Monday, January 20, 2014

Black Hole Sun

For the second season in a row, the 49ers season came to a crashing halt when a fade pass to the corner of the end zone that was intended for Michael Crabtree fell someplace other than into the hands of Michael Crabtree. Last season, that pass fell incomplete on a 4th down play in the Super Bowl. This time, the pass was tipped by Richard Sherman into the hands of Malcolm Smith, cutting off a last-minute 49ers attempt to win the game. In a game that can only be described as piercingly intense, the 49ers were once again at the precipice of victory only to be turned away, done in by three 4th Quarter turnovers, falling to the Seahawks 23-17 in the NFC Championship Game.

This game had so many vicissitudes, so many different angles and plays that seemed key to the outcome. Losing the Super Bowl last season hurt, and certainly this game seemed awfully reminiscent of that, but for so many reason, this game just feels worse.

Perhaps it's the way it started out, which for the 49ers was great. Aldon Smith strip-sacked Russell Wilson on the first play of the game, immediately setting the 49ers up at the Seattle 15-yard line. Even though the drive went nowhere, Phil Dawson's Field Goal gave the 49ers an immediate lead and served notice that this wouldn't be the same Seattle romp as prior 49er trips to Seattle had been. Early in the 2nd Quarter, Colin Kaepernick seemed to be taking control of the game. Though he hadn't thrown much, if at all, to his receivers, and though Frank Gore was unable to establish anything rushing, Kaepernick
shrugged it all off and put the team on his back, providing most of the team's yardage with his legs, including a 58-yard dash that dazzled in terms of both athleticism and elusiveness. Kap's run set up an Anthony Dixon Touchdown that gave the 49ers a 10-0 lead. With the defense thoroughly confusing Russell Wilson and holding Marshawn Lynch in check, things couldn't have been better. But for whatever reason, you could sense it wouldn't last.

Perhaps it was the way the Seahawks stormed back into the game, first by Wilson hitting Doug Baldwin for a 51-yard prayer on a bomb that seemed to epitomize Wilson's own abilities. A busted play, Wilson scrambled around and kept things going long enough for Baldwin to sneak behind Eric Reid and Donte Whitner for a catch that set up a Field Goal. After the 49ers managed nothing in their first 3rd Quarter possession, the Seahawks responded with a healthy dose of Marshawn Lynch, who pounded and pounded and eventually broke through on a 40-yard run that tied the game.

Now stuck in the dogfight of dogfights, Kaepernick appeared to regain control of things when he hit Anquan Boldin for a Touchdown that put the 49ers back ahead. A thing of beauty, this was. We all know, by this point, that Kaepernick has the ability to run around, but rarely have we seen him run around to keep a pass play alive. But that's what he did, and his one-legged jump-throw was an absolute laser beam that just barely snuck over the reaching arms of Earl Thomas and into Boldin's sure hands. This was the kind of play that probably scared the shit out of everyone in Seattle, because clearly, the 49ers weren't folding this time. After a catch like that, I had to think to myself that the 49ers were going to find a way to do it, beat the Seahawks and go on to the Super Bowl.

Sadly, I was wrong. In a 4th Quarter sequence that featured an endless string of nightmares, the 49ers saw their lead evaporate on a counter-miracle from Wilson, their best Defensive player go down with a truly horrible-looking injury, and their season come crashing down amid a flurry of trash talk and ill will.

The Seahawks were rewarded for their gutsiness in going for the kill on a 4th down play, as Jermaine Kearse scored on a 35-yard Touchdown pass, and eventually the Seattle defense wore down Kaepernick enough to force him into some mistakes. Cliff Avril's strip-sack was recovered by Seattle and set the stage for a sloppy sequence that saw Navorro Bowman force a fumble near the goal line, recover said fumble, and then get his knee shredded in the ensuing pileup. This, for me, was truly the point when I felt the game slipping away. Though replays showed that Bowman had clearly recovered a fumble, after getting injured and piled on, he lost the ball, because, when you get injured like that, you usually aren't thinking about holding onto a football. Patrick Willis said as much after the game, because when his close friend was on the ground screaming in pain, the focus isn't so much on the ball, but his teammate. Just to make matters worse, referees awarded Seattle the ball. Somehow, after Bowman was carted off and showered with food by the classy Seattle fans, the 49ers defense kept it together, stopped the Seahawks on 4th down and got the ball back.

But, before that drive could get going, Kaepernick was intercepted by Kam Chancellor on a badly underthrown pass for Anquan Boldin. A little air under it and Boldin certainly would have caught it. By this point, the air was really starting to come out of the 49ers. To their credit, though, the Defense wouldn't let the game get away, holding Seattle to a Field Goal to make it a 6 point game with around 3 minutes to play, setting the stage for one final shot for the 49ers to win the game. This, I suppose, was all you could ask for in a game that had lived up to its billing as an all-out slugfest. And damned if Kaepernick didn't shake off the interception and the fumble and lead that drive, hitting Gore on a 4th down pass and Crabtree and Vernon Davis for gains that moved the ball down to the Seahawks 18-uard line. We'd been through this last year. It seemed almost certain that this time, things would turn out differently, as Kaepernick reared back and lofted one more pass towards Michael Crabtree in the right corner of the End Zone...

The 49ers and Seahawks, I suppose, can be best equated to the Mets and the Phillies, two teams that don't like each other and two fan bases that clash continually. A game like this could probably be best described as if the Phillies had beaten the Mets in the 2008 NLCS, had such a thing come to pass. Certainly, Richard Sherman (playing the part of Jimmy Rollins) ended up stealing the show, thanks to his tip of Kaepernick's final pass and his postgame rant, which was both classless and self-aggrandizing...but ultimately doesn't change the outcome of the game. Most people, myself included, didn't like it, and it certainly didn't win him any fans, but the over-the-top criticism and media attention he's received from it is probably just what he intended. So be it. He talked the talk, he walked the walk, now his team's going to the Super Bowl. So he got everything he wanted. Good for him. Hopefully his coach doesn't forget the Adderall when they leave for New Jersey.

For the 49ers, this is now three seasons in a row where they've been right at the precipice. And each time, they've managed to come up just a bit short in spite of the fact that they were probably the better team on the field each time. On the one hand, well, they're still a really well-built, well-coached team that's set up for an extended run of success. But on the other hand, this is now three years in a row that they've made it as far as the NFC Championship Game and didn't win the Super Bowl. NFL History is dotted with teams that have had extended runs into the Playoffs but never came away with the ultimate prize. The fear is that the 49ers of this generation might start to earn themselves that kind of a label.

