Looking back at the San Francisco 49ers vs. New York Giants Week 9 match-up in mid-November, it did not seem totally out of the question that either team would make the Super Bowl. The Giants were 6-2 and coming off a win against the New England Patriots, and the 49ers were a surprising 7-1, not to mention a play or two away from being 8-0.
But the Giants still had to outlast the Dallas Cowboys in their division, and San Francisco had not been to the playoffs in nine seasons, let alone have a chance to win the Super Bowl.
Two months later, these two teams meet again in a clash of clearly the best NFC teams left in the tournament. However, significant things have changed since Week 9, and it could be the difference in the game this time around.
For one, New York is the hottest team in the NFL. Period.
They finally have a significant rushing attack with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, their defensive front four is healthy and ripping offensive lines to shreds and Eli Manning is showing time and time again why he should be considered an "elite" quarterback in the NFL.
On the other side, the 49ers can also make their case for one of the hottest teams left in the NFL playoffs. Their defense against the rush this season is historic, their pass rush continues to smother the opposing quarterback and Alex Smith may be playing the best football of his career. Oh, and they have Jim Harbaugh as their head coach. Everything he touches these days turns to gold -- even Alex Smith.
So how do you compare two teams playing at the highest peaks of their respective seasons with nary a hole in their games?
We find the loose ends. Or in this case -- nitpick.
You do not have to nitpick far to find out that the 49ers have a hard time putting up points against respected NFL defenses, and the Giants have a hard time stopping the rush and the pass on a consistent basis. New York ranked 19th in rush defense and 29th against the pass during the 2011 regular season.
With that said, two things stand out when we talk about this NFC showdown: The home-field advantage and San Francisco's ability to stop the run every single week. The Giants suddenly have a hot rushing attack, which should be a crucial test for the 49ers. But the game should ultimately come down to how many points Manning can put up against a stingy 49ers defense.
Given that each teams' rushing attacks are presumed to be limited, seeing as the 49ers have the No. 1 rush defense and Frank Gore has simply not been able to run the ball effectively, the game should rest on each teams passing offense and how many turnovers their quarterbacks commit.
Smith has not thrown an interception in six straight games, but a rational-thinking person may question that come a chance at a Super Bowl bid. He is after all Alex Smith. But something magical is going on in Jim Harbaugh's Wonderland he has created in Santa Clara. Manning will have to throw for a seriously large number of yards against a swift 49ers defense to beat them on his own. Drew Brees accomplished that last week and still fell short.
How Smith and the 49ers' offensive line reacts to the relentless attack of Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck will also play a huge factor in the outcome of this game. If the San Francisco offensive line collapses, as it does every once in a blue moon, it could spell big problems for Smith and the offense. Anything close to how the offensive line played against the last serious defense the 49ers encountered (Thanksgiving Day against the Baltimore Ravens) will not be good enough on Sunday.
Candlestick Park plays a huge factor in this game, as this crowd is thrilled to see the 49ers back in the NFC Championship again with a shot at the Super Bowl.
What may play the biggest role, though, is how the actual field reacts to the rain that is sure to pour down Thursday through Sunday in the Bay Area. The mud and slop with only slow down both teams' defenses giving Smith and Manning more time in the pocket, to some extent.
In the end, the 49ers' will to stop the run, as well as their hard-hitting secondary that should cause a couple Manning turnovers, will be the difference in a rather low-scoring affair on Sunday.
49ers win 24-19