The Giants sure know how to play exciting NFC championship games. More importantly, they know how to win them.
For the second time in five seasons, the Giants have advanced to the Super Bowl with a thrilling overtime victory on the road in the conference title game. On Sunday in rainy and windy Candlestick Park, Lawrence Tynes kicked a 31-yard field goal with 7:54 elapsed in the extra period to give the Giants a 20-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. The Giants will face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5 in Indianapolis.
It will be the Giants' fifth Super Bowl appearance. They are 3-1.
The game-winning kick was set up by an overtime takeaway when Devin Thomas recovered a Kyle Williams fumble that was forced by Jacquian Williams on a punt return.
"That was a tremendous football game for those that really enjoy football in its very basic element," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "It was just a classic football game."
The scenario is eerily familiar to what occurred four years ago, when the Giants won the championship game on the road (at Green Bay) with an overtime takeaway (Corey Webster's interception of a Brett Favre pass), setting up a game-winning field goal by Tynes (a 47-yarder), sending the Giants to a Super Bowl confrontation with the Patriots (whom they defeated, 17-14). Then, as now, the game is a rematch of a regular season meeting (the Giants won, 24-20, in New England on Nov. 6).
You can take it back further. In 2007, the Giants lost a home game to an inferior Washington Redskins team in Week 15 then won a road game at an AFC team (Buffalo) to catalyze their run (interrupted briefly by a three-point loss to undefeated New England in the regular season finale). In Week 15 this season, the Giants lost at home to last-place Washington. The next week they were the road team in a victory over the Jets. They haven't lost since.
"I'm not surprised," Coughlin said. "I'm delighted. I'm excited. At times it's very difficult to contain yourself. Even this past week when the excitement of this thing was building up, the days seemed to be flying by and I was nervous that we were doing all we could possibly do to put ourselves in a position to win, but these guys have gone out and done it against the best we've played."
Coughlin has done all he can to downplay similarities between the 2007 and 2011 seasons, but not even he can deny them now.
"I'm trying to fight it," Coughlin said. "Osi (Umenyiora) sat next to me a minute in (the locker room) and he just looked at me with a smile on his face and he said, 'Have you thought about how this is coming down? Do you realize that this is scary, because of the way that this is coming about?'"
"It's the weirdest thing I think I've ever been a part of," Umenyiora said. "I can't really explain it. But I'm just going to go with it. It's crazy how similar it is to what happened in 2007. It's going to be a different game, but hopefully it will be the same outcome."
Winning unforgettable title games is not a new endeavor for the Giants. Tynes' field goal split the uprights at the same end of the Candlestick field where Matt Bahr kicked his game-winning 42-yarder as time expired in the 1990 NFC Championship Game.
That score was also set up by a late takeaway, when Erik Howard forced a fumble by Roger Craig that was recovered by Lawrence Taylor.
This time, two players normally out of the spotlight made the big play. The Giants punted on their first two overtime possessions. Kyle Williams fielded Steve Weatherford's kick but had the ball knocked out of his hands by rookie Jacquian Williams. The ball was recovered by Thomas at the 49ers' 24-yard line.
"I was going down there to make a big play, to attack," Jacquian Williams said. "He gave me a move, a good move, and I stuck my hand out and knocked the ball out. I kept my eyes on the ball."
"Jacquian, that's my guy," said defensive end Justin Tuck. "It was just a big play. We always talk about big players make big plays in big-time games. And Jacquian, for a rookie, that guy's really stepped up for us this year. And the whole special teams unit. San Francisco is known for having a great special teams unit. I think we outplayed them."
In the fourth quarter, Thomas had recovered a Kyle Williams fumble on a punt, setting up Eli Manning's 17-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham. The officials originally ruled that Williams didn't touch the ball and that Thomas had merely downed it. Coughlin challenged the ruling and after review, referee Ed Hochuli changed the call to a fumble and a recovery. It was Coughlin's first successful replay challenge in nine tries, dating back to Sept. 19 against St. Louis.
"I had a vision in my mind I was going to make a big play to help us win the game," Thomas said. "At first I thought it was going to be that first fumble. But I got an opportunity to recover another one and I jumped on that. I go out and do everything I can do help this team win and thank God today I was able to recover two fumbles. And now we're headed to the Super Bowl."
The instant Jacquian Williams separated Kyle Williams from the ball, Thomas was there to secure it.
"I was glued in on the ball," Thomas said. "It's one of those things (where you say), 'I can't believe he just fumbled.' I'm like, 'Okay, I'm right here.' I made sure I secured it and no one was going to take it from me."
Coughlin said he expected vital contributions from unexpected sources.
"I felt like someone that did not necessarily get the kudos and wasn't someone that everyone's familiar with as a guy who is a difference-maker – I felt someone like that would step up and make a big play," Coughlin said. "Because it was needed. This was a game of field position, a game of turnovers. And we needed the special teams to help us in the field position aspect of it and in contributing in turnovers. And certainly we got two big ones."
After Thomas' recovery, the Giants still had to deal with the little matter of actually scoring the game-winning points. They went about it conservatively, running Ahmad Bradshaw three times. He gained 18 yards before Manning's kneel-down put the ball at the eight. A delay of game penalty moved it back five yards before Tynes booted the game-winner – just as he had envisioned the previous night.
