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Jaffe: Conference title games decided by unexpected players

 

Football is a team game.

 

It’s a simple saying, and its sheer obviousness makes it a cliche that everyone seems to feel the need to say. Of course, on days like Sunday, you start to remember where that cliche came from.

 

Sunday was the second-most important day of the NFL year: conference championship Sunday. And although sports analysts spent hundreds of hours dissecting the ins and outs of the teams, there isn’t a person in the world that expected the two deciding figures in the action to be Billy Cundiff and Kyle Williams.

 

Yep. Tom Brady, Ed Reed, Frank Gore and Eli Manning all did their thing, but in the end the two spots in the Super Bowl came down to the right foot of Cundiff and the right hand (and right knee) of Williams.

 

In case you live under a sports-free, ESPN-free, NFL-free, news-free, Facebook-free rock, here’s a brief summary of what happened.

 

The Ravens and Patriots went back and forth in a very closely contested affair in Foxboro, Mass. Neither team led by more than a touchdown, and the Patriots held a slim 23-20 lead in the final minutes. The Ravens drove down the field and appeared to take the lead with just seconds left when quarterback Joe Flacco threaded the needle to find his receiver Lee Evans in the end zone. However, Patriot cornerback Sterling Moore knocked the ball out of Evans’ hands at the last second, preventing the touchdown.

 

Overtime was still virtually assured, though, as Cundiff lined up for the game-tying kick with almost no time left on the clock. It was only a 32-yard kick, and Cundiff was 22-for-24 inside 40 yards and hadn’t missed a kick inside 50 yards in the second half all year. Naturally, he hooked it wide left, and just like that, the Patriots lucked in to the Super Bowl.

 

If you’re thinking no one could possibly feel worse than Cundiff, you only needed to wait about four hours to find a great candidate. The NFC Championship Game was just as down-to-the-wire as the AFC version, as the 49ers and Giants were impossible to separate for 60 minutes of action, sending the game to overtime. After each team punted in the extra period, the Giants were stopped near midfield and forced to punt again.

 

Williams, a second-year receiver out of Arizona State, was filling in for the injured Ted Ginn, Jr., as punt returner. Regulation wasn’t kind to Williams, who had no catches on four targets and also let a punt bounce off his knee before the Giants’ Devin Thomas recovered. That muff led to the Giants’ second touchdown, but it wouldn’t even end up being the most memorable gaffe for Williams. That’s because he fumbled another punt in overtime, and again Thomas recovered, this time at the San Francisco 24-yard line. A few runs later set up New York kicker Lawrence Tynes, and unlike Cundiff, he didn’t miss the short field goal.

 

So here we are: Patriots-Giants, round two. It’ll happen almost exactly four years to the day after the two teams met in the famous Super Bowl XLII.

 

And that means we’ll get two weeks of David Tyree helmet catch clips. Two weeks of 18-1 talk. Two weeks of Tom Brady vs. the Giants’ pass rush. Two weeks of comparing Eli Manning to his brother Peyton. Two weeks of Bill Belichick, Victor Cruz and the Gronk.

 

But will any of that really matter? The Ravens had more rushing yards, more passing yards, fewer fumbles and fewer interceptions than the Patriots. Baltimore probably wins that game 99.9 times out of 100. But Sunday was the 0.1, and New England gets to take the trip to Indy. The Niners’ offense had no turnovers, its defense held Manning to five yards per attempt, and the Giants had to punt an unbelievable 12 times. Yet it’s New York that gets to represent the NFC on Feb. 5.

 

Games don’t always go the way the statistics say, and that’s one of the great things about football. Fans of the Ravens and 49ers are all too familiar with Cundiff and Williams than they ever wanted to be, and fans of the Patriots and Giants had better take notice.

 

Football is the team game. It takes every player on the team to make a Super Bowl winner, and great performances can be negated by the simplest mistakes.

 

No one was talking about Tyree four years ago. Who knows who will make the difference on Feb. 5…

 

 

Jacob Jaffe had a premonition that there would be no Harbaughs in the SuperBowl. And yesterday afternoon he had a dream that the Giants would resign David Tyree and he would make another circus catch to beat the Patriots. Will he be right again? Send him your thoughts at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Jaffe.

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