The expected aerial show for the NFC championship has given way to what shapes up as a hard-hitting affair between franchises that were rivals from the past.
The San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants have met seven times in the postseason, and the winner of the latest edition of this classic rivalry Sunday at Candlestick Park will advance to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco and New York sent the high-powered offenses of New Orleans and Green Bay home for the offseason after divisional-round wins last weekend. The 49ers won 36-32 at home over the Saints and the Giants stunned the top-seeded Packers 37-20.
"I think it probably surprised a lot of people that the Giants and the 49ers are in the NFC championship game," 49ers first-year coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Surprising is the correct word to describe both teams' surges.
Harbaugh inherited a 6-10 team and guided it to 13 wins and the franchise's first playoff berth in nine seasons before last Saturday's dramatic victory on Alex Smith's 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with nine seconds left.
"I think it was a physical, emotional expenditure by everybody that was in that game," Harbaugh said. "The thing that you're so proud of is the character of the football team."
The Giants looked like anything but a contender in splitting their first 14 games before clinching the NFC East by closing the regular season with double-digit wins over the Jets and Cowboys. New York has become the first team to begin the postseason in the wild-card round and win its first two games by at least 17 points.
Ten of the 12 previous teams to win their first two playoff contests by such a margin went on to win the Super Bowl. The Giants are 4-0 all-time in NFC championships.
"We are not going to be denied," safety Antrel Rolle said. "We are not going to be denied at this point. We understand what we have as a team. It's not all talent, it's about chemistry and we are jelling at this point. Coaches and players being on the same page at the same time. We have one mind, to win a championship."
The Giants' pass rush has come alive during this four-game win streak with 17 sacks, including four of Aaron Rodgers last Sunday. The emergence of second-year Pro Bowler Jason Pierre-Paul, return of Osi Umenyiora for the Dallas game and the improved health of Justin Tuck have boosted one of the league's most fearsome units.
The 49ers, meanwhile, had the league's top rushing defense in allowing 77.3 yards per game as well as a pass rush led by rookie Aldon Smith's 14.0 sacks. San Francisco earned a reputation for delivering bone-crushing hits while tying for the league lead in creating 38 takeaways.
"We're not really trying to hurt people," safety Donte Whitner said. "But when we play physical, people get hurt."
Trying to attack those defenses will be quarterbacks who have enjoyed vastly different careers since being top overall draft picks one year apart.
The Giants' Eli Manning, taken first overall in 2004, fell 67 yards shy of 5,000 this year. His play this postseason (607 passing yards, six TDs, one interception) has brought back memories of New York's 2007 playoff run in which he excelled en route to earning Super Bowl MVP honors.
San Francisco took Alex Smith with the top pick in the 2005 draft, but he never found his footing until playing for his third coach in Harbaugh. Smith guided an offense that had the fewest turnovers in the NFL with 10, and he proved his mettle by leading the Niners to two touchdown drives in the final 2:11 last weekend.
"He has great mental toughness," Harbaugh said. "He has a way to be focused and loose in the most pressure situations. He's got that makeup about him that allows him to play and execute."
Davis finished with seven catches for 180 yards in his postseason debut. He was ecstatic that the Giants' upset allowed the 49ers to host this contest rather than have to travel to Green Bay.
"We don't have to go nowhere. We can just go out back, go out back and throw the football around," Davis said. "The opponents, they come to us. And that's always good, having home-field advantage, and having the team come to you."
San Francisco is 4-3 in the postseason against New York, which won the lone championship meeting in 1990 at Candlestick to end the 49ers' chances of a third straight Super Bowl title.
More recently, San Francisco won 27-20 at home Nov. 13 in a game in which Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw missed due to injury. The Niners' top receiver in that game, tight end Delanie Walker, has a broken jaw and his status for Sunday is uncertain.
Manning threw for two touchdowns and 311 yards as well as two interceptions to Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers. His bid to lead a game-tying TD drive ended in the final minute when Justin Smith batted down a fourth-down pass.
"We know what to expect with them," said Manning, who missed part of Wednesday's workout with a stomach bug. "They're a very sound team. They're very good. They have good players. They play with great energy."
The Giants held a hampered Frank Gore to no yards on six carries in that contest, and none of his five 100-yard efforts have come since. Smith completed 19 of 30 passes for 242 yards, one score and one interception.
Hakeem Nicks' last touchdown reception on the road came in that game before he scored twice last week. Nicks has 280 yards receiving and four TDs in the postseason as part of a dangerous group of receivers that includes Victor Cruz, third in the league with 1,536 yards.
"That is a worthy opponent," Harbaugh said. "That is a scary opponent. We will have to come with every ounce of our 'A' game as well."
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