Big Games Have Heroes and Goats

Once again Sunday, we saw the necessity of having an elite quarterback if you want your team to reach the Super Bowl.

The last 10 Super Bowl quarterbacks have been Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger (three games), Peyton Manning (two games), Drew Brees, Kurt Warner, Eli Manning, Tom Brady (two games), Rex Grossman, Matt Hasselbeck and Donovan McNabb.

All except Grossman were considered elite at the time they played in the Super Bowl, and all except Grossman and Hasselbeck will at least be discussed when they are eligible for the Hall of Fame.

Eli Manning and Brady are headed back to the Super Bowl after Sunday’s wins. Even though Brady was a far cry from the dominant performer we saw against Denver, when his team needed him to step up and put them ahead on Sunday, Brady delivered. On a drive that started at the end of the third quarter and finished early in the fourth, Brady went 4-for-5 for 45 yards with a one-yard dive for the touchdown that put his club ahead. Afterward, he admitted, “I sucked pretty bad today, but our defense saved us.” Well, he didn’t suck during that 11-play, 58-yard touchdown drive, and that’s when the Pats needed him at his best.

Brady did throw a couple of interceptions and had two more negated by penalties, but overall he went 22-for-36 for 239 yards. Joe Flacco was also 22-for-36, going for 306 yards, but couldn’t lead his club to a fourth-quarter touchdown that would have given the Ravens the lead back. Brady did lead that drive, and is headed to his fifth Super Bowl.

In San Francisco, for all of the talk about Alex Smith having found himself in the win against New Orleans (I thought he had), he was his old self. Smith was 12-for-26 for 196 yards and two scores. However, 101 of those yards came on two catch-and-run touchdowns by Vernon Davis. Smith completed exactly one pass to a wide receiver, a three-yard catch by Michael Crabtree. That’s no way to win an NFC Championship Game.

Meanwhile, Eli Manning set Giants’ post-season records with 32 completions and 58 attempts, and piled up 316 yards and two touchdowns. With his second NFC Championship Game win, Manning further cemented his place among the league’s elite quarterbacks. If the Giants are able to knock off the Patriots in the Super Bowl again, Eli will eclipse his brother’s Super Bowl win total, and will take a huge step toward becoming a Hall of Famer.

Speaking of Peyton Manning, can you imagine what Super Bowl Sunday will be like for him? Watching his nemesis, Brady, and his brother going against each other on his home field for the Super Bowl title? It has to be frustrating for Peyton to have to watch anyone else play on his turf in his town’s Super Bowl, but especially those two.

Sunday caused two players to fall into the abyss that contains so many goats in sports history. Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff and 49ers return man Kyle Williams both committed devastating mistakes that will be looked upon as the reasons their teams lost.

Cundiff pulled a 32-yard field-goal attempt wide left with 15 seconds left that would have sent the Ravens-Patriots game to overtime.

Williams had one punt go off his knee that was recovered by Giants special teams ace Devin Thomas in the fourth quarter, and the turnover led to a Manning 17-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham. Then, in overtime, Williams fumbled another punt that led to Lawrence Tynes’ game-winning 31-yard game-winning field goal.

Cundiff and Williams move into select company that they’d rather not be with, in the top 10 goats in sports championship history.

There was Scott Norwood of the Bills, who missed the game-winning, 47-yard field goal at the end of Super Bowl XXV. Norwood was never the same after the miss, which caused the first of four straight Super Bowl losses by the Bills. He made 18-of-29 field goals in 1991, the year after the miss, and then never played again.

Another goat was Earnest Byner, who fumbled for Cleveland at Denver’s 2-yard line with 1:12 left in the AFC Championship Game. A touchdown by Byner would have tied the game at 38. Instead, Denver gave the Browns a safety with seconds remaining, and advanced to the Super Bowl for a second year in a row. Byner was traded to Washington, and redeemed himself by helping the Redskins win Super Bowl XXVI.

In other sports, Michigan’s Chris Webber called a time out his team didn’t have in the closing seconds of the 1993 NCAA championship game. The attempted time out resulted in a technical foul, and North Carolina was able to beat the Fab 5 of Michigan, ending their dreams of a national title.

Another NCAA moment was in 1982, when Georgetown’s Freddie Brown, with his team down by a point with eight seconds left, inexplicably threw the ball to North Carolina’s James Worthy. The Tar Heels won that championship, too, and Brown’s name has never been forgotten.

In baseball, Mitch Williams served up a World Series winning home run to Joe Carter in 1993. Lou Brock failed to slide home in game five of the 1968 World Series, when he probably would have scored, and the Redbirds lost in seven games to the Tigers.

Of course, nobody serves as a goat as unforgettably as Bill Buckner, whose error in game six of the 1986 World Series cost the Red Sox a chance at their first World Series title since 1918. He was forgiven by Sox fans after they won the Series in 2004, but never forgotten.

In one day, Billy Cundiff and Kyle Williams worked their way into the memory banks of NFL fans everywhere, and into the lore of NFL playoff history. Perhaps the Ravens and 49ers will rebound and win a Super Bowl soon. And maybe those players will be forgiven.

But their mistakes on Sunday will never, ever be forgotten. They’ll be the goats, and Brady and Manning will be heroes forever.