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NFC Championship Preview: Power of Balance

I see the 49ers defense as a group of guys who kind of loosely hang around with bounty-hunter guilds in the off-season. They seem a little too tough to mingle with normal society, so they might go on a run with Dog and his wife or just kick back and watch some NBA with Boba Fett. To remain as fierce as they have all season long, they probably can't allow themselves but three calendar days of soft living. Imagine a biker gang in pads and you're somewhere near that San Francisco D. A fearsome, lethal bunch.

San Francisco has good defensive scheme, but it's their fits that make them the best. On every level, they have the prototypical 3-4 personnel that as a group emphasize walloping everything in their way. The front three are lead by the crazed beer-drinking coon dog, Justin Smith. This guy plays with a speed-boat engine and just pushes linemen backward, nothing fancy in his game. As a rookie, Smith was effective in Dick LeBeau's scheme, but Marvin Lewis brought the 4-3 with him, and Big Justin never played as well. Now he is back where he belongs playing with the size and attitude of a young grizzly bear.

The 49er pass-rush is a game-changer though because of the other Smith, rookie Aldon Smith. The outside speed-rusher is long, has good individual moves and can track down quarterbacks out of the pocket—like he did to Drew Brees last week. Mix Ahmad Brooks into the picture and you have yourself a pair of large, fast pass-rushers blazing around the edges.

If the opposing quarterback, in this week's case Eli Manning, does get the ball off when dropping back to pass he and his receiving corps are face perhaps an even greater threat. Carlos Rogers has transformed into the first-round butterfly that Washington and many others envisioned all those years ago. His marked success in his first year with San Francisco shows yet again how important fitting into the right scheme is for defensive backs. Perhaps more than any other position, veteran cornerbacks prove to be late-bloomers with a new team. Rogers has excellent man coverage skills which is crucial to a blitz-heavy scheme and he tackles well in run support. He is insulated with two jaw-breaking hit-men safeties, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson, who roam well with instinct and ill-intentions. Crossing slot receivers beware: dem boys can hit!

And finally, it wouldn't be fare to omit the interior line-backing tandem of Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. Willis is lauded with thick gobs of praise for excellent reason. For my money, he's the best defensive player on the planet and he is the absolute lynchpin to the best defense in the league. Yet Bowmen is following in those exact footsteps and has learned from the best how to emulate the best. These men are like attack dogs against the run. Running backs might as well be made of bacon.

The Ravens still have their cast of pirates and the Steelers are always gonzo enough to hurt anybody at any time, and the Texans look like hell-on-wheels for years to come, but it's the Niners that get their man in the end.

Yet after all of that, I think San Francisco will lose to the New York Giants in Sunday's NFC Championship Game. The Giants are a team hanging ten on a tidal wave of momentum. Every phase is humming right along and Eli knows exactly what he's doing. The G-Men may sputter every now and then against the biker gang previously described, but like the Saints, New York will still finds its way into the end-zone eventually. The Giant receiving trio of Mario Manningham, Victor Cruz, and the ever-dangerous Hakeem Nicks, not to mention the wild-card Jake Ballard at tight end, are a focused group that have made the explosive plays for the past five or so weeks. If NYG does get comfortable throwing, they can then open their stables and let their horses run roughshod. Even though they are often absent from the best-offense conversation, they are a complete and balanced unit with a knowledgeable and confident leader under center.

Since the Giants should put up at least 20 points, San Francisco will then have to counter with their own big plays, which is where they could struggle. They certainly have playmakers, but how many times will the secondary fall over itself and allow a Vernon Davis touchdown like what happened last week? It makes the most sense to force the inconsistent 49ers receivers to win and take away Davis by crowding him in underneath zone coverage. New York can afford zone coverage because the Giant pass-rush is so reliable. Jason Pierre-Paul is a long-limbed freakazoid who might get 25 sacks in a season someday. There are sometimes question marks about how interested he is in football, but his stock is still soaring nonetheless. He and his mates have the strip-sack down to a science, and Alex Smith will need help from his Pro-Bowl studded line.

The 49ers line puzzles me a bit. I know they are absolute 18-wheelers when run blocking but in the games I've seen, they give up a lot of pressure and sacks to blitz-heavy teams. The Ravens got them on Thanksgiving for nine sacks. The Saints had four, three on safety blitzes last week. Alex Smith has shed the shitty-quarterback label for now, but there are very few who like his odds of winning if he's repeatedly crashed to the ground on every passing attempt. We know SF will run the ball well, but to keep up on the scoreboard, Alex Smith will need time to throw down field, and that is where they lose.

Giants 24, 49ers 13

Mojokong-By Roger Craig's Ghost!