The other thing that's concerning is that while Colin Kaepernick certainly improved greatly by leaps and bounds, he's still very much a work-in-progress. His performance in last night's game, much like his performance in last year's Super Bowl, was borderline brilliant, but dotted with moments of inconsistency and mistakes. In order for the 49ers to have won in Seattle, they had to play mistake-free, and they didn't. And it's magnified because those mistakes all came
very late in the game, after the 49ers had led most of the way and one more scoring drive might have made the difference. It shouldn't, however, take away from his fine finish to the regular season, and the pair of outstanding performances he had in Green Bay and Carolina. With 3 Postseason road victories, he's proven that he has the ability to be successful in a hostile environment, and he damn near did it again in the most hostile of places. But, oh, those crucial mistakes did him in again.

Kaepernick was for the most part inconsolable after the game, putting the blame on himself. His teammates, Patrick Willis in particular, would have none of it. It speaks loudly to the togetherness of this team, the core of which has managed to stay mostly intact. This season was, perhaps, the most difficult of the last three, given the peaks and valleys the team seemed to encounter over the course of the year. But they managed to make it through to late January once again. But one can never tell just how long this success can be maintained. The Atlanta Falcons can be used as a cautionary tale of this, dropping from 13 wins to 4 in a blink. Certainly, the 49ers don't seem to be a likely candidate for a major dropoff, but there will inevitably be turnover on this team. Key players like Jonathan Goodwin, Anthony Dixon and Donte Whitner are all Free Agents, as is Anquan Boldin, who was really a godsend for the 49ers this season. That's to say nothing of the impending contracts that are likely due to Kaepernick and Crabtree. Frank Gore's contract is up after the 2014 season as well, and who knows what next season will hold for the 49ers elder statesman, who unfortunately really wore down late in the season and may be nearing the dreaded Running Back Wall. Fortunately, the 49ers do have depth in Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore, but none have proven much to this point in their careers (Lattimore of course being injured all season) and so who knows if they can be trusted replacements for The Inconvenient Truth. Defensively, much of the front will return, led of course by Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. Poor Navorro Bowman, however, now has an offseason of surgery and rehab after last night's ACL injury (in another testament to Willis' leadership, he stated that he "would be there every step of the way" in Bowman's recovery).

So, another year has come to a close in disappointing fashion for the 49ers, and this one was probably the most frustrating of all. It's easy to think about the good moments in any given season and what a crazy ride it was, but it's terribly frustrating to think about what might have been. Nonetheless, it is a sadness tinged with pride when you consider just what it means to get this far three seasons in a row. I mentioned last year that each of these runs to this high level of the Playoffs is special and precious and cannot be taken for granted. I talked at the beginning of the season about the tough road of the Alpha Dog, and seizing the opportunity if they were able to make it all the way back. They almost did. Unfortunately, all it's brought them is another frustrating ending and more questions as they move into another offseason.

Maybe next year they'll get the ending right.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Sound And The Fury

I've said in the past that Championship Sunday is an absolutely breathless day, and that's when the 49ers aren't directly involved, at least as far as I'm concerned. The past two years, Championship Sunday has more or less been a nail-biting-fest. For the 3rd year in a row, I'll be bouncing off the wall all weekend until the 49ers game starts, when I expect to be a mostly catatonic mess until the game ends. Last year, Championship Sunday wasn't so bad, primarily because a) The 49ers played early and b) The 49ers won. 2011 was pretty difficult, but we don't need to go into that very much. Basically, I can do my best to predict what I think will happen, but suffice it to say my attention is squared solely on one of these two games, which is a shame because while the NFC game is drawing my attention, the AFC game is probably the game with the greater acclaim, a pretty classic matchup in its own right. Let's examine.

Sunday, 3:00pm 
New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (14-3)
As far as I'm concerned, this game is the undercard. I really don't give a rats ass about who wins this game. It holds about as much significance for me as last year's AFC Championship in New England, which I did watch, however amid my reveling over the 49ers, I barely remember what the hell happened in the game short of the Patriots getting smacked in the face at home in kind of embarrassing fashion. Well, as is their wont, they shook off that loss and they're right back in this game, although this time it's a rare Postseason road game for the Pats as they journey out to Denver to play Peyton Manning and his band of lesser men, more appropriately known as the Denver Broncos. The Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning storyline obviously speaks for itself; it's the 37th time they've met in total, and the 16th time that they've met with the AFC Championship on the line. Brady usually has had the upper hand in these matchups, generally because the Patriots defense has been strong enough to keep Manning out of sorts. But that was back when Manning was with the other team. Now, Manning has a whole bunch of weapons that are probably overachieving because he's throwing them the football. Brady, on the other hand, has now been relying on a power running game behind a resurgent LeGarrette Blount, primarily because his top Receivers are either injured, in jail or on the Broncos. So that's a new wrinkle. Neither of these teams have especially great defenses from what I can tell. The hot word is that Peyton Manning and the Broncos need this game more, for reasons of legacy or whatnot. I guess that, combined with them being home is enough to swing things in their favor. But that's kind of an academic pick. I can't reiterate enough: I DON'T CARE WHO WINS THIS GAME.
Pick: Broncos 34, Patriots 30

Sunday, 6:30pm
San Francisco 49ers (14-4) at Seattle Seahawks (14-3)
All that being said, you can safely assume I care very much about who wins this game. This game is, in my opinion, the better game. These are two teams that were widely regarded as the two best in the NFC at the outset of the season, and so it seems proper that it's these two teams meeting to see who will be Champion of the NFC. I would, of course, rather this game be in San Francisco, but given how many challenges have been thrown at the 49ers over the course of this season, well, why not one more? They've already gone on the road and won two Playoff games this season, which to put it into perspective is the same number of Road Playoff games that the 49ers have won from 1981-2012 combined. Now they get to go on the Mother of all Road Trips for the right to win their second consecutive NFC Championship.

I've said many disparaging things about the Seahawks and the stadium they play in, and whether it's true or simply another one of my cockamamie theories doesn't mean a damn thing. Seattle is just a really difficult place for a road team to come in and win, so this is an unenviable task that the 49ers are going to undertake on Sunday evening.

Unenviable, but not impossible.

