season record with 15 touchdown passes in the fourth period. Manning has been the definition of clutch.
He's also gotten more comfortable with his offensive line, led by G Chris Snee (76) and T David Diehl (66). That line was leaky midway through the schedule, but improved when everyone got healthy.
Coach Tom Coughlin prefers to use the ground game, especially the power run, to set up passes. While Bradshaw and Jacobs have been decent and sporadically broke some long gains, the Giants have profited most on Manning's arm. Look for them to attempt doing so again because the 49ers (14-3) have the league's best run defense, led by All-Pros DT Justin Smith (94), LBs NaVorro Bowman (53) and Patrick Willis (52), the most dynamic defender in this game.
Having seen how well New Orleans did with TE Jimmy Graham last week, New York will get Jake Ballard (85) involved, particularly if he can keep one of the linebackers or safeties occupied. That would force the 49ers to have single coverage on one of the Giants' dangerous wideouts, and all three have shown breakaway ability in such situations.
Still, the Niners, who allowed an NFC-low 229 points, have strong coverage backs in CB Carlos Rodgers (22) and S Dashon Goldson (38), each of whom had six interceptions. San Francisco also might be the best tackling team in the NFL, and S Donte Whitner's (31) hit on Pierre Thomas last week displayed that.
Thanks to rookie Aldon Smith (99) and Justin Smith up front and LB Ahmad Brooks (55) in a turnaround season, the 49ers have a dangerous pass rush. Watch for Aldon Smith on edge rushes and some stunts, and for Justin Smith just about anywhere.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
If the Niners establish the run with Frank Gore (21), sixth among the NFL's leading rushers this season with 1,211 yards and eight TDs, and can spring backup Kendall Hunter(32) a few times, it will make QB Alex Smith (11) more effective. In by far the best season of his seven-year career, Smith has avoided turnovers, made more precise throws than ever and been patient. He also can use his legs, as he showed with that masterful sweep for a 28-yard TD against the Saints.
Playing it smart on offense is San Francisco's style – out of necessity and thanks to the coaching acumen of Jim Harbaugh. The receiving corps, other than TE Vernon Davis (85), is mediocre. Davis is a special talent and was a game-breaker against New Orleans, bringing himself to tears. If he is able to bring New York's secondary to tears, the Niners will be in great shape.
But safeties Antrel Rolle (26) and Kenny Phillips (21) have shown better coverage skills in the last month than at any previous time, and we might even see CB Corey Webster (23) covering Davis at times.
Smith's offensive line is as good as Manning's, with T Joe Staley (74) and C Jonathan Goodwin (59) the standouts. They must neutralize the Giants' potentially overpowering pass rush led by All-Pro DE Jason Pierre-Paul (90), DEs Justin Tuck (91) and Osi Umenyiora (72), and revitalized LB Michael Boley (59). If backup TE Delanie Walker (46) can go after breaking his jaw – he says he will play – it will help the passing game immensely.
The Giants stumbled often in pass coverage for much of the season, but came on in recent weeks against the likes of Tony Romo, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers. If Alex Smith has to put up the ball 35 or more times, New York could be in good position to make its second Super Bowl in four years.
The 49ers have an All-Pro kicker in David Akers (2) and punter in Andy Lee (4). Need we say more about their kicking game?
Akers set a league mark with 44 field goals, in part because San Francisco bogged down in the red zone too much. He also has kept his range despite being in his 13th season.
The Niners return game isn't spectacular, although the inconsistent Ted Ginn Jr., who is slowed by a right knee problem, did break two returns for scores. Their coverage squads are very strong.
Lawrence Tynes (9) has made almost as many clutch field goals as Akers, and his kickoffs have improved recently. Steve Weatherford (5) has been terrific in the second half of the season as the punter.
Don't look for the Giants to break many long runbacks; they've gotten little production from anyone they've tried at it. More significantly, they didn't give up any TDs on returns.
It's been perplexing for months that many Giants fans were eager for a coaching change, especially when the team hit the meat of the schedule and lost four straight. Coughlin stayed the course, never panicked, made sure his players kept their focus and look where he has them now. For the last four weeks, the Giants have been perfectly prepared, resourceful and more energetic than their opponents.
Harbaugh's first pro season as a head coach has been wildly successful. He changed the attitude in a once-divisive locker room, made his players believe in themselves, and provided a steady presence for the likes of Alex Smith, Davis and WR Michael Crabtree(15). He has a difficult chore coaching against a master such as Coughlin, but Harbaugh certainly won't back down.