Grades for the NFC championship game

SAN FRANCISCO – Here are my grades for the 49ers, who lost 20-17 to the New York Giants in the NFC championship game.

Alex Smith: D. Most of his 196 passing yards came on two long completions to Vernon Davis. Besides those two plays, Smith completed just 10 of 24 passes (42% – a Tebowesque percentage) for 95 yards. That’s awful. His best plays came when he scrambled – he picked up 42 yards on 6 carries. Still, Smith isn’t Tebow. He’s not paid to run the ball. He’s paid to throw, and in the biggest game of his life he threw horribly.

Offensive line: A-. They gave up just three sacks to the Giants ferocious pass rush, and they created huge running lanes all game long. Mike Iupati missed about ten snaps and the unit didn’t miss a beat with Chilo Rachal in the game at right guard.

Running backs: A-. These guys were underutilized. Gore rushed 16 times for 74 yards (4.6 yards per carry), plus he caught six passes for 45 yards. He was effective running up the middle, but his coaches got too cute with their play calling. Kendall Hunter was also fantastic. He runs the counter like no one I’ve ever seen. Twice he had big gains by running one way, stopping on a dime and running back where he came from. If Greg Roman had kept these two players more involved, the Niners may have won.

Wide receivers: F. Corey Webster completely shut down Michael Crabtree, just like he did in Week 10. Crabtree caught one pass then and one pass in this game. He is not a No. 1 wide receiver. He was invisible in the playoffs. Kyle Williams, the other starter, caught zero passes. The entire wide receiving corps caught one pass. The Niners need to overhaul this group in the offseason. Trent Baalke should have added a better wide receiver earlier in the season. Signing Brett Swain and Joe Hastings – complete NFL non-factors – to replace Joshua Morgan and Braylon Edwards was an error in judgment. You mean to tell me that Terrell Owens or Randy Moss couldn’t have done better than Brett Swain in this one? Or how about Kyle Williams? Or how about Crabtree?

Tight ends: A-. Vernon Davis is a super star. In these playoffs he was the entire Niners offense. He’s by far their best wide receiver on the team and he isn’t even a wide receiver. Smith only threw his way five times, which is preposterous. Delanie Walker blocked well and caught a couple passes, but he wasn’t much of a factor.

Defensive line: A. Ray McDonald had the game of his life – sacking Eli Manning 2.5 times. Justin Smith was a one-man pass rush in the fourth quarter. The whole line held the Giants offense to just 3.3 yards per carry. This unit was top-notch all season.

Linebackers: A. These guys are top-notch, too. NaVarro Bowman finished with 14 tackles, one half of a sack and another hit on Eli Manning. Patrick Willis was also dominant. The Niners didn’t lose because of their front-seven.

Secondary: D. Carlos Rogers got torched by Victor Cruz. Rogers is going to want top cornerback money in the offseason and I highly doubt he’ll get it from the Niners. Tarell Brown got knocked out of the game. Tramaine Brock got picked on for a touchdown pass to Mario Manningham. Donte Whitner failed to cover Bear Pascoe on an early touchdown. This unit got exposed in coverage. They didn’t seem much better than they were back in Week 2 in their overtime loss to the Cowboys.

Special teams: F. Kyle Williams should have been replaced as the punt returner after he dove to catch a punt in the third quarter. He was overwhelmed by his special teams assignment. Reggie Smith returned punts at Oklahoma – have him return the punts. Or Chris Culliver. Or anyone.  Harbaugh didn’t make the correct adjustment, and Williams fumbled the game away.

Coaching: F. What was that? What were those play calls on offense? How could they leave Kyle Williams in as the punt returner? What happened?

In a conference championship game you go with what got you there. You go with your meat and potatoes. The Giants did. But the Niners? They were running option plays. They were running (and bumbling) complicated reverses. They ran any number of plays they had never run once in a game. They insisted on being cute when all they needed to do was run up the middle – it was working. Gore was ripping off five yards per run right up the gut and the Niners went away from it. Why?

Praise Harbaugh and his staff for orchestrating one of the most amazing franchise-turnarounds in sports history. But don’t praise him for his performance in this one. He was as in awe of the moment as Kyle Williams was.

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