Niners, Giants can win playoff games with defense, just like good old days

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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During Divisional Weekend, Aldon Smith helps turn The Year of Offense (and Drew Brees) on its head. (AP)  
During Divisional Weekend, Aldon Smith helps turn The Year of Offense (and Drew Brees) on its head. (AP)  

There's something wonderfully refreshing about the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers making it to the NFC Championship Game, and it has nothing to do with history, continental divides or unpredictability. Nope, this is all about the NFL returning to normal, and let me explain in one word.

Defense.

Both clubs excel at it. Both clubs rely on it. Both are in the NFC title game because of it, and hallelujah. In a season where there were three 5,000-yard passers and as many 300-yard performances as cheeseheads at Lambeau Field, it's a relief to know that someone can restore sanity to the NFL by winning big games with defense.

And that someone is the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants.

Yeah, I know, both drew on outstanding performances last weekend by their quarterbacks, with the 49ers' Alex Smith gaining attention long overdue for his remarkable play in the closing minutes of San Francisco's 36-32 upset of New Orleans.

But Smith didn't drive the 49ers to the playoffs. The NFC's best defense did, holding opponents to an NFL-low 23 touchdowns and forcing a league-high 38 takeaways.

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It's one thing to put up numbers. It's another to stand behind them, and I don't know that I've seen a defense this season that tackles better, is caught out of position less or hits harder than San Francisco's, and I call Pierre Thomas to the witness stand. He's the poor guy who got crushed at the goal line on New Orleans' opening possession, suffering a concussion and the first of the Saints' five turnovers with it.

"We've got a great defense," linebacker NaVarro Bowman said Saturday after the victory. "We feel like we can stop anyone."

They should ... because they have. Not only did they knock down mighty New Orleans, they took down Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees, too. But so what? The 49ers have been down this road before. They beat Super Bowl MVP Ben Roethlisberger in December and Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning the month before. Heck, they even overcame Detroit's Matthew Stafford -- who, like Brees, threw for 5,000 yards this season.

Now I know what you're thinking: How can you credit a defense that allowed 435 yards passing and surrendered 32 points? I'll tell you how: When the 49ers absolutely, positively had to have stops in the third quarter after their offense ground to a halt, the defense did not fail them. In fact, on all but five of New Orleans' 16 possessions, the San Francisco defense shut down the Saints.

I'll take those averages.

"We like to think we play defense the right way," San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "We play physical. We play with our hands. We run to the ball. We don't try and do anything too fancy, although we do have our changeups here and there. We try to play defense the old-fashioned, hard-school way."

But so do the New York Giants. They upset a Super Bowl MVP last weekend, too, pulling down the defending Super Bowl champions with him. The Giants defense didn't produce the numbers this season that San Francisco did. In fact, they ranked a dismal 27th in overall defense, 29th vs. the pass and 25th in points allowed.

But so what? That was then, and this is now, and now the only defense you would compare to these guys is the one it will face Sunday.

The Giants always have been about lockdown defense, but not this season. In fact, not until December did the unit seem to come around, and talk about perfect timing. The Giants are on a four-game roll, allowing only six touchdowns in that time, and do the math. That works out to 12 points a game, which most of the time translates to victory.

It has for Big Blue, which outscored its past four opponents 121-50. No question, quarterback Eli Manning has been sharp, but the Giants wouldn't be where they are without improved play from defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's players.

They can rush the passer -- they've sacked their past four opposing quarterbacks 17 times. They can stop the run, with Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers the leading rusher of their past four opponents (66 yards). And they can stop the pass, with quarterbacks producing more turnovers (seven) than touchdown passes (five) in the past four games.

It is the Giants secondary that has made the most dramatic progress, with the game at Green Bay its best performance. The longer Rodgers looked downfield for an open receiver, the more he was driven to run for first downs. Frustrated and atypically erratic, he wound up with only one pass completion of more than 20 yards ... and it was 21.

But that's what stands out about these guys. They don't surrender The Big Play. You can look it up. Over their past four games, there have been exactly three gains of over 20 yards. One was a 34-yard catch by Laurent Robinson. The two others were 21-yarders.

And that's all, folks.

That should tell you something. It tells you the NFL is back on track, and it's about time. The league is all about entertainment these days, and nothing entertains like offense. But defense can be entertaining, too, and if you don't believe me, you weren't listening to the overflow audience at Candlestick Park.

"It's the loudest I've ever heard our stadium," linebacker Patrick Willis said.

Wait until Sunday. The 49ers and New York Giants are more than two closely matched ballclubs that weren't expected to last this long. They're an anomaly in today's game in that each can beat you on both sides of the ball.

But isn't that what football is supposed to be about? I know one place it will be this weekend, and thank goodness.

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