New York Giants' Victor Cruz (80) catches a pass in front of San Francisco 49ers' Carlos Rogers (22) during the first half of the NFC Championship NFL football game Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
CORRECTS PLAYER AT RIGHT TO SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS' CARLOS ROGERS, INSTEAD OF GIANTS' DERRICK MARTIN - New York Giants' Victor Cruz (80) catches a pass in front of San Francisco 49ers' Carlos Rogers during the first half of the NFC championship NFL football game Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistribu
It was the biggest game of the season and Victor Cruz had the biggest first half of his life.
The Puerto Rican sensation even had Candlestick park echoing to the crowd favorite chant: "Cruuuuuzzzzzz!"
Cruz, a second year wide receiver, caught 8 of his 10 passes for 125 yards in the first half, though he did not catch a touchdown in a monster come from behind victory by the Giants. Three of those first half catches came in third and long situations.
Cruz's presence was especially felt on the last drive of the first half where he caught four receptions for 56 yards that set the Giants up for a 31-yard field goal. Giants went into halftime with a 10-7 lead.
Coach Tom Coughlin praised Cruz and Eli Manning with bailing out the running game in the first half.
“We weren’t running the ball well, so we needed for other people to make plays,” Coughlin said to the New York Post. “It’s a tribute to Eli and Cruz that they hung in there and battled.”
The wide receiver continued his stellar break out season in which he has totaled 82 receptions for 1,536 yards - enough to get him named second-team All-Pro by The Associated Press and earn a spot as a Pro Bowl alternate in Hawaii.
Cruz wasn't thinking about any of the accolades though. Lawrence Tynes' 31 yard field goal in overtime ensured that the Giants and Cruz's comeback season will continue.
“I don’t even know how to put it into words,” Cruz said to the Post. “It’s been an amazing ride this year. I’m just happy to be here.”
The Giants appeared on the verge of collapsing with Tom Coughlin's job status in jeopardy just a month ago, when they fell to 7-7 with an embarrassing loss to the Washington Redskins on Dec. 18.
"We've been here before," linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said at the time, "and we'll get back."
The Giants were facing elimination against the rival Jets and Rex Ryan, who boldly declared that his team ruled New York. Well, Coughlin's crew silenced Ryan with a 29-14 victory. The Giants followed that with a 31-14 win over Dallas in the regular-season finale to clinch the NFC East and get to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season.
New York dominated Atlanta at home in the opening round. Then came a stunner: a 37-20 victory at Green Bay — knocking out the defending Super Bowl champions.
"I'm just proud of the guys, what we've overcome this year, what we've been through," Manning said, "just never having any doubts, keep believing in our team that we could get hot and start playing our best football."
Meanwhile, the story was much different on the 49er sideline during Sunday nights game.
Kyle Williams fumbled the punt that ultimately ended the San Francisco 49ers' quest for a Super Bowl berth.
Plenty of his teammates were ready to share the blame.
Williams' second fumbled punt of the game that set up Tynes' game winning field goal in overtime that sent the Giants to their second Super Bowl in five years.
"You hate to be the last guy that had the ball, to give it away in that fashion and to lose a game of this magnitude," Williams said. "It is what it is. We're going to move forward as a team. Everyone has come to pat me on the back and the shoulder to say it's not me."
Williams, returning kicks in place of the injured Ted Ginn Jr., muffed one punt early in the fourth quarter to set up a go-ahead touchdown for New York, then was stripped by Jacquian Williams in overtime to give the Giants the ball at the 24.
After three runs and a kneeldown, Tynes kicked the game-winner, and Williams slowly made a dejected walk back to the locker room as the 49ers missed out on a prime chance to go to the Super Bowl.
"He is going to need his teammates to stick with him and be with him," nose tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. "I understand a lot of people are going to put the blame on him. Like I told him, 'The blame is not on you.' There were multiple times we could have ended this game. I don't blame him at all. ... I just don't want him to beat himself up for it."
The fact that turnovers did in San Francisco was truly surprising. The 49ers tied an NFL record with just 10 giveaways all season — including none on special teams — and had a plus-28 turnover margin in the regular season. They took advantage of five New Orleans turnovers to win 36-32 last week but were on the wrong end in this game because of Williams.
Williams, the son of Chicago White Sox general manager Ken Williams, did not look smooth fielding punts after doing it just twice in the regular season.
He made a dangerous, sliding catch on one return and called a fair catch on another with room to run. He then made his first big miscue after San Francisco forced a punt early in the fourth quarter while protecting a 14-10 lead.
Steve Weatherford hit a short, bouncing punt that Williams came up to try to field. He backed away at the last minute, but the ball glanced off his right knee and was recovered by Devin Thomas at the San Francisco 29. The play was originally not ruled a fumble but was overturned by on review.
"I told him we're all in this together," San Francisco All Pro linebacker Patrick Willis said. "I believe in him. If I had a do-over, he'd still be my guy back there. He's a tremendous athlete. Unfortunately some bad plays happened to him."
Six plays later, Eli Manning threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham, who beat backup cornerback Tramaine Brock on third-and-15. Brock was playing in place of starter Tarell Brown, who left late in the third quarter after a violent collision with teammate Dashon Goldson.
Williams helped atone for his first miscue when he returned the ensuing kickoff 40 yards to help set up David Akers' tying field goal late in regulation.
But on his second return in overtime, Williams gave the ball away again. He fielded the punt at the 19 and was stripped by Jacquian Williams. Thomas once again pounced on the ball at the 24, setting up the Giants' winning kick and ending San Francisco's most successful season in years.
"It was 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.
Coach Jim Harbaugh got the Niners to the brink of the Super Bowl in his first season, taking over a 6-10 team and going 13-3 to win the NFC West. The ability to protect the ball and cause turnovers was the biggest reason for the turnaround.
But the Niners forced no turnovers against the Giants and were ultimately done in by Williams' costly giveaways.
"There were a lot of ways in which we played well enough to win," Harbaugh said. "We just didn't come away with it. It will be a while before we get over it but we will get over it. Our team is not defeated by any means."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.