They say familiarity breeds contempt and certainly these two teams have plenty of contempt for each other. These matchups are generally pretty chippy throughout and Sunday should be no different. The dislike is mutual and starts at the top, since Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll have had, let's say a contentious relationship going back to their days as College coaches. Since they've moved to the NFL, Harbaugh has gone 4-2 against Carroll, but none of those games were as high-stakes as this Sunday's. The 49ers did win in Seattle in 2011, but that was a Seahawks team that had yet to establish itself as a force, and started the immortal Tarvaris Jackson at Quarterback. Since then, the Seahawks have lost but once at home, a Week 16 matchup against Arizona that you can bet the 49ers paid quite a bit of attention to. It would be in their best interest to do so, because the last two times the 49ers have been to Seattle, they've been beaten rather badly and been kind of embarrassed in the process, to the tune of a 71-16 score and a whole slew of moments where they just looked befuddled. Colin Kaepernick had a hard time getting used to the noise around him, had a hard time dealing with the Seattle defense and ended up being forced into multiple mistakes. Kaepernick threw 8 interceptions in the 2013 regular season—4 of them came against the Seahawks. Even when the 49ers beat the Seahawks in December, Kaepernick wasn't at his best, but he did make plays when he absolutely had to, including a needle-threader to Vernon Davis for the 49ers lone TD and a key scramble to convert a 3rd down in the 4th Quarter. When the 49ers have beaten the Seahawks these past two seasons, it's been primarily on the back of Frank Gore, who has been able to really grind out key yards over the course of games, eventually wearing down the front of Seattle's defense to the point where he will inevitably break off a big run. That being said, don't think the Seahawks defense isn't aware of this and gearing up to try to prevent that from happening.

On the other side of the ball, the 49ers defense, a unit that's really carried the team over a large part of the season, is faced with the unenviable task of having to stop Marshawn Lynch. Of all the talented backs in the league, Lynch is the one who seems to give the 49ers defense the most trouble. They've had success in containing Russell Wilson, the 199 yards he threw for in the 49ers December win was his career best against the 49ers, although he did throw for 4 Touchdowns in last December's blowout in Seattle. The 49ers have done a good job of keeping in his face, particularly early in games, and forcing him into mistakes, and they've intercepted him once in each of the 4 times they've faced him. What they haven't done is keep Lynch in check at the same time, and a lot of Wilson's damage has come on short passes to Lynch, who then has been able to rumble for yardage from there. Lynch will certainly be a challenge for the defensive front of the 49ers. But, again, this comes back to familiarity, and the 49ers have been playing as well as ever against the run.

What's been a disaster for the 49ers going into Seattle is that they've consistently managed to find ways to shoot themselves in the foot. They turned the ball over 5 times in September and in their loss in 2012 they turned the ball over more times than I care to remember, in addition to having a blocked Field Goal returned for a score. They've also had key injuries happen in Seattle...Basically, it's been a house of horrors. But, if there was ever a time that the 49ers could right this ship, now is the time, and here's why:

The 49ers offense, right now, is playing better than it has at any point in the season. True, too many times they've settled for Field Goals, and that certainly could create problems, although to this point it hasn't. What gets lost, however, is that these come at the end of long, sustained drives that tend to move down the field in 5-10 yard chunks and, in the process, eat up a good amount of time on the game clock. The 49ers get themselves in manageable 3rd down situations and convert them, and generally mix one good long gain into the mix. This is the epitome of the West Coast Offense, and something that they had really gotten away from in Seattle, primarily because Kaepernick was lacking in trusted receivers to throw to (Anquan Boldin was locked down by Richard Sherman in September and Davis was lost with a hamstring injury, to say nothing of the lack of Michael Crabtree). In 2012, the 49ers were out of the game so quickly they were forced to throw with disastrous results. When they beat Seattle in December, they did so using this sort of a game plan, moving down the field in a controlled manner before striking. This pattern continued through the 49ers wins in Green Bay and Carolina. They started out with strong early drives to start the game, and then ground out key yards in the 2nd half to put them in position to win.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks offense, or, basically, anyone not named Marshawn Lynch, has struggled. Russell Wilson finished up the season looking kind of pedestrian, topping 200 yards but once over his last 5 games, and threw up a 103-yard stink bomb against the Saints that would have looked even uglier had he not hit Doug Baldwin on a long pass late in the game. This is masked by the fact that Lynch stole the show with a pair of TD rumbles, but what teams have been doing to him on defense—getting their front lineman tall and in his face and trying to cut off the edges to prevent him from running or getting a clear throwing lane—has affected his ability to throw the ball downfield with consistency. This was key to Arizona's success against Seattle, and they held Wilson to 108 yards and won in spite of Carson Palmer throwing 4 Interceptions. The 49ers, who boast perhaps the league's best Defensive front, have to have taken note of this pattern and certainly have the talent to have success in keeping him relatively quiet. Or at least you'd like to hope they can.

Basically, the Defenses are going to rule this game, and that's not really going out on much of a limb. You can talk about experience and the fact that the 49ers went on the road to a raucous dome and won an NFC Championship game just last year, while the Seahawks haven't been this far yet, but when you make it this far and you know each other that well, I think it matters much less. It ends up being a matter of the 49ers being able to at least generate the same kind of offense they were able to generate when they won at home in December. This seems to have been what's been working for them, even if the results seem to be underwhelming. The key, obviously, would be to continue the trend of not turning the ball over. This is what gets the much-ballyhooed 12th Man going and starts things spiraling out of control. People follow trends in the NFL for a reason and if the recent trend holds, what will happen is that the 49ers can control the ball behind Kaepernick taking advantage of more available checkdown routes created by Crabtree and Boldin occupying Seattle's excellent Cornerbacks, let Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James grind out some yards, settle for some Field Goals, let the Seahawks counter with Lynch, not let Wilson get too comfortable, and go from there. Points will be at enough of a premium and perhaps just continually smashing them in the mouth will tilt the scales in their favor.
Pick: 49ers 16, Seahawks 13

Now, the key is to make sure I make it to 6pm on Sunday without biting my fingers off. In the meantime, enjoy the games, and your Peyton Pizza and Brady Uggs. Fuck the Seahawks. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Not For You

Once again, the 49ers went on the road for a Playoff game where they found themselves favored and justified the odds. In a game that showed the team's mental and physical toughness, the 49ers went into Charlotte and laid a full-scale smackdown on the upstart Carolina Panthers, shutting them out in the second half en route to a 23-10 victory, earning them their third consecutive trip to the NFC Championship game.

