Reflecting on conference title-game goats

Posted Jan. 23, 2012 @ 10:48 p.m.
Posted By Tom Danyluk

You hate to see these pinnacle games, the high-stakes battlefields, decided on a flub ... on someone's lone screwup near the end. After a day wrapped in high-tension wire, where no lead was wider than seven points, the outcomes in each game spilled directly onto one man. The scapegoat, a biblical word out of Leviticus:

The goat ... shall be presented alive to the Lord, to make atonement with him, and released for a scapegoat into the wilderness.

On Sunday that was Billy Cundiff, and then it was Kyle Williams. You wonder if they'll be released ... as some kind of atonement.

Cundiff? Well, what can you say about that one? Not much. I know what Bill Parcells said, years ago, when the Cowboys sent Cundiff away in '05 for his stretches of inaccuracy.

"We just had to do something," Parcells said. "He couldn't make them in practice, either. We just couldn't live with the way it was."

And here's what Cundiff himself said, after his 32-yard miss cost the Ravens a guaranteed shot at overtime in New England.

"I think we can just keep things simple. It's a kick I've made a thousand times in my career. I just went out there and didn't covert. That's the way things go ... there's really no excuse for it.

"That's the reason you play this game. You want to lay it all out there ... you don't get this kind of adrenaline rush sitting behind a desk."

Baltimore found the formula to make a game of it with the Patriots. It banged Tom Brady's receivers at the line — no free releases ... or very few. I saw a quote in the The New York Times last week from former Denver safety John Lynch, who was bitching how all year teams have allowed Gronkowski and Hernandez to waltz into their routes with very little obstruction, like they were running fast-break drills in shorts. Lynch said he was sick of it.

"It still bothers me," Lynch said. "You get them earlier or they'll get you later. Nobody seems to be taking care of them at the line of scrimmage. That body type — typically where a guy like that would struggle is with starting and stopping. If you break their momentum, you have a chance."

So the Ravens got the steady heat on Brady from their base rush, and they jammed up the Hernandez-Gronkowski momentum, and at the end they had a wonderful chance. There were only a handful of Patriot drives all day where you felt that powerful Brady surge, where you said, "Oh, brother, here it comes."

What was damn good about Joe Flacco were his deliveries on the move. His usual inability to dodge around within the pocket magnifies any type of pressure that comes at him. Average pass-rush teams can sack him. He's like a big stork out there, but against the Pats it seemed like every Flacco rollout (to the right) ended in a connection, some of them for gaping yards that really put the shakes in the New England huddle.

Remember how Dan Marino beat the '85 Bears, years ago? Don Shula was worried to death about the violent, snapping jaws of Chicago's inside pass rush, so he rolled Marino out, knee brace and all, out to these little islands of safety where Marino could focus and fire his gun in peace.

With Flacco's run game being cut to pieces by the Patriots' front wall — Ray Rice had to be surgically removed from the Vince Wilfork buffet tray — well, turns out that Flacco's movement was the surprise juice that kept the Ravens alive.

Until the Cundiff miss.

Out in San Francisco it was a backup return man — Kyle Williams — who must also deal with the brand of game-loser. What can you say? One time an old Cowboys offensive lineman named Dave Widell said, "Turnovers are like ex-wives; the more you have, the more they cost you."

Williams cost the Niners immensely. But later he took on the hard questions, when there was no way he could explain or dance himself away from the damage.

"To be the last guy for your team with his hands on the ball ... you hate to cost a game of this magnitude, but it is what it is," he said. "Everybody in here has come to my back and kinda patted me on the shoulder and said, 'It's not on you.'

"You just bounce back and move through it. ... You have to take full responsibility for it, which I do."

You wonder why some of these punt returners insist on dancing around a live ball that's in front of them, like some ballsy villager taunting a wounded cobra. You see it all over the league. Well, Williams danced and the snake bit. A muff, grabbed by the Giants. The next step was a 17-yard rocket from Eli Manning to Mario Manningham, which gave New York its 17-14 lead, early in the fourth.

Williams' next uh-oh, the overtime fumble, when Jacquian Williams sorta reached in and poked it free? OK, maybe you can talk about a loose grip caused by a soppy ball, but I also watched Aaron Ross and Will Blackmon stand in there and handle six punts for New York, and none of them ended badly. Who knows, maybe on another day they would have?

Defensively, the 49ers were ... yes, spectacular. One of the best postseason romps I've seen in a decade. The explosiveness of their pressure, the discipline and ferocity of their coverages. Dashon Goldson was knocking his own people cold.

And in the Giant backfield we witnessed maybe the worst pounding Eli Manning has taken as a pro (six sacks, 600 body shots), but when it was over, the quarterback wasn't up there flipping tulips in his abusers' honor.

"They're a good front four and they brought a little pressure," Manning said. "The thing I kept telling myself was, 'Be patient ... don't force anything ... don't give them anything.'

"We stuck with that, we got some turnovers and, you know, we used that to hurt them."

Poor Williams and Cundiff ... banished to the wilderness. It very well may hurt forever.

 

Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.