Patriots and Giants Prevail: Lessons From A Classic NFL Championship Sunday

A Super rematch is set: the New England Patriots will play the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, on February 5th in Indianapolis.

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Mike Blake/Reuters

New York Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes (9) and holder Steve Weatherford (5) celebrate with teammates after Tynes kicked the winning field goal against the San Francisco 49ers in overtime

A Super rematch is set: the New England Patriots will play the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, on February 5th in Indianapolis. (Four years ago, the Giants ruined New England’s bid for a perfect season, as they upset the heavily favored Pats 17-14). If we’re lucky, the big game will come close to matching the drama that unfolded on Sunday.  If anything, the championship games taught us that there’s a reason pro football is the most popular sport in America right now. Despite slightly confusing overtime rules that took referee Ed Hochuli about a half-hour to explain before the coin toss in the Giants-San Francisco 49ers NFC championship game, the NFL kind of rocks.

Here are three more lessons from a classic championship Sunday:

1. Goats Galore. You’ve got to feel horribly for two people this morning: kicker Billy Cundiff of the Baltimore Ravens, and punt returner Kyle Williams from the San Francisco 49ers. In the AFC championship game, all Cundiff needed to do was make a chip-shot, 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left to send the Ravens-Patriots game into overtime. In the last two years, Cundiff was 16 out of 16 on fourth quarter field goals. But Cundiff hooked it to the left of the goal post, sending the New England crowd into hysterics. “I think we can just keep things simple,” Cundiff said afterwards. “It’s a kick I’ve kicked a thousand times in my career. I just went out there and didn’t convert. That’s the way things go. There’s really no excuse for it.” New England held on to win, 23-20.

After the game, Tom Brady, who threw two interceptions and no touchdown passes, and missed several open receivers throughout the day, told a national television audience that he “sucked.” That’s not totally true. His fourth quarter sneak, in which he hurdled over the offensive into the end zone before the Ravens defense nearly cracked his back, was a gusty, athletic move that gave the Pats the game-winning score.

In the NFC championship game, Williams’ miscues set up two New York scores. With San Francisco leading 14-10 in the third quarter, and having captured the game’s momentum, a punt grazed Williams’ leg, making it a live ball: New York’s Devin Thomas picked it up and ran towards the end zone. Though the Giants couldn’t advance the muffed punt return, the replay confirmed that Williams mishandled it, and the Giants were awarded the ball on the turnover. New York took advantage:  Eli Manning ripped a 17-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham on third-and-15, putting the Giants on top, 17-14.

In overtime, the Giants punted after failing to score on their second possession of the extra session. Williams caught the ball, and ran it back five yards before New York’s Jacquain Williams punched it out of his hands: the Giants recovered the fumble at the San Francisco 24-yard-line. Five plays later, New York’s Lawrence Tynes, whose 47-yard overtime field goal in Green Bay four years ago sent the Giants to the Super Bowl, ended another NFC  championship game with a 31-yard strike through the uprights, pretty much the same distance from which Cundiff missed. The Giants won 20-17.

(MORE: Is Eli Now The NFL’s Main Manning?)

2. A Sterling Swipe. Sterling Moore, welcome to New England sports lore. With under a minute left in the fourth quarter, the Ravens had the ball on the New England 14-yard-line, trailing 23-20. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco took a shot at the end zone, to win the game outright before overtime. His pass sailed into the arms of receiver Lee Evans, who seemed to have the ball, and the Ravens’ Super Bowl trip, secured. But just as his second foot touched the ground, Moore, a Patriots cornerback, whacked the ball out of Evans’ hands. Incomplete pass. After Cundiff missed the game-tying field goal, some commentators took Evans to task for not holding on to the pass. But you have to give Moore, an undrafted rookie free agent cut earlier this year from the Oakland Raiders practice squad, credit. His strength saved the day.

(MORE: Is This The Year The New England Patriots Get Fun?)

3. Harbaugh Hell. The Harbaugh brothers, San Francisco coach Jim and Baltimore coach John, not only both lost in heartbreaking fashion, and came tantalizingly close to coaching against each other in the Super Bowl but they didn’t even get the traditional consolation prize. Until two years ago, the losing coaches in the conference championship games got a trip to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, where they would coach the AFC and NFC All-Stars. But the NFL now schedules the Pro Bowl before the Super Bowl, and gives coaching “duties” to divisional round losers.

NewsFeed suggests that the Harbaughs crash the Pro Bowl party. If anyone deserves to drown their sorrows poolside, over Mai Tais, in Honolulu, they do.