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NFL Preview - N.Y. Giants (6-2) at San Francisco (7-1)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - There weren't a whole lot of insiders that predicted the New York Giants would be leading their division at the midway point of this 2011 campaign prior to the start of the season. The San Francisco 49ers had even fewer believers in their corner.
Riding their longest winning streak in 14 years, the resurgent 49ers return to Candlestick Park to take on the also-rolling Giants this Sunday in a matchup of two of the NFC's most successful teams of this season's first half.
New York had been considered an afterthought by many preseason observers analyzing the NFC East despite posting 10 victories in 2010, with a rash of early injuries, the departures of such key offensive cogs as wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Kevin Boss, and the expected prowess of the big- spending Philadelphia Eagles all contributing factors to the team's lower billing. The Giants have thus far been able to overcome all those perceived negatives, however, in building a 6-2 record that's good for a two-game advantage atop the division heading into this weekend's slate.
The outstanding play of Eli Manning has also been instrumental to New York's rise. The sometimes-maligned quarterback is putting together the best season of his eight-year career in 2011, having thrown for 2,377 yards and 15 touchdowns against just six interceptions while recording a 99.8 passer rating that's currently fifth among NFL signal-callers.
Manning has been particularly good over the course of the three straight wins the Giants have put together entering Sunday's showdown. The 30-year-old has engineered a fourth-quarter comeback in each of those contests, all of which have come against competition from the AFC East.
The most recent rally took place in the usually-hostile environment of New England's Gillette Stadium, where Manning tossed a pair of scoring strikes in the final three-plus minutes to lead the Giants to a thrilling 24-20 triumph last Sunday that ended the Patriots' string of 20 consecutive regular-season wins at home. The last of those touchdown passes, a one-yard connection with tight end Jake Ballard, came with only 15 seconds to go.
"Eli has long been one of the top quarterbacks in the game," said 49ers rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh. "He has an excellent receiving corps and a great offensive line -- a really good, good offensive unit. They play at a really high level and they play well together. It's a huge challenge, a mighty challenge for us and our team."
Harbaugh's squad has answered plenty of challenges in a meteoric rise to the top of the NFC West pack that's even far more shocking than the Giants' ascension. Universally pegged as an also-ran coming into the season and having gone eight straight years without a winning record or a playoff berth, San Francisco has compiled a stellar 7-1 mark that trails only powerhouse Green Bay for tops in the NFL and owns a commanding five-game lead in its division at the midway point.
The 49ers have relied on taking care of the football, a stout defense and the powerful legs of running back Frank Gore in soaring back to prominence, and all those elements were again present in this past week's 19-11 road ousting of Washington.
Gore came through with a franchise-record fifth straight 100-yard effort on the afternoon, while the defense limited the staggering Redskins to a mere 52 rushing yards and 303 total while producing three takeaways, bringing San Francisco's turnover margin to plus-12 on the season.
The 49ers are yielding just 14.8 points and 70.8 rushing yards per game for the year, tops in the NFL in both categories.
"They've done an incredible job of taking the ball away," said Giants head coach Tom Coughlin about this week's opponent. "Their offensive team has only thrown two interceptions. They rush the ball. They've showed resiliency. They were down to Philadelphia 20-3 at halftime [in Week 4], [then] 23-3. They came back and won that game. They came back in Detroit [in Week 6] and won. They've been tested. They're 7-1 and deservedly so."
Last week's win was the sixth in a row for San Francisco, the club's best run since it ripped off 11 straight victories during the 1997 season.
The Giants have taken a 14-13 lead in their all-time regular-season series with San Francisco by winning the last three meetings between the teams, the most recent being a 29-17 home decision during the 2008 season. New York also bested the 49ers by a 33-15 score in Giants Stadium the previous year and was a 24-6 victor in its last stop at Candlestick Park, which took place in 2005 and stopped a four-game road losing streak in the set. The Niners last topped the Giants in a non-playoff setting in 2002, posting a 16-13 road win that year.
These two franchises also have a storied shared postseason history, having faced one another in the playoff six times between 1981 and 1993. The home team went 5-1 in those games, with the Giants' 15-13 upset of the 49ers in the 1990 NFC Championship at Candlestick Park the lone exception. New York also defeated San Francisco in a 1985 NFC First-Round Playoff and rolled to a 49-3 win at Giants Stadium in the following year's Divisional Round, while the Niners prevailed at home in NFC Divisional Playoff bouts in both 1981 and 1984 and rallied for a memorable 39-38 triumph over the Giants in a 2002 opening- round clash.
Coughlin is 4-0 against the 49ers for his career, with one of those wins a 41-3 rout while at the helm of Jacksonville in 1999. Harbaugh will be opposing both the Giants and Coughlin for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
The exploits of Manning (2377 passing yards, 15 TD, 6 INT) are even more impressive when considering that the Giants have lacked a consistent running game for much of this season. New York has averaged a lackluster 88.3 rushing yards per game, the fourth-lowest total in the NFL, while the team's 3.3 yards-per-carry clip is ahead of only Cleveland and Tennessee in the league rankings. The offense did get somewhat of a spark in that area last week, however, with Brandon Jacobs (198 rushing yards, 9 receptions, 4 total TD) registering 72 yards on 18 attempts subbing for regular feature back Ahmad Bradshaw, who sat out against the Patriots with a cracked bone in his foot and will miss Sunday's tilt as well. The Giants also had to make do without top receiver Hakeem Nicks (38 receptions, 575 yards, 3 TD) in the New England game due to a hamstring strain, but second-year surprise Victor Cruz (34 receptions, 588 yards, 4 TD) stepped up with 91 yards on six catches and Ballard (23 receptions, 3 TD) added four grabs totaling 67 yards to aid the cause. Nicks does appear to be on track to return this week, which would be an obvious boost to New York's sixth-rated passing attack (282.9 ypg), while center David Baas -- an offseason free-agent signing who spent his first six pro seasons in San Francisco -- is also expected to play after being held out against the Patriots with a knee injury.
