49ers, Giants reviving storied playoff rivalry
SAN FRANCISCO—New York boasted a physical, intimidating defence with athletic linebackers and stout linemen capable of stifling the NFL’s most productive offences.
San Francisco featured a high-powered passing attack led by an eventual Hall-of-Fame quarterback in his prime with receivers capable of turning short passes into big gains.
The elite quarterback now is New York’s Eli Manning, who connects on big plays to Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz in a similar fashion to how Joe Montana and Jerry Rice did for the dominant Niners in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, San Francisco’s current front seven, led by relentless defensive lineman Justin Smith, rookie pass-rushing specialist Aldon Smith, and fierce linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, resembles that old Giants’ group featuring Hall-of-Famers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson.
And who could have predicted this surprising pairing?
The Giants (11-7) toppled defending champion Green Bay 37-20 last Sunday when everybody figured the road to the Super Bowl would go through Lambeau Field.
Instead, New York is travelling West to San Francisco to face the upstart 49ers (14-3) in a meeting of franchises with so many fresh faces on the big stage.
Jim Harbaugh’s “mighty men” as he calls them stunned Drew Brees and the favoured Saints 36-32 when Alex Smith hit Vernon Davis for the game-winning 14-yard touchdown with nine seconds to go.
Smith knows both the 49ers and Giants showed it’s anybody’s game come playoff time.
“Look at last week, I think everybody thought the road was going to go through Lambeau,” he noted.
“I think everybody assumed the NFC championship game was going to get played there and look what happens.
“These teams, at this point, everybody’s as good as each other and it’s all going to come down to how you execute on that day,” Smith reasoned.
“We’re all capable of beating each other, that’s for sure.”
Smith and Manning each orchestrated five fourth-quarter comebacks during the regular season, yet Manning missed in a 27-20 loss at San Francisco back on Nov. 13 when Justin Smith batted away his last-ditch pass attempt on fourth down in the waning moments.
“This is about the NFC championship,” Manning said. “It’s an opportunity to get this win and go on to the Super Bowl.
“We played them once before,” he noted. “We know they’re a good team. There’s no denying that.
“They’re playing great football. They’re playing with great confidence,” Manning added.
“It’s going to be exciting going out there and having another shot and seeing what we can do.”
Niners’ long snapper Brian Jennings is the only one left on either side from San Francisco’s last trip to the playoffs in January, 2003, when the 49ers rallied for a stunning 39-38 comeback victory against the Giants at Candlestick Park.
San Francisco also had beaten New York during the regular season that year.
The only other time these two franchises faced off in the conference championship, the game finished in memorable fashion. On Jan. 20, 1991, Roger Craig fumbled with the 49ers leading 13-12 late in the fourth quarter and the Giants went on to win 15-13 to deny San Francisco a chance at a third-straight Super Bowl title.
New York then beat the Buffalo Bills to capture its second Super Bowl.
These teams met six times in the playoffs between the 1981 and ’94 seasons, with the winner going on to capture the Super Bowl four times.
There shouldn’t be too many elements of surprise Sunday considering how recently they last played, although Harbaugh is always good for a few tricks.
“That first game has nothing to do with what happens Sunday night,” Giants’ safety Antrel Rolle stressed.
Davis had a career day against New Orleans last weekend with seven catches for 180 yards—the most yards receiving by a tight end in a playoff game—so the Giants certainly will try to neutralize him and put constant pressure on a never-more-confident Smith.
Harbaugh has used the phrase “don’t overcook it” with his players as a reference to sticking with what got them this far in a remarkable turnaround season.
“Burnt meat, stale bread doesn’t taste real good,” Harbaugh noted.
“Like to get it just right. Not undercooked, not overcooked.”