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Giants 20, 49ers 17 (OT)

Giants recover, then beat 49ers in overtime

Lawrence Tynes begins celebrating after his 31-yard field goal won it for the Giants in OT. Lawrence Tynes begins celebrating after his 31-yard field goal won it for the Giants in OT. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / January 23, 2012
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SAN FRANCISCO - The ball was stripped this time, bouncing away from Kyle Williams and taking the day beyond nightmare for the 49ers backup punt returner. Williams had already muffed one punt, the Giants recovering and taking the lead in the fourth quarter.

The 49ers had their chances after that. They tied the score to send it to overtime and had a possession in the extra period.

But this time, in OT, there was no recovery.

Jacquian Williams forced the fumble midway through the overtime, Devin Thomas recovered again, and the Giants had the ball at San Francisco’s 24. It was all the Giants needed, with Lawrence Tynes kicking a 31-yard field goal to earn a 20-17 victory last night at Candlestick Park and set up a rematch of the 2007 Super Bowl, when the Giants stunned the unbeaten Patriots.

“That was a tremendous football game for those that really enjoy football at its very basic element,’’ Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “Just a classic football game that seemed like no one was going to put themselves in a position to win it. But we were able to do that.’’

Tynes’s field goal capped a remarkable turnaround for the Giants this season; they were 7-7 and in danger of missing the postseason. The NFC title marked, as Coughlin said, the team’s fifth straight single-elimination game.

“We just started playing better together,’’ defensive lineman Justin Tuck said. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s what I always tell everybody: Once we go on that football field, it’s got to be 11 guys playing as one. Tonight it was 33 guys playing as one, offense, defense, and special teams.’’

Both teams had their chances but neither was able to convert in the final minutes of the fourth quarter nor after each had a possession in overtime. So the game, as per the new playoff OT rules, went to sudden death.

That’s when Williams and the 49ers made the mistake that would end their season. Kyle Williams had the ball stripped by Jacquian Williams and Thomas, who also recovered Williams’s first miscue, landed on this one at the 49ers 24. Five plays later, Tynes was able to send the Giants to Indy.

“I knew before I picked my head up that it was good,’’ said Tynes, who was crying on the field.

The 49ers were in good position before Williams made his first mistake in the fourth quarter.

They led, 14-10, with 11:08 to go and the defense had forced the Giants to punt.

The punt rolled toward Williams and bounced off his knee, with Thomas grabbing the loose ball at the 49ers 29. Though it was initially ruled that Williams - in for Ted Ginn Jr., who was injured in the 49ers’ win over the Saints last week - hadn’t touched the ball, the call was reversed after review. The Giants capitalized.

“You hate to be the last guy that had the ball, to give it up that way in that fashion and to lose a game of this magnitude,’’ Williams said. “We’re going to move forward as a team. Everyone has come to pat me on the back and say it’s not on me.’’

The Giants quickly made the 49ers pay, with Mario Manningham hauling in a 17-yard TD pass - his first catch of the day - and the Giants were ahead, 17-14 with 8:34 to go.

The 49ers came right back, with a six-play, 48-yard drive that ended in a 25-yard field goal by David Akers and tied the game with 5:39 remaining.

Then, the offenses stalled, with the 49ers repeatedly putting Manning (32 of 58, 316 yards) on his back. San Francisco sacked the quarterback six times.

“They had a tremendous pass rush,’’ Coughlin said. “We didn’t have a lot of run. There wasn’t much variety in what we were doing. Our screens didn’t seem to work especially well either. But Eli just hung in there and hung in there and hung in there and made plays when we needed him to make them.’’

San Francisco somehow had made it to the end of the third quarter without a conversion on third down and without a pass being caught by a wide receiver. And, still, the Niners were up, 14-10.

Alex Smith (12 of 26, 196 yards) did have some completions, mostly to tight end Vernon Davis, who was responsible for both 49ers touchdowns. The first was a 73-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter and the second a 28-yarder in the third that gave the 49ers their 4-point lead.

The Giants, on the other hand, relied heavily on Victor Cruz, who had 10 catches and 142 yards.

That - and the mistakes by Williams - helped push the game in the Giants’ direction. And a team that clinched a playoff berth on the season’s final day and beat the NFC’s top two seeds is headed to the Super Bowl.

“I’m not surprised,’’ Coughlin said. “I’m delighted. I’m excited.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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