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49ers beaten at own game as Giants road trip reaches Super Bowl

NFC Championship Game: San Francisco 49ers 17 New York Giants 20 (OT)

There was to be no ‘Har-Bowl’ and no fairy-tale ending for the San Francisco 49ers and Alex Smith. A year after they finished a lowly 6-10 and the former number one overall pick was drummed out of town, Jim Harbaugh‘s revitalised team fell one step short of their first Super Bowl appearance in 17 years.

The New York Giants won on the road again, shutting down the 49ers’ offense for long periods and riding the boot of Lawrence Tynes to prevail 20-17 in overtime on a cold, wet evening at Candlestick Park. They will now play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis in a fortnight’s time, a repeat of the title game from four years ago, when the underdog Giants denied the Patriots what would have been only the second ‘perfect’ Super Bowl winning season.

In the final analysis, the Giants beat the 49ers at their own game, playing turnover-free football and dominating time of possession. Even though they moved the ball well on the ground all night, racking up 150 rushing yards at better than five yards per carry, the Niners could not string together consistent drives as they repeatedly came up short on third down, converting just one of 13 attempts (and even that was meaningless, as it came as time expired in regulation).

The Giants took a half-time lead off the back of Manning's eight completions to Victor Cruz (image courtesy of giants.com)

Giants shade the first half

The Giants, by contrast, kept the chains moving throughout the first half, with Eli Manning finding Victor Cruz eight times in the first two quarters alone. They recovered from the twin first quarter blows of Alex Smith‘s 73-yard bomb to Vernon Davis and a subsequent failure to convert on fourth-and-one to take control of the game in the second period.

Manning found Cruz for 36 yards on a critical third down on the first play after the change of ends, setting up a six-yard scoring pass to tight end Bear Pascoe to tie the scores. And after the 49ers had punted inside the two-minute warning, Manning hit Cruz four times on an 11-play drive which ended with Lawrence Tynes‘ 31-yard field goal to give the Giants a 10-7 half-time lead.

49ers change the momentum, then give it away

Solid pass protection had given Manning plenty of time to find Cruz working the gaps in the 49ers’ inside coverage from his slot position, but adjustments to both the pass rush and secondary schemes brought the Giants’ offense to a grinding halt after half-time as the momentum swung firmly back towards the home team. New York could gain only two first downs on their first five possessions of the half as Manning suddenly found the pocket collapsing around him with regularity.

Davis' third quarter touchdown swung the advantage back in the 49ers' favour (image courtesy of 49ers.com)

The 49ers’ offense continued to struggle for consistency, but a three-play, 54-yard drive midway through the third quarter saw Smith find Frank Gore out of the backfield for 24 yards before connecting with Davis again on a perfectly thrown ball down the left sideline for a 28-yard score. David Akers‘ extra point made it 14-10.

With both teams unable to move the ball in the difficult conditions, both punters – the 49ers’ Andy Lee and the Giants’ Steve Weatherford – exchanged blows in the battle for field position. It was a period of stalemate that seemed most likely to be ended with a game-changing turnover, and it was the Niners who blinked first. Weatherford’s booming, bouncing punt was left by backup returner Kyle Williams (standing in for the injured Ted Ginn Jr), only for the ball to brush his right knee. Devin Thomas made a heads-up play in recovering the ball on the San Francisco 29 and six plays later Manning located Mario Manningham with a 17-yard strike.

The momentum of the game had unmistakably changed. Williams partially atoned for his muffed punt by returning the ensuing kickoff to the 45. Smith scrambled for 17 yards and rookie Kendall Hunter tore off another 18, but the Niners’ only trip of the game into the red-zone stalled inside the 10 and they had to settle for Akers’ 25-yard kick to tie the scores at 17 with 5:39 left. It was a familiar failure: the 49ers were the third-worst team in the league this season in converting red-zone possessions into touchdowns.

In the time that remained, both offenses went after a game-winning score. But both fired blanks as each team had three possessions but could muster only a single first down apiece to send the game to overtime. The Giants had been the better team in the first half; the 49ers in the second – but they finished tied not only on the scoreboard but also in terms of offensive yardage. There was that little between them.

Williams' two punt return errors were costly (image courtesy of 49ers.com)

Williams gifts the game

The Giants won the toss and elected to receive, but both teams went three-and-out on their opening possession. New York’s second drive also ended in a punt, but as Williams fielded it and turned upfield the Giants’ Jacquian Williams stripped the ball and Thomas made his second recovery of the game.

With the 49ers’ defense disheartened and tiring – the Giants ran a whopping 64 passing plays and held an 11-minute advantage in time of possession – three pounding runs by Ahmad Bradshaw put Tynes in position to kick the game-winner from 31 yards and send his team to the title game.

