SAN FRANCISCO -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a down-to-the-wire Championship Sunday. We had three-point thrillers, from coast to coast...
• There's really nothing new about a New York-New England Super Bowl.
Get ready for the Revenge Bowl. Four years after one of the most shocking Super Bowl upsets in NFL history, the Patriots get their shot at redemption and some payback in squaring off against a Giants team that broke their hearts four years ago in Glendale, Ariz.
The Patriots won't carry an 18-0 perfect season into Super Bowl XLVI, but they will carry a grudge. That 17-14 loss to Tom Coughlin's underdog team was as painful as any outcome in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, and it took until last week for New England to even register another playoff win after that numbing defeat.
Neither team is exactly the same outfit it was four years ago, but there will be plenty of familiar faces and storylines in Indianapolis. Brady and Belichick will again be chasing their fourth Super Bowl ring together, and with this trip become the first head coach and quarterback to ever reach five Super Bowls together. That breaks a tie with Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw in Pittsburgh, Marv Levy and Jim Kelly in Buffalo, and Tom Landry and Roger Staubach in Dallas.
For New York, it's Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning back in the Big Game, seeking a validating second Super Bowl victory. Once again, the No. 4-seeded Giants have done it the hard way, winning a pair of road games in the playoffs and knocking off the NFC's top two seeds, this time Green Bay and San Francisco.
Both the Patriots and Giants have every right to feel a little fortunate to reach this pinnacle. New England lost to the Giants at home in Week 9 of the regular season, dropping to 5-3 and prompting some to write them off as an AFC power. But the Patriots (15-3) haven't lost since, taking a 10-game winning streak into the franchise's seventh Super Bowl appearance.
As for New York (12-7), after winning in Gillette Stadium in early November, they swooned, losing four games in a row to fall to 6-6 and seemingly to the brink of irrelevance. But New York gathered itself and won three out of its last four games in the regular season, won the NFC East at 9-7, and got on another postseason roll, just as it did in the memorable 2007 run. The Giants have now won five consecutive road playoff games, dating to 2007, and will take a five-game winning streak into the franchise's fifth Super Bowl appearance
New England will likely be favored once again, but no one is likely to discount New York's chances this time around. The Giants beating the Patriots head to head once already this season gives everyone an idea of how these two match up, and it should be another well-played, tightly-contested game.
If the Giants win, they won't shock the world this time. And if the Patriots prevail, well, it'll help put the events of 2007 a little further into the past. Get ready for the Revenge Bowl. It's the Patriots and Giants once again, as New York and New England resume their battle and renew their rivalry.
• If you're wondering, the Patriots and Giants make for the fifth pair of teams to meet in more than one Super Bowl. Pittsburgh and Dallas lead the way with three showdowns, with the Steelers winning two out of three. The Bills and Cowboys faced off in back-to-back years in the early '90s, with Dallas winning both. Washington and Miami split a pair of meetings, with the Dolphins winning in Super Bowl VII in 1973, and the Redskins taking the rematch in 1983. And lastly, San Francisco swept Cincinnati in their two Super Bowl meetings, after the 1981 season and again after 1988.
• With another Super Bowl win, Brady can tie his boyhood hero, Joe Montana, who won the first four of San Francisco's five rings. But Brady and Belichick returning to the Super Bowl after a four-year absence ties a couple of QB-coach tandems for the longest such gap between Super Bowls.
Manning and Coughlin, of course, have gone the same four years without making the Super Bowl, the same length of time that Landry and Staubach went after winning Super Bowl VI in 1972, and then not winning their way back until Super Bowl X in 1976.
• Here's a quirky little fact that makes New England's seventh Super Bowl trip distinctive from all the rest: It's the first time the Patriots will be playing an opponent they've previously faced in the Super Bowl.
The rematch with the Giants ends New England's streak of squaring off with a different foe in each of its first six Super Bowls.
In order, here is New England's Super Bowl history: Lost to Chicago in early 1986, lost to Green Bay in 1997, beat St. Louis in 2002, beat Carolina in 2004, beat Philadelphia in 2005, and lost to the Giants in 2008. Now here come the Giants again, the team that blocked New England's path to NFL history's first 19-0 record.
• Whatever progress San Francisco seemed to make on offense last week in its high-scoring win over New Orleans, the 49ers failed miserably in their follow-up act against New York.
