Two weeks ago the 49ers battled last year's losing Super Bowl contender in the New England Patriots. This Sunday when they travel to New York, they get the real deal in the defending World Champion New York Giants.
The Giants were undefeated at 4-0 before losing badly, 35-14, to the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football.
"You can come up with anything you want, the fact of the matter is that whatever went on, we didn't play as well as we can play," said head coach Tom Coughlin.
Quarterback Eli Manning entered Monday night's game with the sixth ranked passing offense and the number one scoring offense. But it was a sluggish national performance for Manning. Prior to the game, the starting quarterback had only one interception through the first four games, but he was picked three times including one that was returned 94 yards for a touchdown in the upset by the Browns. Even with four interceptions now on the year, Manning's seven touchdowns and 63.8 completion percentage have him maintaining an overall 91.4 QB Rating on the year.
Manning suffered a bruised chest in the loss and his head coach said further tests were being run, but that he expected his starting quarterback to practice and play this week. Manning's backup is former first overall pick David Carr.
Receiver Plaxico Burress returned to action on Monday following his one-game suspension and caught four passes for 58 yards. Despite missing the game, the tall, rangy and explosive receiver still leads the Giants in receiving yards with 22 catches for 317 yards and two touchdowns.
Last year's second round draft pick Steve Smith is tied with Burress in receptions, but has less yardage with 215, while veteran receiver Amani Toomer is third on the team with 17 catches for 207 yards.
The Giants starting offensive line enjoyed their 21st straight start together as an entire unit on Monday night, but that could be in jeopardy with starting center Shaun O'Hara admitted to the hospital on Tuesday for an infected toe.
The Giants cohesive o-line has allowed only six sacks on the year, tied for third fewest in the NFL. It has also opened up lanes for the number one rushing offense in the NFL.
Brandon Jacobs is the starting running back and the team's leading rusher, although Derrick Ward is coming off a 101-yard rushing day against the Browns, needing only 10 carries to amass his big yardage. Both backs are difficult to bring down, particularly Jacobs, who often drags defenders with him. Jacobs had a 107-yard rushing day last year against the 49ers when he averaged 5.9 yards per carry.
Although they played a shaky game on Monday, the offense is the strength of this New York team and as the number one overall offense in the NFL, they could still give fits to a 49ers defense that has struggled in recent weeks.
As for the Giants defense, even after the retirement of Michael Strahan and the loss of one of the league's most dangerous pass rushers in Osi Umenyiora to injuries, the Giants pass rush hadn't been slowed much as the defense is tied for sixth in the NFL in sacks with 15 on the season. Defensive tackle Fred Robbins leads their sack efforts with four, although defensive end Justin Tuck is close on his heels with 3 sacks. Mathias Kiwanuka starts opposite of Tuck and has two sacks on the year.
But it was an all-around lackluster day for the Giants in Cleveland, and that included their pass rush. The unit didn't tally a single sack, and what's worse, they failed to notch any turnovers and never once even forced a Cleveland punt as the Browns put up 454 yards of total offense.
For the fifth straight game, the Giants denied a single rusher to get past the 100-yard rushing mark, but the Browns were able to rack up a combined 144 yards on the ground, dropping the Giants run defense to ninth in the NFL.
In addition to their pass rush abilities, Robbins and Tuck are active against the run with 16 and 22 stops respectively. Tuck even has an interception on the season, which he returned 41 yards for a touchdown.
Veteran Antonio Pierce is the ringleader of the linebacking corps, and currently leads the unit in stops with 27 tackles. Pierce is sandwiched by outside linebackers Danny Clark and Gerris Wilkinson, although Wilkinson is sharing more and more of his playing time with rookie Bryan Kehl, who has 16 stops on the season.
The Giants are ten deep in the secondary and at least nine of them have been used on defense in a bit of an unusual rotation. Aaron Ross and Corey Webster start at corner with James Butler and Michael Johnson manning the safety posiitons. Kevin Dockery is the nickel corner and is the only defensive back to have gotten a pick this year, one that he returned for a 44-yard touchdown. In the Giants nickel package, safety Kenny Phillips replaces Johnson. In the Giants dime package, Phillips also gets time at safety while Johnson works as the dime linebacker. Even Ross and Webster will be rotated in and out of the lineup, giving more reps to Dockery, and either Sam Madison or RW McQuarters.
McQuarters has been an explosive punt returner in the past and is still being utilized with seven punt returns for an 8.4 average, but it looks like third-year receiver Domenik Hixon might have the edge on McQuarters. Hixon has nine returns on the year, a long of 50 and a 13.8 average.
Running back Ahmad Bradshaw is the Giants featured kick returner and has a 21.5 average and a long of 33.
Despite retirement speculation after their Super Bowl victory, punter Jeff Feagles returned for his 21st NFL season. He has 15 punts on the year, a 42.8 average and 6 punts downed inside the 20.
The Giants were forced to sign veteran John Carney off the street due to a knee injury to Lawrence Tynes that has kept him on the sidelines so far this season. Tynes is reportedly healed up, but the Giants stuck with Carney on Monday night as the 44-year old kicker is perfect on the season with 12 field goals.
Given the short week, the Giants look forward to the opportunity to quickly erase the unsavory taste left in their mouth from their first loss of the year, and stay ahead of a very competitive NFC East division.
"Each one of these games is a great challenge in this league and if you don't play to the best of your ability, you are obviously giving yourself not much of a chance to win," Coughlin said. "And that is my concern. This team will bounce back. I believe that. I think it will be a good week of focus and a good week of practice. It is disappointing to fall into whatever lapse we fell into in not playing as well as we have been playing. Our expectation was to go there, we knew it was going to be a tough game, we knew that they were a physical football team, we knew that their backs were against the wall playing at their place, they had made a big deal about Monday Night Football and that type of thing, and yet the message really obviously never really got across the way we had hoped. I rely so much on leadership to help us in that regard, so I think leadership is going to help us solve this issue as well."
The 49ers have issues of their own to solve after dropping three straight games, including two at home. Winning on the road against a talented team is a tall order for a struggling 49ers squad, but it's one they desperately need to achieve before the NFC West division slips away.
Tune in on Fox this Sunday at 10AM PST to catch the action.