NFC Championship Game Preview

The NFC Championship Game between the New York Giants and San Francisco is the late game on Sunday, kicking off at 6:30 PM EST, with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman broadcasting the game for Fox. The Giants, like the Patriots, haven’t advanced this far since 2007. For San Francisco it’s their first championship shot since 1997 and they have not actually been to the Super Bowl since winning it all in 1995 behind Steve Young. Here’s the breakdown of how the Giants and Niners match up with each other, with an evaluation of each team’s running and passing games…

49er Running Game: Frank Gore ran for over 1,200 yards and the Niners as a team ranked 5th in the NFC in rush yardage. The Giants have a mediocre run defense. New York fans can protest that it took some time for their defensive front to become healthy, but now that they have Jason Pierre-Paul, Chris Canty and Justin Tuck all ready to go, it’s a different team. They certainly looked like one against Atlanta, and then Green Bay was never in position to test the running game. I think one thing we can’t overlook though is the Giants’ strength is rushing the passer and this can be taken advantage of in running the ball, through traps and misdirection plays that work against an aggressive front. Another key battle to watch will be the one for the football itself. New York is in the NFC’s upper crust at recovering fumbles, while San Francisco is the very best at taking care of the ball. It’s not too much to think that the NFC Championship could come to who wins this basic battle for possession.

49er Passing Game: The Alex Smith that appeared last week against New Orleans has apparently been hiding the same place that the Giant team has been hiding all year—just waiting to make an appearance in January. Smith was brilliant against the Saints and led the game-winning drive not once, but twice, including a seed for the winning touchdown that would’ve draw praise from great San Fran arms ranging from Joe Montana to Tim Lincecum.

Smith has good targets, starting with tight end Vernon Davis, who is a rare combination of possession receiving and downfield threat. Smith can also take some shots down the field to Michael Crabtree, and do it with a certain amount of peace of mind, because the New York corners don’t play the ball aggressively. Even if doesn’t work, it’s not likely to result in a turnover. The Giant pass defense was a vulnerable spot all year and it bears wondering what might have happened in Lambeau Field last Sunday had Green Bay receivers not dropped balls that hit them right in the hands. If Smith gets time he can have another good game. Of course it’s getting time against the front four, especially Pierre-Paul that’s going to be a huge challenge for Frisco, whose pass protection was average at best this year.

Giant Running Game: Nowhere has the New York turnaround been more stunning than the way they run the football. This was the worst rush offense in the NFC, based on yards-per-carry, all season long. Then when the playoffs started, Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs woke up the echoes of 2007 all over again. As a result, this is a tough area to analyze—do you take the 16-game body of work more seriously, or the 2-game playoff run? Normally I default to the regular season, but the way this veteran team is playing, I’m not so sure. What we do know for certain is that this will be their toughest challenge of the playoffs. The San Francisco defensive front seven is the best in the game at stopping the run, led by inside linebacker Patrick Willis. Not only do they stop the run, but they strip the ball better than anyone, so Bradshaw and Jacobs have to be careful. I’d be shocked in San Fran doesn’t win this battle, but will it be decisively enough to win the football game?

Giant Passing Game: I’ll admit when I’m wrong. I made fun of Eli Manning as much as anyone in August when he compared himself to Tom Brady and his bother. Or at least I’ll admit that Eli has proven me wrong and backed up his words with a fantastic season. With two big-play wideouts in Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, the Giants can make a game turn on a single play better than any of the four teams still playing.

San Francisco has to get pressure on Manning, and the best way to do that is with Ahmad Brooks coming off the edge from his outside linebacker spot. If San Fran can contain the running game, it also eliminates the threat of play-action and gives the front seven a little more freedom to tee off. If I were Frisco, I’d concede the run and come after Manning. The Niners are good at getting to the quarterback and if they can force some throws, the secondary, led by corner Carlos Rogers and free safety Dashon Goldson, plays the ball very well.

San Francisco comes into this game the favorite at (-2.5).That’s still deferential to the Giants, since the default is to give the home team three points. So Vegas believes New York is the better team, and that line has held steady all week, not making the key jump to (-3). The Over/Under is 42.5. If you combine spread and total, you get a final score of, for example, San Francisco 22 NY Giants 20. Does that sound about right to you? It does to me. I like the Niners and think they’re the better team, but I don’t feel strongly enough about this game to put my money where my mouth is.