Showing posts with label NFL. Show all posts
Showing posts with label NFL. Show all posts

Monday, September 22, 2014

Trouble And Panic

Last season, the 49ers started their season with a resounding victory, followed by a pair of absurdly frustrating losses that left them at 1-2 with all sorts of questions surrounding where the team was going. They followed that up by winning 11 of their final 13 games. This season has gotten off to a similar start; as the 49ers lost their second consecutive game in Arizona yesterday, as once again they suffered through a second half meltdown and could only watch as the Cardinals came back on them to win 23-14.

Simply by the luck of the schedule, the 49ers have happened to be on TV in New York each of the first three games this year (and thanks to the Giants being scheduled for a Thursday night game, they will make it 4 for 4 next week), so once again, I got to witness first hand just how this game fell apart for San Francisco.

Where in Week 2 against the Bears, Colin Kaepernick simply came unglued in the second half, throwing a pair of severely damaging interceptions among his 4 turnovers overall, Kaepernick rebounded well. He started the game on a roll, completing his first 11 passes en route to leading the 49ers on a pair of lengthy Touchdown drives, one of which was capped by a pass to Michael Crabtree, and the other a run by Carlos Hyde, in which Hyde absolutely plowed through a defender on his way into the End Zone. At this point, with 5 minutes to play in the 2nd Quarter, the 49ers led 14-6 and everything appeared to be going swimmingly.

But then the second half happened and everything basically turned to mush. The 49ers have scored but 3 second half points thus far this season, while allowing 52. This didn't matter much when they led Dallas 28-3 at Halftime, but this loomed large last week and again on Sunday, when the Cardinals, behind backup Quarterback Drew Stanton and a series of clutch catches from Michael Floyd and Rookie Receiver John Brown, came back to score 17 unanswered points.

Or was it that the 49ers, who were nailed for 16 penalties against the Bears, once again self-destructed in a series of yellow flags that either killed their own drives or extended Arizona's?

You be the judge. After scoring a Touchdown to cut the deficit to 14-13, Arizona forced San Francisco to Punt and took over after another fine Andy Lee effort at their own 34-yard line. On the second play of the drive, Stanton took off and scrambled, diving to a stop at the Arizona 45-yard line, where he was then hit by Dan Skuta. Skuta, who had already lowered his shoulder in order to make a tackle, couldn't stop his momentum and although he ended up hitting a sliding Stanton in the shoulder, rather than the head, Skuta was flagged for unnecessary roughness, handing the Cardinals 15 yards. On the following play, the 49ers blitzed and Patrick Willis ended up getting a good shot on Stanton as he released a pass that ended up being incomplete. But again, despite Willis neither hitting Stanton with his helmet nor hitting Stanton in the head, Willis earned a flag for roughing the passer, handing the Cardinals another 15 yards. Not surprisingly, after being handed 30 free yards, the Cardinals went on to score another Touchdown and take the lead.

The 49ers did respond with a fine drive, and were in position to perhaps score a Touchdown of their own and regain the lead. But after Kaepernick hit Anquan Boldin for 6 yards down to the Arizona 6 yard line, Boldin was subsequently flagged for head-butting a Cardinals defender. This was more a case of Boldin being Boldin, since he's generally know for talking a lot on the field, but it cost the 49ers another 15 yards and ultimately led to a Phil Dawson Field Goal attempt that was blocked. The 49ers didn't threaten again.

After the game, Boldin in particular expressed his frustration with the officiating, which has played a heavy role in these last two 49ers losses, sure, but that's not an excuse for an offense that has scored 3 second half points in 3 games, particularly when you consider that they've scored 59 points in the first half of their games. It makes no sense, and it makes even less sense when you consider that Kaepernick, after his disaster of a performance in Week 2, was nearly flawless in this game, finishing 29 for 37 with 245 yards and a Touchdown. In fact, the 49ers didn't turn the ball over at all, and forced one of their own when Michael Wilhoite forced Larry Fitzgerald to fumble about halfway through the 4th Quarter with the game still in reach. But when it was needed most, the 49ers could move the ball no further than their own 10 yard line, including a damaging sack on Kaepernick, and they were forced to punt the ball away.