The 49ers took the field on Sunday with the look of a team still stewing over a tough defeat during the regular season; a game where the Panthers took advantage of some of the 49ers weaknesses and kind of embarrassed them on their home field. Colin Kaepernick said following the win in Green Bay that "...we owe them one..." and exacted their revenge with efficiency. The 49ers played this game looking pissed off, and nothing exemplified this more than Anquan Boldin, who continually beat the Panthers defense for clutch receptions, punctuated by emphatic screaming at whatever Carolina defender was in earshot. It might have bordered on the edge of classlessness, but it had its desired effect; Boldin, among others, was able to incite Carolina's defense into multiple personal foul penalties that helped to extend 49er drives. The 49ers played with a controlled anger, perhaps the truest sign of a veteran team that knows its capabilities and the task at hand, taking advantage of an amped-up Panthers team, the majority of which was playing in their first Postseason game.

That being said, it could have just as easily backfired. The 49ers came out early in the game with an attack that seemed to mirror their Week 10 meeting with the Panthers (or, perhaps, last week's game in Green Bay). The 49ers moved smartly down the field on their opening possession, with Kaepernick hitting Quinton Patton for a big 3rd down conversion and Frank Gore for another before Boldin rooked Mike Mitchell into an unnecessary roughness penalty, but ultimately, the drive stalled and ended in a Phil Dawson Field Goal. The 49ers got the ball back quickly, though. After Cam Newton strutted out with a pair of completions, his 3rd pass bounced off the hands of Brandon LaFell and into the arms of a diving Patrick Willis, giving the 49ers possession in Carolina territory. This drive, the 49ers managed to gain more yardage thanks to Carolina penalties than actual offense, and again ended up with a Dawson Field Goal to go up 6-0.

This wasn't an encouraging start offensively, although the 49ers seem to have made a habit all season of these slow-ish starts and settling for Field Goals. To this point, it hasn't hurt them too badly, but you wonder just how long that particular whip can be ridden. The Panthers appeared primed to make the 49ers pay for this late in the 1st Quarter. Newton led the Panthers on a drive well into San Francisco territory, aided by a long pass to Steve Smith and a few of his own runs. The Panthers ended up with a first down inside the 49ers 10 yard line, but runs by Mike Tolbert and a sneak attempt by Newton landed the ball at the 1 yard line. The Panthers, behind coach Ron Rivera, seemed to have made a name for themselves this season by going for it on 4th down, rather than taking the points, and succeeding. So, naturally, the Panthers went for it on 4th and 1. But Newton's attempted sneak was jammed at the line of scrimmage by Ahmad Brooks, and the 49ers turned away the Panthers without a score. But this indirectly led to a Panther score, as the 49ers, backed up against their own goal line, could only advance a few yards before having to Punt, and Andy Lee's fine effort was negated with Ted Ginn, Jr returned the kick to the 49ers 31-yard line, and one play later, Newton threw a strike to Smith for a Touchdown, instantly giving the Panthers the lead.

In need of a response, the 49ers only managed to move the ball to their own 40 yard line before punting it back to the Panthers, and Newton again shot the Panthers down the field with a quickness. He hit Greg Olsen for a 35-yard gain and Smith for another 10 before scrambling down to the 1 yard line, putting the Panthers right at the door again and on the precipice of opening up some distance between them and a 49ers team that seemed untracked offensively. But, again, the defense of the 49ers rose up and smacked the Panthers in the mouth, stopping Tolbert twice and registering a sack on Newton before Rivera decided this time to cut his losses and take the points, letting Graham Gano kick the Field Goal. This crucial decision gave the Panthers a 10-6 lead and would be the last points Carolina would score in the game.

Staring down the barrel of a game that was beginning to shape up all too similar to the frustrating game of Week 10, Kaepernick and the 49ers offense got their shit together and responded with a clutch, smashmouth drive that ate up the remaining time in the 1st half and got them their lead back. Kaepernick, who'd been fairly quiet since the 49ers first drive of the game, completing a pair of passes to Boldin and another to Michael Crabtree, who made a leaping grab in traffic for a 20-yard game that justified the lofty praise placed on him by his coach earlier in the week. Another quick strike to Boldin picked up even more yards and even more smack talk, as Boldin got upended by Mitchell and then immediately jumped up and got in Mitchell's face. Three plays later, the spotlight was on Boldin again, as he drew a key Pass Interference penalty on Drayton Florence. Kaepernick had attempted a fade route to the front corner of the End Zone, but Florence basically ran Boldin out of bounds rather than paying attention to the call. This set up Vernon Davis' tightrope Touchdown with 5 seconds left in the half, a beauty of a catch that was initially ruled incomplete and Davis out of bounds, in spite of the fact that Davis left some pretty obvious cleat marks in the End Zone. Jim Harbaugh threw one of his patented apoplectic shit fits, to the point where Boldin had to race over to calm him down, but replays confirmed Davis made a good catch and the 49ers went into the half leading 13-10, coming off a Touchdown drive, something they weren't able to do in Week 10.

With momentum now on their side, the 49ers charged out in the second half and pretty much wiped the Panthers out the door. The defense forced a quick 3-and-out and the offense responded with another Touchdown drive that was pretty much the backbreaker for Carolina. Boldin again carried the load, breaking off a 45-yard gain on a reception that saw him basically run right past Captain Munnerlyn for the reception, placing the 49ers inside the Panthers 5 yard line. Two plays later, they were in the end zone, courtesy of Kaepernick, who broke out the read option, ran left and was left with a clean path to the end zone when Florence completely overran him. This opened up a 10-point lead for the 49ers, which Kaepernick spread a little extra mustard on by mocking Newton's "Superman" Touchdown pose, before quickly "buttoning up" his shirt and performing this Postseason's first Kaepernicking.

The two 49ers possessions had tilted momentum solidly in their favor, and now it was up to the Panthers to face this adversity and mount a clutch comeback of their own. But the starch seemed to be completely taken out of their attack. The Panthers embarked on what would be an excruciatingly slow 8+ minute possession that didn't get very far. The 49ers defense had worn down the Panthers offensive line to the point where they could only manage to creak downfield a few yards at a time, and their 13 play drive that began at their own 24 managed to get only as far as the 49ers 29-yard line, before the line collapsed completely and Newton ended up taking sacks on consecutive plays by Brooks and Navorro Bowman, taking the Panthers out of Field Goal range and forcing them to punt back to the 49ers.

