It's the 49ers and New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game with a ticket to the Super Bowl on…
Confidence bordering on cockiness for Giants
Antrel Rolle doesn't come from the coach Tom Coughlin mold for the Giants. There's a touch of Jets coach Rex Ryan in him. The safety says what's on his mind and he doesn't care if it irritates an opponent, even if Coughlin doesn't approve of the message.
And that brings us to Sunday's NFC title game in San Francisco.
The only way the Giants (11-7) don't beat the Niners (14-3) and advance to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis is if they beat themselves, a cocky Rolle said Monday, a day after New York ended the Packers' hopes for the second straight NFL title with a 37-20 win in Green Bay.
The victory was the Giants' fourth in a row and clearly this is a team that is playing its best football after a season marked by inconsistency. Eli Manning and his brigade of receivers continue to make play after play, while the defense is once again harassing quarterbacks and slowing down potent offenses in the process.
It is 2007 all over again, the year the Giants made a late season run to their third Super Bowl title.
''We are not going to be denied,'' said Rolle, who was not a member of the team that beat the then-undefeated Patriots in February 2008 for the championship. ''We are not going to be denied at this point. We understand what we have as a team. It's not all talent, it's about chemistry and we are jelling at this point. Coaches and players being one the same page at the same time. We have one mind, to win a championship.''
When asked if the Giants were unstoppable after following a 24-2 win over the Falcons in the wild-card with the throttling of the Aaron Rodgers and the Packers (15-2), Rolle didn't hesitate.
''We don't want to say we are unstoppable,'' said the six-year veteran who appeared in a Super Bowl with the Cardinals in 2009. ''Our mindset is extreme at this point. We are not going to be denied, that is our mindset. I may be a little biased, but in our minds we know we can't be beat. That's the approach we are taking week in, week out.''
The way the Giants are playing, it's hard to argue with Rolle.
In the past four games, the Giants have outscored their opponents 121-50. Opponents have been limited to 22 points in the postseason, and that total should have an asterisk. The Falcons got two points when Manning was called for illegally grounding a ball in the end zone and the Packers' two touchdowns came on drives where questionable calls by the officials kept both drives alive.
''We believe the only people who can stop us is us,'' punter Steve Weatherford said. ''I'm just speaking from the mood in the locker room, from the confidence we have. As a punter, it's not like I control the game as much as these guys, but as a punter I have more time to notice things and, for me, it's a confidence thing right now. We have incredible personnel and that incredible personnel is being very productive right now. It starts with our D-line and quarterback, when those guys are rolling, it's tough to stop us.''
Linebacker Michael Boley, whose return to the lineup in early December helped get the defense back on track, said there is no mystery why the Giants were beaten 27-20 in their trip to Candlestick Park on Nov. 13. They lost turnover battle, gave up two big touchdown plays and saw San Francisco recover a surprise onside kick to set up a field goal.
Even with all that, the Giants had a final drive stall at the San Francisco 10 when Justin Smith battled down a fourth-down pass by Manning.
Like Rolle, Boley believes the Giants control their destiny.
''No doubt about it,'' said Boley, who had nine tackles and two sacks on Sunday. ''That has been shown throughout the course of this year. All the games we lost, we lost. It's not like one team came in here and absolutely killed us or there was no way we were going to beat them. We beat ourselves.''
Veteran defensive end Dave Tollefson doesn't think the Giants are being brash. He said this is a very focused team. He saw it on the plane ride home from Green Bay. Guys were already watching film on San Francisco.
''This journey isn't over,'' he said when asked if players took time out to celebrate. ''You just have to keep going. Everybody else around you is going for it, so you have to keep moving forward.''
Having another shot at the Niners is bonus.
''''To be the best, you have to beat the best,'' Tollefson said. ''So we are heading to San Francisco to play the best team left in the NFC playoffs. We're excited and it's going to be great. Whoever wins that game is going to the Super Bowl. You can't beat that.''