There's no good explanation for it all except to say that the 49ers aren't playing very well right now. But, again, they weren't playing very well after 3 games last year either and we know how that ended up. All you can do right now is try to regroup—Vernon Davis, generally a key cog in the 49ers lineup, missed the game with an ankle injury—get healthier and hope that next Sunday's matchup against the Eagles, who currently are sitting pretty at 3-0, goes a little better. This will be on TV here, although it happens to coincide with the Mets final game of the Season, so one may take precedence over the other.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Bears Get You

For the better part of 3 quarters on Sunday night, the 49ers appeared primed to open up Levi's Stadium the same way they closed out Candlestick Park: With a rousing victory in front of a National, Prime Time audience. But in a rather stunning collapse, Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the team unraveled in a rather unsettling sequence of turnovers and missed opportunities, allowing the Chicago Bears to slip back into the game, ultimately take the lead and end up stealing a 28-20 victory.

From the point Phil Dawson kicked a Field Goal that capped off a 14 play, 9+ minute drive that started out the second half, the Bears outscored the 49ers 21-0, capitalizing on a pair of bad interceptions thrown by Kaepernick and riding the wave of Jay Cutler's passing and Brandon Marshall's repeated clutch catches to overcome what was, at an earlier point in the game, a 17-0 San Francisco lead.

The game couldn't have started much better for the 49ers. After forcing a 3-and-out from the Bears on their first drive of the game, Aaron Lynch shot across the left side and blocked the Bears punt, setting up the 49ers in prime field position at the Bears 7-yard line to begin their night on offense. Quickly, they made it into the End Zone, with Colin Kaepernick hitting Michael Crabtree on a fade route for his first Touchdown reception of the season.

The next six Bears possessions similarly did not accomplish much. Justin Smith chipped in with a sack, and Matt Forte couldn't get anything going rushing the ball against the 49ers defensive line. The 49ers moved smartly down the field to kick a Field Goal on their second drive. Colin Kaepernick threw an Interception on one possession on a play where he basically underthrew Anquan Boldin, and on their next possession, Kaepernick fumbled while scrambling, as Jared Allen flew in and jarred the ball out of his grip. But none of these turnovers proved consequential, as the Bears continued to do nothing against a 49ers defense that appeared strong. A Bears punt late in the 2nd Quarter was returned by Bruce Ellington well into Bears territory, and after a long pass from Kaepernick to 3rd string Tight End Derek Carrier moved the ball to the 8 yard line, Frank Gore smashed the ball into the End Zone. With 2:22 to play in the first half, the 49ers were ahead 17-0 and things were going great.

But at this point, the Bears decided to abandon running the ball with Matt Forte and try to let Jay Cutler do something. With Marshall and Alshon Jeffery both hobbled by injuries, this was a dicey proposition, but somehow the Bears made it work. In spite of the fact that Cutler was drilled by Quinton Dial and looked half dead when he finally got up, Cutler managed to thread a pass in to Marshall, who made a leaping one-handed grab for a Bears Touchdown just before halftime.

Still, no worry. Particularly after the 49ers came out in the second half and rolled methodically down the field in a drive that took more than 9 minutes off the clock. But in prime position to punch it in for another Touchdown that could have iced the game, the 49ers called a pair of run plays that didn't accomplish much other than set up Dawson's Field Goal.

And that, my friends, is where everything fell apart.

After getting planted by Dial, Jay Cutler found his rhythm and began picking apart the 49ers secondary. Already shorthanded without Tramaine Brock, Cutler picked on players like Dontae Johnson and Perrish Cox, guys who had found success against Dallas but struggled against the Bears. Cutler capped off a somewhat sloppy 13-play drive with his second TD pass to Marshall that cut the 49ers lead to 20-14. Not a minute later, the Bears had the lead. On the first play following the TD, Kaepernick threw a pass for Crabtree that was more or less stolen away by Kyle Fuller and returned down to the 49ers' 3-yard line. Cutler made it count by throwing a Touchdown to Martellus Bennett on the following play.