Now firmly in control, the 49ers set out to salt the game away by handing the ball to Frank Gore, who, after a mostly quiet game, bulldozed his way through the Panthers defense for, among other things, a 39-yard gain that aided in the setup for an icing Dawson Field Goal to make the score 23-10, after a drive that ate up about half the clock in the 4th Quarter while Newton stood on the sideline with a big ol' Shaun Marcum-esque puss on his face. By time the Panthers got the ball back, they were in near-impossible circumstances, and while Newton managed to matriculate them down the field, he did so with little to no sense of urgency and with 4:34 to go in the game, he sailed a pass in the vague direction of Greg Olsen that was promptly intercepted by Donte Whitner that for all intents and purposes sealed the game up. I personally do not like to act presumptuous and assume victory in situations like this, but Newton's pass was airmailed so badly and the body language of the Panthers by this point looked so defeated that with 4+ minutes remaining, I was already sending out "Seattle, here we come" text messages. And why not? The Panthers committed one more unconscionable Personal Foul penalty as their frustration bubbled over and the 49ers basically were able to run out the consequential remaining time and seal a date with the Seattle Seahawks in next Sunday's NFC Championship game.

The 49ers looked every bit like the elite team they've been portrayed as of late in winning their 8th consecutive game and 2nd consecutive Playoff Road game. Not only did they avenge their defeat to the Panthers in Week 10, but they really put Carolina in their place as a team of upstarts, not the Hot Team they might have been regarded as. True, the 49ers talked as much trash as the Panthers did, but what they didn't do was allow the trash talking to affect their actions. This is the sign of a team that can play smart from a psychological standpoint just as much as they can from a football standpoint. They haven't made dumb mistakes, committing only one turnover in their two playoff games, but more importantly, they haven't reacted to the inevitable trash talk that will fly around in any NFL Game. If anything, they exposed the Panthers as a talented, but emotionally immature team and they exploited this throughout the game on Sunday.

This mental toughness is something Jim Harbaugh has talked about for several weeks now, and now it's going to need to come out in the highest order as the 49ers will be traveling to a place that's been a bit of a house of horrors for them of late in Seattle's Boeing Alice In Chains Adderall Century Link Field to play their dear friends the Seattle Seahawks. It seems like the 49ers and Seahawks have more or less been on a collision course to meet in the NFC Championship all season, and it looks to be the game that everyone wanted to see, or at least the game anyone who likes well-played, smashmouth football between two teams that really can't stand one another but are built more or less the same. Mental toughness would serve the 49ers well against the Seahawks, who boast a multitude of shit-talkers, many of whom rank among the NFL's top talents at their positions. Moreover, the Seahawks fans, who seem well-represented in this commercial, seem to think they can control the game just as much as the players, which might be giving themselves a bit too much credit, but I digress. The recent struggles the 49ers have had at the Clink don't mean a damn thing anymore. What matters now is getting ready for the season's 3rd matchup with the Seahawks where the stakes are of a much higher order. The NFC Championship will rightfully be decided between the two teams that were the best in the Conference. That much is certain.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Nice To See You Again

The NFL Purist will always tell you that Divisional Playoff weekend is usually the best weekend of the season. The weak links have usually been disposed of in the Wildcard round, and now the league's real elite teams start to show what they're made of. Adding a little fuel to the fire is the fact that three of the four games this weekend are rematches of regular season games that drew a decent amount of hype. The fourth one isn't a rematch, but it does feature two teams that have a much-ballyhooed history of meeting up in the Playoffs (and should that not be enough to satisfy you, another one of these games is a Divisional matchup featuring two teams meeting for the third time this season). One need only look at the Quarterbacks to gauge how good the competition is at this level of the playoffs. When the "weakest" of the bunch is a former #1 overall pick who threw for over 4,000 yards as a Rookie, you know the competition is pretty stiff.

Last weekend, I went 3-1 with my predictions. Indianapolis advanced thanks to a miracle comeback after making me look rather foolish for the first half plus of their game. San Diego blew up Cincinnati's shit and made them look like chumps. I have, of course, already been through San Francisco's win in Green Bay. The only misstep I made was picking Philadelphia over New Orleans, as I underestimated the Saints relying on their running game, taking advantage of some holes in Philly's defense and keeping their quick-strike offense off the field. Well played by Sean Payton and Company, but they face a much taller order this weekend.

Saturday, 4:30pm
New Orleans Saints (12-5) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
This is the rematch of a Monday Night game that got a lot of hype as The Game that would determine who would be the #1 seed in the NFC and the Saints basically got their clock cleaned by the Seahawks and their juiced-up defense. Since then, the Seahawks have pretty much hummed along, only hiccuping against San Francisco and Arizona, while the Saints frittered away their division. The Saints, not given much of a chance last weekend in Philadelphia, shocked everyone by winning on a last-second Field Goal to win their first road game in Franchise History. Winning their second will be a tall order against a Seahawks team that has been more or less unstoppable in their little Tin Shack where everything seems to just bounce their way. Or it did until Arizona decided they'd had enough of this fuckery and hit the Seahawks back. The Seahawks can be hit back, but unfortunately, the Saints defense lacks the personnel of the Arizona Cardinals, and fortunately for the Seahawks, they don't have to worry about the Cardinals showing up because they didn't make the playoffs. Drew Brees and the Saints won against the high-powered Philly offense by basically keeping them off the field and relying on their running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson, and Brees made the necessary plays. This is all fine and good when you're playing the Eagles. The Seahawks are another story and playing keep-away becomes infinitely more difficult when you roll into Seattle with 60,000 screaming lunatics (plus another 130,000 piped in through the PA system) and Pete Carroll lays out the Adderall spread for his defensive backs. It won't be the massacre the last matchup was, but Seattle's defense will probably make a few plays and Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch will grind out the rest from there.
Pick: Seahawks 31, Saints 17

Saturday 8:00pm
Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)
The lone game that isn't a rematch of a regular season game, but this Patriots/Colts Prime Time matchup makes up for it by being a revival of one of the more hotly contested rivalries of the past decade. Though the lack of Peyton Manning in this game kind of takes a little of the juice out of the matchup, it's still a solid matchup of old rivals. Now, the AFC games seem to be more difficult to pick, and their two games are more or less crapshoots. This game, for all intents and purposes, seems to favor the Patriots. They're in their element, at home, with Tom Brady running the show and an offense that can move the ball and score points even if Brady were throwing the ball to Lucas Duda. On the other side, the Colts defense got torched by Alex Smith and the Chiefs last weekend and were only fortunate enough that Andrew Luck kept his cool and led them all the way back from 28 points down to win. Luck's performance will certainly go down in NFL Lore, and it certainly would give you the impression that no situation is too daunting for him. That being said, I tend to lean towards experience and the Hot Hand. While the Colts certainly indicated that they're no pushover, and while the Patriots have laid their fair share of home playoff stinkers over the past few years, Luck doesn't have Tom Brady's resume.
Pick: Patriots 37, Colts 30

