The San Francisco 49ers are back in a very familiar position. This is the 42nd edition of the NFC championship game and this will be the 13th time the 49ers have played in the contest. It is the 8th to take place in San Francisco (1 at Kezar Stadium, 7 at Candlestick). This is also the 8th time the Niners have battled the New York Giants in the playoffs over the last 30 years. There have been some very memorable meetings over those 3 decades between the 2 squads. The 1990 NFC championship game saw the Niners looking to become the first “three peat” super bowl champions until the usually rock solid Roger Craig fumbled away the title as the Niners were simply running out the clock. The Giants ended up winning the game by kicking their 5th field goal. In a 2002 wild card game that also took place at Candlestick, the 49ers exacted a bit of revenge. Ahead 38-14 late in the 3rd quarter, Jeremy Shockey was pelting children in the crowd with ice and Michael Strahan was derisively pointing to the scoreboard. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Jeff Garcia and the Niners came roaring back, winning the game 39-38 and breaking New York’s hearts as the Giants had broken San Francisco’s 13 years earlier. This Sunday’s game promises to be another closely contested battle and should be the next thrilling chapter in the epic 49ers/Giants playoff tale.
Saturday’s divisional playoff game versus the Saints was a microcosm of the 49ers 2011 season. Their defense was arguably the best in the NFL and for the most part impenetrable, yet they gave up 12 plays of 40 yards or more during the regular season. The defense played an almost lights out 3 and a half quarters versus one of the better offenses in NFL history. They pressured Drew Brees with just their front four, keeping him off balance and hitting him repeatedly. When they didn’t get pressure on Brees, they forced him to hold on to the ball for what seemed like forever as the secondary blanketed the Saints receiving corps. The Saints had just 17 points when they took over on offense with 7:36 remaining in the game. That’s as close to shutting down that powerful of an offense as you can get. Suddenly the defense gave up touchdowns of 44 yards and 66 yards, both with the Niners clinging to a lead and the game on the line. The same Jekyll and Hyde personality reared it’s head on the offensive side of the ball. The offense would sputter at times during the regular season and then burst into action a series later. On Saturday after some first quarter success the offensive attack went dormant in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, gaining under 100 yards in what amounts to a half of football. After the Saints scored to take a 24-23 lead with 4:02 remaining in the game, the offense and the team’s season were on life support. The Niners had done basically nothing for 3 quarters when they had the ball. San Francisco faced a 2nd and 10 from it’s own 33. QB Alex Smith completed a desperately needed 37 yard pass on a streak route to TE Vernon Davis. That was a call that took a ton of balls. An incomplete pass at that point leaves you with a 3rd and 10 and the very real prospect of giving Brees the ball back and not touching it again. That throw and catch awakened the Niners offense (and the crowd) and led to “The Bootleg” and “The Catch 3.”
The New York Giants are coming off an earth shattering win at Lambeau Field. The National media and the Giants themselves feel like they are on a hot streak. But are they really any hotter than the 49ers? The Giants have won 4 in a row, so have the 49ers. A month ago the Giants lost at home to the Redskins by 2 touchdowns. The next night the Niners dominated the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers on national TV. The Giants beat a Jets team on the “road” while the Jets were in the midst of completely imploding. They beat a Dallas team who was clearly already in off season mode. The playoff wins are very impressive, but so was the Niners win on Saturday. The 49ers most likely aren’t going to turn the ball over 4 times, drop 8 passes (maybe a few, but not 8) and give up a hail mary touchdown as the Packers did on Sunday. Almost nobody picked the Niners and Giants to meet in the NFC championship game, both teams needed impressive wins to get here and both could be categorized as equally hot.
On Sunday the Niners are facing a better defense than they faced in their first playoff game. Alex Smith was sacked 4 times. The offensive line will have to do a better job versus one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. RB Frank Gore ran the ball a mere 13 times, he needs to be a bigger factor in the Niners attack. WR Michael Crabtree had 4 catches for 25 yards. WR Kyle Williams had 2 for 12. Both receivers dropped important passes. Vernon Davis had a monster game and the Giants will be absolutely fixated on stopping him. Both Crabtree and Williams need to have good games and provide Alex Smith with some weaponry. Crabtree especially has to carry the number 1 wide receiver torch that he lit during the second half of the regular season. The return of TE Delanie Walker could be huge in exploiting the Giants one true weakness on defense, their linebackers. Delanie had a career high 6 catches for 69 yards in the teams first meeting in the regular season. The defense will match up against an immensely talented wide receiver group capable of the big play at any given moment. S Dontae Whitner and S Dashon Goldson are going to have to find the balance between making a big hit, gambling for an interception or making the sure tackle. If the defensive line can play at or near the level it performed at on Sunday, than Eli Manning could spend a lot of time in the mud.
The 49ers are coming of their biggest win since the last time they faced off against the Giants on the same Candlestick turf in the playoffs. Alex Smith is bursting with the most confidence he has had in his 7 year professional career. Vernon Davis and DE Justin Smith are playing out of their minds. This has all the makings of an old school playoff war. Both teams feature immensely talented, brutally physical defenses. By 3:30 on Sunday it will have been raining for 4 days straight in San Francisco. There will be mud and there will be blood. This is the 7th and possibly last NFC Championship to take place in the Candlestick quagmire. The Niners stand on their home turf and stand 1 win away from the super bowl. It’s up to new heroes named Alex and Vernon and Justin to carry on the storied tradition by adding a piece of their own.