Thursday, January 31, 2013

Champions Endure

Between 1981 and 1994, the 49ers won 5 Super Bowl Championships. Though this isn't the most among NFL franchises, it does represent perhaps the greatest string of extended success in league history. Under the stewardship of former Owner Eddie DeBartolo, and two coaches, Bill Walsh and George Seifert, the 49ers won titles in 1981, 1984, 1988, 1989 and 1994, placing themselves among the elite franchises in the league and making legends out of some of the great players who won with them, players like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Steve Young, Brent Jones, Dwight Clark, Fred Dean and Roger Craig, and even some of their lesser-known players like Dwight Hicks, Freddie Solomon, Randy Cross, Jesse Sapolu and John Taylor grabbed a piece of the spotlight.

The 49ers have only won Super Bowls. If they didn't win it, they never got there in the first place. These seasons usually ended with disappointing playoff losses, but that doesn't necessarily mean they were bad years. The 49ers had some marvelous seasons during the 80s and 90s, years like 1983, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1996 and 1997, and even several others where they made the playoffs, only to get picked off before reaching their ultimate goal. Most teams would be envious for a string of success. Hell, the current incarnation of the Jets appears to be trading high on losing consecutive AFC Championship Games.

But for the 49ers, getting close hasn't been good enough. The 49ers lost consecutive Championship Games to Dallas in 1992 and 1993. Great seasons for the team, but rarely, if ever, discussed, because for the 49ers, bringing home a Super Bowl Championship was the only thing that mattered. It holds true a generation later. Getting to the NFC Championship in 2011 after so many losing seasons was sweet, but they lost. Going back to the NFC Championship in 2012 was, again, sweet, but they couldn't lose it again. Another loss would not only have hurt, as every one of those losses does, but it would have killed the legitimacy of this recent string of good fortune that the 49ers have had. But they won.

2011 could have been like 1981 for the 49ers. The 49ers, for the majority of the 1970s had been bad, embarrassingly bad, to the point where they suffered through 2-14 seasons in both 1978 and 1979. But in 1979, Bill Walsh was brought in as head coach, and he rebuilt the team, piece by piece. In 1980, they jumped to 6-10. But their meteoric rise to 13-3 in 1981 was completely unexpected. Much like in 2011, the 49ers found themselves hosting the NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys. Unlike 2011, the 49ers made it through victorious, in a game that lives on in NFL Lore thanks to The Catch. Two weeks later, the 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals to win their first title.

Three seasons later, the 49ers won another Super Bowl. The 1984 49ers were, arguably, the finest team the 49ers had assembled. Buoyed by a Championship Game loss the year before, the 49ers rampaged through the season losing only once, finishing with a 15-1 record, coasted through the playoffs and pasted the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX.

It's probably the 1988 Super Bowl that everyone remembers most, as Super Bowl XXIII culminated with Joe Montana orchestrating a 92-yard drive in the closing minutes of the game, throwing the winning touchdown to John Taylor with :34 seconds left as the 49ers beat the Bengals once again, 20-16.

The 49ers rode the momentum of their 1988 Championship right through 1989. Despite Bill Walsh retiring and George Seifert taking over as coach, the 49ers never missed a beat, going 14-2 and steamrolling their way to their second consecutive Super Bowl Championship. Joe Montana cemented his place as one of the best Quarterbacks ever, throwing a then-record 5 Touchdown passes in a 55-10 demolition of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.

The following years brought more transition and a lot of frustration. Primed for an unprecedented 3rd consecutive title, the 49ers found themselves back in the NFC Championship against the New York Giants. Though the 49ers held a lead in the 4th quarter, Joe Montana was knocked from the game after a crushing hit from Leonard Marshall. The Giants would capitalize on a fake punt and a Roger Craig fumble to push across the winning points on a last second Field Goal, ending the 49ers run and effectively ending Joe Montana's career with the 49ers. Steve Young, who had spent several seasons as a more-than-capable backup for Montana, was now given a chance to start. The 49ers missed the playoffs altogether in 1991, with Young missing part of the season due to injury, but in 1992, the 49ers were dominant once again, going 14-2 and once again in the NFC Championship game. But they were knocked off at home by a young and opportunistic Dallas Cowboys team, and in 1993, the Cowboys beat them in the Championship again. Though Steve Young had some fine seasons, he was in an impossible position, having to live up to the shadow cast by Joe Montana.

By 1994, the 49ers and Cowboys had clearly established themselves as the two dominant teams in the NFL. They would surely meet in the NFC Championship, and the winner was a mortal lock to win the Super Bowl. After losing the past two seasons, the 49ers had re-tooled themselves with an eye towards one goal: Beat Dallas. Many new faces, such as Deion Sanders and Rickey Jackson were brought in, but many of the main characters remained the same as the two teams followed the collision course everyone had expected. The 49ers were once again hosting Dallas in the Championship. A third loss would have been catastrophic. Everyone knew that. Lose again and the team would blow itself up. But the 49ers were so keyed in on this game and attacked Dallas with ferocity, forcing 3 turnovers and running out to a 21-0 lead less than 7 minutes into the 1st Quarter. Though Dallas gamely hung around, they couldn't overcome the early deficit, falling 38-28, as the 49ers advanced to, and ultimately won, Super Bowl XXIX, a 49-26 victory over the San Diego Chargers, who may as well have been sacrificial lambs. Steve Young broke Joe Montana's record with 6 Touchdown passes, won the game's MVP and finally stepped out of the shadow and grabbed some of the spotlight for himself.

Though many of the 2012 incarnation of the 49ers weren't even alive in 1981, and were in their formative years in 1994, the mission that was established in the 1980s still holds true for them. The 49ers go to the Super Bowl and Win. Patrick Willis was one of the first to say this during the week. Losing in the Championship game hurts badly enough, and the 49ers have certainly played with thoughts of last year's loss in their minds all season long, and I think it's one of the things that has carried them into the Super Bowl this year. But now, they have to win that final game. The team that loses the Super Bowl is forgotten rather quickly, and for the 49ers, who knows how that would sit among their history. The years that the 49ers played well and didn't win tend to be treated like footnotes. That's the fine line between winning and losing, especially for a team with the winning tradition like the 49ers have established. Few teams have even been to the Super Bowl 5 times, and fewer still have won 5 Titles. The 49ers are the only team that has been there 5 times and won it each time. That's the way the 49ers have done it. And it's this team's turn to continue that tradition. When you win, your Championship will endure forever.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


I have, in my over 25 years of going to Mets games, tried to make it to as many of the "important" games as I could. Among these are Opening Day, which I've made it to every year since 2005, plus several other non-consecutive seasons, closing day, the Subway Series (which has grown tired for me in recent years, so I stopped going), 5 Postseason games and, of course, the Final Game at Shea Stadium, and the First Game at Citi Field.

With the All Star Game coming to Citi Field this coming season, I figured I'd make every good effort to make it there, too. I'd renewed my 15-game plan last Summer with an eye to getting first crack at tickets, which apparently were only available in "strips" that included tickets to the All Star Fanfest at the Javits Center (which I attended in 2008 and mostly enjoyed), the All Star Sunday festivities (Futures Game, Celebrity Softball), the Home Run Derby and, of course, the game itself on Tuesday. It seemed like a whole lot of crotch-grabbing just to get a ticket, but, nonetheless, I figured if nothing else I could sell off the Sunday and Monday tickets and just go to the game.

