49ers

Defense May Prove Key In NFC Title Game

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San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis (52) breaks up a pass intended for New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80), left and Aaron Rodgers (12) of the Green Bay Packers gets sacked by Jason Pierre-Paul (90) and Michael Boley (59) of the New York Giants. (Getty Images)

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis (52) breaks up a pass intended for New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80), left and Aaron Rodgers (12) of the Green Bay Packers gets sacked by Jason Pierre-Paul (90) and Michael Boley (59) of the New York Giants. (Getty Images)

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SAN FRANCISCO (CBS News) — Defense could be the key as the New York Giants head to San Francisco to battle the 49ers for the NFC title.

The Giants have embraced a road warrior mentality that worked at Lambeau Field, where they humbled the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers 37-20 last Sunday. They hope to have it for one more game when they head to Candlestick Park this upcoming Sunday.

“I think we’re a dangerous team,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “I like where we are and how we’re playing.” Why not? Eli Manning threw for three touchdowns for the second consecutive week.

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So now it’s on to San Francisco, where the Giants lost 27-20 in November. But the Giants also lost to the Packers during the regular season.

The 49ers won a classic this past weekend, rallying to beat the New Orleans Saints 36-32 with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith to Vernon Davis with 9 seconds remaining.

CBS Sports columnist Ryan Wilson points out that the 49ers beat the Saints at their own game: they forced turnovers and then turned them into points.

“Embattled quarterback Alex Smith had to wait almost seven years, but he’s finally playing like a first-round draft pick, and he out Drew Brees-ed Drew Brees during the final four minutes of Saturday’s Divisional game,” Wilson writes.

The 49ers now must lean heavily on their strong defense and hope that Smith can continue his mistake-free, inspired play at quarterback.

In their last meeting, 49ers’ All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith batted down Manning’s pass in the closing seconds to preserve a win over the Giants. That started New York on a downward spiral of four consecutive losses.

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But the Giants have found a pass rush and a running game, Manning has maintained his sizzling pace in his best season, and they have gotten healthy. They’ve won five of six, including two playoff games.

“We went down there earlier this year and we didn’t get it done, we fell short,” receiver Mario Manningham said. “But I think we’re going to go back and watch what we did wrong and just come back and do the right things.”

According to Wilson, mistake-free football will be at a premium for the Giants in the NFC championship matchup.

“That means that offensive line has to protect Manning, he has to make great decisions, and everybody has to keep two hands on the football at all times,” Wilson says, “because the 49ers’ defense will swarm and strip, in that order.”

San Francisco has done nearly everything right in a turnaround season under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. The 49ers are extremely efficient with perhaps the best tackling defense in the league led by four All-Pros — linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, cornerback Carlos Rogers and Smith — and ball-hawking skills that allowed them to lead the NFL with 38 takeaways.

Same thing on offense, with a league-low 10 turnovers.

“It’s a lot better than traveling to Wisconsin. More importantly, we’re playing a team we’ve already faced,” Rogers said. “It’s not as hard as preparing for another team we haven’t faced yet.”

The difference in pedigree for the quarterbacks is so large, though, that it could swing the edge to the Giants.

“Guys understand the way to win football games against good teams,” Manning said. “Our defense is playing great with pressure and turnovers. Our offense for the most part is protecting the ball and playing smart football. When we have a chance to make a big play we are making them.”

(© 2012 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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