Before the 49ers could realize what had hit them, they were behind, and the game was slipping away. Kaepernick tried to lead the 49ers back, but Kyle Fuller intercepted him again on a pass intended for Derek Carrier, and once again, Cutler led the Bears right through the 49ers defense for another Touchdown, their 3rd in the 4th Quarter, extending their lead to 28-20. Kaepernick led the 49ers on one spirited, final drive, working the ball down inside the Bears 20 yard line, but on 4th down, Kaepernick's pass into the End Zone intended for Crabtree led his receiver just a little too far and the ball bounced off Crabtree's outstretched hands and fell incomplete, and the game was lost along with it.

For all the good that the 49ers displayed against Dallas in Week 1, there was an equal amount of disturbing things that cropped up against the Bears. Kaepernick had perhaps his poorest performance since becoming the Starting Quarterback, throwing 3 bad interceptions and had a potential 4th pick overturned on replay. He also Fumbled. The defense forced no turnovers in response. The 49ers were penalized 16 times in a game that appeared dictated by the referees more than any normal NFL game should logically be. These penalties handed the Bears over 100 yards. The cornerbacks, Cox, Johnson, Chris Culliver and company, were mostly toasted by a pair of receivers nursing leg injuries. Vernon Davis was lost in the 4th quarter with an Ankle injury, diagnosis unclear. His replacement, Vance McDonald, continued to display nothing of value and departed with an injury of his own. Carlos Hyde, who displayed an exciting blend of burst and elusiveness in Dallas, managed very little against a Bears defense that stood up strong against the 49ers rushing attack. And, if all that wasn't bad enough, the 49ers blew a 17-point lead, at home, in the first game at their new stadium, on the same day that their chief Rival, the Seattle Seahawks, were upset on the road in San Diego.

These things combined add up to a lot of concern for a team that seems to generate a lot of concern, because of all the turmoil that seems to have followed them around over the past several months. It's easy to forget that the 49ers got beaten rather badly in Weeks 2 and 3 last season before reeling off 11 wins in their final 13 games, but that was a different team with a different schedule and a different set of circumstances. Right now, the 49ers sit at 1-1, coming off an embarrassing home loss and going on the road to play a tough, game Arizona Cardinals team that's 2-0 and looks like a team that's not going to go away easy. This season could get off to a similar start as it did last year. You just wonder if the 49ers have it in them to shove the words and the pain and the poor performances aside for another season.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Back In Red

In another era, the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys were, for all intents and purposes, the only two teams that mattered in the NFL. Three consecutive seasons, these two teams met in the NFC Championship Game, and that game may as well have been the Super Bowl since the winner of that game went on to flatten the hapless AFC Champion in their following game.

But that was the 1990s, and now it's 2014, and the 49ers, following a forgettable several seasons have resumed their position among the NFL's elite. The Cowboys, well, not so much. They boast a legion of overrated stars that cannot gel, a megalomaniacal owner that can't get out of his own way, and a Quarterback who inevitably finds a way to screw things up without much of an effort. And this is who the 49ers matched up against in their season opener, a glitzy hype-fest at 4pm on Sunday, with Joe Buck and his hair sitting along side the ever-agreeable Troy Aikman behind the mic.

True to form, the Cowboys screwed up early and often. Tony Romo threw three interceptions in the first half, the 49ers ran out to an early lead and basically cruised home with a 28-17 victory that probably wasn't anywhere near as close as the final score would indicate.

It took all of three plays for the 49ers to capitalize on a Dallas mistake. Despite taking the field looking woefully shorthanded thanks to injuries and suspensions, the 49ers defense got off to a flying start when DeMarco Murray fumbled on his first carry of the game. Dan Skuta, getting the start at Linebacker in the stead of Aldon Smith, stripped Murray and Chris Culliver, in his return to the lineup after missing all of the 2013 season with an injury, scooped up the ball and raced 35 yards unimpeded for a Touchdown.

