NFC Conference Championship Preview

NFC Conference Championship Preview
NFC Conference Championship Preview
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Danny Tuccitto

This game is either a football stats geek's dream or nightmare depending on how much said stats geek likes to live on the edge. (Implied odds predict he doesn't.) Similar to their matchup against the Packers last weekend, the Giants once again find themselves on the road going up against a team that's both better and more consistent per DVOA. Going into the Green Bay game, the conventional wisdom was that New York was "peaking at the right time," and had already showed during the regular season that they could hang in until the very end against that opponent. Here we are one week -- and one Giants upset -- later, with essentially the same narrative.

Essentially, what we have here is a situation in which the vast majority of indicators in New York's favor are of the small-sample variety, whereas the large-sample data clearly favors their opponent. That's the nightmare from a prediction standpoint. Are the last four weeks a better measure of New York's "true" ability than the previous 14? The answer to that question will go a long way toward deciding this year's NFC Champion.

Before getting into the statistical matchup details, let's address one widely cited reason for New York's recent (and predicted) success: a return to health. It's certainly true that the Giants have gotten gradually healthier as the season's worn on, both on offense and on defense, but logic dictates that only one of those healed starters -- defensive end Osi Umenyiora -- could possibly have had an impact, given that (a) Hakeem Nicks, Ahmad Bradshaw, Justin Tuck, and Michael Boley had been back for at least a month prior to the Giants' magical Week 16 turnaround game versus the Jets; (b) Kenny Phillips only missed Week 14; and (c) Mario Manningham's Week 17 return occurred long after he had been relegated to No. 3 wide receiver behind Victor Cruz.

So did Umenyiora's return in Week 17 kickstart a dormant pass rush? The answer, not surprisingly, is a bit complicated. If you look at the difference between the Giants defensive Adjusted Sack Rate in games he played and games he missed, the absence of Umenyiora turned the season-long equivalent of a No. 1 pass rush (8.8 percent) into a mediocre pass rush (6.5 percent). This was perhaps no more evident than in the final game of the season; with Umenyiora back for the first time in a month, New York posted an off-the-charts 14.4 percent ASR against Dallas. What makes things a bit complicated is that, in the Giants' two playoff games, the defense has only posted ASRs of 5.9 percent and 4.0 percent. So, the obvious question becomes, "If Umenyiora's presence in the lineup is so important, what's up with the past two weeks, and how can we possibly say it's mattered much in their playoff victories?"

Well, there's always the idea that sacks aren't the only way a defense gets pressure; there's also hurries. Let's look at hurries, then. In the regular-season games we've charted so far, New York hurried the opposing quarterback on about 15 percent of pass plays. In the two playoff games, both of which are fully charted, New York's hurry rate is three percent lower. Go figure.

The moral of this story, as I alluded to at the top, is that deciphering the Giants late-season run, and projecting it forward to Sunday's game is all about whether we should look at their full-season body of work, or cherry-pick specific pieces in the art gallery. I'm not one to live on the edge, so the rest of this preview relies on the former.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted. Game charting data is still incomplete, but represents most of the regular season.

New York Giants at San Francisco

Giants on Offense
DVOA 15.6% (7) -10.3% (3)
WEI DVOA 17.5% (7) -8.7% (4)
PASS 36.3% (4) -0.9% (8)
RUSH -1.3% (20) -25.4% (1)
RED ZONE 1.6% (12) -7.6% (16)
49ers on Offense
DVOA 1.6% (18) 6.9% (20)
WEI DVOA 3.2% (16) 4.6% (17)
PASS 23.4% (12) 14.0% (21)
RUSH -4.0% (24) -2.0% (19)
RED ZONE -29.8% (29) 13.8% (27)
Special Teams
DVOA 0.3% (16) 7.0% (2)
NYG kickoff 4.5 (8) 4.8 (4)
SF kickoff -3.4 (22) 7.1 (6)
NYG punts 10.9 (5) 10.0 (3)
SF punts -8.4 (29) 13.3(3)
FG/XP -1.5 (19) 6.0 (5)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.


As I'm wont to do, let's start with what New York does from a personnel and formation standpoint. They're fairly basic, and about seven out of every 10 offensive snaps are in the standard 1RB/3WR/1TE (38 percent) or 2RB/2WR/1TE (32 percent) sets. This tendency was dialed up to eight when they played the 49ers in Week 10, employing these two personnel groups 79 percent of the time. In terms of offensive success rates, their best bet in these formations is passing from 2/2/1 (55 percent). In this week's matchup, that's a good thing, because it's an area in which the 49ers defense struggles.

