SAN FRANCISCO -- Trey Junkin has been vindicated, and the Giants are going to the Super Bowl.
The last time the Giants were in a playoff game at Candlestick Park, they lost on one of the most infamous special-teams plays in their history. Last night, it was the 49ers who found a new goat. Kyle Williams was stripped of the ball on a punt return in overtime, setting up a 31-yard field goal by Lawrence Tynes that gave the Giants a 20-17 victory.
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"Guys never quit, never had any doubts,'' Eli Manning said. "Everybody knew we were going to get a break or something was going to happen if we didn't make a mistake ourselves.''
The Giants will face the Patriots in two weeks in Super Bowl XLVI. New England beat the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game earlier in the day. It is a rematch of Super Bowl XLII.
Williams, who also made an earlier gaffe on a punt, was stripped of the ball by rookie Jacquian Williams. Devin Thomas recovered, just as he did on the previous Kyle Williams blunder. That gave the Giants the ball at the 49ers' 24 with 9:32 left in OT. Ahmad Bradshaw ran three times for 18 yards before Manning took a knee to center the ball for Tynes.
It was the second time in four years that Tynes kicked an overtime field goal off a turnover to send the Giants to the Super Bowl. In Green Bay in 2008, he sprinted right off the field. This time he wasn't allowed to as he was mobbed by teammates before finding his wife on the field and "crying like babies."
"We exorcised some demons tonight for the Giants from the 2002 postseason game," Tynes said, noting he was thinking of punter Matt Allen, the holder who threw the incompletion after Junkin's bad snap. Zak DeOssie's snap on the field goal was low, but punter Steve Weatherford put it down and Tynes put it through.
"Just a classic football game,'' Tom Coughlin said. "Eli just hung in there and hung in there and made plays when we needed them . . . They're battle-tested. We've had five straight single-elimination games that we've clawed our way through.''
The Giants took advantage of a huge blunder by the 49ers to take a 17-14 lead with 8:34 left in the fourth quarter. Steve Weatherford's punt bounced up and hit return man Kyle Williams in the right knee, and Thomas recovered it for the Giants and ran to the end zone.
The play was whistled dead, however, and ruled a downed punt. Coughlin, who lost his previous eight challenges, red-flagged it, and after review, the Giants were awarded the ball.
Because it was ruled a muff, the Giants were not allowed to advance the ball. They were at the 49ers' 29, though. They converted a third down -- their first of the second half -- on a pass from Manning to Victor Cruz, then recovered from a holding penalty against center David Baas to score on Manning's 17-yard pass to Mario Manningham.
Williams was the returner because Ted Ginn Jr. was inactive. He found some atonement with a long kickoff return to the 49ers' 45 after that touchdown. But even that excellent starting position resulted only in a David Akers field goal after the 49ers drove to the 7; it tied the score at 17 with 5:39 to play.
The Giants allowed only one big play -- Vernon Davis' 73-yard TD reception -- in the first half, but two in the third quarter resulted in a touchdown for the 49ers. On second-and-8 from their 48, Alex Smith dumped a pass to Frank Gore, who took it 24 yards.
On the next snap, Davis came in motion from right to left, ran a downfield route past Kenny Phillips and caught a 28-yard pass for his second TD and a 14-10 lead.
Smith had thrown for 75 yards before those two completions, and then 52 yards on consecutive snaps. It was a flashback to the kind of defensive breakdowns the Giants had during their four-game losing streak but had mostly eliminated during their playoff run, but the Giants defense was mostly solid.
"We felt like it was two great defenses going at it in this game," Justin Tuck said. "I really felt like we weren't going to score on their defense and they weren't going to score on our defense."
The Giants took their first lead, 10-7, on Tynes' 31-yard kick with two seconds left in the half. They mounted an 11-play drive despite having no timeouts and getting the ball at their 36 with 1:36 to go. Cruz caught four passes for 56 yards on the drive.
The 49ers scored first, on Davis' 73-yard hookup with Smith, when the tight end ran down the sideline untouched midway through the first quarter. Antrel Rolle was covering him, but Davis easily sprinted past him.