New York Giants (11-7) at
San Francisco 49ers (14-3)
Kickoff: Sunday, 5:30 p.m.
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
When the Giants have the ball: 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.
When the 49ers have the ball: 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 24-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, LT Joe Staley would be overmatched by DEs Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora in the 49ers' four-minute offense.
Special teams: The 49ers' special teams have been a game-changing unit and coach Jim Harbaugh harps on the team's ability to win the field-position battle. In the regular season, the 49ers' average starting field position was its 33.5-yard line while they held opponents to the 24.3. Their kickers are arguably the best in the NFL. P Andy Lee had a 44.0-yard net punting average and PK David Akers made a regular-season record 44 field goals with a touchback percentage over 50. WR Ted Ginn's status was in question because of a knee injury at midweek. He'd be missed — Ginn has six career returns for touchdowns and averaged 27.6 yards on kickoff returns this season. For a team with ball security concerns on returns, the Giants anticipate San Francisco being more physical than most on their coverage teams — they had two takeaways in the kicking game last week against the Saints. P Steve Weatherford has been an excellent directional kicker this season and if he can master the winds — and potentially slick track — at Candlestick to force the 49ers to march the length of the field repeatedly, the Giants might be difficult to beat. The Giants' return teams are below-average, notably poor on punt returns where their 6.1-yard average return should have Lee salivating.
— Jeff Reynolds, The Sports Xchange