Showing posts with label New England Patriots. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New England Patriots. Show all posts

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. 

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!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Not To Be Denied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Big Boys

I'm actually making my picks at what is for me a somewhat early date this week. That it's been a bit of an intense week for me might be an understatement. I'd run through a brick wall if it meant time could just jump to 8pm Saturday night and I could sit and watch the 49ers and Packers slug it out in their game. But there's still two days yet before I can really get myself too worked up about it. Mostly, I've passed the time reading blogs on the game and following the 49ers "Quest for Six" campaign. There's also three other games that I have to predict, and many of them involve teams that I don't care for very much. In fact, the other NFC game, the Seattle Seahawks/Atlanta Falcons matchup, involves a current 49ers Division Rival and a former division rival, so no matter who wins that game, I probably will have plenty to snarl about. Both of the NFL's Darlings won last weekend, and most of the experts, I'd assume, will pick them to win again this weekend. Nonetheless, games still have to be played, so everyone should be careful not to prematurely anoint someone a champion just yet. Funny things happen in the NFL, particularly when the Divisional Round is concerned.

I was 3-1 on my predictions last weekend, only losing when the Ravens beat the Colts. In retrospect, I feel somewhat foolish having made this pick. I probably should have known better than to go with the mostly rebuilt and inexperienced Colts on the road like that, but sometimes you make the risky pick. That ends the suspense of the quest for a 11-0 postseason, but maybe 10-1 is a possibility.

Saturday, 4:30pm
Baltimore Ravens (11-6) at Denver Broncos (13-3)
The prevailing thought is that neither AFC Playoff game this week is much of a contest, and that may well be true. Many seem to think that the Broncos will rampage over the Ravens, and the fact is that they probably will win. They're a much better put-together team, and Peyton Manning eats Joe Flacco for lunch on his lesser days. The Ravens won last week primarily due to riding the Ray Lewis Mojo and also due to their ability to pressure Andrew Luck into making poor throws and mistakes. They won't be able to do this against Peyton Manning, who's been playing about as well as he ever has. So, their best hope would be to try to control the game with Ray Rice, who's the best Running Back on the field in this game. I don't,  however, think this will go so well, since Peyton Manning thrives on a quick-strike, no-huddle attack that zips down the field. Should the game dissolve into a shootout, that would be instant disaster for the Ravens. So, yes. The Ravens first, last and only hope is to control the ball. Not that that wasn't blatantly obvious. Ray Rice fumbled twice last week. That doesn't bode well.
Prediction: Broncos 30, Ravens 20

Saturday, 8:00pm
Green Bay Packers (12-5) at San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)
The buildup for this game feels to me an awful lot like last year's Divisional Playoff game, when the Saints came into San Francisco all high and mighty, and everyone thought Drew Brees was going to come in and light the 49ers on fire, and the 49ers would be overwhelmed by the moment and the Saints were going to cruise on. What ended up happening was that the 49ers smacked the Saints in the mouth and held them off at the end. It feels like a similar story with a different cast of characters. Both these teams are battle-tested. The Packers come in riding the wave of a big-time hot streak behind Aaron Rodgers. The 49ers didn't surprise anyone this year like they did in 2011, and the result was that they've been a bit more inconsistent this year. That said, they did open their season with a rather impressive 30-22 victory over the Packers, exploiting weaknesses in the Packers' run defense and offensive line. But that was week 1, and a lot has happened since then.

The big story this season was, for the 49ers, the switch at Quarterback from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick. The ultimate risk, Jim Harbaugh sacrificed the steady efficiency of Smith for the big play ability—and unpredictability—of Kaepernick. The results to this point have been mixed, Kaepernick has been rather boom or bust and the offense as a whole seems to still be in a period of adjustment to the frenetic energy he seems to bring.

