Niners-Giants NFC title duel has makings of survival of the toughest
Candlestick Park may have three inches of rain by time the NFC title game starts
Niners and Giants say they'll run, but meeting in Week 10 saw 81 passes thrown
Ravens offense seems too out of rhythm to keep pace with Pats' explosive attack
SAN FRANCISCO -- "It's going to be a blood bath," Giants defensive tackle Chris Canty said this week of the NFC Championship Game.
Right sentiment, wrong adjective. "Mud." Mud bath. With rain soaking the Bay Area, forecasters say three inches of rain will have fallen this week on Candlestick Park by the 6:40 p.m. ET kickoff Sunday, with a 40 percent chance for more during the game. The elements along with two coaches determined to run the ball and two physical teams (that's putting it mildly based on last weekend's NFC slobberknockers) could make Giants-49ers the Throwback Bowl.
Talking to players on both teams this week, and analyzing San Francisco's 27-20 Week 10 victory over New York, l believe both teams will start off determined to run. Where it goes from there, well, the play of two formidable front sevens will determine that.
"Whoever wins the physical battle will win the game," Giants defensive lineman Dave Tollefson said in the Giants locker room in New Jersey Wednesday. "It's going to be an old-school, traditional football game.''
Said Giants guard Chris Snee: "The Drew Brees-Aaron Rodgers matchup is the one everyone probably expected to see, and most people wanted to see. Who'd have thought that both New Orleans and Green Bay would be out after the years they had? But the way we play, us and San Francisco, is the way the game was always meant to be played."
Strange, then, that when the two teams met 10 weeks ago, it was a typical 2011 aerial show: 81 pass plays (70 passes, three sacks, eight quarterback scrambles) from Alex Smith and Eli Manning, 41 runs by backs. The two backs expected to be the primary mail carriers in the championship game -- Frank Gore and Ahmad Bradshaw -- had zero yards that day. Gore (ankle) carried six times for no yards in the first half, then didn't play in the second half; Bradshaw (foot) didn't play at all.
"We say it [the weather] is not going to change anything," Giants coach Tom Coughlin told me Thursday. "And we go into the game with a certain game plan based on what we think can succeed. But then you have to get a feel for the game. Regardless, I think we would continue to throw if that's what we think will work, because Eli has demonstrated how well he can throw the ball in weather."
The 49ers should be tougher to beat this week than they were in the first game. Gore's healthy, giving them a good one-two punch with rookie Kendall Hunter giving them solid relief work. Smith's emboldened after his 28-yard mad dash for a touchdown and line drive-drive touchdown pass to Vernon Davis saved the season against the Saints last week. The defense is supremely confident, despite allowing the Saints to go the length of the field twice in the fourth quarter.
"I think we're the most complete team out there," Gore said.
It's amazing to think Gore could be right. Think back to July, when the Niners had a new coach, a recycled quarterback, and no faith that '11 would be anything but a rebuilding year. Now the 49ers have ridden a solid defense (though exposed on the deep balls last week against the Saints) with a relentless front to the NFL Final Four.
San Francisco's biggest task Sunday: managing the Giants in their three-receiver sets. Last week in Green Bay, Eli Manning always seemed to have Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz or Mario Manningham open (they combined for 15 catches, 270 yards and three touchdowns). Carlos Rogers had two interceptions of Manning in the first game, and will try to limit the explosive Cruz on the slot. And with Nicks on fire in the playoffs (four touchdowns), containing him and Cruz on a slippery field could well be the difference in winning and losing.
New England 23, Baltimore 13. I can't see Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and quarterback Joe Flacco, even going against a pedestrian at best secondary, fixing all that ails the Baltimore offense in one week. The Ravens won't have to win a scoring contest against the Patriots, but they'll have to score in the 20s, absolutely minimum, to win. And can you see these Ravens, unless two or three of the scores are set up by the defense with short fields, going on four or five scoring drives Sunday? I can't.
What impressed me watching the Patriots last week was the push off the ball by the defensive line. Shaun Ellis looked frisky, not 34, in playing his best game of the year. The guy loves playing in playoff games. Vince Wilfork was dominant. You know who Kyle Love is? Watch the middle of the Pats' defensive front Sunday; you'll learn. And I'm not exaggerating in saying I have never seen Gerard Warren play better -- and this was the third pick in the 2001 draft, folks.
Maybe they've found the fountain of youth. Maybe Bill Belichick knew all along these guys would be ready when the games really mattered. Whatever. I can't see Ray Rice breaking loose and winning this game for Baltimore. I can see Tom Brady making more than enough plays to win.
San Francisco 19, New York Giants 17. I find it hard to believe I'm picking against Eli Manning. Borderline insanity. All he's done in the last four years is go 6-1 in playoff games ... with five of the wins outside of New Jersey. He's knocked the Packers out of the playoffs twice at Lambeau Field. He's beaten Tom Brady in Foxborough (in the regular season this year; the Pats' only home loss) and in a Super Bowl. And he can't beat Alex Smith in Candlestick? Certainly he can, but the San Francisco front is going to have something to say about that.
Huge matchup of the game: Niners defensive lineman Justin Smith against left tackle David Diehl (on first downs) and guard Kevin Boothe (on passing downs) and chips from other Giants. Not telling you anything you don't know if you watched Smith push Saints tackle Jermon Bushrod all the way back into Drew Brees last week; the three men fell in a huge pig pile, and I wondered if Bushrod got credit for half a sack. Amazing play.
