Thanks to a disheartening loss by Green Bay last week the road to the Super Bowl now goes through San Francisco.
Questions concerning San Francisco's offense that have been posed since the beginning of the season came to fruition last week when San Francisco edged out the New Orleans Saints in what may very well have been the best game of the year, if not decade.
Those questions were answered with an explosion of exclamations starting with Alex Smith. Last week all doubt was lifted as Smith took the bull by the horns and led the San Francisco offense down the field, not once, but twice in the closing minutes of an emotional and intense game.
The naysayers that said Smith could not go head to head with a Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers were, for now, silenced. Against the Saints, it wasn't the defense that bailed out the sluggish offense but quite the opposite, which could only mean great things to come for this young and hungry 49ers football team.
This week the resurgent New York Giants look to avenge its Week 10 loss to San Francisco and further its post-season as the NFC champions. This is not the same opponent San Francisco faced in Week 10. They are finally healthy at their running back position with Ahmad Bradshaw back from his cracked foot and their secondary is equally healthy.
However, this is not the same San Francisco team they faced earlier this season either. Judging from their play against Green Bay the Giants made a few mistakes that could prove detrimental if they choose to utilize the same defensive stratagem against San Francisco.
Rodgers exploited the Giants countless times Sunday capitalizing on their over-pursuing pass rush by stepping up into the pocket and scrambling for 66 yards and five first downs. This poses an interesting dilemma for New York this week against San Francisco. How will they fair against a run heavy offense? Will they have their defensive ends stay home to defend against pitches and reverses? Will they get the pressure they need to create problems for Alex Smith and force him into making bad decisions?
Keep in mind when these two teams last met Frank Gore was held out of much of the game, but his backup Kendall Hunter ran six times for 40 yards and a score. With both running backs healthy it will be difficult for the Giants to gain any sort of defensive rhythm with Gore pounding between the tackles and Hunter eating up yards on pitch plays, screens and swing passes.
Because Gore and Hunter both are threats running between the tackle and as receivers, it would be a fallacy to think New York can key in on downs Hunter subs in for Gore and vice versa. Hunter, however, has a propensity to make big gains on plays outside of the tackles and screen plays which will spread the Giants defense and leave room for the 49ers to work the middle of the field and take vertical shots with Crabtree and Davis.
The middle of the field is a big hole the Giants will have to account for. Vernon Davis will have to be double teamed leaving space in the middle for a slant or in route to either Crabtree, Kyle Williams, Gore or Hunter. New York's defense is pass rush oriented and has no personnel that can cover Davis one on one.
It will be interesting to see if New York opts to use zone coverage or gamble with their safeties and roll coverage over Davis. However, in the post-season New York has been stingy through the air only allowing 215 yards per game in comparison to the 255 per game they gave up during the regular season.
What is more striking about this statistic is they accomplished this despite facing gunslingers like Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers. Yet, they have not faced the likes of Vernon Davis who boasts a 4.3 40 speed and has the strength and mass of a middle linebacker.
Defensively, San Francisco still looks better on paper and has played like a No. 2 ranked defense should. They held the Saints to 32 yards rushing and no scores on the ground last week. The Giants ranked dead last in rushing offense during the regular season in large part to the absence of Bradshaw.
Linebacker duo Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman are hands down the best linebacker tandem this season and both are fast enough to cover TE Jake Ballard on passing downs thus ameliorating any added pressure on San Francisco's secondary. With DaShon Goldson playing at a Pro Bowl caliber it will be hard for Hakeem Nicks to duplicate his performance against Green Bay and will probably be double teamed for most of the game.
Disrupting receiving routes and pressuring Eli Manning will be key for the 49ers to execute series in and series out. If Week 10 is any testament of how the front four will perform on Sunday then the outcome of the game should end in a San Francisco win.
The Giants are good but this Jim Harbaugh-led San Francisco team is playing at a high level both emotionally and physically. In order to win and guarantee their Super Bowl bid, the Giants will have to protect the ball and force turnovers both of which will be a hard task against the 49ers who tied for first with 38 takeaways and first overall with a 28 point turnover/takeaway ratio.
Overall advantage: San Francisco.
San Francisco 30 New York Giants 23