You know, provided I could afford the tickets in the first place. This was no guarantee. My fear was that the tickets would prove so prohibitively expensive that I wouldn't be able to get them in the first place. I scoured around the internet to see how much tickets to the 2012 All Star Game in Kansas City cost, but I couldn't really find anything. I know that the Mets had little control over how much tickets would cost, but the first bad sign I'd heard was about a month or so ago when, while listening to WFAN as is my wont, I heard someone mention that when MLB and the Mets were setting the pricing scale for the game, the prices were set "at the high end" of the spectrum.

Still, I figured they couldn't cost THAT much. I've been to NLDS and NLCS games, and those tickets are priced by MLB (at least I believe they are), and started at $45 for the Division Series and $80 for the LCS. So, maybe they'd be about $200-$300 a pop, with all the other junk they were adding on. I got an e-mail a couple of weeks ago reminding me to "Save The Date" of January 29th, which was when they were making All Star tickets available for 15-game plan holders. A few days later, my Account Representative called me to make sure I'd received that message. I told him I had, and I asked him what the pricing structure would be. To my dismay, he confirmed my fears by telling me that the strips "start at around $500."

I told him I'd try to make it work. I suppose that didn't make much difference to him; he's not on commission or anything, and what's besides the point, I was full of crap. There was no real way I was going to make that work. Even if I tried selling off the Sunday and Monday tickets, I'm not really in any kind of position to plonk down approximately $300 more than I paid for my 15 games to go to the All Star Game. So, I knew this morning, when I got an e-mail from the Mets with my "Special one-time only Password" to purchase "Your All Star Ticket Strips," I knew I was simply receiving the privilege of logging onto the Mets website to see just how badly I wasn't able to afford tickets.

I have, in the now 5 seasons I've been buying my ticket plan at Citi Field, sitting in what's generally been known as the "Promenade Infield," generally in sections 518, or, in 2011, 517 (and a move to 512 in 2013). A ticket strip in one of these sections for the All Star game will set you back $703, or, approximately $20 more than I spent on the two seats in my 15-game plan for the entire 2013 season. Now, my 15 games are one of the few luxuries in life I afford myself, because dammit, I love the Mets that much. Tickets to the All Star Game, at least for me, would have been a nice little bonus had the price been relatively reasonable. $703 was redonkulous. Even choosing a lesser seat was out of the question; strips in the Promenade Reserved were absurd at $553. The Promenade Outfield was merely a pittance at $453 per strip. At least I could have gotten two strips for more than my ticket plan instead of just one in that section.

So, at the risk of getting too "99%," I'll stop here. Those of you who feel you can afford to fork over this kind of money for an All Star Ticket Strip, I tip my cap. But unless I can find my way into a deal on Stubhub or some such outlet, it's doubtful I'll be at the game. The Fanfest, however, is another story...

Monday, January 21, 2013

Out Of The Fire

It is incredibly difficult to reach the Conference Championship Game in the NFL in any given year, let alone two years in a row. It's tough enough to get that far and then lose, and to lose it twice in a row is not only painful because of the work you put in as a team to get there, but because of the knowledge that all that work has gone for naught two years in a row. After making it to the NFC Championship Game last year, the 49ers, determined from day 1, made it all the way back to this game, amid the controversy of a midseason Quarterback switch designed to get them to this game and beyond. I mentioned on Friday that Jim Harbaugh went to Colin Kaepernick with an eye to getting them further than Alex Smith had last season. Sunday, Harbaugh got his vindication and the 49ers made it through to the Super Bowl with a spirited 28-24 victory on the road against the Atlanta Falcons.

That's not to say it was perfect, easy or very pretty at all. In order to win this one, Colin Kaepernick would have his mettle tested like never before, and the team would have to rally together to overcome a deficit in a hostile environment.

I anticipated a breathless day, and really, I was about as tense as I can ever remember being before a 49ers Playoff game. For as many years as I've been following this team and for as many Conference Championship games as they've made, it's never an easy game to wait for, and as I've grown older and learned to appreciate the fragility of the NFL season a bit more, it creates that much more tension. And then the game started and the 49ers got off to about as bad a start as you could have in a big game. The game started out frighteningly similar to the Seattle game a few weeks ago. Atlanta took the opening kickoff and Matt Ryan rocketed down the field, hitting his dangerous array of receivers like clockwork and keeping the 49ers instantly on their heels before striking Julio Jones for a 46-yard Touchdown. Both Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown appeared to get mixed up in coverage, and Jones was simply off to the races.

This wasn't so concerning. The 49ers were down last week against Green Bay and Kaepernick led them right back for a score immediately. But instead, the 49ers went 3 and out, the final play a pass to Vernon Davis that appeared on target, but was broken up by an Atlanta defender at the last minute. They punted the ball back to Atlanta and Ryan went to work right again, once again spreading the ball around between Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez in a drive that ended up in a Field Goal. Now, I was starting to get a little worried. After the 49ers went 3 and out again, I was concerned. And when Atlanta tore down the field again for another Touchdown in just 4 plays, I was beginning to Freak. The. Fuck. Out. Ryan was torching the Niners, they'd been outgained 182 to -2 in yardage, down 17-0 on the road and the crowd was bouncing off the walls, sensing the kill. The 49ers had made it all the way back to the NFC Championship, battled through a long season with all the crap they have to put up with only to get their doors blown off?

Was this really how it was going to go down?

The answer was a resounding no. Though the 49ers hadn't managed a damn thing in their first two possessions, it wasn't as though they'd looked especially bad. They just needed to find a rhythm on offense. Colin Kaepernick, who struggled so mightily with the noise on the road in Seattle, seemed calm and collected. Even in a raucous Georgia Dome, Kaepernick was poised. The 49ers consistently got to the line in plenty of time, Kaepernick appeared to go to a system of hand signals and movements to specific players in formation, and eventually the 49ers began to inch their way back into the game. When all the chips were down, Kaepernick got tough and led the 49ers down the field on a 11 play drive that ended with a LaMichael James Touchdown to get the 49ers on the board, get their defense some rest and restore some control.

But there was more to this drive than simply Kaepernick. It was what he did with the ball in his hand. Last week, Kaepernick picked the Packers apart using the deception of the read option to throw the Green Bay defenders onto the scent of a Running Back who didn't have the ball, or a receiver who wouldn't catch the ball, and instead running it himself. On Sunday, Kaepernick again ran the read option to perfection, only this time, with the Falcons charging off the edges to prevent him from running, he was instead handing off and letting Frank Gore or LaMichael James run up a generally vacated middle, or zipping passes around to Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and Vernon Davis. On that first Touchdown drive, Kaepernick completed 5 consecutive passes before James scored on a nifty 15-yard run off the right end.

Finally rested, the 49ers defense was able to slow down Ryan and the Falcons, allowing one first down before stopping Atlanta and forcing a punt. The ensuing 49er drive was conceived much like the prior one, with Kaepernick spreading the ball around, only running once, for 23 yards, when an intended pass play started to break down. Kaepernick's preferred target on this drive was Vernon Davis, who caught a key pass for 19 yards on 2nd and long, and had another key catch for 25 yards to set up his 4-yard Touchdown grab that brought the 49ers back from 17-0 to 17-14. For Davis, who'd become a lost man in this Kaepernick-led offense, it was a re-emergence of a great player at the right time. Davis had been averaging a catch a game, startling for an elite Tight End who had been a favorite target of Alex Smith's. But he never complained, he never quit on plays, and today he found himself playing a major part of the 49ers comeback.

