The conference championship games couldn’t have been more similar on Sunday. They consisted of four teams battling it out for an hour of play, before the result came down to a trio of mistakes that cost the Ravens and 49ers an opportunity to play for a Super Bowl title.
For the Baltimore Ravens, wide receiver Lee Evans dropped what would have been a go-ahead, and almost certain, game-winning touchdown pass from Joe Flacco in the final minute of the Ravens’ eventual 23-20 loss to the New England Patriots. He caught the ball but it was knocked out of his grasp by Patriots cornerback Sterling Moore.
Two plays later, Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff headed out to attempt a short field goal to send the game into overtime. Cundiff, who had been selected to the Pro Bowl a year earlier, missed the kick wide left, sending the Patriots to the Super Bowl for the fifth time in the last 11 seasons.
In the NFC championship game, the 49ers and Giants headed into overtime, with the score tied at 17. Neither team scored on the first three possessions (two by the Giants and one by the 49ers). But 49ers wide receiver Kyle Williams fumbled the punt after a five-yard return. The Giants recovered, and kicked the game-winning field goal four plays later.
That’s two blunders by the Ravens, and one by the 49ers. So now it’s time to rank them. Which was the worst?
3) I think the Billy Cundiff missed field goal was the most forgivable of the three blunders. Let me set the record straight. There is absolutely no excuse for missing a 32-yard field goal. None. Cundiff is an NFL kicker, and even though he’s had a shaky career and a shaky season, he did make the Pro Bowl last season. And again, we’re talking about a 32-yard field goal. But the Ravens would have still headed into overtime with the game tied at 23, and the Patriots definitely would have had a better chance to win with their explosive offensive. Flacco had outplayed Brady all game but Tom Brady is the greatest overtime quarterback in NFL history and I think he would have pulled this one out for New England.
2) The Lee Evans drop ranks second among the three blunders. Evans’ catch was the only one of the three blunders that would have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. His catch would have ranked as arguably the top play in Baltimore Ravens history, and it would have really helped the reputation of Joe Flacco. But I can’t completely blame Evans on the play. The throw was just a little bit behind him, causing him to turn around. He did have possession of the ball briefly before it was knocked out by Patriots cornerback Sterling Moore, and I do think the play should have at least been reviewed. But in the end, an NFL receiver needs to be able to make that catch. Thankfully, Evans’ drop didn’t cost the Ravens a victory. They still had the ball in range for an easy field goal, or so they thought.
1) The fumble by 49ers punt returner Kyle Williams was the most unforgivable play in Sunday’s conference championship games. Williams had already lost a fumble early in the fourth quarter when he reached out and touched a punt bouncing by. The Giants recovered and would have been able to run it in for a touchdown if not for the NFL rule that prevented them from returning the football. So for Williams to fumble again, a quarter later, is absolutely unacceptable. Reports have indicated that Williams was playing with a shoulder injury, but if that’s the case, and the injury prevented him from playing at a peak level, he should have alerted Coach Harbaugh to take himself out of the game. By attempting to play through the pain, he cost his team a Super Bowl trip. Or maybe the fumble had nothing to do with the injury. Either way, the 49ers were in good position to drive down the field for a potential game-winning field goal attempt from record-setting kicker David Akers. Instead they’ll be watching the Super Bowl on TV like the other 30 teams.