A sport of heroes, a day of goats

There is nothing in sports as cruel as a game like this, modern-day gladiators pulverizing each other for four hours in the cold and sideways rain, only to watch bystanders decide championships.

But it is often the inherent truth of football, and especially playoff football, that the most riveting moments are not decided by heroes, but by goats. For more than seven hours yesterday, the NFL has rarely been better. It has also rarely been this unfair.

The New England Patriots are going to the Super Bowl because the Baltimore Ravens missed a short, basic field goal that professional kickers almost never miss. And the New York Giants are going to the Super Bowl because a backup punt returner for the San Francisco 49ers twice put the ball on the ground, including the fumble in overtime that allowed the Giants to win it, 20-17.

Two routine plays. Two mistakes. Two heartbreaks.

“Just a classic football game,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said.

History is decided by the winners, so yes, what happened here will forever be a classic in New York, which was 7-7 on Dec. 18 and now finds itself on the brink of a championship in an eerie reprisal of its run to the title four years ago. Heck, the Giants even get the Patriots again.

But for the 49ers, this will be remembered in a much different light. Because this was their game. This was their moment. This was a defense turning back Eli Manning time and again, stopping him on five straight possessions in the fourth quarter and overtime.

In fact, San Francisco had pretty much swallowed him the entire second half, forcing punts on five possessions until the 49ers offense finally broke through with a touchdown to take a 14-10 lead. Even when Manning was able to make positive plays, he rarely finished them on his own two feet. The 49ers punished Manning so severely, he was in almost every huddle needing to adjust his shoulder pads or his chinstrap, the hits from Ray McDonald and Aldon Smith coming one after the other.

But none of that matters in San Francisco now. It doesn’t matter because Kyle Williams, a player who shouldn’t have even been involved in this game, committed two cardinal sins.

With 11:08 remaining and the Giants stalled out on yet another drive, Williams retreated to get away from a punt bouncing off the turf. Then, inexplicably, he lunged toward the ball instead of running away. It pinballed off the ground and hit him right on the shin.

The Giants needed just 29 yards to take the lead, and they did, Manning finding Mario Manningham with a third-and-15 strike.

A few minutes later, Williams appeared to be off the hook, as the 49ers tied it on a field goal that would ultimately send it to overtime.

It was hard enough for them to overcome one mistake. It was impossible to overcome two. After the Giants went nowhere on their second try in overtime, Williams got stripped by Jacquian Williams, and a brilliant game and wonderful season for the 49ers was over just like that.

“In a lot of ways we played well enough to win and we don’t come away with it,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It’ll be a tough one, might take a while to get over, but we’ll get over it.”

And yes, of course the Ravens could have made a dozen other plays to beat the Patriots — most notably Lee Evans’ end-zone drop — just like the 49ers could have done just a little more. Twice in this game, their defensive backs collided, costing them likely interceptions. Maybe they’re goats, too. But football games are filled with what-if moments like that.

And of course it’s possible the Giants would have won anyway, had Williams not coughed up the ball in overtime. Another three-and-out, a punt, good field position for Manning and he wins it heroically. Perhaps the Ravens would have sent it to overtime on Cundiff’s kick and Tom Brady would have ripped their hearts out.

But that’s not how this went for the 49ers or the Ravens. Sometimes great games are decided on great plays. Sometimes they’re decided on the margins. Yesterday the margins were Kyle Williams and Billy Cundiff.

“You hate to be the last guy that had the ball, to give it up that way in that fashion and to lose a game of this magnitude,” Williams said. “It is what it is. Everyone has come up to pat me on the back and the shoulder and say it’s not on me.”

What else are they going to say? The truth is, Williams had only returned six punts all season — Ted Ginn is the 49ers’ usual kick returner, but he was hurt — so the 49ers had a second-year player in a position with which he wasn’t 100 percent comfortable, and it blew up on them. Maybe that’s a coaching mistake. Maybe it’s just fate.

The Giants seem to be masters of that. Remember, on Dec. 11 they were down 12 points with 5:41 to go, on the road against the Dallas Cowboys. If they don’t make that miraculous comeback, none of this happens — not the division title they clinched in the season finale, not the wild-card-round thrashing of Atlanta, not the divisional-round upset of Green Bay last week.

“We kept believing we could get hot and start playing our best football, and we did that at the end of the season,” Manning said. “Hopefully we can do that and keep getting better. I’m just excited to be playing in a Super Bowl.”

And the teams that aren’t playing in it will struggle to come to terms with why they aren’t. It would be much easier to live with if Brady or Manning had won yesterday by making clutch touchdown throws. Instead, Championship Sunday was defined by two marginal players making historic mistakes, a burden they’ll bear forever.