Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Big Boys

I'm actually making my picks at what is for me a somewhat early date this week. That it's been a bit of an intense week for me might be an understatement. I'd run through a brick wall if it meant time could just jump to 8pm Saturday night and I could sit and watch the 49ers and Packers slug it out in their game. But there's still two days yet before I can really get myself too worked up about it. Mostly, I've passed the time reading blogs on the game and following the 49ers "Quest for Six" campaign. There's also three other games that I have to predict, and many of them involve teams that I don't care for very much. In fact, the other NFC game, the Seattle Seahawks/Atlanta Falcons matchup, involves a current 49ers Division Rival and a former division rival, so no matter who wins that game, I probably will have plenty to snarl about. Both of the NFL's Darlings won last weekend, and most of the experts, I'd assume, will pick them to win again this weekend. Nonetheless, games still have to be played, so everyone should be careful not to prematurely anoint someone a champion just yet. Funny things happen in the NFL, particularly when the Divisional Round is concerned.

I was 3-1 on my predictions last weekend, only losing when the Ravens beat the Colts. In retrospect, I feel somewhat foolish having made this pick. I probably should have known better than to go with the mostly rebuilt and inexperienced Colts on the road like that, but sometimes you make the risky pick. That ends the suspense of the quest for a 11-0 postseason, but maybe 10-1 is a possibility.

Saturday, 4:30pm
Baltimore Ravens (11-6) at Denver Broncos (13-3)
The prevailing thought is that neither AFC Playoff game this week is much of a contest, and that may well be true. Many seem to think that the Broncos will rampage over the Ravens, and the fact is that they probably will win. They're a much better put-together team, and Peyton Manning eats Joe Flacco for lunch on his lesser days. The Ravens won last week primarily due to riding the Ray Lewis Mojo and also due to their ability to pressure Andrew Luck into making poor throws and mistakes. They won't be able to do this against Peyton Manning, who's been playing about as well as he ever has. So, their best hope would be to try to control the game with Ray Rice, who's the best Running Back on the field in this game. I don't,  however, think this will go so well, since Peyton Manning thrives on a quick-strike, no-huddle attack that zips down the field. Should the game dissolve into a shootout, that would be instant disaster for the Ravens. So, yes. The Ravens first, last and only hope is to control the ball. Not that that wasn't blatantly obvious. Ray Rice fumbled twice last week. That doesn't bode well.
Prediction: Broncos 30, Ravens 20

Saturday, 8:00pm
Green Bay Packers (12-5) at San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)
The buildup for this game feels to me an awful lot like last year's Divisional Playoff game, when the Saints came into San Francisco all high and mighty, and everyone thought Drew Brees was going to come in and light the 49ers on fire, and the 49ers would be overwhelmed by the moment and the Saints were going to cruise on. What ended up happening was that the 49ers smacked the Saints in the mouth and held them off at the end. It feels like a similar story with a different cast of characters. Both these teams are battle-tested. The Packers come in riding the wave of a big-time hot streak behind Aaron Rodgers. The 49ers didn't surprise anyone this year like they did in 2011, and the result was that they've been a bit more inconsistent this year. That said, they did open their season with a rather impressive 30-22 victory over the Packers, exploiting weaknesses in the Packers' run defense and offensive line. But that was week 1, and a lot has happened since then.

The big story this season was, for the 49ers, the switch at Quarterback from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick. The ultimate risk, Jim Harbaugh sacrificed the steady efficiency of Smith for the big play ability—and unpredictability—of Kaepernick. The results to this point have been mixed, Kaepernick has been rather boom or bust and the offense as a whole seems to still be in a period of adjustment to the frenetic energy he seems to bring.

On Defense, the 49ers proved in Week 1 that they could contain Rodgers, mostly. But the key for all of this remains whether or not Justin Smith is able to play, and if he can (it appears he will), how effective he's going to be. Justin Smith's ability to disrupt opponent's offensive linemen limits the opposing run game, and also opens up lanes for Aldon Smith to get sacks. Without Justin Smith, the 49ers defense has been vulnerable against the run. This may not be a great concern, seeing as how the Packers have a terrible running game, but regardless, Aaron Rodgers is the best player on the field and can raise hell at any given moment. A healthy Justin Smith limits the Packers' meager ability to run and also will create more pressure on Rodgers, who was sacked a league-high 55 times this season.

