Oh, it was a conundrum, all right, watching that Atlanta-Seattle game on Sunday and not knowing which way to lean. (I can't stand the Seahawks, they make me sick. And scared. Don't wanna play 'em again on any field, even our own field.) Mike Smith's Falcons are the "Rodney Dangerfield" of the NFL: no respect, no respect at all, I'm tellin' yuh. ("Last week I went into the hardware store for a box of rat poison. The girl at the counter said, 'You want me to wrap that up or are you gonna eat it here?' I don't get no respect!") The consensus commentary from the cognoscenti has been, "Yeah, best record in the league, sure, but, hey, they can be taken." (And if we didn't agree they could be taken, why are we even here?) The Falcons opened the game as though they had a personal score to settle with every single doubting mind out there; for most of three quarters it was, "Well, (gulp), looks like we're going to, uh, Atlanta next week, huh?" The game achieved a serene, almost somnambulant pace in the third quarter, with the score 20-0; we drowsily settled back into the recliner and woke some time later to cries of alarm: no, the house wasn't under attack, but the Seahawks were on the march! On they came, to the tune of three unanswered fourth-quarter touchdowns, seemingly unstoppable. (Okay, I give! I can't take this anymore. Anybody but Seattle!) Atlanta hadn't seen the like since Sherman. (Who, Richard Sherman? No, it's this Wilson guy I'm worried about!)
Well, we all know what happened. Seattle won the game when, after that brilliant comeback, their fading defense managed to tackle Tony Gonzalez just short of chip-shot field-goal range and Matt Bryant's last-second kick went wide right. What do you mean, it-- oh, yes, we forgot. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called time-out just before Bryant launched his errant kick, and given the reprieve, the veteran kicker drilled a perfect one right down the pike and poof-- Cinderella's carriage turned into a pumpkin, Seattle's season ended with a thud, and the NFC Championship Game will be played at the Georgia Dome, not Candlestick Park, this coming Sunday.
From a 49er perspective, does it matter? Is it boon or bane, advantage or disadvantage? Would we rather play the league's hottest team ("Nobody wants to face these guys in the playoffs!") on our home field, where we beat them back before they uncorked all this late-season 'mojo', or would we rather face the Dangerfields on the road? Well, some of Jim Harbaugh's most signal victories as coach have come in big road games, haven't they? And the people who do this sort of thing have voted with their dollars and made the Niners a four-point favorite-- and when was the last time the road team was favored in a conference championship game, anyway?
If you're a superstitious sort and a 49er fan, this week must feel like a vacation in Purgatory. Hot off the presses is the Sports Illustrated cover, featuring a dashing Colin Kaepernick being urged on by the perpetually-intense Harbaugh. Not since Steve Young rumbled, bumbled, and stumbled 49 yards to a touchdown against Minnesota back in 1988 (and we were there, football fans) has a run by an NFL quarterback so captured the imagination. Kaepernick's thrilling 56-yard burst against the Packers Saturday night, which really and truly decided the game, was different because nobody even breathed on him, let alone touched him. It was a signature play, the kind of moment that can define a player's career no matter what else he may do. San Francisco fans have had more than their share of these moments, so what do we call this one? "The Run?" "Harbaugh's Reward?" "The Spread-Option Speck-tackular?" Perhaps someone out there can do better.
It was only about fifteen months ago that some were anointing the Green Bay Packers, undefeated at the time, as one of the greatest teams ever. We noted then that while Mike McCarthy, Aaron Rodgers, and his powerful receiving corps were a scoring machine of perhaps historic proportion, no team with a defense as shaky as Green Bay's ever deserved such an honorarium. It appears little has changed. While adept at generating turnovers and scoring unexpected touchdowns, the Packer defense also is prone to being beaten physically at the line of scrimmage and consistently being a step late in coverage. We saw all this Saturday night. After the opening interception-runback was out of the way, the 49er offensive line slowly but deliberately took control of the game, until by the fourth quarter it was a borderline rout. The final tally was 579 total yards, 29 first downs, and one of the most mind-roasting stats of all: 323 rushing yards in a playoff game. What is this, 1934 or something?
We're not going to see those totals this Sunday. But we are likely to see them in proportion. The 49ers will outrush the Falcons. Kaepernick will match Matt Ryan's passing yardage and throw one less interception. There will be at least one critical fourth-quarter sack that kills an Atlanta drive. Cut the overall offensive totals by about one-third and you've got a 28-17 49er victory.
Notes from a most entertaining weekend:
Will the ridiculous notion of trying to "ice" the kicker finally meet its appropriate death after Carroll's blunder last week? The same bonehead move cost Miami a game earlier this year as well. Now, we have nothing but affection for Pete Carroll: he's a Marin county native (Redwood High), he was on a short list of 49er coaching candidates in '97, he spectacularly revived a historic college football program at USC (NCAA sanctions: bleagh), and he's made his third NFL time a charm, even if we loathe his team. Carroll is too smart to believe that "icing" the kicker really works; he was just trying to evade the endless second-guessing that would have fallen his way had he not called the time-out. Eventually, somebody's gonna be brave enough to stop this charade.
Watching that pointless time-out cost Seattle a win Sunday reminded us of the Detroit Tigers, running themselves out of a big inning in Game Four of the World Series when their fastest player chose to sacrifice his speed by diving into first base on an infield grounder. This is another example of a pointless tradition the game can do without. Nobody really believes you'll get to the base faster that way (how many Kenyans dive onto the track at the finish line in the 100-meter dash?), but after all, if you dive, no one can question your hustle, right? "Yeah, doggone shame, but he gave it all he had, didn't he?" Well, son, no he didn't. We signed him for his speed, and you just watched him throw it away.
While we have cordially despised the New England Patriots ever since they cheap-shotted their way to a championship in a 2001 season that rightfully ought to have ended on that snowy night in Foxborough, there is no question Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have produced one of the most multi-faceted, devastating offenses of all time. Brady stands as the central figure in a constantly-changing cast of supporting players, all of whom seem to be deployed in exactly the right manner to best suit their particular skills. Watching them carve up a good Houston defense on Sunday, we were uncomfortably reminded, not for the first time, of how opponents must have felt watching Joe Montana, Steve Young, and the "49er Machine" relentlessly marching to score after score back in the day.
A beloved family member picked the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC Super Bowl entry at the beginning of the postseason, claiming that with their defense back at full strength they would simultaneously be the most-rested and most-overlooked team in the tournament. We don't know but that he's right. After seeing them win that 80-minute endurance contest Saturday-- despite the overall sloppy play, as compelling a game as we've seen in years-- we're inclined to agree. Beating Denver in Denver is never an easy task, and while the postgame focus has mostly centered around how the Broncos lost it, we needn't forget how the Ravens won it, either. This is an extraordinarily resilient team, and, when we come down to it, probably is better-equipped to slow down Brady and beat the Patriots' secondary than either the Texans or the Broncos.
How do you slow down Brady? With a pass rush up the middle in his face. And the deep passing attack that turned Champ Bailey into Chump Bailout Sunday can certainly get behind Devin McCourty and company, which is not the same as saying it will, of course. But we like the Ravens to win outright, and were we gamblin' men we'd sure enough take those nine points.
HarBowl, anyone? Or is it Supe-HAR Bowl? Well... you decide.
But on this we brook no argument: GO NINERS!