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NFC Championship: Role Reversal

The Giants and 49ers have switched places from their epic battles in the '80s and '90s

The Giants and 49ers have swapped costumes. Back when these two teams faced each other in six playoff games over a 12-year stretch from 1981 through 1993, when Parcells and Walsh were actual coaches as opposed to progenitors, when dynasties weren’t subject to the salary cap, when rivalries between historically great teams actually played out in the playoffs on a seemingly annual basis and when the organizational philosophy of those two teams produced polar opposites that have now gone 180 degrees. These Niners are like those Giants, a team seemingly dedicated to hitting the opposition in the teeth. And these Giants are far more like those Niners, throwing the ball all over the field at their leisure. Joe Montana begat Eli Manning. Lawrence Taylor begat Aldon Smith.

In those games, the outcome seemed to follow the style: The Giants won the low-scoring ones and the 49ers won the high-scoring ones. Including the nine regular-season games between the two, the teams played five games where the two offenses combined to score 30 points or less. The Giants went 3-2 in those games. In the 10 games where the offenses scored 31 points or more, the Giants were 2-8.

These two teams combined for 47 points when the Niners struggled to a 27-20 win in November, but make no mistake: The game could serve as a prototype for the new team style under Jim Harbaugh. They played the game at an incredibly slow pace, with just 19 meaningful possessions split between the two teams. The 49ers-Saints game from last week, for comparison, witnessed 31 possessions. Against the Giants in Week 10, the 49ers dominated on special teams, picking up an extra possession with a successful unexpected onside kick, going 4-for-4 on field goals while averaging better than 50 yards on each of their punts. They won the turnover battle, two to one, and kept Alex Smith out of danger. The Niners turned the game into a battle of defense, special teams, and field position. No team on planet Earth is better at winning that sort of game than they are.

That’s not to say the Giants played terribly, since they were a Mario Manningham drop away from tying the game on their final drive. Eli Manning completed his first 10 passes and had five drives of 70 yards or more, and that was without Ahmad Bradshaw. And besides, that was the old Giants! These are the playoff Giants, the team that discount double checked Aaron Rodgers onto the golf course! They’ve changed!

Well, if we’re going to wonder whether the Giants can flip the script once more and beat the Niners in San Francisco, that seems like a good place to start. How, exactly, have the Giants changed?

Giants on Offense

The above table includes a number of key rate statistics for the Giants offense as split between the regular-season edition and the team that’s shown up in wins over the Falcons and Packers. The bad news for simple narratives is that the Giants haven’t just improved in one facet of the game. Overnight, the offense has somehow gotten better at everything. Eli Manning is simultaneously more accurate and aggressive while reducing both his sack rate and turnovers. The running game has gotten significantly more efficient, and when the offense slows down, they’ve picked up third down at a ridiculously high rate. Let’s put it in perspective a different way, by comparing the Giants’ postseason performance to a regular-season offense that put up numbers at a similar level, and then where the Giants would rank in each category if they played like that for the entire 2011 season:

So, basically, the Giants have morphed into an offense that features Aaron Rodgers handing off to Arian Foster behind the Houston offensive line, with Drew Brees coming in to avoid sacks and keep the offense on the field on third down, while retaining the conservativeness of Alex Smith and avoiding fumbles altogether. That’s quite impressive.

If you’re like us, the warning sign going off in your head is screaming, “UNSUSTAINABLE!” Of course it’s not sustainable. It’s only two games, the Green Bay defense looked terrible, Atlanta was missing their best cornerback, you get the idea. Nobody’s that good, not even the offenses we talked about above. The question isn’t whether the Giants can keep it up, but whether they can keep it close to what they’ve done. And if you’re a Giants fan looking for some level of hope, you’re probably pinning yours on health. Outside of losing tackle Will Beatty, this is probably the healthiest Giants offense to take the field since the beginning of the season. Tight end Jake Ballard is gimpy, but all in all, the Giants have their full complement of skill-position weapons to an extent they really haven’t all season.

We can safely say that the Niners are likely to take away the newfound improvement in the Giants running game, which ranked dead last during the regular season in yards per carry. Although the Giants were without Ahmad Bradshaw during the first game, the Niners had the league’s best run defense and held the Giants to just 93 yards on 29 carries, an average of 3.2 yards per rush. New York had 13 carries for two yards or less, with five for no gain or a loss of yardage. And that was with Beatty in the lineup at left tackle.

The passing game might not see a huge downswing, though, since Manning really played well against the Niners. As we mentioned, he completed his first 10 passes before finishing 26-of-40 for 311 yards with two touchdowns and two picks. In addition to the gruesome Manningham drop that would have tied the game, Manning saw Victor Cruz drop a 20-yard pass with room to run after beating Carlos Rogers. He ran the very same route on the next play and Manning underthrew the pass, producing a Rogers interception.

The Cruz-Rogers matchup will be one to play close attention to on Sunday. The Giants had great success with Cruz lined up in the slot against Rogers, producing two long completions in addition to the big play that would have been if for the Cruz drop. The first was on a blown coverage that saw Rogers seemingly think he was in zone coverage and release Cruz alone into the middle of the field, only to find that everyone else on the team was in man coverage. Later, the Giants ran a very slight pick play to get Cruz a half-step down the sideline, which he turned into a 36-yard reception. The Giants clearly wanted to go after Rogers, and while he picked up a second interception after Manningham quit on a route over the middle, they had enough success that you should expect them to go after him again on Sunday.