On Defense, the 49ers proved in Week 1 that they could contain Rodgers, mostly. But the key for all of this remains whether or not Justin Smith is able to play, and if he can (it appears he will), how effective he's going to be. Justin Smith's ability to disrupt opponent's offensive linemen limits the opposing run game, and also opens up lanes for Aldon Smith to get sacks. Without Justin Smith, the 49ers defense has been vulnerable against the run. This may not be a great concern, seeing as how the Packers have a terrible running game, but regardless, Aaron Rodgers is the best player on the field and can raise hell at any given moment. A healthy Justin Smith limits the Packers' meager ability to run and also will create more pressure on Rodgers, who was sacked a league-high 55 times this season.

Last week, at the start of the Packers/Vikings game, I mused that Minnesota being forced to use Joe Webb at Quarterback didn't bode well for the 49ers. Webb, a speedy, mobile QB who specializes in running around a lot to create plays, plays a similar style of QB to Colin Kaepernick. But Webb was forced into the lineup cold, after not having played much all season, and it showed. Webb proved himself mostly incapable of being able to throw a pass, and the Packers exploited this. Kaepernick may have a similar style to Webb, but he has far better tools. He won't spend his night holding the ball too long and throwing desperate, dying quails to nobody in particular. If anything, both he and Frank Gore should be able to pound the ball on the ground fairly well against the Packer defense.

This game seems to be confounding most Football observers, because although the 49ers pose a lot of matchup problems for the Packers, the Packers ultimately have the best player on either team in Rodgers, and the 49ers have a Quarterback making his first Postseason Start with a lot of question marks around him. In a Quarterback-driven league, this means a lot. But does it? Ultimately, I think most people may have already anointed the Packers as the team of Destiny and, perhaps, are too afraid to pick against them. But I haven't anointed anyone yet. I'll wait until February 3rd to do that.
Prediction: 49ers 20, Packers 14

Sunday, 1:00pm
Seattle Seahawks (12-5) at Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
How do you follow up a preview like that one? This game seems to be a bit more cut and dry than the SF/GB game. The Seahawks have been on a rampage, and the Falcons appear to be this season's paper tiger, having coasted through the NFL's easiest schedule to a 13-3 record and a #1 seed. These are a pair of eminently unlikeable teams. I've already said plenty about Seattle this year. But just to recap, after watching their game against Washington, people are now starting to notice that Seattle pushes the envelope of being a dirty team. Their defensive backs have been laying out opposing receivers for weeks, and to add insult to injury, after beating Washington, one of their DBs decided to try to fight one of the Washington players. All a reflection of their D-bag coach. Additionally, Russell Wilson has been drawing praise for running down the field to throw blocks for his Running Backs, but what nobody wants to admit is that Wilson isn't actually throwing any blocks. He's just running down the field and sort of getting in the way of defenders. He appears to purposely be avoiding hits. But, no matter, so long as they win games, he's a Hero. Somewhere, this will be exposed.

But, once again, they're probably the better team in this game, because Atlanta has been boring and overhyped for years. Matt Ryan has appeared to make a career for himself by storming around the sidelines screaming "YEAH!!!" with ferocious intensity while not really doing anything particularly great, and their coach, Mike Smith just looks like a rubber-faced doofus. Not surprisingly, they've managed to lose every playoff game they've appeared in. The pressure is really on them this year, and unfortunately, the Seahawks are probably the last team they want to see.
Prediction: Seahawks 31, Falcons 24

Sunday, 4:30pm
Houston Texans (13-4) at New England Patriots (12-4)
Kind of an overlooked game, because it was only a few weeks ago that Houston came into New England on a Monday Night and got housed by the Patriots. Though I don't suspect this will be another blowout, I (and probably everyone else) thinks the result will ultimately be the same. I flip-flopped on this game a bit, because New England does have a fairly recent history of shitting the bed in the Divisional Round against a chippy opponent (see: 2010 New York Jets), but they've also been known to lay down the hammer here as well. The Texans defense might make things a little hairy for Tom Brady, but then again, pressure doesn't seem to faze him. On offense, the only hope they have is pretty similar to the only hope the Ravens have: Hope Arian Foster can just run and run and run and eat up all the clock, because Matt Schaub isn't likely to best Brady in a shootout.
Prediction: Patriots 26, Texans 18
(Yes, I kind of mailed this one in. After writing those other previews, I'm burnt out.)