Of course, where San Francisco really struggles -- relatively speaking -- is when offenses use four or more wide receivers, but New York only does so about 6 percent of the time. However, if they were to open it up a bit more, it might pay dividends. For instance, in the Week 10 game, New York went four-wide four times, and all four plays were successful. On two of them, running back D.J. Ware was split out wide, so perhaps doing the same thing with Ahmad Bradshaw instead might be one way they take advantage of him actually playing in this game.

Speaking of which, another thing that stood out from the earlier matchup was how much the Giants ran the ball despite Bradshaw's absence and the 49ers being a much better run defense than pass defense. For the season, New York's passed the ball on about 60 percent of plays. Against San Francisco, they threw it on 52 percent of plays. Perhaps it was game planning opposite of tendency or perhaps it was disbelief in the 49ers run defense at the time, but at this point it would blow my mind if New York runs it as much this week because -- there's no nice way to put this -- the season stats say it's a horrific matchup for them.

Where to begin? Well, there's the general idea that, according to Adjusted Line Yards, the No. 28 offensive line is going against the No. 4 defensive line. If Bradshaw or Brandon Jacobs happen to make it past the defensive line, they probably won't get much further given that the Giants, 29th in both second-level yards and open-field yards, are up against the No. 1 defense in both categories. Furthermore, on those crucial short-yardage running plays, New York is also at a huge disadvantage against San Francisco (27th versus first). Literally the only run-related stat I could find that favors the Giants is that they run toward right tackle with the ninth-highest frequency in the league, and the 49ers are 26th in defending runs in that direction. Alas, the Giants may run that way a lot, but they're actually really bad at it (also 26th in ALY).

One other little wrinkle in the Giants running game that they used more than anticipated in Week 10 was a handoff in shotgun. Strategically, it made perfect sense: Force the Niners into nickel, and then run from a shotgun formation that you use more than all but 10 NFL teams. The problem, however, was that the Giants are No. 24 in shotgun run DVOA, and the 49ers have the fifth-best DVOA defending shotgun runs -- presumably because of what I mentioned in last week's preview about Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman both remaining on the field in nickel.

That brings us back to the Giants pass offense, which, if the previous two paragraphs are any indication, they should rely heavily on this Sunday. In contrast to their shotgun running woes, they're No. 4 in shotgun passing, and the 49ers, although it's not a massive dropoff, are worse against shotgun passes than shotgun runs.

And where should New York go with those shotgun passes? The same place they went on one of their two shotgun touchdowns in Week 10: The direction of nickel cornerback Chris Culliver. Culliver had a strong rookie year, but game charting gives him a lower success rate than either Carlos Rogers (64 percent) or Tarell Brown (55 percent). For much of the first game, the 49ers used Culliver on the outside covering Manningham, with Rogers covering Victor Cruz in the slot.


If the Giants ran the ball more than (at least I) anticipated in Week 10, the 49ers unexpectedly passed it just as much. For the season, San Francisco had a pass-run ratio of 54 percent, but it rose all the way to 65 percent in that game, and they were winning for most of it to boot. Much of the unexpected passing came on first down, which took advantage of both their run-first reputation, and New York's No. 23 first-down pass defense.

Last week, I mentioned how successfully dealing with the absence of Delanie Walker was something the 49ers would have to do to win. Their answer, of course, was to throw the ball to Vernon Davis. Walker is in line to play for the first time since Week 16, and it's perhaps even more crucial that he does suit up this week. That's because where the 49ers game plan in Week 10 really took advantage of perception was their use of a 1RB/2WR/2TE formation, which -- unbeknownst to many -- they actually throw out of two-thirds of the time. This exploited the fact that the Giants' defensive success rate against 1-2-2 drops from 71 percent against run to 49 percent against pass.

Interestingly, the Giants treated it as a passing formation, lining up with five or more defensive backs on 12 of the 14 plays in which San Francisco used it. Unfortunately for New York, it wasn't of much avail to them, especially on passes to Davis and Walker. Specifically, in 1-2-2, the 49ers threw the ball their way five times, with four successful plays, two first downs, and a touchdown.

As was the case against New Orleans, however, whether or not all this passing works this week depends on whether the 49ers offensive line can keep Alex Smith upright. On the surface, the Giants and their No. 10 ASR present more of a problem against a 49ers pass-protection unit that ranks 25th. However, there are a couple of nuances here. First, as I alluded to in the introduction, their 15 percent hurry rate means that, although it's certainly true that the Giants get a lot of sacks, it's also true that their pass rush is quintessentially boom-or-bust. For comparison, the 49ers' hurry rate on defense is 25 percent.

