SAN FRANCISCO - Kyle Williams' name now belongs to a list that includes Preston Riley, Trey Junkin, Billy Cundiff and every other NFL player whose fumble, botched snap or missed kick has cost his team a playoff victory.
Williams, substituting for injured Ted Ginn on Sunday, muffed one punt return in the fourth quarter that led to a Giants touchdown and then, on a play that will go down in 49ers' playoff lore, fumbled away another in overtime deep inside 49ers' territory. The Giants quickly converted the mistake into a 31-yard field goal.
And with that, a Candlestick Park crowd practically willing its team to the Super Bowl went silent and the 49ers improbable season was over.
"It's tough when you're that close to your ultimate goal and you fall short," said safety Donte Whitner after the 20-17 loss. "It's not the end of the world, but right now it feels like that." Whitner and his teammates were quick to point out that they didn't blame Williams for the defeat.
The 49ers defense, which was picked apart by Giants quarterback Eli Manning and receiver Victor Cruz in the first half, rallied in the second and kept giving their offensive counterparts chances to win the game first in regulation and then in overtime.
The offense, however, could not summon the magic that won the divisional-round game the Saints. The two heroes from that game, quarterback Alex Smith and Vernon Davis, hooked up for two long touchdowns against the Giants, including a 73-yard score in the first quarter.
But the offense finished the game with four-straight three-and-out series, and worse than that, converted only once on third down during the game. Asked what he made of Williams' fumbles, Smith said there was plenty of blame to go around.
"I'm looking at it from -- what did we go? One of 13 on third downs?" Smith said. "He didn't lose the game. We lost the game across the board."
A quick whistle from the officials late in regulation also is likely to haunt the 49ers and their fans during the offseason. The controversial call wiped away a potential fumble recovery deep in Giants territory that, had it not occurred, likely would have given the 49ers the lead late in fourth quarter.
The 49ers had forced 43 turnovers entering the game, and they had parlayed a simple formula - take the ball away more than you give it up - into victories throughout the season, including in their win over New Orleans.
Against the Giants, however, the 49ers squandered their chances for takeaways.
One sure interception in the second half was undone when safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Tarell Brown collided, leaving nether man with the ball and Brown with a head injury that caused him to leave the game.
From that point, the 49ers' top cornerbacks were veteran Carlos Rogers, rookie Chris Culliver and seldom-used Tramaine Brock. A near replay of that missed chance occurred in overtime when Goldson and Rogers ran into each other trying to intercept another floating pass from Manning.
The most troubling, however, was the would-be fumble, which occurred on a six-yard pass to New York running back Ahmad Bradshaw at the Giants 21-yard line with 2:29 remaining. Before Bradshaw went to the ground, he was stripped of the ball by linebacker NaVorro Bowman and the 49ers recovered.
Head linesman Mark Hittner, however, quickly ran to the middle of the field and ruled that Bradshaw's forward momentum has stopped and the play was blown dead before the fumble. The 49ers could not challenge the play in that situation and the team's sideline - where the play occurred - erupted with disbelief.
"It looked like a fumble,"coach Jim Harbaugh said afterward. "Every play that happened in that game with the exception of that one was played out to the conclusion of the play." What made it sting even more is that the 49ers were denied a similar takeaway when they played the Giants in the regular season, that one a 27-20 win for the 49ers.
"That's something we're still talking about," Whitner said. " ... It's a bang-bang play, the refs made the decision, but that's not the reason we lost the game.
-- Matt Barrows