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49ers pay dearly for two botched punt returns

New York Giants wide receiver Thomas recovers a fumble by San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Williams during overtime during the NFL's NFC Ch
New York Giants wide receiver Thomas recovers a fumble by San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Williams during overtime during the NFL's NFC Ch

By Jonathan Weber

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - For the San Francisco 49ers, a dream season came up just a couple of botched punt returns short in their National Football Conference championship game against the New York Giants on Sunday.

"We played well enough to win, it was a tough one," a somber and emotional coach Jim Harbaugh said after his team's 20-17 overtime defeat.

Harbaugh, in one of the great coaching displays in recent NFL history, took a team that had gone 6-10 last season to the brink of the Super Bowl.

But the Niners could not overcome a relentless Giants defense and two big miscues by back-up receiver and punt returner Kyle Williams.

Williams allowed a Giants punt to touch him as it rolled past in the fourth quarter, setting up a Giants touchdown. Then, in overtime, he had the ball poked away on another punt return and the Giants recovered, leading to the winning field goal.

"He's going to take it hard," said defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois. "I don't blame him at all, and I don't want him to beat himself up for it. That game could have ended multiple times."

Quarterback Alex Smith, a one-time number one draft pick who has endured heavy criticism during his years with the Niners but had a breakout performance last week, cited the inability of the offense to convert on third down as a key reason for the defeat.

The Niners converted only one third down in 13 tries.

"We were awful on third down," said Smith. "That's what stands out. We had too many three and outs, not enough plays. Offensively we just couldn't get it done."

He also expressed solidarity with Williams. "We all know him and how committed he is to this team. We can't put it on him."

Williams said: "Everyone in here told me to keep my head up and told me it's not on me. We'll move forward. It's just one of those things."

Linebacker Patrick Willis said he was in "disbelief" after the defeat, but acknowledged the team had "a lot of things to be excited about, to be happy about," in their remarkable turnaround season.

Jean Francois noted the intense enthusiasm of the crowd on a windy and rainy night at Candlestick Park, which will likely be the Niners' home for only two more seasons.

"I probably couldn't find one fan sitting down," Jean Francois said. "Just to have the type of crowd like that, the energy with everyone standing up."

Niners fans, who have been in a long drought since the glory days of Joe Montana and Steve Young, appear to have forgiven Alex Smith. Their highly unexpected achievement in reaching the championship game will probably make it easier for them to forgive Kyle Williams.

(Reporting by Jonathan Weber; Editing by Patrick Johnston)