So, that's my take on what is generally considered the best weekend of the NFL's season. If things go well, you can expect that I'll be in a ferocious mood talking about the Seahawks. If they don't go well, I'll be in an even worse mood. That's all I can tell you. Following your team in the NFL playoffs isn't much different than following your team in the MLB playoffs, except that the games happen less often, so you're stuck waiting around getting worked up. Bring it on. Fuck the Packers. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Two Plays

With just over 6 minutes remaining in the 3rd Quarter on Sunday Night, the 49ers appeared well on their way to a major statement victory. They were blowing out the Patriots, they of the legend of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and their 5 AFC Championships and 3 Super Bowl Victories, of the 10-3 record and another Division Championship, of the record-setting offense. They had forced the Patriots into a series of mistakes, and although they themselves hadn't always capitalized, they'd done enough to race out to a 31-3 lead, which appeared virtually insurmountable given how well their defense had been playing. They had intercepted Brady twice and forced two fumbles. Offensively, though they had several sloppy moments, including a fumble by Delanie Walker inside the New England 10, and another missed Field Goal from Akers, they were having little trouble. Colin Kaepernick came out firing, undaunted by the cold, rainy weather, and tore the Patriots pass defense apart for 3 Touchdowns. Things were great.

With 6 minutes and 43 seconds remaining in the 4th Quarter, Danny Woodhead took a handoff from Tom Brady at the San Francisco 1 yard line. The entire 49ers defense had muscled up in the middle, expecting a Brady sneak. Instead, Woodhead slipped to his left and walked into the end zone untouched. This New England score tied the game at 31.

In the span of less than one game quarter of time, the Patriots had managed 4 consecutive Touchdown drives around 3 consecutive 3-and-out drives from the 49ers. This game that had appeared a cakewalk had all of a sudden gotten away from the 49ers, and now they were in danger of being on the wrong end of what would tie the greatest comeback in NFL History (a record these same 49ers set back in 1980). The Patriots offense finally kicked into their regular high gear, and their defense, suspect most of the night, adjusted and eventually stopped the 49ers cold, forcing Kaepernick into scrambles, bad passes and sacks. As a whole, the 49ers were reeling, and not only was the game slipping away, but perhaps the entire season was starting to fade as well. A loss would have meant that the 49ers would have merely a half game lead over the Seahawks, whom they are traveling to Seattle to play on yet another primetime affair next Sunday. A loss in Seattle, and the 49ers would no longer lead the division, and a playoff berth would be a dicey proposition. To say things looked bleak was an understatement. This was right on the verge of a full-blown disaster.

And in two plays, everything was fixed.

LaMichael James, the rookie Running Back who hadn't been active much this season until Kendall Walker's injury, had also taken over for Hunter on Kickoffs. A speedy, elusive player, James was deserving of whatever opportunity he could get his hands on. And in this crucial situation, he knew a short return wouldn't cut it. Pinned in their own end, the 49ers had struggled to do much of anything while the Patriots were storming back. To this point, their second half offense had consisted of a pair of one-play drives. They needed a jolt, something that would give them good field position to start. And James delivered a huge return, following a lane-clearing block from Delanie Walker and scampering 62 yards to the New England 38 Yard Line. One play later, the ball was in the End Zone. Kaepernick, facing a big blitz from the Patriots, threw a short screen pass out to Michael Crabtree, who shook a tackle from the only New England Defender anywhere close to him, Kyle Arrington, and ran the remainder of the 38 yards to Paydirt. The 49ers regained the lead 38-31, and although they still had 6 minutes of game to go, the Patriots didn't have another comeback left in them, eventually falling in a wild 41-34 affair that lasted nearly 4 hours.

