Friday, January 3, 2014

Return To The Big Time

The NFL season is basically a blur. The NFL Playoffs are anything but. Even though there's still the same amount of time in between games, it often can feel like weeks before they take the field. I've know that the 49ers would be in the Playoffs for some time; it was more or less a foregone conclusion that they'd be there somehow, even when they looked their worst. But here they are, and along with 7 other teams, they begin the chase for the Big Game this weekend, while the Big Boys get to sit back and watch these teams beat each other up in what appears to be a series of bone-chilling affairs, culminating in what's shaping up to be the bone-chillingest of them all on Sunday afternoon in Green Bay. Here now, my picks for the weekend:

Saturday, 4:30pm
Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
The Chiefs and Colts basically both made it to this point without much drama. The Chiefs did it by fattening up on a pillow-soft schedule early, racing out to a 9-0 start before coming back to earth down the latter half of the season. The Colts got off to a hot start, cooled off over the middle of the season after Reggie Wayne got hurt, and then retooled themselves to finish strong. The Colts can also boast to having beaten Denver, San Francisco and Seattle, all of whom are among the top teams in the league. The Chiefs have ridden the recipe of Alex Smith's smarts and Jamaal Charles' power running, and a tough defense that ranked among the tops in the league. But their schedule has dogged them and few believe they're as good as their record might indicate. The Colts, on the other hand, have Andrew Luck and are well served by a breakout season by T.Y. Hilton. Their running game is presumed to be weak because Trent Richardson is a colossal dud, but Donald Brown is kind of a sneaky-dangerous all purpose back. I picked the Colts to win last year in Baltimore but they weren't quite there yet. This year, I think they're ready for a deeper playoff run.
Pick: Colts 24, Chiefs 17

Saturday, 8:00pm
New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
One of those games that confounds people. By all accounts, the Saints should probably wipe the floor with Philadelphia. They're easily the better team, Drew Brees is on top of his game and all their pieces are in place. And yet whenever they go on the road in the playoffs, no matter how good they look, they have this tendency to turn to mush. The Seahawks did it to them in 2010, the 49ers did it to them in 2011, and now here they are, going to Philadelphia in this weekend's Cold Game #1, to face the Eagles, NickFolean Dynamite and their Blur Offense that, once it got going, really propelled the Eagles to this point. True, the Eagles sort of happened into winning the NFC East primarily because nobody else wanted to win the Division, but digging a little deeper reveals the fact that the Eagles have the best Running Back in the NFL right now in LeSean McCoy and a Quarterback in Nick Foles who does not make mistakes. It would be up to the Saints Defense, which has been better this year than in prior years, to try to force a few turnovers if they want to tilt things in their favor, but I don't know if that's going to be in the cards given how smartly Foles has played of late. More than likely, this game is going to dissolve into a shootout between the high-powered Saints and the high-paced Eagles, and in a track meet in the cold, the circumstances seem to favor the Eagles.
Pick: Eagles 44, Saints 38

Sunday, 1:00pm
San Diego Chargers (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
I waffled the most on this game. For whatever reason, I want to pick the Bengals. Not simply because they haven't won a playoff game since 1990, or because they had a decided advantage at home this season, where they've been 8-0, or because they've got this nice underdog spirit behind Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, and a good defense. They just seem like it's their time. And yet I can't seem to shake the idea that this is just a setup for Philip Rivers to come roaring in, slinging some weird sidearm passes around to guys like Keenan Allen and Seyi Ajirotutu and Antonio Gates and just giving the Cincinnati fans one more giant shitburger to carry them into the Winter. This is Cold Game #2, and a rematch of the legendary Freezer Bowl back in the 1981 postseason, where the enduring image is of poor Dan Fouts fluttering passes into a deathly wind with icicles hanging off his beard. You think Philip Rivers is the kind of guy who gives a crap about the cold? Yeah, me neither.
Pick: Chargers 24, Bengals 20

Sunday, 4:30pm
San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at Green Bay Packers (8-7-1)
But, of course, all these games are mere appetizers to my main course in the late game Sunday. Did you know that "The Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field" is really a myth? Legendary voice of NFL Films John Facenda never actually said it. It's really just a Bermanism. Plus, it's redundant, because all Tundras are, by nature, frozen. So let's just get past all this Lambeau Field mystique crap and get to the point: It's going to be Really Fucking Cold in Green Bay on Sunday, because that's what happens in Green Bay in January. And while we're on the subject of Packer Brown-nosing, I watched NFL Network's excellent "A Football Life" series this week, where they devoted two hour-long programs to Vince Laaahm-Baaaa-Di. I know his name is synonymous with NFL royalty and I'm supposed to cream my pants at the mention of his name and the Packer Sweep, but after watching this program, I'm basically convinced that if Willy Loman were an NFL Coach, he'd be Vince Laaahm-Baaaa-Di.

Yes, it's a long-winded way of saying that I don't care for the Packers much. The Packers come into this game as the ultimate rags-to-riches tale, having lost Quarterback Aaron Rodgers to injury, suffering through weeks of losing and the indignation of a Tie Game, only to have the remainder of their division fall apart around them and Rodgers to come back and lead them to the Miracle Victory for the Ages last Sunday in Chicago. Rodgers is back, Rodgers is hot, and here we go. They get this game in their stadium, in their weather and under their circumstances.

That being said, they can't beat the 49ers. For as great as Aaron Rodgers is, he's not able to carry the entire game on his back, and the 49ers are just a better put-together team than the Packers are. San Francisco comes into this game having kind of quietly put together a 6-game winning streak, to say nothing of the fact that a majority of this roster is still kind of quietly steaming over their loss last February. Also of note is that in two previous meetings, Colin Kaepernick has completely shredded the Packers. Last year, he did it with his legs. So the Packers muscled up and sold out to stop him from running. The result was that in Week 1 this season, Kaepernick shredded them with his arm, and this was when his receiving corps consisted of Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and Me. Now, he's got a full arsenal at his disposal, while Green Bay's defense hasn't improved much over the course of the season. On the other side, while Rodgers may have saved the Packers' asses last week at the end, he didn't look great for a majority of the game, and their run game may suffer with Eddie Lacy ailing. The Packers and Rodgers took advantage of an awful Bears defense last weekend. The 49ers defense, who incidentally went the entire season without allowing a 100-yard rusher, is significantly better than the Bears defense, and I don't think I need to go into the sordid details.

Then, there's the weather. I know everyone wants to say "Ooooooooh, Packers Weather!" etc, etc, and yeah, to a certain extent that may be true. But once you start getting into temperatures in the single digits or below zero, the weather will affect you whether you're used to it or not. So for anyone who wants to make a stink about the delicate 49ers playing in the harsh cold, well, the Packers have to play in it too, and I don't believe they played in any games this season where the game time temperature was 3˚ with a forecast low of -20˚. So throw the weather theories out the window, because it's going to suck for both sides. This game comes down to talent and mental toughness, and the 49ers have the Packers beat on both counts.
Pick: 49ers 33, Packers 20

What, you're surprised? Go enjoy the games! Have a Blast! Eat some Peyton Manning Pizza! Fuck the Packers!

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