In this week's NFL playoff chatter, the guys discuss Kyle Williams's major gaffes, the New York Gaints' overtime win, the Patriots' big defensive effort, and the impressive performance by Ravens QB Joe Flacco in a losing cause.
49ers punt returner Kyle Williams is taking plenty of heat for committing a pair of devastating turnovers that helped propel the New York Giants into the Super Bowl. Is it too simplistic to place all the blame at his feet?
Tony Care: His two fumbles created 10 points for the Giants, including the game-winning field goal in overtime. Special teams is such an underrated part of the football and Williams was taking the place of the injured Ted Ginn Jr., who would've been a great weapon for San Francisco. But I will say that the 49ers' offence didn't help out a fine defensive effort. Alex Smith reverted to his old ways in the second half, missing targets and faltering under heavy pressure. Aside from Williams, the biggest failures for the 49ers came on third down as they only converted one of 13 attempts.
Jesse Campigotto: Williams deserves plenty of blame (when's the last time you saw a guy muff a punt and fumble another return in the same game?) but Jim Harbaugh should not emerge from this unscathed. The "great young rookie coach" as we're continually reminded by pundits, was far too conservative in this game. Twice, he elected to punt when facing fourth-and-about-1 from around the Giants' 45. Both times, if you remove the five yards from the intentional delay of game penalty preceding the punt, the Niners netted only about 20-25 yards on the kick. That doesn't come close to washing out the upside of trying for a new set of downs. Also, on San Fran's final possession before halftime (starting with 2:51 left on the clock) Harbaugh elected to have his team run two not-even-trying-for-a-first-down runs up the gut followed by an ill-fated passing play before punting, giving the Giants enough time to get the ball back and boot a field goal before the half. Those three (essentially free) points ended up looming large in a game that ended tied after regulation.
Jason Davidson: As tough as the off-season will be for Kyle Williams, I don't think it's too simplistic. But you have to feel for the guy. His father (Chicago White Sox general manager Kenny Williams) claims that he suffered a separated shoulder in the third quarter therefore he wasn't 100 per cent at the time of his costly overtime fumble. But a lot of guys play hurt so I don't think that's a viable excuse. If you're really that hurt then you should stick to the sidelines or the trainer's room. Besides, San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said on Monday that Williams never suffered a separation. If I'm going to cut Williams any slack, it's that he was put into a tough position as usual punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. was injured the week before in the 49ers NFC Divisional tilt with the New Orleans Saints. Also, those 49ers "fans" should be horribly ashamed of themselves for resorting to making death threats against Williams.
What stood out the most in the Giant's thrilling overtime win against the 49ers?
Jesse Campigotto: See above. Really, Harbaugh did a fine job with this team this year, but before we anoint him the next Bill Walsh, he's got to shake off this paralyzing conservatism that seems to afflict the vast majority of coaches in the NFL. On the positive side, this Giants passing game is excellent. Even with crowd and weather conditions stacked against them (and facing a very good defence) Eli Manning and Victor Cruz (easily the best QB-WR combo in the final four) were able to move the ball effectively through the air. I don't see how the Patriots' patchwork secondary is going to be able to stop these guys.
Jason Davidson: Their defence coming through in the clutch is what stood out for me. They overcame the nasty rain and wind that surrounded Candlestick Park. They were stingy, only allowing 328 net yards despite being on defence for 40 of the total 68 minutes played. Full credit to cornerback Corey Webster for forcing that Williams turnover in overtime and Devin Thomas for recovering both of those fumbles. Another key statistic to note is that the New York defence only allowed San Francisco to capitalize on one of 13 third down situations. That's a mere seven per cent.
Tony Care: Eli Manning. He continues to shine when the stakes reach their apex. San Francisco's defensive line hammered Manning all game, sacking his six times, while he endured another 12 hits. Yet Manning persevered as he went 32-of-58 for 316 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He said he was elite at the beginning of the season - as good as Tom Brady, actually. He's been right all year. Another victory over Brady and we're talking Hall of Fame status.
Considering the way the New England Patriots' nail-biting win over the Baltimore Ravens unfolded, how much credit should go to the much-maligned defence?
Jason Davidson: Well, sophomore linebacker Brandon Spikes deserves plenty of credit for picking off Joe Flacco in the fourth quarter, not to mention making nine total tackles. He was instrumental in limiting Ray Rice to 67 yards on the ground. For Bill Belichick and company, they must be relieved that Spikes only suffered a sprained MCL against the Giants back in Week 9. He missed seven weeks as a result but he still avoided being sidelined for the remainder of the regular season. Spikes was the key performer on defence and he deserves most of the credit, even though the Pats still allowed the Ravens to convert on nine of 17 third down situations.
Jesse Campigotto: Not too much, considering they came within a hair of surrendering the go-ahead TD pass to Lee friggin' Evans, and only a laughable miss on a chip shot by Billy Cundiff kept the game from going into overtime. Oh, and this Baltimore offence they were facing wasn't exactly the 2011 Saints'. But Vince Wilfork was a legitimate terror up the middle, so they've got that going for them. Which is nice.
Tony Care: Tom Brady said it best: "I sucked pretty bad today but our defence saved us." No kidding. What impressed me the most was the play of defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who played a career-defining game. Don't let the stat line fool you (6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 QB hit), Wilfork was dominant. He continually collapsed the pocket around Joe Flacco and made a key third-and-three stop with the Ravens threatening in the red zone in the second half. But all that would've been moot if rookie corner Sterling Moore doesn't strip receiver Lee Evans in the end zone with 22 seconds remaining in the game.
Despite the loss, did Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco answer his critics with his performance against the Patriots?
Tony Care: Flacco outplayed Brady, which should tell you he has the ability, but he just doesn't do it on a consistent basis. Flacco threw for 306 yards, plus two touchdowns, and aside from an interception and a fourth-down incompletion, he was good. This loss was not Flacco's fault. When the chips were down he drove the Ravens down the field and threw what should have been the game-winning touchdown. There is no excuse for Evans allowing a rookie to knock the ball out of his hands with a Super Bowl berth on the line. What the Ravens need to do next season is change their offensive philosophy and give Flacco the freedom to open up the offence.
Jesse Campigotto: No, because of those last three words: against the Patriots. Everything Flacco did in this game must be placed in the context of his doing it against one of the worst defences in the league. Last week, against the legitimately good (and vastly underrated) defence of the Texans, Flacco looked horrible. And even this week, in what was ostensibly one of his better games, Flacco continued to display that maddening (dare I say Bledsoian) habit of always stepping the exact wrong way into an oncoming pass rush. It's like watching a four-year-old playing Frogger for the first time.
Jason Davidson: I think he has. He played much better against New England than he did in his team's AFC Divisional round win against the Houston Texans the week prior. Look, completing 22 of 36 throws for 306 yards and two touchdowns is a solid performance. Not just that, but Baltimore has qualified for the post-season in each of the four years since Flacco took the reins under centre. I think with his five-year rookie contract set to expire at the end of the 2012 season, you can expect to see pen put to paper on a contract extension at some point over the next six months. Oh and that head coach John Harbaugh has now endorsed Flacco as QB of the future, that certainly doesn't hurt.
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