By Sam McPherson

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse for the 2015 San Francisco 49ers, it might just be getting that. Coming off a 17-3 loss at home to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers must travel across the country to New Jersey in Week 5 to take on Eli Manning’s New York Giants on Sunday Night Football.

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NFL schedule makers were not kind to San Francisco this season. We’re only four weeks into the young season and this will be the third time the 49ers will be facing a Super Bowl winning quarterback, the second of four consecutive contests. The Niner’s defense is being rebuilt, what worse way to break in the new guys than to face a slew of champion QBs? The 49ers lost in Week 2 to Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, and after this matchup on Sunday night, they get to play host to Joe Flacco’s Ravens followed by Seattle’s Russell Wilson. At least Tom Brady and the New England Patriots aren’t on the schedule this year.

Season Record

After an 0-2 start where they lost both games late by a combined five points, the Giants have recovered to win two consecutive games by double digits. Giving up last-minute touchdowns to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1 and the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2 didn’t stop New York from trouncing the Washington Redskins in Week 3 and the Buffalo Bills in Week 4. The Giants defense has gotten better every game, in terms of points and yards allowed.

Meanwhile, Manning is limiting his mistakes on offense and helping New York average more than 25 points per game so far this year. Considering the 49ers’ ineptitude on both offense and defense (at times) this season, nothing about this matchup looks good right now for San Francisco.
Giants on Offense

Manning is what makes the Giants offense work, although he isn’t enough on his own. The New York running backs are struggling, that may give the 49ers a chance to shut down the run and force Eli into making mistakes: Three main running backs have combined for just 332 yards on 99 carries so far this year.

However, Manning does have some excellent targets for his passes, that could cause problems for the San Francisco defense as we’ve seen the last three games. Wide receivers Odell Beckham (24 receptions, two touchdowns) and Rueben Randle (14 receptions, two touchdowns) are big targets, and tight end Larry Donnell (15 receptions, one touchdown) often is open, too, after defenses try to smother the wideouts.

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Giants on Defense

As noted above, the New York defense has improved every week of the season so far. The Giants have five interceptions and five sacks total through four games, and the 49ers will have to make sure to limit both kinds of mistakes in Week 5. The secondary is strong with cornerbacks Prince Amukamara (21 tackles, one interception) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (11 tackles, one fumble recovery return for a touchdown), not to mention safeties Brandon Meriweather and Landon Collins (16 tackles each).

The front seven isn’t as imposing as the units that led the Giants to those improbable Super Bowl wins in 2007 and 2011, and that’s a good thing for San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running back Carlos Hyde. Defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins leads the team with two sacks, and the defense overall has forced five fumbles.

Giants Players to Watch

Beckham may have supplanted Manning as the face of the offense with his Internet-sensation catches, but the QB is still the straw that stirs this New York mixture. If the 49ers can rattle Eli, they have a chance to win the game. After all, he has led the NFL in interceptions three times during his career; not exactly what you’d expect to find in the stat line of a two-time Super Bowl MVP, especially since he is nowhere near his big brother Peyton in his prime. The Giants haven’t had a winning season since 2012, and if San Francisco wants to win this one, putting tons of pressure on Eli is the key to victory.

Outlook

The 49ers got to Aaron Rodgers for a few sacks in Week 4. Even though Manning has only been sacked four times in four games, San Francisco has the pass rushers to put pressure on him. The key for the San Francisco defense is shutting down the running game, something the Giants’ previous four opponents have done that well enough. The big issue here is road performance and preparation: The 49ers were blown out early and decisively by Pittsburgh and Arizona, they must now avoid that kind of slow start in New Jersey.

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Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.