Joe-Pinions: Sports

20 Jan 2012 – Giant Killing

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 20/01/2012

Last week I very strongly felt that the San Francisco 49ers were going to beat the New Orleans Saints.  Despite the Saints’ significant offensive firepower advantage, I thought that the 49ers were simply the more complete team.  With a championship-caliber defense and a superb special teams unit, the 49ers had the advantage in two out of the three phases of the game.

This week, the 49ers are looking to advance to their sixth Super Bowl appearance.

Standing in their way are the mighty New York Giants.

49ers

I’ll be honest with you.

As strongly as I felt the 49ers were going to win last weekend, I’m finding it harder to be as confident this week.  What troubles me is I don’t quite understand why I don’t feel the same degree of confidence this weekend.

I mean, I’ve been saying to friends and family that I truly thought that the New Orleans Saints were probably the most difficult opponent the 49ers were going to face in the NFL playoff field.  Yes, that feeling even took into account the possibility — the likelihood, in fact — that the 49ers had to travel to Lambeau Field and play the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers should both teams advance to the NFC Championship round.  As things transpired, only the 49ers did their part; the Packers vindicated my opinion that they were not truly that formidable, losing to the New York Giants.

The Saints, with their vaunted high-firepower offense, kept the game’s outcome in doubt throughout.  Despite being forced into three turnovers in the first half and finding themselves in a 17-0 hole, the Saints, led by their brilliant quarterback Drew Brees, closed the gap to three points by halftime.  One quarter later, another turnover – this time a lost fumble on a punt return – led to a 20-14 49ers lead.  The 49ers defense was doing its mighty best containing Brees and the explosive Saints at bay.

Alas, the 49ers offense had been stymied by too many drops at key downs by their wide receivers, which meant they had to surrender the ball to the Saints.  The stagnant 49ers offense in the middle quarters meant that the team’s defensive unit was spending far too much time on the field; as a natural consequence, of course, the Saints’ best players (their offense) were also on the field, stretching the Niners’ defenders to their maximum.

Thus it was no surprise that the 49ers’ defenders finally gave up not one, but two, explosive scoring plays that surrendered the slim lead to the Saints with around four minutes of game time left.  The Niners’ defense simply couldn’t hold the tide of a Drew Brees passing attack back forever.

Indeed, the big surprise was that Brees’ counterpart on the 49ers, Alex Smith, was able to respond to the Saints’ offensive barrage not once but twice to wrest back the lead and control of the ballgame in that same time period.  First with a brilliant quarterback naked bootleg to the left which resulted in a 28yd touchdown run, then with a calm and precise final game-winning drive punctuated by tight end Vernon Davis’ dramatic touchdown reception, Alex Smith emerged as the victorious field commander at the end of simply one of the greatest games in NFL playoff history.  As the man himself said when asked whether or not he could out-throw Drew Brees, all he was concerned about was coming out on top at the end of the game.

To the joy of all 49ers fans, starved of playoff success for almost a decade, that’s what he did.

49ers

The Giants were always going to be a tougher opponent than the Green Bay Packers.  The Packers, while explosive on offense and enjoying home field advantage for the entirety of the playoffs, did not impress me on defense at all.  Also, their special teams were adequate, but not a game-changing factor that the 49ers’ unit is.  Aaron Rodgers might be a prolific passer, but he also commanded a largely one-dimensional offensive attack.  The Packers, unlike the Saints, haven’t had an effective running game all year.  Also, their pass offense seemed to be geared towards getting chunk plays; ball control, which, like controlling field position, was an oft-ignored characteristic of sound fundamental football, was a facet of offense that Green Bay didn’t seem too concerned about.  The Packers were schematically predisposed to lose the time of possession battle.

If there is one essential truth to football, here it is:  You can’t score points if you don’t have the ball.