Second, and entirely contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Giants rush four 63 percent of the time, which is only 19th-most in the league. Furthermore, their defensive success rate when rushing four is ninth-worst. Rather, what New York does more than most teams is big blitz: They're ranked ninth in frequency of six-or-more rushers. This means that, despite all the talk this week of New York's ability to get a rush from their front-four, San Francisco finds itself in the same they-blitz-and-we're-not-good-at-blitz-pickup scenario they were in against the Saints.

What we're likely to see from the 49ers in terms of counteracting the blitz is a lot of break-contain runs from Alex Smith. There are three indicators here. First is that, last week, Aaron Rodgers scrambled seven times for 66 yards, with all but one of those runs resulting in a successful play for Green Bay's offense. Second is that the 49ers penultimate touchdown against the Saints showed that they have no problem putting designed quarterback runs into their offensive game plan. Third, in Week 10, Smith himself scrambled 3 times for 30 yards, including a 14-yarder with under a minute to go in the first half, which put San Francisco in field goal range.

If Jim Harbaugh really is the mad scientist many believe him to be from an offensive game planning standpoint, I wouldn't be surprised if we also see a lot more running from Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter as well. Here's why. In addition to San Francisco's favorable matchup on first-down passes, they actually have an even more favorable one on first-down runs: seventh-best offense versus seventh-worst defense. Furthermore, the 49ers are No. 9 in frequency of runs to the outside left of the formation, and the Giants defense is No. 26 in that run direction. Lastly, and this is purely subjective on my part, it just seems perfectly set up given what's on tape -- and in game charts -- from that Week 10 contest.


Overall, San Francisco had the second-best special teams DVOA in the league this year, and New York's was 16th. Among the individual unit matchups, things are pretty even when the Giants are kicking and punting. On 49ers kicks and punts, San Francisco has a distinct advantage. On kickoffs, they were sixth in net expected points added, and the Giants kickoff return team was 23rd. On punts, it's even more lopsided, with the 49ers ranking third, and the Giants 29th.

In Week 10, kickoffs didn't play much of a role given that most ended in touchbacks. With 15-mile-per-hour winds in the forecast for Sunday, that'll probably repeat itself, which nullifies the potential advantage New York might have gained with kickoff returner Ted Ginn likely out due to injury. Therefore, if this game gets affected by special teams, it'll likely be due to Andy Lee's ability to pin New York deep in its own territory with regularity.


Although most should know this by now, full disclosure: I'm a 49ers fan. It's not a secret. When I set out to research the matchups in this game -- both in spreadsheets and on film -- I tried my best to be objective. In the aggregate, these teams are pretty evenly matched. However, when splitting things out according to DVOA and game-charting, the 49ers come out with an advantage far more often than the Giants do. Not even mentioned above is that the home-field advantage of the 49ers defense is seventh-biggest in the league this season, and that, if New York jumps out to an early lead, the No. 1 offense when losing big will be trying to comeback against the worst defense in the NFL at protecting a big lead. Really, as I said at the outset, the outcome of this game depends on whether or not you believe the New York Giants from Weeks 16 to 19 are the "true" New York Giants, or whether what appears to be "peaking at the right time" is just the random variation inherent in small samples. If the small-sample Giants show up, this game might be another instant classic in Candlestick. But if the large-sample Giants show up, the consistent-as-the-sunrise 49ers will be the team representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLVI.


DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. There are separate charts for offense and defense for each team.


54 comments, Last at 22 Jan 2012, 1:18pm

2 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

A healthy Osi certainly helps, but factors that I'd call more important in the Giants defensive renaissance are:

1) Tuck playing more like Tuck. Whatever injuries he's playing through, he hasn't been himself all season. But he's been more himself over the last few weeks than he has since week 1.

2) Competent play at MLB. Chase Blackburn is what you get if you call central casting for a "white backup linebacker." His lack of athleticism is certainly an issue. But he generally doesn't make the mental mistakes that guys like Greg Jones and Mark Herzlich were making for most of the season, and those mistakes were routinely killing the Giants.

3) Competent play at the #2 and Slot CB spots. While the first two elements I listed look genuine to me, this one feels like a small-sample fluke, at least in part. Aaron Ross and Antrel Rolle (who plays the slot CB spot), as well as Prince Amukamara (who subs in sometimes) have simply been much more effective than they were for most of the season. There has been a big uptick in coverage-induced scrambles, sacks, and throw-aways over the past few weeks, and these guys deserve some of the credit. That said, there have also been times when they've left their man rather open but been bailed out by the pass rush or by a poor throw or drop.

Really, if the "small sample size" Giants show up in all respects, the Niners could be hard-pressed to break the single digits in scoring. I don't truly expect that to happen, but there are more reasons to believe in the Giants "putting it together at the right time" than just Osi's return.

