In Sunday's game between the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants, neither team really established statistical superiority. The Giants ended up with more yards (395 to 305) and more passing completions (26 to 19). The 49ers were more efficient, recording 0.7 more yards per rush and 0.5 more yards per adjusted pass.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the game was close for much of the way. The score was within a touchdown from the opening kickoff until the 12:26 mark when Kendall Hunter rolled in for a score to put the 49ers up 27-13. Neither team had a win probability greater than 75% in the first half. Outside of a few moments at 76% for the 49ers in the third quarter, the same applied to the second half until an Alex Smith touchdown to Vernon Davis gave the 49ers a 20-13 lead, the last lead change of the game.
The importance of field position tends to be a go-to talking point for announcers. A great offense or a great defense can, at times, render an opponent's field position advantage useless. In games like this one, however, with two teams of similar strength, field position can be the entire difference. Observe, a chart of the starting field position for every drive in the game:
Click here for a fully detailed and slightly larger look. The teams are separated by color, and in cases where both are close, the 49ers' result is on top and the Giants' are on the bottom (except for drive 10). The size of the mark indicates the number of plays in the drive.
The difference is striking. The 49ers offense was treated with three drives inside the 50 and another one fewer than 60 yards away from the end zone, leading to both their touchdowns and 18 (due to a two point conversion) of their 27 points. The Giants, on the other hand, were never once closer than 79 yards to the goal. Part of this was a good job by the 49ers to avoid three-and-outs and avoid deep punts.
Of the 49ers' four drives from inside their own twenty, only one of those resulted in a three-and-out -- and even that one saw a holding call on the Giants' punt return team. The Giants saw four drives of their own start inside the twenty and end within three plays -- two punts, and two Eli Manning interceptions. As a result, the 49ers only had to go an average of 62 yards on their 10 drives (before kneeling to end the game). The Giants had to go a whopping 19 yards farther each drive, a massive difference in an otherwise close game.
These failed drives in poor field position resulted in short fields for the 49ers and eventually the scores which put them over the top. The 49ers offense was by no means great against the Giants -- the running game was held largely in check and Alex Smith was outclassed by Eli Manning for most of the game. But thanks to field position, the two teams were almost playing on different fields, and that slowly but surely sunk the Giants on Sunday.