Just like that, the 49ers had taken back the game, taken back the momentum, and perhaps taken back their season. A loss would have undone every bit of good that they had accomplished in this game and pretty much everything they had accomplished under Colin Kaepernick these past few weeks. In reality, little blame could have been put on Kaepernick, short of his inability to handle a direct snap from Center Jonathan Goodwin. In terrible conditions, Kaepernick came out and zipped passes through the rain that were almost always on target, save for one Interception early in the 3rd Quarter that was of little consequence. Though it was his final Touchdown pass that proved to be most important, the other three he threw were pretty key as well. Without his work, and the help he received from Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree (and even Randy Moss, who opened the scoring with a long Touchdown catch), the 49ers wouldn't have been in the position of having such a large lead to cough up.

The Defense comes away from this game looking less than great, considering they were the prime culprits in the loss of a 28-point lead. But, on the other hand, it wasn't as though they gave up a 28-point lead to some piker, this was Tom Brady and the Patriots. They have made an art form out of the No-Huddle offense, and few Quarterbacks have Brady's killer instinct. Brady ended up throwing 65 passes on the night, and the Patriots ran 92 plays, an astronomical number. But once the 49ers took back the lead and took back the momentum, the wind appeared to be let out of the Patriots' sails. Brady would be sacked twice on the possession following Crabtree's score, and after another 3-and-out from the 49ers, Brady ended up badly overthrowing Woodhead on a 4th and short play, giving the ball back to the 49ers deep in New England's territory. By the time the Pats had the ball for a final possession, they were the ones in the desperate situation, and eventually, the clock just ran out on them.

So, no, this was not the prettiest win for the 49ers. But it was a statement nonetheless. The Patriots are notorious for their unparalleled record of success both in their home stadium and late in the season. The 49ers proved themselves hearty enough to go cross-country, into a hostile environment in bad weather and come away with a victory. Not many teams have been able to sock the Patriots in the mouth the way the 49ers did for most of the game, and fewer still have the fortitude to be able to get up off the mat and fight back after blowing a lead as quickly as they did. So, rather than heading into Sunday night's Divisional Championship Showdown in Seattle reeling and hoping to survive, the 49ers come in on a high, having already won a big time road game under the Prime Time lights, having assured themselves of a spot in the Playoffs, and continuing to be in the drivers seat in the  NFC West. One victory in their final two games will clinch the Division, and two victories will earn them a first-round bye. At this point, the 49ers appear ready to do win by any means necessary. Sometimes, that's what it takes.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Waiting Game

And if he doesn't come?
We'll come back tomorrow.
And then the day after tomorrow.
And so on.

From "Waiting for Godot," by Samuel Beckett

That selection basically sums up my afternoon. I woke up feeling eerily similar to the way I did the morning of Game 7 two years ago. Without the hangover headache from Game 6. An afternoon with Mike & the Mad Dog did nothing to provide any insight to progress between the Mets and Santana. But as the deadline came and went, bits and pieces trickled in, and it appears now, since the Mets have asked for and were granted a 2-hour extension, that a deal seems near. Currently, the distance is what sounds like a relatively manageable $10 million (relatively manageable, I say), and the guarantee of a 6th year.
The whole thing has made for a rather tense afternoon, and enough to make me cross reference Johan Santana with Samuel Beckett for a second time. I don't care. I'm making up nonsense words again and the Mets aren't even in the damn playoffs. Just get this thing done already!

Had things been a bit less hectic, I might have taken the opportunity earlier in the day to offer up my Super Bowl pick. Waiting for the Super Bowl is a similar game to waiting for the Johan news, however it's a much more tedious, air-filled, annoying wait that is finally just about over. We've heard all the stories, all the puff pieces, heard about Tom Brady's ankle and his girlfriend and his hair enough, we've broken down Plaxico Burress's mouth enough. Now, it's time to just shut up and play.

The Giants have had a memorable, magical ride through January, and rode their momentum all the way to this point, where they're facing off against a Patriots team that seemed to be predestined to reach this point. At 18-0, the Patriots are deservedly a huge favorite, having made history to get to this point, and need one victory to finish off the job. The Giants overcame huge odds and a media that seemed ready to bury them at any given moment, winning three Playoff games on the road. They come in with a world of confidence, and more people than I thought think that they can beat the Patriots after hanging close with them in December.

