- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
SAN FRANCISCO -- Tom Coughlin had a hunch, a gut feeling one of his lesser-known players would be a difference-maker Sunday night in the NFC Championship Game. He was right.
Make that doubly right.
After 65 minutes of taut football, with neither defense showing any signs of breaking, two nobodies came out of nowhere to make the play of the game.
New York Giants rookie linebacker Jacquian Williams sprinted 40 yards on a punt, stripped the ball from San Francisco 49ers punt returner Kyle Williams and watched with delight as teammate Devin Thomas pounced on it at the 49ers' 24-yard line in overtime. For the second time in the game, he was Devin-on-the-Spot.
"The first thing I thought of was, 'Super Bowl ... We're going to the Super Bowl," Williams said.
And so they are.
"I felt like someone who didn't necessarily get the kudos, someone everybody wasn't familiar with, would be the difference-maker in the game," Coughlin said. "I felt like someone like that would step up and make a big play. It was needed."
In the third quarter, Thomas recovered a muffed punt by Williams, who let a bouncing ball graze off his knee. The Giants started at the 49ers' 29 and turned that into a game-tying touchdown, Manning to Mario Manningham.
Then, in overtime, Thomas, a once-promising wide receiver relegated to special-teams duty, did it again. His two heads-up plays set up the last 10 points for the Giants, and he did it against arguably the best special-teams unit in the NFL.
Consider: Before Sunday, the 49ers had allowed opponents to start only four drives within their own 30-yard line, just once after Week 4. The Giants made it happen twice in the span of 2 1/2 quarters.
It was a sweet irony for the Giants, who have been haunted over the years by special-teams blunders. (Anybody remember last year's DeSean Jackson debacle?) They decided to do something about it, using sixth-round draft picks on Williams and Tyler Sash.
Sash, too, made an important play. Early in the game, he hit Williams so hard that it left him woozy. The Giants knew Williams had a history of concussions -- it was in the scouting report -- and their goal was to disoriented him by pouncing him.
"He looked dazed when Sash hit him," Thomas said. "I feel like that made a difference and he coughed it up."
Before Steve Weatherford's punt, Williams received a mini-lecture on the sideline from veterans Justin Tuck, Deon Grant and Antrel Rolle.
"It's time for somebody to make a big play," Williams said they told him.
It was a nightmarish game for Williams, who replaced the injured Ted Ginn, Jr., as the primary punt returner. His two hiccups cost his team a championship.
"Everyone in here told me to keep my head up and told me it's not on me," Williams said. "It's just one of those things. You hate to be the last guy that had the ball, to give it up that way and to lose a game of this magnitude."
The muffed punt was all on Williams, who tried to get away of the way. A replay challenge by Coughlin showed that the ball grazed off Williams' knee, overturning the call on the field -- a downed punt.
"I saw it hit his knee and I made sure I picked it up," Thomas said.
Right place, right time.
23hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo