No inter-divisional rivalry in the NFL is as close, as storied or as fiercely contested as that between the Giants and the San Francisco 49ers.
The teams have met 36 times, including postseason games. Each team has 18 victories – 14 apiece in the regular season, four each in the playoffs. The scoring differential in those 36 games is a mere nine points, one-quarter of a point per game. The 49ers hold the points edge in the regular season, 560-553, and in the postseason, 178-176.
The longtime combatants adhered to their familiar script in each of their two meetings last season. On Nov. 11, Eli Manning's pass was batted down by Justin Smith with 34 seconds remaining and the 49ers escaped with a 27-20 victory. The teams clashed again in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 22, when Lawrence Tynes' 31-yard field goal in overtime gave the Giants a 20-17 triumph.
On Sunday, the rivalry will resume when the Giants return to Candlestick Park for the third time in 11 months for another high-stakes game against their West Coast rivals. The Giants are 3-2 and tied with Philadelphia for first place in the NFC East. San Francisco is 4-1 and shares first place in the NFC West with Arizona.
So here we go again.
"This is an outstanding football team, it's a conference game, a team that we played twice last year, a very, very good team, but very close games, both times if you remember," coach Tom Coughlin said. "We're excited about playing the 49ers."
"Obviously, it's a big game," quarterback Eli Manning said. "The fact that we played last year in the NFC Championship Game makes it a big game, and they're a good team. It's not a team that you face twice a year all the time. Obviously, it happened last year, but it's definitely a big game."
It's a contest that features two outstanding teams. The Giants have the NFL's second-ranked offense (429.2 yards a game). San Francisco has the league's No. 2 defense (262.2). San Francisco also leads the league in rushing with 195.8 yards a game. While most teams in the NFL increasingly rely on the pass to move the ball, the Niners get down and dirty with their ground game.
"(They're) very different," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "They present you a lot of different runs and blocking schemes, a lot of different personnel groups with the formations and adjustments. They are a little bit unique in what they do."
Defensively, San Francisco employs a punishing 3-4 that has allowed only one back to rush for more than 100 yards in the Niners' last 43 games.
"They have great players, and they're not gambling, taking a lot of risks," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. "They line up, they do a terrific job of trying to knock you back and because of their ability and strength inside, those two defensive ends (Justin Smith and Ray McDonald) and nose (tackle, Isaac Sopoaga)) they have are big, huge, powerful men. They make it hard. Their linebackers are as good as you face in the game. You add two safeties who are as physical as anybody in the game and you have a great nine out of 11, in terms of their strength in what they do in defending the run."
The Giants and 49ers have faced each other in many memorable games in the last three decades. With the history, the stakes and the players involved, Sunday's game could be another one.
*The Giants declared three players out of the game: defensive tackle Rocky Bernard (quadriceps), running back Andre Brown (concussion) and safety Kenny Phillips (knee).
Three players are questionable: wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (foot/knee), tackle David Diehl (knee) and cornerback Corey Webster (hand/hamstring). Nicks and Diehl were limited in practice, while Webster did not work.
Nicks worked for the second day in a row and is hopeful he will play in San Francisco after missing the last three games.
"I did the majority of the practice – about four or five reps a period, about what I would normally do in a Friday practice," Nicks said. "I did good. I had coach watching me, asking (him) how I looked, was I compensating or anything like that. I wasn't. So it looked good. I feel good about it. We'll see how I respond in the morning and then they'll let me know."
Nicks said yesterday he would know more about his injured knee today.
"It wasn't painful," Nicks said. "I could say that. It wasn't painful. Initially in the morning, your body has to wake up. I think today was definitely not a setback. I can say that."
Nicks was asked if he is "cautiously optimistic" about playing Sunday.
"Yeah - I would like to see what the coaches are going to say, what they're going to say about it in the morning and what the trainers are going to say," Nicks said. "But I think I've got a pretty good shot."
The Giants have passed the ball well, but getting back Nicks would provide a significant boost to their aerial attack.
"That would be a huge asset for our team," Coughlin said. "But, we'll have to wait and see."
"He battles out there," said fellow receiver Domenik Hixon. "The stats speak for themselves and he's a ballplayer."
*Seven players were listed as probable, all of whom practiced fully: wide receiver Ramses Barden (concussion), tight end Martellus Bennett (knee), linebacker Chase Blackburn (hip), cornerback Jayron Hosley (hamstring), linebacker Keith Rivers (hamstring) and safety Antrel Rolle (knee).
*Because the 49ers run the ball so well, the spotlight will be on young defensive tackles Markus Kuhn and Marvin Austin, who are substituting for Bernard.
"The two of them have got to be big factors in the game this weekend, obviously because of the run," Coughlin said. "They're going to have to play as well as they've ever played. Hopefully, they're prepared to do that."