The San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants are just one win away from a trip to the Super Bowl, as the two improbable title contenders battle on Sunday at Candlestick Park in the NFC game.
The 49ers are coming off their dramatic victory over the New Orleans Saints at home, while the the Giants shocked many experts when they blew out the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
San Francisco had a 6-10 record in 2010, but finished with a 13-3 record in the 2011 regular season. When Alex Smith found Vernon Davis for a 14-yard touchdown reception with nine seconds remaining against New Orleans, the 49ers' season shifted from unlikely contenders to possible front-runners.
The Bay Area forecast calls for rain this weekend, which should serve San Francisco well. Jim Harbaugh's squad finished with a 7-1 record at home this season, and the lone loss was to the Dallas Cowboys in overtime in Week Two.
Candlestick Park has a reputation for having a rather slick turf, which benefits the 49ers' excellent blue-collar defense. San Francisco had the best opposing rushing yard average in the NFL in the regular season (77.3), and the 49ers were second in the league in points allowed (14.3).
San Francisco's offense relies on a strong ground attack led by Frank Gore. The Pro Bowl running back finished with more than 1,200 yards in 2011, and he is coming off a solid game against the Saints, in which he rushed for 89 yards on 13 carries.
However, Smith is coming off perhaps the best performance of his career. Smith has started 66 games at quarterback for the 49ers, but had not lived up to the expectations of a former No. 1 overall draft pick until this season. He silenced some doubters with his effort against New Orleans, when he completed 24 of 42 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for a 28-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, and then led the final drive to win the game.
Davis is also coming off perhaps a career-best effort. The former Pro Bowl tight end has had his ups and downs during his career, but against the Saints he finished with seven receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
New York's defense will need to pressure Smith, and contain both Davis and Gore on Sunday. The Giants' defense proved it is a stronger unit than many gave them credit for after limiting the potent Green Bay offense to just 20 points last week.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers led all Packer rushers when he ran for 66 yards on seven carries, so New York will be cautious of Smith's scrambles. The Giants forced Green Bay into turnovers and limited Rodgers' passing attack, while the offense looked sharp for the fourth consecutive week in what can be described as a sharp turnaround.
New York will likely go back to the air as star quarterback Eli Manning has been particularly effective in recent weeks. When Manning has time to throw, he appears unstoppable, which looked like the case against the Packers when he threw for 330 yards as he completed 21 of 33 passes.
Manning has two excellent passing options in Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Against Green Bay, Nicks caught seven passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
San Francisco's secondary will likely put special focus on Cruz and Nicks, but it will still have to be concerned with wide receiver Mario Manningham and tight end Jake Ballard, as both might be due for a breakout game.
The Giants' running game has the potential to break plays with a pair of running backs in Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw who can be difficult to tackle. The offensive line for Tom Coughlin's squad has improved as the season progressed, and it has been a major factor in New York's four-game winning streak.
That is a worthy opponent, the 49ers' Harbaugh said of the Giants. That is a scary opponent. We will have to come with every ounce of our 'A' game as well.
The two teams met at Candlestick Park on Nov. 13, when San Francisco edged New York, 27-20, as the visiting club couldn't find the end zone deep in the fourth quarter while on the home team's 10-yard line. Manning threw for 311 yards, but also two interceptions.
LINE: The 49ers are favored by three points.
PREDICTION: The NFC road to the Super Bowl promises to be an exciting one as both clubs are playing above their heads, and appear evenly match. San Francisco will likely keep it simple by pounding the ball with Gore, and then throwing to Davis on third down. Both are effective strategies, but the Giants' defense will likely contain that game plan by the second half, which should force Smith to look for wide receiver Michael Crabtree more often. The New York offense has multiple weapons, and Manning is likely to spread the passing game to include receivers other than Cruz and Nicks. Should the offensive line give Manning time to throw, the Giants will be throwing the ball so often that it should surprise the 49ers defense with a rushing play from time to time. New York would love to neutralize star offensive linebacker Patrick Willis by just throwing corner routes. But expect San Francisco's secondary, led by Pro Bowl defensive backs Carlos Rogers and Dashon Goldson, to step up. In the end, Manning should ultimately be able to execute solid drives by hitting multiple receivers in what will likely be a close game.
PREDICTED SCORE: New York over San Francisco, 24-21.