As he watched from a neutral location, I can’t imagine what Jack Harbaugh was thinking as he witnessed both of his sons’ heartbreaking losses on Sunday.
For the Ravens, it was a “dropped” touchdown followed by a missed chip-shot field goal in the final seconds that would have forced overtime. For the 49ers, it was two costly punt return fumbles, the second coming midway through overtime to set up an easy Giants field goal for the win.
These plays are the easy target for placing blame, but there were two full games played, and this is a breakdown of how we got to those final gaffes.
Baltimore at New England
Patriots’ running game early: New England used an unexpected cog in the playbook early … the running game. With the Ravens defense dropping back into coverage on the snap, the Patriots were able to have success with draw plays that allowed both the guards and tackles to get up to the second level of the Ravens’ defense. Later in the first half, the Ravens adjusted and starting biting on play-action fakes, something the Patriots haven’t seen lately with the lack of an overall rushing threat, but the Patriots were unable to capitalize. Tom Brady had Rob Gronkowski wide open down the seam in the red zone but overthrew him after Ed Reed bit hard on the run-action. If given the opportunity, the Patriots won’t want to miss on those chances in the Super Bowl.
New England’s offensive line: The Ravens were doing anything possible to find a mismatch for Terrell Suggs, playing him on either side and even up the middle. When he rushed Tom Brady’s blindside, Matt Light handled him easily — often in one-on-one schemes. Even when the Ravens moved him over rookie right tackle Nate Solder, they were unable to apply any consistent pressure with only one sack on the day.
Tom Brady: Tom Brady is second-best in completion percentage in the NFL when facing the blitz, but he was unable to find a rhythm against the Ravens’ defensive scheme on Sunday. Let’s remember that in addition to the two interceptions that Brady actually threw, he also was picked off two more times that were then called back because of penalties.
Credit the Patriots’ defense: I thought it would take a perfect day from Brady for the Patriots to stand a chance, but it was quite the opposite. It was the defense that kept them in this game with consistent pressure on Joe Flacco and making plays when they absolutely needed them. Lee Evans will get a ton of criticism in Baltimore for the dropped touchdown, but I see it differently. Evans made a great play on the ball and initially caught it in his hands, without a bobble, but the Patriots defender made an excellent play by chopping his arm right between the hands of Evans, just as he is coached to do. I struggle to call that a drop.
Vince Wilfork: He absolutely dominated inside against the Ravens interior line. He showed why Matt Birk will be retiring, but more impressively, he manhandled Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda throughout. He consistently collapsed the pocket in the passing game and also shed double-teams and made plays in the running game.
New York at San Francisco
Weather: Whether or not it was in the offensive game plan or if they were trying to throw it early before the rain got worse, the Giants came out slinging it. Eli Manning had said all week that he wasn’t concerned about having to throw a wet ball and didn’t think it would make much of a difference in the play calling. Well he did have a couple of misfires early in the game, but hardly enough to call the weather a factor in the passing game for the Giants.
Playing on the road: Home teams in the 2012 postseason are 8-2, with both losses coming at the hands of the Giants. The win in Lambeau Field against a heavily favored Packers team was impressive, but traveling from East Coast to West Coast is even more so. Give Tom Coughlin and the veteran leaders on this team credit for maintaining focus and winning in hostile environments, though I will say this: When Lawrence Tyne’s game-winning field goal split the uprights, there was quite an excited roar coming from the crowd. The Giants’ fans must have traveled well, too.
San Francisco’s inability to convert on third down: Had San Francisco won this game, I would have been hard-pressed to explain how a team that only tallied 15 first downs and went 1-for-13 on third-down conversions could have come out on top. Still, I am hard-pressed to explain how San Francisco was even in this game. Going 1-for-13 is absolutely atrocious, but you can’t totally blame the inability of the 49ers offense; the Giants defense should get some credit, too.
Giants secondary: The Giants gave up just one reception to a 49ers wide receiver — yes, just one! Of course, Vernon Davis got loose on his two big touchdown catches, but for the most part the Giants secondary completely shut down the passing game of Alex Smith. The one completion that Smith did have was just a 3-yard reception by Michael Crabtree that resulted in another failed third-down attempt. Speaking of that, Crabtree, the 10th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft absolutely disappeared in these playoffs. Also, with Alex Smith coming up on a contract year, it will be interesting to see how this final game will influence negotiations. He had a lot more leverage after last week than he does after this week.
Missed opportunities: Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three potential turnovers that the 49ers could have had, and two of them were directly in their control. Those two were both potential interceptions that could have easily been picked off by a San Francisco player had another 49ers defender not collided with them in mid-air. In fact, I think both times the corner could have made an easy play on the ball, but it was Dashon Goldson that came flying in and separated defender and ball. The easiest one to remember was the one that resulted in the hard hit on Tarell Brown. The other potential turnover that wasn’t came on the controversial forward progress call in favor of Ahmad Bradshaw and the Giants. This was such a bang-bang call that I will have to defer to my colleague Mike Pereira, as he will be able to explain it much better than me.