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NFC Championship Game could be won at line of scrimmage

  • By NFL Playbook Staff
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A breakdown of Sunday's NFC Championship Game between the 49ers and Giants:

With Jim Harbaugh in his ear, Alex Smith has been efficient for the 49ers. He hasn't been consistently asked to stretch defenses with his arm (only 41 plays of 20-plus yards) but he makes smart decisions and throws with great anticipation. The 49ers are third-best versus the blitz (96.75 rating), but Smith will face blitz-like pressure versus only a four-man rush for the Giants, which will make those windows smaller.

Eli Manning might be having his best season has a pro. His turnovers are down and explosive plays are up. The Giants rank fifth in pass plays of 20-plus yards with 67 (the Patriots are first with 72). Manning has been making every throw, whether facing pressure or in tight windows, something he must continue Sunday.

Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter drive a power run offense that carries the ball on 55.5 percent of San Francisco's first downs. This duo also heads the most efficient ground game remaining in the playoffs, picking up four or more yards on 46 percent of those attempts. If they can remain efficient versus the Giants, they will lighten the load for Smith on second and third down.

At 89 yards per game, the Giants rush offense ranks last in the league. But this game will be won or lost through the air, and Ahmad Bradshaw has to be accounted for in the short passing game. He's a terror in space. Brandon Jacobs, on the other hand, needs room to roll north and south -- space that the 49ers D refused to surrender, giving up 3.1 yards per carry in New York's Week 10 loss.

Ahmad Bradshaw

Defense and the running game are the focal point in San Francisco, so Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams are tasked with short to intermediate routes. But their big-play threat is TE Vernon Davis, who is a tough matchup for linebackers and safeties. When they win, the 49ers find him open (60 catches), in their losses, they don't (seven catches in three losses).

Manning has taken his game to another level this year with the help of an explosive set of pass-catchers. Hakeem Nicks is a physically imposing player, while Victor Cruz is quick in and out of his breaks and is practically a running back after the catch. This Giants receiving core is fundamentally sound and understands the nuances of the position better than any other group we've seen on film.

San Francisco has invested heavily in their offensive line in recent years (first-round picks Joe Staley, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis) and they have formed a smash-mouth group this year. They don't hide it, either. Employing heavy sets, where defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga enters the mix as a fullback, the 49ers will throw a lot of pounds at a Giants defense that loves to counter with speed.

New York's line became a patch-work group once Will Beatty went down for the season and David Diehl moved from guard to tackle. Kareem McKenzie on the right side of the line isn't the most nimble at this point in his career. At the same time, Manning can help this group, like he did in Week 10, by getting the ball out quickly and navigating through the pocket with his eyes downfield.

While the Giants have stat-stuffers on their line, the 49ers group is filled with stuffers of a different color. You won't hear their names as much, but Ray McDonald, Justin Smith and Sopoaga might comprise the best group of trench-warriors in the league, occupying blockers for their linebackers to fill versus the run or for Aldon Smith to get an isolated rush in the passing game.

The strength of their team, the Giants defensive line is full of pass rushers who can win one-on-one matchups across the board. And on passing downs, Perry Fewell will throw four dynamic pass rushers (Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Dave Tollefson or Mathias Kiwanuka) onto the field at once. That's a load for any OL, which is why the Giants have 17 sacks in their last four games.

Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are the best inside linebacker duo in the league, and with Aldon Smith's rush and Ahmad Brooks' athleticism, the 49ers are loaded at LB. All the way down to Larry Grant, who stepped in for an injured Willis at the end of the season, the Niners LBs are disciplined gap-fillers and have played in sync with their defensive line all season.

Like their offensive line, the Giants' linebacking corps has been ever-changing. But in the process, Fewell has found a versatile coverage linebacker in rookie Jacquian Williams and safety Deon Grant will spend time in the box in a nickel-heavy defense. This group's activity on first and second down, against a run-first offense, will probably determine the game. San Francisco has converted 20.5 percent of third-down attempts of six or more yards (27th in the league).

Michael Boley

The 49ers defense is physical, all the way down to their defensive backs. They will man up on the back end with Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown at corner, and safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner rally to the ball fiercely. And when they attack, they want the ball. San Francisco has 75 plays of less than one yard after catch this season (second-most in the NFL) and lead the NFL in turnovers.

The Giants' secondary smothered the Packers last week, employing an effective Cover 3 scheme to take the seams away from Aaron Rodgers and company. This week, they will face less of a challenge in the 49ers' pass offense, but safeties Grant and Antrel Rolle will have to remain disciplined, because Harbaugh is known to draw up some kind of trick play on crucial downs.

David Akers and Andy Lee are the NFL's premiere kicking and punting duo, and they also have a game-changer with Ted Ginn on the return side. After ranking fourth in the league in average return yards (12.3), Ginn only enhances the great field position San Francisco's defense gives to the offense.

Lawrence Tynes isn't booming a lot of kicks into the end zone (he ranks 18th in the NFL in touchback percentage), but his coverage unit has allowed the seventh-lowest return average in the league (22.8 yards). On the return side, though, the Giants don't have a player in the top 30 in yards.

Lawrence Tynes

Jim Harbaugh has taken a 6-10 team and turned it into a division winner in a lockout year. His players will tell you it's because they believe in him and they want to win for him. He's a charismatic leader and a creative playcaller on the offensive side. And if we are talking about a complete coaching staff, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio certainly deserves some credit for that unit's success.

Tom Coughlin has been here before. As a Super Bowl-winning coach -- of another team that finished the second-half of the season on an upswing (2007) -- Coughlin is a veteran of the game who knows how to get his team playing its best at the right time. He's not flashy, but he's got talent at all the right positions (quarterback, receiver and defensive line).


 


 

For more analysis on the conference championship games, watch "Playbook" -- the ultimate football Xs and Os show -- Friday at 8 p.m. ET (AFC Championship Game preview) and 9 p.m. ET (NFC Championship Game preview) on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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