SAN FRANCISCO: The New York Giants boasted a physical, intimidating defense with athletic linebackers and stout linemen capable of stifling the NFL’s most productive offenses. The San Francisco 49ers featured a high-powered passing attack led by an eventual hall of fame quarterback in his prime with receivers capable of turning short passes into big gains.
When the 49ers host the Giants in the NFC Championship Game today for a shot at the Super Bowl, the matchup conjures memories from a previous era of this great rivalry — even if the roles are somewhat reversed.
The elite quarterback now is the Giants’ Eli Manning, who connects on big plays to Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz in a similar fashion to how Joe Montana and Jerry Rice did for the dominant Niners in the 1980s.
San Francisco’s current front seven led by relentless defensive lineman Justin Smith, rookie pass-rushing specialist Aldon Smith and fierce linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman resembles that old Giants group featuring hall of famers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson.
And who could have predicted this surprising pairing?
The Giants (11-7) toppled the defending champion Green Bay Packers 37-20 last Sunday when everybody figured the road to the Super Bowl would go through Lambeau Field. Instead, the Giants are traveling West to San Francisco to face the upstart 49ers (14-3) in a meeting of franchises with so many fresh faces on the big stage.
Jim Harbaugh’s “mighty men” as he calls them stunned Drew Brees and the favored Saints 36-32 when Alex Smith hit Vernon Davis for the game-winning 14-yard touchdown with 9 seconds remaining.
Smith knows both the 49ers and Giants showed it’s anybody’s game come playoff time.
“Look at last week, I think everybody thought the road was going to go through Lambeau. I think everybody assumed the NFC Championship Game was going to get played there and look what happens,” Smith said. “These teams at this point, everybody’s as good as each other and it’s all going to come down to how you execute on that day. We’re all capable of beating each other, that’s for sure.”
Smith and Manning each orchestrated five fourth-quarter comebacks during the regular season, yet Manning missed in a 27-20 loss at San Francisco on Nov. 13 when Justin Smith batted away his last-ditch pass attempt on fourth down in the waning moments.
“This is about the NFC championship. It’s an opportunity to get this win and go on to the Super Bowl,” Manning said. “We played them once before. We know they’re a good team. There’s no denying that. They’re playing great football. They’re playing with great confidence. It’s going to be exciting going out there and having another shot and seeing what we can do.”
There shouldn’t be too many elements of surprise today considering how recently they last played, though Harbaugh is always good for a few tricks.
“That first game has nothing to do with what happens Sunday night,” Giants safety Antrel Rolle said.
Davis had a career day against New Orleans with seven catches for 180 yards — the most yards receiving by a tight end in a playoff game — so the Giants certainly will try to neutralize him and put constant pressure on a never-more-confident Smith.