Sunday 1:00pm
San Francisco 49ers (13-4) at Carolina Panthers (12-4)
A rematch of what's probably the hardest-hitting game of the regular season, a 10-9 slog that probably served as the 49ers most galling loss of the season. The game seemed to be a bit of a microcosm of the offensive woes that the 49ers had over a majority of the season, while also illustrating how potent Carolina's defense can be. In the game, the 49ers had three early-game drives that they couldn't finish, and settled for 3 Field Goals. In the end, these squandered opportunities allowed the 10 points Carolina was able to muster to be good enough to win the game. Since then, the Panthers rode the momentum of that victory to a First-Round bye, while the 49ers got themselves healthy, won a Wildcard and a Road Playoff game to get to this point. Healthy is the key thing here, because it really bit the 49ers in the ass in the first matchup with Carolina. Michael Crabtree wasn't active and Vernon Davis left with a concussion. Anquan Boldin was bottled up, leaving Colin Kaepernick with the option of throwing to Vance McDonald and Kyle Williams, and the result was that he spent too much time looking around a collapsing pocket before sailing doomed passes or, worse, getting sacked. The Panthers won, but that's not to say that they had much success on offense, either. Cam Newton generated only 169 yards through the air while completing only 50% of his passes, while the game's lone touchdown came on a busted run by DeAngelo Williams and the winning score came on a prayer 53-yard Field Goal by Graham Gano in the 4th Quarter.

The point is, the fact that the Panthers won the game doesn't necessarily mean that they dominated, and asking them to repeat the success they had against a 49ers team that is now healthy and really starting to click is a tall order, especially considering that a) Steve Smith, their elder statesman and top playmaker on offense is hurting and b) For a majority of this group, this is their first Playoff game. The 49ers are a playoff-toughened bunch that seems to raise their level of play the further into January they get. Colin Kaepernick came off an inconsistent regular season and really took over their Wildcard matchup in Green Bay, showing up without sleeves in 3˚ weather and making plays with his arm and his legs and looking very much like the force he posed as last January. You know, when this group was 5 yards away from winning a Championship.

Sure, the 49ers are kind of becoming the darlings of the league right now and getting quite a bit of hype, and when you take into account the 3-year run of success they're on, they've earned it. But a really good, young Panthers team is kind of getting written off a little bit, through no fault of their own. But if they want to have success in this game, they're going to have to set an early tone. The 49ers, early in the season, had a habit of starting slow. Over the final half of the regular season and last week in Green Bay, they've started off on fire offensively, moving the ball at will. The key would be if they can finish drives with Touchdowns rather than Field Goals, and extend their success through the remainder of the game. After one quarter last weekend, the 49ers looked like they were going to blow the Packers out, but only led 6-0. This happened against Carolina, too. But if the 49ers finish drives early and get Newton in a situation where he's going to have to lead the Panthers back from behind in his first career playoff game and all the emotions that entails, this game could get away from Carolina quickly. Even if the 49ers don't go ahead early, the Panthers still have to deal with an offense that's much more complete than the one they faced in November, and in the end, the health and experience of the 49ers is what's going to carry the day.
Pick: 49ers 20, Panthers 10

Sunday 4:30pm
San Diego Chargers (10-7) at Denver Broncos (13-3)
Another one I can't seem to figure out. Of course, as is usually the case when division rivals meet in the playoffs, the old "Familiarity breeds contempt" adage is in full effect. These two teams met twice in the regular season, with the road team winning both times. The SuperDuperChargers come into this game on an emotional roll, sneaking themselves into the playoffs and then beating the Bengals, while the Broncos have rode the Peyton Manning express to another 13 wins and a #1 seed. 13 wins and a #1 seed seems to be the M.O. for Manning's career, and usually it's followed up by an abject stinker in the Divisional round. Any and all logic would dictate that Manning and the Broncos would roll over the low, leaky Chargers and Philip Rivers, but Rivers has had a bit of a career rebirth under coach Mike McCoy's system and have gotten to this point in spite of no support and seemingly impossible odds. The Chargers won last weekend by running the ball down the Bengals' throats and making a number of key defensive plays, among them 4 turnovers. Logic would dictate that the Broncos won't make the same kind of mistakes that the Bengals did, but then again, stranger things have happened in the NFL. Particularly when it's the weird, Sunday 4pm Divisional Round game. The Red Flags seem to be in full view. Peyton Manning and his spotty playoff record. The Broncos shitting the bed in this same situation last year against an opportunistic Ravens team that was working under some higher mojo. A Chargers defense that's had the hot hand. Philip Rivers and his bizarre bolo tie. Peyton Manning and his Pizza. I know my head is saying to make the safe pick and take Denver, but, hey, I've got too many premonitions going on and I'm not putting any actual money on this, so what the hell. I'm going to be a hero.
Pick: Chargers 30, Broncos 27

Strange as it may seem, but after this weekend, there's only 3 meaningful games remaining in the NFL season (unless for whatever reason you are really into the Pro Bowl). If these games go as expected, you can expect some real slugfests to play out in all three of them. Don't forget to use your Clay Matthews, III deodorant after the game! Fuck the Panthers!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Arbiters of Justice

Yesterday's Hall of Fame announcement called into question once again a lot of the factors that go into the voting process. The Baseball Writer's Association, of course, is the group that has the final say as to who's in and who's out, and certainly, the three players that were voted in, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas, are all well worthy of the honor (in spite of the ill will most Mets fans harbor towards Glavine).

But once again, the argument revolves around who didn't get in, and central among the snubbed is Mike Piazza. Piazza's credentials don't need to be discussed. Neither do those for the similarly snubbed Craig Biggio or any of the others who probably should be taking their rightful place in Cooperstown's hallowed halls.

The issue obviously lies in the voting process, and how those 571 individuals choose to cast their votes. It becomes, then, a rather subjective process and a bias against certain players who might have rubbed one, or several, of those 571 the wrong way. Or, however many of those 571 that choose to vote based on some archaic principle that only makes sense to them. Invariably, we get stories like the ballot holder from Los Angeles who voted for Jack Morrisand nobody else. Of course, what ends up happening is that Craig Biggio, who should be a Hall of Famer whether you feel he's a compiler or not, falls 0.2% shy of election, and Mike Piazza falls 12.8% short.

Neither Biggio or Piazza has been specifically implicated of any wrongdoing. If anything's holding Biggio back, it's probably a general lack of splash in his career, although I do believe he is the career leader in being hit by pitches. Piazza's problem is basically guilt by association—though he's never failed a drug test and never been specifically implicated for steroid use, he's of that era so the suspicion will follow whether he's guilty or not. At this point, if you haven't gotten a smoking gun on Piazza, you're probably not going to, because there really aren't any guns left for the players of that era.

