Who has it better than the San Francisco 49ers?
At first glance, nooooobody, just as the Niners’ season-long rallying cry says.
As they head toward their NFC championship game showdown with the New York Giants on Sunday, the 49ers appear to have it all.
A stout, playoff-ready defense. The home-field advantage. A storybook season.
And, of course — did I already mention this? — the home-field advantage.
In New Orleans this week, carnival season has arrived. But nobody is in any mood for a parade.
The heartbreak from the NFL Saints’ final-minute, 36-32 loss in San Francisco only got worse last Sunday when the Giants knocked off the conference’s No. 1 seed, Green Bay.
Had the Saints not spotted the 49ers a 17-0 lead, had their No. 1 rusher Pierre Thomas not been knocked out of the game by a helmet-to-helmet cheap shot at the 2-yard line on the game’s opening drive, had New Orleans safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper not allowed tight end Vernon Davis to run free in the final four minutes, the Superdome could have been hosting the NFC title game this weekend.
And when the Giants and Saints met in the Superdome in late November, New Orleans piled up 577 yards and routed New York 49-24.
So I ask again — who has it better than the 49ers?
History tells us that the home teams don’t always win NFL conference championship games. But it’s still the smart way to bet.
The No. 1 seed in the NFC, playing at home, has won 13 of the past 20 championship games. Overall 8over the past 20 seasons, NFC and AFC home teams have a title game record of 25-15. The home team has won five of the previous seven NFC championship games.
But among the recent exceptions were the 2007 New York Giants, who dashed all the way to the NFL title as road warriors. No home games.
The Cowboys won the NFC East that season with a 13-3 record, but the 10-6 Giants beat them in the divisional round. That was the infamous Bye-Week-in-Cabo game.
The Cowboys haven’t been to a conference championship game in 16 years.
Under coach Jim Harbaugh, meanwhile, a struggling, underachieving San Francisco franchise turned its fortunes around in his first season.
Don’t misunderstand. The 49ers may have ridden the tide of serendipity last week against a better New Orleans team, but they are no fluke.
They may well have the league’s best specialty teams. Punter Andy Lee averaged a ridiculous 50.9, and field goal kicker David Akers made 44 of 52.
The Giants still grumble, though, over their 27-20 loss to the Niners in November. New York coughed up a fourth-quarter lead on a short punt and an interception, and then receiver Mario Manningham let a would-be game-tying 42-yard touchdown pass go through his hands.
As the Giants have been saying this week, they felt they moved the ball well enough to win in that earlier game in San Francisco. They outgained the Niners, 395 yards to 305, and they converted on 9 of 17 third- and fourth-down plays.
The defeat launched a four-game plunge for New York, but it took care of that by beating the Cowboys twice in the season’s final four weeks.
The Giants now have won four in a row and they’re feeling that 2007 postseason road-warrior momentum again.
“It’s just the idea of us against the world,” defensive end Justin Tuck told reporters this week. “It’s just a mindset that’s been instilled in us since coach (Tom) Coughlin got here.”
As the Giants have shown during their streak, Tuck and the defensive line have turned up the furnace on opposing quarterbacks. They may not run the ball for large chunks Sunday but, unlike the Saints, who were left with third-stringer Chris Ivory, the rushing threat should still be there.
After the opening, turnover-fueled burst against the Saints last week, the Niners were outscored 832-19. At home. On their next nine possessions after being handed a 17-0 lead, San Francisco gained just 90 total yards.
Too late for the Saints, but it speaks volumes for how the Niners probably will struggle offensively against the Giants.
The deciding matchup should be the quarterbacks, the 49ers’ Alex Smith and the MVP of Super Bowl XLII, Eli Manning.
Who, outside of San Francisco, would pick Smith over Eli?
Who has it better on the road than the New York Giants?
Gil LeBreton is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram