Friday, September 7, 2012

The Peril

I wrote, yesterday, about the San Francisco 49ers, and their great run of 2011, which culminated with their incredible roller coaster victory over the New Orleans Saints. That win was the culmination of their redemption, but not the end of their season. They played one more game after that, the following week, against the New York Giants. It appeared to be the perfect scene for the dream to continue. The NFC Championship Game, on their home field, in front of their fans, with this great Defense, playing an opportunistic, but inconsistent Giants team that happened to be peaking at the right time. But, if the 49ers defense had managed to quell the Saints offense, surely the Giants would not be so difficult.

This would not be the Dream game everyone hoped for. This was not the Perfect game it should have been. It would be a game that would test nerves, wills, strength and ultimately would come down to the team that blinked first.

Unfortunately, the 49ers blinked.

The game started out well enough, with Alex Smith and Vernon Davis picking up where they left off the week prior, teaming up for a 73-yard touchdown. But once things settled down, both teams dug in and the game ultimately would dissolve into a slugfest between a pair of heavyweight defenses. It was gain a little here, give a little there. The Giants would fail on a 4th down conversion late in the 1st quarter, but the 49ers could not take advantage. The Giants would tie and then take the lead in the 2nd quarter as the 49ers defense would be unable to force the Giants into any kind of mistakes. They could slow the Giants down, yes, but not force the key error that might swing things into their favor. A field goal as the first half expired gave the Giants a 10-7 lead.

In the 3rd quarter, it was more of the same. The 49ers defense battered Eli Manning with a barrage of blitzes and tricky coverages. But their offense fared no better against the Giants and their outstanding defensive front. But they finally caught a break on Special teams midway through the quarter. Rookie Kyle Williams, replacing the excellent, but injured, Ted Ginn as Punt Returner, broke off a long return, putting the 49ers in good field position for the first time in what seemed like forever. 3 plays later, they were in the End Zone, as Smith once again found Davis for another touchdown, and a 14-10 lead.

With the defense beginning to dominate, and the Giants Offense beginning to feel the hits they were taking, it appeared as though this might be how the game would end. The 49ers continued to brutalize Manning, but the intensity they showed on defense was simply matched by the Giants. The teams could do nothing for the remainder of the 3rd quarter but trade punts, and the trend continued well into the 4th quarter. And with close to 11 minutes left, this set the stage for the undoing of the 49ers. The Giants, for their 5th straight possession, were forced to punt. Steve Weatherford's punt was low, and bounced. Kyle Williams, the inexperienced punt returner, decided at the last second to let it pass him, and it appeared as though it did. Or did it? The Giants seemed to feel that Williams had touched the ball, which would have given the Giants a chance to recover the now-live ball. And the review showed that Williams had, indeed, touched the ball, costing the 49ers a turnover, and giving the Giants new life. And almost immediately, they made Williams pay for his mistake, converting the turnover into a touchdown, and taking back the lead, 17-14.

Now, with 8:34 left, the 49ers had to respond. This wasn't a new development, since they faced similar deficits in multiple occasions the prior week against the Saints. And, once again, they responded with a drive equal to the pressure of the moment. First, Williams atoned for his gaffe by breaking off a long return on the kickoff. Unable to mount much of an attack through the air, the 49ers responded by running the ball down the Giants throats. But Smith was having no luck finding his Receivers, and the drive stalled, and ultimately ended with David Akers kicking a tying Field Goal.

With the game now tied, the defenses again took over. Neither team could do anything offensively, and, clearly, the game was going to come down to someone making a crucial mistake at a bad moment. There was going to be a turnover somewhere that would swing the game. All the 49ers could do was hope that they weren't the ones who made the mistake. And with just over 2 minutes left, it appeared they might get their wish, as NaVorro Bowman forced Ahmad Bradshaw to fumble. Or did he? The referees ruled that Bradshaw's forward progress had stopped and the play was dead. The 49ers couldn't challenge the clear fumble. The Giants retained the ball and punted it away. The game remained tied, and moved into Overtime.

Tense much? If there was any tension, it certainly didn't come out from either defense? They just continued as they had been, sacking quarterbacks, stopping runners, deflecting passes. Everyone just trying to force that mistake that would decide the game. Both teams traded punts. On the Giants 2nd possession of Overtime, they finally managed to move the ball a bit, getting close to midfield before they were forced to punt. And this punt is where that mistake finally happened. Kyle Williams fielded Weatherford's punt cleanly, but after a short return, he was hit by Jaquian Williams, and fumbled the ball. This time, it wasn't disputable. Once again, the Giants recovered. That was the mistake the 49ers were trying to avoid. That was the mistake that would decide the game.

The 49ers, who had lived on forcing turnovers all year long, were done in by their greatest strength.

Williams could do nothing but hang his head. The Giants ran a few token plays just to position the ball and then sent out their Field Goal team to win the game.

With the game on their field, and all the pieces in place, the 49ers couldn't finish the job. And they were left to walk off the field in disappointment.

They shouldn't have been disappointed with the season they had. But it was very easy to be disappointed with the way it ended. Losing a Championship Game on your home field causes a most sorrowful of aching throughout the offseason. And sometimes, these things can cause a hangover into the following season. This, hopefully, will not happen to the 49ers. The 49ers come into 2012 boasting every starter on the league's premier Defense returning to their position. They added several pieces to bolster the Offense and hopefully create more opportunities for Alex Smith to succeed, including poaching a pair of players from the Giants, Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs. Jim Harbaugh has led the team through training camp feeling good and optimistic for this season. Yes, they will face a more difficult schedule. But the hallmark of a great team is that they can always control the tempo of the game. This is something the 49ers did all year long in 2011. Do it again in 2012, and perhaps a taste of the same kind of success will come. There's an air of confidence, and also an air of unfinished business surrounding this team.

Dwight Hicks, a standout Safety and Defensive Captain of the 49ers in the early 80s, once told his teammates after losing a Championship Game to "Remember the Feeling." Holding that thought inside, the 49ers responded by rampaging to a Super Bowl Championship the following season.A bit of that philosophy could serve the 2012 49ers quite well. Remember the feeling. Remember how close you were. Remember how great the journey was to get there. But this time, finish the job. It's been 18 seasons since the 49ers won a Super Bowl. It's time to bring home another one.

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