The case could certainly be made that other prominent players such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire don't deserve to be elected because there is greater evidence (or outright admission) of steroid use, and that it's their own fault that they used and their reputation therefore sullied. But it's my contention that these players were simply taking advantage of the system in place, and the fault doesn't lie on the players for doing so. Cheating in one form or another has existed in baseball forever, whether it's a pitcher loading up a baseball with vaseline or a steroid user. The fault lies with Bud Selig and the owners for allowing it to go on, because it would have been the easiest thing in the world to institute a testing system back in 1996 when the CBA was renewed. Owners tabled the issue (and the Players' Association was, I'm sure, more than happy to agree to it) in favor of allowing the players to juice up and create an offensive explosion to rekindle interest in the game. Not everybody partook, but, of course, those that did are now being treated as pariahs and more or less hung up on a cross as an example of what happens when you sully the reputation of the Grand Ole Game.

But why should they be made examples of when for all intents and purposes the behavior was encouraged?

And why, when reports and investigations have been made and released, should players that haven't been accused pay the price for the indiscretions of their peers?

The problem lies in the voting pool. The photo above is basically to illustrate what my impression is of a majority of the 571 vote-holding members of the BBWAA: Cranky Old Men who seem to believe that the true heroes of Baseball played sometime in between 1920 and 1968 and these new-era ballplayers are generally a bunch of rabble-rousers up to no damn good (To be fair, there's certainly charm to Andy Rooney but we'll just say the impression he presents is a close enough example of my point). They're not all like that; plenty of voters seem to have enough common sense to realize that every player is more or less a product of the era that they played, and if guys like Bonds et. al, are the best of the steroid era, then so be it. Many of them also probably also feel as though there are too many Andy Rooneys in a pool that holds too few Dan LeBatards, and so their only hope to affect a change in the system is to simply make a mockery of it.

The problem is that there's no good solution. Opening up the balloting to a larger pool, say, broadcasters, ends up creating even more subjectivity and probably a good deal of homerism. Revoking balloting rights probably wouldn't ever happen lest the BBWAA wants to have soiled Depends thrown at them. Perhaps opening up the vote to living Hall of Fame members is a possibility. I don't know. But unless some kind of change is made, you're going to have guys blacklisted from taking their worthy place in the Hall of Fame for no other reason than they had the poor fortune of playing in a certain era.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Cold Heart

Although the temperature wasn't as historically cold as people expected, it was still pretty cold in Green Bay on Sunday, at 3˚ with a wind chill of -14˚. This mattered very little to the 49ers, who stormed out behind their hearty, sleeveless Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and beat the Green Bay Packers 23-20 to advance to the Divisional round of the NFC Playoffs. In spite of the cold, and in spite of playing on a gnarly looking "frozen tundra" that appeared to be comprised of either dead grass or painted dirt, the 49ers played mostly unfazed and stood toe-to-toe with the Packers, ultimately prevailing on Phil Dawson's last-second Field Goal.

It's Kaepernick who's drawing all the attention after this game, and deservedly so, since it was his 227 passing yards and 98 rushing yards that served as The Difference in the game. Kaepernick did what he tends to do in situations like this: raise his game to the magnitude of the moment. Stating after the game that "It ain't that cold, it's all mental," Kaepernick once again proved himself too difficult for the Packers to stop and although he might not have lit them on fire like he usually does, he still outplayed Aaron Rodgers and made several clutch plays in key moments to set up the 49ers to win.

That being said, Rodgers has to get some credit for simply dragging the Packers back into the game, because early on, it looked like the 49ers were going to run them out of their own building. After forcing a Green Bay punt on the opening possession, the 49ers raced down the field, with Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree hooking up for a majority of the yardage, including a 31-yard catch on a 4th down play that set up a Dawson Field Goal. The Packers did nothing on their ensuing possession, again going 3-and-out, aided by a sack split between Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith. The 49ers took advantage of a bad punt by Tom Masthay and began their second possession in Packers' territory. And again, they drove down inside the Packers' 10-yard line, this time with Anquan Boldin picking up the key yards. But again, the drive stalled and resulted in another Field Goal. This, annoyingly, had been a problem all season, and I was concerned that settling for Field Goals when for all intents and purposes the 49ers had completely dominated the game and shown themselves to be playing on a completely different level than the Packers. But these things change quickly in the NFL, and all it can take is one play sometimes to turn the tide.

The Packers eventually did get their break, but only after a 3rd drive that saw Rodgers get sacked and the Packers go 3-and-out. The 49ers began another march down the field and appeared primed to score again, until Kaepernick made what was really his only bad throw of the game, an underthrown pass to Vernon Davis, who'd broken free near the Packers' 10 yard line, that was intercepted by Tramon Williams. This stopped the 49ers and energized the Packers and Rodgers, who methodically moved down the field in a mostly no-huddle attack comprised around short passes and runs by Eddie Lacy. The 14 play drive culminated in a Touchdown pass from Rodgers to Jordy Nelson that was nearly knocked down by Tarell Brown. But Brown whiffed and out of nowhere the Packers had the lead and served notice that this game wasn't going to be anything close to the cakewalk it had started out looking like.

That being said, for every time the Packers forged downfield for a score that gave them the lead, the 49ers always found a way to come up with the clutch response. Naturally, it was Kaepernick who made the big play, this time using his legs and simply outrunning a majority of the Green Bay defense. It wasn't a designed run—and it's easy to overlook that many of his runs against the Packers aren't designed—but nonetheless, he took advantage of the Packers defense playing man coverage and not leaving a defender to spy on him and took off, racing around the left end and not stopping until he'd made it all the way down to the Packers' 13-yard line. The 42-yard run set up Frank Gore to plow through the middle and score on a 10-yard run two plays later as the 49ers regained the lead 13-7. On their ensuing possession, the Packers drove down quickly to kick a Field Goal as time expired in the half.

The intensity kicked up significantly in the second half. Neither team did much in the way of offense in the 3rd Quarter. The 49ers kicked off the half by burning a Time Out before running their first play. This set a negative tone as the 49ers had the ball 3 times in the Quarter and punted all 3 times. They did manage to move the ball their second possession, as Kaepernick hit Crabtree again for a big gain, but two plays later, Kaepernick took an ugly sack from Nick Perry, who took it upon himself to flex his muscles (in the absence of Semi-talented Commercial Actor and rumored Football Player Clay Matthews, III, I guess Perry had to compensate for idiot Packer behavior) and style after doing so. Fortunately, the 49ers defense was just as hearty; the Packers generated very little themselves, and one drive saw the 49ers sack Rodgers on back-to-back plays, courtesy of Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks.

