Philadelphia, PA – The San Francisco 49ers had been living off turnovers and stellar special teams play all throughout their tremendous 2011 season. Tom Brady had been bailing out a condemned New England Patriots defense time and time again over that same time frame.
Which makes it all the more harder to explain how the former's championship dreams died because of a pair of disastrous mistakes from the NFL's best "third phase" unit over the course of this campaign, or how Brady's maligned mates on the other side of the ball saved their star quarterback's bacon in the first of a strange and spellbinding two games that determined this year's Super Bowl contestants.
Then again, in a season where close contests and rousing comebacks have been anything but uncommon, such puzzling twists of fate probably shouldn't seem all that peculiar.
Still, to have Sunday's NFC Championship nail-biter between the 49ers and New York Giants decided on a second botched punt return by San Francisco's Kyle Williams was a bit weird, a circumstance almost as eerie as the similar sequence of events that unfolded to make Rex Ryan's worst nightmare come true -- a rematch between the Giants and Patriots for all the marbles on the grandest stage of them all four years after the teams put on one of the most dramatic Super Bowl shows ever.
While the lasting image from the Patriots' 23-20 outlasting of Baltimore in the AFC title match will be Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff's shocking shank of a chip- shot field goal in the final seconds that would have forced overtime, that moment of infamy wouldn't have taken place if not for the contrastingly clutch performance of a New England defense universally viewed to be along for the ride for the club's journey to the conference championship. A rag-tag mixture of castoffs, inexperienced unknowns and offensive defections had by far its finest three hours, continually rising to the occasion and keeping a game on the verge of slipping away in several spots within reach before Brady shook off a few uncharacteristic stumbles to engineer one of his trademark late comebacks.
Cundiff's unfortunate initiation into the dreaded fraternity made famous by Scott Norwood and Gary Anderson came about after a game-saving play by New England cornerback Sterling Moore, an undrafted rookie released back in mid- December before being promoted back off the practice squad just prior to the regular season's penultimate week. The green 21-year-old looked like an established veteran, however, in successfully jarring the football out of the unsteady hands of Ravens receiver Lee Evans in the closing seconds, preventing a would-be game-winning touchdown catch and redeeming himself for a costly miscue earlier in the afternoon, when the backup defender whiffed on a tackle that turned into a 29-yard score for Baltimore's Torrey Smith late in the third quarter.
Moore wasn't the only unlikely hero. Right after Smith's touchdown put the Ravens up by a 17-16 count, Baltimore recovered a Danny Woodhead fumble at New England's 28-yard line on the ensuing kickoff. But the defense stood its ground and forced a successful Cundiff field goal when safety James Ihedigbo (an ex- Jet, no less) buried Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco on a third-down blitz.
Baltimore was able to make the most of every break that came its away in last week's hard-earned 20-13 victory over Houston, converting three Texans' turnovers into 17 points. The Ravens induced three more on Sunday, including two interceptions of a surprisingly-shaky Brady, but came away with nothing more than a pair of Cundiff three-pointers off those errors. Four times Baltimore invaded the red zone, but only one of the trips resulted in a touchdown.
"They're the real MVP of this game, without a shadow of a doubt," Patriots guard Brian Waters said of the defense. "You look at how many bad situations they were put in today and they held their own. They create a turnover and we give it right back. We get a turnover on special teams and they hold [the Ravens] to three. They did an unbelievable job of creating pressure, but yet tackling guys."
While Moore, pressed into an increased role after starting cornerback Kyle Arrington sustained an eye injury in the second quarter (which in turn landed another unsung performer, reserve wide receiver Julian Edelman, as the team's primary nickel back), managed to atone for his previous mistake, Williams couldn't capitalize on his opportunity for restitution. The second-year receiver, handling punts with regular return man Ted Ginn Jr. unavailable due to a knee problem, set the Giants up in scoring position early in the fourth quarter by failing to get out of a way of a short kick and watching the opponent recover the loose ball. Less than three minutes later, New York quarterback Eli Manning connected with Mario Manningham for a 17-yard touchdown that loomed large in a game that ultimately went into overtime.
Williams' second fumble, stripped away by Giants' rookie linebacker Jacquian Williams deep in San Francisco territory after the Niners' sturdy defense created a quick three-and-out in the extra period, would be even more pronounced. Shortly after two hard Ahmad Bradshaw runs gave Big Blue a first down inside the 10-yard line, kicker Lawrence Tynes did what Cundiff couldn't and knocked home a 31-yard try for the deciding points in a 20-17 triumph that sparked its share of deja-vu visions from onlookers everywhere.
The kick was one of the two biggest in Tynes' life. The other came four years ago, also in the NFC Championship. On the road. In overtime. In rough weather conditions. Just after the Giants came up with a pivotal turnover. Against the conference's No. 2 seed. Just one week after they upset the No. 1 seed.
And of course, to bring about a showdown with the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Notice the symmetry here?
Now, the historical correlations between this upcoming matchup and the one that took place between these two tradition-rich foes in Arizona's University of Phoenix Stadium during February of 2008, when the underdog Giants pulled off a stunning 17-14 upset of the then 18-0 Pats in Super Bowl XLII, won't at all guarantee a duplicate outcome. But it certainly ensures that the onslaught of media that will be descending upon Indianapolis in the coming weeks won't be scraping for material to promote a game that had a few fascinating storylines already built in.
The idea of Manning attempting to win a second Super Bowl -- or one more than big brother Peyton -- in the city where his elder sibling carved out his legendary career is pure gold for writers and broadcasters, as is the underlying rivalry between the unflappable Giants quarterback and Brady that was unintentionally stoked when Manning confidently commented that he belonged in the same class as his two-time league MVP counterpart over the summer.
There's also a sentimental angle that adds to New England's revenge motive, with the Patriots having dedicated the season to beloved owner Robert Kraft's late wife Myra after she passed away from a long and courageous battle with cancer in July.
Or how about the connection between Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin, two of the game's premier head coaches and former co-members of the Giants' staff under Bill Parcells, who once roamed the sidelines of both franchises and is one of this year's finalists for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with the class to be announced the night before the Super Bowl?
Bring on the hype.