SANTA CLARA The beating the 49ers gave Eli Manning last Jan. 22 was written all over the quarterback's once-white jersey.
The 49ers hit him 18 times, including six sacks, the most Manning had absorbed in any game last season. By the end of the NFC Championship Game, grime speckled his face, his left shoulder was a dingy gray, and his left wristband and arm were caked in Candlestick Park mud.
The problem for the 49ers is Manning kept getting up.
"A lot of people don't give him the respect he deserves," said Manning's chief tormentor that day, defensive end Justin Smith. "I think he's definitely one of the top three, four quarterbacks in the league. We're going to have to have the same philosophy going into this one that we had in that last one hold him down."
The Manning vs. Smith & Co. battle is such a central theme in today's game that the two sides began fighting it days ago.
On Thursday, Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said Smith has been "getting away with murder" by holding offensive opponents so his teammates have more room to maneuver.
Jim Harbaugh, in turn, rushed to outflank the Giants with a news release accusing the coaches of the Super Bowl champions of using their "high visibility" to influence the officials. Harbaugh called it "an incendiary comment targeting one of the truly exemplary players in this league."
Both sides understand that the 49ers' strength is their defense and that Smith anchors that unit. San Francisco has held opponents to one field goal in the past two games, largely by harassing the opposing quarterback into mistakes.
Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez threw an interception and lost a fumble in the 49ers' 34-0 win on Sept. 30. A week later, Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a third-quarter interception in a 45-3 blowout when he was pressured by linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
But Manning is made of tougher stuff.
Safety Donte Whitner said it's not Manning's size or strength that allowed him to endure the championship game pounding. Whitner said it's more nurture than nature.
"He's coming from a family that plays quarterback," Whitner said. "Having a brother that plays quarterback at a high level. Being a leader of that football team. If something's not injured or broken, you can't come out of that football game. You have to stay out there and lead your team to victory, or at least try."
Harbaugh called Manning a "magician" in his ability to turn seemingly doomed plays into completions, while 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio noted that Manning has been in the same offensive system for nine seasons.
"He knows exactly everything in this offense, from option A to B or C," Fangio said. "And he knows where to go with the ball very quickly."
But it doesn't mean Manning is perfect.
One of the reasons the 49ers had difficulty accepting their January loss to the Giants was they not only stuck to their 2011 formula of pressuring and pounding opposing quarterbacks, they surpassed it.
They just didn't see the results.
In the teams' regular-season meeting Nov. 13, Manning threw two interceptions, and a last-second pass attempt by Manning that would have tied the score was batted away by Smith.
In the rematch, Manning fumbled in the first quarter, but the Giants recovered. He also threw two poor passes that should have been intercepted, but each fell to the ground when 49ers defenders crashed into each other while pursuing the ball.
On one of those plays, safety Dashon Goldson knocked starting cornerback Tarell Brown from the game. Later, Manning threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham against Brown's replacement, Tramaine Brock.
"We faced him twice last (season), and what I got out of those games is he's really tough," Goldson said of Manning. "He's tougher than he looks. We've definitely got our work cut out (today)."