The Giants' Devin Thomas recovers a fumbled punt return as the 49ers'… (Julie Jacobson / Associated…)
Reporting from San Francisco -- The San Francisco 49ers asked the question, as they always do: "Who's got it better than us?"
The New York Giants had a resounding answer.
The Giants are heading back to the Super Bowl for the second time in four years, after clinching a 20-17 overtime victory over the 49ers in the NFC championship game Sunday with a 31-yard field goal by Lawrence Tynes with 7:06 remaining in the extra period.
As the soaked and sullen packed house at Candlestick Park watched Tynes' kick in disbelief, Giants co-owner John Mara erupted in the press box, punctuating the winning kick with a fist pump and a "Yes!" and bearhugging friends sitting around him.
"A lot of people wrote us off midseason," said co-owner Steve Tisch, whose team was 6-6 after dropping four straight in November and early December and made the playoffs, at 9-7, on the last day of the regular season. "We didn't write ourselves off. This is for all of the Giants, all of our fans. And we're thrilled to be going to Indy."
The Giants will play New England at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Feb. 5, four years and two days after beating the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII to end their bid for the first 19-0 season.
It was an overtime field goal by Tynes that propelled the Giants to the Super Bowl in early 2008 too, one booted in the snow at Green Bay. Sunday, the title game was played in a steady rain, making it all the more challenging to hang on to the football.
And it was a pair of turnovers by punt returner Kyle Williams that did in the 49ers. The first mistake came early in the fourth quarter when Williams thought he had gotten out of the way of a punt, but — as close-up replays showed — the ball barely grazed his knee before being recovered by the Giants.
New York took advantage of the short field, scoring a touchdown on a 17-yard pass from Eli Manning to Mario Manningham for a 17-14 lead.
Then in overtime, the killer.
After San Francisco's defense twice stopped the Giants, Williams fielded a punt at the San Francisco 19 and immediately had the ball stripped by Jacquian Williams. New York's Devin Thomas recovered the ball at the 24, and five plays later Tynes kicked the game-winner.
"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 worst," said San Francisco's Williams, who was returning punts in the game because of a knee injury that had sidelined Ted Ginn Jr.
"It's just one of those things," Williams said. "You hate to be the last guy that had the ball, to give it up that way in a fashion and to lose a game of this magnitude."
Said Thomas, who pounced on the ball: "I 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 and made sure no one would take it from me. We had a nice drive to send us to the Super Bowl."
Defeat was heartbreaking for the 49ers, who put together a remarkable run under first-year Coach Jim Harbaugh, a year after the franchise finished 6-10.
San Francisco, making its first appearance in the playoffs since the 2002 season, got to the championship game with a thrilling, last-second victory over New Orleans in a divisional game on the same field eight days earlier.
"Proud of the way the players played," a somber Harbaugh said. "Proud of the way they prepared, they worked, they competed. Wasn't there for us today. . . . It will take awhile to get over, but we'll get over it. This team is not defeated by any stretch of the imagination."
With his second appearance in the Super Bowl, Manning will match his big brother Peyton — on Peyton's home field, no less — and has a chance to become the first family member to win a pair of rings. The Super Bowl is a fitting punctuation for Eli, who is coming off a career year filled with dramatic fourth-quarter comebacks.
He was under heavy pressure from the 49ers, particularly after halftime, and was sacked six times. He completed 32 of 58 passes for 316 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions — although two would-be picks were dropped when 49ers defenders slammed into each other.
"I think everybody knew we were going to get a break, we were going to get a chance to win this game," Manning said. "We were going to make a play. Something was going to happen, if we didn't make a mistake ourselves. That was the mind-set."
Typically, Manning didn't have much of a running game to open the passing lanes. The Giants rushed for just 85 yards compared with San Francisco's 150.
"They had a tremendous pass rush," Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said of the 49ers. "We didn't have a lot of run; there wasn't much variety in what we were doing. Our screens didn't work especially well either. But Eli just hung in there, hung in there, hung in there, and made the plays when we needed them. He displayed the kind of leadership he did all year long."