January 19, 2012
The upcoming NFC Championship game between the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers is a much harder game to get a feel for than the Patriots-Ravens tilt. San Francisco has been surprising people all season. Essentially the same group that Mike Singletary famously said weren’t winners are now on the verge of the Superbowl. All it took was a new coach, an attitude adjustment, and a few shrewd free agent signings to take a team that hadn’t reached double digit wins in nine years to the verge of the Superbowl. With such a Cinderalla story behind them it’s hard to pick against the 49ers, especially at Candlestick Park. However, much like the Ravens, I just don’t see it happening.
The New York Giants almost missed the playoffs this year. They snuck in on the last day with a 9-7 record. However one good hard look at their roster will leave almost anyone wondering “How did this team only manage nine wins?” One month ago no one would have believed that the Giants were legitimate title contenders. Yet here they are in the NFC Championship game and it’s hard to find a weakness on their depth chart. You could easily say they are the most complete team in the playoffs. Their roster is stacked. The New York defensive line, surprise surprise, is once again the best in football. Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Jason Pierre-Paul can all wreck drives singlehandedly. They have difference makers at linebacker in Michael Boley and Mathias Kiwanuka. They are deep at safety with Kenny Phillips, Antrel Rolle, and Deon Grant all playing at a high level. They are even pretty strong at corner – Corey Webster has had an excellent season.
Yet while the Giants hang their hat on their defense, Eli Manning and the offense make this team even scarier. Much like San Francisco the Giants are team that runs to set up the pass, and they do it well with backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. However once their passing attack gets going, Eli and these receivers will give any team problems. The Giants might have the best receiver group in the NFL. One could argue for the Saints or Packers, but I’d give the edge to the Giants any day. Hakeem Nicks is the big athletic receiver that every team is looking for in the draft and is a major problem for any defensive back. Mario Manningham is as good a number two option as anyone could ask for (well, I guess you could ask for more touchdowns). Add in the multi-talented Victor Cruz and you’ve got every defensive backfield’s worst nightmare.
With all of this talent a nine win regular season really seems like an underachievement, but that’s the thing about the Giants – they play to level of their competition. No matter how vastly different two teams’ talent levels are, if one of them is the Giants it will be a close game. They were dubbed “The Giant Killers” five years ago and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they are once again on the road killing giants. It’s as much a weakness as a strength, and while wins over New England, Green Bay, and Atlanta are impressive, the two losses to Washington are downright embarrassing. Maybe this is a criticism of Tom Couglin. Good teams are supposed to beat bad ones convincingly – the Giants only won one game by more than two scores. Yet it’s a double edged sword and it is this intangible element that makes the Giants so dangerous. Multiple times in Superbowl XLII I thought New England had the game won. I thought that Brady and the Patriots were about to march down the field and put the game away, but the Giants wouldn’t go away. They never go away. That’s their thing. They are talented but more importantly they are scrappy, they are tough to knock out, and they make you earn everything you get. This is a mentality that wins in the playoffs. They always play to the level of their competition and in the playoffs they generally come out on top. It’s hard to bet against a team like that.
San Francisco fans may feel that while the Giants are talented the 49ers are every bit as good, and they have a point. After all, the 49ers beat the Giants in the regular season. They have a better linebacking core, probably the best in the league, lead by Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. They don’t have a defensive line quite on the Giants level but Aldon and Justin Smith are dangerous pass rushers. Their secondary is every bit as good – Dashon Goldson and Carlos Rogers are going to the Pro Bowl and Donte Whitner is no slouch. They don’t have quite the Giants stable of receivers but Michael Crabtree is a playmaker and Vernon Davis is one of the best tight ends in the league. Frank Gore is better than Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs put together. Even Alex Smith, labelled a bust for some time now, has had an excellent season and is coming off the best game of his life. Overall they match up awfully well which is why this game is so difficult to call.
In such a close matchup it’s easy to say that, while the Giants are always a tough out, the 49ers are at home and theoretically those advantages should cancel out making higher seeded San Francisco the obvious favorite. First of all they don’t cancel out. The Giants excel as underdog road warriors. It would almost be better for San Francisco if the game were in the Meadowlands. But even if they did cancel out, those who pick San Francisco are ignoring the mismatch at the most important position – quarterback. Alex Smith has had a great year and it’s about time he started getting some credit. However Alex Smith is not Eli Manning.
Eli has never gotten much respect. Maybe it’s because he’s Peyton’s little brother. Maybe it’s because he’s always been streaky. Maybe it’s because his teams always have to sneak into the playoffs. It’s hard to understand, but somehow everyone always overlooks Eli’s accomplishments. I don’t think people have ever forgotten a Superbowl MVP award that quickly. Eli has done it all yet he is continually blackballed from the “elite quarterbacks” club. Somehow when the best quarterbacks debate comes up Eli is never in the conversation. He has a Superbowl ring, he has been great all season even when the rest of the Giants struggled, he has been murder on third down, and he just outplayed Aaron Rogers in the playoffs at Lambeau Field. What exactly does Eli not have on his resume? What do these “elite quarterbacks” have that Eli doesn’t? I’m not saying that Eli is as good as Brady, or Peyton, or even Brees, but he has to be in the conversation. He might not be better, but he is right there yet somehow no one notices him. People always forget about Eli but this Sunday he will not be the forgotten man. With two teams so evenly matched the difference at quarterback will be the difference in the game.
Now I am by no means rooting for the Giants. For all the good things I said about Eli I don’t like him and am still bitter about Superbowl XLII. If I were in an airplane and the oxygen masks deployed I’d secure my own mask and let David Tyree fend for himself. I am whole heartedly rooting for San Francisco. However I can’t ignore the evidence of my own eyes so, as much as I’d like to, I can’t pick against the Giants. I want to be surprised. Unfortunately I just don’t see it happening. I can’t pick against the underdog Giant Killers on the road. I can’t pick against those receivers. I can’t pick against that defense. I can’t pick against Eli. I just don’t see them losing. The game will be close, Giants games always are. The teams are so close that it could realistically go either way. But when the dust settles I believe it will be Giants coming out on top. Here’s hoping I’m wrong, but I probably wont be.
That’s the way I see it.