Other sports can not compete with Sunday. The NFL is the top product in sports for a number of reasons, and we had many of them detailed to us over the course of 8 riveting hours of tense, painful, and high-stakes competition.
In the end, it seemed that two teams advanced by simply surviving. All four teams accomplished many of their laid-out objectives and felt like they put themselves in a perfect position to win late in the game. But, only two would advance to play for the Lombardi Trophy in 2 weeks time. And how those games played out were enough to have each dropped into the "instant classic" bin immediately.
The AFC Championship Game was a battle of strengths as the Patriots offense would have to deal with the Ravens defense. But, the game was so much more than Tom Brady versus Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. New England was a favorite, but because of some sloppy play at times (from Brady, no less), the Patriots ended up allowing the Ravens a +2 turnover margin. In the NFL this season, that 2 turnover margin has been given 107 times, and the record for those on the short end of the stick have gone 10-97 (9% win percentage).
The Ravens caused stops, misses downfield, and even the occasional takeaway. Allowing Joe Flacco and the offense to carve out some offense of their own over the course of the 4 Quarters. Back and forth this hard hitting battle went, and the closer the end came, the closer the two teams were on the scoreboard. Neither side was giving in. And that is what makes this theater so interesting to the viewer. Veterans who may never get this far again, selling out on the field and trying to make the difference for their side.
And what happens when all of those collective contributions are cancelled out on the other side of the field? That is we see an entire season that begins in July boils down to one play in late January. And with all of the stars playing in the game on each side, we also see that the key players in the game are not the players at the forefront of your memory when you look back at this contest.
The Ravens caused a 3-and-out late from the Patriots offense when Ed Reed broke up a 3rd Down pass, and now the Ravens were going to get the ball back one last time with under 2 minutes to go. Trailing 23-20, they would be able to go to the Super Bowl with a touchdown, or settle this in overtime with a field goal.
And this is where Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and the rest of the Patriots offense would go sit down. As would the Ravens defense of Reed, Lewis, and friends. This game would be settled by none of them. They had done what they could to impact the game and now they would spend the rest of the afternoon as spectators.
Those who would decide this game included Flacco, a player who most felt did not have the quality to win a game like this - including some of his teammates. But, throughout the day, he looked poised and ready to make a play when needed. He missed on a few throws that would have been huge gainers to his speedster, Torrey Smith, but managed the game quite well.
On this final drive, the Ravens went to work on Julian Edelman, the Patriots 2-way player (according to ProFootballFocus.com, he played 28 snaps on offense, 27 on defense Sunday), who was trying to cover Anquan Boldin in the slot with very little success. 5 times Flacco went to Boldin - 4 times with Edelman lined up to cover him - for a total of 4 catches for 60 yards in this drive. The Ravens were marching and in position at the 14 yard-line to have at least 2 shots at the end zone before settling for overtime with a chip-shot field goal.
And that is where the play of the game would occur. Lee Evans, who had 4 receptions all year after a 7 productive years in Buffalo, would be lined up in man coverage alone on the right side of the formation, opposite Smith and Boldin on the left. Boldin had Edelman again, so the Patriots were rolling all of their coverage in that direction. The Ravens had the perfect scenario lined up with Evans against Sterling Moore.
Moore, who played his college football for SMU, was undrafted last spring. In July he was signed by the Raiders, but after failing to make their squad out of camp was pushed to their practice squad. Then, 3 weeks later, the Raiders cut him off the practice squad. From September 26th to October 5th, Moore was unemployed, and perhaps pondering a life that did not include football. But, on October 5th, the Patriots called and placed him on their practice squad. Due to injuries and circumstances, Moore was promoted to the roster for the Week 10 game against the Jets and played in 5 regular season games - 3 as a safety, 2 as a corner. So, with a Wide Receiver playing defense against Boldin, here is this unregarded SMU Mustang covering Evans with the Super Bowl hanging in the balance.
On the snap, Flacco makes no mistake where he is going with the ball. He locks on Evans, throws a huge shoulder fake, and then waits for Evans to clear Moore for the back shoulder fade in the end zone. It works perfectly and when the ball falls in Evans arms, Moore is face guarding him - with really no idea where the ball is. Evans catches the ball and appears to have just caught the winning score, when Moore in desperation swipes at the ball. Somehow, Evans seems to have relaxed his grip a bit and Moore is able to get the ball free. Incomplete pass.
3rd Down is a protection breakdown as a 3-man rush cause Flacco to turn away from Boldin vs Edelman and he finally offers a desperation throw to his tight end, Dennis Pitta, that falls incomplete as Sterling Moore again bats the ball away.
