Unexpected Giants-Niners NFC title bout should be thrilling

Everyone thought the NFC Championship Game would be a rematch of this season's very first game, when the Green Bay Packers outlasted the New Orleans Saints, 42-34, at Lambeau Field. Brees vs. Rodgers II, 100 pass plays and 80-plus points! Not so much. Instead, it's Eli Manning and Alex Smith in San Francisco -- a rematch of the Nov. 11 game won by the Niners, 27-20. Both teams are worthy opponents and deserve to be here. They remind us that playing great defense, effectively running the ball and winning the turnover battle still carry significance in today's NFL.

New York running back Ahmad Bradshaw didn't play in the Week 10 matchup, and the Giants sorely missed his running skills. When Bradshaw has 60 or more rushing yards in a game, the Giants are 21-4. San Francisco beat New York back in November by winning the turnover battle. (Most notably, Carlos Rogers' key fourth-quarter interception on a pass intended for Mario Manningham.) The Niners led the league in turnover ratio this season with a plus-28. That's a large part of who they are. They also know what to do with the ball once they get it back. San Francisco had 10 or more points off turnovers in six different regular-season games.

This will be a very close game, with weather conditions playing a big factor in the outcome (the forecast calls for rain and notable winds). Which storied franchise is headed back to the Super Bowl? These three questions will decide the answer:

Can the 49ers block the Giants' pass rush?

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The 49ers are 14-3 this season, and Alex Smith really has come of age as a passer in the last month. Just look at his three-touchdown performance in the upset over New Orleans. That was the highlight of his career. Smith weathered a four-sack day to win that ball game, but in the team's three losses this year Smith has been sacked 20 times (6.6 per game). And that vaunted Giants pass rush is firing on all cylinders at just the right time. Over the first two games of the postseason, New York has six sacks, 12 hits on the quarterback and more disruptive pressures than you can count. The Saints constantly blitzed to get after Smith, but that left single coverage on Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, which ended up being the Saints' undoing. Given the strength of their front four, the Giants won't blitz often and will play coverage behind the rush in an effort to get Smith to hold onto the ball. Look for double coverage on Davis this week.

On third down, the Giants put Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka and Jason Pierre-Paul on the field at the same time. Those four guys have 37 sacks between them this year. The Niners will struggle to hold that foursome off for long, but Smith did run six times for 27 yards the last time these teams met. Don't think the San Francisco coaching staff isn't cognizant of the fact that Aaron Rodgers ran seven times for 66 yards against this Giants defense last Sunday. There's little doubt that Smith will be running for his life at times in this game, but be prepared to see some designed QB runs as well.

Advantage: Giants

Can San Francisco pressure Eli Manning?

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Manning said he was an elite quarterback in August, and he's undoubtedly living up to his own lofty evaluation. Over his career, he is 4-1 in playoff games on the road, completing 62 percent of his passes for nine touchdowns and just two interceptions. He will look at the game tape from last week when Brees threw for 462 yards and four touchdowns (with two picks) and see a lot of opportunities for this game. As Giants fans know, Manning has owned the fourth quarter all year, with 1,853 yards and 17 touchdowns in the money quarter. Another key trend is Manning's play on third down. In two postseason games this year, Manning is converting 51.6 percent of his third downs and has been sacked just two times in 67 pass plays.

The last time these teams met, San Francisco got to Manning only once in 41 pass attempts. The 49ers' pass-rush pressure is a big key to their success on defense. In their three losses, the Niners managed just three total sacks. In their 14 wins, though, they racked up 42 sacks (three per game). Although Manning has learned to take a sack this year instead of throwing an interception, he reverted back to 2010 habits in the last game against San Francisco. Still, in the Giants' last four games (all wins), Manning is averaging 33 pass plays a game with a total of 10 touchdown passes, two interceptions and six sacks.

A wet, soggy field is not going to help the Niners' pass rush, and Manning will have a full complement of receivers to throw to with Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Mario Manningham, Jake Ballard, and Bradshaw all healthy and ready to go. Justin Smith and Aldon Smith have to find a way to get to Manning, or he'll eclipse 300 yards yet again.

Advantage: Giants

Which defense can stop the running game?

Both teams have a desire to run the ball a lot in this game. Forget the total regular-season stats for each running game. Instead, let's look at the first matchup between these teams, as well as each side's last seven games, to see where each running game stands today.

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The 49ers lost Frank Gore during the Week 10 game, but he had six carries for zero yards before his injury. San Francisco finished up with the fewest attempts (20) and the second-fewest yards (77) in a game all season. The Giants compiled 93 yards on 29 carries without the services of Bradshaw.

Over the last seven weeks, the Niners have run the ball 205 times (29 per game) for 845 yards (121 per game), scoring six rushing touchdowns. Over that same span the Giants' run defense has given up 102 yards per game on an average of 25 carries, but allowed just two rushing touchdowns. The 49ers should get their yards on the ground, but will they be able to hit pay dirt?

In New York's last seven games, the Giants have completely transformed their ground game from one of the worst in the NFL to highly formidable. It has a lot to do with the return of Bradshaw. The Giants are now running it 26 times per game for 113 yards. And they've produced eight rushing touchdowns in this span. They also have 24 runs over 10 yards (or one every eight carries). The 49ers' run defense is extremely stout, giving up 76 yards per game in the last seven games. For the season, they've allowed a grand total of three rushing touchdowns, yielding none at home.

Advantage: 49ers

Prediction

In my mind, Jim Harbaugh is clearly the coach of the year. And if there were such a thing, Tom Coughlin would win comeback coach of the year. People in New York looked at Coughlin like a dead man walking when a four-game losing streak dropped the Giants to 6-6. But here they are in the NFC Championship Game, with the best quarterback on the field, the better set of receivers and a dominant pass rush. I like the same score as the game in Week 10, but reversed. Giants 27, 49ers 20

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