It wasn't until the 4th Quarter that someone finally broke through. Unfortunately, it was the Packers. Rodgers had begun to heat up again late in the 3rd Quarter, and with the Packers facing a 4th Down at the San Francisco 30 yard line, their coach, Mike McCarthy, eschewed the tying Field Goal in favor of going for the jugular. This nearly blew up in his face, as Ray McDonald appeared to have Rodgers grasped for a sack. But somehow, Rodgers managed to keep his feet, break the tackle and escape long enough to loft a miracle pass to Randall Cobb, who landed inside the 49ers 10-yard line. This, then, would be the kind of play that showed Rodgers' greatness at work, and could easily have been a backbreaker for the 49ers, particularly when John Kuhn plunged in for a Touchdown a few plays later that gave the Packers a 17-13 lead.

Potentially backbreaking, yes, but fortunately, not actually backbreaking for the 49ers. After seemingly losing all momentum, the 49ers just went out and grabbed it right back, thanks once again to Colin Kaepernick, with assists from Vernon Davis and LaMichael James. It was James, who shined as a return man and change-of-pace back last Postseason, who kicked things off with a long Kickoff return that gave the 49ers good Field Position. Then, it was Kaepernick, doing it with his legs again and taking off on another busted play for a 24-yard gain, moving the ball well inside Packer territory. One play later, Kaepernick whistled one of his bullet passes over the middle of the field to Davis, who caught the ball in between a pair of defenders and landed in the End Zone for a Touchdown that gave the 49ers the lead right back. Once again, when they were absolutely in need of the score, the 49ers went out and got it.

It was clear, at this point, that this game was going to continue to go back and forth, and it would be decided either by the team that had the ball last, or the team that made a mistake. The Packers took the ball and embarked on a good drive that appeared primed to end in the End Zone once again, but the 49ers defense stopped them cold inside the 10. Mason Crosby's Field Goal tied the game 20-20 with 5:06 to play. So, that gave the 49ers a pretty easy task: Take the ball, move down the field, run down the clock, score and get the hell out of there.

Of course, it's never that easy.

Kaepernick opened the drive by hitting Crabtree for 11 yards. Two plays later, a touch pass intended for Davis nearly ended in Disaster as Micah Hyde got his hands on the pass, but was unable to intercept it, which was fortunate, because he had nothing in front of him but open field. Faced with a 3rd down on the ensuing play, Kaepernick went back to his old reliable target, Michael Crabtree, for 17 yards and a 1st Down. Crabtree, who's made a name for himself as a top-flight route-runner with outstanding hands, showed in this game just how much the 49ers missed having him in the lineup over the early part of the season. For the game, Crabtree had 8 catches for 125 yards, which obviously was his best output of the season, and he couldn't have picked a better time to do it. Kaepernick has relied on him on 3rd down continuously, just as Alex Smith did before him, and here as the 49ers were trying to move towards a victory, Crabtree came up big once again.

But there was still more ground to gain, and a few plays later, the 49ers found themselves in another 3rd and long situation, this time at the Green Bay 38 yard line. Certainly, a pass was the call, and certainly, Crabtree would be the preferred target. But if it didn't work, it was certainly too far away for Phil Dawson to be counted on to kick the Field Goal, and with just over a minute to play, too much time to just hand the ball back to Aaron Rodgers. Kaepernick dropped back to pass and the Packers came with a blitz. But in their zeal to get to Kaepernick, the Packers overpursued him, allowing Kap to race around the corner and pick up those key 8 yards and then a few more, moving the ball closer, and allowing the 49ers to run the clock down even further behind some Frank Gore runs, setting up Phil Dawson to kick home a 33-yard Field Goal and send the 49ers on to play the Carolina Panthers next weekend.

Naturally, the mood after the game was that the team immediately wanted to run in and get out of the cold. Ultimately, the better team won the game, although it wasn't the 49ers cleanest effort. Certainly, the weather was a factor, but habits that have annoyingly formed over the course of the season showed themselves, particularly early when the 49ers couldn't finish off their drives. Unlike in prior games, this wasn't a product of play calling. Kaepernick was afforded the ability to score with his arm in these situations on Sunday, but the receivers weren't there for him, and a lane for him to run didn't exist. Clock management was also a problem, as the 49ers burned two Timeouts in the 1st Quarter, and two more halfway into the 3rd Quarter. These didn't come back to hurt them, but under different circumstances, perhaps it could have. And for all that went wrong, or could have gone wrong, there was still plenty of good. The Defense got off to a flying start, stuffing the Packers run game and not allowing Rodgers to complete a pass until the 2nd Quarter. And when the Packers did get going, the defense bent, but didn't break. Eddie Lacy and James Starks never found consistent holes in the defense for big runs, Navorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Company kept holding them to short gains. And for all his heroics, Aaron Rodgers only mustered 177 yards passing on the day, and the 49ers managed to keep constant pressure on him. Offensively, of course Kaepernick and Crabtree were the stars, but Frank Gore also chimed in with 66 tough yards and a Touchdown. Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin didn't light it up, but they made their catches count, and overall, the offensive line did their usual stellar job of creating lanes and protecting the Quarterback.

So, once again, the 49ers have disposed of the Packers. The Packers can't get over their Colin Kaepernick Problem and so for the second year in a row, the 49ers have Discount Doublechecked them into the offseason. This makes Kaepernick 3-0 against the Packers and each time, he's managed to confound them and make absolutely every play necessary. This also would be the 4th Postseason game in which Kaepernick has really elevated his game, and having now done this over two seasons, will begin to give Kap the reputation of being a Big Game Quarterback. He's now won two Road Playoff games, so the venue doesn't matter to him. The weather probably won't be as much of a factor next weekend as the 49ers journey down to Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers in a rematch of what was probably their most frustrating game of the season, a 10-9 loss at Home in Week 10 that saw the 49ers unable to do much of anything on offense. At the time, the 49ers didn't have Crabtree and Davis was lost during the game with a concussion. The Panthers sacked Kaepernick 6 times and really manhandled them in the process. This isn't lost on the 49ers. After the game, when asked about playing the Panthers, Kap said that his only thought is "...that we owe them one for what they did at our house."

People kept saying that the 49ers and Packers are vastly different than they were in Week 1. The 49ers and Panthers are vastly different than they were in Week 10, too. I wouldn't expect the same result next Sunday.