49ERS RUN OFFENSE vs. GIANTS RUN DEFENSE
Frank Gore was injured and thus, a non-factor in the Nov. 13 regular-season game against the Giants. It was the first time he finished with no yards, on six carries, in his seven-year career. Kendall Hunter picked up some of the slack that day, rushing for 40 yards on six carries. But as a team, the 49ers were limited to just 77 yards on the ground. The Giants' run defense, meanwhile, has given up an average of 105.5 yards per game on the ground against Atlanta and Green Bay in the playoffs, after surrendering 121.2 rushing yards per game in the regular season. Gore is healthy now, as evidenced by his rushing for 1,211 yards this season, the second-highest season total of his career.
49ERS PASS OFFENSE vs. GIANTS PASS DEFENSE
Yes, we know all about Alex Smith's arrival, albeit six years after he was the NFL's No. 1 overall draft pick, and how the confidence between his ears has translated to confidence throwing the ball. But now he's facing a fearsome unit that showed up late in the season. The Giants pass rush, bookended by DEs Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, has allowed their secondary to blanket receivers of late, limiting the Falcons' Matt Ryan and the Packers' Aaron Rodgers to a combined 75.0 passer rating this postseason. Going back two games into the regular season, against the New York Jets and Dallas, the Giants have racked up 17 sacks in the four games while picking off four passes and shutting out tight ends from the end zone. Beware, Vernon Davis.
EDGE: GiantsGIANTS RUN OFFENSE vs. 49ERS RUN DEFENSE
To hear Jerry Rice tell it, Brandon Jacobs is soft, huh? Nothing like a retired receiver, granted, the best receiver of all time, taking a shot at a current player and doing the current 49ers' defense no favors in the process while adding some bulletin board material. Plus, Ahmad Bradshaw has been playing on a bad foot since about the mid-point of the season and missed the Nov. 13 game at Candlestick. Bradshaw rumbled for a game-high 55 yards, on 18 carries, and the Giants could only gain 93 yards on the ground in 29 carries. The 49ers, though, have not missed a beat. After finishing with the top-ranked run defense, and not allowing a rushing TD until Week 16, at Seattle, the 49ers limited New Orleans to a mere 37 rushing yards, on 14 carries last week.
EDGE: 49ersGIANTS PASS OFFENSE vs. 49ERS PASS DEFENSE
Can we stop with the "Is Eli Manning an elite QB" questions, at least for now? Truth is, he's playing out of his mind and he has been in the Giants' four-game winning streak, each game an elimination game, of sorts. When he has time, Manning, who threw for a career-high 4,933 yards this season, with 311 against the 49ers, can pick apart defenses with the best of them. But when he's pressured, he's flustered. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, WR Hakeem Nicks suddenly has a tweaked ankle. And a muddy field won't help the Giants' air assault. Meanwhile, the 49ers pass defense, which gave up 230.9 yards per game in the air in the regular season, was just shredded by Drew Brees for 462 yards. Can Justin Smith and Co. keep Manning off balance?
EDGE: Giants49ERS KICKOFF RETURN vs. GIANTS KICKOFF COVERAGE
The 49ers led the NFL in kick returns, averaging 27.2 yards and returning one for a touchdown, a 102-yard gallop by Ted Ginn against Seattle on kickoff weekend. And against the Giants earlier this season, Ginn returned two kicks for 55 yards. But Ginn injured his right knee against the Saints last week and is questionable to play. Even if he cannot go, and is replaced by Kendall Hunter, the 49ers should still enjoy an advantage here as the Giants gave up 22.9 yards per return.
EDGE: 49ersGIANTS KICKOFF RETURN vs. 49ERS KICKOFF COVERAGE
The Giants were in a three-way tie for 20th in kick return this season, with Dallas and St. Louis in averaging 23.3 yards, and had a long of 40 yards. Nothing really special there. And against the 49ers in November, Da'Rel Scott returned two kicks for 53 yards. On the season, Devin Thomas returned 25 kicks and averaged 24.3 yards. The 49ers allowed 23.1 yards per kick return, with a long of 39 yards.
EDGE: 49ers49ERS PUNT RETURN vs. GIANTS PUNT COVERAGE
Ginn also led the Niners' punt return team, which ranked fifth in the NFL with a 12.4 average. Ginn himself averaged 12.3 yards and he had an electrifying 55-yard return for a TD against the Seahawks in the opener. But if Ginn is a no-go, Kyle Williams will replace him. Williams only returned two punts in the regular season. Giants punter Steve Weatherford's 39.2-yards net average ranked 14th in the NFL and the Giants allowed a 9.9-yards per punt return average.
EDGE: 49ersGIANTS PUNT RETURN vs. 49ERS PUNT COVERAGE
If ranking just 29th in the 32-team NFL in punt return wasn't bad enough for the Giants, who averaged 6.1 yards per return with a long of 18 yards (Aaron Ross averaged 7.1 yards on 14 returns), now they get to face All-Pro punter Andy Lee. He set an NFL record for net yardage average at 44.0 yards this season. And the 49ers allowed 8.1 yards per return.
EDGE: 49ersCOACHING -- 49ERS JIM HARBAUGH vs. GIANTS TOM COUGHLIN
The expected NFL Coach of the Year, as a rookie, against the venerable lion, who has gone from being on the proverbial Big Apple hot seat a month ago to being prepped for his induction into Canton. That's how fast and fickle things can move in the coaching game. Harbaugh has done a magnificent job as an offensive mind and locker room psychiatrist, especially in green-lighting the gutsy call to have Alex Smith run around the left end for a 28-yard touchdown against the Saints. Coughlin, meanwhile, has maintained his steady, steely resolve that has translated to a defense that has gotten healthy and dangerous the last month. A clash of wills and specialties here. But we'll go with experience over exuberance...for now.
EDGE: GiantsPREDICTION: 49ers 23, Giants 21