Jim Harbaugh carved an NFL name for himself as a “Captain Comeback” quarterback. But as the 49ers head coach in the NFC Championship Game Sunday at rain-soaked Candlestick Park, he encountered a veteran adversary who has relished his position all season as Coach Bounce Back.
Tom Coughlin? Not that you were ever worried, but your job as a sword-juggling, tightrope-walking leader of a 9-7 New York Giants crew that had to win its last two games just to make the playoffs is now locked-down secure.
Kicker Lawrence Tynes’ 31-yard field goal in sudden-death overtime defeated the San Francisco 49ers 20-17 in a conference title game for the ages, a defensive scuffle amid wind, rain and two catastrophic special teams’ turnovers by the home team that provided yet another stunning example of Giants’ resilience during the 2011 season.
For a guy who only has a contract extension through 2012, Coughlin confidently takes his irrepressible bunch to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis against a coach who doesn’t have to apologize as much — if ever. Funny thing is, the Patriots’ Bill Belichick has won just two playoff games since he lost to Coughlin four years ago in Super Bowl XLII.
That’s the still-tingly miracle that ruined the Patriots’ season of perfection in 2008, the throw and catch that made Eli Manning legit and David Tyree the stuff of lore. Oh yeah — and the Giants got there as a wild-card team.
So Coughlin looked at Sunday’s breath-stealing win over the stubborn 49ers as something that’s become positively routine.
That 17-yard touchdown pass Manning threw to Mario Manningham on third-and-15, the one that put the Giants in front 17-14? “Just an incredible football play,” Coughlin said.
The two crushing special teams’ mistakes by 49ers’ backup returner Kyle Williams — the muffed punt and the fumbled return? Devin Thomas was at the center of each game-salvaging play, recovering both loose balls. The second ball landed in the Giants’ mitts after Jacquian Williams yanked it free in a textbook strip tackle.
“Those gave us field position that we needed,” Coughlin said simply.
Those kinds of opportunities seem to manifest themselves whenever Coughlin gets another crack at an opponent after failing the first go-around. It can’t just be dumb luck.
Sunday’s win was sweet revenge for the Nov. 13 loss at Candlestick, a game that went awry for New York when 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith batted down Manning’s last-ditch pass to seal a 27-20 San Fran victory.
Over and over in 2011, the Giants came up aces in games where their necks were on the line.
It wasn’t so long ago that Coughlin’s team was a 7-7 dog after losing four in a row in a midseason tumble, and there seemed to be a Doomsday clock attached to the coach’s name. At that point, he was in very real danger of missing the postseason for a third consecutive year.
Then … the Bounce Back.
“We will bounce back and that is the thing I believe in. That is what we preach,” Coughlin promised in early December. “It is a time for us to be bold and not sit back and listen to what all of you are saying. Rather, just to come out fighting, and that is the position we will take.”
1. Dec. 11: Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul gets his hands on a potential game-tying 47-yard field goal attempt at Dallas, knocking it off course to preserve a 37-34 win.
2. Christmas Day: The Giants bump off the Jets.
3. Jan. 1: The Giants dump the Cowboys again to win a flawed NFC East and seize the conference’s fourth seed.
4. Jan. 8: Coughlin’s team knocks out the Falcons in the wild-card round.
5. Jan. 15: The Packers were sent packing at Lambeau Field — avenging a 38-35 loss to Green Bay on Dec. 4, the tail end of the four-game skid.
“(This team) has grit. They’re battle-tested. We’ve had five straight single-elimination games and somehow, someway, we’ve scratched our way into finding a way to win,” a beaming Coughlin said Sunday after his once-skeptical ownership group held aloft the George Halas Trophy.
Again, this isn’t smoke and mirrors.
“We prepare well. Guys know what is at stake — I think the veteran guys really help the younger guys in that regard,” Coughlin said.
“They’ll have to do a lot of teaching from here on out, because they I’m sure they have no idea what they’re getting into now.
That would be a young guy like Victor Cruz, the undrafted free agent-turned-record-setting receiver this season. He caught 10 passes for 142 yards, and echoed the optimism his 65-year-old coach infused in everyone on this buoyant team.
“We always believed. I don’t know even know how to put into words as far as what this means to me,” Cruz said. “We weren’t just happy to be here, and it’s just been an amazing ride. But we’re not done yet.”
Manning, who returns to the Super Bowl stage five months after boldly — and accurately — declaring himself among the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, spoke like a guy who knew this championship script would end favorably for his Giants.
The do-or-die elimination list says it all.
“I kept believing in our team, that we could get hot and we could start playing our best football,” said Manning, who completed 32 of 58 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns for his record fifth road playoff victory. “Hopefully we can continue this momentum and keep getting better.”
He only has to keep that catalyst going for one more game, on Feb. 5. The Giants certainly do believe, and they know how to ruin a Patriots’ party. It could also be Coughlin’s last laugh.
But he will surely call it his biggest rebound yet.