For all the blame placed on Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff and 49ers wideout Kyle Williams, you'd think they were the only two guys on the field in Sunday's conference championship games.
As it turns out, the fourth-quarter, 32-yard field goal attempt Cundiff shanked was not the only play in the Patriots-Ravens game. In fact, there were 137 others.
The teams combined for six wasted trips to the red zone, seven penalties, three interceptions, three fumbles and 28 incompletions. They also squandered 14 third-down conversions.
And yet Cundiff is the guy everyone blames for the game's final score.
If you didn't catch the Giants-49ers showdown, you might be surprised to learn there were 146 plays in that game besides Williams' fumble in overtime.
The teams combined for three wasted trips to the red zone, 15 penalties, five fumbles and 40 incompletions. They also squandered 26 third-down conversions.
And still, Williams is the one guy getting flak for the game's outcome.
Why do fans ignore the simple truth: A mistake in the fourth quarter is as human as any, it's just poorly timed. And what is it about focusing on one part of the whole that makes a loss easier to swallow? Well, for starters, zeroing in on a fall guy allows disappointed fans to ignore the greater failure of the team. Anger at a scapegoat is centralized, laser-like and easier to digest; it gives fans something to focus on and distract them while they mourn.
The concept of a scapegoat has existed in many different iterations in ancient cultures and mythologies. The belief was that an object or being could be chosen to take on the sins of a whole community and then, when exiled, would take those evils with it. In sports, the expulsion isn't physical, it's psychological. The player is singled out, separated from the group and given the burden of his entire team's collapse.
Would the Ravens have won if Cundiff had tied the game and sent it to overtime? Sure, maybe.
Could the 49ers have driven the length of the field and scored the winning touchdown had Williams not turned the ball over? Yeah, maybe.
On the other hand, both teams might have lost anyway. Just don't suggest THAT to the fans torching the scapegoats; they'll never believe it. For them, an imagined "what could have been" will always be what they think should have been.
It's like in the movie "(500) Days of Summer." The lead character, Tom, heads to a party at his ex-girlfriend's apartment, imagining the invite means they'll get back together. As he arrives, the screen splits into two side-by-side depictions of the party: His expectations and his reality. It becomes clear any hope for reconciliation is one-sided and Tom eventually learns his ex is newly engaged to another man.
A San Francisco fan's split-screen of Sunday's overtime may have featured a winning kick return from Williams, alongside another, more realistic, Niners three-and-out. A Baltimore fan might have imagined a Ray Rice 73-yard touchdown alongside another incomplete Ravens passing play. Like Tom, their dreams might never match up with reality.
All day Sunday and into Monday, enraged fans (and some misguided media) lashed out at Williams and Cundiff. They advised the two men to enter the witness protection program, called for the elimination of kickers from football. The worst posted death threats on Twitter against Williams.
Even former players such as Michael Strahan bought into the scapegoat mentality. On Fox's postgame show, he was asked what he'd say to a teammate who, like Cundiff, missed a short field goal in a pivotal game.
"I'd say, 'If you're back here next year, we got a problem.'"
And while those sitting at home watching let loose hurtful and unfeeling remarks, the two players who felt the brunt of defeat were composed and controlled.
Cundiff said he felt terrible for letting down his teammates but considered the miss (his first in 13 postseason attempts) an aberration. He vowed not to dwell on it. Williams, who was thrust into the spotlight Sunday because of an injury to Ted Ginn Jr., was equally apologetic. He accepted full responsibility for his mistake and vowed to learn from it.
Like many of us, Niners linebacker Patrick Willis was stunned at some of the things people were saying to and about Williams.
"Some of the stuff out there that I've seen, man, I was just like, 'They're saying that because they're hurting,'" he said Monday afternoon. "But we live this game. We breathe this game. We sleep this game. If they feel that way, you can only imagine how bad he feels."
That's the thing. No one ever worries about how the scapegoat feels.