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.