Although there is likely not a single member of the New York Giants roster remaining from the 2002 season, when Big Blue steps on the field at Candlestick this weekend, the date January 5th, 2002 will likely be on everyone’s mind to some degree. While arguably the most remembered event from that day was a young Jeremy Shockey throwing ice on some niner fans he had been bantering back and forth with, it was also one of the most disheartening losses in the history of the Giants organization.
To cap off a 24 point second half comeback by San Francisco, Giants’ all time leading rusher Tiki Barber also ended his career that day. While this is a normal occurrence in the NFL, the image of Barber smiling ear-to-ear as he walked off the field, clearly not affected by the loss, has lead to him being among the most hated former players in Giant history. To sum the day up, head coach Jim Fassel was quoted as saying “This is about the worst loss I have ever felt in my entire life”. Many of the Giants faithful echo that thought, and still carry it with them today.
Although the Giants are coming off two impressive playoff victories where they were the underdog, this game represents the toughest matchup that New York will have faced on their quest for a Super Bowl this year. That being said, it is not un-winnable.
If the Giant’s are able to carry their road-warrior mentality into this weekend, and control the game in the below five key areas, the 2012 NFC championship and revenge for 1/5/2002 is very much within their grasp.
The Keys to a Giants Victory
- Must get to Alex Smith early - Alex Smith is without a doubt coming into his own as a pro quarterback. However, he is still less than a year removed from being viewed as a bust in the vein of Ryan Leaf. It’s been proven that he can be rattled, and the Giants defensive line is equipped to do just that. Smith is a mobile quarterback and the niners are unquestionably a run-focused team, but by getting to him early the Giants will be able to keep 8 in the box and help combat San Francisco’s strengths on offense. The Giants were able to rattle the seemingly unshakeable Aaron Rodgers last week, leading to four turnovers which were integral to the Giants win. They must repeat that scenario this week.
- Defense must have their best game against the run - San Francisco’s offense lies largely on the shoulders of Frank Gore. They were the 5th best rushing team in the NFL this season with an average of 143 yards per game. On top of that the Giants have been susceptible to the run all year, particularly when trying to contain the outside run or reacting to halfback screens. The Giants have been able to cut their average yards against per game from a regular season average of 120 yards down to 72.5 yards per in the playoffs. If Mathias Kiwanuka, Rocky Bernard, Chris Canty and Linval Joseph are all able to put a stranglehold on Gore (and a mobile Alex Smith) it will force San Francisco into passing situations where Umenyiora, Tuck & Pierre-Paul will be able to do what they do best.
- Giants must contain Vernon Davis - While the 49ers are primarily a running team, the 6th year Tight End has been having a career season, and has worked his way into the roll of Alex Smith’s safety outlet. Davis has caught 67 passes this year for 792 yards and 6 TDs, and was a major contributor in last week’s win over New Orleans catching 7 balls for 180 yards and 2 TDs. The task of containing him will likely fall on rookie linebacker Jacquian Williams, whom the Giants have been relying on to lock down opposing Tight Ends this year. If Williams is able to contain Davis and Smith is forced to throw to his receivers, there is little chance that the 49ers will be able to affectively throw the ball against the Giants.
- The Giants Receivers must continue to make big plays - The Giants receiving core, mainly the three-pronged attack of Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham have been the lifeblood of the Giants offense this year. Facing a notoriously weak San Francisco pass coverage, the Giants wideouts are going to need to continue this trend especially considering the Giants run game has been less than stellar and the niners are stingy in that aspect already. The Niners will likely try to jam the Giants receivers on the line and put a lot of pressure on Eli. New York’s receivers must be able to create separation quickly and allow Eli to get rid of the ball on 3 step drops. If they are able to do so expect a lot of big plays for the Giants a la the past four weeks.
- Giants must win the Turnover Battle - Both teams are coming off victories where they were able to control the game by generating a surprising amount of turnovers from teams not known for giving the ball up very often. Drew Brees threw for 462 yards and 4 touhdowns, but it was the Saints 4 turnovers (including two Brees interceptions) that allowed the 49ers to still end up on top. Eli has had periods of being interception prone in his career and both Giants running backs have had issues with fumblitis. If the Giants are able to avoid turnovers and cause a few themselves, there is no doubt that they should be able to come out on top.
The Giants will have a tough battle this week to avenge the franchise for what went down in 2002 at Candlestick, but it is certainly one they are capable of winning. Whether or not they are victorious, expect four quarters of good old-fashioned smashmouth football. A rare treat for football fans in an age where rules are in place to handicap defenses and encourage Tecmo Bowl style shootouts.
In closing as a Giants fan, let’s hope we see a couple more like this Sunday.