We saw some major mistakes in this past weekend's Conference championship games. Baltimore Ravens WR Lee Evans dropped a potential game-winning TD in the closing moments versus New England. Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff, a former Pro Bowler, missed a 32-yard chip shot with 11 seconds remaining to send the game into overtime.
I think the least forgivable mistake however, came in the NFC title game, when backup kick returner Kyle Williams fumbled a punt return in overtime, leading to a game-winning field goal by New York Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes. Williams demonstrated very poor ball security on his return, failing to apply the "three points of pressure" onto the ball, and as a result, committed a critical error at a crucial moment in the game. To compound the problem, Williams also muffed a punt earlier in the game, when he foolishly misjudged a rolling football that hit him in the leg, and was subsequently recovered by Giants WR Devin Thomas deep in 49ers territory.
Williams' two miscues were the first two turnovers on special teams by the 49ers all season, and they led directly to 10 points for the Giants. We all witnessed just how much the 49ers missed starting return man Ted Ginn on Sunday. Games are not won or lost on one or two plays, however Williams mistakes certainly helped cost the 49ers a trip to Indianapolis, and a spot in Super Bowl XLVI.
Eli vs. Peyton
Up until now, it has been unfair to compare the great Peyton Manning with his younger brother Eli. If the New York Giants defeat the New England Patriots next Sunday, the comparisons will become warranted. Whether or not Peyton Manning plays another down in the NFL, he will statistically go down as one of the greatest QBs to ever play the game. Eli Manning is having his best single season statistically this year. However, he more importantly, has finally become the difference maker for the Giants.
For the first time in his eight- year career, Eli appears to me to be in total control, and as the face of the franchise, is now being counted on to carry this football team. That wasn't always the case. During the Giants 2007 Super Bowl run, Eli was more of a facilitator and game manager. This year, he is truly a game changer.
On Sunday, in miserable throwing conditions, and versus a dominant 49ers defence, Manning was forced to throw the football a franchise-record 52 times! He consistently delivered clutch throws, while throwing under duress, and never once turned the football over.
I spoke with Eli on the phone Monday afternoon, and I could hear a confidence in his voice that I had not yet heard from him. Eli now understands that he is the man, and he has fully embraced it. Like his brother Peyton, Eli is in total control of the Giants' offence. He knows the system as well as offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and the rest of the offensive coaching staff. Watch Eli at the line of scrimmage, and he is audibling, and changing protections, and getting everyone lined up accordingly in the same fashion as his older brother.
Up until now, the only reasonable commonality between the two Mannings was that they had each won a Super Bowl and were voted MVP of their respective games. If the Giants win on Feb 5th, then it is finally fair to compare the great Peyton Manning with his little brother.
Somehow, the New England Patriots offence played their C game, and still came away with an AFC championship crown versus Baltimore on Sunday. Many people wondered whether or not Tom Brady's injured non-throwing shoulder played a part in his sub-par performance.
In the first half, Brady missed three big throws, appearing to lack velocity on each pass. I don't think his shoulder was to blame. I instead believe that Brady was trying to "guide" the ball rather than pull the trigger and let it rip like he normally does. Later in the second half, Brady completed two huge throws over the middle of the field to TE Rob Gronkowski with plenty of zip, proving to me that he was indeed okay.
After the game, Brady admitted that he "sucked pretty bad", and with respect to his criteria, he's right. Brady threw two INTS, the second of which was unforgivable, and failed to throw a TD pass for the first time in 36 games!
Brady will have two weeks to help rest his non- throwing shoulder, and should be close to 100% come Super Bowl Sunday. I expect Brady to be very motivated to play in two weeks, not only because of his poor performance in the AFC Championship game, but because he will be trying to exact revenge on Tom Coughlin, Eli Manning and the New York Giants after losing the Super Bowl to them at the end of the 2007 season.
A motivated Tom Brady is never what an opposing defense wants to hear. Can't wait to see the result in Indianapolis in two week's time!
I feel for Kyle Williams. I can't imagine what he and his family are going through right now. After his infamous two special teams blunders that helped lose the NFC title game to the Giants, the 49ers wide receiver has been the subject of public ridicule, not just in the Bay area, but around the country as well. As a result of hate mail, and negative correspondence, Williams has been forced to shut down his Twitter account. It has been reported that Williams has been receiving death threats. Nobody should have to go through that.
The world can be a tough place for athletes after they've failed in a game. So can the locker room. I can remember the 2002 Wild Card game that I was a part of as a member of the New York Giants when we played the 49ers. Same two teams, same stadium that Kyle Williams played in. After jumping out to a 38-14 lead, the 49ers roared back, overcoming the second biggest deficit in NFL playoff history. We had a chance to win the game on a 41-yard field goal attempt with no time remaining, until a bad snap from Trey Junkin led to a helter-skelter scramble and ended in a controversial incomplete pass that sealed our fate.
Trey Junkin, a 19-year NFL veteran, who we had coaxed out of retirement the week before to replace our injured starting snapper Dan O'Leary, was made the fall guy by fans and the media. I'll never forget seeing him in the locker room after the game, full of guilt, surrounded by teammates that he barely knew. He looked like he wanted to hide from the world. At that point in the season, we believed as a team that we could win the Super Bowl. Trey Junkin believed he let the entire franchise down. Football games are never won or lost on one specific play. Trey Junkin didn't lose the game. Teammates passed by Junkin and offered hollow words of encouragement. "Don't worry about it" they would say.
Like us, Kyle Williams's teammates said all the right things after the game. Pro Bowl middle linebacker Patrick Willis told the media that if they had to do it again, Williams would be the guy they want returning the punt. None of that changes the guilt and remorse that players like Trey Junkin or Kyle Williams are forced to live through once the off-season begins. Junkin had an unbelievable 19-year career, playing for six teams and had been voted to the Pro Bowl. He's remembered however for one bad snap in the 2002 playoffs.
Kyle Williams is an exceptionally talented second-year WR, with plenty of football left in front of him. I hope that he is able to overcome the adversity that is undoubtedly headed his way this off-season, and is able to one day atone for his honest mistakes on the field.