It began in sections, like the disjointed parts of a Picasso painting: angled, rounded and unusually colored. We were ushered into the NFC Championship with a rousing anthem and then drawn closer through a clouded lens. The darkened sky, sullen with gray water, rapidly descended upon Candlestick and the event became challenging, beyond its fundamental conflict, that is. The ball, soaked and looking more like a stone, suddenly slipped on the pass and bobbled on the carry. And with the game tied at seven early in the second stanza, who might have predicted the outcome of this title bout with any certainty?
The 49ers jersey seemed darker when we were kids, didn't it? It was a deep, royal red, with perfect white lettering. On Sunday, that jersey reappeared, caused by the wintry rain blanketing the Bay. On replays, in particular, the Niners' movement was striking: Frank Gore was a crimson blur chugging through the trenches. It reminded me of Roger Craig.
By contrast, the Giants white was spoiling fast, bright at a distance but muddied and paint-stained on every close up. Some might say, much like New York City itself. They defended well, the New Yorkers, superbly rushing the passer in the pocket, but equally closing the space behind the line whenever Alex Smith traversed beyond it. By second-quarter's end, the fans were drenched and the Giants, somehow, seemed to have the upper hand by virtue of their defensive presence.
Eli Manning also threw first downs - short and sharp routes on consecutive plays. These advanced the Giants momentum, as their running game was stifled by those darkened red shirts. The Niners' Alex Smith, though not strictly employed for his running ability, carried the ball more effectively than the Giants back field, mostly because his nimble jabs are conducive to wet conditions. So Eli kept throwing, sending wobbly spirals to Victor Cruz who has better hands than Spiderman. Cruz's eight first-half receptions for 125 yards seemed to be wholly accumulated in the final minute of second. Either way, his significant contribution aided New York's ten first-half points.
And then the Niners opened the third like bulls let loose in Pamplona. They stunted the Giants first drive and won back possession. A dash by Smith and a crafty run by Kendall Hunter and suddenly San Francisco looked the better team. Soon after, Alex Smith, who had tossed just a few accurate balls this game, heaved a brilliant spinning loop to Vernon Davis in the end zone. It appears as though any time these two connect it results in a big play. He must be the fastest tight end in the game today.
The game trudged towards the end of the third. Foggy camera lenses gave the illusion that we were watching a dream - one where you can smell the surrounds so distinctly, but can't influence the action. Maybe it was indeed a dream, because the 49ers - a club we'd all but forgotten this last decade - were beating down the mighty Giants of New York. One more quarter of Jason Pierre-Paul to withstand; just a few of Eli's chance long balls yet to zip by; and only several more charges from New York's tough rushers to endure. But the Niners are masters of lingering, not so much finishing. And at some point, one of those Eli passes was going to travel the necessary distance without interruption. As some point Blue dots would dominate the landscape.
Sure enough, Manning to Manningham! - long overdue in this game – and the Giants took the lead again. But San Francisco, equal to the task, then marched down field, once more behind Alex Smith's running. His 17-yard sprint around the edge surely prompted recollections of Playoff Steve Young across the country. Why did we all doubt this guy so much? Wasn't it evident that he had talent, just the wrong coaching? David Akers - the man with the happiest profile photo in the NFL - evened the score and there we were, facing a mouth-watering finale.
The defenses dictated the dwindling minutes of regulation, sending their best rushers through holes and over human barriers with the desperation of cavalries making one last commitment. Both quarterbacks took their licks: Eli, by game's end, looked like distraught grade schooler, disheveled and depleted after a frenzied day in the school yard. At times, his pads jutting from his collar, and a mouth full of grass - or even his own chin strap - Manning played the part of Phil Simms in this one: tough, resilient, and able to sling the game into impossible moments. It was the sort of performance that defenders appreciate, where broken plays are extended into new sets of downs, and battered warriors can heal until their next clash.
Finally, in overtime, the whole thing had run its course, like a boxing match on its last legs, winded and woozy. It was just a matter of who could survive the last gasp blows. The Niners had done so much right, especially on the defensive end, where they affected the New York ground game by holding it under 90 yards. But in the end, the G-Men showed a durability that will serve them well in the Super Bowl. They kept coming on defense with that line that doesn't relent. It held the Niners to less than 30 minutes of possession, but perhaps more significantly, forced them into errors on more third downs than any team should endure. San Francisco converted just one of thirteen third downs, clearly an indictment of their offensive execution amid the elements.
Now the Giants return to the big one to face a Patriot team hell bent on Super Bowl revenge. But don't be so sure Brady and Co. will have all the answers for New York, who have proven time and time again, the dealing doesn't need to be pretty, it just needs to yield an opportunity for victory.