Friday, January 16, 2015

Big Boy Pants

Championship weekend has arrived in the NFL once again, and after three straight years of involvement, the 49ers aren't around and therefore I can sort of sit back and watch these games like a normal person instead of a catatonic wreck. Then again, given the depth of my feelings toward the two NFC Championship participants, maybe it's better if I make other plans. Last weekend, I made three conventional picks and one calculated gamble and unlike in the Wildcard round, everything worked and I went 4-0. New England beat Baltimore in a rousing double-comeback affair that sort of exemplified everything that makes Tom Brady great. Seattle didn't totally humiliate Carolina, but they came close enough, winning a game that probably was closer than it should have been because Carolina scored in garbage time. The shootout I expected in Green Bay didn't happen and had things broken one way or the other early in the game, the Cowboys could have pulled off the upset. But they couldn't capitalize, they didn't get the call on the Dez Bryant catch/no-catch call and even if they did, they couldn't stop Aaron Rodgers, who did the Discount Doublechecking rather than receiving it this year. Then, there was the Indianapolis/Denver game, which I thought Indy would win, and they did because all of a sudden Peyton Manning started looking really really old, and his receivers forgot how to catch passes. This was just as I expected. The Colts fell behind early but clawed their way back, eventually took a lead and rode the momentum home from there. They had a pair of long scoring drives in the 2nd and 3rd Quarters, the Broncos could find no rhythm, and they could have conceivably sent Peyton Manning into retirement with one more puss on his face.

So, now we're here.

Sunday, 3:05pm
Green Bay Packers (13-4) at Seattle Seahawks (13-4)
The matchup that everyone wanted is probably the matchup I least wanted to see but knew was unavoidable. Green Bay and Seattle were the two best teams in the NFC for a majority of the season, and after they both started slow, they got their acts together and at one point or another were really stomping everyone in their path. The Packers certainly have the more potent offense right now. Rodgers is at the top of his game, and Eddie Lacy has performed well when he's had to, to say nothing of the fact that the Packers have a no-name group of receivers that look better than they deserve to because of who's throwing them the ball. Seattle can score points too, because America's Sweetheart Russell Wilson does Russell Wilson things and Marshawn Lynch is on another cycle of HGH is "tough to tackle." They don't have sexy receiving options, but they get the job done. Defensively is where the game will probably be decided, because where the Packers, as you well know, are led by this decade's Brian Bosworth, Clay Matthews III, the Seahawks are led by Shire Specialty Pharmaceuticals Richard Sherman and his mouth, combined with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor and Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright and Cliff Avril and the names just go on and on and on until you want to smash your head in. Which is a pretty accurate description of what they'll do to you. And that's before we even begin to talk about the Clink, where you can rest assured the "Soundtrack of 1,000,000 people rioting" will be playing over the PA speakers throughout the game. So, basically, although I'd like to not see this happen again, the Seahawks have too much on their side for the Packers to be able to overcome. Rodgers might do his best, but why fight it.
Pick: Seahawks 27, Packers 21

Sunday, 6:40pm
Indianapolis Colts (13-5) at New England Patriots (13-4)
Since the beginning of the Andrew Luck era in Indianapolis, the Colts have been regularly and thoroughly flattened by the Patriots every time they've matched up. I don't know for certain that this will happen again this time, but I do think that the Patriots are going to come out on top in this game. Though the Colts have been winning on Luck's talent and general guile, they have also been winning with the "groundswell effect," which I mentioned earlier, where they may fall behind early, but they kind of hang around, and hang around, and maybe they lead by 3 points at halftime, and they get the ball coming out of the half and score and then get a turnover and coast home. That won't quite work against the Patriots, who have been known to run the ball down the Colts' throats and not give Luck a chance. The Colts can't run the ball much, although this Little Mack Herron fellow has been a nice story, he's also their 4th option at RB. This means Luck is going to have to throw a ton in order to keep pace, and though Wimpy Flacco had success doing so last week, he still couldn't beat the Patriots. The Patriots proved they can finagle themselves out of the depths last week, twice coming back from 14-point deficits behind Brady, some offensive formation chicanery (which to the best of my knowledge might have been slightly unsportsmanlike, but not illegal), a trick play that resulted in a Touchdown, and a defense that held the line when they absolutely needed to. The Colts might be able to hang around and make this interesting, but on another one of those cold New England January nights, I don't think they have enough to take down the Bill Belichick Machine.
Pick: Patriots 34, Colts 28

