Well, in a way the Giants out-49er’d the 49ers. In the first half, thanks to eight catches and 125 receiving yards by Victor Cruz, the Giants had a 10-7 lead and control of the game. In the second, the Giants found themselves going three-and-out repeatedly but used good special teams to keep the 49ers in control. It proved to be the difference in the game.
In the first half, New York had 42 plays to San Francisco’s 22. They had a decided advantage in time of possession (18 minutes to 12) and Eli Manning was throwing unhindered in a 16-for-27 first half.
In the second half, the 49ers defense led by Vic Fangio made the proper adjustments. The Giants couldn't move the ball and the game settled down into a classic struggle: Who would make the first mistake.
In the end, the yardage difference was 352-328 in New York’s favor. That the Giants had 11 more minutes of possession might be the biggest difference because it exhausted a 49er defense (even though they adjusted).
Victor Cruz of the Giants had eight catches for 125 yards in the first half, but only had two catches for 17 in the second. The Giants struggled big time on third down in the second half.
That’s why in the end people will talk about the fumble on a punt return by Kyle Williams that led to Manning’s only second-half TD. That seems crucial but in the end 49er fans have to chew over the fact that the game never should have got that deep for Williams to fumble a punt.
The Niners struggled on offense all day, and converted on only one third down, thanks to penalty. They gave Eli Manning chance after chance and the defense still hung on. That should have been worth a win right there. You give the Giants 1st-and-10 on the 22 with the game on the line, they are going to win.
That’s what happens when the offense couldn’t get enough plays at the right time to lift the team to victory. It will probably be written that Lawrence Tynes’ 31-yard field goal in overtime was one of the great moments in Giants history.
But those who watched the game from an objective perspective know that this was a game that required the 49ers offense to provide more punch. It wasn’t there.
It was a defense exhausted and nearly dead when they had to go back on the field and force the Giants back. But two runs and the Giants had their easy 31-yard winning field goal. 49er fans have to wonder in if the biggest issue in the game was the loss of Ted Ginn Jr., the NFL’s leading punt returner.
Kyle Williams, a second-year receiver out of Arizona State who had to prove to the new coaching staff he was worth a spot on the roster, ended up being the goat of the game. His muffed punt in the fourth quarter gave the Giants the lead, 17-14.
His fumble on the overtime return resulted in a very short field and an easy field goal for the Giants. The Niners go home having lost four games out of 18, and it took a very bad break at the end to provide the margin of victory.
But this was a game that does not come down to simple conclusions, and thus here are five things we learned about the 49ers in their 20-17 loss.
The Niners were the best in special teams. Their coverage and return teams finished atop the NFL rankings. And this time, with Williams filling in, it finally came to fruition how important those field position changes were to the 49ers.
Though you can say that Williams is the cause of the 49ers defeat, you can also point to an offense that while known for its deficiencies (like 1-of-13 on third down), still came down to make enough plays to win games.
Williams’ blunders hurt, to be sure, but so did the 49ers' inability to move the ball late in the fourth quarter and in overtime. They were like a basketball team who had only one person capable of scoring — in their case, Vernon Davis — and despite their efforts to confuse, misdirect and obfuscate the defense away from that fact, it ultimately was revealed by a good Giants defense.
This was not a loss on Williams so much as the final realization that the Niners made the most of their capabilities, but when pressed they couldn’t deliver enough plays to edge out the Giants.
Consider the last three possessions of the fourth quarter:
- 4:07, 1st-and-10 on the 35: Incomplete, short Frank Gore run, sack. Punt.
- 1:45, 1st-and 10 on the 29: Smith flushed and throws consecutive incompletions to Michael Crabtree, and misses deep over the middle to Delanie Walker. Punt.
- Nineteen seconds left, 1st-and-10 on the 36: (With enough time to make one middle-deep throw and a short one), Smith completes a dump-off to Gore for a short gain. Their efforts to score before overtime are effectively ended right there.
- Overtime, 1st-and-10 on the 22. Pass to Williams incomplete, Gore up the middle for minus-2 (Giants were waiting on that play), Smith to Vernon Davis for 11 yards when they needed 12. Punt.
In the end, Kyle Williams is the simple story. Let the local broadcasters and headline writers talk about that. The fact of the matter is the Niners offense had the chance to get 45 yards and a field goal for David Akers on their last four possessions and came up empty.
That left the game in the fulcrum of a crucial turnover. For a team that had 43 turnovers in their previous 17 games and then to give up two while not getting any is the difference. Yet the offense had the chance to overcome that and they couldn’t.