4th and 1 from the 14. For reasons that seem unclear, Baltimore had trouble getting the FG team on in a timely manner. By the time they are set up, the play clock is down to inside 10 seconds. Baltimore has a timeout, but perhaps recalling the moment Dallas had this season, John Harbaugh does not call a timeout and risk "icing his own kicker". This causes a rushed snap, a hold that does not get the laces right, and a hooked kick by former Cowboy (2002-2005), Billy Cundiff. It was a gutting end to a valiant effort from the Ravens, and for New England, a fortuitous ending that will put them in yet another Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, over 2,600 miles away another classic was about to happen. This one involving the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers in a rematch of some wonderful playoff games 2 decades ago.
Much like the earlier battle, the largest lead would be only 7 points, and the battle would be intense all afternoon long.
For much of the day, we thought the hero might be Vernon Davis. Davis continued to be a player who can only be stopped by his own decisions as his two touchdowns were somewhat mitigated by his two personal fouls. He is simply too talented to cover as a tight end, too fast for linebackers or safeties, too strong for cornerbacks.
If not Davis, then surely it would be Eli Manning again. Manning took a tremendous beating, being sacked 6 times and hit at least 20 times in all. The 49ers pass rush started slow, but by the 2nd half, Eli seemed to take a shot almost every time he threw the ball. It demonstrated yet again that Manning has grown into one of the more clutch QBs in the sport, despite many of us refusing to place him in that class. The facts are that his 4th Quarter performances are top notch, his 3rd Down throws are as good as anyones, and now he has won a 5th road playoff game - someone nobody in the NFL has ever done. That final statistic is a bit dubious, as many of the greats seldom find themselves on the road as often as Eli in the playoffs (given that they win higher seeds), but nevertheless, the playoff road game is one of the most difficult things to do in the NFL for a QB, and Manning has now done it 5 times.
But, despite many huge throws in tight spots, this game was likely not decided by either QB. Although, Manning threw the ball 58 times and Alex Smith only completed 12 passes all day. The Giants took 90 snaps to the 49ers 57, but in the end, yardage was close enough, 352-328, New York.
No, this game, like the game before it, would be settled by unlikely characters. Kyle Williams, a 6th round pick in the 2010 draft from Arizona State, is the son of Chicago White Sox General Manager, Kenny Williams. He is a young WR, who appears to have some value, but yesterday was asked to return punts as the normal return man, Ted Ginn, Jr, was unable to play due to injury.
Williams had returned just 5 punts as a pro in 2 seasons, but yesterday was asked to field 8 punts in rather wet, high pressure situations. The first sign that trouble might be ahead was with 13:30 left in the 3Q, where Williams made a very risky decision to dive to catch a punt as pressure was bearing down, rather than the percentage play of getting away from the ball and letting it bounce. He fielded it as the stadium gasped, and no damage was done.
But, in the 4th Quarter with a 14-10 lead, Williams would not be as fortunate. A punt with 11:15 to play landed 10 yards in front of him, but then rolled at him as he casually moved stepped towards the ball. The ball takes odd bounces, and this time it brushed his leg ever so slightly, putting the ball into play as Giants gunner, Devin Thomas alertly grabbed the ball. In another era with no instant replay, this play would have stayed with the 49ers. But, with replay, it was properly discovered that the Giants just found field position that they did not have to travel with their offense. A possession that started inside the 49ers 30-yard line was eventually cashed in for a go-ahead touchdown when Eli found Mario Manningham for a 17-14 Giants lead. It was the first turnover of the game.
The 49ers would tie the game, aided by a big Williams return, and send it into overtime at 17-17. But, again, this amazing Sunday would frown on young Kyle Williams. A punt with 9:40 left in overtime was fumbled again by Williams as rookie Jacquian Williams for New York would strip him and Devin Thomas would recover again at the 49ers 24. Amazing.
A few moments later, Lawrence Tynes would do what Billy Cundiff couldn't do, which was to nail a chip shot on the road, and the Giants would also punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.
Even the biggest football experts would not have placed Sterling Moore and Kyle Williams in the headlines as the day started. Nor, Lee Evans and Devin Thomas. But, the hands of fate put them all front and center as the NFL's Championship Sunday paid off with drama that will not soon be forgotten.
And now, it is the Giants and Patriots, back together again in the Super Bowl. And we have 13 days to wait to see if this tournament
can captivate us one more time.
Amazing theater from the National Football League. I only regret it is about to go away for 7 months.