WILD-CARD Peterson, Shockey collide on Sunday
Two budding stars will face each other in the 49ers-Giants playoff game.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -- Julian Peterson knows it's a rare opportunity. This type of match-up of two budding superstars under the NFL's brightest lights will occur only a few times in any player's career.
Peterson, the San Francisco 49ers' athletic linebacker, will spend much of Sunday's wild-card game in one-on-one coverage against Jeremy Shockey, the New York Giants' heralded rookie tight end.
It's a collision of prototypes for football players of the future. It pits a first-time Pro Bowler against a first-time Pro Bowler. It's thrilling stuff for the fans who spot it.
And it's even exciting for coaches who have seen everything.
"I think it's going to be one of the great match-ups of the year," 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora said. "There's going to be some plays where everyone is going to know that Julian's got Shockey, and Shockey's on Julian. Someone is going to win, and someone is going to lose.
"It'll be evident. It's like a corner on a wide-out out there. All those other match-ups are hard to diagnose, but that one is pure, and it'll be fun to watch."
Out of superlatives
Both teams' coaches have run out of superlatives to describe the cornerstones of their respective units. The match-up might not decide the game, but it very well could be the most interesting thing on the field.
"I just want to go out there and do my job," Peterson said. "As far as technique, I'll be putting my hands on him and coming with the same emotion that Shockey gives, and coming back with my own emotion to fuel my defense. It'll be a good game. It's going to be something to write about."
Shockey's rookie season has been a well-chronicled success. He caught 74 passes for 894 yards, and he caught the attention of the nation's largest city with everything from his athleticism to his cockiness to his stringy blond hair.
"He's so crazy, man," said Mike Rumph, the 49ers' rookie cornerback who won a national championship with Shockey at Miami last season. "He'll come out there and cuss out a referee before a game! That's crazy, but if it works, it works."
With Ron Dixon and Ike Hilliard missing recent games because of injuries, Giants coach Jim Fassel has directed much of his play-calling to Amani Toomer and Shockey. The Giants hope to have Dixon back this week, but they still plan to get the ball into Shockey's hands.
"Every person dreams of catching a lot of balls in games and making plays," Shockey said. "The important thing is we are winning, and we have our confidence back. We are definitely on a roll, and San Francisco is going to be a fun game for us."
When the Giants met the 49ers in the regular season opener nearly four months ago, neither player was at his current level. Shockey was making his NFL debut, while Peterson still was honing the smarts and finishing skills that have set him apart.
San Francisco won that game 16-13 at the Meadowlands en route to a 10-6 record and the NFC West title. The Giants (10-6) finished with a four-game winning streak to get in as a wild card.
First building block
Three years ago, Peterson became the first building block in the complete reconstruction of a defense slowed by age and beset by salary-cap problems. Though he's still learning, Peterson's versatility is astounding.
The Niners have used him as a pass-rushing down lineman (his college position), a blitzing linebacker, a cornerback and even a strong safety this season -- all in one game last month against Dallas, in fact. Officials at the Pro Football Hall of Fame believe Peterson is the first man to play four positions in a game since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
Peterson had his breakthrough game Nov. 10, when Mora isolated Peterson in coverage against Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez for much of the day. Peterson held Gonzalez to one catch for 6 yards -- the worst afternoon of Gonzalez's stellar career.
Shockey caught 17 passes for 214 yards in the final two games of the regular season, so the 49ers know that stopping him is a key to stopping New York's offense.