This game proved more than anything that the Niners need one and perhaps two receivers who can get the defense spread out. The Giants played great defense aside from allowing a handful of big plays.
Take away the deep ball to Vernon Davis in the first quarter that resulted in the 73-yard TD, as well as the 28-yarder he had in the third quarter, and the Alex Smith has only 77 yards passing on 10 completions. That’s LSU-in-the BCS-Championship-Game territory. Imagine that.
The box score shows that the Giants had so much of the issue at hand. They ran 90 plays to the 49ers' 57, which right there suggests that the Niners holding Eli Manning to 20 points is a downright miracle.
The Niners had only seven plays longer than 12 yards from scrimmage; the Giants had double that and more. The 49ers defense played stout and held them off as long as they could but it didn’t matter. The deficiencies of the offense finally came to the forefront.
With only Vernon Davis (two TDs and 112 yards receiving) as a viable threat, the Giants focused on shutting him down for most of the game. He had only three catches.
The 49ers coaches knew they’d double Davis, but there was no one else to go to. Michael Crabtree (pictured) was effectively MIA. Kyle Williams, filling in for Ginn in both receiving and returning, had one catch. Delanie Walker had a meaningless catch.
There was no one else. The Giants defense finally showed that.
It is so easy in this media-saturated environment to gun for the simplest confrontation, and in the NFL that means the over-caffeinated fan is going to say that Eli Manning beat Alex Smith; that was the real reason why the Giants ultimately prevailed.
No, it wasn’t Alex Smith who cost the game, it was an offense hindered by lack of outside speed in part due to the loss of Joshua Morgan to injury in October, and then the loss of Ginn Jr. last week due to knee injury. There wasn’t much else.
Smith’s numbers didn’t seem all that impressive. Those who watched the game would say that Eli Manning was two times the QB than Smith. But then, Eli Manning has three decent wideouts to help as well as a line of solid pass protection.
Manning finished the game 32-of-58 for 316 yards and two touchdowns, the latter TD in the form of a gift following Kyle Williams’ muffed punt. His numbers looked great, but Manning’s QB rating was 88.3. Smith finished with a 97.6 rating after going 12-of-26 for 196 yards and two touchdowns
Smith didn’t lose the game, but he didn’t win it, either. But then, that’s because he didn’t have the weapons available to him like his counterpart.
Frank Gore had 74 yards on 16 rushes and 45 more yards on six receptions, a per-touch average of 5.5. The 49ers ended the game with 150 yards on the ground but that includes 42 yards on six carries by Smith. His 17-yard scamper out of the pocket set up the San Francisco's tying field goal in the fourth quarter.
So that’s what makes the Niners’ last four possessions rather confusing. Their rush game was there, but they passed on first down in each of their last four possessions.
The Giants were not fooled. They rushed hard and caused Smith to move out of the pocket and throw the ball away to avoid a sack. That’s been his job all season and this was no different.
In Williams, here is a kid who made the roster in training camp on sheer guts and versatility. He was drafted by the previous regime and he stuck. He had speed. He made big plays early in the season (against the Rams, to name one).
He also filled in admirably for Ginn save for two plays. The fourth quarter misplay of the rolling punt was the worst of his transgressions. In a system where safety comes first, and in the lineage of Jim Harbaugh safety means don’t make mistakes, allowing a quirky bounce to hit him and become a live ball was too much.
His return in overtime was a committed effort to make a big play. After all, he had 85 yards on three returns; the chance to break a big one was essential. His 40-yard return following Manning’s TD proved his ability to make big plays on returns. It helped lead to the tying field goal.
Williams’ last mistake was a bad break but one that should not have occurred because the game should have been over prior to that kick. The 49ers had their chances and couldn’t convert. That they held off Eli Manning and his Gang of Three Receivers in the final five minutes of the game and the first possession of overtime was a credit to a great defense.
Williams will be remembered for this for a long time, but it was the chances that got away that proved the difference. But then again the 49ers never would have come as far without excellent defense and good special teams play. And remember, the Giants did not turn the ball over once in the game, which was the first time that happened against the Niners all year.
The Niners could have – probably should have – gone to the Super Bowl. But last July they were never considered a threat to go as far as they did; they went much, much further than anyone expected.
Applaud them for getting as far as they did and coming as close as they could. Forget Williams and his muffs. Blame the offense. But then again, blame the roster and the injuries. There’s plenty on which to build in this game.
The Niners are back.