Yes, Kyle Williams’ awful punt-fielding misadventures ended up costing the 49ers a trip to the Super Bowl. But winning and losing is a team sport, and each team is made up of 53 guys. In the end, the Giants’ 53rd man (Jacquian Williams) was just a little better than the Niners’ 53rd man (Kyle Williams).
But there were other notable individual performances in this toe-to-toe battle that are worth highlighting, including a key chemistry experiment that blew up, costing the Niners the game long before it went to overtime.
Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul vs Aldon Smith and Justin Smith
These four terrors combined for four of the eight sacks delivered to the quarterbacks in this game. The Niners’ unheralded interior lineman Ray McDonald added two and a half of his own with brute-force rushes right up the gut. As matchups go, these defensive lines are about as evenly matched as any two you could ask for.
The offensive lines of each team wilted repeatedly under the pressure of the constant onslaught. Injury situations didn’t help. The Niners’ best lineman, guard Mike Iupati, was hobbled by an in-game ankle roll-up and played at half strength when he played at all. And Giants tackle David Diehl has been nagged by his hip, hamstring and hand, barely able to create any semblance of a pocket for Manning.
The result was a difficult work environment for the two quarterbacks.
Alex Smith vs Eli Manning
The often-maligned San Francisco quarterback has been called a bust, a fraud, even “the other Alex Smith” when a tight end in Tampa Bay by the same name started making a name for himself. But this Alex Smith had a fantastic game, even if that is a strange proclomation to make for a player that completed only 12 of 26 passes.
Those 12 completions were good for 196 yards and 2 touchdowns, giving him five TDs and no interceptions for the playoffs.
Eli Manning is all too familiar with being given the “bust” label, and the effort it requires to rid yourself of it. Both quarterbacks have the additional burden of being #1 picks, the presumptive honor of being chosen as the best player of your respective draft class.
The elements and the opposing defenses conspired to make life difficult for these quarterbacks, but both performed admirably well. Smith and Manning both tested their counterpart’s secondaries with booming throws: Smith found Vernon Davis for a breakaway touchdown, Manning found Victor Cruz early and often to keep the chains moving. Manning dropped back to throw more than twice as often as Smith, and took twice as much punishment in the pocket, but the two essentially stalemated each other.
Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks vs Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree
This was the difference in the game, right here. While Manning had two go-to receivers capable of working the field from the inside out, opening the game up for secondary targets, Smith had but one.
Vernon Davis creates nearly impossible one-on-one matchup problems for opposing defenses, but when you can go two on one, or three on one, he becomes a lot easier to take away.
Aside from Michael Crabtree, Smith’s only other wideout target was the aforementioned Kyle Williams. He threw nine passes their way. They caught one. And now you have an idea of why the Niners went 1-for-13 in their third down conversions, where the Giants went a modest but more respectable 7-for-21.
Smith needed to find other options in the receiving game, but repeatedly turned to Frank Gore instead of Crabtree. There’s no wonder why. When it comes to crunch time, a quarterback goes to guys that he trusts.
Crabtree has been indifferent at best toward Alex Smith as his quarterback since day one, and nearly killed his team’s chances of winning against the Saints with a couple critical drops. While Smith was architecting the greatest double-comeback victory of his team’s storied history, #15 disappeared from the gameplan entirely.
Apparently, Crabtree was still invisible to Smith all this week. When asked if there was anything he could do to restore his receiver’s confidence, Smith replied: “I guess it’s not something I’m thinking about.”
It’s something that the team will have all offseason to think about. Of the two players, only Crabtree is under contract for next season. But odds are, he’s not the one the team wants to keep.
The 49ers were thisclose to returning to the Super Bowl, home of so much glory to their franchise. Odds are, at least one new primary target will be in house next year as they try to complete the journey.