I suppose I could break things down a bit more in depth, but in reality, everyone has heard every angle. The Patriots offense is Great. The Giants defense is good. In a shootout, there's no way the Giants will be able to keep up. The Giants can try to contain Moss, but as we saw in the Patriots games against Jacksonville and San Diego, the Patriots can just pick you apart with their short passing game and Maroney. On the other side, the Giants can run a similar offense, but they lack the overall talent to keep that same pace as the Patriots can. It is a trademark of Belichick's winning teams to take away one facet of a team's offensive game, and force the opponent to beat him with the other. I believe the Pats will gang up on Bradshaw and Jacobs and force Eli Manning to beat them. Eli has proven that he is up to the task of managing the game, but has not, in this run, been forced to win the game on his own. He will, much like Favre in the Championship game, invariably be forced into a mistake, which is something that cannot be done against the Patriots. It has been a fabulous run to cap off a wonderful season that nobody expected out of the Giants. But I don't think they have enough to pull off the final Miracle. The Patriots are too good and they didn't come down here to lose this game.

My pick: Patriots 36, Giants 20. Close in the first half, but I think the Patriots will go on one of their 8-minute drives in the 3rd or early 4th Quarter, score a TD, and then pick off Manning on the next Giants possession, and that will be the dagger. The 4th Quarter will quickly turn into garbage time as the Patriots pull away. Tom Brady will cap off his landmark season with his 3rd Super Bowl MVP.

Enjoy your Turducken!

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Victory for the Ages

I know I picked the Giants to win in Green Bay last night. That doesn't necessarily mean I thought they would actually do it.

In a game that played out almost exactly as I thought it would, the Giants prevailed in the NFC Championship, in Green Bay last night, in a game that they could have won or lost 20 different ways.

The Giants won because their defense, which rose to the occasion in Dallas and Tampa Bay, came through with another outstanding effort, holding Ryan Grant to 29 yards rushing, forcing Brett Favre to beat them, and eventually forcing him to make a critical mistake.

The Giants won because Eli Manning, who proved himself about as steady as the Mets Bullpen in September 2007 throughout most of this season, continued his incredible turnaround, and conducted the Giants offense like it was he, and not Favre, bound for the Hall of Fame.

The Giants won because Plaxico Burress, who has played out the entire season on a crippled ankle, came through with a sterling performance equal to the magnitude of the game itself.

And the Giants won because, as a team, they were able to overcome a few individual mistakes that might have done in a lesser team (McQuarters' 2 fumbles, Madison's foolish Un-necessary roughness penalty, Tynes' 2 missed FGs) and never quit until Lawrence Tynes' 47-yard kick hooked through the uprights. They believe in each other, even when it seems like nobody else does.

I watched the game with a friend of mine, a Jets fan, and after the game, all we could do was look at each other and say, "Man. What a fucking game!" Watching the game, we were both reminded of past playoff failures by our own teams. He had flashbacks to a game 3 years ago, the Doug Brien game in Pittsburgh, when the Jets kicker missed a pair of Field Goals late in the game. I flashed way back to Matt Bahr in 1990, when these same Giants denied the 49ers of a Three-peat.

It seems so strange to think that the 2007 Giants are going to the Super Bowl. After an uneven season that didn't seem to inspire confidence in anybody, the Giants somehow righted themselves and caught fire at the most opportune time, riding a wave that will take them all the way down to Arizona for Super Bowl XLII.

You could tell that the Giants came to play an inspired game from the outset. With the temperature holding steady between -1°F and -4°F, the Giants looked warm and toasty, while the Packers, playing in their element, looked like the team that was cold. The Giants were able to move the ball at will on offense, and their defense was able to keep the Packers off balance. But for a few plays, specifically Driver's 90 yard TD, and a pair of Packers drives in the second half that were extended by bad penalties and a freak play, the Giants basically dominated the game.
But after running the ball and running down the clock to set up Tynes at the end of regulation, it didn't look good. I kept thinking that they needed to get closer, or take a shot at the End Zone. My friend was screaming about Doug Brien. Then, Tynes hooked the 36-yard FG as the clock ran out. And things really did not look good when the Packers won the coin toss before Overtime, following Tynes' second missed FG.