3 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

If Aaron Ross regresses to normal form, what would be the consequences? He's not on Jordy Nelson this game, he's probably on Kyle Williams (if Ginn doesn't play, and it looks like he won't). Even if he's on Crabtree, he didn't exactly light the world on fire last game.

41 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

I'm not saying that the 49ers are awesome at rushing, or that the Giants or horrible, I'm simply saying that even if the Giants "small sample size" crush-the-passing game defense shows up, they still have not shown that they're awesome against the run. -2.0 DVOA does not imply that they're going to hold any team to single digit points, and that is an incredibly inane statement.

1 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

The Giants' pass rush was a product of their big lead against Green Bay, rather than helping to produce it. Their defense was fine, but the coverage deserves more of the credit (and I don't know whether that was Green Bay having an off day). On the other hand, even though Alex Smith is decent, Eli is better, and he has better targets. I see a close game between two well coached teams, with the 49ers deserving to be slight favorites

4 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

Yeah, I'll be surprised if Harbaugh does not try to, in this game, take some of the starch out of the Giants pass rushers with some slugging by way of Gore and Hunter. A really interesting matchup, and the only outcome that would surprise me is a blow-out Giants win.

5 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

The Giants just allowed zero and six (legitimate) points to two vastly superior offenses. Even if we give GB full credit for the twenty they scored, it was a great defensive performance as a whole, not just by the front four. Meanwhile, the 49ers just gave up 32 points to a similarly, albeit more, potent offense while eliminating four of their possessions. If the large-sample Giants show up this game will look exactly as it did in week 10, a close game that is winnable by either side. If the small-sample giants show up and don't go -4 in turnovers, this game could be a massacre.

7 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

The problem with that comparison is that the Giants offense looks nothing like the Saints offense, and the Niners defense seems better suited to stopping it.

The Saints like to spread the field, and run a lot of quick catch & run type routes and rack up yards after the catch. The Giants like to throw deep, and run to set up the play fake. What makes the latter difficult is that the Niners are really good against the run off their base defense, and don't need to sell out to stop it, and their pass rush often prevents the deep ball.

Can the Giants spread it out? I think they can - Nicks, Cruz, and Manningham have all shown the kind of speed in & out of breaks that allows that kind of short passing attack, and Bradshaw & Ware are decent receivers out of the backfield. The big question is whether the Giants offensive line is up to the challenge of stopping the Niners defensive line long enough for Manning to get the ball out. That's a question the Giants have been forcing opposing offenses to answer, and now it's time to see if they can face their bizarro-world equivalents.

I still think the Giants win, but I'm not expecting a blowout. I'm thinking it's something along the lines of 20-16.

8 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

The one thing that would concern me if I was a Giants fan, other than Alex Smith stepping into the transmorgrifier and becoming Steve Young again for 15 minutes, is that Giants o-line is not facing the Packers pass rushers this week. I expect the defensive Smiths to have some nice moments, and Candelstick is just a much noisier venue than Lambeau. I think the Giants oughta come out very agressive again. They need to score first.

11 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

That's my worry, too; the Niners defense (Justin Smith in particular) has the ability to do exactly what the Giants defensive line has been doing. Once you get to the QB with your front 4, it completely disrupts every other phase of the game. Justin Smith vs David Diehl scares the bejeezus out of me.

27 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

This. Exactly.

Niners pass D weaknesses are against spread formations and short stuff. That's basically NO's passing game. Niners pass D strengths are against standard formations and deep balls. That's basically NYG's passing game.

30 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

I agree with your point about NO being a more difficult match-up for the SF defense than the Giants. But giving up 32 points with a +4 TO differential isn't exactly strong evidence that this defense can stop any potent offense (not that I'm expecting the Giants to hang 50 points if they don't turn the ball over). I don't really see this as a blowout, more like a 24-16 type of Giants win. My issue was just with Tuccitto's audacious claim that if the small-sample Giants show up it will be a close game and if the large-sample Giants show up SF should win easily. The Giants barely lost when they showed up as a perfect example of the "large sample-size Giants" in week 10. And this time around they'll have Bradshaw. I would have ended the article stating that if the large-sample Giants show up, it should be a great game with an edge to SF, and if the small-sample Giants show up they will probably be heading to the Super Bowl.

I know he's a 49er's homer so that would have been a very difficult ending to write for him. But I can't criticize him too much as this is probably more fair and balanced than if I were to write one about my favorite team.

39 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

Thanks for that last part. I definitely tried as best as I could to be as objective as possible.

I will just clarify, though, that I never said "the 49ers will win easily if the large-sample Giants show up." I just said that, on balance, they have far more large-sample statistical and charting matchup advantages than the Giants do. Wasn't intending for that to come across as "win easily."