So, once again, there you have it. Order your Pizza now, maybe Peyton Manning himself will deliver it since he's not playing tomorrow.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The More Fool You

Last weekend, I tried to be a hero and make some innovative picks based on what I believed to be some well-informed observations. Instead, I looked rather foolish as teams played straight up or generally took advantage of some controversial breaks and I ended up going 1-3 for the Wildcard Round. That's not my general pattern, but then again maybe I should have known better. The Cincinnati Bengals weren't going to go into Indianapolis and win. Though the Colts don't pose as a team of world-beaters, they were advantageously matched up against a team that has a habit of self-destructing at this juncture. A similar case unfolded in Pittsburgh, where a Steelers team that is probably better than the Ravens ended up losing because a) Their Running Back-By-Committee was doomed to fail before it even got started and b) the Ravens have a habit of turning it on at this juncture. So, now we're here in the Divisional Round where the Big Annoying Boys take the field and things really start to get interesting. Maybe. I again want to try to be a little more interesting than just going with the field, but I have the sense that this is probably going to be a more form-holding weekend than we usually get. But either way, I have an even greater sense that I'll end up looking the fool.

Saturday, 4:35pm
Baltimore Ravens (11-6) at New England Patriots (12-4) 
Bad enough that the Ravens are here again, but now everyone's remembering that magical nauseating run they had two years ago where they went into New England and beat the Patriots, and if you'll recall, I picked against them in every round and they won each time. I thought they weren't that good, but somehow Wimpy Joe Flacco turns into Joe Montana in January and I'll never understand why this happens. New England, however, has put together their best team in a few years, and this is a team that finishes 12-4 and goes to the AFC Championship Game on a routine basis so that's saying something. Tom Brady is still there being Tom Brady, and Rob Gronkowski will probably have had his bowl of gravel for lunch, and oh by the way Darrelle Revis is lurking in the secondary. Pundits that claim to know lots of things seem to be leaning towards the Ravens because this seems to be the sort of situation where Flacco will succeed and because Terrell Suggs intercepted a pass with his feet last week and everyone needs a new Ray Lewis to hang their hat on. That's why the Patriots will win. Too much hype in the opposite direction.
Pick: Patriots 28, Ravens 24

Saturday, 8:15pm
Carolina Panthers (8-8-1) at Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
I'd heard an argument somewhere that maybe, just maybe, the Panthers can come into Seattle, run the ball, not make mistakes and keep the Seahawks off balance and give them a game. I'm not fooled. Carolina didn't play a good game last week against Arizona, but they happened to come out on top because the Cardinals were playing a 4th string Quarterback. This won't fly in Seattle. You know what's coming. The speakers are cranked up, the aluminum walls are extra tinny and the crowd noise is on queue, waiting for Cam Newton to capitulate and throw some dying quail to Richard Sherman so he can disco dance into the End Zone. This is a joke of a matchup and likely won't be interesting for more than a quarter. Make other plans for Saturday night.
Pick: Seahawks 51, Panthers 3

Sunday, 1:05pm
Dallas Cowboys (13-4) at Green Bay Packers (12-4)
So the team that was 8-0 on the road goes to play the team that was 8-0 at home in this matchup of annoying teams that nobody likes but the NFL loves to cram in our faces. America's Team! Frozen Tundra! Aaron Rodgers! Tony Romo! Jerkoff head coaches! Ice Bowl! Coach Willy Loman! Woo woo woo! If you haven't puked from overexposure by the end of the 1st Quarter, I salute you, but this is the sort of matchup that the NFL and TV executives are probably peeing their pants over. Word is it's going to be -33˚ and driving snow in Green Bay, which I think is basically the weather there every day from November to April, or at least that's what the NFL wants you to believe. Meanwhile, there's still a game to be played, and stripping away the hype, you have a pair of teams that at one point or another could have been considered "The Hot Team" in the league. Dallas got off to a hot start. Green Bay was throwing 40+ points on the board each week for a while there. But they both came back to earth, and now what it boils down to is a pair of injured Quarterbacks playing in cold weather, so maybe it's better to focus elsewhere. They can both run the ball. Defense? Hmm...neither of these teams play it much. Dallas can't get out of their own way most of the time and the Packers defense is led by a second-rate commercial actor who plays football when he feels like it. What it boils down to is that this is a total snark-fest and part of me is kind of glad I booked a noon brunch so I can kind of ignore it.
Pick: Packers 45, Cowboys 34