But as things have gone for the Giants this month, the Giants have been able to overcome the negative. And Favre's pass on the second play of Overtime was an underthrown flutterball that was easily intercepted by Corey Webster, setting up the final drive, and setting up Lawrence Tynes to charge past his coach, onto the field to make that last Field Goal to put the Giants into the Super Bowl.

3 straight on the road in the Postseason. 10 wins in a row on the road. Who the hell even plays 10 road games in a season?
The Giants did it. And they're absolutely where they deserve to be. This is a proud, proud day for the Giants and their fans, and they deserve all the congratulations they're getting right now. They earned it.
And they've earned another shot at the 18-0 New England Patriots, the prohibitive favorites right now. The Patriots basically did the absolute minimum they had to do to beat San Diego. But then, San Diego was pretty much hamstrung when Tomlinson had to go out of the game. The Chargers defense played inspired, picking off a shaky Tom Brady 3 times. But the offense failed to finish off drives, settling for Field Goals instead of Touchdowns, and that was the difference. The Patriots were able to hammer away and hammer away until there was no time left, holding the ball for the final 9 minutes of the game and knocking the Chargers off the dance floor.
It's a rematch of a most intriguing game that took place Week 17. Get ready to hear an awful lot about that, about the undefeated Patriots, about Eli Manning emerging from his brother's long shadow, and every other stupid human interest story that can be cooked up.

But you won't hear anything about Brett Favre this week.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

Championship Sunday in the NFL has always been a rather breathless day, even if the 49ers haven't been prominently involved. It's really the last pure day of the NFL Season, before the idiotic week bye week before the overblown spectacle that is the Super Bowl. Some of the most memorable moments in NFL History have come on Championship Sunday, you can look here for a brief recap of some particulars.

This weekend's games should be a treat. No, it's not going to be quite as good as the frenetic New England/Indianapolis game last year, but then, Indianapolis should have muscled up and beaten San Diego. They didn't, and they're not here, so...

...Sunday, at 3PM, we have the San Diego Chargers against the New England Patriots.

This is probably the day's biggest mismatch. San Diego gallantly came away with an epic upset last Sunday in Indianapolis because they were able to move the ball at will against Indy's defense, and their own defense rose to the occasion, came up with key turnovers, shut down Indy's running game and pressured Peyton Manning into making mistakes.

This particular recipe for success is not, in any way, shape or form, exclusive.

On the other side, the juggernaut that is the New England Patriots just continues to roll on. As I mentioned on Monday, Jacksonville pretty much played what was for them, as perfect a game as they could play. But they couldn't keep up with the Patriots, couldn't slow down Maroney, and couldn't lay a finger on Tom Brady. Brady cooly dissected the Jaguars defense relying on short, quick passes, rather than throwing to the double-covered Randy Moss, and the resulting 26 for 28 performance only adds to his legend. Plus, look at that picture. He's so dreamy!

As an unrelated point, Tom Brady is beginning to resemble, more and more, Thom Yorke of Radiohead. They could be dead ringers for each other if Thom Yorke weren't so obviously un-athletic. But the similarities seem to go deeper than just appearance. Both are currently performing at the top of their respective games (consider that a strong endorsement of Radiohead's new album), and have done so for an extended period of time, and even their lulls could be considered excellent for a lesser individual.

But I digress.

In order to continue their drive towards a perfect 19-0 season, the Patriots just have to stick with what got them this far. As time has passed, they have begun to rely more and more on the power running of Lawrence Maroney. I've maintained that any assertion that the Patriots might have had a weak running game was likely false; Belichick has proven himself a master of deception time and again and perhaps he was playing possum with his running game for some time, allowing Brady to just sling the ball at will. This was proven last week with Maroney's strong effort against a Jacksonville defense tough on the run. And if the Chargers try to play the Jags strategy of taking away Moss, Brady has too many other weapons (Stallworth, Welker, Watson) to look to, moreso than the Chargers defense might be able to handle. Yes, the Chargers are better at LB than Jacksonville, but perhaps weaker at Corner. Besides Antonio Cromartie, who will certainly be locked on Moss, they have Quentin Jammer and Drayton Florence, neither of whom are close to spectacular.

