49ers-Giants: Matchups to watch

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49ers-Giants: Matchups to watch

PRE-KICKOFF UPDATE: Delanie Walker is on the active list, Ted Ginn will not play for the 49ers.

SAN FRANCISCO -- They were the No. 1 overall picks in the 2004 and 2005 drafts.Eli Manning and Alex Smith had their best NFL regular seasons, and they've carried it over into the playoffs.And, now, their paths will converge Sunday as the most-important pieces of their respective teams in the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park (3:30 p.m.)Although the quarterbacks of the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers will never be on the field together, how they stack up against each other will likely decide which team advances to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis on Feb. 5.
Tale of the tape
49ers quarterback Alex Smith (11): 6-4, 217, Utah, seventh season
Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10): 6-4, 218, Mississippi, eighth seasonThis is the first time No. 1 picks of back-to-back drafts have ever squared off in a conference championship game. And it's only the second time that top overall selections have met this deep into the playoffs. The first such championship game meeting was in 1998 when John Elway led the Denver Broncos past Vinny Testaverde's New York Jets in the AFC title game.And the fact that Smith and Manning have taken their teams this far has been no small feat.Smith became the first quarterback in NFL history to lead his team on two lead-changing drives in the final three minutes of a playoff game. He scored a go-ahead touchdown on 28-yard run with 2:11 remaining last week against the New Orleans Saints. Then, he came back to throw a 14-yard score to tight end Vernon Davis with :09 remaining for a 36-32 victory.The 49ers entered this season with a 19-31 record in games with Smith as their starter. This season, he has taken every meaningful snap from center as the 49ers are 14-3. With a victory Sunday, the 49ers will reach the .500 mark with Smith as the starter."I've always been a big Alex Smith fan," Davis said. "He was my roommate during training camp. I had a chance to really pick his brain and find out more about who is Alex? What is Alex like? Alex, he's a strong individual. He's been through a lot. He's been up; he's been down, but he still managed to just hang tough, hang tough and fight through everything."I knew one day that he'd have success, but I didn't know it would come this fast. He's one of those guys that you just want on your team because he never gives up."With Smith at the controls, the 49ers have recorded six come-from-behind victories this season. The 49ers trailed the New York Giants 13-12 entering the fourth quarter on Nov. 13. Smith gave the 49ers a lead with his 31-yard touchdown pass to Davis in a game they won 27-20.Although the quarterbacks entered the NFL one year apart, Smith is more than 3 years younger than Manning, 31, who has already reached the peak of the NFL. Four seasons ago, Manning directed the Giants to a late touchdown and an upset victory over the previously unbeaten New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.A week ago, Manning outperformed Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to get within one game of a repeat showing in the Super Bowl. Manning completed 21 of 33 passes for 330 yards with three touchdowns and one interception in the 37-20 win at Lambeau Field.
Linebacker Patrick Willis marveled at Manning's prowess up close during their one season together at Ole Miss, so he knows the challenge that the 49ers' defense will face.
"As a freshman, I thought he was the greatest quarterback ever," Willis said. "That was the best season I'd ever had in football. To see the things that he's done -- he's won a Super Bowl. That's the biggest accomplishment that we all try to go for, to win that. He's done that." Other matchups worth watching49ers LT Joe Staley (74) vs. Giants REs Jason Pierre-Paul (90)Osi Umenyiora (72): The Giants rotate fresh linemen into the game on a regular basis, but Joe Staley will never get a break. For most of Sunday, he can expect to go head-to-head against either Jason Pierre-Paul, who led the Giants with 16.5 sacks during the regular season, or Umenyiora, who has 12 sacks in 11 games this season. Umenyiora missed seven games due to an ankle sprain. He is healthy now, and he leads the Giants with three sacks in two postseason games. Staley and left guard Mike Iupati have been working well together, and that will have to continue to Sunday. In the first meeting, Staley and Iupati did not have a clean exchange of assignments on a stunt, and that led to a Umenyiora sack.49ers CB Chris Culliver (29) vs. Giants WR Mario Manningham (82): The 49ers figure to roll safety help to Hakeem Nicks' side. That's what they did in the first meeting between the teams. And Nicks has kicked his game into a higher gear in the postseason with 13 receptions for 280 yards and four touchdowns in victories over Atlanta and Green Bay. Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers will be assigned to handle Victor Cruz in the slot. Cruz had 82 catches for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns in the regular season, so Rogers will have his hands full, too. That leaves the rookie, Culliver, matched against Mario Manningham, who provides the Giants with a third explosive threat on the outside. Culliver enters the game when the 49ers employ their nickel defense. In the first meeting, the Giants targeted this matchup in the second half. Culliver had good coverage but could not prevent a 13-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.49ers RB Frank Gore (21) vs. Giants run defense: It's as if the 49ers have been saving Frank Gore for this. Gore's workload has not been too great since midseason. Earlier in the season he gained 100-plus yards in five consecutive games. That streak ended when a knee injury forced him off the field late in the second quarter against the Giants. He had zero yards on six carries in that game before exiting. Over his past eight games, Gore has rushed for 65 to 89 yards six times. Against the Saints, Gore had 89 yards on just 13 rush attempts. He added seven receptions -- more than twice as many as he had in any game during the regular season -- for 38 yards. The Giants have tightened up their run defense in the postseason, but this might be a matchup in which the 49ers believe they can physically impose their will at the line of scrimmage.49ers run defense vs. Giants RBs Ahmad Bradshaw (44)Brandon Jacobs (27): Neither Ahmad Bradshaw nor Jacobs averaged 4.0 yards a carry during the regular season, but the Giants' production in the run game has improved dramatically in the playoffs. Bradshaw rushed for 126 yards on 26 carries (4.8 average) in the first two playoff games, while Jacobs gained 114 yards on 23 attempts (5.0 average). But they have not faced a run defense like the 49ers, who limited opponents to just 3.5 yards per attempt in the regular season.