But with the Falcons now back on their heels, they responded from the 49ers charge with a perfectly executed 2-minute drill. Matt Ryan has made a name for himself for years being able to conduct this drill, and he put on a clinic once Atlanta got the ball back with 1:55 to go before halftime. Ryan covered 75 yards in just 1:30, hitting Tony Gonzalez in the end zone for a huge Touchdown right before halftime to get Atlanta's lead back to 10 points at 24-14, and perhaps restoring some order to a game that clearly wasn't going to be as easy for them as the first 15+ minutes had appeared. The 49ers kneeled on the ball to end the half, but clearly this was going to be anyone's game. Kaepernick proved himself unfazed. The key was whether or not the 49ers defense could slow down Ryan, keep Atlanta off the scoreboard and perhaps force a couple of turnovers.

By all accounts, the answer would be yes, though much like the whole of the game it wouldn't be very pretty. Unless it involved Colin Kaepernick. Then, it was downright gorgeous.

Kaepernick started the second half of the game right where he left off with the first half, by attacking the Falcons with a series of precision passes, most of which came on 1st and 2nd down, leaving the 49ers with manageable, short-yardage situations that were easily picked up by Gore and James. Kaepernick hit Randy Moss on a pair of long passes, setting up a 5-yard Touchdown from Frank Gore, cutting the Atlanta lead back to 3 and putting the pressure squarely back on Matt Ryan to make a big play.

The following sequence involved a steep shift in momentum that might have broken a lesser team, but the 49ers proved that on this day, though they might have bent, nothing was going to break them.

Ryan began to smartly move the Falcons down the field, as he had all day. The 49ers defensive line, that was eventually able to wear down the Packers front and get pressure on Aaron Rodgers, was having no such luck against the Falcons. Ryan consistently found himself with plenty of time, so the only hope for the 49ers defense was if they could just get him to make a mistake...which he did with just over 7 minutes to play in the 3rd Quarter. Roddy White slipped while running a short pass route just inside the San Francisco 40 yard line, and Chris Culliver stepped in front of him to pick off the pass. It was the key play the 49ers were looking for on defense and set up Kaepernick and the offense with a chance to at least tie and possibly take the lead. Kaepernick immediately responded with a long strike to Vernon Davis, immediately setting up the 49ers in Field Goal range. Kaepernick's second, and last, run of the day netted -2 yards, and ultimately David Akers came out for an eminently makeable 38 yard Field Goal attempt. But, Akers has been a liability this year, and there really hasn't been a better option to replace him (another kicker, Billy Cundiff, was signed and then released during the playoffs without ever being used), and this bit the 49ers in the ass when his kick clanged off the top of the upright and bounced backward, no good, and keeping the game at 24-21.

With a chance to grab the momentum back, Ryan again got Atlanta moving on offense, but his fine drive once again short-circuited when he took his eyes off a snap just inside San Francisco's 30 yard line. Ryan never got a handle on the ball and lost it. Aldon Smith, who had intended to blitz, alertly jumped on the loose ball, giving the 49ers yet another chance to grab the lead. Once again, Kaepernick put the 49ers in position to score, this time firing the key strike to Michael Crabtree to put the 49ers in position. At the Atlanta 5, Kaepernick hit Crabtree on a slant, the same play on which Crabtree scored 1 of his two touchdowns last weekend. Crabtree was met by a pair of Falcon defenders at the 1, and when he struggled to try to reach the ball into the end zone, one of them managed to knock the ball out of his hands for a devastating Fumble that Atlanta recovered. Once again, the 49ers had a golden opportunity to grab a lead go by the wayside. This was most frustrating, because you knew the 49ers weren't going to get many more chances like that, and Ryan had been hot all day.

But, taking over at his own 1-yard line, Ryan couldn't move the Falcons out of their end, resulting in their first 3-and-out of the game. Ted Ginn, Jr, conspicuously unavailable in last year's Championship game, got his hands on the punt and got a good return well inside Atlanta territory. With one more opportunity, Kaepernick and Frank Gore made sure to finish the drive this time. In a drive mostly conceived on the ground, Gore, James and Anthony Dixon pounded out the necessary yards, with a short pass to Crabtree mixed in, culminating with Gore's second Touchdown of the game, from 9 yards out, giving the 49ers the 28-24 lead they'd been chasing all second half with 8:23 to play. Upon reaching the end zone, Gore began mocking Atlanta fans by starting to do the old "Dirty Bird" dance, before giving up and waving everyone off. But it would be fitting that on this day, Frank Gore, the old veteran and one of the last holdovers from a really dark era of 49ers Football, would get the Touchdown that put the 49ers ahead to stay.

They still had to stop Atlanta one more time, though. With 8 minutes left, Matt Ryan had loads of time with which to work, and work he did, slowly moving the Falcons down the field, spreading the ball around as he did all game. The 49ers still had little luck getting much pressure on Ryan, and he spread the ball around as the clock ticked down. The 49ers caught a break when Harry Douglas slipped while catching—or not catching—a pass when Carlos Rogers had fallen down in coverage. With under 2 minutes left, the Falcons had worked themselves down to the 49ers 16-yard line. On 2nd down, Ryan hit Jason Snelling for a 5-yard gain, but when he released the ball, Ahmad Brooks hit him, then landed on him, separating his non-throwing shoulder. In pain but undaunted, Ryan got back to the line. His 3rd down pass was intended for Roddy White, who seemed primed to score had Ahmad Brooks not batted the pass away.

So it came down to one last play, on 4th down. Ryan  looked for White again, over the middle. But his pass was behind White, who may or may not have been held by NaVorro Bowman, and Bowman knocked the pass down. I leapt out of my chair and started jumping around the room, which startled the cat a bit. Rejoice! Maybe...Not yet...There was still 1:09 to go, and Atlanta still had two Timeouts. The 49ers couldn't run it out just yet. And they didn't, because after doing such a masterful job of working through the crowd noise, only now did Kaepernick commit a Delay of Game penalty. Gore got some of the yards back, but the 49ers still had to punt with :13 seconds left. But an injured Ryan couldn't get much on his desperation pass, and Julio Jones was tackled before he could start a circus lateral play. The clock finally hit :00. The 49ers had finally broken through! Finally! Back to the Super Bowl!

