Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"We let 'em off the hook!"

Had we been asked to compose an ideal opening script for the 49ers' championship showdown against the Seahawks at Seattle Sunday last, it might have gone something like this:

49ers win the toss;
They elect to defer;
They immediately force a Seattle turnover;
They score the game's first points; and, simultaneously:
Take the crowd out of the game;
Set the tone for the rest of the afternoon; and
Plant a seed of doubt into a confident opponent.

Barely a minute into the game, Aldon Smith indeed took the ball away from Russell Wilson deep in Seattle territory after cornering the scrambling quarterback.  Three plays later Phil Dawson kicked a field goal for a 3-0 lead, and while a touchdown would have been preferable, there was little to fret about in a game that was likely to feature a few field goals and perhaps be decided by one.

It was all downhill from there.

Believe it, people: the 49ers had this game in hand, and they gave it away. Sure, we can complain about the officiating all we want, but the truth is the 49ers turned it over three times in the fourth quarter, in a game that ultimately was decided on one play. This wasn't the last Super Bowl, where the Niners came back against all odds and fell just short in the attempt. This one got away, or was taken away, by a team that was just a little bit better when they had to be. Yes, you can lose the turnover battle and still win a conference championship (witness "The Catch"),  but you only get to do that about once every 33 years. This time, the mistakes were enough to cost a good team the Super Bowl, and to send another good team there instead.

The Seahawks didn't do anything the 49ers didn't expect them to do. Their entire offense was three big plays. Wilson's second-quarter bomb to Doug Baldwin, which set up a field goal, was their only first-half play of note. Then there was that damnable fourth-and-8 touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse which finally swung the game their way early in the fourth quarter. The rest of the time they kept hitting the line with Marshawn Lynch, which early on didn't work, but in the second half did,  especially his one big run for their first TD.  Defensively, Seattle concentrated on stopping Frank Gore, and they were successful. They trusted their secondary to make as many big plays as they gave up, and they did. And they were unable to contain Colin Kaepernick when he ran for 130 yards-- but they gambled it wouldn't cost them the game, and they were right-- just barely right, but right.

That the 49ers controlled the tempo, the pace, and the score throughout the first half, but couldn't finish the job in the second half, is a reality we're now forced to live with throughout the offseason. All year they'd been the best second-half team in football, and they had the lead and the ball to open that second half-- and, though it's taken us until today to grudgingly admit it, it was Seattle who came out and controlled that second half.  The game was a dogfight for the final two quarters, but as it wore on we saw the Seattle specialty-- their uncanny knack for making the other team self-destruct-- start to emerge. That it came down to a frantic last-minute drive, similar to that of the Green Bay game; that we had every confidence "Kap" and the boys would pull it off despite needing a touchdown instead of a field goal this time; that only a spectacular end-zone play by Richard Sherman (and we'll refrain form making any further comments about his post-game tirade; our opinions are already scattered across the 'Net like vile confetti) ended that comeback bid-- all this speaks volumes about the depth of character and courage exhibited by our favorite football team, and it's just too bad that we'll have to wait until next season to see the same spirit demonstrated again. All this week we're worn our colors with pride; Jim Harbaugh's team played their heart out in a third consecutive road game against a strong, determined opponent, and came up one play short.  Nobody need apologize.

It's time to send our best wishes and prayers for speedy recovery to the great Navorro Bowman, who ought to be voted the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. Likewise to studly Michael Iupati, who recovered from one serious injury this year only to suffer another Sunday. And we couldn't, and wouldn't, have come this far without the spectacular play of Anquan Boldin, whom we hope will wear the scarlet and gold at least one more season.

Bright moments: "Kap" long-striding past the grasping Seattle secondary on his 58-yard second-quarter gallop; Smith's continuous,  unrelenting pressure on Wilson, who looks like nobody if not the new Fran Tarkenton ("I always hated Tarkenton," grumbled the normally mild-mannered Merlin Olsen years ago, and we could see the same frustration in Aldon's  late-game demeanor); Anthony Dixon's leap over the line into the end zone on fourth-and-goal, the Niners' high-water mark; Boldin's career-defining touchdown catch amid tight coverage, our only score in the second half; the 49er defense surviving three brutal turnovers by allowing only 6 points instead of 21;  the much-hyped Seattle "Twelfth Man" being a total non-factor in the game; Patrick Willis' respectful shoulder-slap of Wilson as the clock wound the final seconds down-- an almost-unseen gesture of sportsmanship on a most chippy afternoon; Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll's cordial, almost affectionate midfield postgame meeting.