For all the injuries, Aldon Smith's suspension, Free Agency departures and the assorted controversy-starting stories that had surrounded the 49ers—particularly their defense—this was quite a way to kick off the season, running back a Fumble for a Touchdown on the season's 3rd play. By the end of the game, though the Defense didn't have their best day, they would continue to force mistakes and take advantage.

Dallas' ensuing drive was, in a scene oft-repeated throughout the game, painfully slow in coming together. Tony Romo completed a few passes but was generally not at his best, but DeMarco Murray atoned for his fumble by running well. Still, the Cowboys were helped out by a pair of Ahmad Brooks penalties that extended things, and they were knocking on the door of a Touchdown before Justin Smith sacked Romo and forced Dallas to kick a Field Goal.

Finally, nearly halfway through the 1st Quarter, the 49ers offense took the field. They weren't out there very long. Not because they turned the ball over, but because they tore through the Cowboys B-level defense so quickly it was mind-boggling. It took the 49ers all of 4 plays to score, Colin Kaepernick rifled in a pair of completions to Old Reliable Anquan Boldin to cover the majority of the field, an interference call on a pass intended for Michael Crabtree got some more yards, and then Kaepernick, after nearly getting tripped up by a pursuing Dallas defender, hit an uncovered Vernon Davis in the right corner of the End Zone for a 29-yard Touchdown. The Cowboys much-maligned Defense was living up to their billing as Kaepernick, who'd struggled through an erratic preseason, completed 3 of 3 passes for 73 yards and a Touchdown in his first drive of the season.

If you were rooting for the 49ers, and it appeared that many people that went to the game in Dallas were, you had to be feeling good, and after the next sequence of events you were probably feeling even better. Romo took the Cowboys offense back onto the field. His first pass was complete to Jason Witten, who was subsequently stripped by Patrick Willis and the ball scooped up by Corey Lemonier and returned for a Touchdown. Replay ultimately reversed this call, but undaunted, Romo just handed the ball back to the 49ers two plays later when Romo decided that he'd try to pass to a triple-covered Dez Bryant and, not surprisingly, Eric Reid intercepted the ball and subsequently ran it all the way back to the Dallas 2 yard line. On the next play, Kaepernick hit Davis for another Touchdown and the 49ers were out to a 21-3 lead before the 1st Quarter was out.

The Cowboys next possession ended with similar results. Though they moved the ball well down the field and were once again knocking on the door for a Touchdown that might have brought them back in the game, Romo ended up alligator-arming a pass not particularly close to Witten on 1st and Goal from the San Francisco 5 yard line, and Patrick Willis was there to make an acrobatic Interception to snuff out the Cowboys. The 49ers did not score on their ensuing drive, as a pair of penalties served to short-circuit things, but once again Romo turned around and handed the ball back to them when Perrish Cox, filling in for Culliver, who'd been injured late in the 1st Quarter, intercepted a pass intended for Bryant. Romo had now managed to throw interceptions on 3 consecutive drives, each one more spectacular than the one before it.

The 49ers, this time, set out to eat up the remaining clock in the 1st half, and that meant that for the first time in the game, we got a good look at Frank Gore, who did what he always does and ground out a bunch of yards, as well as the debut of Rookie Carlos Hyde, who proved himself a very intriguing backup with a lot of energy. Gore did most of the work, but it was Hyde who finished the deal, scoring his first NFL Touchdown with :39 seconds left in the half to put the 49ers up 28-3 at Halftime.

The 49ers did not score any points in the second half, but they did take their foot off the pedal somewhat. They basically spent most of the half handing the ball to Gore or Hyde, or LaMichael James, with Kaepernick sprinkling in some passes, including a pair to newcomer Stevie Johnson and more to Anquan Boldin, who as usual was Kap's favorite target. Kap finished out his day going 16 of 23 for 201 yards. Boldin caught all 8 passes thrown his way for 99 yards. Gore ran for 66 yards and Hyde buttressed him by rushing for 50.

