The NFL's conference championship games both produced great drama and some extremely well-fitting sets of goat horns for a few unfortunate players.
Patriots 23, Ravens 20
Over the course of a contract that is slated to last until 2015, Billy Cundiff will be paid $14.7 million, according to spotrac.com. His $3 million signing bonus alone is more than many of us will make in our lifetimes, and the $1.5 million he made in 2011 is the smallest base salary Cundiff will have to live on during the life of the contract.
In exchange for all of that money, Cundiff has to placekick footballs. That's it. He doesn't have to incur the incredible physical risk most football players do; rules prohibit him from being hit in most situations. Sure, he's got to be there for practices, meetings and team appearances, but the bottom line of his job is that he's got to be ready to kick for 16 regular-season games, four preseason games and a maximum of four postseason games each season.
So I'm not exactly sympathetic towards Cundiff for shanking a 32-yard field goal that most high-school kickers could drill in the closing seconds of Sunday's AFC Championship. Obviously we all make mistakes — I make plenty, in my job and otherwise. Everyone does. But how someone being paid that much money to kick footballs not be ready — physically (provided he wasn't hurt, of course), mentally and emotionally — to deliver in that spot? If he'd have hooked a 45-yarder, had the kick blocked or missed following a bad snap or a bad hold, it would be one thing. Cundiff bricked a chip shot and the fault was entirely his own.
I think Lee Evans, who dropped what likely would have been a winning touchdown pass seconds before Cundiff choked, deserves more forgiveness. That was a play that, given the situation and Evans being a professional receiver, has to be made, but at least it carried a high degree of difficulty, and at least you can say Patriots defensive back Sterling Moore deserves some credit for breaking it up. I wouldn't expect your average high school receiver to make that play. And at least Evans owned up to his mistake; Cundiff did to an extent later in interviews, but only after he tried to push away a camera that was trailing him shortly after the game ended.
Those gaffes ruined a fantastic effort from Joe Flacco. The same quarterback who came under fire from his own teammates rose to the occasion. Other than a slow start and one bad interception, Flacco was fantastic Sunday. Flacco was 22-for-36 for 306 yards and a couple of touchdowns. He fit balls into tight windows and he made excellent decisions. Most notably, Flacco clearly outplayed a not-at-his-best Tom Brady.
The Patriots, especially defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, didn't exactly deserve to lose. Their defense did a nice job of containing Ray Rice, and they made some plays offensively against an inspired Ravens defense. But I felt that the Ravens were, until the final minute, the team that was most deserving of victory. At the very least, they deserved a chance at overtime. Cundiff denied it.
Giants 20, 49ers 17, OT
In a sense, Kyle Williams has to be the biggest goat of the weekend. He made two terrible errors. But Williams, unlike Cundiff with kicking, doesn't specialize in returning punts. Williams was pressed into action because Ted Ginn Jr. was hurt. He'd made five career punt returns prior to Sunday. That doesn't excuse two fumbles by any means, but Williams got put in a bad spot.
And that's too bad. The 49ers defense is the best in football, in my mind, and they sure looked like it on Sunday's huge stage. Yeah, Eli Manning threw for 316 yards, but he had to chuck the ball 58 times to do it ... and it's not like 316 yards is some horrific total against Manning and his receivers. The 49ers sacked Manning six times, and they allowed the Giants 3.3 yards per rush. It was about as well as a defense can play while forcing no turnovers and giving up 300-plus passing yards, that's for sure.
Williams is certainly a primary reason that Niners defense won't play in the Super Bowl, but he's not the only one. Alex Smith, the unlikely hero of the divisional round, went back to being the Alex Smith we all know and love. His 97.6 rating doesn't tell the story. Smith completed just 12 of 26 passes, and other than his two touchdowns to Vernon Davis, he didn't do much of anything against the Giants. Smith didn't get any help at all, to be fair, from a cast of wide receivers that makes the Bears' look competent.
Not only did the receivers let Smith down, I think his coaches did too. What was with the abandonment of the running game in the second half? Frank Gore was effective Sunday, racking up 74 yards on the 16 carries he did receive. It was like the Niners forgot him and forgot their own identity late in the game, and they did it when Smith was clearly struggling to get anything going.
I've not exactly bought into the Giants until now, but I'm ready to change that. They struggled through much of the regular season because their secondary couldn't cover anybody. That has clearly changed. Their defense and their quarterback play are both currently at a level that few, if any, teams can match. It may have taken Williams' mistakes for them to win in overtime, but the Giants still went on the road to beat a very for-real 49ers team one week after going to Green Bay and winning.