The New York Giants’ status as NFC East leaders midway through
the season may come as a surprise, but it’s the San Francisco
49ers’ comfortable lead in the West that’s even more stunning.
The 49ers can move closer to clinching a division title before
the end of the month by extending their longest winning streak in
14 years when they host the Giants on Sunday.
New York (6-2), which failed to reach the playoffs each of the
last two seasons, is two games ahead of second-place Dallas and
three ahead of Philadelphia, the trendy preseason favorite to
dominate the division.
The Giants only bolstered their status as viable contenders for
a division title by winning 24-20 at New England last week, as Eli
Manning hit tight end Jake Ballard for a one-yard TD pass with 15
seconds to play.
While New York’s rise has been unexpected, the 49ers (7-1) own
the NFL’s second-best record under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh
after finishing at or below .500 in each of the past eight
They’ve already surpassed their win total from last year after
beating Washington 19-11 on the road last week, giving them six
consecutive victories for the first time since an 11-game run in
“A lot of people doubted us, a lot of people put us out because
we didn’t have an offseason, we had a whole new staff, we’re going
to be lost and running around with our heads cut off,” defensive
tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. “But with the dedication and all
the time everybody put aside to build it we weren’t going to have
no lacking. We just feel like this is a team, it’s not individual
play no more. It’s actually a team.”
San Francisco has the league’s top-ranked run defense, yielding
70.8 yards per contest and 61.3 over the last three games.
The Niners also boast one of the NFL’s top running backs in
Frank Gore, whose 7,196 rushing yards are 148 shy of the franchise
record held by Joe Perry since 1963.
Gore has topped 100 yards in each of the last five games,
totaling 634 in that stretch with an average of 6.3 per carry and
four touchdowns. He gained 107 yards on 19 carries last week, also
suffering an ankle injury that he claims won’t be a problem come
“I’ll be all right. I’m cool,” Gore said. “Yeah, I’ll be all
Harbaugh is also impressed with Alex Smith, who is having his
best season since being drafted first overall in 2005. His 97.3
passer rating and 64.1 completion percentage are career highs,
while he’s tossed 10 touchdown passes and just two
“He’s every bit the elite quarterback as there is playing in the
game right now,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a whole body of work. There’s
evidence … really however you want to pick his performance apart.
He’s playing at a very high level.”
Harbaugh may point to Smith’s impressive success late in games,
as he leads the NFL with a 131.0 rating in the final two minutes,
and is at 106.7 for the fourth quarter.
While Smith’s status as one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks is up
for debate, Manning is backing up a bold claim he made last summer
that he’s among the elite.
The Giants’ three-game winning streak has been a result of
Manning’s late-game prowess. He’s engineered game-winning drives in
the fourth quarter in each victory, including last week’s
eight-play, 80-yard drive that ended Tom Brady’s 31-game
regular-season home winning streak.
Manning’s fourth-quarter success is evident in his
league-leading 121.7 rating in that period.
“I’ve been here seven years with him,” defensive end Justin Tuck
said. “He’s probably playing the best ball in those seven
Manning may also benefit from the possible return of Hakeem
Nicks, who was sidelined last week with a hamstring injury. Nicks
leads the team with 38 catches, totaling 575 yards and three
If Nicks remains unavailable, Victor Cruz will be called upon
again to be Manning’s primary target. Cruz has a team-leading 588
yards on 34 catches with four touchdowns, and his six grabs and 91
yards led the Giants last week.
Manning, though, will again be without running back Ahmad
Bradshaw, who will miss his second straight game due to a broken
bone in his right foot.
Despite the Giants’ success in the first half of the season,
Tuck isn’t getting too excited.
“Nobody’s going to remember what we did in November,” Tuck said.
“Nobody’s going to remember what we did in December. It’s about
getting back to that Super Bowl and winning that.”
The Niners are already looking toward the playoffs, and wins in
their next two games combined with losses by Seattle and Arizona –
both 2-6 – would be enough to clinch the NFC West.
“We’re trying to secure a playoff spot now so we don’t have to
worry about that later in the season,” Francois said.
The Giants have won all three meetings since they blew a
24-point lead in a dramatic 39-38 playoff defeat in San Francisco
on Jan. 5, 2003.