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49ers vs. Giants preview: Would a strong defensive performance even matter?

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On the surface, it might feel like the San Francisco 49ers’ primetime matchup with New York Giants represents a relative break from the Steelers-Cardinals-Packers gauntlet of the past three weeks. But if you haven’t been paying close attention, the Giants are probably a little better than you think. Tom Coughlin’s squad enters with a 2–2 record, but it’s not a stretch to say the Giants should probably be undefeated.

After a Josh Brown field goal — from the 1-yard line, which was an awful decision at the time, but that’s another story — put the Giants up 26–20 with 97 seconds to play in the season opener against the Cowboys, Pro-Football-Reference put their win probability just shy of 99 percent. Tony Romo promptly marched 72 yards down the field for the game-winning touchdown. The following week against the Falcons, New York’s win probability sat at 71.3 percent with just over two minutes to go. Then the Giants thought it might be a good idea to put single coverage on Julio Jones, and um, that didn’t go so well. Two plays later, Devonta Freeman punched in the game-winning score from two yards out.

Those late-game collapses matter, of course, and those losses are banked. However, close losses aren’t predictive. Considering the Giants’ level of play leading up to those moments, it doesn’t take a significant leap in logic to imagine a couple of plays down the stretch going differently, changing the narrative surrounding this team significantly. And when you look at New York’s underlying performance, it’s clear the Giants have been better than their .500 record portrays them.

New York followed up their 0–2 start with convincing double-digit victories over Washington and Buffalo, two teams that have looked much better so far than most expected. Those wins give the Giants a plus–20 point differential, which is the league’s 10th-best figure through four weeks. Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics put the Giants in similar standing. The Giants have posted a DVOA of minus–0.6 percent or better (0.0 percent is league-average performance) in each of their four games — indicating New York has been playing well even in their losses — and currently sits 11th in overall DVOA on the season.

Dominance of the turnover and field position battles have been at the core of New York’s performance so far this season. The Giants have forced eight takeaways on defense while only coughing the ball up twice on offense. That’s good enough for the second-best turnover differential per drive in football, trailing only the Panthers.

It certainly takes a mental adjustment to think of an Eli Manning-led offense as being good at taking care of the football, but Manning has made notable strides in this area under offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. Niners fans will remember Eli’s five-pick performance against San Francisco last year, but that game accounted for more than one-third of his interception total on the season (14) and was his only multi-interception game after Week 2. Eli’s interception rate in 2014 (2.3 percent) was his lowest since 2008, and it took him 143 attempts to throw his first pick of 2015, which finally came last week in Buffalo.

It’s also a bit surprising that New York’s defense has been able to create turnovers as frequently as they have so far. The Giants have been without their best defender in Jason Pierre-Paul, and had massive question marks at linebacker and safety coming into the season. Nevertheless, the Giants have forced a turnover on 18.6 percent of opponent’s drives, the fifth-highest rate in football. When you combine that high turnover rate with excellent starting field position — the Giants’ defense has started drives with an average of 79.9 yards at their backs, the most in football through four weeks — you’ve got a recipe for keeping points off the board.

That doesn’t bode well for a 49ers offense that has been generous with giveaways and has struggled to move the ball. New York boasts the NFL’s best run defense through four weeks, so unless Colin Kaepernick and the passing game figures things out in a hurry, yardage will be tough to come by once again for this team.

There’s some reason to think the 49ers defense can repeat their impressive performance from last week. Eric Mangini had a great plan for the Packers and their west coast offense. Giants offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo spent eight years on Mike McCarthy’s staff before taking his current job in 2014, and his offense is similar to McCarthy’s in many ways. And like the Packers, the Giants have a pair of offensive tackles who struggle in pass protection. Eli Manning gets the ball out as quickly as any quarterback in the league, but Aaron Lynch & Co. should be able to bother him in the pocket.

Ultimately, even if San Francisco’s defense keeps the Giants below their 25.5 point per game average, it won’t be enough unless they start scoring points as well. San Francisco’s offense has been abysmal, and barring some drastic changes in their approach and much improved play from Kaepernick, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be able to get things going this week against a Giants defense that matches up well with them.

PREDICTION: GIANTS (–7) over 49ers

ON THE SEASON: 3–1

Spread comes from the consensus line at VegasInsider.com.