49ers blew it, and that's the hardest part

Kyle Williams' two turnovers during punt returns led to 10 points for the Giants in the 49ers' loss. AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

SAN FRANCISCO -- Surely it could not end this way for the San Francisco 49ers.

A fumble during a punt return, in overtime? The New York Giants recovering the ball and kicking a gift 31-yard field goal to reach Super Bowl XLVI against New England?

Never in a hundred years could Jim Harbaugh's mighty men let it end this way: 20-17 at Candlestick Park, their usually impeccable special teams letting them down twice.

"It's tough, real tough," running back Frank Gore said.

Imagine how Kyle Williams feels. The 49ers' second-year backup receiver muffed one punt before his killer fumble. Those mistakes led to 10 points for the Giants.

"You hate to be the last guy that had the ball, to give it up that way in that fashion and to lose a game of this magnitude," Williams said. "It is what it is."

Coach Jim Harbaugh used the word "cruel" to describe the Giants last week. The adjective applies more succinctly to the postseason rivalry between these teams.

Roger Craig's late fumble doomed the 49ers to a 15-13 defeat in the NFC title game 21 years ago. More than a decade passed before Trey Junkin's unfortunate field-goal snap for the Giants delivered a 39-38 victory to the 49ers in the wild-card round. And now, Williams.

Cruel, indeed.

"It's hard to swallow," 49ers defensive end Justin Smith said, "but what else are you going to do?"

Upgrade at wide receiver, for starters.

Williams, Michael Crabtree, Ginn and Brett Swain combined to catch eight passes for 51 yards on 29 targets in two playoff games. That is unacceptable.

Williams and Swain get a pass. They're young. They're backups. Ginn gets a pass. He was injured. That leaves Crabtree, the 10th player chosen in the 2009 draft. He was invisible in two playoff games, erased completely on Sunday by Giants cornerback Corey Webster.

It's tough to blame quarterback Alex Smith for Crabtree's irrelevance when Smith was completing game-changing passes to tight end Vernon Davis throughout the playoffs.

Smith targeted Crabtree 10 times in the divisional round against New Orleans. Crabtree turned those chances into four receptions for 25 yards. He lost at the ball more than once.

Crabtree caught one pass for 3 yards Sunday. A postgame interview wasn't productive, either.

"Sometimes you just gotta move the ball, man," Crabtree said. "You gotta make plays. You gotta give people a chance to make plays. You gotta make plays."

Give people a chance to make plays? Crabtree did not appear to be running wide open through the secondary in either of these playoff games.

Smith had problems, too. After completing 2 of 7 passes for 79 yards in the rain-soaked first half, he struggled with windy conditions thereafter.

"I felt great in the first half going either direction," Smith said. "I personally struggled with going from soaking wet in the first half and then in the second half, it dried out and your hands dried out and you're licking them the whole time in the second half, trying to get some of that tack."

Mother Nature wasn't the only one mixing it up on Smith. When these teams played in Week 10, the Giants gave the 49ers opportunities downfield by playing single-high safety looks designed to stop the run. That led to more one-on-one matchups outside.

"They just mixed it up a lot more, played a lot of two-high (safety) this game on first and second down, a lot of third down, especially those third-and-longs that we could not convert," Smith said.

On the surface, this season would end how it began, with the 49ers realizing just how much Ted Ginn Jr. meant to them. Ginn's two return touchdowns in Week 1 held off a late Seattle rally only days after the team had pressured him into accepting a pay reduction. Ginn's injury-related absence Sunday forced the less accomplished, less seasoned Williams into punt-return duty.

The results were disastrous, the lessons simple.

The 49ers were horrible on third down most of the season. They were worse against the Giants, converting one time in 13 chances. Touchdown passes to Davis covering 73 and 28 yards should have been enough on a day when the 49ers held Eli Manning and the Giants to 3.9 yards per play -- the lowest figure for a Giants offense since a Dec. 14, 2008 meeting with Dallas, a span of 52 games, counting playoffs.

Under less cruel and less unusual circumstances, the 49ers would have made up for their third-down issues by hawking the ball and forcing turnovers. But a secondary that had picked off 24 passes in 17 games fell all over itself trying to collect passes Manning threw right to them. Dashon Goldson collided with Carlos Rogers to foil one sure pick. Goldson and Tarell Brown collided to wreck another freebie.

Even when the 49ers appeared to force and recover an Ahmad Bradshaw fumble, head linesman Mark Hittner ruled San Francisco had stopped Bradshaw's forward progress before the ball came out.

"Every play that happened in the game, except that one, was played out to the completion of the play," Harbaugh said.

That was as close as the 49ers came to complaining about factors beyond their control. They lost this one more than the Giants won it. That is what hurt them the most.

A successful first season under Harbaugh guarantees nothing for the future. The rest of the NFC West appears to be gaining. The offseason will give the 49ers' future opponents time to figure out what this coaching staff sprung on the NFL so impressively this season.

The 49ers are unlikely to encounter a lower Super Bowl bar than the one they tripped over Sunday. All they had to do was beat a 9-7 team at home.

Pregame talk casting the Giants as a red-hot team amounted to nothing. The 49ers jumped to a 7-0 lead in the first nine minutes. They led 14-10 late in the third quarter and tied it late in the fourth without making a third-down conversion until the final play of regulation. The Giants did little to win the game late until forcing that fumble and centering the ball for Lawrence Tynes' winning kick.

"This is the hardest loss of my career in football, especially with it being so close, being in it the whole game," left tackle Joe Staley said. "A lot of missed opportunities."