How bad was San Francisco's offense? Try these statistics on for size: The 49ers went 1 for 13 on third downs in the game, for an 8 percent conversion rate. Alex Smith completed just 12 of 26 passes for 196 yards, with 101 of those coming on his two scoring passes to tight end Vernon Davis. San Francisco completed one pass -- one -- to a wide receiver all game. It went for three yards to Michael Crabtree.
And lastly, on their final four possessions of the game, the 49ers went three-and-out, punting or failing to move the ball at the end of regulation. All told, San Francisco punted 10 times, two fewer times than New York.
The 49ers offense wasn't Super Bowl ready on this day.
• Nothing crushed the 49ers' Super Bowl dreams quite like Ted Ginn Jr.'s injured right knee, which caused him to miss the NFC title game. In his place as punt returner, San Francisco started second-year veteran Kyle Williams, with disastrous results.
Williams muffed a punt in the fourth quarter, letting it carelessly graze off his knee, and that mistake led to the Giants' go-ahead touchdown and a 17-14 lead with 8:34 left in regulation. Then, in overtime, it was Williams' fumble inside the 49ers' 25 that sealed the deal and set up Lawrence Tynes' game-winning 31-yard field goal.
Maybe Ginn makes those mistakes, too, but doubtful. Williams, Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff and Ravens receiver Lee Evans all share goat horns.
• Tough day for the Harbaugh coaching clan. No Har-Bowl doubling as the Super Bowl this year. John's Baltimore Ravens outplayed the Patriots in many ways, but lost by three points when a chip-shot field goal was missed just before what was sure to be overtime.
As for Jim's San Francisco 49ers, they got even closer to the Super Bowl, but were denied by three points at home in overtime against the Giants on that Tynes field goal about halfway through the overtime period.
The Ravens and 49ers combined to win 25 games in the regular season, and two more in the playoffs. But this is a double whammy that will sting for a while, because neither team seized the opportunity at hand.
• Like receiver Troy Brown in that memorable 2006 AFC Divisional round upset in San Diego, stripping the ball from Chargers defensive back Marlon McCree after what appeared to be a game-deciding interception, the Patriots saw their season saved by Sterling Moore's refusal to give up on a play.
Moore was beaten by Evans on what seemed to be the game-winning touchdown pass with 22 seconds remaining, but the former Raiders practice squad member shrewdly knocked the ball out of Evans' hands before he could establish possession in the end zone.
Seemingly in an instant, the Ravens went from thinking they were Super Bowl-bound, to seeing Cundiff snuff out any shot at overtime with his shank from 32 yards out and 11 seconds left on the clock. What a cruel twist of fate for Baltimore, but it does still typify the way the Patriots are coached to play: Never give up until the whistle blows.
• Though the Evans' non-catch was, according to the league, confirmed by the replay assistant as incomplete based on him not having his second foot down in the end zone with possession, it's more than a little surprising the game wasn't stopped and the play looked at numerous times to make sure the call was accurate.
I mean, all that was at stake was a trip to the Super Bowl for Baltimore on the play. That's all. We tend to get seven minutes of reviews for a relatively meaningless spot of a third down run in the second quarter, but then the Evans' play doesn't warrant another look or three? I don't really get that, even if the correct call was made.
• Cundiff might have blown the Ravens' shot at a tie game, but Evans let the game-winning touchdown slip through his grasp. Cundiff will likely be vilified, but in my book he's only the second-most culpable goat in the game's final seconds. And Evans thought it was rough playing in Buffalo all those years? Wait until next season in Baltimore, if he's even invited back by the Ravens.
• Cundiff simply can't miss a 32-yard kick in that situation, but why did the Ravens force him to run onto the field and get into formation with the play clock winding down under five seconds? Baltimore had another timeout left, and it was only its season on the line. And don't tell me it was because Harbaugh didn't want to be accused of icing his own kicker, because that's not a good enough rationale to rush Cundiff unnecessarily. Pretty shaky late-game management by Baltimore all the way around.
• Well, at least the tension created by the offense versus defense debate in Baltimore just got shoved to the back burner. Now it's defense versus special teams, thanks to Cundiff's almost unforgivable gaffe. And maybe even offense versus special teams.
