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SAN FRANCISCO — So that's how it ends: on a soggy field, a partisan crowd brought to silence, the 49ers stunned and morose while the visiting team rejoices after winning the NFC championship game. These Niners had been so resilient, so innovative, so good all season that it seemed the ride would go on forever. It didn't.

Who's got it better than them? As it turns out, the New York Giants, who capitalized on Kyle Williams' fumbled punt in overtime and rode Lawrence Tynes' 31-yard field goal to a 20-17 victory and an unexpected trip to Indianapolis, where they will face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.

"This is the hardest loss of my career in football, and especially being so close, being in it the whole game," left tackle Joe Staley said in the post-game locker room Sunday, his usual buoyancy nowhere to be found. "They made one more play than we did."

It was that close.

Laboring in wet and windy conditions at Candlestick Park, both offenses played cautiously from the outset, and both defenses were ferocious. After 60 minutes of regulation play, they were tied 17-17, initiating the first overtime game in 49ers postseason history.

The Giants won the overtime coin toss, but the 49ers forced them to punt after one first down. The Niners went three-and-out. New York got the ball back and briefly moved into San Francisco territory, but defensive lineman Justin Smith ended the drive with a sack.

The 49ers were poised to take another crack at winning this thing, but Williams lost the ball while attempting to return Steve Weatherford's punt. The Giants' Devin Thomas recovered at the Niners' 24-yard line. Three plays and one delay-of-game penalty later, Tynes launched the Giants into the Super Bowl for the second time in five years.

"Regardless of how the game went, in our minds, we knew that game to be ours," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "We were going to win that game regardless of what it took, whether we had to go 100 times in overtime or win in regulation, we knew it had to be ours. ... Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way."

Williams, a promising second-year receiver who got increased snaps because Ted Ginn was out with an injury, was responsible for another turnover, too, allowing one of Weatherford's punts to graze his leg early in the fourth quarter. The Giants took advantage on Eli Manning's 17-yard pass to Mario Manningham and went up 17-14.

But it was also Williams who was involved in erasing that deficit, returning the ensuing kickoff to the SF 45-yard line and helping set up David Akers for the 25-yard field goal that ultimately sent the game into overtime.

The Arizona State product wasn't the only culprit Sunday. The offense that looked so potent in the fourth quarter against New Orleans a week earlier went into a shell against the Giants. Alex Smith fired two touchdown passes to tight end Vernon Davis — of 73 and 28 yards — but other than those two throws was 10 of 24 for 95 yards. Smith completed just one pass to a wide receiver all day, a harmless 3-yarder to Michael Crabtree on third-and-5.

The 49ers (14-4) were dreadful on third down. They converted just 1 of 13 such opportunities, and the one they got was a gimme right before halftime. They struggled mightily with the Giants' imposing defensive line, as Smith was sacked three times and chased frequently. The Niners also came up shy on a couple of short-yardage plays.

Of course, the San Francisco defense was wreaking some havoc of its own.

The group sacked Manning six times, helping to curtail the 316 yards he accumulated on 32-for-58 passing.

The 49ers also had a call go against them. Just before the 2-minute warning, linebacker NaVorro Bowman ripped the ball out of Ahmad Bradshaw's hands deep in New York territory and safety Dashon Goldson recovered. However, officials ruled that Bradshaw's forward progress had been stopped and blew the play dead. The call could not be challenged.

The home locker room was predictably subdued afterward as the ache of the loss set in. Soon enough, though, these players will look back on a season that fell two steps short of greatness, and certainly exceeded the wildest expectations of 49ers fans in Jim Harbaugh's first year coaching the team.

"This team is not defeated by any stretch of the imagination," Harbaugh said. "A man can be destroyed but he can't be defeated as long as he knows that there's hope."

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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