Sunday, 4:40pm
Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at Denver Broncos (12-4)
I actually think this is the oddest matchup of the weekend. Conventional wisdom would have Peyton Manning going out, tugging his jockstrap a few times and throwing 7 Touchdown passes in the 1st half just to remind everyone that he's still the Pizza Man. And that may yet happen. The Colts, as I mentioned last week when I picked against them, don't do many things well, except that they have Andrew Luck, who may be the second coming of Manning himself, if his first few years are any indication. Denver can run and plays good defense. It's highly doubtful that the Colts can do either particularly well. But many of you know my 4pm Sunday game theory, and how in general, conventional wisdom tends to go out the window in favor of strange things happening. That, combined with the fact that strange things tend to happen to Peyton Manning in the Divisional round in general, the certain-to-be-cold weather in Denver, and the fact that he's been sort of un-Manning-like as this season has drawn on and it makes the hero in me want to show itself. There's an overthrown pass on a 3rd down play. There's a dying quail that falls into the hands of an opposing player. There's a 9-minute Touchdown drive in the 3rd Quarter. There's another game slipping away and hands are being tossed in the air and another shake of the head and a puss on the face...
Pick: Colts 23, Broncos 19

OK, ok. I couldn't resist. After all, I'm not putting any money on these games. Get your Insurance and your Pizza and your shampoo and Chunky Soup ready.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The No-Cares Bears

I feel some sort of moral obligation to make picks for the NFL Playoffs, even if the 49ers aren't involved. I suppose if I don't I might be subject to some sour grapes taunts but let's be real: The NFL Playoffs this season are going to be more about rooting against teams I don't like than anything else, and unlike the previous 3 years, I can't say I have too much of a vested interest in the whole thing. That being said, since there's no team for me to clearly root for, and plenty of teams that I don't like involved, expect a lot of snide comments and ridiculous barbs out of me while I make my picks for these next few weekends.

I suppose the one bit of solace I can take is that given how badly the 49ers played at times this season, it's probably better that they didn't make the playoffs because they stood a good chance of getting themselves bounced in an early round if they did make it, and in some ways, it's better to just not be there at all and count your losses at 8-8 than making it, getting beaten on Saturday afternoon and being "The Forgotten Team" in the playoffs like the Bengals usually are every year.

So, what is there this weekend?

Saturday, 4:20pm
Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at Carolina Panthers (7-8-1)
That the Panthers are here is by virtue of one of those little NFL quirks that gives the division champion an automatic home game, and another one of those little NFL quirks that the Panthers won a particularly awful NFC South with a sub-.500 record. But here they are, and believe it or not I think they actually have a good chance to win. The Panthers have been here before, they did win 12 games and scored themselves a 1st round bye last season (before the 49ers came to town and kicked them in the teeth), and they're facing a Cardinals team that started off 9-1 and were the darlings of the NFL before Carson Palmer got hurt, and then Drew Stanton got hurt, leaving them with journeyman Ryan Lindley at the QB helm which has kind of put their offense at a standstill. They do boast a good defense that should give Cam Newton and company fits, but I have the feeling that it won't be enough. The Panthers have the advantage of having muddled through a season where they didn't win a game for 2 months, but they won the games that counted, which ended up being their last 4 in a row, so believe it or not, the sub-.500 team is actually peaking which generally is a good thing to have happen when you're heading into the playoffs. I figure this is one of those games where the Panthers sort of lull their way to a lead, and this is one of those games where you look up and see it's the 4th Quarter and they lead by 17 points.
Pick: Panthers 23, Cardinals 9

Saturday, 8:15pm
Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
This is one of the NFL's favorite masturbatory matchups, a rivalry game between two hated rivals, and they still want to give it that starch even if Ray Lewis isn't around to do his stupid Dougie Dance or whatever the hell it is. Somehow the Ravens are in the playoffs; they made it here as the AFC's #6 seed, the winner out of a consortium of teams that spent a majority of the season unable to get out of their own way. I believe this group included Buffalo, Houston, Kansas City, San Diego and even Miami was involved at one point, but it's the Ravens that are here, in spite of their best player being suspended in one of the NFL's stormiest scandals and Joe Flacco still looking like $120 million worth of wimpy (and if you think I'm still stewing over the Super Bowl from 2 years ago, YOU'RE RIGHT!). The Steelers have been the better team most of the season, Ben Roethlisberger has had a great year, as has WR Antonio Brown, but the issue for the Steelers right now is the availability of Le'Veon Bell, their Running Back who's proven himself to be of Frank Gore quality, but was injured late last week and is unavailable. This is a big blow to the Steelers, but even though they're forced to use one of their lesser backs, they still seem to me like they're going to advance here.
Pick: Steelers, 24, Ravens 17

