(Reuters) - The New York Giants have enjoyed plenty of playoff success on the road, but their good fortunes will be tested in Sunday’s NFC title game against a San Francisco 49ers team that has lost just once at home all season.
There are many ways to get to the Super Bowl and the Giants are once again taking a long and winding road, but it is a path they are familiar with having followed a similar route to the National Football League’s (NFL) title game four years ago.
That year, the Giants won an NFL record 11 straight road games and became just the third team to post three consecutive road playoff victories capped by a Super Bowl upset of the unbeaten New England Patriots.
The Giants launched this post-season at home with a win over the Atlanta Falcons, then headed to frosty Lambeau Field last week and eliminated the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers to set up Sunday’s showdown with the hard-hitting 49ers.
As comfortable as the Giants are on the road, Candlestick Park has been a fortress for the 49ers, whose only loss this season was a 27-24 overtime defeat to Dallas in September. Among the 49ers eight home victories, including playoffs, was a 27-20 victory over the Giants in November.
”They (Giants) are a healthier team than when we played them, this is a Super Bowl contending team,“ San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters. ”That’s who they are. They are a class team, a cruel team. They don’t give you things.
“You prepare the best you can to strive to be better and go out and give it everything you have and see if that is good enough.”
A Giants win would give Eli Manning five career road playoff victories, the most of any NFL quarterback, and put Tom Coughlin into a tie for the most by a coach with seven. But the real prize is a spot in the February 5 title game against the winner of the AFC showdown between the Patriots and Baltimore Ravens.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with being comfortable on the road,” said Giants safety Antrel Rolle. “It has to do with mindset, how we approach, how we attack the game ... It has everything to do with our approach that day.”
While Manning and Co. impressed against a Packers defense that allowed an NFL-worst average of 411.6 yards per game in the regular season, the stakes and the challenge rise against a ferocious Niners defense that is among the league’s very best.
The 49ers surrendered an average of 14.3 points a game during the regular season with only the Pittsburgh Steelers allowing less (14.2), but it is the punishing way that San Francisco plays defense that has brought attention and praise.
With rules tilted towards offence, the 49ers give-no-quarter style of defense is seen as throwback to a time when smashmouth football was in vogue and receivers and quarterbacks were fair game.
San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith displayed some unexpected offensive flair in the 49ers’ divisional playoff win over the New Orleans Saints but the his team’s success has been constructed around preventing touchdowns more than scoring them.
After seeing off the Saints, the Niners have turned their sights on Manning and a Giants offense that is hitting its stride with both the passing and running game.
The Giants will attack the San Francisco defense with a quick strike attack built around Manning and flashy receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue