Six weeks ago, the San Francisco 49ers played the New York Giants at Candlestick Park in the first "Game of the Decade" this decade. Sunday the same teams will play for the NFC championship in the same stadium in the second "Game of the Decade" this decade.
Except this time they'll be different teams.Both the Giants and 49ers have new looks on offense and improved versions of defenses, which are rated second and third, respectively, in the NFL.
In most respects, these are evenly matched teams, as they were Dec. 3 when the Niners held New York to 221 total yards in a 7-3 win, a struggle that went beyond offense and defense.
"Whenever we play, it's a matter of will against will, man against man," said 49ers tackle Bubba Paris.
Both teams will have different men at their disposal Sunday who will significantly affect this game's outcome.
First and foremost is the installation of Giants backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who replaced injured Phil Simms three games ago. A career backup, the seven-year veteran adds a dimension to the Giants that was missing in December. While Simms is the far superior passer, Hostetler is a rambling man who can pressure defenses in his own way.
Returning is massive tackle Jumbo Elliott, whose 6-foot-7-inch, 305-pound presence was missing in Game 1. He will hold a 45-pound advantage over defensive end Kevin Fagan and should improve the running game the Giants live by.
Conversely, New York will have to face the Niners without rookie running back Rodney Hampton. He will be replaced by slowing veteran Ottis Anderson and fullback Maurice Carthon, and that is nearly as big a minus as Elliott is a plus.
The Niners, meanwhile, will have new weapons of their own with the return to full health of wide receivers John Taylor and Mike Sherrard. That allows San Francisco to fully attack New York's second-rated defense with three- and four-wide-receiver sets.