I had more than a casual interest in the NFL conference championship games on Sunday. After all, my hometown New England Patriots were vying for the AFC title, while my newly adopted and embraced other hometown San Francisco 49ers were going after the NFC title
Had both my chosen teams won, it would have set up a Super Bowl contest between my two hometown teams and given me a difficult who-to-root-for choice. As it turned out, I am not faced with having to make that choice.
Both title games were, if not particularly well-played, exciting, down to the wire contests. But in the end, both of the winning teams backed into the Super Bowl.
Technically, the Pats won, but it was a blown 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left in regulation that kept the game from going into overtime. The Baltimore Ravens’ usually reliable kicker, Billy Cundiff, shanked a 32-yard field goal and the Patriots escaped with a 23-20 victory in the AFC contest. A few hours later, on the other side of the country, the NFC title game was knotted at 17 at the end of regular play and did go into overtime.
As you look back at that game, one pivotal play early in the fourth quarter set up the overtime contest. The Niners were leading 14-10 and had stopped the Giants on a third down attempt, necessitating a punt. But Kyle Williams, returning kicks in place of the injured Ted Ginn, Jr., muffed it, and that set up a go-ahead touchdown for Giants.
The Niners were able to tie it up with a late field goal and the game went into overtime. Once again, the Niners forced the Giants to punt, and once again Kyle Williams attempted the return. This time the ball was stripped from him and recovered by the Giants on the San Francisco 24. The 31-yard field goal by Giants’ placekicker Lawrence Tynes gave the Giants the game and a ticket to the Super Bowl.
Football is clearly a team sport, and you shouldn’t blame a specific player for the outcome of critical games like these. Having said that, there’s no question in my mind that Billy Cundiff of the Ravens and Kyle Williams of the 49ers were the goats. Had Cundiff made that late-in-the-game field goal, it would have sent the AFC contest into overtime. Given the way the Pats had played to that point, the Ravens might very well have prevailed in OT. And Williams’ two costly punt return errors virtually handed the NFC game to the Giants.
So now a rematch of the 2008 Super Bowl has been set up. Four years ago the 18-0 Patriots were supposed to have mopped the field with the Giants, but it didn’t happen that way. The Giants shocked the heavily favored Patriots and walked away with a last minute victory. The early line for this year’s Super Bowl has the Patriots, who have won 10 straight, as a 3-point favorite.
Yes, the Pats have won their last 10 straight games. The last time they lost was in early November, when they succumbed 24-20 to none other than the New York Giants.
Well, I know who I’m rooting for.