The postgame was the predictable elation. Jim Harbaugh disappeared, deferring the moment to his players. Eddie DeBartolo, the great former owner of the 49ers, handed the George Halas trophy off to his nephew, current owner John York. Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore and Patrick Willis did some interviews—what they said, I couldn't tell you, I was busy reveling—and at some point I guess the other game had started, but I didn't care. How could you not be happy for guys like Gore and Willis and Davis, who played for years on teams that did nothing? After the game, after everyone left, Gore was still walking around the field, drinking it all in. He knows what this is all about. I've rode with the 49ers for a long time, just about as long as I've been with the Mets. Most of the 49ers glory years came when I was young and they were in these games on a regular basis. It's taken several down years, several years where the 49ers were being humbled and embarrassed, through  years of coaching changes and coordinator changes, and the revolving door of bad Free Agent signings and draft picks that never panned out to finally get back to this moment, where the 49ers had a chance to recapture those great glory days of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott and all the other great names, and add some of the names from this era to that list of luminaries. And in two weeks, they'll have their chance.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Not To Be Denied

Several years ago, I talked about how Conference Championship Sunday in the NFL is a rather breathless day, and that was how I felt when the 49ers weren't involved. There's a bit of finality to the day. It's the NFL's last pure weekend, and even then it's not really a true weekend since they moved the game times to 3pm and 6pm from 1 and 4. That doesn't remove the importance from any of the games, mind you. But, suffice it to say, with the 49ers involved last season, I basically had to just pass time during the AFC Championship until the 49ers took on the Giants, something I did through clenched teeth. This year, the 49ers are back in the NFC Championship. Even though it's the early game, I'm quite certain I will have whipped myself into quite the frenzy by time 3pm rolls around. I'll probably be burned out by time the AFC Championship game starts at 6:30. It just doesn't even rate with me. Predictions, half-informed, nonetheless. 2-2 last weekend brought me to 5-3 overall.

 Sunday, 3:00pm
San Francisco 49ers (12-4-1) at Atlanta Falcons (14-3)
So, for the second consecutive year, the 49ers find themselves in the NFC Championship game. This is the 14th time the 49ers will have played in the NFC Championship (their 9th since I've been watching). For all the success the 49ers have had as a franchise, they're actually 5-8 in NFC Championship games. Last year, they hosted the game and fell painstakingly short in a the kind of game that I think about a year later and still get rankled. This mission this season, though it's never been widely discussed, was clearly with the mission to make it back to this game and win it this time. But, they'll have to go on the road to Atlanta in order to do it.

The 49ers and Falcons don't meet all that often anymore, unless the schedule falls that way. This wasn't the case for many years, when the Falcons bizarrely resided in the NFC West and these two teams met twice a year. Though the 49ers lead the all-time series 44-30-1, they haven't beaten Atlanta since the divisions realigned and the only time they met in the Playoffs, the Falcons won 20-18. Needless to say, I've never cared for the Falcons much, which is just as well since I have no particular affection for Atlanta's baseball team, or the city in general, either.

That the Falcons are here is a bit of a miracle. In spite of the fact that they got off to a hot start and went 13-3, nobody really gave them any kind of credit for their strong season. Faced with a matchup against the red-hot Seahawks, most predicted that the tandem of Matt Ryan and Soupy Sales would fall for the 4th consecutive time in the Playoffs. They almost did in excruciating fashion, running out to a 27-7 lead, then blowing it all in the 4th Quarter before Ryan rallied the Falcons back and put them in position for the winning Field Goal. Basically, Atlanta won in spite of doing a lot of things wrong and my feeling about them, outside of being glad that they kicked the Seahawks in the nuts, was that they don't really play complete games.

This was in stark contrast to the whipping the 49ers laid on the Packers. Yes, I'm biased, but let's face it. Everyone was on the Packers' jock going into the game, and the 49ers wore them out. The Packers kept the game close for the first half, but come the second half, Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense just overwhelmed them with a barrage of different formations, different looks and plays they just weren't equipped to defend. The Packers had no answer and what was a 24-24 shootout turned into a 45-24 pasting. The 49ers contained Aaron Rodgers and the potent Packers offense by pounding out 323 yards on the ground, controlling the clock and keeping Rodgers off the field. The 579 yards they generated represented a 49ers Postseason record.

All things considered, I still have some concerns about this game. Colin Kaepernick had the ultimate "I'll Show You" game last weekend, shaking off an early interception before catching fire. His performance has launched him into the national spotlight, and even on the (regional) cover of Sports Illustrated. The concern is that he won't sneak up on the Falcons quite the same way he did on the Packers. Then again, the 49ers mix up their offense enough that, in general it may not be too much of a concern. In spite of the fact that the Packers defense got more hype (based more on Clay Matthews, III's hair than actual talent), Atlanta probably has a better unit, but it depends mostly on the effectiveness of John Abraham, the former Jet standout who has a history of no-showing big games.

Also, the game is in Atlanta. I said this already, but it's worth taking note. The 49ers history in NFC Championship games is checkered, and their history in Playoff road games is also pretty checkered (although because of the years of success they've had, they also haven't had to play that many road games). In fact, the 49ers haven't won a Playoff road game since 1988, when they beat the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship to go to Super Bowl XXIII. Since then, they've gone 0-5. But, at the same time, the 49ers have lost their fair share of Championship games on their own home field, so this could all be another one of my illogical concerns.

Although Atlanta has been very good all season, and they showed their intestinal fortitude by getting up off the mat and rallying to beat Seattle last weekend, they're going to have their hands full with the 49ers. They'll give the 49ers problems of their own, in the same respect that Green Bay gave them some problems, but the 49ers create the same kind of matchup issues that they did against Green Bay. The Falcons boast a better running game than Green Bay, and they have a pair of lights-out WRs in Julio Jones and Roddy White, but Matt Ryan isn't Aaron Rodgers. On the other side of the ball, I don't really know a great deal about Atlanta's defense (again, they don't have beautiful people like Clay Matthews, III, so nobody pays attention to them), other than they didn't really do anything especially impressive against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. Wilson shot himself in the foot a few times, but when push came to shove, Wilson was able to run and throw as he pleased. I expect Kaepernick will have the same success.

Ultimately, I believe the 49ers will win. I firmly believe that they're the better team on both sides of the ball, but that's not why I think they're going to win. Championship games often come down to desire. I said it before and I'll say it again. The 49ers got this far last season and lost. They have the crucible of knowing what it's like to go this far only to come up short. Patrick Willis set the tone for this season after their opening game, saying "People don't understand. We're on a mission." This season hasn't been perfect for the 49ers, but when it's mattered the most, they've come up with the victories they had to get to bring them right back to this game. Jim Harbaugh made the calculated gamble to switch from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick with an eye towards getting back to this game and beyond. Given another opportunity, the 49ers will not be denied.
Prediction: 49ers 34, Falcons 24

Sunday, 6:30pm
Baltimore Ravens (12-6) at New England Patriots (13-4)
 After a miracle comeback in the last minute of regulation that led to a heart-stopping victory in the 6th Double Overtime game in NFL History, the Baltimore Ravens have all the look of a team of destiny, rallying behind their retiring hero, Ray Lewis. On the other side, the Patriots are basically doing what they always do, just sort of rolling on like the machine they usually are. Admittedly, I really haven't bothered to form much of an opinion on this game. I've devoted the entirety of my thought process to the 49ers and the NFC Championship, to the point where I'm not really sure I care who wins, and I really don't know if I have an accurate idea of who will win. I know it's going to be close, and it may come down to a similar instance as last year, although I don't think it's going to be quite as spectacular as Billy Cundiff's shanked Field Goal.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Ravens 20

I guess you could call this a half-well-informed set of predictions. I say I don't care about who wins in the AFC not to be funny or to blow it off, I legitimately don't care who wins the AFC game. My head is wrapped solely around the 49ers right now. 

