Sundays are about football.
So for political junkies concerned about the South Carolina Primary, go somewhere else or return here Monday. I will say this only once more.
Sundays are about football.
At the end of this Sunday, America will know who will be in the Super Bowl.
Before getting to the NFL, a quick college football note. Legendary Penn State Coach Joe Paterno died from cancer at the age of 85. Some will say he died of a broken heart. While his final weeks involved a scandal unrelated to him, that cannot and must not tarnish his 46 years of loyal service to the university. He ran a clean program, and nothing that one of his former assistants did, no matter how evil, should tarnish Mr. Paterno or the Penn State football program. Farewell Joe Pa. You will be missed.
Now on to the National Football League.
AFC Title Game: Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots–John Harbaugh and the 12-4 Ravens take on the 13-3 Patriots. The Ravens were the # 2 seed, holding serve at home against the Houston Texans in a tougher than expected matchup. The top seeded Patriots blasted the 8-8 Broncos and ended Tebowmania by halftime.
These teams have played a couple of very intense games in the last few years. In the 2007 season the Patriots went 16-0 in the regular season, but the won game many felt they should have lost was to the Ravens. There were some very controversial calls with only seconds left in the game. The Ravens even stopped the Patriots on fourth down only to be told that a timeout had been called. The Ravens felt that game was stolen from them.
In 2009, both teams went to the playoffs and the Ravens went into New England and beat the daylights out of the Patriots 33-14. New England has been humbled two straight years at home in the playoffs, and want to get the recent monkey off of their back. Evil Hoodie Bill Bellichick knows his defense is suspect, and that the Ravens have an aging but great defense. This may be the last chance for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, so Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata will try to get those guys a ring. Neither team is trash-talking before this game, as everyone from Brady on down on both sides has been exceedingly polite. There is no bulletin board material here like there would be with Baltimore vs Pittsburgh or the Jets vs New England.
The defenses ruled early on as the Ravens punted twice and the Patriots once. The Patriots began their second drive at their own 39. Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis ran for 9 and 2. Tom Brady hit Deon Branch for 11. On 3rd and 7 from the Baltimore 36, Brady hit Julian Edelman for 8. Brady was intercepted by Pollard, but illegal contact kept the drive going. The drive would stall at the 11, and Stephen Gostkowski hit the 29 yarder to take the 3-0 lead.
New England got it back at their own 40 but Brady was intercepted again by Lardarius Webb, who’s penalty nullified the last one. This one stood, as the Ravens took over at their own 30. Joe Flacco went deep to Tory Smith for a 42 yard gain. On 3rd and 5 from the 23, Flacco hit Smith for 11. On the first play of the second quarter, the Ravens faced 3rd and 5 at the 7. Flacco hit Anquon Boldin for 4 yards. On 4th and 1 from the 3, John Harbaugh went for the field goal. Billy Cundiff hit the 20 yarder to tie it 3-3.
New England took over at their own 25. Green-Ellis ran for 13 and 11. On 3rd and 8 just past midfield, Brady hit Wes Welker for 9 and Rob Gronkowski for 20. A facemask set up 1st and goal at the 7, and on the next play Green-Ellis ran it straight up the middle for the score to have the Patriots up 10-3. After a touchback, Flacco quickly went to Lee Evans for 20 yards and then deep to Boldin for a 37 yard gain to the New England 18. On 3rd and 1 from the 9, Ray Rice got the tough yard. Flacco hit Danny Pitta for a 6 yard touchdown to tie the game 10-10 with 6 minutes left in the half.
After a touchback, Brady hit Welker for 14, Hernandez for 9, Gronkowski for 12, Welker for 8, and Hernandez for 17. From the 17, 3 straight incompletions meant a 35 yarder by Gostkowski. The Patriots led 13-10 with 3 minutes left in the half. New England got it back at their own 11 with one minute left, but Bill Bellichick took no chances. New England took a knee and prepared to receive the second half kickoff.
In the third quarter New England quickly faced 3rd and 6 at their own 24. Brady hit Gronkowski for 21 yards. With Haloti Ngata on the bench for a few plays, New England shifted to the running game out of the shotgun. Hernandez gained 9, Brady 4, and Green-Ellis a pair of 6 yard gains. On 3rd and 6 from the Baltimore 26, Brady hit Hernandez for 12. Yet on 3rd and 2 from the 6, Green Ellis came up one yard short. On 4th and 1 from the 5 Bill Bellichick opted for the field goal. Gostkowski hit the 23 yarder as the Patriots led 16-10. Yet the key stop kept it a one score game.