Last week, at the start of the Packers/Vikings game, I mused that Minnesota being forced to use Joe Webb at Quarterback didn't bode well for the 49ers. Webb, a speedy, mobile QB who specializes in running around a lot to create plays, plays a similar style of QB to Colin Kaepernick. But Webb was forced into the lineup cold, after not having played much all season, and it showed. Webb proved himself mostly incapable of being able to throw a pass, and the Packers exploited this. Kaepernick may have a similar style to Webb, but he has far better tools. He won't spend his night holding the ball too long and throwing desperate, dying quails to nobody in particular. If anything, both he and Frank Gore should be able to pound the ball on the ground fairly well against the Packer defense.

This game seems to be confounding most Football observers, because although the 49ers pose a lot of matchup problems for the Packers, the Packers ultimately have the best player on either team in Rodgers, and the 49ers have a Quarterback making his first Postseason Start with a lot of question marks around him. In a Quarterback-driven league, this means a lot. But does it? Ultimately, I think most people may have already anointed the Packers as the team of Destiny and, perhaps, are too afraid to pick against them. But I haven't anointed anyone yet. I'll wait until February 3rd to do that.
Prediction: 49ers 20, Packers 14

Sunday, 1:00pm
Seattle Seahawks (12-5) at Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
How do you follow up a preview like that one? This game seems to be a bit more cut and dry than the SF/GB game. The Seahawks have been on a rampage, and the Falcons appear to be this season's paper tiger, having coasted through the NFL's easiest schedule to a 13-3 record and a #1 seed. These are a pair of eminently unlikeable teams. I've already said plenty about Seattle this year. But just to recap, after watching their game against Washington, people are now starting to notice that Seattle pushes the envelope of being a dirty team. Their defensive backs have been laying out opposing receivers for weeks, and to add insult to injury, after beating Washington, one of their DBs decided to try to fight one of the Washington players. All a reflection of their D-bag coach. Additionally, Russell Wilson has been drawing praise for running down the field to throw blocks for his Running Backs, but what nobody wants to admit is that Wilson isn't actually throwing any blocks. He's just running down the field and sort of getting in the way of defenders. He appears to purposely be avoiding hits. But, no matter, so long as they win games, he's a Hero. Somewhere, this will be exposed.

But, once again, they're probably the better team in this game, because Atlanta has been boring and overhyped for years. Matt Ryan has appeared to make a career for himself by storming around the sidelines screaming "YEAH!!!" with ferocious intensity while not really doing anything particularly great, and their coach, Mike Smith just looks like a rubber-faced doofus. Not surprisingly, they've managed to lose every playoff game they've appeared in. The pressure is really on them this year, and unfortunately, the Seahawks are probably the last team they want to see.
Prediction: Seahawks 31, Falcons 24

Sunday, 4:30pm
Houston Texans (13-4) at New England Patriots (12-4)
Kind of an overlooked game, because it was only a few weeks ago that Houston came into New England on a Monday Night and got housed by the Patriots. Though I don't suspect this will be another blowout, I (and probably everyone else) thinks the result will ultimately be the same. I flip-flopped on this game a bit, because New England does have a fairly recent history of shitting the bed in the Divisional Round against a chippy opponent (see: 2010 New York Jets), but they've also been known to lay down the hammer here as well. The Texans defense might make things a little hairy for Tom Brady, but then again, pressure doesn't seem to faze him. On offense, the only hope they have is pretty similar to the only hope the Ravens have: Hope Arian Foster can just run and run and run and eat up all the clock, because Matt Schaub isn't likely to best Brady in a shootout.
Prediction: Patriots 26, Texans 18
(Yes, I kind of mailed this one in. After writing those other previews, I'm burnt out.)

So, that's my take on what is generally considered the best weekend of the NFL's season. If things go well, you can expect that I'll be in a ferocious mood talking about the Seahawks. If they don't go well, I'll be in an even worse mood. That's all I can tell you. Following your team in the NFL playoffs isn't much different than following your team in the MLB playoffs, except that the games happen less often, so you're stuck waiting around getting worked up. Bring it on. Fuck the Packers. 

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