On the other side, I don't think anybody has any idea how effective Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson or Antonio Gates can be. They were all banged up but good after the Indianapolis game (or in the Tennessee game in the case of Gates). Billy Volek and Michael Turner might have been good enough to finish out the Indianapolis game. But they won't cut it in New England. The weather is going to be cold, they're going to be tight, and it's going to be tough for them to win. They might keep it respectable, but I think the only chance they have to beat New England is if LaDainian Tomlinson calls up the Real LT, and has him send some hookers to Tom Brady and Randy Moss' houses on Saturday night, while they sit in their hotel rooms and smoke crack.

My pick: New England 38, San Diego 16.

Sunday, sometime after 6pm, is the NFC Championship, featuring the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers, LIVE, from Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where the capacity of the Stadium is actually larger than the population of the town the Stadium is in.

Although it appears as though much of America seems to be rallying behind Brett Favre and the Packers, the ageless Quarterback resurrecting his career for one last hurrah, leading a band of young and hungry players to the cusp of the Super Bowl, I'm picking the Giants to win.

Here are several reasons why:
Yes, they're going to be on the road, in frigid and hostile Green Bay. But this fact hasn't seemed to bother the Giants at all over the course of the season. They won 7 of their 8 road games in the regular season (including the last 7), and then two more in the Playoffs. That's 9 road wins in a row in one season. That doesn't happen very often. We have seen the Giants mesh as a team as the season drew on, and perhaps this is why they have been able to have such success on the road.

Remember what I said before about the Chargers' strategy in beating the Colts? Well, the Giants did that in the second half of their victory in Dallas last weekend. After Marion Barber carved them up in the first half, the Giants defense held firm and rose up in the second half, keeping Barber under wraps and forcing Tony Romo to beat them. And when they were able to wear down Green Bay's offensive line and pressure Romo, Romo got frustrated and made mistakes. Well, I think they can do that to Green Bay, too. Although Ryan Grant has had a spectacular season, the Green Bay offense is so delicately balanced on Grant being able to run the ball with success. Otherwise, the game is solely in Brett Favre's hands. Now, this isn't a knock on Favre, but let's face it, Favre has always been susceptible to being pressured into making mistakes. He's a master at improvising, yes, but it's easy to overlook just how often his improvising can backfire on him (see: 2001 Divisional Playoff, Packers at Rams). Favre can also throw up that flutterball right into the opposing Safety's hands with the best of them. Favre was never pressured last weekend by a Seahawks defense that could stop neither the run, or the pass. The Giants defense has the capability of stopping the run, and they boast an excellent Pass rush. The question lies in the secondary, and if Aaron Ross is able to play. The secondary is good, but right now a patchwork unit because of injuries. But this didn't stop them last week in Dallas.

Then, there's this: If the Packers win, and go on to face the Patriots, the Media will very likely have a giant, collective, simultaneous orgasm. We will be bombarded, simply bombarded with stupid puff pieces about Brett Favre. True, if the Giants win, we'll hear the same stupid stuff about Eli Manning and Peyton, but you know that if Favre is involved, it's going to go to new heights of insanity. We'll hear from his chiropractor. We'll hear from the doctor that prescribed the painkillers he got addicted to. We'll hear from the guy who dug his father's grave. We'll probably get to see a live interview with the Bog that Favre grew up in in Mississippi. It's going to be absolutely and totally insane. I don't even want to think about the ridiculous questions that he'll be asked at Media day. Between that, the undefeated Patriots, and the Bill Simmons "Prince Favre vs. the Cobra Kai Yankees" theory, it's just a recipe for turning off your TV and throwing it out the window.