Where the game was won and lost

Full credit must be given to the Giants, who had clearly put into practice lessons learned from their narrow 27-20 week ten defeat to get their passing game going in the first half, with the Manning-to-Cruz combination connecting six times on their first two scoring drives. And although their offense stalled for much of the second half, they maintained enough of a rushing threat to not become one-dimensional, a strategy that paid dividends at the end of the game as they were able to unleash Bradshaw to pound the hard yards to make Tynes’ winning kick a virtual formality.

McDonald had 2½ of the 49ers' six sacks (image courtesy of 49ers.com)

Even though he was sacked six times – 2½ by end Ray McDonald – and hit countless others, Manning’s pocket awareness and ability to buy time were crucial to extending several drives. The Giants have lived and died on his arm this postseason, and Manning will no doubt be relishing the opportunity to test the Patriots’ much-maligned defensive unit at the Super Bowl which, of course, takes place in Indianapolis, the city which his brother Peyton has graced for more than a decade.

The 49ers’ running game gained the tough yards without ever really hurting the Giants on the scoreboard. Gore gained 74 yards on 16 carries, but his longest gain was just 11 yards. And every time San Francisco were backed into a third down situation, the passing game could not pick up the slack. An already thin receiving corps has been decimated by injuries this season, greatly reducing Smith’s options on passing plays and frequently forcing him to scramble, which he did to good effect. However, of his 12 completions in the game, only one went to a wide receiver (Michael Crabtree), and that came with six minutes left in the game and gained a meagre three yards. The absence of Ginn, no great pass-catcher but one of the NFL’s premier return men, was also sorely missed.

It is easy to point the finger of blame at his backup Kyle Williams, without whose gaffes the Giants would have been held scoreless after half-time, but the 49ers have gone through this season winning as a team. And they should be regarded as having fallen marginally short as a team too. Scapegoating is too easy an option.

As ever, the 49ers’ defense was superb. On the back foot for the entire first half, they did well to restrict the Giants to ten, and then they dominated the second half. Six sacks was an excellent return for the pressure they generated with primarily simple three and four-man rushes, and had 49ers defenders not collided going for the football on two errant Manning passes – one in the third quarter, one in overtime – they would have generated interceptions too. But ultimately the team which forced 38 regular season turnovers (joint-highest in the NFL), coughed up the ball only ten times themselves (joint-lowest all time) and led the league with a turnover differential of +28 could not come up with a critical game-changer.

Coach Harbaugh's next challenge is to replicate this year's progress in 2012 (image courtesy of 49ers.com)

Defeat should not diminish the 49ers’ achievements this season, though. The challenge for Jim Harbaugh and his staff now is to keep his outstanding defense together against the temptations of free agency, and add additional firepower to the offense. A wide receiver is a high priority, and offensive line help and a tough between-the-tackles runner to back up Gore would also be welcome.

After last week’s heroics – ‘The Run’, followed by ‘The Catch – Part 3’ – it was a shame that Alex Smith’s season should end with such a damp squib. But he should look back with pride on a campaign in which he confounded those who had written him off as a busted flush. After seven successive seasons of having to adapt to a new offensive co-ordinator with a new system, he can look forward to reaping the benefits of continuity in Greg Roman’s scheme next year.

Are the Giants this year’s team of destiny?

It should come as little surprise if the Giants’ playoff run evokes a feeling of having been here before.

Does this sound familiar? In January 1991, the underdog Giants travelled to Candlestick Park for the NFC Championship Game, having lost narrowly in San Francisco in the regular season. At the end of a defensive struggle, a late 49ers fumble set up Matt Bahr to kick the winning field goal and send the Giants to the Super Bowl four years after their previous appearance. Substitute Tynes now for Bahr then, and the circumstances are eerily similar.

That isn’t the only parallel, however.

Tynes has now kicked game-winning field goals in two NFC Championship Games (image courtesy of giants.com)

At the end of a 2007 regular season in which they had been regularly written off, the Giants scraped into the playoffs as the number five seed in the NFC before embarking on a run of three road victories to take them to Super Bowl XLII. The last of these was an NFC Championship game win at the home of second-seeded Green Bay, in which Lawrence Tynes kicked an overtime field goal to send them to the Super Bowl. There they came up against the top seed in the AFC, New England, where they stunned the football world by defeating the previously undefeated Patriots 17-14.

Here we are now four years later. At the end of a 2011 regular season in which they had been regularly written off, the Giants scraped into the playoffs as the number four seed in the NFC before embarking on a run of three victories, two on the road, to take them to Super Bowl XLVI. The last of these was an NFC Championship game win at the home of second-seeded San Francisco, in which Lawrence Tynes kicked an overtime field goal to send them to the Super Bowl. In two weeks’ time, they will come up against the top seed in the AFC, New England.

As the inimitable Yogi Berra would have said, it’s like deja vu all over again. The Patriots should start as favourites as both teams bid to win their fourth Vince Lombardi trophy, but only a fool would discount a Giants team who will feel the fates are firmly on their side.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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