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Ancient rivals ready

Giants-49ers a classic matchup

Alex Smith believes execution is the key to victory today. Alex Smith believes execution is the key to victory today. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)
Associated Press / January 22, 2012
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SAN FRANCISCO - The Giants boasted a physical, intimidating defense with athletic linebackers and stout linemen capable of stifling the NFL’s most productive offenses. San Francisco featured a high-powered passing attack led by an eventual Hall of Fame quarterback in his prime with receivers capable of turning short passes into big gains.

When the San Francisco 49ers host the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game tonight for a shot at the Super Bowl, the matchup conjures memories of a previous era of this great rivalry - even if the roles are somewhat reversed.

The elite quarterback now is New York’s Eli Manning, who connects on big plays to Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz in similar fashion to how Joe Montana and Jerry Rice did it for the dominant Niners in the 1980s.

San Francisco’s current front seven, led by relentless defensive lineman Justin Smith, rookie pass-rushing specialist Aldon Smith, and fierce linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, resembles that old Giants group with Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson.

And who could have predicted this surprising pairing?

The Giants (11-7) toppled defending champion Green Bay, 37-20, last Sunday when everybody figured the road to the Super Bowl would go through Lambeau Field. Instead, New York is traveling West to San Francisco to face the upstart 49ers (14-3).

Jim Harbaugh’s “mighty men’’ as he calls them stunned Drew Brees and the favored Saints, 36-32, when Alex Smith hit Vernon Davis for the winning 14-yard touchdown with 9 seconds remaining.

The 49ers and Giants showed it’s anybody’s game come playoff time.

“Look at last week, I think everybody thought the road was going to go through Lambeau,’’ said Smith. “I think everybody assumed the NFC Championship game was going to get played there and look what happens. These teams at this point, everybody’s as good as each other and it’s all going to come down to how you execute on that day. We’re all capable of beating each other, that’s for sure.’’

Smith and Manning each orchestrated five fourth-quarter comebacks during the regular season, yet Manning missed in a 27-20 loss at San Francisco Nov. 13 when Justin Smith batted away his last-ditch pass on fourth down in the waning moments.

“This is about the NFC championship,’’ said Manning. “It’s an opportunity to get this win and go on to the Super Bowl. We played them once before. We know they’re a good team. There’s no denying that.’’

Niners long snapper Brian Jennings is the only one left on either side from San Francisco’s last trip to the playoffs in January 2003, when the 49ers rallied for a stunning 39-38 comeback victory over the Giants at Candlestick Park. San Francisco also had beaten New York during the regular season that year.

There’s rain in the forecast for today as the 49ers look for their first trip to the NFC title game since the 1997 season.

New York is riding its own impressive roll.

Manning threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns against the Packers as the surging Giants won their fourth straight game.

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