McDonald toasts Shanahan for communication of trade talks

McDonald toasts Shanahan for communication of trade talks

SANTA CLARA -- Tight end Vance McDonald became aware of a report the 49ers had engaged in trade talks involving him at his brother’s wedding in Austin, Texas.

But McDonald said he did not give it much thought because he had another immediate priority.

“I still had my best man’s speech to do,” McDonald said.

Later that evening during last month's draft, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan called McDonald to keep him in the loop. There was no trade, and McDonald returned to Santa Clara on Monday to continue participation in the 49ers’ offseason program.

“The first thing I told him was, ‘Man, there aren’t a lot of coaches that would do this,’” McDonald said of his talk with Shanahan. “He just wanted to fill me in.”

Nearly four weeks later, it is as if nothing ever happened.

“The only trade discussions we had was when another team asked us about Vance on draft day,” Shanahan said this week. “And after a team asked us about Vance then we asked other teams if they’d be interested in that same thing.”

McDonald said he completely understood why the 49ers would check with other teams around the league to see what they could acquire in a trade.

“Basically, it’s just like any other team in the NFL would do,” McDonald said. “If you’re a 2-14 team, obviously, there are a lot of things you can improve on, a lot of spots that need to be filled. There are a lot of things you need to improve upon in the offseason. So if teams are going to call and inquire about you, then obviously the next step is to … call around to every other team.

“So that’s exactly what happened to me. It isn’t like they don’t want me here. There was never a lack of communication on any level.”

Even before he knew his immediate future with the 49ers, McDonald said he tried to maintain the proper state of mind.

“I had the mindset this isn’t going to change anything,” McDonald said. “I’m going to end up where I end up and I’m just going to continue doing what I’m doing, which is do everything to be a better football player.”

McDonald enters the fifth year of his NFL career after signing a new deal in December that amounts to a three-year, $19.7 million extension. Three days later, the 49ers placed McDonald on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.

McDonald was on pace for his best season as a pass-catcher. In 11 games, he had 24 receptions for 391 yards and four touchdowns.

Now, he is competition for a spot in the 49ers’ offense, along with fifth-round draft pick George Kittle, undrafted rookie Cole Hikutini, and veterans Logan Paulsen, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell.

McDonald said he likes what Shanahan has brought to the 49ers, including added responsibilities of the tight end position.

“Last year, all we talked about was how fast our pace was,” McDonald said. “With Kyle, it’s insanely quick. He’s a very detailed guy. It’s interesting to hear him present information. You try to apply it and play with the same mindset that he has. It’s a task that we all enjoy doing.

“We (tight ends) are the end of the line. There’s communication with us and the wide receivers and running backs. We’re also in command with receiving corps. There are a lot of things on our plate. Hopefully, this doesn’t get back to the wide receivers, but we’re supposed to be smarter than them. It’s a fun job to have. We don’t try to rub it in too much.”

Chip Kelly returns to college football -- as analyst

Chip Kelly returns to college football -- as analyst

Chip Kelly is back in college football.

The former Oregon coach, who served as 49ers head coach last season, signed a multiyear deal as an ESPN analyst, the network announced Friday morning. He will work predominantly on pre-games, halftimes and in studio wraps each Saturday on ESPN2.

“Over the last 30 years, I have experienced football from one perspective – as a coach,” Kelly said in a statement. “Working in television will allow me to see the game from a different angle; simultaneously, I‘ll provide viewers an insight to the mindset of a coach and team while offering alternative views of various situations.

“Once I decided to make the move to TV, my familiarity with ESPN, combined with their high-quality production and vital role in college football, it was easily the best network suited for me.”

Kelly, 53, was fired on the evening of the 49ers’ season finale. The 49ers went 2-14 under Kelly and set the franchise record with 13 consecutive losses. Their only victories came against the Los Angeles Rams. Kelly also auditioned with FOX for the analyst job vacated when John Lynch became 49ers general manager, sources told NBC Sports Bay Area.

Kelly served as Oregon’s head coach from 2009 to ’12. His teams compiled a record of 46-7. Under Kelly, the Ducks advanced to the 2011 national championship game, losing to Auburn 22-19.

Kelly won the AP College Football Coach of the Year. He twice won the Pac-10 coach of the year. He left Oregon to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. After his first two NFL teams went 10-6, Kelly was fired in 2015 with one game remaining in the season. The Eagles were 6-9 at the time of Kelly's firing.

“Chip is one of the most innovative football minds of our generation,” ESPN senior coordinating producer Lee Fitting said. “As a coach, he saw the game from a unique perspective, never afraid to take an unconventional approach. We want him to bring that mentality to our college football coverage each week, offering fans a varying viewpoint outside of the conventional thought process.”