Unlikely heroes, goats emerge in conference championship games
Four relatively unknown players decided this year's Super Bowl matchup
Joe Paterno almost wound up coaching the Steelers instead of Chuck Noll
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SAN FRANCISCO -- I laugh when people call me an idiot for my predictions.
I shake my head when gambler friends ask me who to pick. Poor saps.
Sunday was a perfect example of why you shouldn't put a nickel down on big football games. Or any football games, really. These four players had huge parts in the Patriots and Giants making the Super Bowl for the second time in five seasons:
1. Sterling Moore.
2. Billy Cundiff.
3. Kyle Williams.
4. Jacquian Williams.
Many of you never heard of three of those four before Sunday. Some of you still haven't. But the Patriots and Giants are meeting in Super Bowl 46, a reunion of Super Bowl 42, because their 53 men are better -- at least more reliable -- than the teams they vanquished Sunday.
In the AFC Championship Game, an unknown cornerback from New England (cut off the Raiders practice squad early in the season) and Baltimore's kicker made the two decisive plays of the game. The corner slapped the potential winning touchdown pass out of wideout Lee Evans' hands. Billy Cundiff shanked a chip shot. In the NFC, punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. not playing cost the 49ers 10 points and likely a trip to the Super Bowl. One Williams (Jacquian) stripped another (Kyle) on a punt return midway through overtime to hand the Giants a field goal -- a quarter after Kyle Williams' muffed punt led to a Giant touchdown.
Nice crowd the 49ers have on Twitter. One of their "fans'' tweeted to Williams (@KyleWilliams_10): "Jim Harbaugh, please give @KyleWilliams_10 the game ball. And make sure it explodes when he gets in his car.''
It's only sports, people. Only sports. Around here, the fog will come up tomorrow.
So much to talk about this morning, including the Chip Kelly and the Tampa Bay coaching job, the story of what led Joe Philbin to the NFL, how Chuck Noll and Joe Paterno will be forever linked, the yappy Jets, the lucky Saints, and the two teams that should make it an awful lot of fun in Indianapolis next week, when, as I write in Sports Illustrated this week, Peyton's brother faces Peyton's (friendly) arch-rival in The House That Peyton Built ... with Peyton, I'm assuming, watching from a luxury suite ...
How about this incredible Xerox of fate for the Giants.
In 2007, the Giants started the playoffs by beating an NFC South team. Then they beat the No. 1 seed on the road. Then they beat the No. 2 seed in the conference title game when the foe turned it over in overtime and gave the Giants a short field and the Giants won on a Lawrence Tynes overtime field goal. Then they moved on to face the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
In 2011, let's see ... NFC South team, No. 1 seed, No. 2 seed, overtime, turnover, Tynes, Patriots. Check.
One more thing:
2007: Giants lose to Washington 22-10 in Week 15.
2011: Giants lose to Washington 23-10 in Week 15.
It's 13 days early to say this is a team for the ages. But the Giants will be underdogs to New England again in the Super Bowl, just like they were four years ago when they won by a Velcro catch and three points. And if the Giants win, they'll go down as one of the most remarkable stories of our era. Imagine Coughlin and Manning beating Belichick and Brady three times in four years -- twice in the Super Bowl, the other time in Foxboro. It'd be extraordinary.
In the championship game Sunday, I counted 23 pressures on Manning. This San Francisco defense deserves to be playing in a Super Bowl. The two ends in the 3-4, Ray McDonald and Justin Smith, are every bit as impactful as the best ends the Steelers have had in their 3-4 prime, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. Justin Smith was a lion Sunday. He was a lion all week. Last Monday, he walked into the 49er trainers room and saw a slew of players, maybe 15 in all, getting treatment after a rough game against the Saints. "Nobody's hurt this week!'' he yelled. "Everybody plays! I don't care if you have to tape it up, whatever. Nobody misses this game Sunday.''
(Maybe Ted Ginn Jr. wasn't there.)
For the second straight week, Smith got such good leverage and force on a left tackle he ended up blocking the left tackle back into the quarterback and yanking him down for a sack. Last week it was Jermon Bushrod and Drew Brees. This week, David Diehl and Eli Manning.
How cruel is it for San Francisco that the Niners prepared for most every contingency during the season, Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke plugging most of the personnel holes they could. Who spends cap money and significant time on the backup punt returner? But if a team's only as good as its 45th man, the NFC Championship was decided on that adage. Because Williams' fumble and muff cost San Francisco 10 vital points in a 20-17 defeat.