It is absolutely imperative that the Giants win this game on Sunday, despite the crowd, and the Favre, and the temperature that is going to range from 3 to -7°F in Green Bay. The sanity of us all depends on it.

My Pick: Giants 27, Packers 23.

Buckle up.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Historical Perspective

I don't write much about Football here, or in general, although I am an avid fan. Perhaps it is because my particular allegiance involves some explanation.

As a child, the first football game I ever watched was Super Bowl XIX, a matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and the Miami Dolphins, a matchup of a pair of legendary Quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Dan Marino.

The 49ers, behind Montana, were able to frustrate Marino and take apart the Dolphins consistently throughout the game, cruising to an easy 38-16 victory.

Despite being a native New Yorker, and never having been to San Francisco, I have been a die hard 49ers fan since that day.

I've remained loyal even though the past few seasons have been alternately trying and embarrassing, but I am able to take solace in five Super Bowl titles in 15 seasons between 1981 and 1994.

But moreso than just the victories, there was always something symphonic about watching the 49ers play in those years. Montana in particular was always a joy to watch, because it all just seemed to come so easy to him. It's easy to become spoiled by this, but with Montana, and later, Steve Young, you never really felt like you were out of a game. Working within offensive systems that played specifically to their strengths, Montana and Young were able to operate with frightening efficiency for several seasons, simply because their skills, and the superior talent around them, were always able to overwhelm the opposition.

The 49ers were 15-1 in the 1984 regular season, and ran the table to that Super Bowl XIX victory. Their only blemish a 20-17 loss to the Steelers in Week 7 of that season. They were the first team to win 15 games in an NFL season since the 16-game schedule was adopted in 1978. Other sterling seasons of 14-2 and 13-3 also led to Championships (1989, 1994), but other seasons in which the team did as well ended with playoff losses (1990, 1992, 1997).

There have been three other occurrences of 15-1 teams in the NFL. The 1985 Chicago Bears lost a notable Monday Night game to the Miami Dolphins after starting out 12-0. They would continue to romp on to a victory in Super Bowl XX.

The 1998 Minnesota Vikings lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers early in the season, but set scoring records and appeared poised to cruise into Super Bowl XXXIII. Until a missed Gary Anderson Field Goal late in the 4th Quarter of the NFC Championship game allowed the upstart Atlanta Falcons to tie, and eventually win in an astounding overtime upset.

The 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers lost their second game of the season to the Baltimore Ravens, and lost their starting Quarterback, Tommy Maddox, in the process. In his stead, Rookie Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 14 straight victories in the Regular season and another in the Divisional Playoffs. Then, they were promptly buzzsawed by a superior New England Patriots team in the AFC Championship Game.

The point being, Regular Season success is often fleeting. And even the most successful teams can often fall short if the stars align against them.

I'll be rooting for the New England Patriots tomorrow night against the New York Giants to complete their quest for an undefeated regular season, and I'll be rooting for them in the playoffs to run the table straight through to Super Bowl XLII.

Part of my reasoning is simply to be contrary; it seems, especially here in New York, that everyone hates the Patriots, hates Brady, hates Belichick, thinks they cheated, etc, etc. I'm not particularly interested. I've always been a fan of Brady. I don't care about the off-the-field exploits. Hell, he's no more overexposed than Peyton Manning, and he's not half as overbearing. Brady, on the field, has always exuded that killer instinct. That he knows he may not possess the best skills, but he's got the best skills in his system, and he can use that to his advantage. He's always given me the feeling that the Patriots were never out of any game so long as he was on the field.

Sort of like Joe Montana.

Moreover, as I've mentioned, success is often fleeting. And who the hell remembers or even cares about the 2004 Steelers or 1998 Vikings? Who even knows about the one game the 49ers lost in '84 or the Bears in '85?

There has only been one perfect season in NFL History, of course, the 1972 Miami Dolphins. We've got a chance to see History unfold over the next month with the Patriots, in a time when the game is vastly different than it was the last time something like this happened.

The Patriots have already done something nobody's accomplished by winning their first 15 games. From a Historical perspective, I cannot help but root for them to run the table the rest of the way.