Patrick Willis’ season is over, something that may already apply to the New York Giants’ playoff hopes.
Aldon Smith however is just getting starting.
Smith is slated to return from his suspension Sunday and help the visiting San Francisco 49ers damage any remaining hopes the Giants have for the playoffs.
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Willis was hoping to return to the field, but his troublesome left big toe put an end to his season. The linebacker, a Pro Bowler in his first seven seasons, will undergo surgery.
Fortunately for San Francisco (5-4), it has the chance to replace him with perhaps the most ferocious defensive player in the NFL in Smith.
The troubled outside linebacker was suspended for the first nine games for violating the league’s personal conduct and substance abuse policies. That came after he missed five games last season while entering a substance abuse treatment center following a DUI arrest.
He also had three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon last year and was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport after claiming he had a bomb during a random secondary screening in April.
Still, the 49ers opted to pick up Smith’s option for 2015, and that probably had to do with his ability to get to the quarterback.
Smith has 47 1/2 sacks in 51 games – including playoffs – which is 2 1/2 fewer than Houston’s J.J. Watt, who has played in 10 more games. He set the franchise record with 19 1/2 sacks in 2012 and is joining a San Francisco defense that ranks second in the NFL with 306.4 yards allowed per game but is tied for 25th with 15 sacks.
It’s unclear, however, how large of a role he’ll have right away.
"He did participate in training camp 11 weeks ago," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I would refer back to last year, he missed five weeks and was able to come back and play snaps his first week back. So, good question. We’ll see, take it day by day."
Perhaps rookie Chris Borland’s emergence can ease Smith’s transition. Borland leads the 49ers with 43 tackles in three games in place of Willis, with Antoine Bethea’s 19 the next closest.
Borland recovered a fumble in overtime last weekend, leading to Phil Dawson’s 35-yard field goal in a 27-24 win at New Orleans.
"I’m truly proud of the way he’s playing," Willis said. "He’s gone out and held down that position."
San Francisco appears to be poised for another strong defensive effort with the Giants (3-6) on a four-game slide during which they’ve been outscored by an average of 18.5 points while surrendering 456.0 yards per game.
Their issues showed no signs of changing in last weekend’s 38-17 loss at Seattle, surrendering 350 rushing yards – 16 shy of the franchise record set in 1978.
Coach Tom Coughlin, though, isn’t giving up on a team that is in danger of missing the playoffs for a third straight season.
"It doesn’t feel good," Coughlin said. "There is progress for me. There are a lot of things that you can point to that are good, but we are not finishing the job so that dominates all our thinking. We all know what this league is about. You have to win."
Getting Rashad Jennings back could help. The running back has missed the last four games with a sprained knee, and he’s still New York’s top rusher with 396 yards and a 4.4 average per carry.
The Giants averaged 83.3 yards on the ground without Jennings and 157.0 over the three previous games – all wins.
"That’s what I am here for," Jennings said. "If I am on the field, there is no hesitation and wondering what if – I am picking up where I left off."
Eli Manning has just one interception in five games after throwing five in the first four. His 93.1 passer rating matches his career high set in 2009.
San Francisco could use an improved performance from Colin Kaepernick, who was 14 of 32 for 210 yards with one touchdown against the Saints. However, he connected with Michael Crabtree on a 51-yard pass that set up Dawson’s game-tying 45-yard field goal with 49 seconds left in regulation.
Kaepernick feels Smith’s return can get the Niners rolling.
"A big lift. He’s a freak of nature on the field," Kaepernick said. "He’s a huge component to our defense, so very happy to have him back."
The Giants have won five of the last six meetings with the 49ers, including 20-17 in overtime at San Francisco in the NFC championship game in January 2012.