"It's my second NFC Championship Game, my second game-winner," Tynes said. "It's amazing, I had a dream about this last night. It was from 42, not 31. But I was so nervous today before the game, just anticipating this kind of game. I'm usually pretty cool, but there was something about tonight where I knew I was going to have to make a kick."
The Giants had many other big-time contributors. Despite being sacked six times, Manning threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns while setting Giants postseason records with 58 passes and 32 completions. The other touchdown was scored by Bear Pascoe (another one of Coughlin's surprise big-play contributors), his first as a professional. Tynes kicked another field goal, also from 31 yards. Victor Cruz had 10 receptions for 142 yards, including eight for 125 in the first half. Weatherford had a 40.6-yard net average on a franchise postseason record 12 punts. Bradshaw totaled 126 yards from scrimmage, including 74 on the ground. Chase Blackburn, unemployed until the week after Thanksgiving, had a team-high seven tackles (five solo). Jason Pierre-Paul had six tackles (five solo), a half-sack and deflected a pass.
The 49ers scored on Alex Smith touchdown passes of 73 and 28 yards to tight end Vernon Davis and David Akers' 25-yard field goal.
Manningham's touchdown – on a third-and-15 – gave the Giants a 17-14 lead with 8:34 remaining in the fourth quarter. On the play, Manningham beat cornerback Tramaine Brock, who was substituting for the injured Tarrell Brown.
The Giants had to travel only 29 yards after Thomas' first fumble recovery. The big play other than the touchdown was a 14-yard pass to Hakeem Nicks.
Kyle Williams' 40-yard return on the ensuing kickoff enabled the 49ers to start their next possession at their own 45. On consecutive plays, Smith scrambled for 17 yards and Kendall Hunter ran for 18 more to put the ball on the Giants' 15. But the defense tightened and when Webster stopped Michael Crabtree for a three-yard gain on third-and-five, Akers came on to kick the field goal.
Eight of the next nine possessions ended with a punt, the exception being Smith's 29-yard pass to Delanie Walker on the final play of regulation.
Davis' second touchdown gave the lead back to the Niners at 14-10 with 5:18 remaining in the third quarter.
On first down, Davis went in motion from right to left and got a step behind safety Kenny Phillips at the snap of the ball. Smith lofted a pass to the end zone that Davis caught before Webster could get over to attempt to break it up.
The 49ers' three-play, 54-yard drive was set up by Kyle Williams' 24-yard punt return. On second down, Smith slipped a short pass to Frank Gore, who turned it into a 24-yard gain. Davis scored on the next play.
Tynes' 31-yard field goal with two seconds remaining in the second quarter gave the Giants a 10-7 halftime lead.
The Giants took possession at their own 36 with 1:36 remaining and no timeouts. Manning so often thrives in those situations and he did so again, leading the Giants 56 yards down the field – all on passes to Cruz. The Giants lost five yards on a delay of game penalty.
Manning's 13-yard throw to Cruz advanced the ball to the Niners' 13-yard line. Manning spiked the ball with five seconds remaining and Tynes came on to kick the field goal.
In the half, the Giants outscored San Francisco, 199-144, had 12 first downs to the home team's five and enjoyed a time of possession advantage of 18:03-11:57.
Pascoe's touchdown tied the score at 7-7 with 11:15 remaining in the second quarter.
On second-and-six, Pascoe found a void in the Niners' defense, caught Manning's short pass at the three-yard line and stepped into the end zone for the touchdown. It was the first score of Pascoe's three-year career and it came on his initial postseason reception – against the team that drafted him on the sixth round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
The score capped a 10-play, 69-yard drive that included a 36-yard pass to Cruz on third-and-six. Three plays later, Cruz's six-yard catch on third-and-four gave the Giants another first down at the 17. Nicks' eight-yard catch and Brandon Jacobs two-yard run set up a first-and-goal at the six. Two plays later, Manning found Pascoe for the touchdown.
Davis' long touchdown reception gave the 49ers a 7-0 lead with 7:11 remaining in the first quarter.
On second-and-10 from the their own 27, Davis ran a pattern down the right sideline and got a step on safety Antrel Rolle. Davis caught Smith's pass at the Giants' 42-yard line, straddled the sideline and outraced the secondary to the end zone. Davis was very close to stepping out of bounds, but after review, Hochuli said not enough evidence existed to overturn the call on the field.
Davis was penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct after jumping up in a camera stand to celebrate his touchdown.
On their ensuing drive, the Giants drove from their own 31 to the San Francisco 34-yard line, where they had a third-and-one. But they failed to get a first down despite two opportunities. On third down, Manning's pass to Manningham fell short. Coughlin went for it on fourth down, but Jacobs was stopped for no gain on a run up the middle.
"It feels great, it was tough game," Manning said. "We had to fight for every yard that we got. Defense is playing outstanding, special teams are getting us two turnovers. That was huge, leading to 10 points. They are a good team. Their defense is stout. They play smart, we couldn't afford to make any mistakes and turn the ball over. We did a good job doing that. A couple were close, but it was a hard fought game. I'm just excited about this win, just excited about having another chance to go to the Super Bowl and play New England."