Monday, January 16, 2012

NFL Playoffs: NFC Championship Breakdown

New York Giants vs. San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers and the Giants both looked like teams on a mission in their divisional round games.  The 49ers forced five turnovers against a usually unstoppable Saints offense, and Vernon Davis was able to score the game-winning touchdown with 9 seconds on the clock, a la Terrell Owens against the Packers in 1998.  But the real story in this game was the efficiency of Alex Smith, who threw for three touchdowns and ran for another without committing a turnover.  He has come a long way in one season under Jim Harbaugh's tutelage, especially considering fans begging for Smith to be benched in favor of David Carr just last year.  This team has completely turned things around, and you have to give a lot of credit to this new coaching staff.

The defense, on the other hand, has stayed constant, and they are as strong as ever.  Justin Smith looked like a man amongst boys against the Saints, and if he continues to play at this level, quarterbacks will not be able to get comfortable in the pocket.  We know, week in and week out, that the 49ers will defend the run well, but what has been pleasantly surprising is their ability to stop the pass and create opportunities for interceptions.  Vic Fangio does a fantastic job disguising coverages, and he sets up Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner to make easy plays in the secondary.

While the 49ers were impressive in their victory, the Giants were even better in a win against the Packers. This team walked into Lambeau with all the confidence in the world, and they backed it up.  I snickered when I heard JPP guarantee victory against the Pack, thinking he was just offering up some bulletin board material, but with the way they played on Sunday, he had every right to say it.  The Giants dominated in every aspect of the game, and I'm not even sure that the game should have been as close as it was.

What surprised me most was the Giants' effectiveness on defense, despite being unable to pressure Aaron Rodgers.  He had all the time in the world to throw, yet he was unable to find open receivers down the field.  This is a true testament to how far this team has come since week one.  Their defense, though not as good as the 49ers' unit, is playing at a very high level right now.

Breaking down this game won't be easy, as this is the definition of a toss-up.  What we do have at our disposal, however, is a Week 10 meeting between these teams to analyze.  That game swung in favor of the 49ers, 27-20.  Eli Manning threw two interceptions, and the Giants struggled to establish any kind of running attack in the game, granted they were without Ahmad Bradshaw in the contest.

The Giants have found success in recent weeks by taking care of the football, establishing a running game, and letting Eli Manning take over in key situations.  While they have seen success so far, these are all tall orders against this 49ers' defense.  While the Giants are definitely capable of doing those three things, I think they will fall short in a few aspects, which will be their ultimate demise in the contest.

Seeing the 49ers as home underdogs this week, it would not surprise me if Vegas leans toward the Giants' side for the upcoming NFC Championship.  Again, the 49ers will be fired up, and they will be playing with a sense of urgency as if they still have something to prove.  The Giants' offense was firing on all cylinders, but they were facing a weak Packers' defense that has been unable to pressure the quarterback all year.  The 49ers, on the other hand, get to the quarterback with ease, and they will make sure Eli Manning doesn't get in any sort of rhythm.  This will help out the 49er secondary.

The Giants' running game will be a non-factor, as the 49ers might have the greatest run defense in NFL history.  They will keep Jacobs and Bradshaw in check.  San Francisco will also win the turnover battle, as they have done all season.  They take care of the football and force mistakes.

When the 49ers have the ball, look for the Giants to control the line of scrimmage and keep Frank Gore in check.  However, the New York pass rush will be a non-factor in this game, mostly because of the play-calling of San Francisco.  Alex Smith releases the ball very quickly on passing downs, and the Giants won't have enough time to get to Smith, as long as his looks are open.

This game could easily go either way, but I think the 49ers will win the turnover battle, get a few big plays from the offense, and play stout defense like they have done all year.  In the end, San Francisco heads to Super Bowl XLVI, due in large part to an incredible home-field advantage.

San Francisco 27, New York Giants 21

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