By the time this game begins, one half of the Super Bowl puzzle will be complete. The question remains: can Eli Manning, who has proved to be one of the best quarterbacks all year, defeat the vaunted defense of the San Francisco 49ers?
This is one of those games where I kept going back and forth on who to pick. Both teams have a golden opportunity here and can win if they play to their strengths. After a lengthy deliberation, I have made my decision.
We’ll return to Manning later, but first let’s talk about Alex Smith and the 49ers offense. After a remarkable performance last week, Smith has shown that he can lead this team and has shed the label of “game manager.” Smith has done a great job of not turning the ball over and has a nice matchup with the Giants’ secondary. However, the pass rush channeling their inner 2008, awaits him. If Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora can get to Smith, it could be a long day for the quarterback. But if the San Francisco offensive line can hold them off, Smith is in a great position to make plays.
The line did a good job of holding off the Giants the last time they played, allowing only two sacks. Even last week against the Saints, Smith got sacked four times but still prevailed. As long as the Niners avoid what happened against Baltimore (nine sacks), Smith should be alright.
As for the running game, they have to get that going. They had success against the Saints, while the Giants had a tough time containing the Packers’ rushers (especially Aaron Rodgers). However, New York held them to 77 yards in their last meeting. San Francisco must rebound.
All quarterbacks benefit from having extra time to throw, and Manning is no different. He threw for over 300 yards the last time they faced San Francisco after getting sacked only once, but the Niners’ pressure was evident by the two interceptions that Eli threw. Against the Saints, the Niners showed that they can survive in a shootout,when they play their physical style of football. They were hard hitting all day and Giant’s receivers may think twice after getting hit for the first time by a Niner defensive back.
With the way the 49ers shut down the Saints rushing attack, they shouldn’t have too much of a problem with the Giants’ run game who they held to 3.2 yards per carry earlier in the season. It will be a fascinating matchup to see the physical Brandon Jacobs (who should have been used earlier against the Packers) against Justin Smith and the 49ers' front seven, but I see Smith and his crew prevailing.
The battle will be won in the trenches. The 49ers need to get to Manning in order to slow him down. Otherwise, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham will run wild. Expect Jim Harbaugh to have his defense ready.
One way the Giants have succeeded in their playoff run is through the big play and one way they have gotten the big play to work is by breaking tackles. Nicks is a physical receiver and Cruz is very slippery, but the 49ers are disciplined and know how to tackle.
The 49ers should be able to get their running game going while the Giants will struggle to. However, Eli should outduel Alex in the passing game. Don’t expect him to throw a pick though; Smith has shown a new poise this year.
Ultimately, San Francisco’s defense will step up and show why it has been the most dominant unit all year. They will get to Eli and although they won’t completely shut him down, they will do a good job at slowing down the offense and forcing turnovers, which is what I believe the tipping point is. I was so close to picking the Giants because of what Manning has been doing, but I think he will not find the same success against San Francisco. That is the key for the Niners, and the ultimate reason as to why I believe they will win the game and head to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco 23, New York 20