Familiar faces flourish, fall in NFL’s Conference Championships
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • January 23, 2012 @ 9:13am
While the 2012 NFL Playoffs lack the close-to-home feel-good story that Western New Yorkers felt about native James Starks last year, viewers couldn’t help but notice impact players from yesterday’s NFL Conference Championships that once hailed from WNY.
In both games, where the New England Patriots outlasted the Baltimore Ravens 23-20 and the New York Giants needed overtime to bounce the San Francisco 49ers, players once dear to the hearts of Buffalo football fans played major roles—for better or for worse. Giants’ defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, San Francisco safety Donte Whitner, New England Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski and Baltimore wide receiver Lee Evans all made Buffalo fans cringe or celebrate.
Fewell organized the Giants’ relentless pass rush that had San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith (and Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan before him) running for his life, as Jason Pierre-Paul, Matthias Kiwanuka, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora were in the 49ers’ backfield on nearly every passing play. After serving as the Bills’ defensive coordinator for four years and interim head coach for seven games (3-4 record) after Dick Jauron was fired, Fewell chose the Giants’ defensive coordinator position once the Bills settled on Chan Gailey as head coach. Once the Giants’ fairy-tale playoff run comes to a close in two weeks, Fewell is high on the Indianapolis Colts’ list for their vacant head coaching job.
Niners’ safety Donte Whitner, maligned during his time in Buffalo for his up-and-down attitude and bizarre Twitter persona, was part of San Francisco’s overachieving secondary that made the explosive Giants’ receivers corps think twice about running routes over the middle. Even though he’ll watch the Super Bowl from his couch, Whitner was a key cog on the league’s second-best scoring defense. The former Bills’ safety is easy to dislike—particularly in light of his recent comments about Gailey—but kudos to him for landing on his feet elsewhere after a rocky time in Western New York.
Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered an injury that, at least in replay, rivaled Willis McGahee’s college knee injury in its gruesome nature. CBS certainly went overboard on the slow motion replays, as you could see the knee and ankle ligaments stretch in a rather unnatural direction. Still, buoyed by the two-week respite before the Super Bowl, the former Williamsville North Spartan should suit up in the biggest game of his life. The burly tight end set records for his position in single-season receiving touchdowns (18) and receiving yardage (1,327). There’s very little quality embeddable video for Gronkowski’s injury, but here’s the best we can find:
Danny Aiken, the Patriots’ long snapper, was signed by the Bills as an un-drafted free agent before being waived in the first week of September. He hasn’t had quite the impact as Gronkowski, though.
Former Buffalo Bills’ receiver Lee Evans, who struggled to crack the Ravens’ wide receiver corps this season in his first year out of the 716, played the role of “goat” on Baltimore’s final drive. At the New England 14-yard-line with 27 seconds to go, Joe Flacco’s Ravens looked poised to either win the AFC Championship Game or, at the bare minimum, send it to overtime. On second down, Flacco whistled a pass to Evans in the right corner of the end zone, and the former Bills’ wideout had the ball in his grasp for a split-second before it was tipped out by recovering defensive back Sterling Moore.
Ravens’ kicker Billy Cundiff missed the ensuing 32-yard field goal attempt, and Baltimore bowed out of the NFL playoffs. The Buffalo News’ Rodney McKissic caught up with Evans after the game, referring to the former Buffalo Bill as a “tortured soul” in front of his locker. Do you feel bad for Evans, a goat in his first postseason experience?
Two players with Buffalo ties—the Patriots’ Gronkowski and the Giants’ Fewell—advance to the Super Bowl on Feb. 5, a rematch of the 2008 clash that witnessed the heroics of David Tyree and Eli Manning in the Giants’ victory.