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.