It hit me after the second Kyle Williams turnover that Ted Ginn Junior might have been the MVP of the NFC Championship game loss to the New York Giants. After all, if Ginn hadn't been unavailable because of a knee injury, Williams would not have been returning punts, and who knows what the outcome would have been?
It's highly unfortunate for Williams that he has to live with the knowledge that he, more than anyone else or anything else, cost the 49ers the game. But the fact remains that Ginn is a better player, and the Niners would have been better off if he had been able to play, even without the turnovers. Ginn was third in the NFL this season in kick returns, averaging 27.6 per. And he was fourth in punt returns, averaging 12.3 He also was fourth on the Niners in receptions, with 33, averaging 11.6 a catch.
Interestingly, Ginn was the MVP of the 49ers first game of the season, when he returned a kick 102 yards for a TD late in the 4th quarter against Seattle, and then returned a punt 55 yards for another TD 59 seconds later, clinching a 33-17 win.
If not Ginn, it was the 49er defense. Ranked number one in the NFL against the run, allowing an average of just 77 yards per game, the defense was such a threat against the run that in the playoffs, the Saints' Drew Brees and the Giants' Eli Manning combined for an astonishing 121 passes. That's unheard of. Completely.
The Niners' D was on the field for 58% of the game against the Giants, who ran 93 plays, compared with the NFL average per team of 69. The Niners sacked Manning six times, and hit him seven times, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Giants had eight possessions in the second half and overtime, and punted six times. The other two possessions followed the Kyle Williams' turnovers, deep in 49ers territory, resulting in the Giants only 10 points after halftime.
The Niners hadn't had a special teams turnover until the NFC title game. They led the NFL in turnover differential during the season at +28, and in fewest turnovers allowed, with 10.
They came oh-so-close to forcing three Giants' turnovers, but two seemingly inevitable interceptions didn't come to pass when the Niner defensive backs ran into each other, late in the game. And an Ahmad Bradshaw fumble, at the Giants 21, with barely two minutes left in regulation, recovered by the 49ers, was negated by a quick whistle.
The Niner offense, meantime, couldn't measure up to its defense. The Niners were 1-for-13 on third-down conversions, and the only one they converted was a meaningless 29-yard pass on the final play of the fourth quarter. Their final three possessions of the fourth quarter and overtime (other than that meaningless first down) were three-and-out.
And given that Alex Smith completed only one pass to a wide receiver, for three yards (compared with 16 completions to NY receivers), I couldn't help but wonder more than once, couldn't Braylan Edwards have helped, if the Niners hadn't released him, before their regular season finale at St. Louis? Even then, I wondered, why release him then? What if they needed him in the playoffs? Turned out they did, after the injury to Ted Ginn Junior.