Not even last year’s Super Bowl champion version of the New York Giants did what this year’s Giants did on Sunday at Candlestick Park.
Last season, New York used a few lucky breaks to barely get by the San Francisco 49ers on the road, in overtime, to reach Super Bowl XLVI, eleven weeks after coming up just short in a close loss on the same field.
This time, there was no doubt, as five different Giants recorded a total of six sacks while New York (4-2) picked off quarterback Alex Smith (19-for-30, 200 yards, four sacks) three times and running back Ahmad Bradshaw carried 27 times for 116 yards and a touchdown to help Big Blue score the last 26 points over the final three quarters, in a 26-3 thrashing of the 49ers (4-2).
"The statement made, is that we're here to stay," said Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz (six catches, 58 yards, one touchdown).
As Cruz alluded to, the ease with which the Giants controlled the last three periods sent a clear message that New York is still a very strong force to be reckoned with in the chase for this year’s Super Bowl berth out of the NFC.
Prior to hosting the Giants, the 49ers had been considered more of a favorite in that regard along with Atlanta (6-0), especially after steamrolling their way to successive victories, winning 34-0 at the New York Jets and beating the Buffalo Bills at home, 45-3, while becoming the first team in NFL history to rush and pass for at least 300 yards in the same game.
The 49ers couldn’t complete the clean sweep of the NFL’s triumvirate of New York teams though, as they went from a pair of 12-play trips on their opening two drives, to not being able to run more than three plays on their next six possessions.
San Francisco moved 59 yards on the game’s opening drive only to see kicker David Akers miss a 43-yard field goal, but on their next possession, they marched 61 yards to take a 3-0 lead on a 42-yard field goal by Akers with two minutes left in the first quarter.
After punting their first two drives, the Giants’ offense was set up by cornerback Prince Amukamara’s first pick of the season, at the New York 33-yard line.
Three plays after that, wide receiver Domenik Hixon (4 catches, game-high 78 yards) made a brilliant leaping, turning catch while falling backwards, for a 39-yard gain to the 49ers’ 24-yard line before quarterback Eli Manning (15-for-28, 193 yards, one touchdown) connected with Hixon for another 16 yards three plays later. Manning then fired a bullet of a pass over the middle to Cruz on the next play, to put the Giants up for good, 7-3, with 10:04 left in the first half.
Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul then forced a three-and-out with the first of his two sacks, and Manning completed a 16-yard pass to wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (three catches, 44 yards) to again move New York into San Francisco territory, but the Giants were held to the first of four field goals (in five attempts) by kicker Lawrence Tynes, who booted a 34-yard kick to extend New York’s lead to 10-3 with 2:56 to go before halftime.
Completions of 26 yards to Nicks and 14 yards to Hixon, who did a sensational job of getting his hand under the nose of the ball to keep it off of the ground, got the Giants back into field goal range on their next possession, but Tynes had a 40-yard field goal attempt blocked with 11 seconds left in the half.
That left enough time for last year’s Super Bowl hero, wide receiver Mario Manningham (five catches, 72 yards), to burn his former team on a sliding 36-yard reception from backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick (4-for-7, 82 yards, two sacks). The play gave Akers a shot at a field goal, but he missed just to the left as the half ended.
Rookie first-round draft pick, running back David Wilson continued to make a name for himself as one of the league’s best kickoff returners this year, taking the opening kickoff of the second half 63 yards to the 49ers’ 32-yard line.
After a Manning completion of nine yards to Cruz, Bradshaw ran for 11 yards and then four yards, before finishing the short trip with a one-yard touchdown run, the first rushing score allowed by the 49ers in 14 home contests against a running back in Bradshaw, who became the first 100-yard rusher in the last 23 San Francisco home games. The score gave New York a 17-3 lead and control of the game, 3:12 into the third quarter.
Safety Antrel Rolle then grabbed the first of his two interceptions on consecutive 49er possessions, as Smith threw behind Manningham. Returning the ball 20 yards to the 49ers’ 12-yard line, Rolle gave his team a golden opportunity to blow the game open, but again, the Giants stalled and settled for a 30-yard field goal by Tynes that pushed their lead to 20-3 with 9:51 remaining in the period.
Again, Smith misfired on third down though, and Rolle was there once more to return the ball 22 yards to the San Francisco five-yard line.
But, New York still couldn’t punch the ball in the end zone, and instead got a 22-yard field goal from Tynes with 6:10 left in the quarter, to lead 23-3.
Smith tried to bring the 49ers back, leading wide receiver Randy Moss (two catches, 75 yards) on a 55-yard reception up the middle, but another Pierre-Paul sack, this time on Kaepernick, pushed San Francisco back to the Giants’ 40-yard line, and the 49ers ended up turning the ball over on downs.
Each team then punted twice before New York embarked on the game’s longest drive, going 73 yards on 13 plays, while eating up nearly half (7:10) of the fourth quarter to have Tynes close the scoring on a 32-yard field goal with 1:56 left in the game.
Fittingly, Kapernick was sacked on the 49ers’ final offensive play, and all that was left for the Giants was to reflect on a job well done. "I think this is our most complete game all year long," Rolle said.
Meanwhile, New York starting defensive end Justin Tuck chose pointed to how things went for the Giants and 49ers last year, saying, “We’re 4-2, that’s the only statement we made… we came here last year and lost [in the regular season], and we were the team that ended up being the team that won the Super Bowl, so the only thing that this says to us is that we can play with the best teams in the NFC, they are one of those teams, and we expect them to be right there at the end of the year, and… we’ve just got to continue to get better.”
That respect was mutual on the other side, as demonstrated by the comments of 49ers’ Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers, who was in charge of trying to stay with Cruz. "[Our] coaches always let us know that we're not the kings of the NFL,” said Rogers. “The Giants are. They won a title last year and they're still that team to beat until somebody wins the Super Bowl."
In the rematch of last year’s NFC title game, the Giants certainly made it seem like that “somebody” could ultimately be themselves.
Head coach Tom Coughlin, who noted of his squad, “We’re a good football team and we came out here with great purpose. [Our] players were very excited about playing this game,” passed Giants coaching legend Bill Parcells for second place on the franchise’s all-time regular seasons victories list with his 78th regular season win with his current team.
New York (which thanks to Philadelphia losing at home to Detroit on Sunday, is in sole possession of first place in the NFC East), will next host Rogers’ former team, the Washington Redskins (3-3), who despite winning just five games all of last season, swept their two meetings with the Giants a year ago. Kickoff between the Giants and Redskins is set for 1 pm ET next Sunday, at MetLife Stadium.