If I had to put probabilities on things, I'd say it's something like 85% a very close game that goes down to the wire, 10% a 2-or-more-score SF win, 5% a 2-or-more-score NYG win. Fair?

48 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

I'd swap the big win percentages as well, but that's really quibbling over details. Not to mention that FO has had a consistent view that longterm stats are more reliable that trying to evaluate a team that's on a run, and the longterm numbers do benefit SF. One thing I feel numbers can overlook is reputation. FO shows that the Giants' pass rush is a little overrated. But Alex Smith probably doesn't read FO. So if he believes the Giants' pass rush is something to be feared, it's going to have an effect on the game even if they don't put him on the ground. He could get great protection, but if he stares into the eyes of the JPP, Osi, and Tuck, he could be hurried into a mistake even if it wouldn't show up as a hurry on the stat sheet. I lean toward the Giants mainly because I don't yet believe in Alex Smith against a well run defense. But who knows, maybe he's at the beginning of a Giants-esque run.

Great article though. I put some money down on the Giants earlier this week and you managed to bring a little San Francisco rain to my confidence parade.

9 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

Ah, my Giants.

Possibly the most bizarre team in the NFL over the past few years. It almost feels, at times, that the opponent does not really matter. It can be the best of the best team of all time, and if the Giants are firing on all cylinders, the Giants are going to win. And if the Giants are in one of their funks, the Millen-era Lions would beat them.

A statistical model based on what normally happens simply does not seem to capture this team. Are they just massive outliers, defying the probabilities? And if so-- in which way? Are they defying the probabilities by winning so much when not being that good, or are they defying the probabilities by losing as often as they do despite being a very good team?

I have no clue. I do think getting healthy has played a big part in it. Them suddenly figuring out how to not have dynamic tight ends murder them has been a big part of it. But, frankly, they all just "seem" to the naked eye to be executing better than earlier in the year (excepting Eli who has been mostly great all year, and Cruz who was a monster especially early on).

They are an interesting team. Fun to root for, fun to root against. They're like a box of chocolates; you never know what you are going to get.

13 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

I share in your bemusement with this team. They're like a substance-addled writer or rock star whose day-to-day behavior is erratic and unreliable but who is allowed to continue because of the occasional periods of productivity that generate something wonderful. I'm never confident, just somewhere between hopeful and cautiously optimistic each week that when I turn on television on Sunday I'll be watching the team that seems capable of anything, rather than the team that was pushed around by the Redskins. Twice.

54 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

This has been my problem with the Giants. Since I'm not a fan, and I live in the NY area, and listen to all the barstool logic nitwits around here cheering for how 'great' this team is, it drives me nuts.

I keep pointing out the flaws in their logic, not the least of which is that almost every one of them, when the Giants were 6-6 and 7-7 wanted Coughlin gone. Now every single one thinks the man is some kind of genius.

Frankly, if he's a great coach, 2007 and this year would have to be tossed out. While winning a Super Bowl (particularly against an 18-0 team) is an achievement, the mediocrity of the team's performance in getting there speaks volumes. A single pass interference non-call penalty in the second Philadelphia allows them to sneak into the playoffs and create magic. Magic it was, too! But seriously, a great team? The following year, they had a GREAT team, one which was a lock for the Super Bowl, and they lay an egg in their final few games.

My point being, of course, if Coughlin is a 'great coach' - why does he underperform with his best teams and then start to perform ONLY when Mara tells him his job is on the line? Sounds like a boatload of inconsistency that I don't want at the helm. Who needs the agida?

Good team? Sure, the Giants are good. Possibly very good at times. Certainly their offense has been above average this year. But Manning does have a tendency to revert to the mean over the course of time, too. Applying pressure has a funny way of making him a goofball.

I can't make a prediction in this game because the Giants are just too damn weird. If you're a fan, you're sure they're going to win. If you follow the numbers (which are usually correct over the long haul), you can't assume anything.

But in the NYC area, the laudatory articles which appear lately just make me laugh. These are the same journalists lamenting a lost season only 5 weeks ago, and calling for Coughlin's head.

12 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

Great write up, it seems a little mean to make a 49er fan preview this game but you did a good job through (presumably) gritted teeth.

There is a typo though, I doubt the 49er pass defense is 98th as the table suggests.

15 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

"it would blow my mind if New York runs it as much this week because -- there's no nice way to put this -- the season stats say it's a horrific matchup for them."

