In the wet and cold, under the dreariness of the coming fog and the sloppy field and the final score sinking in, the San Francisco 49ers were left with this and only this.
They handed the NFC championship to the New York Giants.
The mistake-free team head coach Jim Harbaugh had fashioned from sheer willpower squandered a story of redemption and achievement, and the greatest single-season rookie head-coaching performance in NFL history, by reverting to the old Niners: To those old mistakes, to the old Alex Smith, to the old futility.
They went from a team defined by heroics and heroes to one, at least for the day, marked by a punt-returner-turned goat: Kyle Williams, he of the two botched, please-take-the-ball returns late in the game.
“We played well enough to win and we don’t come away with it,” Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh said.
No truer words have been said.
Certainly, the Giants should be proud of what they did in pulling out the 20-17 overtime win Sunday at Candlestick Park and the fact they’ve earned the right to face the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl for the second time in four years.
The Giants feel very much like a team of destiny, and they’re again meeting the past decade’s team of dynasty in a Super Bowl showdown that will allow New England and Tom Brady to get vengeance for 2008 — or else let the Manning brothers tie Brady with three rings.
The Giants earned this, yes, by battling their way into the postseason with a Week 17 do-or-die win over the Cowboys and then mowing through every team they faced, on the road, as if the topsy-turvy regular season was just a dramatic prelude to their inevitable championship run. Eli has been simply fantastic, the defense has found its groove and head coach Tom Coughlin has again silenced and hopefully embarrassed his many critics.
But the Giants should also recognize that their final step in getting another shot to battle Brady & Co. for the whole shebang comes compliments of the Niners, who handed them the win — gift-wrapped and all.
That’s largely because the Niners had in Williams a punt returner who was at key moments of the game simply unable to return punts.
“It was just one of those situations where I caught the ball, tried to head up field, tried to make a play and it ended up for the worse,” he said.
That’s definitely true. Williams, rather than making plays, was unable to even retain possession, twice, for his team on key punt returns opportunities.
The first muffed attempt, which came early in the fourth quarter, did not count as a turnover because he never had possession of the ball.
But that’s statistical semantics. The man handed the Giants, who had trouble moving the ball much of the game, field position, momentum and what became a game-changing touchdown after Eli found Mario Manningham for 17-yard score.
Then, after an overtime back-and-forth that seemed to be shifting in the Niners favor, Williams did fumble a punt return: One moment the Niners had the ball and a sudden-death chance to go to Indy and the next the ball was out, the ball was with the Giants, the was game over, the season done.
Throw in Alex Smith and the Niners converting just 1-of-13 on third-down conversions, and Smith completing only one pass to a wide receiver, and his 97.6 quarterback-rating is misleading. He did not get the job done, time and again, and that fact allowed the Giants to hang around long enough for Williams to hand them the game.
“The ball that hit the return man’s knee and the ball that was stripped … gave us the position we needed,” Coughlin said. “Just a classic football game that seemed no one was going to put themselves in a position to win it. And we were able to do that.”
Well, Tom, respectfully, no: That’s wrong.
The Niners put you in that position. They failed to put you away, they gave you not one but two extra possessions because their punt returner couldn’t protect the ball and you won as a result.
Harbaugh certainly knew it.
“It’ll be a tough loss,” he said. “It’ll probably take a while to get over it. This team isn’t defeated. A man can be destroyed but he can’t be defeated as long as he knows there’s hope.”
It might be tempting to scoff at talk of hope after the hopeless way the Niners gave away a Super Bowl berth, but Harbaugh is right. He, Smith, Vernon Davis, Justin Smith and the entire team were part of a culture change that seems likely to impact San Francisco football and the rest of the NFL going forward.
But that’s for later.
For now, the fact remains that the Niners’ future is as bright as their present is dim and ugly: They go home, as does poor Williams and all the heaviness he must carry with him, knowing their gift got New York a shot at a championship.
But they got that shot, and so we move forward.
The Giants face the Patriots now. Eli Manning goes into his big brother’s backyard to defend the Manning name. He gets to battle the one man, Tom Brady, whose name has overshadowed the Mannings’.
“They’re a great team,” Eli said. “They’ve been a great team for years. They’ve had an unbelievable season. We’re going to celebrate this game, have fun, start to prepare and then go into Indianapolis and hopefully we can continue to play our best football.”
Their best football included Manning going 32-of-58 on Sunday. He threw for 316 yards and two touchdown, he protected the ball and did the yeoman’s work on offense. The Giants ran the ball only 26 times as they let Eli step into the role of leader, winner and closer. The weight was on him, and he carried it by being steady, solid, not turning the ball over and keeping his team close enough to pounce on the other’s mistakes.
The Giants defense is playing better and getting stops at key times. Ahmad Bradshaw is healthy and running with a grinder’s success — he had 74 yards on his 20 carries Sunday. And Coughlin, again, has shown he can win once the regular season and all its question marks give way to the postseason.
But it’s Eli on whom this team rises and falls, and that should bode well for them. He’s grown not necessarily into one of the best quarterback’s of his generation but certainly one of its grittiest and most reliable under pressure.
The Niners gave New York a gift Sunday. And now Eli, as the younger brother who will face the older brother’s nemesis, can give a gift as well: He can hand his family a chance to show Tom Brady that this might actually be the era of the Mannings.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.