As the final gun sounded yesterday in Atlanta, and the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 for the NFC championship, fans of the New York Football Giants could only think of what might have been.
In fact, three of the four participants in the conference title games were holdovers from last season as Baltimore, San Francisco and New England followed up last year's playoff success with title runs, and only the New York Giants being sent home before championship Sunday and replaced by Atlanta in the NFC.
When the 2012 New York Giants schedule was released, it was viewed as the most difficult in the NFL. Outside of their usual NFC east foes (Washington, Dallas, Philadelphia), the G-men also had to play three teams that they faced in the NFC playoffs the previous year: Atlanta, Green Bay and San Francisco. When another contest against 2012 NFC semi-finalist New Orleans is thrown into the mix, New York was likely to be or to face the NFC championship during the 2012 regular season.
So when the Giants (4-2) met the San Francisco 49ers (4-2) on October 14th, the game was seen not only as a repeat of the previous year's NFC championhip game, but also a preview of a probable playoff matchup in 2013.
And even though Big Blue dominated the hometown Niners 26-3, the game became incidental because New York faltered down the stretch and did not make the post-season.
But because 49ers signal caller Alex Smith threw three interceptions, including two by safety Antrel Rolle, questions arose about Smith's ability to lead his team past the Giants in a playoff matchup.
In fact, few remember that the Niners' present quarterback Colin Kaepernick was 4/7 for 82 yards in the game, which served a dress rehearsal for the young signal caller, and future starter. In a preview of what was to come, Kaepernick completed a 34-yard bullet to former Giant Mario Manningham on a late second quarter drive to set up a field goal attempt.
Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the then budding quarterback controversy in his blog after the loss to New York.
Ostler said, "The lines are blurring. If you’re a Smith guy, you came away muttering about how head coach Jim Harbaugh is messing with Smith’s mind by leaning more and more on Kaepernick. If you’re a Kaepernick guy, you came away muttering about how Harbaugh is messing with Kaepernick’s head by jerking him in and out and not giving him a chance to get into a flow."
And although the final score seem to indicate a blowout, Eli Manning passed for less than 200 yards (193 yds.) and a single touchdown to wideout Victor Cruz that day. Ahmad Bradshaw had 116 yards on the ground, and a score, but the Giants also squandered the two third quarter interceptions by Rolle in the 49ers' red zone by settling for two short Lawrence Tynes' field goals.
Red zone inefficiency plagued the Giants all year and was a factor in several close losses.
For his part, San Francisco kicker David Akers missed a 43-yard field goal on the Niners' opening drive, and he later missed a 52-yard attempt at the end of the first half that would have cut New York's lead to 10-6, and squashing any momentum the 49ers tried to build.
Ostler was foretelling at the end of his column when he mentioned, "Harbaugh made Smith the starting quarterback, not king for life. As much as Harbaugh appreciates and respects what Smith has done for the 49ers, the coach won’t stop experimenting and being creative."
The "Kaepernick As Secret Weapon Program (KASWP)," as Ostler called it, remained in place until Alex Smith suffered a concussion on November 11th against the St. Louis Rams. Kaepernick started the next week against the Chicago Bears and remained the exclusive starter since then, going 6-2 (including playoffs) down the stretch.
As unfortunate as the Smith injury was, it also gave Harbaugh the opportunity to install Kaepernick as starter, and the second-year quarterback has thrived. Pulling the trigger on the move is seen as a "no-brainer' now, but was anything but that several weeks ago. As the Giants know, the championship window is often small, and one missed opportunity, may be all that a player or franchise gets in the "new" NFL.
While the win over the 49ers represented the high point for New York's season, San Francisco bounced back and played their best football down the stretch, ending up as the NFC representative in Super Bowl XLVIII in New Orleans.
Unfortunately, New York did not have a secret weapon at their disposal to salvage the season, so as the 49ers now prepare for the Baltimore Ravens, the Giants get to watch on television.