The Giants will attempt to improve to 5-0 in conference title games and advance to Super Bowl XLVI when they face the San Francisco 49ers Sunday in the NFC Championship Game in Candlestick Park. The Giants, 11-7, have advanced to the title game with victories over Atlanta at home and Green Bay on the road. San Francisco, 14-3, defeated New Orleans in a thrilling divisional playoff game last week. The 49ers beat the Giants, 27-20, in Candlestick on Nov. 13. The Niners lead the postseason series, 4-3. The regular season series is tied, 14-14. The teams met once previously in a conference championship game; on Jan. 20, 1991, Matt Bahr kicked five field goals, including a 42-yarder as time expired, to give the Giants a 15-13 victory in San Francisco. The 49ers are 5-7 in championship games.
This season, the 49ers have six fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories and they are 8-2 in games decided by eight points or less (including last week).
Few teams in NFL history have taken care of the ball like these 49ers. They had just 10 turnovers, tying the 2010 New England Patriots for the fewest ever. The Niners lost five fumbles and threw five interceptions. San Francisco was the NFL's 11th-highest scoring team (23.8 points a game) despite finishing 26th in yards gained (310.9 a game). The 49ers were eighth in the league in rushing (127.8) and 29th in passing (183.1). San Francisco was 31st in the NFL in third down conversion percentage (29.4, 65 successes in 221 attempts), but second on fourth down (64.3 percent; nine-of-14).
The 49ers are a multiple-package team on offense that frequently uses offensive linemen as extra tight ends and defensive linemen in the backfield. Both offensive tackle Joe Staley and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga caught passes this season. Because of their stout defense, the 49ers started a higher percentage of their offensive possessions in their opponents' territory than any other team.
Quarterback Alex Smith continues to improve each week in what has easily been the best of his seven NFL seasons. The No. 1 overall selection in the 2005 draft is playing with confidence, completing passes despite tight coverage and using his athleticism to run the ball well when he has to – witness his 28-yard bootleg touchdown last week against the Saints. Smith was the 49ers' third-leading rusher in the regular season. His backup is rookie Colin Kaepernick.
Frank Gore, San Francisco's career rushing leader, was sixth in the NFL with 1,211 rushing yards, but his streak of 100-yard games ended at five with a zero-yard outing against the Giants (he left the game after only six carries with an ankle injury). His highest total since then is 89 yards last week vs. New Orleans. Gore has excellent instincts, vision and cutback ability and his pass blocking is outstanding. Rookie Kendall Hunter, who had a 17-yard touchdown run vs. the Giants, is a quick-footed change-of-pace back with explosiveness. He does his best work on the perimeter and is a solid target for Smith coming out of the backfield. Anthony Dixon is a powerful tackle box runner.
Moran Norris began the season as the 49ers' fullback, but he broke his left fibula in Week 2. That opened the door for Bruce Miller, a rookie who played defensive end at Central Florida. Miller steadily improved and kept the starting job when Norris returned. He is a big, physical player who is strong on contact. Miller also has good receiving skills (11 catches, including a 30-yard touchdown). Norris still plays and is a strong blocker. Sopoaga sometimes plays fullback in the goal line packages.
Michael Crabtree led the Niners with 72 receptions for 874 yards. Since catching just one pass against the Giants, he has had at least four receptions in every game. Crabtree has all the tools needed to be a top-flight wide receiver, including size, speed, quickness and the strength to break tackles. Kyle Williams has been the clear-cut No. 2 receiver since Braylon Edwards was released on Dec. 27. A young, ascending wideout, the second-year pro is a legitimate vertical threat. The Giants have to be prepared to stop Williams on an end-around. Ted Ginn, Jr. didn't play in the last two regular season games because of an ankle injury he aggravated last week against New Orleans. When healthy, Ginn is a dangerous speedster with uncommon explosiveness and good open field vision. The 49ers like to throw quick screens to him and let him run. Brett Swain, cut by Green Bay and signed by the Niners on Oct. 12, replaced Ginn. Swain runs precise routes and gets up the field quickly.
Tight end Vernon Davis, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass last week, never leaves the field. He led the team with six touchdown receptions while catching 67 passes for 792 yards. Davis is big, powerful and fast, a savvy route runner and a solid blocker. Backup Delanie Walker led the Niners with six catches in the first Giants game, but missed the last two games with a fractured jaw. He returned to practice this week and is expected to play Sunday. Walker is often on the field with Davis and is a good receiver with speed and a competitive blocker. Walker also has 10 rushing attempts since 2008. Justin Peelle is a 10-year veteran with 69 career starts (one this season) who is an effective blocker and a good short and intermediate range receiver.