This is one of my primary concerns for this game. Coughlin's been talking all week about how important it is for the Giants to be able to run the ball this game. I know it's just talk, but I've listened to him enough over the years to think he actually believes it. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see the Giants begin too many drives with two runs for no gain, followed by third an long. Field position and turnovers are likely to be extremely important but will the Giants' coaches see that in this matchup that is actually more reason for the Giants to pass on early downs, not run, to avoid situations that will lead to turnovers, sacks and three-and-outs deep within their own territory? They should probably utilize short drops and spread the field, but instead we'll see predictable run plays followed by deep drops off of play action fakes that are just begging to be blown up by the pass rush. Even if they make adjustments at halftime, which they sometimes do well, I expect the first half on offense to look similar to the Falcons game. They can't afford to make things more difficult on themselves than necessary, but it's something they have been prone to do.

16 Stopping Vernon Davis

Can the Giants do it? Davis was MVP last week (with a strong clutch support from Alex Smith), and whoever wins has to face Gronkowski in the Superbowl anyway.

How does a defense stop these "matchup nightmare" TEs?

I saw Witten getting a lot of double coverage this year, including one play where 2 LBs lined up right on the line and just stuffed him. That's what I'd try.

42 Re: Stopping Vernon Davis

Well, last week might be an indicator-- the Giants DEs frequently gave Finley big hits at the line, before transitioning to a "keep contain"-style pass rush.

18 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

I'm wondering if Vernon Davis has the skill for it, and Harbaugh the larceny, to steal from Mordor this weekend, and have Davis take handoffs and run between the tckles for a few plays. The Niners could come out with 6 o-linemen, Davis, and three wideouts. They could start with Davis and the wideout spread, and depending on how the Giants react, either give Alex Smith 6 limemen to block the Giants rushers, while perhaps giving Davis a free release and a good matchup. Or, they motion Davis back behind Smith, and maybe get an overload to one side with the six linemen.

29 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

Yeah, they've run a few end-arounds with Delanie Walker, and they line him up in the backfield a lot. Could conceivably run a FB give kind of play just to make the Giants coaches think twice about SF's tendencies with him lined up there.

21 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

DVOA aside, the Giants will be flagrantly flouting historical trends if they win this game:

The 2011 Giants would be the only team that was outscored in the regular season - finishing with a negative point differential at the end of the season - to *ever* make the Super Bowl. They would also be only the third team in the history of the Super Bowl to even make it to the game with a 9-7 (or worse) record (in a non-strike-shortened season) after the NFL switched to the 16-game format, joining the 2008 Cardinals and the 1979 Rams as the only teams in Super Bowl history to appear in the game with fewer than 10 regular season wins in a non-strike-shortened year during the 16-game format. The 1967 Packers went to the Super Bowl with a 9-4-1 record, but that was when the NFL used the 14-game format.

Here's a list of all of the Super Bowl participants, their regular season record, and their regular season scoring differential:

2010: Packers (10-6, +148) def Steelers (12-4, +143)
2009: Saints (13-3, +169) def Colts (14-2, +109)
2008: Steelers (12-4, +124) def Cardinals (9-7, +1)
2007: Giants (10-6, +22) def Patriots (16-0, +315)
2006: Colts (10-6, +67) def Bears (12-4, +172)
2005: Seahawks (11-5, +135) def Seahawks (13-3, +181)
2004: Patriots (14-2, +177) def Eagles (13-3, +126)
2003: Patriots (14-2, +110) def Panthers (11-5, +21)
2002: Buccaneers (12-4, +150) def Raiders (11-5, +146)
2001: Patriots (11-5, +99) def Rams (14-2, +230)
2000: Ravens (12-4, +168) def Giants (12-4, +82)
1999: Rams (13-3, +284) def Titans (13-3, +68)
1998: Broncos (14-2, +192) def Falcons (14-2, +153)
1997: Broncos (12-4, +185) def Packers (13-3, +140)
1996: Packers (13-3, +246) def Patriots (11-5, +105)
1995: Cowboys (12-4, +144) def Steelers (11-5, +80)
1994: 49ers (13-3, +209) def Chargers (11-5, +75)
1993: Cowboys (12-4, +147) def Bills (12-4, +87)
1992: Cowboys (13-3, +166) def Bills (11-5, +98)
1991: Redskins (14-2, +261) def Bills (13-3, +140)
1990: Giants (13-3, +124) def Bills (13-3, +165)
1989: 49ers (14-2, +189) def Broncos (11-5, +136)
1988: 49ers (10-6, +75) def Bengals (12-4, +119)
1987: Redskins (11-4, +94) def Broncos (10-4-1, +91) <- strike shortened season
1986: Giants (14-2, +135) def Broncos (11-5, +51)
1985: Bears (15-1, +258) def Patriots (11-5, +72)
1984: 49ers (15-1, +248) def Dolphins (14-2, +215)
1983: Raiders (12-4, +104) def Redskins (14-2, +209)
1982: Redskins (8-1, +62) def Dolphins (7-2, +67) <- strike shortened season
1981: 49ers (13-3, +107) def Bengals (12-4, +117)
1980: Raiders (11-5, +58) def Eagles (12-4, +162)
1979: Steelers (12-4, +154) def Rams (9-7, +14)
1978: Steelers (14-2, +161) def Cowboys (12-4, +176)
1977: Cowboys (12-2, +133) def Broncos (12-2, +148)
1976: Raiders (13-1, +113) def Vikings (11-2-1, +129)
1975: Steelers (12-2, +211) def Cowboys (10-4, +82)
1974: Steelers (10-3-1, +116) def Vikings (10-4, +115)
1973: Dolphins (12-2, +193) def Vikings (12-2, +128)
1972: Dolphins (14-0, +214) def Redskins (11-3, +118)
1971: Cowboys (11-3, +184) def Dolphins (10-3-1, +141)
1970: Colts (11-2-1, +87) def Cowboys (10-4, +78)
1969: Chiefs (11-3, +182) def Vikings (12-2, +246)
1968: Jets (11-3, +139) def Colts (13-1, +258)
1967: Packers (9-4-1, +123) def Raiders (13-1, +235)
1966: Packers (12-2, +172) def Chiefs (11-2-1, +172)