Monday, January 14, 2013


I mentioned on Thursday that I was ready for Saturday night's 49ers/Packers playoff game to get underway already, so you can imagine that most of my day Saturday was spent working myself into a hyper ball of tension. It didn't help that just about everything I was reading and hearing from "experts" seemed to favor the Packers to win the game. Even though the 49ers had the better team and the game in their building, that seemed to matter little. How could the 49ers hold down Aaron Rodgers and his galaxy of stars. How could the 49ers win with Colin Kaepernick making his first Playoff start? The stage was set for everyone's chic picks, the Packers and Seahawks, to go on the road, kick their opponents in the nuts and then meet in an Epic NFC Championship game next Sunday.

Early on, it looked like everyone might have been right. Kaepernick came out and immediately threw an interception that Sam Shields ran back for a Touchdown. On the ensuing possession, it appeared that Kaepernick was just as antsy as I was. He was under and overthrowing his receivers, only managing a 1st down via Penalty. Kaepernick started out completing 1 of his first 5 passes, the 49ers were facing a 3rd and 10 on their own 33 yard line, and I was apoplectic. Instant disaster was staring the 49ers right in the face. Already behind, about to hand the ball back to Aaron Rodgers...Where was this game going?

Kaepernick had to scramble around on the 3rd down play, but managed to loft a touch pass out to Frank Gore, who broke free for a 45-yard gain down to the Green Bay 22 yard line. Three plays later, Kaepernick faced another 3rd down play. The Packers came with a blitz, Kaepernick saw a lane down the left side of the field and shot through for a game-tying Touchdown.

In reality, throwing the early Pick-6 was the best thing that could have happened to Kaepernick and the 49ers, for multiple reasons. For one, throwing a little adversity the way of the 49ers right away gave them the opportunity to come back and set a tone that whatever Green Bay did, the 49ers would be game enough to match it. Second, between the kickoff and Kaepernick's TD, about 6 minutes of game clock, more like 25 minutes in actual time elapsed, all time in which Aaron Rodgers had to stand on the sideline, and all time in which the Green Bay defense had to spend on the field.

By time Rodgers finally took a snap, he was cold. Rodgers started equally as poorly as Kaepernick, this wasn't quite as magnified since he didn't turn the ball over, but except for a 3rd down prayer to James Jones on the Packers's second possession, he didn't do much. The Packers regained the lead one play after the Jones catch when DuJuan Harris, the Packers' Running Back du Jour, ran it in from 18 yards out, but that was pretty much the only thing of note the Packers were able to accomplish on the ground. This, in fact, was the last time the Packers held the lead the remainder of the night.

Not that it didn't require a few breaks for the 49ers, but in a game that appeared rapidly developing into a shootout, Kaepernick was just getting warmed up. By game's end, Colin Kaepernick would put forth a record-setting performance, one that displayed just how dangerous a weapon he really is, how multifaceted a talent he can be, and how right Jim Harbaugh was when he made the switch to Kaepernick mid-season.

Down 14-7, the 49ers embarked on a drive that stalled at midfield. Andy Lee's punt appeared primed to pin the Packers back deep in their own territory. But their return man, Rookie Jeremy Ross, muffed the punt, and C.J. Spillman immediately fell on the ball, giving the 49ers an instant scoring opportunity. Three plays later, the 49ers, who converted 3rd downs at will all night, were back in the end zone when Kaepernick whistled a quick slant pass in to Michael Crabtree, who split the Packer safeties and raced in for the tying score. In response, Rodgers attempted another Home Run ball that was picked off by Tarell Brown. Had the Packers bothered to tackle Brown, this might have been no worse than a punt, but Brown ran the ball back about 30 yards, ending up in Green Bay territory and setting up the 49ers up for another score. This one, much like the others, was comprised by Kaepernick just Making The Plays. He converted yet another 3rd down by scrambling and fired another Touchdown, threading the needle to Crabtree for his second of the night.

The Packers defense, suspect all season and porous against mobile Quarterbacks, had no answer for Kaepernick. They couldn't cover receivers in zone coverage, and any time they blitzed, Kaepernick was able to escape and gain yards on the ground. Kaepernick had now been able to find his legs, settle in and proven himself more than capable of standing toe to toe with Rodgers, who answered the 49ers Touchdown with an impressive one of his own, hitting James Jones for the score on a drive aided by an idiotic roughing penalty on Dashon Goldson (Goldson was flagged for diving on a pileup late, something he probably should have known better than to do).

Tied once again with 2:33 to go in what was shaping up as a wild game, the 49ers would have been wise to score before halftime, with the Packers set to receive the kickoff after halftime. Score they did, as Kaepernick just went right back to work picking the Packers apart. A trio of scrambles went for 19, 18 and 9 yards, putting the 49ers in good enough field position for David Akers to line up for and make his only attempt of the night, a 36 yard attempt that gave the 49ers the lead, 24-21, going into the half. After his ugly start, Kaepernick had more than settled in, he was taking over the game. His 11 rushes had gone for 107 yards, which was not only enough to lead the team, it was more than the 99 Adrian Peterson had been able to muster the prior week in Green Bay. Moreover, the 49ers held an embarrassing lead in time of possession, holding the ball for nearly 2/3rds of the half.

The Packers needed to make some kind of adjustment, particularly on defense. Kaepernick and the 49ers had beaten them to the punch continually throughout the half. They had no answer for Kaepernick, and if they couldn't come up with some sort of solution, the game was going to get out of hand. Early in the 3rd Quarter, the Packers tried to give the 49ers a bit of their own medicine, forcing a 3-and-out—the only one they would get all evening—before Rodgers led a lengthy drive that culminated in a Field Goal by Mason Crosby, knotting the game once again at 24.

This would be the last moment the Packers were relevant in this game.

The 49ers opened their ensuing drive with Kaepernick slinging in a pair of passes to Crabtree covering 24 yards. Kaepernick had already shown his stuff, but he stole the show on the following play. With the Packers heavily pursuing the run, Kaepernick faked a handoff to LaMichael James, pulled it back and took off around the right end. Before anyone on the Packer defense knew what was going on, Kaepernick was off to the races, outrunning everyone on an electrifying 56-yard Touchdown run that tilted the game solidly in the 49ers favor.

The Packers, in response, completely abandoned the run. Rodgers passed and passed, but couldn't sustain a drive. Their punt pinned the 49ers back at their own 7 yard line, but that only gave the 49ers an opportunity to kill the Packers more methodically. After spending most of the first 3 quarters on the field, the Packers defense was beginning to wilt. Punishing runs by Frank Gore were sandwiched around Kaepernick continuing to zip passes all over the field, one to Crabtree for 16 yards, and a deep strike to Vernon Davis that covered 44 yards and made Troy Aikman's jaw drop. Gore punched the ball in from a yard out on the first play of the 4th Quarter, giving the 49ers a firm lead at 38-24. With the Packer defense shot, the 49ers were one stop on defense from running their asses out of Candlestick Park and Discount Doublechecking them back to Green Bay. Rodgers gamely tried to lead them back, but his best opportunity—a deep pass—sailed just out of the reach of Greg Jennings, and the Packers were forced to punt away once again.

The 49ers final drive of the game further demoralized the Packers and iced the game. Pinned back at their own 7 yard line once again, the 49ers moved the ball easily, mostly on the ground, until they were faced with a 4th and 1 deep in Green Bay's territory. The Field Goal would have been the easy option, but instead, the 49ers lined up as if they were going to go for it. The thought process was to try to get Green Bay to jump offsides with a hard snap count. This rarely works, but somehow, Kaepernick managed to dupe B.J. Raji to jump, giving the 49ers a 1st down and the opportunity to run more clock. Anthony Dixon's 2-yard Touchdown finished things off, the 49ers second straight 93-yard drive, this one eating close to 8 minutes off the game clock. By time the Packers scored an academic Touchdown, there was under a minute to go and the game was no longer in doubt.

