15 thoughts on championship weekend

John Harbaugh's Ravens fell to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game on Sunday. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Before we get to my 15 observations from championship weekend, a couple links to share that you might have missed the past couple days.

According to a report, the Eagles did make a push for Steve Spagnuolo, but he chose the Saints over them, largely because of Drew Brees.

And Brian Dawkins talked about the potential end of his NFL career, along with leadership, as it relates to the Eagles.

1. We must start with special teams. There were several great moments in one of the better championship weekends in recent memory, but fair or unfair, these two games will likely be remembered for two players who didn't come through. With 1:44 left in the early game, Joe Flacco drove the Ravens 65 yards to the Patriots' 14. After an incompletion, Billy Cundiff came out onto the field to attempt a 32-yard field goal. And missed. On the replay, it looked like John Harbaugh said simply, "He pushed it." I'm still not sure why Cundiff was running onto the field with just 15 seconds on the play clock. The ball was not snapped until the play clock had just one second remaining. And the Ravens had a timeout to use. But Harbaugh, who made a name for himself coaching the Eagles' special teams, told reporters afterwards that he didn't think his team was rushed.

2. Prior to the miss, Cundiff had attempted 11 postseason field goals and made 10 of them. His only miss was a 47-yarder as a member of the Saints five years ago. He had made nine straight field goals before lining up for the 32-yarder. It's hard not to look on the other sideline and think about how the kicking game has affected the legacies of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, both of whom will be considered among the best ever, regardless of what happens in a couple weeks. During their first Super Bowl run in 2001, two of the Patriots' three playoff games were determined by a field goal. Against Oakland, Adam Vinatieri hit a 45-yarder to tie the game and a 23-yarder in overtime to win it. In the Super Bowl, he hit a 48-yarder for the win. Again in 2003, two of the Patriots' three playoff wins were by a field goal. Against the Titans, Vinatieri hit a 46-yarder that won it. And in the Super Bowl, a 41-yarder to beat the Panthers. Sure, Belichick and Brady put the Patriots in position to win, but it's amazing to think of how many of those games came down to one final kick.

3. In the late game, the goat was Kyle Williams. The 49ers' defense completely shut down the Giants' offense in the second half. In 12 possessions after halftime (including OT), the Giants punted 10 times. They scored twice. Both came off of special-teams turnovers by Williams. Early in the fourth, a punt hit Williams' knee, and Eli Manning hit Mario Manningham for a 17-yard touchdown on the ensuing possession. And of course, in overtime, Jacquian Williams stripped Kyle Williams to set up the game-winning 31-yard field goal by Lawrence Tynes.


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4. While Kyle Williams will take the heat, Alex Smith and the offense had plenty of opportunities. The 49ers managed just one field goal in their final seven possessions. In the regular season, according to Football Outsiders, the Giants' defense ranked 15th against No. 1 wide receivers; 18th against No. 2 wide receivers; and 30th against other wide receivers. Yet, 49ers wide receivers totaled one catch for 3 yards. And that reception, by Michael Crabtree, didn't come until 5:58 remaining in the fourth quarter. Overall, the 49ers were 1-for-13 on third down. Tough to win with those numbers.

5. The 49ers' defense, meanwhile, got plenty of great individual performances. Linebacker Navorro Bowman had a game-high 14 tackles, half-a-sack and a QB hit. Yes, that's the same Bowman who was taken in the third round of the 2010 draft, five spots after the Eagles selected Daniel Te'o-Nesheim. Ray McDonald had 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. If that name sounds familiar, it might be because McDonald gave the Eagles, and specifically Kyle DeVan, fits during the regular season. The Birds simply could not block him, which was part of the reason DeVan was benched the following week, and Danny Watkins was inserted into the starting lineup.

6. McDonald did a good job of forcing the Manning fumble. But he did a poor job of celebrating while the ball was still loose on the ground. The Giants ended up recovering. Sometimes, luck does play a role. Devin Thomas recovered both of Kyle Williams' fumbles. I took a look at some regular-season numbers, and the Eagles recovered 46.34 percent of fumbles, which ranked 21st. In other words, 20 other teams were luckiers. In 2010, that number was 62.5 percent for the Eagles, which ranked third.

