Eli Manning showed his toughness in January when he famously absorbed six sacks and 12 ferocious quarterback hits from the 49ers in the NFC title game and kept getting up after each one.

His offensive linemen would prefer that he not have to prove it again.

"He's definitely somebody that will stand in there no matter what, but that's our job," center David Baas said of keeping Manning upright. "We've got to keep him clean. We know it's going to be a challenge, but we're up for it."

Unless he trips during warmups or splatters himself with mustard from a pregame snack, Manning will start Sunday's game wearing a pristine white Giants jersey. It is unlikely to stay that way.

Playing on the natural surface at Candlestick Park means that every knockdown is recorded on a uniform in the form of a grass stain or mud slick. When he walked off the field last year on his way to Super Bowl XLVI, Manning's jersey had the color and texture of a used coffee filter.

He took hits that buckled his shoulder pads. He took hits that jostled his helmet. He took hits that left chunks of turf dangling from his facemask.

This year, though, things have been a little easier for Manning. The Giants' offensive line was feted this past week for its role in last Sunday's 243 rushing yards, but one of the unheralded things it's been able to do all season is protect Manning well.

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Consider this: He was sacked more in that one playoff game against the 49ers than he has been through the first five games of this season. Manning has been sacked only four times in 2012. Although it's far from an exact stat, opposing teams have been credited with only 11 quarterback hits against the Giants.

Turns out that game against the 49ers has something to do with that.

"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. "We still walked away saying that we didn't play well, we didn't do our job up front. That can motivate you through the offseason."

The 49ers' defense has allowed only three points in the last two games, but it hasn't been torturing quarterbacks the way it did Manning last year. Through five games, the 49ers have only nine sacks. Nevertheless, the Giants are understandably wary.

"We need to go out there and do a better job," Baas said. "They touched Eli way too many times."

Manning's ability to rise from each hit impressed everyone on the Giants and even 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, himself a former NFL quarterback.

"Just a football player," Harbaugh said, describing Manning. "That's pretty much the highest compliment you can give a football player."

About the only one who wasn't impressed by the muddy spectacle was Manning himself.

"We also had 64 drop-backs," Manning said, trying to help justify the beating. "You throw the ball that many times, you're going to take hits . . . 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 irony of Manning proving himself a tough quarterback in that game is that the people who seem to appreciate it the most -- his offensive linemen, who never heard a word of criticism from him during that contest or since -- were the most disappointed that it had to happen.

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"I guess in an ideal world, you [media] guys would still be questioning his toughness because he wouldn't have gotten hit, but it's one of those things," guard Kevin Boothe said. "It's football. He's a tough guy, we know he's a tough guy, but we like for him to hide his toughness. Hopefully, he doesn't get hit like that ever again."