From their 22, Flacco hit Dickson for 7 and Ray Rice ran for 12 and 4. On 3rd and 11 from their 40, Flacco hit Lee Evans for 13. On 3rd and 6 from the New England 43, Flacco hit Pitta for 8. On 3rd and 4 from the 29, Flacco hit Smith on a short swing pass shy of the marker. Yet Smith broke a tackle, raced to the sideline, stiff-armed a defender, and lunged just past the pileon. It was reviewed, and the ball crossed before he came down out of bounds. With 3 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter, the Ravens had a 17-16 lead.
A cleanly played game saw the first big blunder on the ensuing kickoff as Danny Woodhead had the ball jarred loose. Cook fell on it as the Ravens took over at the New England 28. On 2nd and 7 Flacco rolled out, saw nobody, and took off for a 14 yard gain. On 3rd and 8 from the 9, Flacco was sacked for a 12 yard loss. Cundiff came in for the 39 yarder. It was good, and the Ravens led 20-16. Yet now both teams had failed to see a lead extended beyond a one score game.
Woodhead redeemed himself on the ensuing kickoff, returning it 41 yards to the New England 37. Brady went to Gronkowski for a 23 yard gain. Brady then went deep and was intercepted by Williams, but defensive offsides nullified that play as well. Brady then went to Welker for 9 to end the third quarter. The fourth quarter began with the Patriots at the Baltimore 26. On 3rd and 7 from the 23, Brady hit Welker for 8 and Hernandez for 5. Woodhead gained 5 and 4. On 2nd and goal from the 1, Brady snuck it in and just got in. Yet on further review Brady’s knee was down short of the goal to set up 3rd and goal. Green-Ellis went airborne and was belted back by Ray Lewis. Bellichick decided to go for it on 4th and goal at the one with the Super Bowl on the line. Brady snuck over the top as the Patriots retook the lead 23-20 with 11 1/2 minutes left in regulation.
After a touchback, the running game gashed the Patriots and set up 2nd and 5 from just past midfield. Yet with the running game working perfectly, Flacco tried a play action pass and was intercepted by BrandonSpikes. Spikes returned it 19 yards to midfield. Midway through the fourth quarter, now it was the Patriots trying to put the game away. Brady went for the bomb to the end zone, and what occurred next was sheer acrobatics. Pollard leaped up in the air for the defense, got one hand on the ball, batted it up in the air, and it was intercepted by Smith. No whistle had blown, and Smith got up in the end zone and returned it to the Baltimore 38. Replays showed that somehow the ball never hit the ground.
Ray Rice gained 7 and 2. On 3rd and 1, with everyone expecting another run, Flacco passed to Dickson, who dragged defenders for a 16 yard gain. Ricky Williams then gained 7. On 3rd and 3 from the New England 30, out of the shotgun, a draw play to Rice blew up in the backfield as Rice was blasted for a 3 yard loss. With only 3 minutes left in regulation, a field goal would have been 53 yards. The Ravens decided to go for it on 4th and 6. Then John Harbaugh called their first timeout. They went for it anyway, and Flacco went back to pass. Vince Wilfork was all over him, and Flacco threw high and incomplete. The Patriots took over at their own 33 with a chance to end the game.
Rather than run, Brady came out throwing. He hit Branch for 7. A toss to Green-Ellis lost a yard. With 1:56 to play, everything came down to the Patriots facing 3rd and 4 at their own 41. Tom Brady and his offense squared off against Ray Lewis Ed Reed and their defense. The game and the season came down to one play. Brady fired to Hernandez, and at the last second Old Man Ed Reed knocked it away. The Ravens had life. The Patriots punted, and the Ravens took over at their own 21 with 2 timeouts left and 1:44 on the clock. A field goal would tie it. Now it was the criticized Ravens offense against the criticized Patriots defense.
On 2nd and 10 Flacco hit Pitta, but he stumbled before getting out of bounds as the clock wound down. On 3rd and 5 under a heavy rush, Flacco hit Boldin for 13 yards. Boldin got out of bounds with 1:14 left. Flacco hit Boldin just shy of the sticks as the Ravens took their 2nd timeout facing 3rd and 1 at their own 48 with one minute left. Under heavy pressure Flacco found Boldin in the flat, and Boldin took it down the sideline 29 yards to the New England 23 with 51 seconds left. Flacco went to Boldin again. Boldin caught it, was stripped, and fumbled it out of bounds. Instead of a first down, it was a 9 yard gain and 2nd and 1. Flacco then went to the end zone and found a wide open Lee Evans.