Sunday, 1:05pm
Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
This is a matchup between two teams that need to put up or shut up. The Bengals need a win here because they've made the playoffs every year for the last 4 seasons, and every year, they've played like schmucks and lost their first game. Generally, it's because their Quarterback, the wildly uneven Andy Dalton, has turned the ball over some ungodly number of times. The Colts need to win simply to prove that they're a more cohesive team than just some middling players with an extraordinarily talented Quarterback, Andrew Luck. Last season, the Colts were well on their way to getting embarrassed at home by Kansas City before Luck sprung to life and spearheaded a big-time comeback, and then the Colts summarily got their asses handed to them the following week in New England. Injuries play a role here too, since Cincinnati may be without Receiver A.J. Green, who was concussed last week in Pittsburgh. Indy's top receiver, T.Y. Hilton is also banged up but seems more likely to play. Tossup games like this seem to come down to running games moreso than the Quarterbacks, and here the edge goes to Cincinnati, simply because the Colts have no running game to speak of and have to rely on Luck, whereas the Bengals have a two-headed attack with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, and this could well tilt the edge in their favor. A tough call for certain, but I'll take a gamble and go with the Bengals to win their first Playoff game since the Boomer Esiason era.
Pick: Bengals 34, Colts 30

Sunday, 4:40pm
Detroit Lions (11-5) at Dallas Cowboys (12-4)
This is also a real tossup game between a pair of teams that haven't had Playoff success in a long time. Dallas has won all of one Playoff game since 1997 and the Troy Aikman/Emmitt Smith regime. Detroit hasn't won one in about as long as Cincinnati has, which takes them back to when Barry Sanders was toting the rock for them and their QB was Erik Kramer (a halcyon era indeed). To compound matters, that's the Lions only postseason win in the Super Bowl Era. Dallas has had a surprisingly good season, primarily because they decided their best way to go about things was to run DeMarco Murray into the ground, eat up the clock in a majority of their games, and not try to let Tony Romo have to do too much. Romo has had a fine season for once in his life, and so the prevailing thought is that maybe he's over that general A-Rodism that overcomes him in big moments. The worry about the Cowboys is that they've been consistently mediocre in spite of a wealth of talent for so many years, that you had to think that one of these years, they might actually get out of their own way and win some games. This could be one such year, but I'm not really buying it. The same could be said of Detroit, who can match Romo with Matthew Stafford, equal parts talent and stupidity, and can match Dez Bryant with Calvin Johnson, and their RB tandem of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. The Lions also have a much better defense than Dallas, and they'll have the added benefit of having Ndamukong Suh playing this week, his suspension for stepping on Beautiful Aaron Rodgers last week having been overturned. I suppose either team could come away with the win here, but I see Detroit's defense stepping up and making plays in such a way that I don't think Dallas' defense is capable of doing. Plus isn't Romo way overdue for a real stinker of a performance? Finally, this is the 4pm Sunday game, usually a marquee matchup where something weird usually happens and things never go quite the way you'd expect it to. I see a close game, but a late Romo turnover will tilt the scales in Detroit's favor while Jerry Jones turns a Coughlin-esque shade of red.
Pick: Lions 30, Cowboys 20

So, there you have it. Enjoy the weekend if you can, and don't sit there watching these games in a mostly dark room sullenly stewing like I probably will.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

To The Future!

Happy New Year, Mets Nation!

