The play that really changed the game

One punt-return gaffe by Kyle Williams changed the complexion of the game and another hastened the end of it, but neither was the play that set in motion the 49ers' demise Sunday just as they were in the process of taking control of the NFC Championship Game. The trickle-down effect of everything that happened after that fateful snap resulted in the Niners' overtime loss to the New York Giants.


Before the football had glanced off Williams' knee on a punt return – leading to the touchdown that put New York ahead in the fourth quarter – and before Williams' fumble on an overtime punt return that set up the Giants for the game-winning score in their 20-17 victory, there was the big hit involving two San Francisco defenders that ended up being the turning point in the game.

But this big hit was on each other instead of on the Giants, and it took a big hit out of San Francisco's momentum and fortunes the rest of the game.

There was one minute left in the third quarter, and the momentum was all on San Francisco's side after the 49ers had gone ahead 14-10 on Alex Smith's 28-yard scoring pass to Vernon Davis four minutes before. San Francisco's defense was assuming command, having forced New York's offense into a three-and-out after Davis' touchdown, and now was on the verge of forcing another three-and-out as the Giants faced third down at their own 32-yard line.

Quarterback Eli Manning went back to pass, and he looked for receiver Hakeem Nicks over the middle just past midfield. But right cornerback Tarell Brown had Nicks covered closely, and he cut underneath the route as Manning's pass arrived.

Likewise, free safety Dashon Goldson had a bead on the ball as he roamed in from the deep middle.

"Most definitely, I was thinking interception," Brown said Monday in the 49ers locker room. "Dashon was thinking the same thing as well. I mean, we were trying to make plays on the ball."

Brown appeared to have a sure interception in his hands, but Goldson arrived from center field to grab the pass at the same time, which ultimately bounded out of Goldson's hands and off his chest. The impact simultaneously knocked the ball out of Brown's grasp while almost knocking Brown out cold as a vaulting Goldson slammed waist-high into Brown's helmet, blindsiding the cornerback who had been focused on the ball.

"It definitely shocked me for a second, just because I didn't see Dashon coming down, so I didn't have an opportunity to brace myself," Brown said. "Sometimes you're going for the ball and you get into collisions like that. It's part of the game."

And it completely changed the course of this game in a direction that did not favor San Francisco.

Manning's pass fell to the ground incomplete after going through the hands of both 49ers defenders, and the Giants were forced to punt the ball back to San Francisco as the third quarter reached its conclusion.

But instead of getting the ball near midfield or better on an interception – which seemed likely by either Brown or Goldson if they hadn't taken the ball away from each other – the Niners started their next drive at their 12-yard line after a 56-yard punt by New York's Steve Weatherford.

An interception and any kind of runback would have set up the San Francisco offense for a prime scoring opportunity, and the Niners may have been able to go in for the kill right then and there. Instead, San Francisco's offense bogged down near midfield and punted the ball back to the Giants early in the fourth quarter.

After the collision, Brown was on the ground for several minutes before he finally was helped up and to the sidelines. Brown, who developed this season into a key player in the San Francisco secondary, was taken to the locker room for X-rays. He said Monday that he wanted to return to the game, but that doctors wouldn't let him. So the 49ers had to play the entire fourth quarter and overtime without one of their starting cornerbacks, which wouldn't take long to become a key factor.

As though the injury to Brown had opened the floodgates and reversed the game's flow, or put some kind of hex on the Niners, a series of events ensued that saw just about everything go New York's way, or against San Francisco, depending on your perspective.

First, San Francisco's defense again stoned the New York offense for a three-and-out, and this time Weatherford had to punt with the Giants on their own 15. But instead of getting the ball in good position for their offense, the 49ers saw the field position flipped when New York recovered the muffed punt off Williams leg at the San Francisco 29.

The way this game was going, it looked like the Giants might have a difficult time even getting past midfield if the Niners continued to win the battle of field position. Suddenly, New York had a short field and a great opportunity to either pull within a point or take the lead.

The Giants moved forward to the 17, and that's where they faced a third-and-15 play as San Francisco's defense stiffened. But then Manning found Mario Manningham in the end zone for his only reception of the game, with the New York receiver beating the coverage of Tramaine Brock, the cornerback brought in to replace Brown. Perhaps Brown would have made a difference on that play, at least in keeping the Giants out of the end zone.

"I just hate I couldn't finish the fight with my teammates," Brown said. "I feel like I let the team down a little bit on that end, just because I wasn't there to fight with them. I wanted to get back out there, because I knew this is what it comes down to. You're 15 minutes away (from the Super Bowl)."

But now New York had a 17-14 lead, and it was a whole new game. The 49ers got even on the scoreboard with a David Akers field goal with 5:43 to play, and then both defenses took over again, each forcing a three-and-out and punt.

That left New York at its own 15 just before the two-minute warning, pushed back by an 11-yard sack and facing second-and-21. Manning hit running back Ahmad Bradshaw with a short swing pass, and Bradshaw charged up field, where he was met by two defenders.

As Bradshaw was being brought down, the ball popped out of his hands, and it was recovered by the 49ers, which could have decided the game right there. The Niners could have burned time off the clock before setting up for, at worst, an Akers field goal that would have put them ahead with less than a minute remaining, since the Giants only had two timeouts left.

But Bradshaw got a hasty whistle, and officials made the shaky ruling that his forward progress had been stopped, even though the play still was in motion as he was hit and fell to the ground, with replays strongly suggesting the play was a fumble. But it was not a reviewable play, so the Giants maintained possession.

That proved to be the last best chance for a 49ers team that led the NFL with 38 turnovers this season to force the kind of game-swaying takeway that has characterized San Francisco's season. The Niners forced five more turnovers during last week's playoff win against New Orleans, but they finished with no takeaways Sunday while losing the turnover battle 2-0.

"My opinion, that was a fumble," Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday of the Bradshaw play. "And I'm sure the league will defend it. And the officials will defend it. But to me, the play was continuing. There was still struggling going on by Bradshaw. This one, I did not agree with. I feel like that was a fumble. I felt like this is analogous with the ‘Tuck Rule.'"

So the Giants were able to escape two plays later with a 50-yard punt by Weatherford, and the San Francisco offense could do nothing on its two drives in the final 1:47, sending the game into overtime.

We all know what happened there. But if Brown and Goldson hadn't met earlier in mid-air on one fateful play, there's a good chance the game never even gets there.


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