For Giants, rematch against 49ers serves as measuring stick

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith in a

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith in a game against the Buffalo Bills. (Oct. 7, 2012) (Credit: AP)

One thing nearly everyone can agree upon: The 49ers are better now than they were then.

Then, of course, being the end of last season, when they faced the Giants in an epic NFC title game that was won on an overtime field goal after a fumbled punt because the teams' offenses and defenses were so evenly matched. So assuming the 49ers have improved -- they've added some playmakers to make their offense more versatile and their defense is as nasty and stingy as ever -- the question for Sunday becomes a very simple one.

Are the 2012 Giants better now than they were then?

That one requires a more complex answer.

"At times" was the best that Giants defensive end Justin Tuck could offer. "I think they are more consistent than we are right now."

That's why so much attention is being hoisted on the 49ers and not the defending Super Bowl champs, who already have lost two games in their division and had to come back from 14-point deficits against the Browns and the Bucs. While the 49ers are steamrolling through the early part of the season, the Giants are just existing, waiting for a moment that will define them and allow them to give a more definitive answer to that question.

That moment likely will come Sunday.

"This is going to be the team that we face this year that is going to show us where we will be at," Jason Pierre-Paul said. "We are going to know where our team is at after this game."

Mathias Kiwanuka agreed.

"You have to go through something tough to see what everybody is made of, to see how capable we are of . . . playing both phases of the game," he said. "That's a fair assessment."

With a win, the Giants could emerge as the re-recognized team to beat in the NFC, something they have not been called since their trip to the Super Bowl last February. A loss -- even a close loss like the one against the Eagles or last year's regular-season loss to the 49ers -- and the Giants would fall to .500, have their third loss before the end of October for the first time under Tom Coughlin, and likely still be searching for their true identity.

The Giants aren't the only ones looking to declare an identity with this game. The 49ers have won their last two games by a combined 79-3, but those wins were against the floundering Bills and Jets. Avenging last year's loss in the NFC title game would be a statement win for the 49ers, even if Jim Harbaugh pretended not to know what a statement win is.

"Like a quote?" Harbaugh said on his conference call this week. "A statement? A document? A manifesto? What do you mean by statement? I don't know. I just try to coach the team. That's as far as my job description goes."

While we'll almost certainly have a better idea of where each team stands after Sunday's game, Tuck said he has a good idea about the Giants despite those inconsistencies that he pointed out earlier.

"I can just tell you this, I am not worried about where we are," Tuck said. "I know it's a long season. I know how we'll respond and how we have responded early this year in some of the trials and some of the other things we have had to face. The core of this football team is the same, and I know I have been in a lot of battles with these guys and I know how they will respond."

Are they playing at the same level as last year, when they won their last six games to grab a second Super Bowl title in five years?

"Not yet," Tuck said. "It's getting there."

A win Sunday could push them further in that direction. This will be the gauge to see which squad has improved the most in the last nine months.

May the better better team win.

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