The Giants will likely need another on-target display from Manning this week, as the 49ers have been the league's stingiest team to run on over the first half. San Francisco has held all but two opponents under 80 rushing yards and has still yet to yield a touchdown on the ground this season, and the defense has gone 30 consecutive games without giving up an individual 100-yard rusher, the longest active streak in the NFL. Four-time All-Pro Patrick Willis (67 tackles, 1 sack, 8 PD) and emerging young star NaVorro Bowman (77 tackles, 6 PD) comprise one of the game's best pair of inside linebackers, while lineman Justin Smith (29 tackles, 4.5 sacks) is a tremendous anchor up front and a capable pass rusher to boot. The defense also sports two quality pressure- creators off the edge in 2011 first-round draft pick Aldon Smith (13 tackles, 6.5 sacks) and fellow outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks (26 tackles, 5 sacks), who have combined for an excellent 10 1/2 sacks over the past five games. The Niners have also racked up 19 takeaways through their eight outings, with cornerback and offseason addition Carlos Rogers (20 tackles, 3 INT, 9 PD) the secondary's best ball-hawk.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
It's no secret what San Francisco's game plan on offense will be come Sunday. The 49ers have attempted the fourth-most rushes and the fewest passes in the NFL so far in 2011, with Gore (782 rushing yards, 5 TD, 13 receptions) the obvious focal point of the team's smash-mouth approach. The workhorse running back has certainly earned that distinction as of late, averaging 126.8 rushing yards and 6.3 yards per carry during a superlative five-game stretch that was extended with last week's 107-yard, 19-tote effort against the Redskins. The Niners are sixth overall in rushing (137.6 ypg) but 31st in passing yards (187.8 ypg), though that low number is hardly a knock on quarterback Alex Smith (1467 passing yards, 10 TD). The formerly-disappointing 2005 No. 1 overall pick has been a most effective game-manager in Harbaugh's system, completing better than 64 percent of his passes and throwing just two interceptions through the first eight games. The receiving corps doesn't possess much in the way of big-play artists, but talented 2009 first-round selection Michael Crabtree (30 receptions, 1 TD) is developing into a reliable possession target and tight end Vernon Davis (31 receptions, 339 yards, 3 TD) is one of the game's fastest and more athletic players at the position. The Smith-led offense has turned the ball over just seven times in 2011, tied for the second-fewest giveaways in the league.
Gore will be vying for a sixth straight 100-yard output against a Giants defense that's been very inconsistent in containing the run. New York permitted at least 145 rushing yards in five consecutive contests before holding the pass-heavy Patriots to 106 a week ago, and its defense is built more to pressure the quarterback than stand up at the point of attack. Linebackers Michael Boley (56 tackles, 1 sack) and Mathias Kiwanuka (48 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) and safety Kenny Phillips (49 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PD) will all need to be sound in their assignments and sure in their tackling on Sunday, as San Francisco's physical ground game should indeed pose a challenge. If the Giants are able to keep Gore under wraps, they'll be able to unleash a furious pass rush that's accumulated a league-high 28 sacks and is spearheaded by a trio of terrific ends in Pro Bowl honorees Osi Umenyiora (17 tackles, 6 sacks) and Justin Tuck (10 tackles, 2 sacks) as well as second-year standout Jason Pierre-Paul (38 tackles, 9.5 sacks). For the season New York is allowing 127.1 yards per game on the ground, which ranks just 24th in the NFL.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Gore has carried San Francisco's offense for just about all of the team's winning streak, and the 49ers are successful more often than not when their bell-cow back has a productive day, boasting an impressive 17-2 record when he runs for 115 yards or more during his career. However, if New York is somehow able to prevent Gore from churning out chunks of yards once again, then it's advantage Giants. The Niners don't have prolific receivers and their offensive line hasn't been great in protection, which presents a significant problem against Big Blue's potent pass rush.
With the 49ers' defense playing at such a high level against the run, the Giants are going have to air it out to win this game. That means Manning has to maintain his own high-caliber recent standards and the line must hold its own against the likes of Aldon Smith and Brooks. Coughlin will also be hoping for Nicks to be close to 100 percent, as New York's going to need its best receiver to be a factor in this one.
The battle within the red zone will be one to watch and could very well have a large impact on the outcome of this contest. The Giants are second in the NFC with a 63 percent touchdown percentage inside the opponent's 20-yard line, while San Francisco has been the best in the NFL and keeping foes out of the end zone in that area, having surrendered six points on only 35 percent of occasions.
San Francisco's formula of pounding the football on offense and playing sound defense has clearly been working, and there are certainly matchups Harbaugh's charges can exploit in this game. The 49ers are more methodical than explosive, however, and it would still be quite a feat to completely shut down a New York offense that has its share of weapons and a quarterback that's been performing at the elite level he predicted he would coming into this season. That likely signals a tightly-played contest, which in turn could favor the Giants. New York is 4-0 in games decided by four points or less this year and Manning owns the highest rating of any passer in the fourth quarter. Expect the Giants to go all out to keep Gore from running wild and subject Alex Smith to their formidable pass rush more times than the 49ers would prefer, and Manning to come up with a big play or two that could make the difference in what shapes up as a game that really could go either way.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 21, 49ers 17
11/12 07:49:19 ET