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Looking Back at the First Giants-49ers Game

What lessons can we learn from the first meeting of the season?

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    History has been a big topic during this Giants playoff run.

    References to 2008 have been running wild since the team clinched the NFC East, last week's game against the Packers conjured up all kinds of memories and now there's a game against a rival from another era in the 49ers.

    It's hard not to think about Leonard Marshall, Matt Bahr and Jeff Hostetler when you think about an NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park.

    But history of a more recent variety is also playing a role. The Giants and 49ers played in Week 10 this season, a game that the 49ers won 27-20 when their defense held in the final seconds with the Giants knocking on the door.

    In the days leading up to Sunday, it is only natural to look at that game for some clues about how this contest is going to play out.

    Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com is also doing that and he concludes that the Giants were the better team that day, even if the scoreboard didn't reflect that fact at the end of the game.

    It's a hard point to prove and not an easy one to defend. That game featured two teams who were about as closely matched as you could hope to find in a football game.

    Big Blue is certainly a more complete team than the 49ers, but that's hardly a guarantee of anything in the NFL. San Francisco's defense is good enough that there isn't going to be anything easy for the Giants on offense, a situation which makes it really hard to just slap the better tag on the Giants and wait for the celebration to begin.

    The Giants gained more yards on offense, but they gave up big plays on defense and there isn't a Giants fan alive who isn't aware of how much that can swing a game in your favor. All season long the Giants have won games because their star players made plays at key moments, but it was the 49ers who did that back in November and they won the game as a result. 

    In a lightning span of the fourth quarter, the 49ers took over the game. Vernon Davis scored a long touchdown, Carlos Rogers picked off Eli Manning and Kendall Hunter ran through a beleaguered Giants defense to turn a 13-12 Giants lead into a 27-13 49ers advantage.

    But that was a very different Giants defense than the one we have in front of us now. It wasn't as healthy, they were still refusing to admit they needed the help Chase Blackburn has provided at linebacker and both things cost them heavily.

    The Giants pass rush was ineffectual, giving Alex Smith time to make plays in the air and he made them to Davis and Delanie Walker because the Giants linebackers couldn't stop either tight end. Davis is going to be a crucial player on Sunday and the Giants will need to do a much better job of stopping him this time around if they hope to come away with a win.

    Ahmad Bradshaw missed the game for the Giants and they weren't able to benefit much from the running game, but there was a useful lesson to use from their commitment to it. Running the ball 29 times, even though they averaged just three yards a pop, meant that the 49ers pass rush had to slow down.

    Of course, rookie Aldon Smith was still getting used to the NFL at that point in the season and he's been on a tear of late. Smith has 7.5 sacks in his last six games and has added depth to his game that wasn't there in the first matchup.

    That's not the only change in the 49ers since November. Frank Gore got hurt in that game and the 49ers began to rely more on Alex Smith that day and in the weeks that followed as a result.

    He had his ups and downs, but the 49ers emerged with a quarterback they believe in and a quarterback who believes in himself.

    Smith engineered seven fourth quarter comebacks this season, including last week's thriller, and Giants fans who have loved Manning's ability to turn disaster into victory have to appreciate what it means to a team to have that kind of option in their back pocket.

    So with the Giants defense improved, Gore healthy and a fair chance of inclement weather this time around, what can we really take away from that 27-20 Niners win? For starters, we know that the notion of the better team doesn't much matter over 60 minutes. 

    It goes back to which team's best players make the big plays. This really doesn't figure to be a one-sided game in either direction so it will come down to who comes up big in the heat of the moment. 

    We know both teams are capable of doing it, so we've got no choice but to wait for Sunday to find out whose number comes up.

    Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter and he is also a contributor to Pro Football Talk.

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