NFL Insider: NFC Championship Game Preview

In a rematch of an October contest won by San Francisco, the red hot New York Giants will travel west to take on the biggest surprise team in the NFL this season. 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has confidence and why shouldn’t he? Smith engineered the best two drives of his life last week in San Francisco’s 36-32 upset victory over New Orleans. The Giants are no strangers to the upset either, as they went into Lambeau Field and became the first team this season to beat the defending Super Bowl champion Packers in their own stadium.

Three matchups to watch:

1. Kareem McKenzie vs. Justin Smith. The Giants right tackle is the weakest link on the offensive line and Justin Smith was voted by many to be the Defensive Player of the Year this season. If New York can’t adequately block Justin Smith, Eli Manning will struggle throwing the football and the Giants will struggle to score points.

2. Bruce Miller vs. Michael Boley. San Francisco’s rookie fullback has done a fantastic job this season paving the way for Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore. The 49ers want to play ball control football against an elite quarterback and that starts with controlling the clock and the line of scrimmage. All of that starts with Miller moving people.

3. Hakeem Nicks vs. Carlos Rogers. It’s a difficult task covering the Giants dynamic receiver one-on-one, and if Rogers is up to the task he will the other side of the field will be shut down for Victor Cruz. If Rogers requires help on Nicks, Cruz will be allowed to go one-on-one and that is also a mismatch for San Francisco.

How can the Giants win this game? San Francisco doesn’t have an explosive offense so the Giants do have some room for error, but it’s marginal. New York needs to limit turnovers and protect Eli Manning. Defensively they must put the game on the right arm of Alex Smith. Smith was great last week but his career path says that likely won’t happen two weeks in a row.

How can the 49ers win this game? A solid start is a must. San Francisco can’t fall behind by two scores early because they don’t have the passing offense to throw their way back. The 49ers need to play rough, old school type of football and run the ball and pressure the quarterback. A low scoring affair is the key.
Who has more pressure? Although they are the fourth seed and an underdog in this game all the pressure falls on the Giants. San Francisco isn’t even expected to be here and it was a great season no matter what the outcome of Sunday’s game is. There’s always more pressure in New York and like it or not if the Giants lose, Tom Coughlin will be on the hot seat again for at least some part of 2012.

Line and prediction: 49ers by 2.5. The Giants have championship game experience and Eli Manning is a confident, big game football player. San Francisco is playing loose and free and Jim Harbaugh instills confidence in his young team. Although this is a great matchup for the 49ers, the Giants will not get tight in a big spot as they’ve never lost a conference title game. Giants 24, 49ers 20.

Charlie Bernstein is the NFL Insider for and ESPN 1080 and 1040 in Orlando/Tampa and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for FoxSports and has been featured on the NFL Network and Sirius NFL Radio. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Charlie on Twitter @nflcharlie