Evans had it in his body. He got one foot down. Then at the last possible moment just before his second foot came down, Sterling Moore made the defensive play of his career stripping it away. A sure touchdown was now an incompletion. On 3rd and 1 under another heavy rush, Flacco fired a dangerous pass that was incomplete. With 15 second remaining, on 4th and 1 from the 14, Cundiff came in for the 32 yard chip shot to send the game into overtime.
No good! Cundiff kicked it wide. Not since Ray Finkle missed one and turned into Lois Einhorn has a kick in a critical situation gone so wrong. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed could only watch in horror. The Evil Empire of Football won yet another 3 point playoff game. To quote Paul Maguire, “I hate kickers. They should be paid $50 a game.” Then he revised the number to 25 cents. To paraphrase him, “It doesn’t matter because Billy Cundiff isn’t going to be a Raven next year.
Both quarterbacks finished with identical 22 of 36 passing. Yet Flacco had 309 yards, 2 touchdowns and one interception. Brady had 236 yards and 2 interceptions. He had 0 touchdown passes, but did rush for one. A fine football game came down to the final moments. The Ravens are done and the Patriots have a chance at yet another ring. An emotional Robert Kraft, who lost his wife Myra just before the season started, accepted the Lamar Hunt AFC Trophy with a heavy heart. Brady said “I sucked today but our defense saved us.” 23-20 Patriots
NFC Title Game: New York Giants @ San Francisco 49ers–This year the 9-7 Giants barely made the playoffs on the final Sunday while San Francisco went 13-3 and got the # 2 seed. Big Blue destroyed Atlanta at home and blasted 15-1 top seed Green Bay on the road. San Francisco won a thriller over New Orleans with seconds left in “The Catch III.”
These teams played many big games over the years. In 1984 the 49ers went 15-1 and beat the Giants in the playoffs before winning it all. In 1985 the Giants beat the 49ers in the playoffs before falling one game short. In 1986 it was the Giants who won it all, including blasting the 49ers by a 49-3 score in the playoffs.
1990 saw two of the greatest games ever played. The first was on Monday Night Football. Both teams started 10-0, then lost, and faced each other at 10-1. The 49ers won 7-3 when the Giants were stopped on 4th and goal from the 9. A key decision came with 4 minutes left when Bill Parcells decided to go for it rather than kick a field goal and rely on his defense. The field goal would have made it 7-6, and the Giants could have won at the end.
The rematch was even better. It was the NFC Title Game. Joe Montana was blasted out of the game by Leonard Marshall and missed football for 2 years. Late in the game with 4 minutes left, the Giants were down 13-9 and faced th same decision. This time Parcells kicked the field goal and trusted his defense. Rodger Craig fumbled, Lawrence Taylor got it, and Matt Bahr kicked the winner at the gun to give the Giants the stunning 15-13 win. The Giants won the Super Bowl a week later.
The last time they met in the playoffs was after the 2002 season. The Giants led 38-14 and the 49ers came back with 25 unanswered points. The Giants had a field goal try on the final play to win it. A bad snap led to an attempted pass as flags were everywhere. The Giants were expecting defensive pass interference, since one of their men was thrown to the ground. Instead it was illegal man down field on the offense. The referees admitted afterward that they blew it. Jim Fassel was not consoled. Steve Mariucci responded by saying “bummer.” One week later the 49ers lost and Mariucci was fired.
Now the coaches are Tom Coughlin and Jim Harbaugh. Coughlin saw his Giants shock the 2007 world by knocking off unbeaten New England. Jim Harbaugh has seen his team show mental toughness. Both teams have fantastic defenses, while the Giants have more superstars on offense. Nevertheless, the 49ers grew up a lot on offense last week. The winners today go to the Super Bowl. The losers go home. There is nothing left to say.
A cold and clammy day is San Francisco is like saying water is wet. It is, and the NFC Title Game would be played in less than ideal conditions. The 49ers punted, and the Giants soon faced 3rd and 8 at their own 43. Eli Manning was sacked and fumbled. The Giants lost 13 yards on the play and punted. The 49ers took over at their own 27. Alex Smith hit Vernon Davis on the sideline, and Davis raced for a 73 yard touchdown to make it 7-0 49ers. Unsportsmanlike conduct on Davis was assessed on the kickoff. The Giants moved from their 31 to a 3rd and 1 at the Frisco 34. Manning threw incomplete and Tom Coughlin decided to go for it. Brandon Jacobs got stuffed and the 49ers took over. A toss run led to a fumble and a 10 yard loss and another punt. The rain was coming down hard as the opening quarter ended with the 49ers up 7-0.