The final drive of this game, though, would give Giants fans nightmares if it happened again. There was the Manningham drop on a slightly overthrown ball after he beat 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver. After picking up seven of their first 11 cracks at third down, the Giants failed on three different third downs during their last possession. That included a bizarre draw call on third-and-2 from the 12-yard line with 1:20 left that went for no gain, a Kevin Gilbride special. They picked up two fourth downs to continue the drive, but after the failed draw, Justin Smith batted down a Manning pass at the line to end the game. It was a rare moment in the sun during this game for the Defensive Player of the Year candidate, as the 49ers were able to sack Manning just once, and it came on a coverage sack. That sounds like good news for Giants fans, but the flip side is that the Giants didn’t really get to Alex Smith, either.

49ers on Offense

That fearsome Giants pass rush only sacked Smith twice in 32 dropbacks, and it didn’t come from anything produced by Jason Pierre-Paul or Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora did pick up one of the two sacks, but it was a clear coverage sack after Smith stood in the pocket for five seconds, while the other takedown came courtesy of a Linval Joseph spin move. 49ers tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis did an excellent job on the usually dominant defensive ends of New York. Davis, in particular, deserves a lot of credit for improving during his second season after a very difficult rookie campaign. If this game happened last year, we would be making turnstile jokes about the Giants running through him, but that’s no longer the case.

While the Giants have improved their defense in the playoffs, it hasn’t been because of a dominant pass rush. Let’s run that same chart from before, but this time for the D:

Whether it’s because of a decline in performance or a change in scheme, the sacks haven’t been coming at the same rate during the past two weeks. That’s a tradeoff the Giants will take, though, for what they’re doing against the passing game as a whole. That dropoff in yards per attempt is incredible, especially considering that they just finished a game against the Packers, who averaged a league-leading 9.3 yards per attempt during the regular season. The Giants were 20th in yards per attempt during the regular season, but they would be first by three-tenths of a yard if they put up a 5.3 YPA during the first 16.

The 49ers should average more than 5.3 yards per pass during this game. In the initial encounter between these two, the Giants went all out to stop Frank Gore, all the way down to putting 10 guys into the box on some running plays. They basically dared Alex Smith to throw on first and second down, and it worked. Gore only got six first-half carries before leaving with a knee injury, and they went for a total of zero yards. Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon combined to take his place and run for 50 yards on just eight carries, but the Giants weren’t as aggressive about their run defense after Gore left. With Gore back in the lineup and Smith coming off of a career-making day, it will be interesting to see if the Giants remain that aggressive about stopping the run.

Smith was mostly effective, going 19-of-30 for 242 yards with a touchdown and an interception that wasn’t his fault whatsoever, as Ted Ginn dropped a pass off of his hands and into the air, with Corey Webster picking it off. The San Francisco game plan in the passing game was relatively simple, as the Niners basically went after cornerback Aaron Ross as frequently as possible. Most of the time, that meant throws to Braylon Edwards, but Edwards is no longer on the active roster, and Ginn, his replacement in the starting lineup, is questionable for this weekend’s game. Will the Niners have the same confidence going after Ross on throws to Kyle Williams? Smith generally avoided going after Webster in the first game, short one red zone series where he threw at Webster three plays in a row. The Giants were also without nickel back Prince Amukamara during the first game, which would normally help, but it’s hard to see the Niners going three-wide all that frequently because of their injury issues at wideout.

If the Giants want a starting point for what to focus on, it’s to force the 49ers into going a long way with the football. Both of the Niners’ touchdowns in this game came on drives that started with 50 yards or fewer to go for a TD, and in the Saints game, all of their points from the first three quarters came with 54 yards to go or fewer. They pulled out two long drives for touchdowns to finish the game, but that might also have been an alternate reality where Vernon Davis is a legitimate superhero.

Oh, and while Davis will get a lot of hype after his mammoth performance in the fourth quarter last week, he’s probably going to spend a lot of his time on Sunday helping out with the blocking duties up front. He only had three catches for 40 yards during the first game, and virtually all of that came on a 31-yard touchdown pass. Like the first big Cruz play, Davis’ touchdown came on a blown coverage where middle linebacker Greg Jones fielded Davis before releasing him into a zone coverage that wasn’t there. Hopefully for Giants fans, Michael Boley (who was injured during the second half and missed the Davis TD) and Chase Blackburn (who wasn’t even on the roster at the time) will do a better job of knowing the scheme than Jones does.

Special Teams

Ah, the Niners special teams. We highlighted their dominant performance during the first game in the introduction, but it’s also worth noting that the Giants gave the Niners a few gifts. Punter Steve Weatherford booted a 29-yarder out of bounds to set the Niners up at midfield, while gunner Derrick Martin committed three penalties across two punts (yes, including two on one play) to add 10 yards to Andy Lee’s masterstrokes. After last week’s failed onside kick from the Packers and San Francisco’s successful attempt during the first encounter with New York in Week 10, it’s safe to say that the Niners won’t try to surprise the Giants with an onsider on Sunday.

The Prediction

Having picked against the Giants twice, only to see them win both times, it would be easy to continue some sort of reverse jinx play by picking against them a third time. Everyone knows that the Giants can’t keep playing at this high of a level, but the fact that they’ve been able to do it two games in a row has to mean something, right? In addition, the Niners were able to recover five fumbles in the game against the Saints, which went a long way toward establishing the early lead they needed for victory. That sort of fumble recovery rate isn’t likely to happen again. (The Giants, in all fairness, also went 3-for-3 against Green Bay.) But the Niners were the better team during the regular season and outplayed the Giants in this exact matchup! But that was the old Giants! So confused! Fine. New York Giants 17, San Francisco 49ers 13.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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