Clearly, this was a statement game by the 49ers, and particularly by Colin Kaepernick. Given a questionable chance at best to beat the Packers, the 49ers went out and really stomped them, particularly in the second half. Everyone went out and did what they needed to do, but Kaepernick was the one who emerged as the showstopper on this night. He'd had some outstanding performances this season, but under the glare of the Playoffs, Kaepernick raised his game to a level equal to the magnitude of the game. Always a threat to run, Kaepernick's performance on the ground was otherworldly. His 16 carries, many of them on broken plays where he was forced to scramble, went for an astronomical 181 yards. To put this into another kind of perspective, this is like Jose Reyes driving in 80 runs as a leadoff hitter. You don't expect this kind of production from your Quarterback. The fact that Kaepernick's performance set an NFL record for rushing yards by a Quarterback in any game is indicative of that. But if that wasn't enough, Kaepernick also outgunned Aaron Rodgers through the air. He passed the ball at will, undaunted by his sloppy start, ending up with 263 yards through the air to Rodgers' 257. Most of his passes were of the "Wow" variety, darts to his receivers. The Packers had no answer for anything Kaepernick threw at them. You almost got the impression that they hadn't bothered to game plan for him at all.

Kaepernick didn't do it alone. Kaepernick's offensive line, led by Joe Staley, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis (all Pro Bowl-bound) regularly picked up the Green Bay pass rush, and cleared many of the running lanes for Kaepernick to run through. Frank Gore, after a slow start, pounded the ball on the ground in the second half, contributing heavily to the Packer defense getting gassed late in the game. Gore ran for 119 yards, and they were 119 angry yards. In the season opener, Gore had beaten the Packers by running outside the tackles. Saturday, Gore just pounded the ball up the middle repeatedly, at first for short gains, but as the game progressed, the 6-7 yard gains turned into 10-15 yard gains. Michael Crabtree continued his breakout season with the kind of game that would have earned him enhanced recognition, catching 9 passes for 119 yards, most of them in traffic, many of them to convert 1st downs, and 2 for Touchdowns. But with Kaepernick's performance, Crabtree's fine game got lost in the shuffle. Not that he, or anyone else, seems to mind. The whole is what matters, and in their resounding victory, the 49ers set a team Playoff record by running up 579 yards of Offense. It's worth noting that every time they generated more than 450 yards of Offense in a Playoff game, they won the Super Bowl.

Defensively, the 49ers clearly benefited from their week off. Justin Smith, absent the final weeks of the regular season, returned without incident. Though the 49ers only picked up one sack on Rodgers, courtesy of Patrick Willis, they also rarely allowed the big play, forcing the Packers to have to piece long drives together and constantly placing them in long-yardage situations. And just as the 49ers offense eventually wore down the Packer defense, the 49ers wore down the Packer offensive line in the second half. This was a hallmark of the Bill Walsh-era 49ers teams. If you continually beat your opponent to the punch, eventually, they will wear down and give you the decided advantage.

So, the Quest for Six will continue. The 49ers move on to the NFC Championship game for the 2nd year in a row. They'll be on the road in Atlanta next Sunday, as the Atlanta Falcons stopped the Seahawks dead in their tracks with a heart-stopping 30-28 victory on Sunday. Though Atlanta's victory was certainly impressive, they also showed their weaknesses in blowing a 20-point lead with startling quickness in the 4th Quarter. There, but for a miraculous last-second clutch performance from Matt Ryan and Matt Bryant, the 49ers could be at home, preparing for a grudge match against a red hot and fired up Seahawk team in a game that likely would have mimicked the Championship game against the Giants last year. But Seattle has been put in their place and sent home to watch the 49ers take on the Falcons for a chance to go to the Super Bowl. This is the game they've been waiting to get to all season, and they'll have the chance to break down the door they were knocking on last year.

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. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Holier Than Thou

I've already gone on record as expressing my displeasure with the Baseball Hall of Fame. When I visited last Summer, there was a shamefully small representation of the New York Mets, or anything relatively related to them on display there. My feeling, at the time, was that, "Well, Mike Piazza ought to get elected next year, so maybe that will give the Mets a little more presence."

I see, unfortunately, that I was mistaken.

I realize that the Hall of Fame itself doesn't really control who is or is not elected, it's a consortium of mostly cranky old Baseball Writers who seem to have an incredible desire to erase an entire era of Baseball from the records. They've already spoken, with recent years' balloting, by continually keeping Mark McGwire out of the Hall of Fame, and today, they spoke the loudest. On this year's Hall of Fame Ballot were Baseball's All Time Home Run King, a 7-time Cy Young Award Winner, a 3,000 hit man, and the Greatest offensive Catcher of All Time. Save for the 3,000 hit man, all of them fell under the suspicion, or proof, of having used PEDs at one point or another. None of them were elected to the Hall of Fame.

Being in New York, a lot of the reaction, both before and after the results were announced, focused on Mike Piazza. I'll spare the thoughts on Barry Bonds, since he's got enough people talking about him, and Roger Clemens, because fuck him. Craig Biggio, honorable though his 3,000 hits may be, didn't necessarily have the panache of a first ballot Hall of Famer. But Piazza seems to have caused the most controversy. Though he certainly looks the part of a steroid user, there's never been that smoking gun specifically implicating that he did use, outside of a brief passage in Jeff Pearlman's book on Roger Clemens (the groin injury he had in 2003 is also indicative of steroid use, but that's not proof). Regardless of that, both hosts and callers on WFAN, as well as posters on Facebook seemed so adamant that Piazza got screwed over that I was surprised.

I had a bit of a sneaking suspicion that, though there's no proof of guilt, Piazza would simply be considered guilty by association as a muscle-bound slugger from the 90s and 00s, but that ultimately, the BBWAA would have to recognize his achievements, along with those of Bonds and Fuckhead. That didn't happen and that's a shame. After hearing enough pro-Piazza rhetoric, I began to realize what was really going on here. It wasn't so much that Piazza got screwed. Everyone got screwed. The same talk is probably going on over Bonds in San Francisco, and Biggio in Houston. Nobody likes Clemens, so screw him. Ultimately, it's a problem with the system. There needs to be a better way of deciding who's in and who's not in the Hall of Fame, because the BBWAA have proven themselves far too morally stilted to make an accurate decision. The Veterans Committee was reformed some time ago, and the committee to elect players on the ballot should be reformed as well. I don't believe any living Hall of Famers have any kind of say. Why don't they? Why don't broadcasters, who follow the game on a daily basis, have a say?

