NFL Playoffs 2012: Giants Beat 49ers, 20-17, In Overtime To Advance To Super Bowl (San Francisco) 

(c) 2012, The Washington Post

SAN FRANCISCO — For two weeks, the San Francisco 49ers played football games that amounted to ping-pong matches, bouncing back and forth, ahead to behind, ahead to behind and back again, a dizzying journey that made stomachs across the Bay Area turn. Sunday night, in the NFC championship game, the serve-and-volley opponent was the New York Giants, who were only too happy to hit right back.

And then, deep into overtime, a rookie linebacker named Jacquian Williams sprinted downfield on special teams, and stuck his arm out in desperation. At the other end was the right arm of San Francisco punt returner Kyle Williams. The ball popped out and Giants receiver Devin Thomas recovered.

And when Lawrence Tynes chipped in a 31-yard field goal, New York ended the back and forth, taking a 20-17 victory that sends them to the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots, a rematch of the championship game the two played four years ago.

Thus ended a game between two old NFC stalwarts, franchises that met for the eighth time in the playoffs, though the first in nine years. Those matchups include the Giants' 15-13 victory in the NFC championship game following the 1990 season, memorable for Roger Craig's fumble, recovered by Lawrence Taylor, that led to Matt Bahr's winning field goal.

They include the 49ers' 39-38 wild-card victory after the 2002 season, remembered for the errant snap by New York long snapper Trey Junkin on what would have been the winning kick.

File this one right with those taut classics, partly because of New York quarterback Eli Manning, partly because of San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis, but mostly because of two stout, relentless defenses. The 49ers came with linebacker Patrick Willis. The Giants countered with end Jason Pierre-Paul. And each team kept coming in swarms. How evenly matched were they? At the end of regulation, each team had 319 yards.

Davis already was responsible for getting the 49ers this far, with his last-minute, drilled-as-he-caught-it 14-yard touchdown catch a week ago to beat New Orleans. On San Francisco's second possession Sunday, he was matched up on the outside against Giants safety Antrel Rolle. Quarterback Alex Smith dropped a perfect ball over Rolle and into Davis's hands, and the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Washington native simply ran away from Rolle and fellow safety Deon Grant.

Seventy-three yards later, he was in the end zone, then on top of a small stage, simultaneously giving San Francisco a 7-0 lead and drawing a 15-yard penalty.

Manning countered twice before the half was done. He smartly engineered a 10-play drive, including a pair of huge third-down completions to the omnipresent Victor Cruz, who caught 10 passes for 142 yards.

Manning finished that drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Bear Pascoe, tying the game, then relied heavily on Cruz to lead the Giants on another 10-play drive just before half. That one ended with Tynes's 31-yard field goal with two seconds remaining in the half, and the Giants, despite the weather, the crowd and Davis's huge play, led 10-7 at the break.

At that point, Smith — a quarterback who was maligned much of his career but embraced this season — had completed only 2 of 7 attempts. But when the 49ers took over at their own 46 in the third quarter, he went to work. He found Frank Gore on a screen for 21 yards, and that set up Davis again.

On first down from the New York 28, Davis cut upfield on the left, then out, then back upfield. Again, he found overwhelmed defensive backs. He beat safety Kenny Phillips to the goal line, then absorbed a hit from Grant. The ball stayed with him the whole way, his second touchdown of the night, his fourth of the postseason.

With five minutes left in the third quarter, San Francisco held a 14-10 lead and a delirious crowd cared not about the rain, the wind or the cold.

The 49ers' defense might have been able to take it from there. It began to pummel the Giants and all of New York's second-half possessions were ending with punts. On one of those, though, came disaster for the 49ers. Williams, the San Francisco returner, allowed Steve Weatherford's punt to bounce, but didn't get far enough enough away from it. The ball barely glanced off his right knee. After a challenge by Giants Coach Tom Coughlin, New York gained possession of the ball at the San Francisco 29, a game-changer with 11 minutes remaining.

Manning, then, showed why so many believe he has moved into the small group of elite quarterbacks in the NFL. On third and 15 from the San Francisco 17, he lined up with three receivers to his left. With time, he confidently drilled a ball to Manningham, who beat cornerback Tramaine Block on a post pattern. Manningham came down with the catch, then defiantly flipped the ball to the end zone. The Giants, stifled only moments before, had a 17-14 lead with eight-and-a-half minutes remaining.

Smith, though, countered with the drive that led to David Akers's 25-yard game-tying field goal just three minutes later. Serve, volley, volley right back — and overtime.

There, one team finally made a mistake. And there, the Giants earned their trip to the Super Bowl.

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