If it’s true “defence wins championships,” the NFL’s conference title games offered ample evidence that special teams can lose them.
“You’re going to need special teams,” said former NFL head coach turned NFL Network analyst Dennis Green. “A kick will win a game more often than a run or pass will win the game, and a special-teams tackle can make a big difference.
“There’s nothing like it when it all works. And there’s nothing worse when it doesn’t work.”
The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers found that out the hard way Sunday.
First, the Ravens wasted an easy opportunity to force overtime in the AFC championship game when Billy Cundiff pushed a 32-yard field-goal attempt wide left, letting the New England Patriots escape with a 23-20 victory.
Then, in a windy and rainy NFC championship game a few hours later, the 49ers handed the Giants the football and great field position in overtime when fill-in returner Kyle Williams fumbled a punt — his second turnover of the game on a return — and New York soon was celebrating its 20-17 victory on Lawrence Tynes’ 31-yard field goal.
“Those games were even. The teams were even. Baltimore was going to win with the run game and defence, and that was the way San Francisco was going to win, too. When you have that as your way to win, you have to have special teams play a role, because it means a low-scoring game,” Green said. “Everyone always says you win with the three phases — offence, defence, special teams — but rarely do they mention special teams when it comes to what is the most significant thing.”
After the Patriots and Giants set up their Super Bowl rematch, though, that was the main thing everyone wanted to talk about.
“This was a game of field position, a game of turnovers. We needed for special teams to help us, No. 1, with the field position aspect of it, but secondly, in contributing turnovers,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “And certainly we got two big ones.”
Williams’ first miscue, allowing the ball to bounce off the turf and scrape his right knee, gave New York the ball at San Francisco’s 29-yard line early in the fourth quarter. That led to Eli Manning’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham that put the Giants ahead 17-14.
On Monday, Williams said he didn’t think the ball touched him.
The second error by Williams — the son of Chicago White Sox general manager Kenny Williams and the subject of angry, and sometimes threatening, tweets after the game — set up the Giants at the 49ers’ 24. On that play, he was stripped by New York’s Jacquian Williams, a backup linebacker, while trying to shift the football from one hand to the other.
The Giants player who recovered both botched punts, Devin Thomas, is also hardly a household name. Thomas was drafted in the second round of the 2008 draft by the Washington Redskins but was released in October 2010 after being dogged by questions about his work ethic and route-running ability.
“My position as a fourth or fifth wide receiver and special teams player — I take pride in that and do anything to help this team win,” Thomas said.
Describing the overtime play, Thomas recounted: “It was like, ‘I can’t believe he just fumbled.’ Then I’m like, ‘OK. I’m right here.’ So I just made sure I secured it.”
Special-teams players sometimes are the last men on an NFL roster, young or fringe players who get their best chance to make an impact on the kicking units (although starting 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman made at least one particularly impressive tackle on punt coverage Sunday).
Kyle Williams, actually, was handling returns against the Giants because he replaced the injured Ted Ginn Jr.
“When you’re out there, you want to make a play. You want to make a play for your team. We weren’t exactly moving forward. It was one of those things where we needed something to spark us. I feel comfortable. I wouldn’t go back and change it; 10 times out of 10, I wouldn’t change it,” San Francisco’s Williams said. “It was one of those things where I was just trying to make something happen — and the other guy on the other team made something happen.”
It must have been particularly galling for Ravens coach John Harbaugh to see his team flub a kick, given that part of his preparation for becoming an NFL coach was serving as a special teams assistant. He had a timeout left at the end Sunday, but didn’t use it, and it appeared Baltimore might have been rushing just a bit before taking that missed kick.
Harbaugh — whose brother Jim coaches the 49ers — wasn’t available to reporters Monday, but Cundiff was.
“It’s tough to disappoint your teammates,” the kicker said, “and it’s tough to go out there and fail.”
There were, to be sure, other reasons his team lost Sunday, including Lee Evans’ drop of a pass in the end zone moments earlier. Plus, even if Cundiff did make that seemingly automatic kick, there still was overtime to be played, and who knows what would have happened then?
The 49ers, meanwhile, could point to plenty of other problems, including going 1-for-13 on third down.
And let’s not pretend the Patriots and Giants were absolutely perfect on special teams, either. New England’s Danny Woodhead fumbled a kickoff return in the second half, leading to a field goal by Cundiff. The Giants, meanwhile, got pushed back five yards by a sloppy delay-of-game penalty before Tynes’ game-ending kick.
“You can never take for granted the ability to hit a field goal at the end of a game,” Green said. “Every now and then, you can have a disaster.”