Giants-49ers Preview

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

seasons.

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

1997.

“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

Sunday.

“I’ll be all right. I’m cool,” Gore said. “Yeah, I’ll be all

right.”

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

interceptions.

“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

years.”

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

TDs.

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.