Leading up to this weekend’s rematch of last year’s NFC title game between the Giants and 49ers, the predominant storyline has been redemption and revenge for a San Francisco team that felt it should have been the NFC’s representative in Super Bowl 46. But before you anticipate the same slugfest we saw in January, it’s important to remember how much these teams have changed since that Giants win.
Last year, both the Giants and 49ers were teams of extremes. The Giants had a terrible run game, but a high-flying pass offense that led them to multiple come-from-behind victories. Their defense had the best pass-rush in the game, but was very weak behind it. The 49ers, on the other hand, were a conservative pass offense with an excellent run game and arguably the best overall defense in the NFL. A season later, The G-men have become more balanced, while the 49ers have stuck to the blueprint of defense and ball control.
The Giants again have a high-flying pass offense, averaging the third most yards through the air of any team in the NFL. But this year, that passing attacked is flanked by a serviceable, if not dominant, rushing attack. Through week 5, the Giants have averaged 120.2 yards per game on the ground, good for 12th in the league, and have already matched the number of 100-yard rushing games they had all of last year (2). Most importantly, the Giants have turned these yards into points, outscoring every team other than the New England Patriots.
On defense, the Giants have had similar results, but achieved them in a very different way. A season ago, the Giants compiled 48 sacks, behind only Minnesota and Philadelphia for the league lead. This year, they have only 8, placing them 24th in the NFL and prompting the defensive line to express frustration at their own lack of production. Despite so few sacks, however, the overall performance of the defense hasn’t been that different from that of the Giants’ Super Bowl team in 2011. If anything, this year’s version has been slightly improved, as they’ve allowed fewer yards (376 v. 372) and fewer points (25 v. 22) per game.
The 49ers, on the other hand, have stuck to their blueprint from a year ago that saw them improve by 7 wins over 2010. Last year’s team was led by its defense, which allowed the fourth-fewest yards per game and the second-fewest points of any team. This year’s ranks? Second in yards, and first in points. On offense, the additions of Mario Manningham and Randy Moss were intended to bring the 49ers passing offense into the 21st century, but those two moves have accounted for a measly 12 yard improvement in passing yards per game. Where their offense has improved is in the running game, where what was already a solid attack in 2011 (127 yards/game, 8th in the league) has become the best in the NFL (196 yards/game, 1st in the league).
These are two very different, yet incredibly well-matched teams, with the Giants’ strength on offense nearly equaled by the Niners success on defense and vice versa. The most notable difference between this match up and the NFC championship game will likely be the weather, with sloppy and cold conditions replaced by sun and 70 degrees. Though I doubt the game will follow the same dramatic narrative of last January, one thing should stay the same: this is gonna be a good one.