Special teams gaffs lay waste to a Niner night by the Bay
Giants 20 49ers 17 (OT) | NFC Championship
In the modern game of football, you can still make a good living with a suffocating defense. But there has to be a semblance of an offense when it is needed. Such as on third downs to keep drives alive. The New York Giants were 7-for-21 in third-down situations. The San Francisco 49ers were 1-for-13, allowing the Giants to have more of their share of possession.
And when you can’t make first downs, these things tend to happen:
- The Giants had the ball for 40 minutes to San Francisco’s 28 minutes.
- The Giants ran 90 plays. The 49ers were able to run only 57 plays.
And, if you can run only two-thirds the number of plays as your opponent, you generally have less opportunities to score, and to win, unless you are the beneficiary of turnovers. That last point played a large role in San Francisco’s 13-3 regular season, as well as their thrilling victory over the Saints last week.
The 49ers led the NFL in 2011 in the turnover ratio: +28. That’s almost a +1 average per game — a well-known winning formula. They turned over the ball 10 times (5 fumbles and 5 interceptions) but were the beneficiaries of 38 turnovers by their opponents (23 interceptions and 15 fumbles). Last week, the Niners were +4 in the game (5 turnovers received versus 1 turnover committed). Sure, Jim Harbaugh changed the 49ers’ culture of a decade of losing to sudden Super Bowl contenders in a matter of months. But it was the turnovers that played a giant role in this renaissance of a proud franchise.
On a cool and rainy Sunday night on Candlestick Point, San Francisco could not force the Giants to cough up the ball. Yes, the 49ers defense covered Giants receivers like dust on an old shoe box in an attic. And, yes, the vaunted Niner pass rush hurried and harried Eli Manning for most of the evening, resulting in six sacks of the league’s best late-season quarterback.
It was the Niners who committed horrible errors at the wrong place and at the wrong time.
Early in the final quarter, having recently taken a 14-10 lead on Vernon Davis’ second touchdown reception of the night, the Niners had sacked Manning for the fourth time, setting up a third down and very long. No chance. Punt. Back to receive was Kyle Williams, a second-year player who was filling in for Ted Ginn, Jr., the regular kick returner who injured his knee against the Saints last week.
From day one, kick returners are told: (1) if you intend to catch the ball, then catch the ball; or (2) if you are not going to catch the ball, get as far away from it as possible. Williams violated maxim number two. He let the punt go to ground, but hung around so that the bouncing ball could graze his knee. New York’s Devon Thomas was wise, picking up the ball and running it into the end zone. The official didn’t pick up the ball contact on Williams, but the video did. FIrst down Giants at the Niners’ 29 yard line (rules prohibit an advance of the recovered ball in that situation). Manning proceeded to convert two third down-and-long situations with passes to Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham, the last on a third-and-17 for a touchdown.
San Francisco was able to drive right back down the field to score a field goal to even the score with a little more than five minutes in regulation remaining.
Then in overtime, after the Niners’ front line had sacked Manning for the sixth time of the evening, the G-Men punted. Kyle Williams fielded the kick this time, only to have it stripped from his light grasp at his own 23 yard line. Six plays later, a 31-yard field goal sent New York to the Super Bowl.
This game was the very definition of a slobberknocker. The only thing missing in this modern era of high-tech turf design was mud. It was like the Browns playing the Colts in the mid-1960s, only with relatively clean uniforms allowing the spectator to recognize individual players via number recognition.
Unfortunately for Kyle Williams, there was no mud in which to hide — not tonight, and not for what will likely be a very long off-season. Or, perhaps Williams should get to know Billy Cundiff.