Here we go again.
The New York Giants won’t be keeping the New England Patriots from achieving perfection again, but just like four years ago, Big Blue will get another chance to beat the Patriots in the Big Game.
This time, the MVP of the Giants’ Super Bowl XLII victory over New England, quarterback Eli Manning, will get a chance to lead his team to a Super Bowl win on his brother’s home field.
For once, the Giants (12-7), who overcame weeks of bad calls and tough breaks going against them to reach Sunday’s NFC championship game at Candlestick Park, finally got the luck they needed to upset the 49ers (14-4), 20-17, on the second 31-yard field goal of the game by kicker Lawrence Tynes, with 7:06 left in overtime.
New York’s good fortune actually started long before kickoff, when San Francisco’s normal punt returner, Ted Ginn, Jr., was forced to miss the game with a knee injury.
Instead of having the sixth-most experienced punt returner, (38 of his 98 regular season career attempts came this season) with the NFL’s fourth-best return average (12.3) available, the second-seeded 49ers were forced to rely on the severely inexperienced Kyle Williams, who in his second year in the league, entered the game with just five career punt returns, including just two this season.
Williams easily surpassed both of those numbers on Sunday, bringing back eight punts for 70 yards, including a key, game-long 24-yard return in the third quarter.
But, it was two later punt returns that changed the game, and quite possibly Super Bowl history, forever.
A botched punt return by Williams early in the fourth quarter led directly to a Giants’ go-ahead touchdown that helped New York reach overtime.
Once in the extra session, Williams fumbled on his final punt return to set up Tynes’ game-winner.
And, just like that, the Giants kept their perfect record in NFC title games (5-0) intact.
Just as in their last NFC championship appearance (four years ago) however, and as with New York’s rollercoaster regular season this year, there were many tenuous moments to reach that point.
Like this year, Tynes kicked the Giants into the Super Bowl with an overtime field goal in the 2007 NFC title game.
That season, New York went on a magical run as a five seed, following a 10-6 regular season, to win four straight postseason games, including the Giants’ Super Bowl victory that spoiled the Patriots’ attempt at completing the first 19-0 season in league history.
In two weeks, the Giants will try to become the first team to win a Super Bowl after finishing the regular season just 9-7, as they will seek their sixth consecutive win, following a mediocre 7-7 start that featured a season-high four-game winning streak, and concluded with five losses in six games.
No different than the much of the rest of their season, New York once again had to overcome adversity to be in a position to win.
After the 49ers opened the game with a punt, the Giants luckily avoided a turnover on their first possession, when defensive tackle Ray McDonald, who had five tackles and a team-leading 2½ of his team’s six sacks, stripped the ball from Manning (32-58, 316 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 6 sacks) on a 3rd-and-8 pass attempt from the New York 43-yard line.
Star linebacker Patrick Willis (8 tackles, one sack) had a great opportunity to recover the ball, but it squirted past him, and right offensive tackle Kareem MacKenzie recovered at the Giants’ 30-yard line to help New York escape with a punt.
Two 49er plays later, quarterback Alex Smith (12-26, 196 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 3 sacks) led tight end Vernon Davis (3 catches, 112 yards, 2 TD), who blew right past safety Antrel Rolle (4 tackles), for an easy 73-yard touchdown up the right sideline to give San Francisco a 7-0 lead with 7:11 left in the opening quarter.
The Giants then drove 35 yards on nine plays to the 49ers’ 34-yard line, but running back Brandon Jacobs (5 carries, 13 yards) was stopped on a 4th-and-1 carry up the middle.
San Francisco nearly gave the ball back on the next play, as Williams dropped an end-around handoff. Defensive end Osi Umenyiora (4 tackles, ½ sack) was there to recover the loose ball, but left offensive guard Mike Iupati wrapped his arm around Umenyiora, who tried to gather the ball in while on the ground.
The 49ers retained possession and punted for the first of three straight times to end the half, and Smith finished the half going just 1 of 6 for six yards after the touchdown pass to Davis.
Meanwhile, New York scored on two of their final three possessions of the first half to take a slim lead into the locker room.
Manning, who set a Giants postseason record for completions and pass attempts, completed twice on third down to wide receiver Victor Cruz (10 catches, 142 yards), the first time, for 36 yards, to march New York 69 yards on ten plays.
The drive was finished with a second-down touchdown pass to tight end Bear Pascoe. The catch was Pascoe’s only one of the game, and his first score of the season, but it tied the game, 7-7, with 11:15 left in the half.
Two Giants’ possessions later, Manning went back to Cruz four times, for completions of 15, 11, 17 and 13 yards to cap a ten-play, 56-yard drive on a 31-yard field goal by Tynes that gave New York its first lead, 10-7, with two seconds remaining in the half.
Following a first half in which the Giants ran 42 plays to the 49ers’ 22, New York’s offense stalled, as the Giants punted four straight times, running just 15 plays for 48 total yards in the third quarter.
New York forced punts on two San Francisco drives in the period, and another on a 49er drive that spanned the third and fourth quarters, but Williams’ longest punt return of the game set the 49ers up to regain the lead on their second possession of quarter, during which San Francisco needed just three plays to score.
