In Terrific Playoff Games, No Shortage of Goats

The Giants and Patriots won, but there were plenty of losers

We probably won't get another Sunday of conference championship games like this anytime soon.

Two games that came down to the final snap in games overstuffed with heroes and goats are a lot to ask on a typical regular season Sunday with a dozen games for our enjoyment. To get them back to back at this point in the season is a gift that football fans should savor for a good long time.

We'll have plenty of time over the next two weeks to celebrate what the Giants and Patriots were able to pull off, but let's take a moment now to look at the other side of the coin. The 49ers and Ravens suffered brutal losses on Sunday, the kind that will resonate until they can get back on the field and start another push for a Super Bowl title. Plenty of people were to blame for those losses, but Monday finds us wondering who had the worst weekend of all.

There are no shortage of candidates.

Lee Evans: The Ravens wide receiver had a game-winning touchdown catch in his hands late in the fourth quarter against the Patriots, but he couldn't make it stick. Give credit to Pats corner Sterling Moore for making a good play on the ball, but Evans should have been able to hold onto it and send his team to Indianapolis. Bills fans are well familiar with Evans' iffy hands, but they never experienced a gut punch like Evans delivered to Baltimore on Sunday.

Billy Cundiff: Thankfully for Evans, his blunder was overshadowed just a couple of moments later. Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal to send the game to overtime and he missed it way to the right thanks to nothing but his own foot. The Ravens seemed discombobulated as they rushed to get the snap off before getting a delay of game call, something that forces us to point the finger of blame at the next guy on the list.

John Harbaugh: You don't get to hold onto timeouts for next season. We mention that because Harbaugh didn't seem to know that as he watched his team stumble over themselves before Cundiff's field goal. Harbaugh made a weak denial that his team was rushing and said he never considered calling timeout, something that makes you wonder if he totally forgot that he still had one in his pocket. Cundiff should have made the kick, but his coach should have put him in the best possible position to hit it.

Alex Smith: Smith had a season of great redemption, but Sunday was a reminder of just why people had such serious doubts about his ability in the first place. It's okay to struggle against the Giants defense, but Smith was throwing passes into the dirt so often that it forces you to consider the possibility that he has a deeply held hatred for worms. Smith made two good plays on Sunday, but he couldn't make one when his team needed it the most. The 49ers never converted a third down and Smith has to shoulder the blame for that. 

The 49ers wide receivers: One catch in the NFC Championship Game as a group. ONE! 

Kyle Williams: Williams gave us a hint of what was to come when he made one of the only diving catches of a punt in memory. That bizarre decision seems totally sane compared to his choice to run close enough to a punt he wasn't fielding that it could bounce off his knee and hand the Giants a touchdown in the fourth quarter. And then came overtime, when Williams carried the ball like it was dipped in the Ebola virus and allowed it to be knocked out of his hands to set up the winning Giants field goal. Worst of all, Williams isn't even the team's regular punt returner. Ted Ginn was hurt and unable to go on Sunday, calling to mind a line from Clerks: I'm not even supposed to be here today!

(One note on Williams, Evans and Cundiff: They all did a commendable job of holding themselves accountable in the moments after the game. There's no way to change what went wrong, but they handled the situations with the kind of maturity that speaks well of them as people if not players.)

Jim Harbaugh: Harbaugh got the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game because he showed boundless faith in his players even when others doubted their abilities. That came back to bite him Sunday. Why wasn't Williams told to simply fair catch everything in overtime? Why was the entire game put on Smith's right arm when Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter were running the ball effectively against the Giants? There comes a point when you have to do what's necessary to win, even if it means changing from the formula you've used to that point. On top of that, Harbaugh dodged the FOX cameras after the game, a poor decision that tarnishes what was an incredibly successful rookie year in the NFL.

Jack and Jackie Harbaugh: If the Ravens and 49ers won on Sunday, they would have been in line for book deals celebrating their ability to create winning head coaches. As it was, they had to watch their sons lose games that scorch the soul. At least the Indiana Hoosiers, coached by son-in-law Tom Crean, won on Sunday.

The officials: It has been an awful postseason for NFL zebras and Sunday added another chapter to the tale of woe. Evans' play was almost certainly not a catch, but there was no reason not to review it to make it absolute. In the Giants win, the officials bailed out Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw when he fumbled on a hit by Patrick Willis in the fourth quarter by blowing the whistle ludicrously early for stopped forward progress. It looks even worse because the play is not reviewable, which is the NFL's shoulder-shrugging gesture that always looks like they are covering up egregious errors by the men in the striped shirts.

Peyton Manning: We're sure Peyton is happy for Eli and all, but little brother is 60 minutes away from taking the family lead in Super Bowl rings. If he doesn't, Tom Brady will win a fourth ring and further separate himself from Peyton in the race for the crown of best quarterback of this generation. And the game is going to be played at Peyton's home stadium in Indianapolis while the (erstwhile?) Colts quarterback tries to figure out if he's ever able to play again.

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