In the end, the 49ers’ storybook season was slammed shut suddenly and in the most unlikely manner.
A San Francisco team that had built a magical season and advanced within one win of the Super Bowl by playing mistake-free football was eliminated by two horrific mistakes by punt returner Kyle Williams in the New York Giants’ 20-17 overtime victory Sunday over the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game at soggy Candlestick Park.
The 49ers – who had a plus-28 turnover ratio in the regular season and were plus-4 in their playoff victory over the Saints last week – turned the ball over twice late in the game to allow victory to slip from their grasp.
Williams, who was returning punts in place of injured Ted Ginn Jr., muffed one punt in the fourth quarter – allowing the ball to tick off his knee and be recovered by New York at the San Francisco 29 – which set up a 17-yard Eli Manning-to-Mario Manningham touchdown pass that put the Giants up 17-14 with just over eight minutes remaining.
The 49ers were able to come back on their next possession to tie the game on a 25-yard David Akers field goal, 17-17, but the game went to overtime when neither offense could generate anything against a pair of swarming, aggressive defenses.
Then in overtime, after the Niners stopped the Giants on their second possession, Williams had the ball stripped from his grasp while returning a punt, and the Giants recovered at the 49ers’ 24-yard line.
The Giants ran the ball three times with Ahmad Bradshaw, then Eli Manning took a knee at the 8 to set up a Lawrence Tynes field goal.
At 7:06 of OT, Tynes’ 31-yard kick was good, and the Niners’ season was officially done.
The Giants’ victory sends them to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis against the New England Patriots on Feb. 5.
It sends the Niners home this offseason to ponder an amazing turnaround season under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh that included an NFC West championship, a 13-3 regular-season victory and a divisional-round playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints.
But against the Giants, two key mistakes were the difference in what proved to be a tight, low-scoring battle between two dominant defenses.
Though the Giants and 49ers total yardage totals weren’t that far apart – New York outgained San Francisco 352 to 328 – the Niners couldn’t sustain drives, going just 1-for-13 on third-down conversion attempts.
Trailing 10-7 at halftime, San Francisco took a 14-10 lead on Vernon Davis’ 28-yard TD pass from Alex Smith in the third quarter – Davis’ second TD catch of the game – but gave up the lead after Williams’ muff, which set the stage for overtime.
Williams’ first mistake was costly. His second mistake was fatal.