Kragthorpe: N.Y. Giants must keep playing tough defense to reach Super Bowl
Team's theme • The Giants believe they're on a playoff roll, much like the run that took them all the way to the championship in the 2007 season.
How they got here • New York went 9-7, winning the NFC East title by beating Dallas in Week 17, then pounded Atlanta 24-2 and defeated Green Bay 37-20 in the playoffs.
Super Bowl-bound if • Their defense keeps hounding the quarterback and stuffing the run and quarterback Eli Manning keeps playing at an elite level. They really do resemble the team that beat New England in the Super Bowl four years ago.
Homeward-bound if • The NFL's No. 27-ranked defense allows 49ers quarterback Alex Smith time to throw and gives up 27 points, as happened in mid-November in San Francisco. Among the keys is forcing field goals; kicker David Akers scored the 49ers' first 12 points that day, before the offense finished two drives in the second half.
Biggest variable • New York's running game. If backs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw get going against the 49ers' tough front seven, the Giants will have a chance to control the game. Jacobs was held to 55 yards on 18 carries in that 27-20 loss in November.
Best player • Osi Umenyiora, defensive end. When healthy, he's been a terror this season. Umenyiora recorded nine sacks in nine regular-season games and is the key figure on a defensive line that's built to rush the passer. He posted one of the Giants' two sacks in that regular-season meeting.
Best player you've never heard of • Victor Cruz, receiver. You should know him by now, but he was unknown going into this season. A University of Massachusetts product, Cruz appeared in only three games last season before emerging with 82 catches for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011.
Local connection • Offensive assistant Kevin Gilbride Jr. was a BYU quarterback for one year, before transferring to Hawaii. His father is the Giants' offensive coordinator.
Reasons to cheer for them • The Giants embrace the opportunity the NFL's playoff format presents, playing their best football at the right time. A victory in San Francisco might create a rematch of what many observers say was the greatest Super Bowl ever staged in February 2008 in Glendale, Ariz.
Reasons to cheer against them • Thanks to that stunning victory, the Giants have won a championship lately unlike the 49ers, who have not appeared in a Super Bowl in 17 years. And does Manning really deserve more championships than his brother, Peyton?
Tribune columnist Kurt Kragthorpe introduces the NFL's conference finalists.
Today • New York Giants.
Previously • Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots, San Francisco Giants.