One seemed destined to be a star from birth, blessed with the genes from an NFL quarterback in Archie Manning.
The other faced immediate questions coming out of a spread offense in college at the tender age of 20 and was tasked with filling the shoes of Joe Montana and Steve Young.
While their NFL careers certainly have their own unique paths, neither Eli Manning nor Alex Smith, who were chosen No. 1 overall in consecutive drafts, have been a stranger to adversity en route to today’s Giants-49ers showdown in the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park. The winner advances to the Feb. 5 Super Bowl in Indianapolis.
“To be [Colts QB Peyton Manning’s] little brother, No. 1 pick, you go to New York, playing for the Giants,” Smith said of Eli. “Obviously, that’s a lot of pressure. I don’t think anyone’s been in the situation he has.”
The comparisons to Peyton have been constant for Eli, but the younger Manning does already have a Super Bowl title under his belt, matching Peyton, and continues to put up solid performances in the playoffs. He’s thrown three touchdowns in each of the Giants’ two playoff wins this season, four of them to receiver Hakeem Nicks, putting his team on the doorstep of another trip to the Super Bowl.
“This is where you want to be,” Manning said. “We always talk about finishing and playing your best football at the end of the season. And that’s what we’re doing right now.”
Smith, the No. 1 pick in 2005, had a career year under rookie coach Jim Harbaugh, throwing 17 touchdowns to just five interceptions. His breakout performance last weekend against the Saints, where he led two fourth-quarter comebacks in the thrilling 36-32 divisional playoff win, could prove to be career defining.
But Smith had to endure coaching changes, coordinator changes, booing from fans and second-guessing from the media to get to this point. Now, he’s 60 minutes from leading the 49ers, who are 4-3 all-time in the postseason against the Giants, to their first Super Bowl since 1995 and the sixth in franchise history.
“Alex, he’s a strong individual,” said tight end Vernon Davis, who Smith found with the game-winning TD pass against the Saints with nine seconds left. “He’s been through a lot. He’s been up, he’s been down, but he still managed to just hang tough, hang tough and fight through everything. I knew one day that he’d have success, but I didn’t know it would come this fast.”
A big step in Smith’s turnaround came when the Niners beat the Giants 27-20 in the regular season on Nov. 13. Smith threw for 242 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He also added 27 yards on the ground in a game where Frank Gore finished with no yards on six carries before leaving with an injury.
His counterpart, Eli, threw for 311 yards and two touchdowns, but also tossed two costly interceptions. The turnovers have been another knock that has followed Eli throughout his career. He threw 16 picks this season after a career-high 25 in 2010.
“They’ve been stung by criticism, sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly,” Harbaugh said of Manning and Smith. “They handle it within their own personality. They either do or they don’t. They either rise above it or it pulls them down. I think you’re talking about two guys that have all the wiring, all the make up, all the fortitude of all the best that have played this game from that standpoint.”
NFC titles (season): 5 (1981, 1984, 1988, 1989, 1994)
Super Bowl titles (season): 5 (1981, 1984, 1988, 1989, 1994)
Regular season record: 13-3, won NFC West Division
NFC playoff seeding: 2
How they reached NFC championship: Bye in first round of playoffs; Beat New Orleans Saints 36-32 in divisional round
New York Giants
NFC titles (season): 4 (1986, 1990, 2000, 2007)
Super Bowl titles (season): 3 (1986, 1990, 2007)
Regular-season record: 9-7, won NFC East Division
NFC playoff seeding: 4
How they reached NFC championship: Beat Atlanta Falcons 24-2 in wild-card round; Beat Green Bay Packers 37-20 in divisional round.
Three keys to a 49ers victory
1. In the 49ers’ regular-season meeting with the Giants, running back Frank Gore carried six times for no yards before missing most of the second half after tweaking a knee. The Niners can’t afford for that to happen again. While Kendall Hunter and Alex Smith combined for 67 yards rushing in that game, Gore needs to be a part of the offense. His ability to chew up yards and keep New York quarterback Eli Manning and his talented receiving corps off the field is pivotal. If the Niners can establish some kind of a running game, it should also take some of the pressure off Smith.
2. Alex Smith turned in a career game last weekend against the New Orleans Saints and has a chance to have a similar performance against a suspect Giants secondary. The Giants gave up 255.1 yards passing per game in the regular season, fourth most in the NFL. In order for Smith to repeat his feat, he’ll need to remain upright. Protecting Smith will be key for the 49ers to generate consistent scoring drives. The Giants’ ability to pressure the quarterback with just their front four is what makes them tough to beat.
3. The strength of the 49ers this season has been the defense. But the past two games, they’ve given up at least 27 points. In order to reach the sixth Super Bowl in franchise history, San Francisco needs to limit the big plays New York makes. Led by receiver Hakeem Nicks, the Giants have made countless game-breaking plays in the passing game this postseason. As they showed last week, the Niners’ secondary can be vulnerable at times, something it can’t afford today.
CARLOS ROGERS VS. HAKEEM NICKS
Both teams have grown and changed since the 49ers’ 27-20 victory over the Giants at home in Week 10. That includes Nicks playing by far his best football of the season in the playoffs. Rogers had two interceptions in the first meeting.
PATRICK WILLIS vs. AHMAD BRADSHAW
Bradshaw missed the regular-season against the Niners and it showed, as the Giants averaged just 3.2 yards per carry. Bradshaw’s speed and quickness is the perfect complement to brusing back Brandon Jacobs. Willis and the Niners’ linebacking corps will need to limit the yards the Giants gain after contact.
JOE STALEY VS. JASON PIERRE-PAUL
This one could be worth watching all day. Staley is develping into one of the league’s elite left tackles. His athleticism, evidence by a 17-yard reception earlier this year, for a 315-pounder gives him an edge over other tackles. Pierre-Paul is about as dangerous a player there is coming off the edge. His 16½ sacks were fourth-most in the NFL. — Staff, wire reports