On the first play of the second quarter the Giants faced 3rd and 6 at their own 35. Manning went deep to Victor Cruz for a 36 yard gain. On 3rd and 4 from the 23, Manning found Cruz for 6 and Hakeem Nicks for 9. Jacobs gained 2 to set up 1st and goal at the 6. Manning fired to Pascoe for the touchdown to tie the game 7-7.
The 49ers moved from their 22 to a 3rd and 5 at the Giants 47. Alex Smith came up one yard short. On 4th and 1 from the Giants 43, a costly delay of game penalty meant a punt. The first half was a slog, and the Giants got it back at their own 36 with 1:36 left in the half. Manning found Cruz for 15, 11, and again for an acrobatic 17 yard catch as Manning spiked the ball with 20 seconds left in the half at the Frisco 21. After a delay of game penalty, Manning found Cruz yet again for a 13 yard gain and then spiked the ball with 6 seconds left. From 31 yards out, Lawrence Tynes was good as the Giants led 10-7 at halftime.
A field position game had the 49ers midway through the third quarter at their own 46. Smith made it look easy he hit Frank Gore for a 24 yard gain and then went deep to Davis for a 28 yard touchdown. With 5 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter the 49ers led 14-10. Despite the bad weather, the first three quarters was a relatively clean game with 0 turnovers and few penalties. Yet a personal foul on the Giants defense as the third quarter ended had the 49ers beginning the fourth quarter at their own 45. Yet on 3rd and 1 from the Giants 46, Dixon ran into a Big Blue brick wall as the 49ers punted.
With 11 minutes left, controversy ensued. The Giants punted, and 49ers return man Kyle Williams got out of the way. Yet rather than down it, a Giants special teams player picked it up and ran for what he insisted was a touchdown. The referees blew the whistle saying the ball had not been touched by the 49ers. Replay showed that the ball did hit Williams on the leg, just grazing him. That would make it a live ball. Former head referee and now tv analyst Mike Pereira said it was touched by the 49ers. Tom Coughlin challenged the call and was successful. Since a muff cannot be advanced, it would not have been a Giants touchdown anyway, so blowing the whistle did not cheat them. The Giants got the ball at the Frisco 29, and the refs got it right.
On 3rd and 7 from the 26, Manning found Nicks for 14. An offensive holding penalty meant 2nd and 20, and everything came down to 3rd and 15 from the 17. Manning fired the end zone in between double coverage and Mario Manningham caught it, got belted, and hung on to the ball for the touchdown. The Giants led 17-14 with 8 1/2 minutes left in regulation. Yet the 49ers were back in business with a 40 yard kickoff return to the San Francisco 45.
From midfield, Smith scrambled for 17 yards. Kevin Hunter then ran for 18 more yards. Yet on 3rd and 5 from the 10 with Jim Harbaugh unsuccessfully trying to call a timeout, A pass from Smith to Michael Crabtree only gained 3. On 4th and 2 from the 7 Akers came in for the 25 yard chip shot. The game was now tied 17-17 with 6 minutes left in the game.
The Giants soon faced 3rd and 9 at their own 21. Manning hit Beckum, but 3 yards short. The 49ers got it back at their own 35 with 4 minutes left. Yet on 3rd and 7 Smith was sacked by Kiwanuka for a 10 yard loss as the 49ers punted. The Giants took one timeout and got the ball back at their own 26 with 3 minutes left. After 57 minutes, each team had exactly 288 yards in this dead-even game.
Manning was sacked for an 11 yard loss. On the next platy a short completion resulted in a fumble recovery for the 49ers. However, the whistle had blown as forward progress had been stopped. Again the refs got it right, and the 2 minute warning came with the Giants facing 3rd and 15 from their own 21.
Manning went deep to Cruz, but this was not the Super Bowl from 4 years ago as it was just off his fingertips. The Giants punted and the 49ers took over at their own 28 with 1:47 to play. Last week Alex Smith was the hero, and he had another chance.