Onto the Giants. They'll be hard to beat. There's something about Manning that's hard to put a finger on, but also very hard to beat. The best quarterbacks are usually the ones who play the best with the most on the line. Manning's had some embarrassing regular season losses. He was swept by the 5-11 Redskins this year, both by double digits. The Giants were routed at home by Seattle and had a four-game losing streak. But when it matters, the kid's been money. Let's look at Manning's last five seasons:
Overall record: 56-32. (Eight more wins than Philadelphia, eight more wins than Dallas.)
Playoff record: 7-1.
Playoff record outside of New Jersey: 6-1.
Super Bowl record: 1-0.
Record against New England: 2-1. (Lost 38-35, won 17-14, won 24-20.)
The Giants don't have the sick regular season record of the Patriots, but they've played better than New England in January and February. They've got a superb pass-rush, and they've got Manning. "We have grit,'' said Tom Coughlin. "We're battle-tested. We've had five straight single-elimination games. Somehow, some way, we've found a way to scratch our way to a win.''
Suddenly the Patriots don't look like a sieve on defense.
Granted they were helped by The Tebow Factor, but New England's defense is getting well when it counts. Thirty points allowed in eight postseason quarters, with only 50-percent completions. What's been most impressive is the defensive front. Vince Wilfork was a monster Sunday, and what's helping him get free more than he has recently is the play of no-names like Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick and Mark Anderson and Gerard Warren, who pushed the pile Sunday and only occasionally gave Ray Rice and Ricky Williams enough creases to run.
The Giants will enter the Super Bowl with the advantage on the defensive line, but what the last two games have shown is the Patriots will have a good chance of stopping the Giants from running ... and then it'll be in Eli Manning's hands against the patchwork secondary as to who will win the Super Bowl. Brady against Manning. Should be terrific.
Questions, questions, questions from Foxboro.
1. Why'd the Ravens, down 23-20 with 2:53 left with 4th-and-6 on the New England 33, go for the first down instead of kicking the 50-yard field goal?
Because Billy Cundiff, according to an excellent graphic from CBS, has missed nine of his last 10 field goal tries from 50 yards and beyond. Coach John Harbaugh certainly felt he didn't have any choice.
2. Should the replay assistant, Mark Burns, have stopped the game for a replay review on the Lee Evans catch/non-catch in the end zone with 27 seconds left?
I thought so. Mike Pereira on FOX and a league statement both had Burns acting properly, but my question is: What's the rush? That's a season-altering play right there, the difference between making the Super Bowl or going home for the winter. I've watched it 10 or 12 times now and it looks very close -- though it certainly would have been difficult to overturn even if you thought it appeared that Evans had two feet down and exhibited clear possession. I just thought the gravity of the situation should have mandated a review. God knows the game is stopped for elbows hitting the ground and 12 inches of real estate on poor spots. "I'm surprised they didn't look at it,'' said John Harbaugh. As am I. Now, for the many of you wanting to crucify Evans for the play: I don't. Should he have lock-gripped the ball to prevent stripping? Yes, of course. But New England cornerback Sterling Moore has a job to do there too, and that job is to chop down on the hands of Evans as soon as the ball is in his grasp. Evans didn't have time to secure it well enough -- though it's obviously going to be a play that will tear at him for years. Evans went to Baltimore after a career of frustration in Buffalo, just hoping he could get to a Super Bowl. He had that Super Bowl trip in his hands, and he had it stripped away.
One other official's call, this one from San Francisco, brought up tuck-rule memories from Foxboro 10 years ago. I didn't like the call that Ahmad Bradshaw's forward progress was stopped deep in his territory with 2:29 left in the game. Bradshaw fumbled on the play, seemingly while he was going down, and the officials said he was down. "Every play in the game except that one was played out to the conclusion of the play,'' said coach Jim Harbaugh. I agree. I think the fair play would have been fumble and San Francisco ball.
3. Why didn't Harbaugh call a timeout as the field-goal team came onto the field to try the tying kick -- and it appeared kicker Billy Cundiff was slow in getting on the field?
Harbaugh certainly should have. What was he saving it for? "That never occurred to me,'' said Harbaugh. "Look back on it now, maybe there was something we could have done. But in that situation, it didn't seem like we were rushed on the field.'' Cundiff was, and his duck-hook left ended another Baltimore season prior to the Super Bowl. Eleven of those in a row now.
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