Defensively, the 49ers did allow the Cowboys to score a pair of cosmetic Touchdowns in the second half, but in general they made it very difficult for the Cowboys to sustain anything. Their drives were mostly of the painfully slow-moving variety and were often aided by penalties or some weird breaks. There were more injuries, including to both starting Cornerbacks, Tramaine Brock and Culliver, which forced Perrish Cox and Rookie Dontae Johnson into the lineup, but Cox, as we saw earlier, came through with an Interception and Johnson, undaunted by getting thrown into the lineup in his first game, played admirably well and hung with it throughout the game. Dallas' two scores came when the game was far out of reach and just about over, so it's not as though the outcome was ever in much doubt.

Afterward, when asked about any particular ill feelings toward Jim Harbaugh, Anquan Boldin flatly stated that he had no idea there were any problems. Sunday, there certainly weren't any problems for the 49ers. You don't know if this was simply because they were playing a team that looks truly terrible, or if they're all the way back—I suppose that remains to be seen and it's what makes the early quotient of an NFL schedule so nerve-wracking—but at least for this game, the 49ers looked like they're still a powerhouse in the league and their elite players are still elite players. Now, they get to return home and open up their new stadium on The Biggest Game In The Galaxy on Sunday Night, as Faith Hill or whoever is singing the song now welcomes everyone in to Levi's Stadium when they take on the Bears next Sunday.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Impossible Hump

It is tough enough, in today's NFL landscape, to maintain a string of repeated success. The league simply isn't good enough and talent ends up spread around too thin for that to happen. But the 49ers had appeared primed to buck that trend in the Jim Harbaugh era. In Harbaugh's three seasons as head coach of the 49ers, they went to three Conference Championships and one Super Bowl. Nothing to be ashamed of.

But considering that the three seasons ended with the 49ers losing when they were right on the precipice of victory makes it particularly frustrating. I think that's been well-documented. Sometimes you'd rather not even get there than get there repeatedly and lose.

So much of the 49ers offseason has been predicated around "getting over the hump." Winning that Conference Championship, getting past their rival Seahawks who have already won their title, and bringing home a 6th Super Bowl Championship for the franchise. The pieces for such a run are certainly in place and have been so for a few years now. But in spite of the talent that exists and has been added to with the acquisitions of Antoine Bethea on defense and Stevie Johnson on offense combined with a healthy Michael Crabtree, it seems like there's still a lot to overcome.

Eerie harbingers have dotted the 49ers offseason, things that hadn't come up over the past few seasons. Harbaugh, always a hothead, was nearly traded to Cleveland in a bizarre set of circumstances that brought to light difficulties he'd been having with GM Trent Baalke. Colin Kaepernick went through an arduous contract negotiation that resulted in a new 6-year deal, and followed that up by being implicated in a sexual assault accusation that turned out to be false. Vernon Davis held out. Alex Boone held out. Aldon Smith continued to have personal difficulties and ended up being handed a 9-game suspension. Navorro Bowman remains sidelined from his gruesome knee injury, return unknown. Kendall Hunter and Glen Dorsey suffered major injuries in training camp.

And to top it all off, there's a report circulating that Jim Harbaugh, who still has two years remaining on his contract, may be beginning to lose the clubhouse following some practice decisions he'd made during training camp. Veteran players are wondering about his level of commitment and perhaps he's coaching with one foot out the door.

The level of talent that a team has can sometimes be enough to overcome locker room dischord. But you wonder if the injuries and the controversy combined with that might begin to fracture the team. Add in three years of near-misses and you can't help but be concerned that the 49ers might be headed for a major regression season. It's enough of a fear that, as the season has drawn closer, it's been brought up more and more frequently. Particularly when you consider that the 49ers slogged through a 2-2 preseason where very little seemed to click and every game was disjointed. People still seem to feel that the 49ers are a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and well they should be. But take a look at what happened to Atlanta last season and it's a more-than-cautionary tale. Sometimes, a team can only have so much happen to it before things start to come apart. It's not just the NFL. Sure, it happened to the Falcons last year as they went from 13-3 to 4-12. You can draw just as much from everything that's happened to the Mets since 2006 to see how quickly these things can dissolve.