The other thing that bothers me about all this is the whole issue of morality. I read these quotes from people who do get to vote that say things like [sic] "How can I vote for Mark McGwire and look my child in the eye?" I've made the argument over Pete Rose and I'll restate it here. It is called the Hall of Fame for a reason. It's not the Hall of Morals, or the Hall of Good Behavior, or the Hall of Clean Living. It's the Hall of FAME. That means that the best players who have ever played the game must be recognized and honored there, personality be damned. Babe Ruth was soused his entire career and he's the greatest hero Baseball has ever seen. Ty Cobb was a virulent racist who used to slide into bases with his spikes up. The Hall of Fame is dotted with all sorts of players with unsavory personalities or players with questionable behavior. But they were still deemed the best of the era they played in. The Steroid era, like it or not, is a part of Baseball History, and the players that were the best, though they were doping, have to be held to the same standard. These players were simply taking advantage of the fact that the great Commissioner and all the Owners willingly turned a blind eye to what was going on and only instituted a steroid testing policy once everything was far too out of control. Why should they be blamed now? Why should they be blamed at all when nobody will ever know for sure who did or didn't use steroids (short of the results of the Mitchell report and the 2003 testing)? It's not as though cheating is somehow a new invention, either. Players have always been looking for a way to get an edge, somehow. As the world advanced, so did the methods of cheating. What makes a steroid user any worse than someone using Greenies or corking his bat?

The point is, this has become far too subjective and, basically, hypocritical. It's no different than, say, the All Star Game Balloting. Just one big popularity contest. I suppose I was simply deluding myself into thinking otherwise, and that maybe we'd be toasting the career of Mike Piazza across all of Metville tonight. At least his bat is there. For now, that appears to be as close as he's going to get.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Media Darlings

As usual, I've waited until the Morning of the first Wildcard games to make my picks. Usually it's been out of general laziness. This year, it's only partially out of general laziness. I've also had a bit of a crisis of conscience about picking these games, because I've got a horse in this race, even if the 49ers aren't playing this weekend. Also, the two NFC Teams that seem to be drawing the most favor this weekend are also the two Flavors Of The Week, one of whom I'm going to have to deal with watching come 8pm next Saturday. I'll mention them when I get to picking the games, but just for clarity's sake, these are the teams that everyone's fawning over, showering their Quarterback with all sorts of praise, and basically handing them a clear path through to Championship Weekend. These teams get enough ink and enough jock-rubbing that if you root for another involved team, it's really begun to get irritating, and you want one of their opponents—preferably your team—to knock them in the mouth and put them in their place. But I digress. They've got their own problems this week, and I'm just going to sit back and watch it unfold  before I worry about which team the 49ers will face.

Saturday, 4:30pm
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at Houston Texans (12-4)
If this seems familiar, that's because it is. These two teams met in the same game at the same time last season, with the Texans, behind 3rd String Quarterback T.J. (Don't call me Tyler!) Yates. The Bengals made some mistakes and the Texans pulled away in the second half for a relatively easy victory. A lot of what I've been hearing this week involves the Texans (as an aside, I find the Houston Texans, currently the NFL's youngest franchise, to be rather cumbersome. Even typing this out, I find I instinctively will type Houston Titans, which never existed, although the team that is now the Titans used to be the Houston Oilers, the perennially lame-duck franchise that was rumored to move for years until they actually did. Houston got another team 6 years later, which baffled me, and they had to suffer through the stigma of having David Carr as their franchise Quarterback for too many years, but now they've gotten it together) slumping late in the regular season and the Bengals hungry for a playoff victory, not having won a Playoff game since 1990, when their Quarterback was the cranky Boomer Esiason. Some signs may point to Cincinnati having an edge here, but I can't say I see it. Houston got off to a really fast start before regressing later in the season, but by that point, their playoff spot, and a home game, were all well-assured. Cincinnati has been one of those annoyingly inconsistent teams all season; the fact that they're the #6 seed tells you that they basically just happened into a Playoff berth (this usually is the case with 1 or 2 teams each season, and it's almost always the #6 seed). Basically, they ended up being the best of a bunch of marginal teams (you can lump them in with non-playoff teams like Pittsburgh, San Diego, the Jets, etc that just flat out stunk), and were helped out by the fact that the AFC was full of bottom feeders this season. Teams like that tend not to last very long in the Playoffs, and usually they're long forgotten by the time Championship Weekend rolls around.
Prediction: Houston 27, Cincinnati 17

Saturday, 8:00pm
Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at Green Bay Packers (11-5)
Have you heard about the Packers? Lemme tell you, they got a great Quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, he throws the ball all over the field and does a really cool dance whenever the Packers score a Touchdown. And on Defense, they have this awesome Linebacker named Clay Matthews (III) who has wild blonde hair and flexes his muscles on the field. These guys are the COOLEST!!! They're going to the SUPER BOWL!!! Packers, Packers, Packers! Lambeau Leap! Frozen Tundra! Vince Laahm-Baaah-Di!

Pardon me, I have to go vomit now.

Perhaps I could be accused of being somewhat bitter, and I can't say the Packers haven't earned some praise since they did win a Super Bowl two years ago, but the problem is that when you win a Super Bowl, and you're one of the NFL's staple franchises (see: Packers, Giants), what happens is you become pervasively annoying, so much so that many people, particularly that team's own fans, aren't even aware of it. The Packers won Super Bowl XLV, Aaron Rodgers started doing TV commercials, Clay Matthews, III (and it's time we made note of the fact that he's Clay Matthews, III., in deference to his father, an outstanding LB in his own right, and his grandfather, who also played in the NFL—if Robert Griffin, III can do it, so can he) was all over the place, even some of their lesser known players like Greg Jennings are on Commercials. Just be thankful Brett Favre isn't still around. And there's the whole Lambeau Field mystique and the cheeseheads...It's getting a little tired. I suppose knocking the Packers makes me somehow anti-American or something, but I don't care. I don't like them. The problem is, they're going to be playing this game at home, it's probably going to be about 20 degrees out in Wisconsin, they're pissed off because they think they should have had the #2 seed and a bye, and everyone is feeding into this.

They're playing a Vikings team that beat them last week, and while Adrian Peterson, who is simply a delight to watch, gashed them last week and may well gash them again, but their Quarterback, Christian Ponder, is, at best, middling, particularly when outdoors. There are ways that Minnesota could keep this game close, but it involves a lot of ball control and luck, and hope that Aaron Rodgers can be pressured into mistakes. It's possible, because of the Packers' general lack of a running attack, but I don't think the Vikings will be the team to do it tonight.
Prediction: Green Bay 33, Minnesota 20

Sunday, 1:00pm
Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
Two teams that have sort of done it on smoke and mirrors. This is the one game I've had the hardest time figuring out. The Colts have sort of made it this far on Luck, both the literal luck and their Rookie Quarterback Andrew Luck, winning a number of close games in spite of an aging defense and a poor running game, combined with the Mojo of ChuckStrong, and how they've rallied around their Leukemia-stricken Head Coach Chuck Pagano. The result is one of the real feel-good stories in the NFL this season. On the other side, the Baltimore Ravens are more or less the Over-The-Hill gang on defense, as evidenced by their great linebacker Ray Lewis announcing this will be the last time he'll do his annoying dance (A word on Ray Lewis: Great player, yes. Hall of Fame Linebacker, yes. But let's not forget that he was almost sent to jail in 2000, and let's not even put him in the same ballpark as Lawrence Taylor as far as "Best Linebacker Ever" is concerned). They've had a season similar to Houston, where they started off hot and then came back to earth. They also have an erratic Quarterback in Waka Flacco, who's the kind of Quarterback who you may not often win because of, but you'll sure as hell lose because of (and as an aside on Flacco, I've gone on record as calling him the Ted Lilly of the NFL: He's got a modicum of talent, but he's incredibly wimpy-looking. He can blow up at any second, and he constantly looks like he's about to burst into tears and cry for his mother). They've also benefited from a good deal of luck. So, someone's luck is about to run out. I think it's Baltimore's turn.
Prediction: Indianapolis 23, Baltimore 20 (OT)