-67 of 86 (77.9%) Super Bowl teams in non-strike-shortened seasons had a regular season scoring differential of +100 or more.
-86 of 90 (95.5%) Super Bowl teams in *all* years (strike-shortened seasons included) had a regular season scoring differential of +50 or more, with the 2008 Cardinals, 2007 Giants, 2003 Panthers, and 1979 Rams as the only teams with less.

Highlighted in bold are the 5 teams with the worst regular season scoring differential in the regular season. Generally speaking, these are the 5 worst regular season teams to ever play in the Super Bowl: The 2008 Cardinals (+1), the 2007 Giants (+22), the 2003 Panthers (+21), the 1986 Broncos (+51), and the 1979 Rams (+14). Only one of these teams, the 2007 Giants, won the Super Bowl. All of these teams, despite being relatively weak by Super Bowl standards, nevertheless finished the season with a positive scoring differential. The 2011 Giants would finish dead last in this group of weaklings with a -6 point scoring differential in the regular season.

The 2011 Giants, if they were so much as to play in the Super Bowl, would have, by far, the worst regular season scoring differential (at -6) of *any* team to ever play in the Super Bowl in its 45-year history. They would also join the ranks of the 2008 Cardinals, and the 1979 Rams, both extremely weak regular season teams, as the only teams in the 16-game format to make it to the Super Bowl with fewer than 10 regular season wins in a non-strike-shortened season.

What does this mean? It means that the Giants are about to pull off a monumental upset by merely appearing in the Super Bowl, or they are about to succumb to 45-year-old trends and lose to a superior (by record and by scoring differential - the 49ers finished 13-3 with a +151 scoring differential) team before they can appear in the Super Bowl.

24 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

With a +22, a +21 and a +1, all less than 1.5 points per game, and one a mere TD ahead, I would argue this statement is hyperbole:

The 2011 Giants, if they were so much as to play in the Super Bowl, would have, by far, the worst regular season scoring differential (at -6) of *any* team to ever play in the Super Bowl in its 45-year history.

22 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

One question has been bothering me since about halfway through the season:

Will Alex Smith's sudden (and unexpected) success as an (at least) top half QB cause Andrew Luck's draft stock to drop at all? Assuming he goes to the Colts, I don't know if it matters because he seems way like Petyon 2.0: brainy, all the tools, dedicated to his work. But if the Colts don't take him (even though they've all but drafted Luck already), and there's someone out there who for whatever reason is biased against him, pointing at coaching/system seems like a great way to drop him down the charts.

Not that this makes sense, mind you, but I keep wondering.

"When you absolutely don't know what to do any more, then it's time to panic." - Johann van der Wiel

33 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

The idea that the "large sample" Giants are going to show up is wishful thinking by a 49ers fan. No one who has watched this Giants team play could realisticly think that. And on top of that just how bad were the "large sample" Giants. Bad enough to go 6-2. Bad enought to beat the Patriots in their house. Bad enough to win 5 of their last 6 games. The 49ers may win this game but if they do they will have to play better than they have all season. The same might be said about the Giants but that's something they have been doing pretty consistantly as of late.

36 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

Also bad enough to lose 4 straight in the middle of the season to go from near certain NFCE champs to "holy crap, we need to beat the cowboys twice and then get some help from the cardinals (beating cowboys late in the season) to put us in solid contention."