The Giants did a great job in covering Green Bay’s receiving corps; quarterback Aaron Rodgers couldn’t find his guys open for much of the game.  Moreover, even if they did get open, the Packers’ receivers picked the worst time to drop good passes.  The lack of an effective ground game (Rodgers was the Packers’ most effective runner in their contest vs. the Giants, which is a damning indictment of Green Bay’s offensive scheme) meant that Rodgers was a sitting duck in the pocket for the Giants’ impressive defensive line.

The Packers’ terrible defense further compounded the defending champions’ problems.  If there were two plays that illustrated Green Bay’s ineptitude on defense, look no further than Hakeem Nicks’ two touchdown plays.  On his first touchdown, Giants quarterback Eli Manning found Nicks open on a deep in route; why was Nicks so wide open?  His defender was playing way off of him, giving him a huge cushion of about three or four yards.  Nicks simply found an opening between three Packers zone defenders, absorbed a hit from the Packers’ deep safety that probably should have been a proper tackle instead, then avoided pursuit to run in for the touchdown.  But as unforgivable that lax coverage was, Nicks’ second score was even more egregious.  Towards the end of the first half, with the Giants up by only three points, Eli Manning heaved a “Hail Mary” last-second pass.  Somehow Nicks was able to come down with the ball in the end zone, despite being surrounded by three or four Green Bay defenders.  Nicks’ touchdown catch gave New York a ten-point cushion.

The Giants exposed the Packers as an incomplete, one-dimensional team with an ineffective defense.  Against their more complete arsenal on both sides of the ball, Green Bay never had a shot once their receivers started making all those drops during what was their biggest game of the year so far.

49ers

So now it’s down to two teams in the NFC.

The San Francisco 49ers are hosting the New York Giants in a somewhat unexpected match-up.

Of course, I’ll be rooting for the 49ers as always.

But who is going to win, and how is that team going to do it?

After much thought, I think San Francisco advances to the Super Bowl.  I won’t call the score, but given the likelihood of rain on game day and the quality of both defenses, I think neither team will score over thirty points.

Here are the keys to a 49ers victory:

  • No big plays.  If this sounds familiar, it should.  I said something similar for the New Orleans Saints game.  Against the Giants, this means the 49ers secondary cannot miss tackles as well as limiting the Giants’ receivers to as few YACs (Yards After Catch) as possible.
  • Line play.  I think this game will be won and lost by the team that dominates the line of scrimmage.  The 49ers must generate pressure against the Giants’ O-line, and their O-line must keep Alex Smith upright and open up holes for both Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter.  I feel good about the 49ers’ capability to generate a good push up front on offense, as they are very good at loading up the line with extra linemen and tight ends.  Whether or not the Giants can contend with all that beef with their vaunted D-line (which is more specialized for rushing the passer than it is for containing the run) and a weak linebacking corps is going to be interesting to watch unfold.
  • Creative play-calling on offense.  All year long the 49ers have gotten big plays with trick plays.  Whether it’s a brave naked bootleg on 3rd down and 8 or a pass to a lineman or a pass on a fake FG, the 49ers offensive coaches have shown a penchant for creative solutions to the problem of moving the ball down the field.  Two things I’ve not seen too much from the 49ers this year that I suspect will be unveiled against the Giants:  Screen passes and what Bill Walsh used to call “action passes,” where the QB throws on the move.  Don’t be surprised if the 49ers use a lot more of these aspects of the offense against the Giants to defuse their potent pass rush.
  • No mistakes.  The Niners must limit blown coverages on defense, drops, fumbles, and interceptions by Alex Smith on offense.  The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win this game.

49ers

I don’t know if this game will be an instant classic like last weekend’s thriller against the Saints.  It will be a good game, but I think the 49ers can win by more than a touchdown here.  I just think their defense is a good match-up for the Giants’ strengths, and their offense plays to New York’s weaknesses.

Of course, all this is just speculation.  Words don’t mean anything compared to how these men will play on the field.

And that’s the big fun of it all, watching it all unfold.

Go Niners!

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