Here's to these three gentlemen above fulfilling all the promise that's got us excited about the upcoming season for the first time in several years.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Seasons In The Sun

Not surprisingly, the 49ers final game of the 2014 season ended up being the swan song for the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco. After an excruciating stretch of 4 straight losses, the 49ers were at least able to send Harbaugh off to (assumedly) Michigan with a win, closing out their season with a 20-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

The game itself seemed kind of academic on both sides. It wasn't on in New York, so I was relegated to following on the computer, but basically the 49ers were just trying to get things right after 4 weeks where everything went completely wrong, while the Cardinals, already playoff bound, I assume were just trying to not get any more key players hurt. Colin Kaepernick finished an uneven season with a reasonably solid effort, throwing a 76-yard TD pass to Anquan Boldin and another short TD pass to Bruce Miller in the 3rd Quarter that gave the 49ers the winning points. Boldin capped off another 1,000 yard season, as did Frank Gore, who finished off strong with a pair of 100+ yard efforts. A patchwork defense intercepted Arizona's 3rd string Quarterback Ryan Lindley 3 times and made a slim lead stand up.

But the story was more about Harbaugh, whose departure from the 49ers after 4 seasons surprised nobody. The fans and the team seemed to rally around him after the game, and why not; he was obviously a major reason that the 49ers had this resurgence the past few seasons after so many years of failure. Under his watch, the 49ers returned to relevance, making it to three consecutive NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl appearance. There were great plays and great moments that happened these past few seasons that brought back all the memories of the 80s and 90s when this was the NFL's flagship team. Harbaugh took over a team that had a lot of undisciplined talent and molded them into winners. He took a chance on Colin Kaepernick and Kaepernick emerged as a rising star. Other players like NaVorro Bowman, Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith grew into All-Pro caliber talent. The team went from a string of 7-9, 6-10 seasons to go 13-3 in Harbaugh's first season at the helm and for three seasons was as good as any team in the NFL. And for that, Harbaugh deserves all the credit in the world.

But for all the success the Harbaugh 49ers had, they couldn't finish off the job. Three seasons in a row, they came right to the precipice of glory only to be turned back at the last moment. And for all the victories, Harbaugh couldn't find that common ground with GM Trent Baalke and Owner Jed York. It's a shame, because clearly, Harbaugh is the kind of coach that doesn't come around very often. It's real easy to bring in a bad coach, the 49ers suffered through a few of those in their 8-year slumber. The fear is that without Harbaugh, and with the roster certain to change a bit due to salary cap concerns, the success could prove to be very fleeting and the team will rue not only their inability to find a way to work past their internal difficulties, but that they weren't able to seize the opportunities they had to win another Championship. It was a great few seasons, for sure. But you can't help but feel more than just a little unfulfilled. 

Whoever the 49ers do end up hiring to replace Harbaugh will have some pretty big shoes to fill. They'll also be taking over a roster that's going to have plenty of talent, but also a lot of questions. Not only are there some players that stand to make a good chunk of money next year that underperformed and may be cut, such as Ahmad Brooks, but there's some pretty big names that are heading into Free Agency, and who knows whether or not the 49ers may be able to resign them. Justin Smith may retire. Vernon Davis held out this year. Alex Boone held out. Players like Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Perrish Cox and Frank Gore may have all played their last games with the team. Gore, in particular, is perhaps the most poignant name on this list. The longest-tenured 49er, Gore finished up his 10th season strong, but there's a lot of miles on those legs of his. Certainly, younger guys like Kendall Hunter and Carlos Hyde are there to help spell him, but if he should return—and he's made it pretty clear that he wants to return—it would likely be in a reduced capacity. Then again, Gore has bucked the trend of the every down Running Back that wears down as the years pile on. The 49ers all-time leading rusher and a player who has gone about his business with class and efficiency, nobody on the roster seemed more aware of just how precious it was to find success as a team these past few seasons. Gore toiled away for years on those awful 49ers teams, piling up great games in mostly hopeless efforts. Nobody's embodied the spirit of the team more, so it's going to be truly sad if he moves on.

So, there's no January story for the 49ers this year. The season is done and now come the questions, many of which have been lingering throughout this frustrating season. The first order of business, obviously, is to bring in a new coach and who knows who that's going to be. Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio has been bandied about as a likely candidate, and other names such as deposed Jets Coach Rex Ryan have also been mentioned. I really don't know what to expect, other than that I know that it's hard to find the Jim Harbaughs of the Coaching world and it's not likely that the next coach is going to be as dynamic. Then come the players. In spite of the names that may not or will not be back, other players like Anquan Boldin will be here, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman will be back and the roster will have plenty of talent. But will the offense be able to rebound after a wildly uneven year? Has the rest of the NFC advanced enough to catch and pass the 49ers as a contender? The NFL season is a blur and so too is success on a continued basis. Hopefully this year isn't a sign that the team is about to go back into the tank.