Familiar playoff foes clash for spot in Super Bowl XLVI.
Jim Harbaugh has been right about a lot of things in his first season as a head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. In one of his 13 regular season victories, San Francisco’s passionate leader congratulated his team with a job well done following a 27-20 home victory over the New York Giants. Circled by players and coaches who’d just put together a statement win to improve to 8-1 on the season, Harbaugh confidently said to his team of the Giants, “There’s a good chance they’ll be playing long into the playoffs, too.”
Boy was he right.
Fast forward to Sunday’s NFC Championship game, the two teams have found each other long into the playoffs as the 49ers and Giants are set to renew a storied postseason rivalry between the two franchises from opposite ends of the country. The teams will now meet in the postseason for the sixth time at Candlestick Park.
“We’re familiar with them just as they’re familiar with us,” said 49ers Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers, who recorded two of his six interceptions in a regular season win over New York. “They’ve got a good offense and defense. We’re the same. It will come down to who makes plays when they need it. To get this far, we’ve been making plays and they’ve been doing the same.”
To get this far, the 49ers pulled off a win for the ages, starring brightest amongst the team’s five other fourth-quarter comebacks on the year. It was a victory so memorable, so exhilarating; it will indelibly be remembered with the greatest triumphs in the proud franchise’s history. In a game that saw San Francisco become the first team in league history to score two lead-changing touchdowns in the final three minutes of a postseason game’s fourth quarter, Alex Smith rifled a 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with nine seconds left in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. Pure jubilation ensued moments after Harbaugh and his coaching staff dialed up a post pattern play to the tight end, a concept they had worked on in practice to cap a 7-play, 85-yard scoring drive against the New Orleans Saints. Davis’ grab sealed a 36-32 playoff win, the 49ers first playoff win in nine years.
The throw to Davis, which put him past Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow for the most receiving yards in a single game by a tight end in NFL postseason history with 180 yards, was originally designed to come from the right hash marks. But as the play was being decided on, quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst suggested the post pattern to Davis come from the left side of the field. Heading into the game, the 49ers recognized Saints safety Roman Harper back pedaling into the end zone on film and planned on having Davis cross his face while catching a precisely timed pass from Smith. That plan worked to perfection. “I knew it was coming,” said Davis at his postgame press conference, savoring each word less than an hour after he was visibly emotional with tears flooding his eyes from making such an impactful play. “We rehearsed it all week in practice. Alex knew right away that once I got 12, 14 yards, planted the outside foot, and looked for the ball. It was the exact same thing. It worked.”
The moment was especially sweet for Harbaugh, who became the fifth 49ers coach to win his first postseason game, joining the likes of Bill Walsh and George Seifert, the team’s two Super Bowl-winning coaches. “I can’t remember winning a game in such a spectacular fashion as this one,” Harbaugh said.
Now, the 49ers will make their first appearance in the NFC title game in 14 years, making their 13th all-time appearance in the conference championship round, too. They’ll do it at Candlestick Park, marking the eighth time the venue has hosted a NFC championship game, most in league history.
A week removed from the team’s most recognizable home victory in recent memory, the 49ers will renew one of the NFL’s greatest postseason rivalries with the Giants. San Francisco defeated New York two times on its way to Super Bowl titles in 1982 and 1985. The 49ers also have four home postseason wins over the Giants at Candlestick Park. Further illustrating the importance of the outcome of these playoff meetings: the winners in seven of the prior games have won the Super Bowl four times.
To make a sixth appearance in the Super Bowl, San Francisco will have to defeat New York in the championship round, something no other team has accomplished in New York’s four previous Championship game outings. The 49ers, however, enter the latest chapter in this postseason rivalry with a healthier lineup and home field advantage.
When the teams met in November, Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore was hampered with a leg injury that slowed down his production. The 49ers relied on a heavy passing attack that day which saw Smith throw for 242 yards and two touchdowns against the Giants. It was one of many proud moments for Harbaugh, a former NFL signal caller who’s celebrated the contributions of his own quarterback throughout their first season working together. “You find a way to keep diminishing the guy, calling him a game manager,” Harbaugh said that day. “Alex was playing great football. We knew we had that going.”
In the second meeting between the 49ers and Giants this season, the home team enters the rematch with a sense of confidence stemming from forcing five turnovers in a win over the Saints last week and also previously matching up well in a competitive game against the Giants. “They’re similar,” Rogers said of the two teams. “But what’s different about them is they’ve got two guys they feed and run the ball. We’ll have to prepare for that and try to shut them down so we can make them one dimensional and play our style of play.”
Rushing yards were hard to come by when the San Francisco hosted New York the first time around. Gore rushed six times and picked up 0 yards, while Kendall Hunter totaled 40 yards on six carries. The Giants were without starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw, one of the two runners Rogers alluded to. The other, bruising runner Brandon Jacobs, rushed 18 times for 55 yards while shouldering New York’s rushing load.
In order to keep the season alive, the 49ers will have to limit New York’s rushing game, force turnovers and continue to play for each other. Playing as a team is something they’ve had no trouble doing all season. Following the biggest win of his seven seasons in the NFL, Smith was asked to describe the moment in his well-documented career. Instead of basking in the spotlight, the quarterback offered a glimpse into what makes him so endearing to teammates and coaches. “We’re still playing, that’s what it means.” Smith said. “It feels great. We have another week of work and I don’t want this to end. I don’t think anybody in our locker room does because it’s been such a great year. Such a great group of guys, coaches and players. I think we love coming into work every day, I know I do.”
The 49ers have two players with Super Bowl rings, wide receiver Brett Swain and center Jonathan Goodwin, who signed with San Francisco after leaving the team his new team just beat in the playoffs. The chance for everyone else to experience a World Championship is truly special and will be cherished. “It means a lot,” Rogers said, speaking on behalf of many who’ve never competed for a Vince Lombardi Trophy. “To have the opportunity to play in one game and win it to go to the Super Bowl is big. We feel good about this opportunity. One more game to get that Bowl game.”
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