SAN FRANCISCO -- With two minutes remaining in regulation Sunday in Candlestick Park, Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw walked slowly from the sideline into the narrow tunnel that led to the locker room. His muscles were cramping and the medical staff wanted to give him an IV.
If he had wanted, Bradshaw could have checked out long before the last of his 27 carries for 116 yards. San Francisco fans flooded the exits with well over seven minutes to play, so complete was the Giants' 26-3 victory.
Do not be fooled by the score. The game was not as close as the 23-point margin, which marks the worst loss in the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco. New York (4-2) did to the 49ers what no team has done since Jim Harbaugh arrived as coach last year: It beat them physically, rushing for 126 of its 149 yards in the second half. That was more yards in one half than 22 of San Francisco's previous 23 opponents had run for in a game, including the postseason.
"We knew we were going to come out for a physical battle," Bradshaw said afterward, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. "We just wanted to send the statement today to show everybody we're a good team"
For part of the week -- if not most of the offseason -- the Giants had listened to some 49ers insinuate that New York's victory in last season's NFC Championship Game was a fluke, the result of a muffed punt and a lost fumble that led to 10 points in the 23-20 overtime outcome. The talk did not sit well with the prideful group, which privately scoffed at talk of a San Francisco payback.
"We don't trash talk," said defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who had two sacks. "That ain't the way the Giants organization works. We just come out here and talk with our pads and prove what we've got to prove. The physical team won today. We were more physical. That's basically it."
That was definitely the case on defense, which shut down the 49ers' run game and kept quarterback Alex Smith in obvious passing situations. After failing to record more than two sacks in any game this season, the Giants finished with six Sunday, including five in the second half.
It was the type of performance that helped carry the Giants to the Super Bowl last season. Making it more impressive is that it came against an offense that had put up 621 yards a week earlier in a win over Buffalo, with Smith throwing for 310 yards and three scores.
Against the Giants he had had only 200 yards passing with no scores and three interceptions. Two came at the start of the second half, both by safety Antrel Rolle. They were devastating turnovers in San Francisco territory because the Giants had just taken a 17-3 lead to open the half. The picks set up a pair of field goals that gave New York a comfortable 23-3 lead that was never challenged.
It also allowed them to go into grind mode. And in perhaps the biggest surprise of the day, they focused on running at All-Pro end Justin Smith. Smith is so lethal at chasing down plays from behind that before the teams met in the conference final last season, New York's offensive players were told to get vertical as quickly as possible on runs and short receptions because Smith would be charging after them.
"And it's going to hurt when he gets there," Giant-turned-49er wideout Mario Manningham said this summer.
By running at Smith, the Giants were able to neutralize his pursuit. Incrementally they began finding more openings, if not at Smith, then up the middle.
"They had a good game plan," safety Dashon Goldson said, speaking in general. "They stuck to it and ... fought hard and played the whole game."
San Francisco (4-2) should've known it would be a rough afternoon. After driving from its 15-yard line to the New York 26 to open the game, the offense bogged down and David Akers missed a 43-yard field goal attempt.
The 49ers drove to the Giants 24 on their next possession, but again the offense stalled and they settled for a 42-yard field. At the end of the quarter San Francisco had a 120-25 advantage in total yards, a 7-1 edge in first downs, and an 11:24 to 3:36 cushion in time of possession.
When Smith overthrew tight end Delanie Walker on his third possession and was picked off by cornerback Prince Amukamara, Eli Manning capitalized by moving the Giants 67 yards in seven plays, the last a 6-yard touchdown pass to Victor Cruz. At one point in the first half, Manning completed nine straight passes for 151 yards. He finished 15 of 28 for 193 yards and no turnovers.
The Giants led 10-3 at the half, then squeezed the life from the game when David Wilson returned the second-half kickoff 66 yards to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Bradshaw, who has churned out 316 yards on the ground the last two weeks. Rolle then picked off Smith on back-to-back series to set up field goals, and SF was stopped on downs on its third possession of the half. Overall, the Giants scored 13 points off takeaways.
"Wasn't a great day for any of us," said coach Jim Harbaugh.
With a 20-point lead, the Giants' defensive line could do what it traditionally does best: rush the passer. Five players had at least one sack, led by Pierre-Paul, who had 1.5 entering the week.
"When games like this are on the line, it's a must-win game," said Pierre-Paul. "They thought they had a chip on their shoulder, but nobody picked us to win the game. We're a team that's going to fight. We had a couple of players out, but came out and did what we have to do."
They did it so well that local fans could get home in time to see the first pitch as their beloved baseball Giants prepared to open the National League Championship Series across town against the Cardinals.
So well, in fact, that Bradshaw was able to make his early departure and not be missed.