7. Victor Cruz was targeted 17 times yesterday and came up with 10 catches for 142 yards. And he was great on the Giants' final drive of the first half, catching four balls for 56 yards on five targets, helping to set up a 31-yard field goal that gave New York a 10-7 lead. Looking at the regular season, he was the No. 1 big-play receiver in the NFC East. With DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Hakeem Nicks in the division, that's quite a feat. Here's how the simple numbers stack up:

  Yards-per-catch Plays of 20+ yards
Cruz 18.7 25
Jackson 16.6 15
Nicks 15.7 17
Bryant 14.7 17
Maclin 13.6 15
Austin 13.5 9

8. Oh, and you might have heard Joe Buck and Troy Aikman mention how Cruz told them he realized things were different for him when the Eagles had Nnamdi Asomugha covering him. Cruz beat Asomugha for touchdowns of 28 and 24 yards, respectively, in the teams' two meetings. He piled up nine catches for 238 yards and three scores against the Eagles in 2011.

9. The defensive MVP of the weekend had to be Vince Wilfork. In the first quarter, his pressure led to a Mark Anderson sack. He dropped Ricky Williams for a 5-yard loss. And he had a sack of his own. In the fourth quarter, on 3rd-and-3, he brought Ray Rice down for a 3-yard loss and then pressured Flacco on fourth down to force an incompletion. Wilfork affected the game throughout.

10. In the first quarter, Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb was called for an illegal contact penalty, and CBS flashed a stat that it was the team's first penalty in 180 plays. Impressive. John Harbaugh had a disciplined football team. The Ravens were tied for the fourth-fewest turnovers and had the fourth-fewest penalty yards during the regular season. If you're wondering about the Eagles, they were middle of the pack with the 13th-most penalty yards. Also of note, Jim Harbaugh's squad had the seventh-most penalty yards. Vernon Davis had a couple of 15-yarders yesterday, and San Francisco had six penalties for 50 yards.

11. Joe Flacco's performance provides a good example of why we should minimize the use of win/loss records for quarterbacks. I thought he played very well: throwing receivers open, buying time with his feet and for the most part, making good decisions. Overall, Flacco completed 22 of 36 passes for 306 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He threw what could have been the game-winner, but Lee Evans dropped it in the end zone (with a little help from Patriots defensive back Sterling Moore, who knocked the ball free). And he obviously had nothing to do with Cundiff's miss. Flacco was not perfect, but he played well, well enough for his team to win.

12. I thought Manning played relatively well also against a very good 49ers defense. The numbers were not eye-popping: 32-for-58 for 316 yards and two touchdowns. Manning only averaged 5.4 yards per attempt, but he was under pressure all day, and the run game only picked up 3.3 yards per carry. He had a couple throws that could have been intercepted, but 49ers defenders ran into each other. In three playoff games, Manning's thrown eight touchdowns and one pick.

13. Brady was not sharp: 22-for-36 for 239 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. Brady's two lowest playoff QB ratings have been against the Ravens. In 2010, he had a 49.1 rating in a 33-14 loss. And yesterday, he had a 57.5 rating. Afterwards, Brady deflected praise from Jim Nantz and said he sucked pretty bad. I'm guessing Pats fans appreciate that accountability and will forgive him as New England goes to its fifth Super Bowl in 11 seasons.

14. In 2007, the Giants held the Bucs (Jeff Garcia), Cowboys (Tony Romo) and Packers (Brett Favre) to a total of 51 points before reaching the Super Bowl and limiting the Patriots (Tom Brady) to 14 points. This year, the Giants have held the Falcons (Matt Ryan), Packers (Aaron Rodgers) and 49ers (Alex Smith) to 39 points in three games. If they hold Brady and the Pats to 14 points this time around, is the 2012 run more impressive? Probably. Steve Spagnuolo earned a head-coaching opportunity by directing the first run. Perry Fewell could be in position to do the same if the Giants' D plays well in a couple weeks.

15. And some leftovers: 49ers rookie Aldon Smith had 14 sacks in the regular season and two more in the playoffs. ...That sure sounded like a quick whistle to me on the Ahmad Bradshaw fumble/non-fumble in the fourth. ... I was impressed with Ray Lewis supporting Cundiff in his post-game press conference. Lewis has played 16 NFL seasons and knows his chances of getting another Super Bowl ring are shrinking. He could have ripped Cundiff for the miss, but he didn't, saying the Ravens win as a team and lose as a team. ...I'm hoping NFL Films caught the back and forth between Lewis and Brady, who were jawing after a Brady QB sneak. ...Were the offensive lines bad or the defensive lines just really good? I'm leaning towards the latter, but could be swayed. ...Great interception by Bernard Pollard and rookie Jimmy Smith in the end zone in the fourth quarter.

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