Top 20 Games of 2011


Game 3: Giants at 49ers NFC Championship


Defense wins championships.

Or at least that’s the bill of goods we’ve been sold, because in 2011, offenses dominated like no time in NFL history. The two Super Bowl teams finished 27th and 31st in total defense.

Three quarterbacks eclipsed 5,000 yards passing last year. Prior to 2012, that had only happened twice since the league started recording that statistic some 69 years ago. Three teams averaged more than 30 points per game. That hadn’t happened since 1949. Offenses were scoring points at a prodigious rate, and winning. Of the top 12 scoring teams in the NFL, only one had a losing record (the Carolina Panthers).  Of the 12 teams that allowed the fewest points, FIVE had losing records. Defense wasn’t winning much of anything in 2011.

Except in San Francisco. The 49ers’ front seven carried them to a 13-3 record by not only allowing the fewest points in the NFC, but tying for the league lead in takeovers, as well. Only Pittsburgh allowed fewer points, but the Steelers couldn’t produce a turnover to save their life. The defensive takeaways routinely gave Alex Smith and the offense a shorter field to work with while completely suffocating everything opponents’ offenses were trying to do. In a season when the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots went a combined 28-4 despite fielding the two worst defenses in football, the San Francisco 49ers were truly an outlier.

It was a surprise that rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh had this team hosting the NFC Championship Game. It was not a surprise that our No. 3 game of 2011 became a defensive battle for the ages.

The Giants’ defense sucked for most of the season. But the G-Men got it going down the stretch, mostly due to the healthy return of Osi Umenyiora and a huge leap in development by Jason Pierre-Paul. In the five games leading up to the conference championship, New York allowed a total of 60 points.

So what we saw on January 22nd at the ‘Stick was a harkening back to the days when defense really did win something besides meaningless Pro Bowl berths. The final score was 20-17, and it took both clubs nearly 68 minutes to score even that much. Not to mention, 10 of those points came courtesy of two fumbled punt returns.

This was a slugfest, with hard hits and clutch defensive play at a premium level. “Freaking awesome” is the phrase that immediately comes to mind.

The NFC Championship Game was also a change of pace in the 2011 playoffs. Instead of watching Drew Brees lighting up the Detroit Lions every time he got his hands on the ball or Tom Brady spanking Tebowmania’s secondary, we were treated with two defensive units dictating a championship football game.

Each club only gave up one touchdown in the first half. Antrel Rolle got caught with his pants down in single coverage vs. Vernon Davis, while Bear Pascoe (of all people) put the Giants on the board to tie the game at 7-7. In between those scores, though, the 49ers stuffed Brandon Jacobs on fourth down while the Giants did what they would do all game long: neuter the 49er attack on third down.

Some might call it crummy offense, but the Niners’ abysmal third-down conversion rate (1-for-13) was a product of a Giants front four that got after Smith all game long. The former No. 1 pick of the 2005 NFL Draft was sacked three times and pressured throughout. Meanwhile, the San Francisco pass rush upped the ante by getting to Eli Manning six times and harassing him on countless other occasions.

Manning and Smith would do their share of damage, despite the fact that this was not a game that quarterbacks would dominate the way NFL signal callers did throughout the season. Smith found Davis in the end zone again to put San Francisco up 14-10 in the third quarter. After Kyle Williams’ first special-teams giveaway, Manning took advantage of the short field, eventually hitting Mario Manningham with a 17-yard touchdown pass. This gave the Giants a 17-14 edge halfway through the fourth quarter.

But Smith led his club into field goal range, thanks in large part to his 17-yard scamper from midfield. A 25-yard field goal by David Akers made it 17-17.

That’s when the defenses shut it down. Everything. This was a title bout of Drago-HGH’d Stallone proportions, and no one was backing down. From the 5:39 mark to the end of regulation, there were six possessions and not a damn one got anywhere near field goal range.

To overtime we went. And that’s where Williams made his second special-teams mistake. His fumble on the fourth possession of the extra period ultimately gave the game -- and a Super Bowl berth -- to the Giants. Lawrence Tynes’ game-winning 31-yard field goal marked the first time in 10 possessions either team scored.

That last sentence was a completely foreign concept in the 2011 season. But this NFC championship bout was a different kind of game -- enough so to be our No. 3 game of 2011.

Same ol’ situation: San Francisco had difficulty getting the ball to its outside receivers all season long. The Braylon Edwards experiment failed, while Ted Ginn Jr. gave the team very little in the passing game. Starter Josh Morgan landed on IR after getting hurt in Week 5. Michael Crabtree caught 72 passes, but only averaged 12.1 yards per catch while getting in the end zone just four times.

This lack of production at wideout allowed defenses to gang up on tight end Vernon Davis all season, covering him with defensive backs instead of linebackers and often bracketing him. The Giants tried to contain him. They came up a little short. Antrel Rolle had some trouble (understatement) with the explosive Davis early, as seen on this73-yard catch-and-run. That was the first of two big-play touchdown receptions from No. 85 on this day.

Controversial call: With 2:30 left in a 17-17 game, the 49ers had the Giants backed up to their own 15, facing second-and-21. As was the case all game, Manning faced heavy pressure. Scrambling to his left, Manning hit Ahmad Bradshaw in the flat. Bradshaw was met by three 49ers shortly thereafter, with NaVorro Bowman stripping the Giants running back of the football. Dashon Goldson recovered, and for all intents and purposes, we were looking at a 49ers-Patriots Super Bowl.

However, the refs blew the play dead -- a call that Harbaugh could not challenge -- and it would be a terrible (and ominous) break for San Francisco.

(Boneheaded) Play(s) of the game: Well, there’s no real doubt about this one, is there? Everyone remembers Williams’ two major gaffes. The first came with the Niners protecting a precarious 14-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Punter Steve Weatherford hit it square, as the ball travelled 40 yards in the air before it started bouncing at the Niners’ 45-yard line. Williams saw it bounding toward him, but inexplicably didn’t get away from the ball. Sure enough, the ball hit Williams’ leg at the 35. While Williams didn’t even make an effort to recover the ball, Devin Thomas pounced on it for the Giants at the 29. Shortly thereafter, Manning connected with Manningham for a go-ahead score. NFL Network’s Sound FX captured this special teams blunder -- as well as the rest of the second half -- beautifully.

Williams’ second fumble was the decider. The 49ers had just stopped the Giants for the second time in overtime. Williams could have fair caught this time. It was a duck. He didn’t. Giants special teamer Jacquian Williams poked the ball loose and Thomas was there for the recovery -- his second on the day. Giants ball at the 24. Moments later, Tynes would send Big Blue to Super Bowl XLVI with a short field goal.

Best player on the field: Victor Cruz. Carlos Rogers couldn’t stop him. Nor could anyone else in the San Francisco secondary. Cruz capped off a breakout season with a brilliant 10-catch, 142-yard performance in the biggest game (up to that point) of his young career.

Why this game is No. 3: Because it was one of the best NFC title games ever, that’s why. This is the way football is meant to be played -- on grass, with physical defense and clutch quarterback play at the end. Our No. 3 game of 2011 had controversial calls, top-level individual play (Cruz, among others) and, of course, high stakes.

Why not Higher?: The top three on our list are this close. If the NFC Championship Game lacked anything, it sure as heck wasn’t enough to really knock its quality. Would the game have been more enjoyable if the Niners weren’t completely inept on third down? Sure. Would it have been nice if the refs didn’t blow the whistle on the Bradshaw fumble? Of course. But that’s football.

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