Should Billy Cundiff have made that 32-yard field goal attempt in the AFC championship game on Sunday? No question. He’s a professional kicker and no matter the pressure, the circumstances or the stakes, he’s made that kick one hundred times throughout his career and he needed to convert then, too.
Should Kyle Williams have instead ran into the stands to get away from that bouncing ball that wound up inexcusably hitting his knee in the NFC title game? Undoubtedly yes. And should he not have been holding the ball away from his body before fumbling in overtime? Again, no question.
Cundiff’s missed field goal and Williams’ two muffed punts cannot be overlooked and they shouldn’t be immune to heavy criticism this day. The fact is that both players cost their teams opportunities to play in the Super Bowl and their gaffs will now follow them throughout the rest of their careers.
But they also don’t deserve all of the blame for their respective teams’ misfortunes, either.
Had Lee Evans bothered to hang onto that perfectly thrown pass by Joe Flacco on that second-and-one leading up to Cundiff’s miss, we’re talking about a Ravens-Giants Super Bowl rematch instead of New England-New York Part II. Cundiff will absorb most of the barbs thrown the Ravens way this week, but his kick would have only tied the game. Evans had a chance to send every Patriots fan home with a nightmare experience and a bad hangover had he not allowed Sterling Moore to punch the ball loose. What was his excuse? That the ball was sitting too perfectly in his hands? He catches that pass when he’s already standing in the end zone and it’s game over, drive home safely, New England.
Just like Cundiff, Williams will draw most of the ire from irate fans that will undoubtedly blame the receiver for the 49ers’ loss to the Giants. Considering his two mistakes led to 10 New York points, who could blame the San Francisco faithful? When Williams allowed the ball to graze off his knee in the fourth quarter, the Niners held a 14-10 lead. In the blink of an eye, they were down 17-14 and despite rallying to force overtime, Williams again handed the game to the Giants when he fumbled his second punt of the night.
But let me toss some numbers at you: 1-of-13 and 12-of-26. The Niners converted only one third down out of 13 tries. That’s absolutely horrendous. How is any team supposed to win a game when their third-down efficiency is 0.07 percent? It’s a credit to San Francisco’s defense that New York only mustered 20 points when the Niners’ offense couldn’t sustain drives the entire game.
Those second numbers above are Alex Smith’s passing stats. He completed 12-of-26 passes on the night, only three of which came on the 49ers’ final three possessions. I realize that without Smith’s incredible play during the fourth-quarter of last week’s win over the Saints the 49ers wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play in the NFC title game. He also threw two pinpoint touchdown passes to Vernon Davis against the Giants that may have been enough had Williams not screwed up on the two punts. But you’re fooling yourself if you don’t think Smith played a key role in the 49ers’ ineptitude on offense.
When firing on all cylinders, the Giants’ pass rush might be second-to-none in the NFL. My comments aren’t intended to take anything away from New York’s defense, which once again played extremely well in yet another high-pressure game. But Smith often looked for the rush instead of anticipating it. He was shell-shocked late in the game, held onto the ball too long and he often cut the field in half by rolling out instead of hanging in the pocket. When you compare Smith’s play to Eli Manning’s and factor in how San Francisco couldn’t sustain drives, it’s not hard to figure out why the Giants are representing the NFC in the Super Bowl. As Eli was continuously peeling himself off the ground and hanging in the pocket to make tough throws in less-than-ideal conditions, Smith looked as if he couldn’t wait to get off the field.
Football games are never decided by one or two plays. It’s always a series of events that lead up to whether or not a player is a hero or a goat.
Cundiff and Williams may have played the role of goat for their respective teams on Sunday, but they certainly had help.
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