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. 

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