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Five Things: 49ers vs. Giants

Posted Nov 11, 2011

In year one of Jim Harbaugh’s head coaching career in the NFL, the 49ers are 7-1 at the midpoint of the year. This Sunday, Harbaugh’s upstart 49ers will face another NFC contender in the 6-2 New York Giants, who have won six of their first eight games for the fifth time in eight years under head coach Tom Coughlin. Newcomers to the big stage, the 49ers will face a Giants team that is a few years removed from a win in Super Bowl XLII. With a win, the 49ers would improve to 8-1 and have their first seven-game winning streak since 1997. But first, the 49ers will have to stop a Giants team that has won three games in a row. Let’s take a look at five storylines key to determining Sunday’s winning team.

1. Gore’s 149

Frank Gore, who has more 100-yard rushing games (29) than any other running back in the NFL since 2005, is just 149 yards from becoming the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. But Gore’s not overly concerning himself with the record. To the 49ers running back who has 782 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns, all that matters is a win over the Giants. “Going into Sunday against a good team like the Giants, we want to do whatever it takes to get a win,” said the seventh-year veteran, who has never been in the playoffs, to reporters this week. If the game becomes the physical matchup Harbaugh expects, Gore should get plenty of touches against a Giants defense that has allowed four, 100-yard rushers, which includes 138 yards to Beanie Wells of the Arizona Cardinals. Gore has five-straight 100-yard rushing games and if able to do it again against a New York defense that allows 127.1 yards per game and 4.6 yards per attempt, the 49ers chances of winning improve dramatically. The 49ers are 22-7 when Gore has at least 100 yards on the ground.

2. The Book on Eli

Eli Manning is one of 14 signal callers on pace to pass for 4,000 yards this season. Limiting the New York quarterback’s production is key if the 49ers want to make it seven straight wins in a row. The Giants are the league’s sixth-best passing attack (282.9 yards per game) and have five players with 24 or more catches, compared to the 49ers, who have just two players (Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree) with 30 or more receptions and four others with 10 or more catches. Manning tossed the game-winning touchdown to tight end Jake Ballard last week against the Patriots, a development not surprising to 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “The tight end gets action in this offense, no matter who it is,” Fangio said. But the 49ers have a strong weapon against opposing tight ends, linebacker Patrick Willis, who’s been asked to drop into coverage more than in any other season. “My responsibility this year has been more pass coverage and what not, but I take pride in it,” said Willis, who is tied for the most pass breakups among linebackers with eight. “If that’s what I’m asked to do, then I want to be the best I can be.”

3. Leading Wideout

Vernon Davis has led the 49ers in catches and receiving yards the past two seasons, but is quickly being caught from behind by wide receiver Michael Crabtree. The third-year wideout has 30 catches for 314 yards and one touchdown this season. The 6-foot-1, 214-pound wideout has led the 49ers in receiving yards in each of the team’s last three games. Prior to that three-game stretch, a different leader in receiving yards emerged in each of the team’s opening five games. “I’m trying to live in the end zone,” Crabtree joked as a guest while being interviewed for TV49’s Weekly Conversation segment. Only Davis and fellow tight end Delanie Walker have multiple receiving scores for the 49ers this season with three apiece. Without a clear-cut top option in the passing game, opposing defenses have had to focus their attention on the entire offensive attack. Last week in Washington, eight different receivers caught passes from Alex Smith, including rookie fullback Bruce Miller, who hauled in a 30 yard pass for his first career touchdown. Against the Redskins, the offense also showed more shotgun passing plays than other weeks. But really, it hasn’t mattered who Smith has thrown, especially when playing at Candlestick Park. In his last seven starts at home, Smith is 6-1 with 1,377 passing yards with 13 touchdowns and one interception. Smith’s production will be tested against a New York defense which enters Sunday with the league’s 17th-best pass defense, allowing 238.5 yards per game.

4. Return the Favor

With two equally-matched teams heading into Sunday’s NFC matchup, perhaps the biggest key will come on special teams. A big play here or there could make all the difference in a big game. That’s the mindset of 49ers punt returner Ted Ginn Jr., who’s gone a bit under the radar since his two-touchdown return performance since the season opener. But Ginn’s not fallen off whatsoever. He’s averaging 12.5 yards per punt return and 29.2 yards per kickoff return. Ginn credits the consistency to his teammates on special teams. “They put their work in and that’s all you can really ask for,” said Ginn, who leads the NFC in kick return average. “We have a lot of guys that contribute to my success and the team’s success, other than the faces you see all the time… The ability and the teamwork goes together tremendously.” That same togetherness will be needed against New York’s special teams. Only, the 49ers will be unsure of the Giants returners for Sunday. Wide receiver Devin Thomas was replaced by rookie Jerrel Jernigan after muffing a kick last week against the Patriots. Jernigan, however, has not practiced this week due to a hip injury. If inactive on Sunday, the Giants might rely on another rookie, running back Da'Rel Scott or backup runner D.J. Ware to handle kick return duties. But no matter who handles the bulk of the return duties, the key will be on which team produces the most hidden yards on Sunday. Considering both teams have strong defenses, the offenses can benefit greatly from strong special teams play. It could loom large on Sunday.

5. Long-term Implications

The P-word hasn’t been used around 4949 Centennial Blvd. this season. No, not P as in “Freddy P. Soft.” But P, as in, the word “Playoffs.” At 7-1, five games ahead of Seattle and Arizona in the NFC West, the 49ers control their own playoff destiny. Facing an upper echelon team like the Giants certainly gets the “P-word” mentioned during the week by members of the media, but the 49ers aren’t listening. If Sunday’s game stands as a possible preview of the playoffs or sticks out for potential playoff seeding, the 49ers aren’t concerned. The only focus is to win the next game on the schedule and repeat that mindset for the remaining seven weeks of the regular season. All the extra attention to Sunday’s game, which will feature FOX’s top broadcasting duo of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on the call, hasn’t fazed leaders inside the 49ers locker room. “Honestly, as is any Sunday, I don’t look at if a team has a losing record or a winning record,” defensive captain Patrick Willis said. “'I just say, ‘It’s Sunday, we have to go out and play.’”

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