But it's all hearsay until it happens. The 49ers are beginning a new season in a new stadium, Levi's Stadium. Colin Kaepernick has another year of experience under his belt, Anquan Boldin is back, Michael Crabtree is healthy, Vernon Davis has been on the field, and Patrick Willis still leads the defense. The entire season depends on whether or not they can ignore the controversy and the negative feelings and continue to play at the high level they've established these past few seasons. There's no way to know if it's enough to get over that hump they keep talking about. In fact, you really don't even know if it's going to be a season from hell until a few weeks in.

Last year, the 49ers were 1-2 and 6-4 at different points in their season and everyone was wondering where the season was going. In both cases, they managed to right their ship, eventually finished 12-4 and came within a Richard Sherman batted pass from a second consecutive Super Bowl trip. Buoyed by the challenge that the 49ers gave them, the Seahawks then went out and ate the Broncos for lunch in the Super Bowl. The 49ers are still looking for that moment in the spotlight with this group.

If they can pull that off after the offseason they've had, well, nobody can say they didn't earn it. But they've got to go out and do it.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Into The Flood Again

Watching the Seattle Seahawks win Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday night was about as fun for me as watching the Phillies win the World Series in 2008.

This game made me angry. But the more I thought about it, I wasn't angry that the Seahawks, who knocked the 49ers out of the Playoffs two weeks prior, won the game. I was angry at the Denver Broncos, who put forth one of the more pathetic efforts I've ever seen in a Championship game. The Seahawks earned every bit of their resounding 43-8 victory, which was a team effort from the top down. They were the better team on the field and the results showed. I can't take that away from them, much as it pains me to do so.

The problem with the game was that the Seahawks came out and played the game like they were playing in the Super Bowl. The Broncos seemed to move around like they were playing a Week 2 matchup against the Gnats or some similarly terrible team. The Broncos looked comically disjointed, while the Seahawks defense just completely overwhelmed them. The first snap of the game went over Peyton Manning's head and ended up a Safety for the Seahawks, and the Broncos never recovered.

Scant consolation that it was, I had to think that the 49ers probably helped the Seahawks win the game as resoundingly as they did. The Broncos kind of waltzed through their AFC Championship game with the Patriots without ever really being seriously challenged. The NFC Championship game was an all-out war, a life-and-death battle that seemed Operatic in execution, with ebbs and flows in momentum, tragic injuries and a down-to-the-wire finish that I still haven't gotten over (to wit: when asked by a friend if I had plans for the game, I said I hadn't, primarily because I just had no juice left to get excited for the game. I'd burned myself out on the 49ers playoff run). It's not farfetched to think that the pace and intensity of the 49ers game elevated Seattle's play to a level that the Broncos were completely unequipped to match. Richard Sherman, in a rare display of credit to the 49ers, indicated as much on Sunday, saying that the "NFC Championship was the real Super Bowl."

Lost in the hoopla of the Super Bowl itself, and the Sherman hijinx (and Colin Kaepernick's rebuttal) is the fact that the 49ers went into an impossible place to win in Seattle and were one play away from coming away with a win. But they didn't make that play, and instead the Seahawks went on to the Super Bowl and did what the 49ers couldn't do last year: Win it. Richard Sherman said "the 49ers were the second-best team in the NFL," which is hard to argue with, but that's not going to make anybody on the 49ers or anyone who roots for the 49ers feel any better.

This rivalry is only going to get more intense going forward, and certainly Sherman and Kaepernick have become pretty outspoken about it. Certainly, Kaepernick showed a good deal of leadership and moxie by not taking things lying down, but now he's got to go out and back it up. He's got to be the one to kick the door down if the 49ers are going to break through in Seattle. Beating the 49ers in the NFC Championship and then going on to win the Super Bowl gives the Seahawks a serious leg up in this budding rivalry. The 49ers have been on the doorstep 3 years in a row but haven't broken through yet. Though crowned heads roll, I'm certain that neither of these teams are going away and their two matchups will be the most highly-anticipated games of the season. But the difference now is that the Seahawks are going to be coming in as defending Super Bowl Champions, while the 49ers are just a really good team that can't finish the deal. Don't think the 49ers won't be reminding themselves of this at every turn.

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.