But that’s what happened Sunday night at Candlestick Park, in the swirling wind and a wicked rain that, at the fateful finish, “was going three different ways,” according to Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes.
That apparently was one too many ways for Kyle Williams who, in his earnestness to make up for previous transgressions, failed to perform the most elemental and important duty of a kick returner: Hold onto the dang football.
Williams didn’t. Twice. And the 49ers blew a tremendous opportunity to finish this amazing turnaround season in the debut of head coach Jim Harbaugh by playing in the Super Bowl.
The Niners probably should be there. But it is the Giants that are going to Indianapolis to play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI after beating the stunned Niners 20-17 in overtime on Tynes’ 31-yard field goal midway through the extra period.
The Super-baugh will not happen. Not even half of it.
But this is the half that should have happened.
“In a lot of ways, we played well enough to win,” a tight-lipped Harbaugh said afterward. “We don’t come away with it. Wasn’t there for us today. It’ll be a tough one. It’ll probably take a while to get over.”
Will it ever.
The 49ers were well on their way to taking control of this one, holding a four-point lead in the fourth quarter, their defense playing terrific, on the verge of dominating the game, forcing the Giants to punt from behind.
Giants. Punt. Those are two dirty words today for 49ers followers everywhere.
Not to mention the 49ers themselves. Forcing the Giants to punt was supposed to be a good thing for the 49ers. Instead, it turned into the best thing for the Giants.
We’ll take them in reverse order, because the second one was the killer, while the first one only set up the kill.
Williams, the second-year veteran who had been capable and even explosive returning kicks in place of Ted Ginn Jr., had to handle that role in the biggest game of his life Sunday because Ginn couldn’t answer the call due to a knee injury suffered last week.
But when the Niners vitally needed Williams to handle the role, he couldn’t keep a handle on the football.
As they had done so many times during a stellar performance, the San Francisco defense had stuffed the Giants after New York had passed midfield on its second possession of overtime. On third-and-3 from the San Francisco 46, Justin Smith sacked Eli Manning for a 10-yard loss, the sixth time the Niners had sacked the play-making New York quarterback.
It was the 14th time in the game the 49ers had stopped the Giants on third down, which is ridiculous. New York converted just two of its final 14 third-down attempts, another indication of the way San Francisco’s defense took over the game.
So out trotted New York’s Steve Weatherford, to punt for the 12th time. He turned out to be the Giants’ secret weapon.
Williams charged up on the football, caught it at the 19, then charged upfield. But the ball left him at the 24, poked out of his hands by New York’s Jacquian Williams. The Giants recovered the ball right there. In a split second, you could see and feel the wind knocked out of this old concrete bowl that may have seen its last NFC title game.
Not the air in the stadium. The air in the guts of 69,732 fans who had tried oh-so-hard all day to cheer on the 49ers and will them to victory.
But the will was broken when Williams put the ball on the turf, just as he had done earlier in the fourth quarter. It definitely broke the will of San Francisco’s defense, which allowed consecutive rushes of 8, 6 and 4 yards to Ahmad Bradshaw to set up Tynes’ chip-shot game-winner two plays later.
“It was just one of those situations where I caught the ball, tried to head up field, tried to make a play,” Williams said, “and it ended up for the worse.”
And what’s even worse, it may have never even come to that if Williams hadn’t gaffed another time as the man back for San Francisco on punts.
There was 11:17 left in the game, 49ers leading 14-10, and that tough San Francisco defense had just stoned the New York offense deep in its own territory, forcing Weatherford to punt from just outside his end zone. He sailed it down the field, and Williams watched it bounce around on the ground, deciding whether he would grab it or not, then finally deciding to keep his hands off it.
Too bad he didn’t do that with his knee. Instead of just getting away from the ball after already making the decision not to stop it, Williams allowed the ball to bounce too close to him, then tried to dance away as it took another hop his way. He failed. After an official’s review made the correct call that the ball had hit Wiliams, the Giants were set up at the San Francisco 29-yard line one play after punting it away from their own 15.
Manning, showing killer instinct, took advantage, getting the Giants in the end zone with his second TD pass to put them ahead 17-14 with a gift touchdown when they were having trouble even making first downs.
The 49ers bounced back, tying the score on their following possession after reaching the New York 7, and then the game became an epic struggle down the stretch, neither team giving an inch, with four possessions and three punts in the final two minutes, with the 49ers reaching the New York 33 on the final play of regulation as the clock hit 00:00.
“That was a great defense we were playing,” Manning said. “We had to fight for everything, every yard we got. But guys never quit, never had any doubt, kept fighting to the end. We just hung in there, kept hanging in there and waiting for a break, waiting for something to happen.”
And that’s how it happened. The 49ers lost this game as much as the Giants won it.
It left another magnificent effort by Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Co. to go to waste. A championship effort by a championship-level defense. It left two long touchdown passes from Alex Smith to Vernon Davis to go to waste. It left a guts-left-on-the-field effort by Frank Gore to go to waste.
This season certainly won’t feel like a waste, not with as far as the 49ers came from nowhere after finishing 6-10 last season and then starting over again with a new coaching staff.
But opportunities like this just don’t come around often. The 49ers captured magic this season, and now they will be the hunted going forward. They’ll play a brutal first-place schedule next season. It will be tough for them to get this far again next season. It’s tough for anybody to get this far in any NFL season.
So far, yet so far away.
“You can dwell or you can move on,” Justin Smith said. “That’s all there is to that. Life goes on. It’s not the end of the world. It’s hard to swallow, but they beat us. They were better than us today, and they deserve to go to the Super Bowl. That’s just the bottom line. That’s how this game shakes out. It’s hard to swallow, but what are you going to do?”
Smith was only off on one thing there: The Giants weren’t really better.
They were just better at not having a punt returner who turned the ball over twice deep in New York territory after New York’s offense had been forced to punt, setting up half of New York’s points, including the winning points.
Alex Smith, lamenting the missed opportunities of the San Francisco offense, which converted just 1 of 13 third-down attempts, didn’t mince words when he said this one felt, “Crappy. Yeah, overtime in the NFC Championship Game. It’s a lot of work. It’s a tough road to even get here. And you get here and you’re so close. So it’s not good, not a good feeling.”
Smith was later asked what he said to Williams. Well, what do you say to a guy – fair or not – that will now go down in infamy as one of the greatest playoff goats in 49ers history?
“I mean, there’s not much you can say,” Smith said. “I can’t come up with something really great, but what do you say? It’s crappy, what do you say to all of us? We all had a hand in it, but I know, obviously him. But it’s not on him. Those were two plays. Two plays of a lot that went on tonight, and you can’t put it on those.”
Well, yes, you can. Those two plays cost San Francisco a trip to the Super Bowl. There is no other way to put it. Take away those two plays, and the Niners are on their way to Indianapolis, their dream season continuing another two weeks and going as far as it possibly can go.
Instead, it all ends here, with Williams holding the bag. If only he could have held the football.