With the possibility of heavy rains forecast for Sunday’s NFC championship game in San Francisco, the prevailing assumption is that the run-first San Francisco 49ers would have a distinct advantage over the pass-first New York Giants.
However, looking deeper, that might not necessarily be the case.
As of late Friday morning, it seems that mother nature might be leaning more towards the Giants’ favor.
While rain should remain steady in the Bay area on Friday, it’s expected to lighten up on Saturday, and current projections are calling for only a 40 percent chance of showers – rather than a driving rain – and relatively low winds of about 14 miles per hour for Sunday’s 3:30 pm PST kickoff.
That should be an edge for New York, which has the superior quarterback in Eli Manning over San Francisco’s Alex Smith, and the more dangerous receivers in big-time playmakers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz over San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis.
While heavier rain would of course make it more difficult to throw the football, even if the rain is lighter as present forecasts indicate, the Giants could actually receive a benefit.
Receivers always know where they’re going on the field, and on poor footing, it’s tougher for defenders to react and move with them.
That could mean trouble for the 49ers’ defense, which also relies on its terrific speed at the defensive end and linebacker positions, but which could be slowed at those positions while trying to get to Manning on a less than ideal track.
The answer for the 49ers would be to keep the ball on the ground with running back Frank Gore, who severely limited by injuries in the teams’ Week 10 meeting on the same field, had no yards on six carries as New York outgained San Francisco 93-77 on the ground.
This time, Gore will be healthy, and probably more like the back who gained 1,211 yards during the regular season to rank sixth among all NFL running backs.
But, if Smith can’t match Manning’s success through the air though, the Giants’ defense will be able to key on the run and could slow Gore enough to keep the 49ers from sustaining long drives and staying with New York’s offense on the scoreboard – especially when Smith has been sacked 48 times in 17 games this season, including nine times in one game (in a loss at Baltimore), along with five other games in which Smith was sacked at least four times (one of those occurred last week, in San Francisco’s divisional round win over New Orleans).
Now healthy, New York has one of the best – if not the absolute best – defensive lines in the league when it comes to applying pressure on an opposing quarterback. Even hampered somewhat by bad field conditions, the Giants should be able to continue the trend of exposing the 49ers’ porous protection of Smith.
In contrast, for all of the perceived issues with the Giants’ retooled offensive line this season, one of the reasons that Manning has enjoyed the best season of his eight-year career is that he has often remained upright, having been sacked far less than Smith (30 times in 18 games).
If given ample time to throw, Manning could provide more of what was seen last week in San Francisco, when the 49ers allowed little deep against the Saints, yet allowed a bunch of yardage through the air, underneath. That’s something which Giants could certainly exploit, particularly if the 49ers’ pass defenders are having trouble with staying stride for stride with Manning’s receivers.
So, while the natural inclination is that the team with the more dominant running game would have a big edge over the team with the better passing attack on the type of sloppy, muddy, wet field that could be seen at Candlestick Park this weekend, bad weather might instead help the sun shine on the Giants’ season in helping them return to the Super Bowl.