In the Get It Right Next Time Dept., we hear the Competition Committee will likely change the absurd rule that fumble recoveries are not reviewable. How seven men could miss Bowman holding the football in plain sight is a mystery, but in any case justice was served when Lynch promptly coughed it up on the next play (and several teammates helped by kicking it back out to the 49er 15). And when was the last time "roughing the kicker" was called, anyway? It was fairly common once upon a time; now apparently it's fallen into such disuse that the officials can't recognize it when they see it. Use it or lose it, fellas; we can't say the non-call decided the game, but we can't say it didn't, either.

Super Bowl XLVIII will feature pro football's Ultimate Good Guy, Peyton Manning, for the third time, as he seeks to become the only quarterback ever to lead two teams to a Super Bowl victory. We're with him-- or, more precisely, we're with his team. This game comes down to the Number One offense against  the Number One defense, and as we've said before, when that happens the outcome will likely be decided on the other side of the ball-- that is, when Denver's defense meets Seattle's offense. Based on what we saw Sunday, we believe Manning-- with a lot of help from his D-- will hoist his second Lombardi trophy ten days hence, capping a record season with a record victory.   

And for those of you who've yet to get over it...  the Giants' training camp opens in less than a month.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Good Things Happen in Threes

So goes the old saying, and both our beloved 49ers and the New England Perennials are hoping it's true.  Each team takes the field this Sunday playing in their third straight conference championship game.  Each has split the previous two, so this one will be something of a "rubber match" for both. To make it especially difficult, both teams are on the road this time, which up until now has been something of an issue for the Patriots but hasn't affected the 49ers.

Jim Harbaugh has gotten a lot of deserved credit this week for his team's third straight appearance at the Super Bowl's doorstep, and of course the Belichicks have turned the postseason into something like their annual company picnic. New England has won their division ten out of the last eleven years-- five years in a row twice-- which is the best of any team since the 1970 NFL merger.  They'll now have played in the AFC title game eight times in the last thirteen years, winning five and losing two so far.

Which got us wondering, how historic is all this? How many teams have played in three straight conference championships, what's the record for consecutive appearances, and how many other teams have dominated their conference over a decade? Pardon us, 'cause we're about to get all historical on yo' ass.

The Oakland Raiders-- John Madden edition-- hold the record for consecutive conference championship game appearances, with five in a row from 1973-1977.  They lost four of those games but went all the way in '76. Now, if you add the last three AFL Championship Games to the mix-- back in 1967-1969, when the Super Bowl was a true World Championship-- those legendary Raiders played for the Super Bowl nine times in 11 years from 1967-1977.  It's no wonder the outsized, ebullient Madden (who took over in 1969) became "America's Coach" when he retired after 1978; his was the most familiar face we all remembered year after year from some of the most exciting and highest-stakes games in league history.

Nine out of 11 years. Not even Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys, who played in 10 of the first 13 NFC Championship Games from 1970-1982, can match that. Even the great 49er teams of Bill Walsh and George Seifert, who were in the NFC Championship Game six out of seven years from 1988-1994, didn't sustain it that long. Great as the Patriots have been since 2003, they don't measure up to that standard either.

And some of you wondered where that "Commitment to Excellence" business came from!

Getting back to consecutive appearances, the Raiders hold the record at five. Four teams-- the Landry Cowboys from 1970-1973, Marv Levy's Buffalo Bills from 1990-1993, the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys from 1992-1995, and most recently Andy Reid's Philadelphia Eagles from 2001-2004--  have played in four straight.  The Bills, of course, won all four of theirs.  Philly lost their first three-- including back-to-back losses at home, the only time that's ever happened-- before finally winning one.

And finally, six other teams, including the 49ers twice, have done three in a row. Don Shula's Dolphins did it from 1971-1973, winning all three.  The Los Angeles Rams of the "Ground Chuck" (Knox) era made it  in 1974, 1975, and 1976-- and lost each time. The Cowboys in their fading glory lost all three times from 1980-1982 (including, of course, "The Catch." Had to get that in there somehow!). As we noted earlier, the 49ers were in the NFC title game from 1988-1990 (with Joe Montana) and again from 1992-1994 (with Steve Young), interrupted by a one-year hiatus shaped a lot like Joe's elbow. Finally we have the Green Bay Packers of Mike Holmgren, Reggie White, and Brett Favre from 1995-1997 (and they beat the 49ers in the postseason each of those years, though only in the NFC Championship once).

