The NFC championship game between the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers features a regular-season rematch of the Niners' 27-20 victory in Week 10. One thing that figures to be different is the impact of the rushing attacks.
In the November meeting, Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw was sidelined for the second of four straight games with a fractured bone in his right foot and San Francisco's Frank Gore left after six carries and zero yards because of a knee injury. Strangely, as with their upset win (at least according to oddsmakers) over the Saints, the 49ers rallied for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to beat the Giants. They topped that off the victory by stifling the Giants at the end of the game.
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With that in mind, this game figures to be a similar type of battle to the end and here are some of the keys:
1. Can Eli Manning maintain his playoff roll? – Manning is coming off a stunning performance at Green Bay as he completed 21 of 33 passes for 330 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He's having the greatest overall season of his career and is in the midst of his best stretch since the 2007 playoff run to the Super Bowl. Over his past three games, Manning has nine touchdowns and one interception, harkening back to how sharp he was on the way to the memorable upset of the New England Patriots.
2. Who has the tougher defense? – For the season, San Francisco gets the nod, but both teams are coming off extraordinary wins in which they stopped two of the top offensive teams in the NFL. The 49ers forced five turnovers in a win over New Orleans. The Giants forced four against Green Bay. Overall, the Giants did a better job of stopping the Packers, limiting explosive Green Bay to 20 points and 388 yards. Even more, the Giants did this on the road as opposed to the 49ers playing at home. Yes, the Giants' defense wasn't nearly this good in the regular season, but it is now, allowing an average of 12.5 points over the past four games.
3. Can the 49ers contain Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz again? – In seven of the past eight games, either Nicks or Cruz (if not both) has had at least one catch of 50 yards or longer. That's a stunning run for any set of receivers. However, in the earlier game against San Francisco, neither receiver had a catch of longer than 36 yards. Nicks did have a touchdown, but the 49ers had two interceptions and did a good enough job preventing the pair from compiling big yards after the catch.
4. Is this really Alex Smith who is doing all of this for the 49ers? – After six years that made 49ers fans question whether Smith should have been brought back in 2011, Smith has been a revelation this season. Smith has thrown only five interceptions in 487 attempts this season. This is the same guy who had thrown 53 interceptions in 54 career games coming into the campaign. Most important, Smith came up with four critical plays in the final five minutes of the win over New Orleans, including a rushing touchdown and a game-winning TD pass to Vernon Davis. There have been a lot of great stories of redemption in the NFL. Smith's story ranks up there with just about any of them.
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5. Speaking of Vernon Davis, can he be playing any better? – Davis' game-winning touchdown catch against New Orleans punctuated a career-best seven-catch, 180-yard, two-touchdown game. In a year of great tight ends, Davis didn't put up the best numbers (792 yards, 6 TDs in regular season), but he has as much talent as anybody at his position. He has back-to-back games of more than 100 yards for the first time in his career. Even without much help from the wide receivers, Davis can be dominant.
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