- Associated Press - Monday, January 23, 2012

If it’s true, as the saying goes, that “defense wins championships,” the NFL’s conference title games offered ample evidence that special teams can lose them.

“You’re going to need special teams. A kick will win a game more often than a run or pass will win the game, and a special teams tackle can make a big difference,” former Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green said in a telephone interview Monday.

“There’s nothing like it when it all works,” added Green, now an NFL Network analyst. “And there’s nothing worse when it doesn’t work.”

The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers found that out the hard way Sunday.

First, the Ravens wasted an easy opportunity to force overtime in the AFC championship game when Billy Cundiff pushed a 32-yard field-goal attempt wide left, letting the New England Patriots escape with a 23-20 victory.

Then, in a windy and rainy NFC championship game a few hours later, the 49ers handed the Giants the football and great field position in overtime when fill-in returner Kyle Williams fumbled a punt _ his second turnover of the game on a return _ and New York soon was celebrating its 20-17 victory on Lawrence Tynes‘ 31-yard kick.

“Those games were even. The teams were even. Baltimore was going to win with the run game and defense, and that was the way San Francisco was going to win, too. When you have that as your way to win, you have to have special teams play a role, because it means a low-scoring game,” Green said. “Everyone always says you win with the three phases _ offense, defense, special teams _ but rarely do they mention special teams when it comes to what is the most significant thing.”

After the Patriots and Giants set up their Super Bowl rematch, though, that was the main thing everyone wanted to talk about.

“This was a game of field position, a game of turnovers. We needed for special teams to help us, No. 1, with the field position aspect of it, but secondly, in contributing turnovers,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “And certainly we got two big ones.”

Indeed.

Williams‘ first miscue, allowing the ball to bounce off the turf and scrape his right knee, gave New York the ball at San Francisco’s 29 early in the fourth quarter and led to Eli Manning’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham, putting the Giants ahead 17-14. On Monday, Williams said he didn’t think the ball touched him.

The second error by Williams _ the son of Chicago White Sox general manager Kenny Williams and the subject of angry, and sometimes threatening, tweets after the game _ set up the Giants at the 49ers’ 24. On that play, he was stripped by New York’s Jacquian Williams, a backup linebacker, while trying to shift the football from one hand to the other.

The Giants player who recovered both botched punts, Devin Thomas, is also hardly a household name. Thomas was drafted in the second round of the 2008 draft by the Washington Redskins, but he was released in October 2010, after being dogged by questions about his work ethic and route-running ability.

“My position as a fourth or fifth wide receiver and special teams player _ I take pride in that and do anything to help this team win,” Thomas said.

Describing the overtime play, Thomas recounted: “It was like, `I can’t believe he just fumbled.’ Then I’m like, `OK. I’m right here.’ So I just made sure I secured it.”

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