Some pretty good company, wouldn't you say? It doesn't seem to confer a specific winning advantage in the games, though. Coming in on a streak of appearances makes for good copy and all, but as we all know it's utterly meaningless on the field.

Setting aside the trivia, then, we note we've been praising the Patriots unusually frequently of late, which is odd, but the prospect of a New England-San Francisco Super Bowl is, y'gotta admit, pretty enticing. (We trust y'all remember that Monday night game from last year.)  We don't think it's going to happen, though. The story everyone else has been beating to death-- Brady v. Manning XV-- may not be the deciding factor. Look to the defenses, neither of which, admittedly, is the best in the league. In a situation like this, we give the edge to the home team.

As for the 49ers and Seahawks-- well, we have no idea. Each team is capable of beating the other, certainly. If you take each team at its best, we believe the 49ers have the better bunch. But the Seahawks' whole game plan is, and has been, to take the opponent out of their best game. And when one team has a good chance to win without playing all that well-- and Seattle definitely fits that bill-- common sense dictates you play the percentages, especially when that team is on their home field in front of the most obnoxious fans in football.

But common sense has his side of the street, and we have ours. We're 49er fans, 49er faithful, approaching fifty years of this madness now, and we say this team will play its best and win one of the most memorable conference championship games ever played.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

March of the Inevitables

The NFL's Final Four look an awful lot like most people's pre-season favorites, don't they? Oh, sure, there were those who cast their votes for Atlanta, or Houston, or both, to be in it (guilty as charged, we are), but in the main this Championship Sunday field has an air of inevitability about it. We have the Team No One Wants to Play, we have the Record-Setting Juggernaut, we have, of course, the Eternal (or is that Infernal?) Empire, and, last but not least, we have our own faves, the Unfinished Business Boys.  Both top seeds survived the past weekend, which is kinda rare in itself, and there isn't a Plucky Underdog left.  You can slice and dice the upcoming Super Bowl four different ways, and all of those potentialities are good matchups. Parity may have ruled the regular season; this postseason has seen excellence rise to the top.

The semifinal games just concluded, while not as exciting as the previous weekend's slate, were illustrative in that each winning team played its unique brand of football en route to victory.  The losers, while certainly competitive and, in some cases, more so, never took the winners out of their game plans or forced a change in style.

Seattle held, hit, blocked, and tackled-- hard. Marshawn Lynch's power running was almost negated by Russell Wilson throwing more than his quota of hideous passes-- but Wilson also hit on two huge downfield completions that helped decide the game. Had Mark Ingram not fumbled on his own 20-yard-line, would the result have been different? Outside that play the game was essentially a stalemate, but while the Seahawks' few drives stalled in field-goal range, Drew Brees and Co. never got into scoring position at all until they were sixteen points to the bad. The Seahawks' frustrating, disruptive style of play takes opponents out of their games on a regular basis; but given that Seattle's own plan is simply to make no mistakes on offense, trust the defense, and keep the game close, it's doggone hard to get them off their script. Early in the year, certainly including the 49er game, Seattle was known for jumping out to an early lead and then simply suffocating the other team for the duration. That hasn't happened in a while--  but they're still winning.

Who could have figured the New England Patriots would reinvent themselves as the 1973 Miami Dolphins? OK, Tom Brady throws more than eight passes a game, but the parallels are striking. How about the three-headed running back-- big bruiser LeGarrette ("Four-- count 'em-- four, touchdowns") Blount, quick-to-the-hole Stevan Ridley, and all-purpose Shane Vereen? Anyone else see the ghosts of Csonka, Morris, and Kiick? And whom does Julian Edelman resemble more than Howard Twilley? Meanwhile, as Brady and Bill Belichick search for their version of Paul Warfield, the rest of us see a defense that recalls the "No-Name" squad of old-- a bunch of NFL nobodies who drove the brilliant but overburdened Andrew Luck into mistake after mistake. (No longer anonymous: rookie linebacker Jamie Collins).  And if there's any coach today who bears a resemblance to the great Don Shula, it's Belichick, with his uncanny acumen that enables him to find the right role for the player, no matter who he may be (or whom he may be asked to replace).

