As I write this, it's the morning after.

Needless to say, I didn't sleep well. I tossed and I turned, lost in the same haze that started as soon as that ball hit the turf. When I awoke for good, my first thought—absurd, but sincere—was hope.

Hope, that I'd merely been dreaming.

That thought, of course, was fleeting, and I quickly accepted the awful truth. That's not to say that I faced it, though. I prepared for work, in silence. I decided against my usual choice of ambient noise—the incessant chatter of sports radio. I avoided it, as I expect I'll avoid it for weeks to come.

See, they'd be talking about the Super Bowl. I didn't want to hear about that.

When I arrived at work, I sat at my desk and went through my usual routine. But I couldn't focus. In responding to a supervisor's e-mail, I answered a question that wasn't the one he had asked, and I had to send a second message, apologizing for the first.

At about noon, I noticed something somewhat alarming. I was just sitting there, but my heart was racing. Not in an imminent-heart-attack way; I clearly wasn't in any medical distress. But I couldn't get my heart to slow down.

That's when I was struck by a shocking realization. I was feeling something I'd felt before, but not since I was dumped by my first crush, in seventh grade. I never thought I would feel it again; I guess I thought I'd outgrown it. But nevertheless I was feeling it now.

My heart. My heart was broken.

It's not like we hadn't seen a crushing defeat like this before. Indeed, losing a late fumble that leads to a last-play field goal by the Giants in an NFC title game? Been there. In a significant respect, though, this was entirely new.

Roger Craig was a borderline Hall of Famer, our all-time leader in yards from scrimmage, an essential contributor to three Super Bowl titles. He had a textbook hold on the ball, but the ball was struck by a well-placed helmet, and simple physics took care of the rest. "I don't know that he could have really helped it," said Erik Howard, who wore the helmet in question. "It was just timing. When somebody sticks a helmet on the ball and in your rib cage, it's hard to hang onto it."

If anyone had the right to let us down, it was Craig. But that's not even the point. Some fumbles are forced by great plays, and Craig's certainly was. Sometimes you've just gotta credit the defense.

There's no such grace for Kyle Williams.

I won't pretend that I foresaw disaster when I heard that Ted Ginn would be unable to play, but I definitely registered concern. Though many fans seem to think that anyone with speed can be a return man, the phrase "return specialist" exists for a reason. Returning kicks, especially punts, is a tough, important, and dangerous job, and though Ginn leaves a lot to be desired as a wide receiver, he's one of the best returners there is. I was worried about plenty of things going into the game—the Giants' receivers, their pass-rush, even the weather—but the loss of Ginn was high on the list.

Williams was drafted to be, primarily, a return specialist. But he hadn't won the job, and he'd taken only a handful of returns in his two pro years. At a tough, important, and dangerous job, he was a back-up, and an inexperienced one at that.

In this most crucial of games, it showed.

At least on punts, he never looked like he knew what he was doing. A fair catch with no one around. A reckless diving grab. And, of course, wandering into the path of a bouncing ball, for no discernible reason, and then failing even to notice that the ball had grazed him. I take it on faith that we had no one else who was reasonably prepared—that Williams still gave us the best chance for a clean return. But as our D heroically forced punt after punt, we just continued to flirt with disaster.

And in overtime, disaster struck.

It's nice to see the Niners close ranks around Williams, especially with the awful invective being hurled his way. But facts are facts, and the standard boilerplate—"The game didn't come down to Kyle Williams," etc.—is simply false. Sure, with our receiving corps ravaged by injury, our offense was generally abysmal. But our two touchdowns would've held up. The Giants scored 10 points after halftime, and Williams was responsible for each and every one.

Let me be clear. Anyone who wishes any harm upon Kyle Williams is a vile, contemptible slug. But every other player did enough for us to win. Of all people, Kyle Williams defeated Superman. Kyle Williams cost us the Super Bowl.

The good news is, as goats go, Williams is a convenient one. A common maxim is that "injuries are no excuse" for coming up short, but I disagree. Indeed, injuries, to important starters, are a great excuse. I've used 'em to justify plenty of painful playoff defeats. Whether it was Montana being injured in '86, Young being injured in '96, or Hearst being injured in '98, the absence of a capable back-up at a key position is an extraordinarily versatile rationalization. After all, especially these days, no team can have good back-ups everywhere, and usually you don't know that you've got a bad one until he finally gets into a game. Until he gets onto the field and hurts you.

In this instance, though it's cold comfort, the rationalization works. Mind you, I'm not talking about any alleged injury to Williams. (The rationalization isn't that versatile.) The Niners of 2011 lost the NFC title game, because they couldn't replace the injured Ginn.

So I'm sure that someday I'll be able to step back and express my appreciation for this magical year—for how we came out of nowhere, for how far we got, for how bright the future remains. That day, though, is not today. After we defeated the Giants in November, it was Super Bowl or bust. And after we magically beat the Saints, and after the Packers magically lost, it just looked like nothing could stop us.

We might have more talent next year, or the year after. But there will always be plenty of talented teams. What we might never recapture is the magic. This was our moment, dammit. No matter how many titles we win, this will always be the one, the moment we carelessly fumbled away.

Unquestionably, this was one of the Niners' greatest seasons ever. But sadly that greatness is doomed to be tainted, for all time, by the ugliest ending we could've imagined.

And literally, my heart aches.