Both teams were ferocious on defense, and Smith was lucky enough to avoid a pair of sacks. 3 straight incompletions took only 18 seconds off the clock as now Eli Manning, a hero already in his career, would have another chance. The Giants began from their own 18 having 1:18 to work with and 2 timeouts. Manning then just released the ball before getting leveled by 3 defenders. The miracle throw to Ahmad Bradshaw went for 30 yards with 1:05 left. A surprise run call did not work, gaining only 2 yards to midfield with the clock running.
On the next play Manning rolled out, and just before getting hit again by a defender, completed a pass to Bradshaw for 4 yards. The Giants took a timeout. It all came down to 3rd and 4 at the Frisco 46 with 32 seconds left. A pass over the middle to Cruz was high as Cruz bobbled it several times and it eventually fell incomplete. The Giants had to punt. With 19 seconds left, the 49ers had the ball at their own 36. Last week was “The Catch III.” They would need a 4th one to set up a field goal try. The 49ers had all 3 timeouts.
A pass to Gore gained only 3 yards as 12 seconds remained. Smith set up for the Hail Mary and was sacked. Only 4 seconds remained. Last week the Giants completed a Hail Mary on the last play of the half. Now they had to defend one on the last play of regulation. Smith completed the pass for a long gain, but far short of the end zone. For the 3rd time in the last 5 years, the NFC Title Game was going to overtime. One of those games was the 2007 Giants team often being mentioned this year. This game would be played under the new overtime rules. Referee Ed Hochuli explained them as the world pretended to understand them. The Giants won the toss as the rain poured down.
After a touchback, a short pass to Hynoski followed by brutal upfield running gained 10 yards. Manning then went for it all deep into double coverage. It should have been intercepted but the defenders collided, leading to an incompletion. The Giants would punt, and the 49ers took over at their own 22. For those who cared, the game was now sudden death as the new rules no longer applied. So far they have never applied. Frank Gore was knocked backward, and on 3rd and 12 a pass to Davis came up one yard short. The 49ers punted, and this time the Giants had good field position at their own 36.
Bradshaw gained 6 and Manning hit Travis Beckum for 6 more. A neutral zone infraction was followed by Manning getting hit again just as he threw, as a wobbly duck fell incomplete. On 3rd and 3 from the Frisco 46, one more first down would have been long field goal range. Instead, Manning was sacked again and the Giants punted again.
Normally Ted Ginn Jr would be returning kicks and punts, but he was out of this game with a knee injury. Kyle Williams muffed one earlier in this game. This time Williams returned it and was hit by Williams of the Giants. As Williams hit Williams, a fumble was recovered by Thomas of the Giants. With 9 1/2 minutes left in overtime, The Giants had the ball at the Frisco 24, already in field goal range. The 49ers needed a miracle at this point, while the Giants needed only to protect the ball and kick a makeable field goal. Noting was certain in this game.
Ahmad Bradshaw got around the end for 8 yards. Bradshaw got the ball again and gained another 6 yards to set up 1st and goal at the 10. Bradshaw got it yet again for 4 more yards. Tom Coughlin took no more risks of a fumble. Eli Manning took a knee after centering the ball for the field goal of 26 yards. Lawrence Tynes came in but somehow the Giants got caught with a delay of game penalty. Now it was 31 yards. Four years ago in the NFC Title Game Tynes missed 2 tries in the fourth quarter but went from goat to hero by winning it in overtime. This time the snap was low, but the holder got it down and Tynes was the hero again. The kick was good.
Sports is about heroes and goats, and the 49ers have many heroes in their proud history. Yet fans will always be haunted in San Francisco by the goat Kyle Williams. Sports can be very cruel, and Mr.Williams was on the receiving end of that cruelty. Both teams played fantastic defense, and one special teams play was the difference. The Giants are now 5-0 in NFC Title Games while the 49ers lost a heartbreaker one week after winning a thriller. This dead-even game even saw both teams have a top rusher with exactly 74 yards. Alex Smith was only 12 of 26 for 196 yards, but he had 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. He was not why the 49ers lost. Eli Manning was 32 of 58, both Giants playoff records. He threw for 316 yard and 2 touchdowns with 0 interceptions. The 49ers had a great game, but it was the Giants holding the George Halas NFC Championship trophy. 20-17 Giants, OT
There would be no Harbaugh Bowl in the Super Bowl as both Jim and John lost today. The Harbaugh Bowl will be next week in Hawaii in the Pro Bowl. Yes, the Pro Bowl again is one week before the Super Bowl. As for Super Bowl XLVI (46), This is a rematch from 4 years ago.
SUPER BOWL XLVI (46):
AFC: New England Patriots
NFC: New York Giants
Let’s get it on!