Shorts and Shells: Conference championship edition

Posted Jan. 23, 2012 @ 4:06 a.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

Seconds before Billy Cundiff swung through what should have been a routine field-goal attempt, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh looked concerned.

The man who did not send his kicker out for what would have been a game-tying field-goal attempt with 2:53 left in the game surely didn't look too confident that the game, with the Ravens down three points, would go to overtime following Cundiff's 32-yard attempt with 15 seconds left.

For good reason.

CBS cameras caught a stone-faced Harbaugh watching the kick. "He pushed it," he said, with no expression change. As Foxborough went wild, Harbaugh and the Ravens went mute.

Maybe Harbaugh figured he was doomed to lose after watching Lee Evans drop a gorgeous pass two plays earlier from Joe Flacco in the endzone.

Although Harbaugh and the Ravens outcoached and outperformed Bill Belichick and the Patriots much of the day on Sunday, they suffered one mental slipup on that fateful kick. With the Ravens appearing discombobulated on the play, and Cundiff very late to get on the field, the Ravens failed to call timeout and make sure everything was perfect.

The snap was OK, the hold was good and the kick ... clearly was not. Cundiff, to his credit, blamed none of the surrounding circumstances.

"I get paid to make field goals," he said. "I don't get paid to miss field goals."

Maybe the lack of confidence Harbaugh had in him earlier in the fourth quarter lingered in Cundiff's head. The Ravens faced a 4th-and-6 with 2:53 remaining — it would have been a 51-yard FG attempt — but chose to go for it instead, on a play that ended up a complete pass. Harbaugh, however, might have thought more about the play of his quarterback, Joe Flacco.

"We just felt like, from a percentage standpoint, we probably had a better chance of getting the first down. We were throwing the ball well there," Harbaugh said. "That's a long field goal. It's a tough field goal down there, under those conditions on a cold day like this, so we liked our chances there to convert on fourth down."

Hounded by fans and media, called out by Ed Reed last week, Flacco was mostly undaunted and unaffected Sunday. He played a big ballgame. He made throw after important third-down throw. He hit Evans in the numbers with 22 seconds left for what would have been the pass to get Baltimore back to the Super Bowl.

Evans was despondent after the game, unable to fathom what had just happened.

"The most disappointing part of all this is that I feel personally that I let everybody down," Evans said.

But Flacco showed the same edge in losing this game gallantly as he did in winning the game poorly against the Texans.

"I don't care," Flacco said, "look at the film. If you look at the film, you see how I play. I pretty much play the same every week. If you think I played better this week than other weeks, then I think you're wrong. This is the way I play every week, and I really don't care.

"I don't know if I ever will prove everything; that's not up to me. My job is to go out there and play and give our team the best shot to win."

You have to feel like Flacco has been born under a bit of a bad sign. First, the T.J. Houshmandzadeh drop last year against Pittsburgh, then Evans this year. He's not yet an elite quarterback, but you wonder how much his team really allows him to let it rip.

Will offensive coordinator Cam Cameron be back? He'll come under fire this week as Ravens fans and media dissect the play-calling, particularly on the 4th-and-6 pass — a straight dropback after the rollouts had been so successful — and the vanilla run call on the play before with the Patriots in a "double eagle" front, covering both the guards and the center.

Flacco did not lay blame after the game. Not on Cameron, nor Cundiff, nor Evans. He also didn't try to prove anything to anyone with his words. But rest assured, he made strides that were evident in the game.

"For us, we laid it all out there," he said. "We didn't leave anything on the field. We can look at each other and say we left it all out on the field and gave it our best. Did we play every play our best and did we execute everything the best? No. But in this type of game — the AFC championship game in their place — to have the chance we had, we would like to think we would have made it and we'd be sitting right here, probably out on the field right now celebrating.

"But it just doesn't happen that way. Somebody lost — it was us. We left it all out there. We've got to be proud of that and move on."


Special teams the difference

The 49ers made a season on special teams. Coordinator Brad Seely ran what was a hidden juggernaut with the punting of Andy Lee, the kicking of David Akers and the incredible coverage teams they fielded.

So, who would have thought that the absence of Ted Ginn would be the difference in the NFC title-game loss?

Ginn, the much-maligned former top-10 pick, has never really developed as a receiver. But he was the team's most trusted punt returner, with no fumbles on 38 returns this season, and a home-run threat with a 12.3-yard average and nine runbacks of 20 yards or longer.

With Ginn out of the NFC championship game because of a knee injury, the team had to turn to Kyle Williams, who had only two regular-season and one postseason punt returns heading into this game.

It turned out to be a huge void no one saw coming. Williams misjudged and muffed one punt in the fourth quarter, which led to the Giants' go-ahead touchdown, and he put another one on the ground in overtime to give the Giants the field position the Niners' defense wasn't going to give up without a major fight.

"You hate to be the last guy that had the ball, to give it away in that fashion and to lose a game of this magnitude," said Williams, a third-year receiver and the son of White Sox GM Kenny Williams. "It is what it is. We're going to move forward as a team. Everyone has come to pat me on the back and the shoulder to say it's not me."

In physical, defensive battles with lots of punts, oftentimes special-teamers — who have been running up and down the field all day — make unexpected miscues. Williams was the unfortunate benefactor of two that helped send the Giants to Indy for a chance to win it all.


Patriots' mental toughness the key

Bill Belichick got in a good one-liner with CBS announcer Jim Nantz with Belichick's team celebrating around him after winning the AFC championship.

"I knew you (Nantz) were going to be there; I just didn't know we were," Belichick said.

With the Ravens appearing to be the better team on the field Sunday, Belichick had reason to worry. But he also knew he had a team that was mentally strong, even if it had some shortcomings in talent at some key positions. The Patriots have had to overcome a lot of adversity this season — take, for instance, the last-minute loss to the Giants in Week Nine, when the offense hit a season low point.

Sunday was just another example of spare parts coming up big. Sterling Moore, who started the year on the Raiders' practice squad, tipped the ball out of Lee Evans' hands. Julian Edelman had to cover Anquan Boldin on the final few drives. Tom Brady had to keep grinding despite an off day. Just par for the course for this team.

"Mental toughness is doing the best for your team, even when you're not going exactly the way you personally want to," Belichick said.


Middle men

Vince Wilfork might have pushed Matt Birk — literally and figuratively — into retirement. Wilfork's performance far surpassed his strong statistical production (six tackles, three for losses, one sack) as he repeatedly barreled his way into the Ravens' backfield and wrecked their blocking schemes. Whether it was stuffing Ray Rice on a key third down, sacking Joe Flacco or forcing his incompletion on 4th-and-6 in Patriots territory, Wilfork completely dominated.

And you know what's funny? The Ravens didn't double-team him on every play.

"I think, to be honest with you, on the run, I think they just cut me loose," Wilfork said. "I don't know. I'm always taught when someone (doesn't) block you, it's a setup and all.

"I don't know if they just missed a block or it was a setup block and I just beat it."

49ers NT Ray McDonald gave his best effort in the second game, going to work on Giants C David Baas and OG Kevin Boothe, respectively, getting in on three sacks and making a name for himself in what has been a terrific season that often was overshadowed by Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and others.

McDonald's effort wasn't enough. But now the worry for the Giants is how Baas and others will have to block Wilfork. He doesn't just line up over the center, either. The Patriots will move him to left end on run downs, and he can batter tackles, too. Giants ORT Kareem McKenzie had better watch out, as well.