The New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers have had plenty of legendary battles through the years. There was the infamous NFC Championship Game in 1991, won 15-13 by the Giants on a field goal as time expired. A fumble by the 49ers’ Roger Craig set the stage for an upset after Hall of Famer Joe Montanatook a beating from the Giants’ defense and left the game midway through the fourth quarter.
In recent times, there was the January 2003 playoff game at Candlestick where the Giants blew a 24-point lead and lost on a controversial field goal attempt. Nine years later, the rivals met again in the NFC Championship Game, a 20-17 overtime victory setting the stage for New York's second Super Bowl upset against the Patriots.
Overall, these two heavyweights have met each other in the playoffs eight times since 1982. They’ve won nine Super Bowls during that span, becoming two of the NFL’s most successful franchises. Typically every game between them has a chance to make history.
Except for this one.
The two teams enter Sunday’s contest with a combined record of 1-16 this season. The battle is not who will win on the field; instead, it’s who can lose, tanking to earn the number one pick in next year's draft.
These two bad teams come into the game with different mentalities. The 49ers, armed with a rookie head coach and starting quarterback have played hard but are outclassed at virtually every position. They’re 0-9 but show signs of heading in the right direction under head coach Kyle Shanahan (above, right).
The Giants, meanwhile, have struggled to put in the effort after a year with playoff aspirations quickly turned south. The 51-17 drubbing by the Rams last Sunday, coming after a bye week left multiple Giants players claiming to the press head coach Ben McAdoo has “lost the locker room.” Will the others on the team use that as a rallying cry, coming together through adversity or is that a warning shot for a sea change within the Giants organization during the offseason?
New York at San Francisco
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 12 at 4:25 p.m.
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Giants -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Which Giants team will show up?
The New York media market has been dominated this week by stories surrounding the Giants “giving up.” A bombshell ESPN story published Wednesday had two Giants telling a reporter that head coach Ben McAdoo has lost the locker room over decisions surrounding the team. According to these veterans, the team “quit” during Sunday’s game over a series of complaints regarding fines, suspensions, and practicing on Saturdays at 80 percent.
The team was already in bad enough shape before these players threw their coach under the bus. Others, including safety Landon Collins disputed the reports, angry the players wouldn’t name themselves in public or try and work their issues out internally. Reports surfaced later in the week where the Giants had to assure sources they won’t make an in-season change at coach or general manager.
But it is becoming increasingly clear, in the midst of one of the team’s most disappointing seasons that McAdoo is on shaky ground. The very secondary that supported McAdoo in the press is the same one where two players have been suspended one game for bad behavior. What side are they really on?
Sunday could be a clear indication as to whether the team truly wants to try and keep their coach or not. The Rams are a potential playoff team; the 49ers? Far from it. A win on the road should easily be in reach for this group despite a rash of injuries on offense and problems in the secondary.
And if they fail to show up against a winless program? McAdoo’s fate might be fully sealed, leaving the final seven games as little more than a lame-duck effort.
2. Who will be a playmaker in the Giants' offense?
While it’s not a surprise, the biggest storyline from this lost Giants season is how the offense changed once Odell Beckham Jr. went down with his ankle injury. Since Beckham has gotten hurt, no Giant has had a 100-yard receiving performance in three games. Rookie tight end Evan Engram, pulling in a touchdown in each of those contests, has been the only bright spot.
Engram, on his own, has totaled up 212 yards since Beckham went down. That’s nearly more than the entire corps of Giants receivers and running backs combined The rest of them have mustered just 270 yards, many of them on short-yardage plays as the Giants just haven’t been able to find other offensive threats.
Some of the blame has been shouldered on Eli Manning and there was some talk Sunday of him being replaced later in the season by rookie David Webb. But it hasn’t been Manning’s fault, playing with minor league-level receivers and a leaky offensive line. Running back Orleans Darkwa does show a shade of potential but the Giants are often down so early it’s impossible to run the ball.
Even against the lowly 49ers, someone has to step up besides Engram. San Francisco has held opposing tight ends to only three touchdowns, one of the few things it has done right during this difficult year.
Which receiver on the Giants' roster can step up? Manning is at the point in his career where he needs some of the talent around him to help tip the scales. He won’t do it on his own.
3. Can the 49ers close out a game?
For being a 0-9 team, the 49ers have played hard and put themselves in position to win a few games. Four of their nine losses this year have come by three points or less. They came just short against a similar rebuilding team, the Indianapolis Colts, falling 26-23 in overtime.
One of the hardest things for a young, up-and-coming team to do is learn how to close out games. Rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard, fighting for a job himself after Jimmy Garoppolo was acquired via trade has to have a mistake-free performance if the game stays close entering the fourth quarter. A greater reliance on running back Carlos Hyde to make plays would certainly help. The offense should also get tight end George Kittle involved; the Giants have given up a TD to opposing tight ends every game this season.
The 49ers have the defense to keep games close over the NFL’s second half, including Sunday against a hapless Giants offense. It’s whether they’re mentally in position to turn around their minus-three turnover margin and play a clean game when it matters most.
We’ve seen these broken locker room stories so many times in sports over the years. How many times have they ended well? Just a year-plus after Tom Coughlin left as Giants head coach, the team appears to be in disarray. While some players stepped up in the press, supporting Ben McAdoo late in the week there’s enough dissention here that you see the bad ending coming a mile away.
The 49ers, meanwhile, have been waiting for an opportunity like this one. It could cost them the No. 1 pick in the draft but with Jimmy Garoppolo now on the roster, do they really need it? Expect San Francisco to come out swinging after a few tough weeks to give the Giants — and their coach — a fatal blow.
Prediction: 49ers 24, Giants 10
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Kyle Shanahan photo courtesy of Getty Images)