THE GIANTS WEREN'T SUPPOSED TO BE in this position considering that as late as the 14th game of their regular season they had a 7-7 record and were teetering on the brink of missing the post-season for a third straight year.
However, someone forgot to tell Coughlin's resilient group that.
"We knew what we were up against, and I thought we did an outstanding job," said Coughlin of the challenge posed by the Packers. "The game was kind of a back-and-forth for a long time, and you never think you have enough of a lead, but we were able to push some late scores in."
Those late scores included 17 fourth-quarter points in the game's final 7:48, which was more than enough for the Giants to seal the deal. New York never trailed in the game.
The Giants' defense was also solid, if not spectacular, holding Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to just 26 of 46 pass attempts for 264 yards, with none of his completions going for more than 21 yards.
"We just boosted it up a notch," said defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. "We just came out here and played even higher than we were supposed to, at another level and that's all that really counts. Everyone played as one."
The Giants also sacked Rodgers four times and came up with four turnovers, two of which the Giants converted into 10 points.
"The turnover margin was huge," said Coughlin, whose team only had one turnover, an interception thrown by Eli Manning when he was under heavy pressure. "We talk about that all the time, but in the playoffs, the turnover margin is often the indicator of success."
New York's happy locker room could be heard singing, "California, Here I Come" after Sunday's upset win.
"We will look forward to studying the 49ers right away," Coughlin said. "I'm sure that based on (the 49ers') great win (against New Orleans), that we'll have our hands full as we get started this week."
Coughlin smiled when asked if his team was playing its best football right now.
"I think we're a dangerous team," said the normally reserved Coughlin. "I like where we are. I like our attitude. I like the way we're playing."
THE PLAYOFFS HAVE A WAY OF BRINGING out the pedigree in NFL quarterbacks. Simply take a look at the fingers of Manning and Tom Brady to recognize it.
Brady has three Super Bowl rings, with another taken away by Manning and the Giants in 2008. Both have their teams on course for a reprise of that memorable title game.
Standing in their way are two inconsistent QBs seeking to fill out their own championship resumes: Joe Flacco of Baltimore and Alex Smith of San Francisco.
Based on their histories and the way they have performed this season, Brady and Manning overmatch Flacco and Smith. When things have gotten tight for New England or New York, the quarterback often has provided the winning edge.
''The team revolves around him,'' Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez said of Brady. ''When he comes to play, which he mostly does every game, then we're going to be on fire, and when he's ready, we're all ready.''
Ditto for Manning. Even when the Giants hit a four-game slide that jeopardized making the playoffs, he stood out.
''He's just been great,'' said receiver Victor Cruz, who had a breakout season with Manning throwing to him. ''He understands the defense, he understands what we can see on every single down and every single coverage and he's just making the right reads and really hitting people when the time is right.''
The time certainly is right. For a decade, it's been Brady time once New Year's Day hits. In early 2008, it also was Manning time. Now it is again.
Smith finally has become comfortable in San Francisco thanks to new coach Jim Harbaugh's guidance and confidence in the seven-year veteran. The 49ers are efficient on offense with a strong running game behind Frank Gore, and a tight end, Vernon Davis, who displayed all his skills in a sensational playoff debut against New Orleans.
To expect Smith to trade throws with Saints star Drew Brees was unthinkable, yet there he was, making clutch pass after clutch pass in the late stages of Saturday's thrilling win. If he's capable of a similar performance against the Giants, it would enhance San Francisco's chances immeasurably.
''He deserves all this,'' Gore said of Smith's revival. ''He's had some tough times. But I always believed he could play at this level. We have the right people leading us. And he's got the right people leading him.'' Leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl means beating Manning and the Giants. The Niners did it in November when Smith made just enough key plays. That's been his style this season, a style Manning once adhered to.
Now, Manning is as much a playmaker as his older brother, Peyton, has been. Or as Brady is.
Indeed, another title will give him the championship lead in his family, adding yet another shiny achievement to Eli's resume. But he'd still be behind Brady.
For now, Smith and Flacco can only wonder if they have what it takes to grab the ring.
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