Sunday, 4:30pm
Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at Washington Redskins (10-6)
Bill Simmons wrote in his column yesterday that if the Seahawks could have stopped Kevin Kolb and the Cardinals in week 1, they would have been 12-4, won the NFC West and had the #2 seed and a bye this week. Well, they didn't, so they're on the road, away from their loud stadium and obnoxious fans. Lightly regarded at the beginning of the season, Seattle has sort of rode this groundswell of a hotshot Rookie Quarterback and a thundering running back, and a chippy Head Coach who skips around the sidelines and runs up the score, and an opportunistic defense that may or may not be full of cheaters. They hung around and hung around and won a few really close games, and then they started to believe it, and they started to rip up several opponents, including the 49ers. But I'm still not convinced. They've taken advantage of some pretty weak teams, and a 49ers team that was injured and unprepared. And on the road. Should they have to face the 49ers again, it'll be in San Francisco. Unlike the Packers, they're being anointed without actually having won anything, so I'm really hoping that someone steps up and puts them and their stupid coach in their place.

Unfortunately, I don't think the Redskins can do that. Though Washington has had a great season of their own, has won 7 games in a row, and boasts a team somewhat similar to the Seahawks (minus the annoying coach and cheating defenders), their defense isn't quite as good as Seattle's. They won't come out and start blasting people out of the box. But what I am interested in is to see just how Robert Griffin, III and Alfred Morris handle what's probably the toughest defense they've seen all year. To the Redskins' credit, they've eked out a number of close victories, but not against any teams that had a really good defense. What I do know is that this won't be a romp for Seattle. They've really walked over some lesser teams (the fact that Pete Carroll insistently continues to pass and fake punts when the game is out of reach may have something to do with it), and while they'll probably beat Washington, this will probably be more shootout than cakewalk.
Prediction: Seahawks 37, Redskins 31

So, there you have it. If this makes some sense, more power to me. Whatever happens, the 49ers will, I'm sure, be ready for whoever shows up in San Francisco next Saturday.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Same As The Old Boss

The 49ers simply needed to win on Sunday in order to lock down their second consecutive NFC West title, but they also needed some help in order to get a much-needed bye from the first round of the playoffs. Though things started a bit slow, they managed to do their part, finishing their regular season with a 27-13 victory over the lowly Arizona Cardinals to finish 11-4-1, good enough to win that Division Title.

Though the end result was good, the game wasn't exactly the 49ers most sterling of efforts. A slow start saw the 49ers go 3-and-out on each of their first three possessions, while the Cardinals, behind 4th string Quarterback Brian Hoyer, parlayed a couple of drives into a couple of Field Goals, breaking in front 6-0. The 49ers appeared slow, as if they were still  hung over from the beating they took in Seattle last Sunday. David Akers, who'd already missed a troubling number of kicks this season, missed two more in the first half, calling his reliability into question. All this was troublesome, especially considering that if they somehow lost to Arizona, while Seattle beat the St. Louis Rams, the 49ers would go from Division Championship to playing a road playoff game next Weekend. I was also tuned in to the game on my phone, something that hasn't brought the 49ers much luck this season. If things got worse, I was seriously considering shutting things off out of superstition.

But with certain doom staring them in the face, the 49ers responded much as they have all season: by striking quickly and regaining control of the game. This time, it was a pair of passes from Colin Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree, which happened on consecutive plays and spanned 80 yards, giving the 49ers the lead in the blink of an eye and settling everyone down.

It's taken a few years, and Crabtree still gets somewhat lost in the shuffle among bigger names on other teams with flashier numbers, but Crabtree ended up with an incredibly underrated great season. He was already known as a great route runner with sure hands, but this season, he took The Leap into a clutch receiver who's been able to make the big play. It seems as though it's a regular occurrence that Crabtree is making a key catch to convert a 3rd down, or breaking a tackle and turning a short gain into a long one. Crabtree saved his best game of the season for the finale, catching 8 passes for 172 yards and a pair of touchdowns, finishing the season with 85 catches, 1,105 yards and 9 touchdowns, all career bests. He also became the first 49er receiver since Terrell Owens 10 seasons ago to top 1,000 yards. Crabtree drew some heat for underperforming in the postseason last year. It appears likely that this won't happen again. He's clearly established himself as the best receiver on the team, and perhaps one of the top pass catchers in the league.

With the lead, the 49ers were once again able to do what they do best, control the clock and let their defense wreak some havoc, which they did. Even Akers righted himself, kicking a pair of Field Goals in the second half . Frank Gore got himself going on the ground, with an assist from LaMichael James, who has really impressed in the absence of Kendall Hunter, becoming a sparkplug on Special Teams and chipping in with several key runs. Crabtree's second touchdown, a beauty of a touch pass from Kaepernick, extended the lead, and Gore's score early in the 4th quarter sealed up the victory. Seattle had some trouble with the Rams, but although they emerged victorious, they'll be the ones going on the road for the Playoffs.

With the division now secured, the 49ers and I now turned our attention to the Green Bay Packers/Minnesota Vikings tilt. The 49ers needed a Packers loss in order to pick up that first round bye, and a sorely needed chance to rest and recuperate for the Playoffs. The Vikings, who knocked off the 49ers way back in Week 3, needed a win in order to simply make the Playoffs. The game was a study in contrast, between the Vikings Adrian Peterson running the ball down the Packers' throats and Aaron Rodgers passing at will. Ultimately, it was Peterson who would win the day, as his superhuman 199 yard effort paved the way for the Vikings to win on a last second Field Goal, getting them into the playoffs where they get to face the same Packers next Saturday while the 49ers get to watch and await the winner.

For the second year in a row, the 49ers have won their Division and managed to lock up the NFC's #2 seed in the playoffs. Last year, they got to the NFC Championship. This year, a team that now has that Playoff experience appears primed to hopefully make it further. They've had a much more uneven season than 2011, when they got hot and things just seemed to snowball from there. This year, they haven't had that really great hot streak. They've had good games, and certainly their big wins have made them feel much higher than last year. But they've also had some troubling losses as well, something they didn't see much of last year. Seattle's surging second half kept the division race much tighter than it was last year. Instead of being able to relax over the season's final few weeks, they had to play everything out to the last game before they had sewn everything up. It wasn't likely that they were going to roll off the same 13-3 record they had last year, and 11-4-1 isn't that much of a drop off. All things considered, it's nice to have put together 24 wins under Jim Harbaugh, and being the #2 seed in the NFC both years certainly puts them among the NFL's elite teams. Hopefully this year, they can finish the job.

So, the 49ers season will continue on Saturday night, January 12th, with a Home Playoff game in Prime Time in the Divisional round. Crazy things have been known to happen in the NFL Playoffs, but the odds seem to dictate that their most likely opponent will be the Green Bay Packers, against whom the 49ers started their season with a statement victory on their Home Field. Until then, they've got the week off, the injured can heal up and the remainder of the team, certainly weary from a 17-week grind can rejuvenate themselves and begin a march towards the franchise's 6th Super Bowl Title.