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Giants have gift of gaffe, win NFC title in overtime

New York Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes (9) celebrates with holder Steve Weatherford (5) after kicking game-winning field goal during overtime

New York Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes (9) celebrates with holder Steve Weatherford (5) after kicking the game-winning field goal during overtime of the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. | David J. Phillip~AP

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Updated: February 25, 2012 8:12AM

SAN FRANCISCO — Kyle Williams was the answer to the New York Giants’ prayers Sunday.

With New York on tilt and the San Francisco 49ers seemingly a drive away from taking a stranglehold on the NFC Championship Game, the Giants seemed to be praying for divine intervention as a last resort when their defense knelt at midfield after the third quarter. They were virtually Tebowing as a team.

The situation was that dire. The 49ers’ vaunted defense forced four punts in four possessions. And after Alex Smith burned the ­Giants with a 28-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis to take a four-point lead, the ­Giants were not only losing the game, but losing their cool. Chris Canty was called for an unnecessary-roughness penalty on the last play of the quarter.

While some Giants were still arguing with an official over the scrum that led to Canty’s penalty, linebacker Chase Blackburn hurriedly brought everybody together for a team kneel-down. Some words were spoken. Heads were bowed. And fate seemed to do the rest.

How else to explain the unlikely turn of events that rallied the Giants to a 20-17 overtime victory that sent them to the Super Bowl for the second time in five seasons? Williams fumbled on a punt return in overtime, and the Giants’ Devin Thomas recovered at the 49ers’ 24-yard line to set up Lawrence Tynes’ 31-yard field goal that set up a rematch of Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 5 in Indianapolis.

Williams, a second-year wide receiver and the son of White Sox general manager Ken Williams, was back there only because Ted Ginn Jr. suffered a knee injury last week against the Saints.

‘‘It was just one of those situations where I caught the ball, tried to head upfield, tried to make a play, and it ended up for the worse,’’ Williams said.

The Giants almost couldn’t believe their sudden good fortune.

‘‘I was like, ‘I can’t believe he just fumbled,’ ’’ Thomas said. ‘‘I just made sure I secured it and made sure no one would take it from me.’’

The sellout crowd at Candlestick Park cheered a sudden driving rain that welcomed the overtime period. But it might have been the root of the 49ers’ demise. Williams lost the ball when he started to slip on the return, and Jacquian Williams tipped it out.

‘‘I don’t know if that play was because of that or not,’’ Kyle Williams said. ‘‘It was just one of those situations where the guy made the play, caught me slipping and got the ball up.’’

More mystifying was Williams’ fourth-quarter gaffe that gave the Giants new life. The 49ers were leading 14-10 and about to get the ball back with 11:17 left in regulation. Williams got caught in-between on the punt and not only let the ball hit the ground, but allowed it to graze his left leg for a muff that Thomas also recovered.

The Giants, who had been held to 43 yards on 18 carries in the second half to that point, took a 17-14 lead seven plays later when Eli Manning threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham on third-and-15 with 8:34 left in regulation.

Their prayers had been answered.

‘‘Never quit. Never have any doubts. Keep believing. Keep fighting to the very end no matter what the circumstances were,’’ Manning said of the team’s mind-set throughout the game. ‘‘I think everybody knew . . . we were going to get a break. We’re going to get a chance to win this game. And we’re going to make a play. Something was going to happen, if we didn’t make a mistake ourselves.’’

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