EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — The NFC title game was the low point for the New York Giants' offensive line last season.
While Tom Coughlin's team won the contest and went on to win the Super Bowl, most of the linemen recall it was the game they let quarterback Eli Manning down, literally.
Or as guard Kevin Booth put it: the game the line almost got "Eli killed."
Manning was sacked six times and hit six other times in the 20-17 overtime victory. The exhilaration of winning was coupled with more than a certain amount of soreness walking off the field. His uniform bore the signs of the attack: grass stains, mud and anything else that was on the field.
When the Giants (3-2) meet the 49ers (4-1) in San Francisco on Sunday in their first matchup since the conference championship, protecting Manning will be the No. 1 priority for Pat Flaherty's offensive line.
"That game was certainly something that we thought about all (offseason) even though we won the Super Bowl and we beat them in that game," guard Chris Snee said Wednesday. "We still walked away saying that we didn't play well, we didn't do our job up front. That can motivate you though the offseason."
Manning, who earned his second Super Bowl MVP in beating the Patriots in the title game, downplayed the hits, particularly in relation to the number of passes he threw that day. He unloaded a career-high 58 for 316 yards and two touchdowns, including what was then a go-ahead 17-yarder midway through the fourth quarter to current 49er Mario Manningham on a third-and-15 play.
"We also had 64 dropbacks last year," Manning said. "You throw the ball that many times, you're going to take hits. Hopefully, we can have a good balance of the run and pass. You're going to get hit sometimes playing quarterback. You don't worry about that. Hopefully, you'll have enough time to get the ball out for the routes to develop and guys are getting open."
The offensive line has done an outstanding job this season, limiting opponents to five sacks. Manning has had three games where he hasn't been sacked. The 49ers, however, have one of the top defenses in the league. They're No. 2 overall, giving up an average of 81.4 yards rushing and 181.2 passing.
Opponents have gained an average of 3.98 yards on first down — best in the league — and scored on just 22.2 percent of their possessions — third best overall.
"They have a good defense," center David Baas said. "You've got to give them credit. They touched Eli way too many times, so that's something that we've got to focus on. Eli is tough and I feel like he's definitely somebody that will stand in there no matter what. But that's our job. We've got to keep him clean."
Left tackle Will Beatty said the line has watched videotapes of last year's conference championship but he noted the 49ers are not the same team. They have some new schemes and new stunts.
"You still got to go out there and have fun," Beatty said. "It's still a game. You're not looking at them as they're unstoppable. They're not looking at it as we're unstoppable. So, it's men going out there playing the game they love to play."
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said he remembers seeing Manning getting up after every hit and competing.
"He is a magician," Harbaugh said. "The things that he gets out of, gets into, the throws that he makes, things that he sees when he is able to execute, those are the words I would use to describe him. Also just a football player.
"That's about the highest compliment you can give a football player cause it encompasses so many things. That's the way we look at him."
The Giants anticipate another hard-hitting game. Both contests against San Francisco last season were played at a very high tempo, and the 49ers seemingly are on a roll after outscoring the Jets and Bills, 79-3, over the past two weeks.
"They're playing awesome, they're playing great and they, especially the last two weeks, definitely played together," Giants defensive captain Justin Tuck said. "Offense, special teams, defense and their coaching staff has them playing at a very high level and everybody knows about their talents.
"We've definitely got to go up there and play one of our best games to have an opportunity to beat them. But we have talent in this room and we'll be ready to play and I think it's going to be a great game."