• No matter what you thought of his pre-postseason rant about being disrespected, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco did himself proud Sunday. His Ravens aren't Super Bowl-bound, but No. 5 isn't the reason. Flacco out-played Brady, completing 22 of 36 for 306 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. And if Evans had held onto Flacco's perfect touchdown pass with 22 seconds remaining, Flacco would have been the hero of the game, with a career-defining comeback in the AFC title game to his credit.
• Have we ever seen Vince Wilfork better than he was against Baltimore? The Patriots' big man was way more than a run-stuffer on this day, seemingly living in the Baltimore backfield. The stat sheet says he had a mere three tackles, three assists and one sack. But the stats lie. He was a force all game long.
• In training camp this season, Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs told me it was an "all or nothing year'' in Baltimore. Suggs was speaking specifically about the Ravens' challenge of getting past Pittsburgh in the AFC North and setting themselves up for a long playoff run.
Objective No. 1 was reached this season. The Ravens swept the Steelers in their two head-to-head meetings, earned the division title, a No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, and won a home playoff game.
But the Ravens (13-5) fell one game shy of their Super Bowl dreams, and it's because they couldn't get past the No. 1 seed in the AFC -- the Patriots (15-3).
"When this journey first started, a lot of us were young men,'' Suggs said back in camp last summer. "I'm still a young man. I'm only 28. But I'm in my ninth year, so I feel like a window of opportunity is closing.''
Time is likely running out for the likes of Ray Lewis, Baltimore's 16th-year inside linebacker, and maybe 14th-year Ravens center Matt Birk. But the Ravens are still young enough at most other positions to keep knocking on the door and taking their annual trip to the playoffs. Baltimore is 44-20 in the four regular seasons since Harbaugh was hired, and now owns the NFL's longest active playoff streak at four years, in addition to being the only team to win a playoff game in each of the past four years.
Two trips to the AFC title game in four seasons isn't good enough in Baltimore, even if both losses came on the road. But the Ravens have averaged an 11-5 record in Harbaugh's four seasons and own a 5-4 playoff record in that span. That puts them in some select company in the NFL, but there's still some work to be done.
• Patriots fans must wake up in the middle of the night with a case of the cold sweats, seeing Bernard Pollard's face -- or at least his No. 31 -- everywhere they look.
Talk about a nemesis. Pollard is the guy who busted up Brady's knee in Week 1 of 2008 -- as a Chiefs safety -- and he's also the guy who tackled the injured Wes Welker when the New England receiver blew out his knee in the final game of the 2009 season in Houston. And now Pollard has done damage to Patriots nation while wearing the colors of a third NFL team.
Pollard is the first defender to slow down New England's beast of a tight end, Rob Gronkowski, in quite some time. Gronkowski twisted his ankle and left the game for a while late in the third quarter after being tackled by Pollard, and did not record a catch after the injury.
And Pollard saved his best for last, executing that exquisite tip drill in coverage of Patriots receiver Matthew Slater in the end zone midway through the fourth quarter, batting the ball to Ravens rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith, who made the interception and a 39-yard return. New England survived Pollard, but just barely. And if Gronkowski is slowed in the Super Bowl by his ankle sprain, the Curse of Pollard will strike once again in Foxboro.
• If that was it for the Cam Cameron era in Baltimore, and I'm fairly convinced it is, he didn't exactly go out with a bang or a roll of the dice. As is his penchant, Cameron played it too safe at times against New England, with particular venom no doubt being aimed his way for that Ray Rice draw play call on 3rd-and-3 from the Patriots' 30 with just more than three minutes remaining and Baltimore down three points.
Rice lost three yards on the play, and the Ravens wound up passing on a 50-yard field goal attempt and going for it and failing on 4th-and-6. Cameron's play call didn't show much faith in Flacco in that situation, and the quarterback also could have helped himself and his team by audibling out of that call against an obvious run defense front by New England.
• If you would have told me that Baltimore's defense would hold Brady without a touchdown pass, pick him off twice and limit New England to just 234 net yards passing, I would have assumed we would be watching the Ravens play in Indianapolis in a couple weeks. But that's football. The stats don't always tell the whole story.
• It's not like Flacco didn't try to take advantage of the Anquan Boldin-on-Julian Edelman mismatch late in the game, after the Patriots lost cornerback Kyle Arrington to injury, because Boldin did finish with a team-best six catches for a game-high 101 yards. But I think I would have been looking for Boldin every play until the Patriots stopped him, and especially near the goal line, where Flacco eventually threw Evans' way with ill-fated results.