Running back Frank Gore (16 carries, game-high 74 yards; team-high 6 receptions, 45 yards) took a short screen to the left for 24 yards to set up a 28-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Davis, who was left open along the left side after miscommunication between safety Kenny Phillips (4 tackles) and cornerback Corey Webster (2 tackles).
Davis’ score regained the lead, 14-10, for the 49ers, with 5:18 to go in the period.
On the Giants’ first possession of the fourth quarter, New York appeared headed for a three-and-out until Williams mistakenly got too close to a bouncing punt by punter Steve Weatherford (12 punts, 46.4 average).
The ball bounced off of Williams’ right knee as an alert Devin Thomas came from out of bounds and re-established himself inbounds before scooping up the loose ball and taking it into the end zone.
Thomas wasn’t allowed to advance the ball, but the Giants were awarded possession at the 49ers’ 29-yard line.
Six plays later, with San Francisco paying attention to Cruz and wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (5 catches, 55 yards), wide receiver Mario Manningham made his only catch of the game, a nice jumping grab in the end zone, for a 17-yard touchdown reception that gave the Giants a 17-14 lead with 8:34 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The 49ers answered right away, as Smith (6 rushes, 42 yards) was able to scramble for 17 yards on first down, to the Giants’ 33-yard line.
Running back Kendall Hunter (4 carries, 31 yards) broke free on the next play for an 18-yard run to the New York 15-yard line, before the drive eventually stalled at the Giants’ 7-yard line when Webster made a huge tackle to stop wide receiver Michael Crabtree (1 catch, 3 yards) just shy of the first down marker.
Kicker David Akers made a 25-yard field goal to tie the game, 17-17, with 5:39 left in regulation.
In a game that had 22 punts (12 by the Giants and ten for the 49ers), the teams traded punts on the next five possessions before San Francisco ran out of time while trying to get into game-winning field goal range.
While a light rain throughout the game became much heavier, the Giants won the coin toss for overtime, but they nearly gave the ball away deep in their own territory when running back Ahmad Bradshaw (20 carries, team-high 74 yards; 6 catches, 52 yards) was stripped on a four-yard run on 2nd-and-10 from the New York 30-yard line.
The ruling on the field though, was that Bradshaw, who was moving backwards as he lost the ball, had already had his forward progress stopped to end the play before he lost the ball.
A New York punt and then a San Francisco three-and-out followed.
Taking over at their own 36-yard line, the Giants moved to the 49ers’ 46-yard line, but Manning, who set an NFL record with his fifth career road playoff win, was sacked for a loss of ten yards on 3rd-and-3.
Weatherford booted the ball 37 yards to the 49ers’ 19-yard line, and Williams returned the ball five yards until another Williams, rookie Jacquian (3 tackles), made a terrific play, reaching his right hand on the ball to strip his Williams counterpart, who is the son of Chicago White Sox general manager Ken Williams.
Once again, Thomas recovered the fumble, this time, at the San Francisco 24-yard line.
Three rushes to Bradshaw, a kneel-down by Manning to center the ball at the 49ers’ 8-yard line, and after a time out by each side, a good job by Weatherford of handling a less than ideal snap allowed Tynes to continue the Giants’ second improbable journey in five years to football’s biggest game.
Head coach Tom Coughlin, whose job was in jeopardy before the Giants’ current winning streak began, said the contest was “Just a classic football game,” while adding of his team, “I’m very proud of this group.”
Team president and CEO John Mara, who publicly said the Giants might need organizational changes after a pair of second-half collapses without making the playoffs in the previous two years under Coughlin, feels completely differently now. “Nobody gave us a chance when we lost four games in the middle of the season, but Tom Coughlin pulled us together,” Mara said.
Defensive end Justin Tuck (4 tackles, team-high 1½ sacks), summed up the Giants’ highs and lows this year by saying, “I got a few gray hairs this season,” yet stating so with a wide smile.
Capturing the resilient nature of the team which he leads as a captain, Manning, who will be playing his next Super Bowl on the same playing surface made famous by his brother Peyton, of the Indianapolis Colts, said, “We just keep believing and keep fighting until the very end.”
That end, in terms of the Giants’ season, now has one last step, with New York’s fifth Super Bowl appearance.
The top-seeded Patriots, who survived Sunday’s AFC title game when the second-seeded Baltimore Ravens barely missed a game-winning touchdown and then a short, 32-yard, game-tying field goal in the final seconds, will be playing in their seventh Super Bowl.
Each team will be seeking its fourth Super Bowl victory.
New England’s NFL-record 20-game home winning streak was snapped in Week 9, when after a scoreless first half, Manning threw a 1-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left to lift the Giants to a 24-20 victory.
While only 15 Giants and seven Patriots remain on the teams’ respective rosters from Super Bowl XLII, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick join Manning and Coughlin as the main holdovers from four years ago.
Kickoff for the Super Bowl XLII redo, in Super Bowl XLVI, is set for 6:30 pm ET on NBC, on Sunday, February 5th, from the house that Manning’s brother built – Lucas Oil Stadium, in Indianapolis.