Niners-Giants NFC title duel has makings of survival of the toughest
SAN FRANCISCO -- "It's going to be a blood bath," Giants defensive tackle Chris Canty said this week of the NFC Championship Game.
Right sentiment, wrong adjective. "Mud." Mud bath. With rain soaking the Bay Area, forecasters say three inches of rain will have fallen this week on Candlestick Park by the 6:40 p.m. ET kickoff Sunday, with a 40 percent chance for more during the game. The elements along with two coaches determined to run the ball and two physical teams (that's putting it mildly based on last weekend's NFC slobberknockers) could make Giants-49ers the Throwback Bowl.
Talking to players on both teams this week, and analyzing San Francisco's 27-20 Week 10 victory over New York, l believe both teams will start off determined to run. Where it goes from there, well, the play of two formidable front sevens will determine that.
"Whoever wins the physical battle will win the game," Giants defensive lineman Dave Tollefson said in the Giants locker room in New Jersey Wednesday. "It's going to be an old-school, traditional football game.''
Said Giants guard Chris Snee: "The Drew Brees-Aaron Rodgers matchup is the one everyone probably expected to see, and most people wanted to see. Who'd have thought that both New Orleans and Green Bay would be out after the years they had? But the way we play, us and San Francisco, is the way the game was always meant to be played."
Strange, then, that when the two teams met 10 weeks ago, it was a typical 2011 aerial show: 81 pass plays (70 passes, three sacks, eight quarterback scrambles) from Alex Smith and Eli Manning, 41 runs by backs. The two backs expected to be the primary mail carriers in the championship game -- Frank Gore and Ahmad Bradshaw -- had zero yards that day. Gore (ankle) carried six times for no yards in the first half, then didn't play in the second half; Bradshaw (foot) didn't play at all.
"We say it [the weather] is not going to change anything," Giants coach Tom Coughlin told me Thursday. "And we go into the game with a certain game plan based on what we think can succeed. But then you have to get a feel for the game. Regardless, I think we would continue to throw if that's what we think will work, because Eli has demonstrated how well he can throw the ball in weather."
The 49ers should be tougher to beat this week than they were in the first game. Gore's healthy, giving them a good one-two punch with rookie Kendall Hunter giving them solid relief work. Smith's emboldened after his 28-yard mad dash for a touchdown and line drive-drive touchdown pass to Vernon Davis saved the season against the Saints last week. The defense is supremely confident, despite allowing the Saints to go the length of the field twice in the fourth quarter.
"I think we're the most complete team out there," Gore said.
It's amazing to think Gore could be right. Think back to July, when the Niners had a new coach, a recycled quarterback, and no faith that '11 would be anything but a rebuilding year. Now the 49ers have ridden a solid defense (though exposed on the deep balls last week against the Saints) with a relentless front to the NFL Final Four.
San Francisco's biggest task Sunday: managing the Giants in their three-receiver sets. Last week in Green Bay, Eli Manning always seemed to have Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz or Mario Manningham open (they combined for 15 catches, 270 yards and three touchdowns). Carlos Rogers had two interceptions of Manning in the first game, and will try to limit the explosive Cruz on the slot. And with Nicks on fire in the playoffs (four touchdowns), containing him and Cruz on a slippery field could well be the difference in winning and losing.
What impressed me watching the Patriots last week was the push off the ball by the defensive line. Shaun Ellis looked frisky, not 34, in playing his best game of the year. The guy loves playing in playoff games. Vince Wilfork was dominant. You know who Kyle Love is? Watch the middle of the Pats' defensive front Sunday; you'll learn. And I'm not exaggerating in saying I have never seen Gerard Warren play better -- and this was the third pick in the 2001 draft, folks.
Maybe they've found the fountain of youth. Maybe Bill Belichick knew all along these guys would be ready when the games really mattered. Whatever. I can't see Ray Rice breaking loose and winning this game for Baltimore. I can see Tom Brady making more than enough plays to win.
Huge matchup of the game: Niners defensive lineman Justin Smith against left tackle David Diehl (on first downs) and guard Kevin Boothe (on passing downs) and chips from other Giants. Not telling you anything you don't know if you watched Smith push Saints tackle Jermon Bushrod all the way back into Drew Brees last week; the three men fell in a huge pig pile, and I wondered if Bushrod got credit for half a sack. Amazing play.
When these teams played in Week 10, Smith and his fellow Missouri product Aldon Smith, the Niners' pass-rush specialist, pressured Eli Manning 10 times over the Giants' left side. With how slippery the ball's going to be Sunday, the ability of Diehl and Boothe and a tight-end helper to hold up is paramount to the Giants' chances. I like Smith to be able to elude the Giants' front enough to make a few plays, and I like the pressure of the San Francisco front seven to force a turnover or two, plus some long-yardage situations. As I wrote above, I think it'll be a good ol' slugfest.
Good podcast this week with Pro Football Hall of Fame vice president Joe Horrigan, the chief archivist and longtime Hall of Fame selection committee czar, and Jets beat man Manish Mehta of the