One of the really interesting things about that run from week 10-15(that's as far as I've gotten in my NFL rewind splurge today) is how Eli seems to throw a pick 6 every game; it's just a matter of, does the defender catch it or not?

37 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

just how bad were the "large sample" Giants. Bad enough to go 6-2.

You're making my point for me: If we split out their performances over various stretches of games, we can find either a really good team or a really bad team. This isn't a questioning of your personal motives whatsoever, so don't take it as such, but it's definitely convenient for the argument you're making that the 8-game point of the season coincides nicely with the last win of a 3-game winning streak that was immediately followed by a 4-game losing streak. We can just as easily say they were "the 3-2 Giants," then the "3-0 Giants," then the "0-4 Giants," and finally "the current 5-1 Giants." To be precise, that's average, then very good, then horrible, then elite. It's not "those awesome 6-2 Giants." Hell, if we want to play that game, what about those technically mediocre 5-5 Giants that have showed up after Week 9?

On the flip side, the 49ers -- No. 2 in DVOA variance -- aren't this multiple-personality at all. We basically see the same performance every week.

This isn't to take anything away from the Giants. Over the long haul, they've been on balance a good team per season DVOA. Not an elite team, but a good one. It's just that they're also a highly inconsistent team, and the past 4 games isn't anywhere near large enough of a sample to make definitive statements about which Giants team will show up tomorrow.

46 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

Yes, the Niners have had less variance. I question, however, the utility of a variance metric, in a season with so few games. Play by play metrics do a better job than the drive by drive metrics that are used for college football here at FO, but I still have a tough time thinking that variance measurements have much predictive value in games going forward.

44 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

Do you understand the inherent irony contained in the phrase "pretty consistently as of late", in the context of a season that can last, at the maximum, 19 games, and that has a single game elimination tournament after 16 games? The most consistent team in the history of the game really never demonstrated consistency in the way basketball and baseball teams commonly do.

38 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

I agree that against the Packers the Giants weren't getting a lot of sacks or hurries, especially in the first half.

On the other hand, the Giants were only bringing four and the Pack was keeping extra blockers in to protect Rodgers. While we TV viewers didn't get many looks down the field, it appeared that a lot of people guarding a few receivers, and lots of time Rodgers clearly didn't have anybody to throw to.

I guess the point is that a potent pass rush can impact the game in other ways besides sacks and hurries.

40 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

Plus I don't think that Giant's RBs are good matchups against niners either.
Brandon Jacobs doesn't scare me at all. Jacobs vs Willis? It's too easy for him when hitting a guy that big, you don't have to respect the juke at all.
Bradshaw is a good rb, but our LBs are faster and bigger than him. I'm expecting him to cough it up at least once, who knows if we recover it though.

43 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

I would have to agree with Jason K, as in 2007 this is a different Giants team than what you saw during the season. I would like to note that in 2007, the defense gradually got better. The transformation this year was more sudden, especially with the coverage.

One thing Alex Smith did real well in week 10 was get short passes off behind the LB. Collinsworth kept pointing out how the LBs were not dropping into coverage well. Boley and, I believe Blackburn did not play that game. They make a world of difference with experience and making the right reads. The Giants D run stuffing and coverage is much better than what it was previously. We will see if Harbaugh can make the adjustments.

51 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

"In Week 10, kickoffs didn't play much of a role given that most ended in touchbacks. With 15-mile-per-hour winds in the forecast for Sunday, that'll probably repeat itself, which nullifies the potential advantage New York might have gained with kickoff returner Ted Ginn likely out due to injury. Therefore, if this game gets affected by special teams, it'll likely be due to Andy Lee's ability to pin New York deep in its own territory with regularity."

I don't see how this makes sense. Wind doesn't mean more touchbacks, necessarily. What about if teams are kicking off into the wind? Or if the wind is not blowing in one direction, but rather side to side.

53 Re: NFC Conference Championship Preview

As a Giants fan I can say that this team has been erratic all year. I think a lot of it traces to their particular strengths/weaknesses. Weak pass D, pretty good run D causes the opponents to adopt a more aggressive offense. Extremely weak running game, good passing game means the Giants have adopted a very high risk/high return attack. Both O and D lines have seemed to be weak early in games all year, resulting in the Giants usually falling behind early.

Honestly, I don't think the Giants game last weekend was that much different than their 1st game against GB, with the difference being that last weekend the Pack executed very poorly on offense - and in many instances the Giants had nothing to do with the GB mistakes. So, I think while their may have been a bit of improvement the reality is more randomness in play than anything else.

As much as I'd like to believe that this is 2007 all over again, I haven't seen it yet (and in 2007 I saw it by the end of the regular season).