Even in defeat, the San Diego Chargers played their game-- if not their season in microcosm. Appalling in their offensive ineptitude for nearly three full quarters,  the 'Bolts' came alive in the final period and gave themselves a chance to win, unlikely as it sounds.  But Peyton Manning and his offensive lieutenants had already struck for enough points to set the tone, and they answered back the Chargers' first score with a definitive drive of their own to re-establish supremacy. Manning didn't need to throw five, six, or seven touchdowns, and it's presumptuous to say he could have if he wanted to-- San Diego's defense kept them in the game against long odds. But who's to say that if and when the occasion calls for it, Peyton won't simply dial up yet another record-setting performance, no matter who the opposition may be? And we ought to take note that the Bronco defense, lately held to be the team's weakness, if anything put out a more consistent winning effort than did the offense.  

That leaves our 49ers for last.  There isn't a better second-half team in football, and hasn't been for some time, than Jim Harbaugh's group. We saw it in the Super Bowl, we saw it last week, and we saw it Sunday, demonstrated with a vengeance. Early on, the Carolina Panthers were playing their game-- tight, hard-hitting defense, verbal intimidation, Cam Newton keeping the pass rush honest-- and then Cam and Steve Smith hit the critically important big play, a 31-yard strike that wiped out an early interception and a 49er goal-line stand, and which all of a sudden put the Panthers ahead.

The 49ers' resulting 17-0 steamroller job thus was a sight to behold. They beat the Panthers at their own game-- which is the Niners' game, too-- and overcame some of their own deficiencies in the process. We'd started grinding our collective teeth early on, as two promising drives ended unsatisfactorily in field goals-- our continuing goal-to-go frustrations piling up. And unlike Green Bay, against whom we'd opened in near-identical fashion the week before, Carolina has a great defense, and that defense saw those field goals as wins: All we need is the lead.  And they had the lead as Colin Kaepernick and his offensive mates faced yet another goal-to go at the end of a snappy, three-minute, 11-play, 79-yard drive just before halftime. Second down from the one and "Kap" rolled right, waiting for what seemed like forever, and then zipped one into the corner that for all the world looked like it would fall incomplete-- and even when Vernon Davis unexpectedly grabbed it, it still was incomplete, according to the officials.  Thankfully, replay proved Vernon had dragged his left foot in bounds and the call went our way--as did most of the calls, and penalties, on this day, excepting only one egregiously bad example (look up Dan Skuta on the highlight films if you must; we can't bear it).

But we'd scored. A touchdown. On a short pass into a well-defended end zone. Finally. That was the important thing.

Kaepernick and Anquan Boldin answered Newton and Smith back with a beautiful deep pass for 45 yards four minutes into the third quarter, a perfect throw and catch which a faster man would have taken in for the touchdown. (Not that we'd trade "The Quan" for any receiver in the NFL right now-- Boldin may be the San Francisco 49ers' most valuable player this year, and is certainly the team's top trade pickup since Fred Dean). "Kap" then let 'em see a glimpse of the read-option as he weaved past defenders into the end zone to make it 20-10. The remaining nine minutes of the third quarter played out a drama that decided the game.

Though not known as a comeback team, the Panthers had rallied late against the New Orleans Saints to win the NFC South division a few weeks earlier, and here Newton led them on a six-minute 13-play march across midfield and down inside the 49er 30-yard-line, eating up clock and putting his team in position to make it a three-point game. Working out of the shotgun, Newton and Ron Rivera may have been thinking of the bomb to Smith from this same location earlier. In any case, the 49ers' Vic Fangio, who doesn't dial up the blitz often, sent his linebackers after Newton on successive dropbacks. First Navorro Bowman and then Ahmad Brooks nailed the QB for crushing sacks, dropping Carolina back 16 yards, nearly to midfield and out of field-goal range. There were still 40 seconds left in the third quarter, but even the Carolina fans knew something had been irrevocably lost, and when Brad Nortman punted on fourth down, the Panthers' victory hopes sailed away with the kick.

There were no fumbles in the game, and the only two interceptions were Newton's, though neither especially crippled his team's chances. It may be simplistic to assert those two sacks made the difference in toto, but we're hard-pressed to remember back-to-back plays that echoed with such significance. Defeating Carolina, a team that plays in the hard-nosed, grabby, intimidating manner as does Seattle, and doing so on the road, is proof positive that the 49ers have the capability to do the same this Sunday. That they will of course, is the "thing"-- the thing nobody knows. But we're quite certain that no game, and no opponent, could have better prepared the Niners for what they're about to face than did the Carolina Panthers. They'll be back.