When these teams played in Week 10, Smith and his fellow Missouri product Aldon Smith, the Niners' pass-rush specialist, pressured Eli Manning 10 times over the Giants' left side. With how slippery the ball's going to be Sunday, the ability of Diehl and Boothe and a tight-end helper to hold up is paramount to the Giants' chances. I like Smith to be able to elude the Giants' front enough to make a few plays, and I like the pressure of the San Francisco front seven to force a turnover or two, plus some long-yardage situations. As I wrote above, I think it'll be a good ol' slugfest.
Good podcast this week with Pro Football Hall of Fame vice president Joe Horrigan, the chief archivist and longtime Hall of Fame selection committee czar, and Jets beat man Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. The podcast is on iTunes and on SI.com.
A few highlights ...
Limits on the Hall classes to five modern-era candidates per year: "I go to the slogan of the old campaign for the Marines, 'The few, the proud, the Marines.' And it's kind of the same thing [with the Pro Football Hall of Fame] where ... there a lot of people who would be good, solid nominees, but you want to make sure that from those nominees you get the absolute best. So you have to put a cap there so that you don't go soft a little bit; so that everything you do, every candidate you review and eventually elect meets the same criteria as the men who came before him."
Privacy of the voting: "If you're the ... Denver selector and there are three candidates, three nominees from Denver, and that selector feels strongly that two of them should be in the Hall of Fame ... but does not feel particularly strongly about the third, the fact is that if he were to go back to his hometown and say, 'Well, I voted for two out of the three,' there might be a mass movement to have him hung by his thumbs from the nearest telephone pole. So we try to eliminate that repercussion [of revealing the votes] if you will, an unintended repercussion, but nonetheless a possible repercussion."
On the lack of specialists and special-teams players in the Hall: "How many games have kickers won for teams? I mean there are countless. How many times have we relied on the place-kicker to win the Super Bowl? It's happened. ... Marv Levy says the game is offense, defense and special teams. So if you couldn't play a game without special teams, then certainly those players on special teams deserve Hall of Fame consideration. It is just the reality of the sheer numbers that makes it more difficult for them."
New England defensive back Sterling Moore (No. 29). Crazy story. Undrafted free agent, waived off the Raiders' practice squad early in the season, signed by the Patriots, and now he's turned into a nearly indispensable part of New England's mishmash of a secondary. Last week against Denver, he played half the snaps at right corner opposite Kyle Arrington, with slumping former first-rounder Devin McCourty pushed back to safety. How crazy will it be Sunday to look up and see two undrafted corners from Hofstra (Arrington) and SMU (Moore) playing in tandem in the AFC Championship -- especially with the Patriots picking a corner in the top two rounds of the last four drafts?
1. The Miami coaching derby. Sounds more and more like the Dolphins are leaning offense, and they spent more quality team in New York Thursday with Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who had a good year remaking the Denver offense in midseason to fit Tim Tebow. McCoy would give Stephen Ross the kind of coach he wants -- a smart guy who won't mind working in a system with a GM with personnel control, Jeff Ireland, and a coach who has experience in multiple offensive systems. With rumblings that Miami could name a coach Friday, stay tuned.
2. Movement in the Minnesota stadium situation. I stand by what I said on NBC in December: A deal will get done to keep the Vikings in Minnesota, in a new stadium. There are too many franchises on a cliff right now -- San Diego, Oakland, St. Louis -- who could be strong candidates to move to Los Angeles by 2015, and it makes too much sense for the Vikings to make a deal to stay. I think the deal that ends up getting done is a tear-down of the Metrodome and construction of a new stadium, a bigger one, on the same site.
3. Flacco. Under fire from inside and outside his team, the Ravens' quarterback has to come up big for his team to have a good chance to stun the Patriots.
4. Alex Smith's latest drama show. Fascinated by the career resurgence of Smith. Now he has to beat the guy who's knocked the Patriots off in Foxborough and the Packers in Green Bay this season. Strange to think the most dramatic player in the league has shifted from Tim Tebow to Alex Smith. Who'd have thought that back in September?
5. Harbaugh Bowl II. It's two wins away.
6. The NFL Matchup show on Sunday. There are two interesting pieces I'm looking forward to seeing Ron Jaworski, Merril Hoge and Sal Paolantonio dissect Sunday morning. First, how the Ravens might attack the Patriots' empty backfield, with all the strange permutations of where Aaron Hernandez might line up and who will handle him. Second, how the Niners played Cruz in the slot in the first Giants-Niners meeting, putting cornerback Rogers on him consistently. That could be a huge matchup in this game, because the Giants won't be scared of throwing the ball because of wet weather.
7. The Colts. They'll look all over the map for a coach, and it won't have much of anything to do with Peyton Manning's future. That will be decided around March 1, when the Colts find out where Manning is in his rehab, which obviously has been a slow and bumpy road.
8. The Saints and Spags. Great choice by Sean Payton, hiring Steve Spagnuolo, who will bring a different defensive philosophy to New Orleans. He won't be nearly as blitz-happy; he prefers to get pressure with his linemen without emptying the secondary trying to get to the quarterback -- and who knows how a philosophy like that would have impacted the divisional playoff loss at San Francisco. Lots of grumbling over Gregg Williams' riverboat-gambling ways last week. Hey, you live with the blitz, you die with the blitz, and the Saints have had some very good days with Williams in blitz packages.
9. The Raiders and Bucs have an odd coaching net. I keep thinking the Bucs have a couple of safe choices, including Mike Sherman, in the back pocket, while they do a very wide coaching search. Oakland's looking for offense (surprise!) in Marty Mornhinweg and Mike Tice, and we're all waiting for GM Reggie McKenzie to seek out his old friends in Green Bay, Winston Moss and Dom Capers.
10. Someone else on the Jets to open his mouth. Never seen a team do so much talking and so little winning in one season.