Looking for an x-factor in this weekend’s NFC Championship clash between New York and San Francisco? Look no further than 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. The much maligned former No.1 overall pick, who resurrected his career under the guidance of first year head coach Jim Harbaugh, could be the key to Sunday’s game. Smith has been exceptional most of the season, but he has produced a few ugly games, which means the Niners, who enter the conference finale as a -2.5 against the spread favorite, will need to be air tight in all other areas to help Smith bring his ‘A’ game.
Alex Smith had experienced just about everything, at least from a negative standpoint, since his NFL debut in 2005, but all of that changed this season with the arrival of Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh immediately expressed confidence in Smith, a man who had played under two three different head coaches (counting interim Tomsula) and six offensive coordinators in his first six years in the league.
The constant upheaval combined with Smith’s own health woes prohibited the Seattle native from reaching his full potential, a prospect Harbaugh seemed to embrace rather quickly. His faith paid dividends as Smith threw for 3,144 yards, 17 touchdowns, and just five interceptions while producing a career high 90.7 passer rating. The result of those numbers? San Francisco’s first winning season since 2002.
Okay, the credit does not rest solely with Smith, certainly Harbaugh’s leadership and the Niners suffocating defense played a major part in the team’s resurgence. Without Smith’s turnaround, though, San Francisco would not have approached the 13 wins it earned in route to the NFC West title. Furthermore, without a solid performance this weekend from the Utah product, the team will not secure a spot in Super Bowl XLVI.
The drop-off in Smith’s play in the Niners three losses was glaring. In those setbacks he threw two touchdowns (0.67 average), two interceptions (0.67 average), completed 59.3 percent of his passes, threw for an average of six yards per pass, and produced a 74.2 quarterback rating. In San Francisco’s 14 wins Smith threw 18 touchdowns (1.3 average) to just three interceptions (0.21 average), he completed 62.5 percent of his passes for an average of 7.46 yards per pass, and he posted a 96.9 quarterback rating.
Any player is prone to the bad game but the difference in those numbers leads one to believe there were other factors involved besides just Smith. And there were. In the Niners three losses they allowed an average of 6.7 sacks and 10 quarterback hits. The other 14 games? San Francisco allowed an average of two sacks and 4.1 quarterback hits.
So, while Smith is an x-factor, the offensive line is as well. When given time to operate Smith has proven himself a solid decision maker; however, when pressured, like most quarterbacks, his performance falls off a cliff. This does not bode well for Smith nor the Niners in Sunday’s matchup with the Giants.
This is not the same New York defense Smith faced in mid-November, just ask Aaron Rodgers. The Giants are playing a better brand of defense across the board, but they are also getting after the quarterback with greater efficiency. During their current four game win streak the Giants are averaging three sacks and 5.8 quarterback hits per game.
San Francisco has also flirted with disaster just a bit lately, which could be a result of its play upfront. Despite winning their last four games, the last three contests have produced a disturbing trend with the 49ers giving up an average three sacks and 6.3 quarterback hits per game. The increase in those numbers has been reflected in the Niners margin of victory. In its first 11 wins San Francisco won by an average of 14.7 points per game, but its last three wins have been by an average of 4.3 points.
In other words when you combine Smith, the Niners offensive line, the Giants overall defensive improvement, San Francisco’s slumping margin of victory, and New York’s pass rush into one, well, a huge x-factor emerges and it points directly toward a Giants cover.
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New York Giants vs San Francisco 49ers 2012 NFC Championship Game Picks: Provided by TopBet.com
New York Giants +2.5 (-110), Over 42.5 (-110), +115 (Moneyline)
San Francisco 49ers -2.5 (-110), Under 42.5 (-110), -135 (Moneyline)