Monday, December 24, 2012

The Hot Team

If Sunday Night's debacle in Seattle for the 49ers taught us anything, it's that nothing ever makes sense in the NFL.

Coming into the game, the 49ers were humming along, having staved off a ballyhooed team in their own building, a place that's generally considered an impossible place for a visiting team to win. They were going to play a ballyhooed team in their own building, a place that's generally considered an impossible place for a visiting team to win. Things like this tend not to faze the 49ers. Seattle has been tough all season, and Seattle has always been a tough place to play. This is something I've always found rather bizarre; for a city that's generally known as a rather genteel, laid-back West Coast city, Seattle for some reason turns into a Lion's den at feeding time when the Seahawks take the field. The Kingdome was like this, and their new stadium, Qwest Starbucks Paul Allen Pearl Jam Century Link Field was built in such a way that the crowd noise reverberates off the structure and back onto the field, creating a noise tunnel that's deafening.

The Seahawks also are the "Hot Team" right now. The 49ers were being anointed following the win in New England, but the Seahawks are on a pretty good streak of their own. Their defense had been very solid all season, mirroring the 49ers in the fact that they have been equally tough against the run, not so much in the pair of Defensive Backs who were suspended for positive banned substance tests. But I digress. Behind ballyhooed Rookie Quarterback Russell Wilson, they'd ran up some staggering point totals in their past two games, beating Arizona 58-0 and following that up with another 50-point performance against Buffalo. But that's Arizona and Buffalo. The 49ers certainly weren't going to let the Seahawks, their rival, whom they already beat this season in a real slug-fest, punch them around like that, were they?

Unfortunately, the answer was yes, they would. They didn't give up 50, but they also saved their worst performance of the season for the worst possible moment. Perhaps the game wasn't over when NBC opened the game with their usual montage of Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews, accompanied by Faith Hill, but I suppose it may as well have been. Right from the outset, the 49ers appeared tight and unprepared, the noise got to Colin Kaepernick early, and the Seahawks jumped all over them. The tone was set no less than 4 minutes into the game, when Kaepernick opened with three passes, all of which fell incomplete. Andy Lee's good punt was met with a good return by Leon Washington, followed by a 15-yard penalty, and two plays later, the Seahawks were in the End Zone when Marshawn Lynch thundered in from 24 yards out.

It only got worse from there. It was 14-0 by time the 49ers finally managed to get something going on offense, but their good drive was stopped short thanks to a vicious hit by Kam Chancellor on Vernon Davis, not only breaking up a sure Touchdown pass, but also knocking Davis out of the game with a concussion. Forced to kick a short Field Goal, David Akers' kick was instead blocked and returned 90 yards for a Touchdown, making a bad 14-3 score into a miserable 21-0 score, and essentially removed any sort of drama from the game.

That's not to say that the 49ers stopped trying once they got behind, but it was pretty much impossible for them to muster much of anything. Frank Gore was unable to establish anything on the ground, and by time they got so far behind, they had to abandon the run anyway. Kaepernick was flustered by the noise and inaccurate with his passes; though he only threw one interception, it was in the End Zone on a pass where he clearly never bothered to see if there was a defender closing. Davis was out, and later Mario Manningham was knocked from the game with a knee injury. By time they managed to score a Touchdown, it was in complete garbage time in the 4th Quarter, and only enough to make the score a humiliating 42-13 (as opposed to the mortifying 42-6). They weren't helped by the fact that Seattle didn't stop trying either, as their coach Pete Carroll, who nobody really likes, continued to have Russell Wilson pass and pass and pass in spite of the fact that his team was way ahead. It's merely an observation, and Carroll has taken some flak for this, but he also did this in the prior two 50+ point efforts from his team. In case you were wondering why the Seahawks suddenly turned into the '98 Vikings.

The victory by Seattle clearly cemented them as The Hot Team and The Team Nobody Wants To Play In the Playoffs. Their win not only clinched them a playoff berth, but it also prevented the 49ers from clinching their second straight division title. Thanks to their earlier tie, the 49ers still hold a half game lead on Seattle, and only need to beat Arizona at home next Sunday to wrap up the Division and ensure Seattle will play nothing but road games in  January. But the loss also knocked the 49ers out of the #2 seed in the NFC, behind Green Bay, which would force the 49ers to come back and play in the first round of the playoffs, instead of having a bye week to rest, and potentially have to play these very same Seahawks in said first round. One saving grace, perhaps, is that while the 49ers have to play the lowly Cardinals next week, Green Bay must play in Minnesota, against a Vikings team that must win in order to make the playoffs. Regardless of all that, however, Seattle is certainly not someone to be taken lightly as the calendar turns to January and the Playoffs begin. True, they more than likely will not have a chance to play in front of their screaming fans, but they'll be a problem going forward.

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