It's been about 4½ months since the NFL kicked off the 2011 season in Green Bay where the Packers hosted the New Orleans Saints. As the season progressed, it appeared those same two teams would close out the NFC portion of the playoffs with a rematch in the conference championship.
A rematch is on for Sunday's NFC Championship, but an upset and a thriller this past weekend made sure it won't be the Saints and Packers. Instead of a battle between those offensive juggernauts on the potentially frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, a meeting between more defensive-minded clubs is in store on what is forecast to be soggy turf at Candlestick Park.
The San Francisco 49ers (14-3 straight up, 12-4-1 against the spread) provided the thriller with Saturday's 36-32 victory over the Saints. Not to be outdone, the New York Giants (11-7 SU, 10-7-1 ATS) pulled off the upset on Sunday, a 37-20 triumph against the defending NFL champion Packers. Champions of the NFC's West and East Divisions respectively, the Niners and G-Men will meet in San Francisco on Sunday evening (6:30 p.m. ET) with FOX providing the broadcast. The contest is the second between the clubs this campaign following a 27-20 win for the 49ers in Week 10 on this very same field, but before we look at that game in more detail, a quick review of the just completed division round of the playoffs is in order.
Technically, both games this past weekend qualified as upsets, though you might be hard-pressed to find a majority of fans who would agree that San Francisco's win at home meets the criteria of a surprise despite getting three points from NFL oddsmakers. Those who saw the game are too busy talking about the exciting conclusion to the 49ers-Saints contest to be thinking much about the pointspread.
It is understandable why the ending is a huge topic of conversation around the water cooler this morning. The Saints and 49ers combined for 34 points in the fourth quarter, exactly half of final scoreboard tally of 68 that went well 'over' the closing 46-point total. Field goals, long pass plays and a quarterback sweep for 28 yards by San Fran's Alex Smith were all part of the back-&-forth nature during the final 15 minutes.
Lost in the closing stages of the game was a 10-point swing between the two clubs in the first quarter. New Orleans opened things with a long drive that ended inside the 49ers five when Pierre Thomas was blasted by Donte Whitner that forced the first of three Saints fumbles on the afternoon. That not only cost the Saints at least three points, it was also the last we saw of Thomas who never returned to the game.
About eight minutes later, Drew Brees threw the first of two first-half interceptions with Dashon Goldson returning the pick inside the New Orleans five. Three plays later, Alex Smith connected with Michael Crabtree to put the Niners up 14-zip.
New York's triumph made the grade as an upset in every sense of the word. The Giants scored the outright win as 8½-point underdogs, did so on the road, and took out the Super Bowl champs who just a few short weeks ago looked to be on their way to a perfect season. Not bad for a Giants team that was given up for dead around Thanksgiving.
Just as the Saints' five turnovers played a huge role in their loss to San Francisco, Green Bay's four giveaways proved fatal in the defeat at the hands of the Giants. New York's defense took Aaron Rodgers and the Packers out of their game, sacking the Green Bay quarterback four times, picking him off once and forcing 20 incomplete throws – many of them drops by his receivers – after Rodgers had been accurate on over 68 percent of his passes for the season.
Meanwhile, Eli Manning and Hakeem Nicks were enjoying a huge day for the Giants. Manning completed 21-of-33 tosses for three touchdowns and 330 yards, exactly half of those yards to Nicks who hauled in seven passes for 165 yards and a pair of scores.
Oddsmakers have pegged San Francisco as 2½-point favorites for Sunday's NFC Championship, with the total sitting at 43-43½ depending where you shop. Those numbers are very close to the lines in the Nov. 13 meeting between the two at Candlestick where San Fran closed as 4-point chalk with 43 for the scoreboard tally.
That clash shared a few similarities to the 49ers-Saints contest from Saturday, starting with most of the scoring coming late in the game as all four touchdowns went on the board in the final 17:25. The game also turned in San Francisco's favor thanks to a Giants turnover, and it ended with the 49ers keeping New York off the scoreboard after the G-Men reached the red zone.
Sunday will mark the 13th time the 49ers have appeared in the NFC Championship, and first since losing at home to the Packers in Jan. 1998. San Francisco is 5-7 in the previous 12 appearances. The Giants are in their fifth conference title game and have won all four of their previous tries, most recently in Jan. 2008 when they topped the Packers in overtime at Lambeau Field, 23-20.
The teams last met in the playoffs during the wild-card round of the 2002 postseason when the 49ers overcame a 24-point deficit to beat the Giants in a wild 39-38 affair.
The weatherman is currently calling for a 70 percent chance of rain in San Francisco on Sunday when the thermometer should be in the low-50s for kickoff.