The 49ers have benefitted from consistency and good health on their offensive line, where four of the five positions have been manned by the same starter in every game. The exception is at right guard, but Adam Snyder has not missed a start since replacing Chilo Rachal in Week 4. The unit features three first round draft choices in Staley, the left tackle; left guard Mike Iupati; and right tackle Anthony Davis and has been flagged for only six holding penalties all year. Staley, selected to his first Pro Bowl this year, played solid football the entire season. Iupati is big, powerful and athletic and plays with a cranky disposition. The 49ers signed center Jonathan Goodwin from New Orleans after the Giants acquired former Niner David Baas. Goodwin did not miss a snap in the regular season, though he sat out nine plays last week with a left lower leg injury. He is a smart, savvy veteran who is the glue of the line. Snyder has toughness and strength and has been a steady player. Davis has the athleticism and strength to be a top-tier tackle. Alex Boone and Rachal both see action in some packages.
San Francisco had one of the NFL's stingiest defenses this season. Only Pittsburgh allowed fewer than the 229 points given up by the 49ers (14.3 a game). The Niners surrendered more than 20 points just four times until New Orleans scored 32 last week. San Francisco had the NFL's top rushing defense (77.3 yards a game) and was fourth overall (308.2).
The 49ers' 3-4 defense is very disciplined and technique-sound. Their 38 takeaways (23 interceptions and 15 fumbles recoveries) tied Green Bay for the NFL high.
The heart and soul of the defense is Pro Bowl lineman Justin Smith, who is a prototype 3-4 defensive end. He was selected to his third consecutive Pro Bowl. More impressively, Smith, who frequently moves inside, was a first-team AP All-Pro selection at tackle and a second-team All-Pro at end – the first player ever selected first and second team All-Pro at two different positions in the same phase of the game. Smith competes hard on every play and never leaves the field. Left end Ray McDonald is a strong, instinctive and smart player who is tough to push back. He moves inside in sub packages. Sopoaga is a jumbo-sized 330-pounder who is a solid player with good movement in the box. He is a solid run defender. Ricky Jean Francois is the only reserve lineman who gets significant playing time. He is a good player against the run and pass and would start for several teams.
NFL personnel experts generally agree that the Niners have the league's best pair of inside linebackers in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Willis was selected to his fifth Pro Bowl in a row, and was the team's second-leading tackler, despite missing four games with a hamstring injury. He is an instinctive, fast, tough and powerful player who closes ground fast and knocks ballcarriers off their feet. Bowman, in his first season as a starter, led the 49ers with 173 tackles (81 solo). He is a fluid athlete who is strong vs. the run but skilled enough to cover tight ends and backs out of the backfield. Left outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks is a violent, heavy-body attacker. Parys Haralson started every game and is a physical player who is removed in sub defenses. Aldon Smith, the seventh overall selection in last year's draft, is the team's best pure pass rusher and team leader with 14.0 sacks. He is a long-armed defender who can change direction and free himself with double moves. Smith doesn't play in the base defense so he is fresh to chase the quarterback in the sub packages. Larry Grant started the four games Willis missed.
All four of San Francisco's starting defensive backs had at least two interceptions. Safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Carlos Rogers each had a team-high six picks and were selected to the Pro Bowl. Goldson, who picked off a Drew Brees pass last week, is a playmaking safety who quickly diagnoses a play and takes a good angle to the ball. He is playing extremely well. Strong safety Donte Whitner is very aggressive around the line of scrimmage and frequently looks to strip the ball when he makes a tackle. Rogers intercepted Eli Manning twice in November. He plays with confidence and focus and has excelled in a variety of coverages. Tarell Brown has also had a good season and finished with a career-high four interceptions, plus one last week. In the nickel, Chris Culliver steps in at left corner and Rogers moves inside to cover the slot receiver. He is an exceptional athlete with good route recognition. Tramaine Brock plays in some dime packages.
San Francisco has exceptionally good special teams. Kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee were both selected to the Pro Bowl. Akers set NFL records for field goals (44), field goal attempts (52) and points (166) and was named first-team All-Pro. Akers connected on seven of nine attempts from 50 or more yards and his 47 touchbacks ranked fourth in the league. He also completed a 14-yard pass this season. Lee led the league in both gross average (50.3) and net average (44.0) and placed 28 kicks inside the 20. The return game is just as impressive. Ginn was third in the NFL with a 27.6-yard kickoff return average, including a 102-yard touchdown, and third with a 12.3-yard punt return average, including a 55-yard score – in the same game as his long kickoff runback. He did not fumble the ball all season. Kyle Williams replaced him last week when Ginn's ankle was sore. C.J. Spillman led San Francisco with 19 special teams tackles.