By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) – A thrilling finish helped the San Francisco 49ers keep pace in the NFC playoff hunt. A second-half dud kept the New York Giants on track for a third straight year without postseason football. The Niners hope to pick up another key road victory and hand the Giants a fifth straight setback this Sunday when the clubs meet at MetLife Stadium. San Francisco snapped a two-game slide with a 27-24 overtime victory against the New Orleans Saints last weekend, with kicker Phil Dawson coming up with a pair of clutch field goals.
His first from 45 yards out tied the game with 44 seconds remaining and came after Colin Kaepernick hit Michael Crabtree for a 51-yard pass on 4th-and-10. Dawson later came out to kick a 35-yard winner with 5:14 left in overtime following Ahamd Brooks’ sack of Saints quarterback Drew Brees that caused a fumble that Chris Borland recovered. Dawson almost never got a chance to make his clutch play as Saints tight end Jimmy Graham appeared to haul in his third touchdown catch of the game on a Hail Mary as time expired in regulation, but he was called for offensive pass interference. ”We were out there playing in a do-or-die situation, and we had guys out there who came up big at the right time,” 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin remarked. ”We said it all week, that we felt our backs were against the wall. This was a must-win game for us and that’s what you saw.”
Kaepernick threw for 210 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown strike to Boldin, who ended with six catches on 95 yards. Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde ran for touchdowns in the first quarter and cornerback Chris Culliver and safety Antoine Bethea came up with interceptions. San Francisco improved to 5-4 on the season, one game back of Seattle for second place in the NFC West and three behind first-place Arizona. The Giants, meanwhile, are tied for last place in the NFC East, with Sunday’s 38-17 defeat at the hands of the Seahawks giving New York a fourth loss in a row.
The Giants have allowed an average of 34 points over the slide and lost each game by double-digits. New York led Sunday’s game 17-14 at halftime, but was shut out in the second half and allowed Seattle to run for a franchise-record 350 yards. Eli Manning completed 29-of-44 attempts for 283 yards with a touchdown and an interception for New York.
”In the second half we continued to not tackle very well and not be able to contain the quarterback,” said Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. ”We had a couple of different schemes that were utilized in regard to that, but none of them seemed to work. And offensively, we had the ball in the middle of the field three or four times and didn’t push it beyond that and obviously didn’t score. It’s hard to believe what you saw in the second half.”
Odell Beckham finished with 108 yards on seven catches with Preston Parker accumulating 79 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions. Linebacker Jameel McClain had a game-high 12 tackles, but was part of a Giants defense that allowed Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to score four rushing touchdowns. The Giants have won four of their past five meetings with the Niners and that does not include an overtime victory in San Francisco to win the NFC Championship Game during the 2011 season.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Even after giving up 423 yards to the Saints, the 49ers still rank second in the NFL in total defense (306.4 yards allowed per game) and fifth against the pass at 215.2 YPG. San Francisco is known for its front seven on defense and has had success despite a new look at linebacker. That won’t change this weekend as linebacker Patrick Willis was officially placed on injured reserve due to a toe injury that has held him out of the past three games.
His official loss comes in the same week that Aldon Smith returns to the roster after serving a nine-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse and personal conduct policies. Though Smith has not been with the club for the entire regular season up to this point, he is still slated to make his season debut versus the Giants. He’ll try to immediately boost San Francisco’s sack total, which stands at 15, and has amassed 42 career sacks over three seasons. ”A big lift,” said Kaepernick of Smith’s return. ”He’s a freak of nature on the field. He’s a huge component to our defense. So, very happy to have him back.”
San Francisco also has been without linebacker NaVarro Bowman all season due to a knee injury, but inside linebackers Michael Wilhoite and the rookie Borland have more than held their own. Borland has 35 tackles in his past two games, including 17 versus the Saints. ”He’s doing a great job. He does have a … sense for the ball,” noted Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh of Borland. ”I’ve been watching it in practice and you watch it in the games he’s like a thief in the night, he’s going to get under somebody, get around somebody.” While Kaepernick didn’t put up outstanding numbers last weekend, he continues to click with Boldin, who was targeted 15 times. The wideout’s 95 receiving yards made him one of 12 players in NFL history to register 12 seasons of at least 600 yards. He also joined Jerry Rice as the only players in league history to reach the mark in each of his first 12 seasons.
The Giants, meanwhile, have their own emerging wide receiver in Beckham, who last weekend became the first Giants rookie to have consecutive 100-yard receiving games since Byron Williams in 1983. No rookie in team history has ever reached the mark in three straight games. San Francisco’s secondary will have to watch Beckham and tight end Larry Donnell, who has led New York in receiving in four of nine games this season. New York should also get a boost with the return of running back Rashad Jennings, who has sat out this entire losing streak due to a knee injury suffered on Oct. 5. His return comes at a great time, with running back Michael Cox landing on IR due to a leg issue and Peyton Hillis out with a concussion.
Jennings still leads the Giants with 396 yards on 91 carries for a 4.4 yards per carry average. Rookie running back Andre Williams does lead all NFC rookies with four rushing touchdowns, but averages just 2.9 yards a carry. ”Having Rashad back will definitely be helpful,” said Manning. ”Andre’s done a great job at running back but having that one-two punch is going to be a good combination. He was playing well for us before he got injured, does a lot of things in the pass game and in the run game, so it will be good to have both guys in there.”
New York will need to slow down the Niners’ own 1-2 punch of Gore and Hyde, but come in ranking dead last in the NFL with 404.9 yards allowed per game and 144.7 on the ground. ”(The 49ers) are going to run. That is their deal,” said Coughlin. ”They are going to set things up with the run. You have to be very, very good and very, very strong. We need turnovers. We need field position. We need all the things we always talk about.”
The Giants allowed Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to run for over 100 yards and face another mobile signal-caller in Kaepernick.
San Francisco’s offense has been motored by its ground game and has the chance to expand on its numbers against a struggling Giants front line. Stopping Kaepernick and Gore will be key for New York, which is tied for second in the NFL with 13 interceptions but won’t get a chance to make those plays in the secondary if San Francisco has no issues moving the ball on the ground.
Manning, meanwhile, has the unfortunate task of facing a motivated and fresh Smith, who should be in the quarterback’s face all day long. That should make a healthy Jennings a big focus to the offense, but the Giants can’t afford to fall behind.
Sports Network predicted outcome: 49ers 23, Giants 16