Time for Giants, 49ers to get to work

BY foxsports • January 22, 2012

Time to put the talk aside and play some football.

Finally, after a week of preparation and speculation, the New York Giants will meet the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park for a shot at the Super Bowl.

For a week, there’s been chatter of this game being a bloodbath, a dogfight, a melee. There have been examinations of the unexpected greatness of Eli Manning and Alex Smith. There’s been Jerry Rice saying Brandon Jacobs is soft and the Giants, saying with their postseason play, that they might be a dynasty-level organization.

Good stuff.

Now for something even better: the actual game.

“I believe the intensity has already gone up another notch with our practices, our preparation, those guys doing some talking,” said Niners safety Donte Whitner. “I think the intensity is already going to beat it. The intensity was high last week, but I expect for the running backs this week to run a little bit harder, receivers to run a little bit harder and try to get faster. You can expect for us to hit harder. I don’t know about a bloodbath, but you can expect a really physical football game, because there are two really good football teams and only one of us can win. Only one of us can reach that ultimate goal, and that’s the Super Bowl.”

The Super Bowl is the big prize, of course, but there is more at stake for the four teams still dreaming of the Lombardi Trophy. In the AFC, the Ravens and Patriots will fight for an ideal — defense vs. offense — and a place in history. Does Tom Brady get ring No. 4 and perhaps the final salvo in defining this the Brady-Patriots era? Or do Ray Lewis and his defensive-minded team make a case for themselves instead?

That’s out east. Out west, the Giants and Niners are playing for their own defining storylines.

If the Giants win, head coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning will have two Super Bowls to their names. While the rush to thrust both men into the Hall of Fame needs to be slowed down, there’s no doubt another ring would mark their places as among the most underestimated success stories in NFL history.

For Eli, another Super Bowl would also cement his place as the more clutch Manning brother, if not the better player. Pride fuels the NFL, and there’s plenty the Giants are still playing for.

San Francisco has its own things to prove. This was a team rightfully dismissed for almost a decade as a joke, and it is made up of players who long ago were dismissed as misused and never-to-be talent. Talk with quarterback Alex Smith or tight end Vernon Davis about that.

“I guess I kind of feel like this whole team maybe is playing (for redemption), if you want to call it that,” Smith said. “I don’t know how many wins we were picked to have at the beginning of the season; it wasn’t many. Certainly, I don’t know where we were picked to come in the division, all of that. Not a lot of people were in our corner. It was just us here working. It’s down to the last four here with the chance to go to the Super Bowl this Sunday. That’s how we want it.”

While Jim Harbaugh is too new to the NFL to have been questioned and doubted the way Coughlin has been throughout his career, this game is also a referendum on what seems to be the rapidly growing greatness of the Niners' first-year head coach.

He was plucked from Stanford and dropped into what seemed to be a bad situation. And now he’s on the verge of making it one of the best places to be in the NFL.

By force of will, personality, schematics and energy, Harbaugh has made good on what is one of the most fleeting and thin things in the NFL — hype.

“Harbaugh is one of the most open and energetic coaches I’ve ever played for,” Whitner said. “He’s not that far removed from the game himself, being a quarterback and playing so many years. He really knows how to relate to the players. He knows what players go through on a day-to-day basis.

“ . . . He really cares about the players,” Whitner continued. “He sits down and talks to guys one-on-one, gets to know you. He gets to know your family. He urges guys to bring their family in for walk-through and just have family around. That’s what makes him such a good coach.”

It certainly has. Win a Super Bowl in his first season as an NFL head coach and it’ll also put him on track to be one of the league’s most celebrated.

Much will determine what happens at Candlestick. The expectation of soggy conditions is likely to favor the Niners and its staunch run defense. But the Giants are healthy and in the zone — a team that utterly believes it will and should win. Dynasty can be funny like that: a self-fulfilling thing if you believe deeply enough in it.

They have running back Ahmad Bradshaw at full strength, Eli playing like a champion and a defense that keeps making key stops on small-yardage, game-changing moments. And the Niners, with six comebacks to their name this season — including last week’s last-second thriller — aren’t exactly hurting, either, for confidence or a sense it’s their time.

Eli vs. Alex, Coughlin vs. Harbaugh, the excellent regular-season Niners team vs. the Giants squad that just slipped into the postseason but is now on a tear — it’s going to be a helluva game.

No more taunts, talk or speculation.

No more worrying what Jerry Rice said about Brandon Jacobs, about whether Frank Gore can hang on to the ball and whether the Giants can get past that Niners rush defense. No more need to wonder what comes next.

It’s time to find out.

Time to play.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.

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