GLS Preview & Prediction: Giants-49ers

I feel I’ve had a good grip on most of the playoff games I’ve previewed thus far (which is why I’m 7-1) but my gut is out of advice for this Bay Area bloodbath.

The top storylines:

1. Battle of first-round picks. Both Eli Manning (top pick of the 2004 draft) and Alex Smith (top pick of the 2005 draft) have faced quite a lot of criticism in their respective careers, but both might be playing their best football right now.

2. Revenge for 2003? The Giants blew a 16-point fourth-quarter lead in San Francisco on wild-card weekend, losing after a botched snap on what would have been the game-winning field goal.

3. Potential Harbowl II. If the Ravens win earlier Sunday, Jim Harbaugh will be fighting for the chance to face his big brother in the Super Bowl.

The last time they met…

  • The 49ers scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat New York 27-20 in Week 10.
  • Neither team was able to do anything significant on the ground. Ahmad Bradshaw didn’t play for the Giants, while Frank Gore was injured after struggling early for San Fran.
  • Alex Smith looked a lot like he did last week against New Orleans, especially early. He led the Niners with Gore down, posting solid numbers against a good defense that didn’t have the same bite in the pass rush (Justin Tuck was hurt and Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora were held in check).

Injuries to watch:

  • Eli Manning was limited early in the week due to the flu, but he’s back now. The Giants have some bumps and bruises, but all active players of significance will take the field Sunday.
  • It looks as though the 49ers offense will get one pass catcher back while another sits, as tight end Delanie Walker, who was the team’s leading receiver in the regular-season matchup with the Giants, looks to be ready to return from injury, while Ted Ginn might be sidelined after missing practicing Wednesday and Thursday.

As I said, I’m having trouble with this game. So here are eight reasons I’m leaning in San Fran’s direction…

1. The Giants are a decent road team, but… they struggled in both situations in which they had to travel more than one time zone this season, barely surviving despite being outplayed in Arizona and losing in San Fran. And while a 5-3 record away from home is nice, the Niners were still 7-1 at home with a tough-luck overtime loss to Dallas being their only blemish. In their last three home games of the regular season, they gave up a grand total of just 10 points. So while being a rugged road team will help the Giants, it might not be a big enough factor to make a difference.

2. The 49ers have been here, done this. They faced an offense that is very similar to New York’s just last week, right here in San Francisco. And against Drew Brees and Co., the defense was fantastic for much of the game, shutting down a red-hot passing game with great coverage and constant pressure up front while intercepting Brees twice. If they had the personnel to cover all of the Saints’ weapons, there’s no reason the league’s fourth-ranked defense won’t be able to do the same against Eli and his weapons on Sunday.

3. The Giants are in unfamiliar territory. While the Niners will face a familiar-looking offense, the Giants will be facing a defense that is much different than the ones they’ve been battling of late. During their hot streak, they’ve only faced one team that remotely resembles San Francisco from a defensive standpoint, and that was the Jets. In that game, Manning completed only nine of 27 passes and the running game was held in check. They won, but a sort of fluky 99-yard touchdown and ineptitude from Gang Green played a role.

4. The rain could help San Francisco. Yeah, there’s quite a high probability of precipitation in the Bay Area Sunday, and that could obviously play a role. If it does, history says it’ll help San Francisco, who makes its money with the power running game anyway. The Giants rely on the deep ball on offense, and bad weather conditions obviously make it more difficult to hit home runs.

5. And as clutch as Manning has been, Smith has been just as clutch. In fact, only Smith has led more fourth-quarter comebacks than Manning has this year, and we all saw what happened against New Orleans last weekend.

6. Vernon Davis is coming off one of the best games of his career. And his motivation level should be just as high as his confidence level after Antrel Rolle ran his mouth earlier this week. The Giants had their share of trouble stopping tight ends this year, and they have a secondary that can be exposed through the air. That’s a concern.

7. And don’t talk to me about San Francisco’s struggles in the red zone. Because lately, the Niners have actually been better than the Giants inside their opponents’ 20-yard line. They’ve scored eight times on their last 13 possessions, while New York has scored eight times on its last 17.

8. Don’t forget about the quarterback running factor. The Giants were vulnerable to Aaron Rodgers’ underrated legs last week, allowing Rodgers to take off seven times for 66 yards and five first downs. Smith scored on a 28-yard bootleg against New Orleans and has also been quite capable as a runner when called upon to take off.

And four reasons I’m leaning in New York’s direction…

1. The Giants might not turn it over like New Orleans did. The 49ers might not have beaten the Saints had it not been for the five takeaways they registered on defense and special teams. But the Giants have just two turnovers in their last four games and were very smart with the football last week against the only team that had more regular-season interceptions than San Francisco. The Niners’ bread and butter is forcing turnovers (they led the league in turnover margin and takeaways) but the Saints had turned it over seven times in their previous four games. It might not be as easy to take it away from New York Sunday.

2. And expect New York’s pass rush to cause problems. Gregg Williams’ fairly obvious blitzes made it easy on Smith as that game wore on, but the Giants don’t blitz much — instead, they simply have the fiercest pass-rushing defensive line in football. Smith isn’t exactly known for reacting well to pressure, which is a concern against such a red-hot rush. And San Francisco has had some pass protection lapses this season, particularly against strong pass-rushing teams. In seven games this season against teams that finished in the top 10 in sacks, Smith was taken down an unbelievable 36 times (or more than five times per game). All three of San Fran’s losses came under those circumstances. New York not only finished third in the league with 48 sacks, but they’re getting to the quarterback with more success than anyone in football right now.

3. If the Giants pass rush forces San Fran to run heavily, I’m not completely convinced that Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter will take full advantage. Both backs have disappeared at times this year, and the Niners only averaged 4.1 yards per carry during the regular season. Gore is healthy now, which is good, and both he and Hunter looked great in limited action against a bad Saints run defense last week. The Giants have proven to be beatable on the ground, but they were much better than New Orleans was during the regular season and they bottled up Michael Turner on wild-card weekend.

4. Watch for the big play. Despite having such a strong season, there isn’t a team in the league that has given up more pass plays of 40-plus yards than the Niners. And the Giants just so happen to lead the league with 19 pass completions of 40 yards or more. They had a 66-yarder last week in Green Bay, while San Fran gave up a 66-yarder and a 44-yarder against the Saints.

In conclusion, despite having eight points in favor of the Niners and only four in favor of the Giants, I think the factors on New York’s side are far more crucial. I just can’t see Smith outdueling Manning, and the Giants can go toe-to-toe with San Fran’s defense. It’s hard to believe this unit has only surrendered an average of 12 points in its last four games. New York has essentially ended four teams’ seasons in four consecutive weeks. I think that trend continues.

GLS prediction: Giants 17, 49ers 14

(Playoff record: 7-1 straight up; 4-3-1 against the spread)