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The 49ers postseason starts just as their regular season did. This Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers will face the New York Giants in a rematch of the NFL's opening day.
Despite the 49ers' 16-13 week one win over the Giants, many are predicting a New York upset. The Giants are considered one of the hottest teams in football right now. They have won four straight games, the final two against playoff teams. Their quarterback, Kerry Collins, has passed for over 1,000 yards during those four games. Their running back, Tiki Barber, gathered up over 200 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles in their season finale. This is scary considering the Eagles are no pushovers when it comes to defense.
One has to also factor in the fact that the Giants have one of the brightest new stars lining up every week. Cocky and vocal rookie tight end Jeremy Shockey has wowed critics all year with his exceptional play and toughness on the field.
What will be the 49ers' strategy against rookie tight end Jeremy Shockey? Odds are they will deploy the same strategy they used this season against another high profile receiving tight end. During week 10, the 49ers were faced with the daunting task of covering Kansas City Chief Tony Gonzalez, who has the ability to get to the ball like a wide receiver. And he can push defensive backs and some linebackers around while doing it with his strong 6'4”, 248 pound frame.
49ers linebacker Julian Peterson will attend his first Pro Bowl this year. The game that really made others take notice of Peterson was that Kansas City game. His job was to stick to Tony Gonzalez and do his best to stop him from taking over the game. While Julian Peterson is fast, young, and strong, this is a lot to ask of any linebacker in the NFL. But the 49ers went with this strategy anyways. The result? Tony Gonzalez had one catch for a total of 6 yards.
Peterson's versatility has been an asset to this young defense. While he played on the defensive line for most of his college career, Peterson was drafted as a linebacker after starting all 12 games of his senior year at that position for Michigan State. Injuries required him to played 4 different positions on the defense against the Cowboys.
He has done everything that has been asked of him and much more. This versatility and his pure athleticism will probably push the 49ers to use the same strategy they used to beat Tony Gonzalez and the Chiefs. While a complete Shockey shutdown is unlikely to happen, having Julian Peterson on Shockey has to give 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr. some level of comfort. The team seems very confident that Peterson is up for the task.
Defensively, approaching the game as they approached their regular season matchup against the Chiefs may not be such a bad idea. Having Julian Peterson on Tony Gonzalez allowed the rest of the defense to pile on Priest Holmes limiting him to only 51 yards. Hopefully the 49ers will get the same result against the Giants.
While the 49ers defense in general has been very questionable this season, it certainly was not the fault of their rushing defense, which has been fairly consistent and somewhat respectable. It is ranked 7th in the league overall allowing a little over 100 yards per game. Is this reason for hope? Not necessarily. The Eagles finished the season ranked 9th allowing nearly the same amount per game. Tiki Barber shredded that average nearly doubling it with 203 yards on the ground during his 32 carries during week 17. The Giants may try the same thing against the 49ers. But they will likely test the pass defense since that is clearly the team's weakness.
Rumph Gets the Call
Fans have called for Mike Rumph's head since preseason. The rookie cornerback has been picked on all season by quarterbacks and wide receivers. At no time was he picked on more than against the Eagles on Monday Night Football. You would think being picked on every week would cause a guy to lose confidence. But Rumph, the 27th pick overall, has been good at forgetting his mistakes and just moving on.
Sunday, Rumph will likely get the call to start for injured corner Jason Webster who has been on crutches all week since injuring his ankle against the Rams in the 49ers' season finale. The 49ers are hoping that Rumph has learned enough throughout the season to have some success in Webster's role.
Jim Mora Jr. decided to try something different after that loss to the Eagles and moved Rumph to a permanent nickel spot inside where he flourished in the weeks after. In fact, against the Cardinals, Mike Rumph wasn't the one that was picked on. Instead, Jason Webster was beaten twice by little known wide receiver Kevin Kasper.
"The speed of the game at the beginning of the season was a big thing for me. I know the playoffs are going to be a lot faster. I got to keep doing what I'm doing and keep playing with confidence," Rumph said.
Rumph has even started playing a little at the safety position since both Mora and Mariucci feel he lacks the speed and quickness to play bump and run with inside receivers.
The 49ers have been struck with injuries all season long. Many of those injuries will be back for the playoffs.
On defense, none of these returns will be more important than safety Zack Bronson who will help shore up a very shaky secondary.
On offense, the 49ers also hope to have guard Ron Stone, tackle Derrick Deese, running back Kevan Barlow, and of course, Pro Bowl wide receiver Terrell Owens will return to the lineup. Owens played gimpy against the Packers during week 15 and has been sidelined ever since with that groin injury. Owens' health will be an important factor in beating the Giants. The Giants don't really have anyone who can match up and contain Terrell Owens. Of course, very few teams do.
Many fans were discouraged by the 49ers' fourth quarter breakdown against the Rams on Monday night. However, they scored their 28 fourth quarter points after the 49ers started their substitutions. The starters on offense actually looked playoff ready despite not being able to punch the ball into the endzone. They moved the ball very well and the 49ers had their longest opening drive since a 20-play, 95-yard drive at Baltimore against the Colts on Dec. 3, 1961. In fact, it was the longest drive of the entire NFL season. The opening drive surpassed one of 10:04 by the Jaguars in the opening week of the season.
The 49ers had the ball for almost two-thirds of the first half. They possessed it for 19 minutes and 29 seconds compared to the Rams' 10 minutes and 31 seconds. They outgained the Rams 224 yards to 33.
If the 49ers can be anything close to this productive against the Giants, they should not have many problems.
The 49ers did it once before against the same Giants team. However, during that week 1 game, both offenses were flat. So expect a little more scoring during this Wildcard matchup. Everyone has already counted the 49ers out of this game. Position by position, the 49ers match up well against the Eagles. If the team plays up to its potential, it is definitely better than the Giants.
Collins versus Garcia. Both wear the number 5 but the similarities end there. While their numbers are somewhat similar (despite Collins' more passing yards), Jeff Garcia has not been playing like Jeff Garcia and he knows it. Odds are he will step it up for the playoffs. Memories of a Wildcard exit last year in Green Bay will likely motivate him.
At receiver, Owens' presence alone makes the 49ers' unit edge the Giants'. Not to mention the fact that Tai Streets has really stepped it up replacing J.J. Stokes as the team's second receiver.
When it comes to running the ball, the 49ers have averaged 140 yards a game compared to the Giants' 117 yards. However, that was done with the combination of Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow so the 49ers don't have one player that can match his season total yardage. One important statistic to note is that both Hearst and Barlow have nearly the exact same yards per carry as their competition, Tiki Barber, who averages 4.6 yards per carry. And the fact that they rotate will keep them from wearing down as the game goes on.
Other keys to the game will be the battle at the line of scrimmage and the turnover factor. Obviously, whoever wins these battles are in a better position to control the game.
Yes the Giants are one of the hottest teams storming into the playoffs after beating the Colts and Eagles in their final two weeks of play. Hopefully, the combination of being at home, their running game, Garcia to Owens, the return of some healthy bodies, and a well thought out and executed game plan will take the 49ers to the Divisional Playoffs in Philadelphia where the Eagles will be waiting. Yes, the Giants are hot and the 49ers have stalled all season. But an offensive jumpstart will definitely give the 49ers an edge. The 49ers were not surging entering the postseason. There is no reason why they can't start on Sunday though.
I say 49ers by 10. Let's hope I am not being overly optimistic.