And as far as being back goes, all it will take for the 49ers to get back to the Super Bowl is to do this again, one more time-- and do it maybe just a little bit better.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Road Trap?

Well, to hear the cognoscenti do their cognoscentin', one might conclude Sunday's upcoming tussle with the Carolina Panthers is already locked, stocked, and barrelled.  Once again, the San Francisco 49ers are everybody's favorite team, and the Panthers are a plucky bunch of overachievers who benefited from a soft schedule and a series of injured opponents. The same people who proclaimed Colin Kaepernick a flash-in-the-pan at midseason are now busy anointing him as the quickest, slickest, shootin'est QB in the league. Overwhelmingly, San Francisco is the talk of the NFL and the Panthers have been relegated to Washington Generals status.

In other words, it's time for us 49er fans to be concerned. Very concerned.

That the Niners, at full strength and on a memorable roll, ought to beat the Panthers on their home field is a reasonable expectation. But that they will is another.  Last weekend's win over Green Bay, thrilling and rewarding as it was, left some concerns in its wake. Principally, those two first-quarter red-zone series which resulted in field goals instead of touchdowns bore an awfully uncomfortable resemblance to the frustrating finish in Super Bowl XLVII.  Six times "Kap" was asked to deliver short "touch" passes into the tightest coverage scheme in pro football, the end-zone defense.  Six times the Niners came up short. Oh, sure, they could have called interference on at least one of those plays, but this isn't the first time this has happened, and it's beginning to look uncomfortably like a habit. Might coach Harbaugh consider mixing in a few running plays in goal-to-go situations Sunday?

Carolina is a team who win games in a manner we all will find familiar; one thing we don't want to see is the 49ers playing to the opponent's strength, and risk getting beaten at our own game. Cam Newton is capable of making big game-breaking plays as does "Kap," and the Panthers' defense is built a lot like our own, with phenomenally active linebackers and a front four that can deliver pressure without resorting to the blitz. One advantage in the 49ers' favor is that the venerable Steve Smith may be at less than full strength, while our own Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin, and Michael Crabtree are all playing at top level.  We think the 49ers will win this game, but we expect it to be every bit as close as the exhaust-o-thon just completed.

As opposed to his goal-line struggles, Kaepernick was in much better shape on the medium-range throws to Crabtree (has he ever dropped a catchable pass?) and especially on that spectacular post-pattern perfecto to Davis which split two defenders and re-established the 49ers' advantage-- for good, as it turned out. And of course, no San Francisco-Green Bay game these days is complete without at least one sensational run by "Kap." This one had three, all of which set up scores and all of which showed off our QB's tremendous speed and athletic ability-- particularly that dagger-through-the-heart sideline scramble on the game's ultimate drive.

That five-minute possession was a defining moment for the young quarterback. The goal was clear from the outset: not only to drive to the winning score, but to use the clock in such a manner as to ensure Aaron Rodgers would not get back on the field unless a missed field goal forced overtime. And both Harbaugh and Kaepernick directed the action perfectly. Just as important as the third-down pass to Crabtree and the above-mentioned quarterback run was Frank Gore's short plunge for a critical first down that took the clock away from the Packers' control. Without naming names, we'll just say that controlling the final five minutes of a game while holding onto the the football is a 49er trademark we remember from the glory days, and this was a most timely delivery of the new updated version.  Everybody take a bow!

As Alex Smith sliced and diced the Indianapolis Colts' defense during the first 35 minutes of Saturday's postseason opener, we were feeling awfully warmhearted toward the 49ers' former Number One pick. He showed flashes of the pinpoint accuracy and the heads-up running that carried the Niners past New Orleans two postseasons ago, and in our mind we were already composing lyrical prose about redemption and a possible scarlet-on-scarlet showdown come February. Then Andrew Luck happened, and-- well, is this how those selfsame Saints of an earlier generation felt watching a youngster named Montana back in December of 1980? In the end, it's hard to be too upset with this calamity, if that's what it is, because we believe the Colts match up well against the Evil Empire, whom they'll be facing Saturday night. People go broke betting against Belichick and Brady, but we think the Colts are physical enough, and Luck brilliant enough, to carry the day (or night).

Speaking of the Saints, who would have figured they'd win on the road with their running game and defense overcoming a mediocre effort from Drew Brees? Yet that's just what they did, and after 47 long years the New Orleans Saints have finally won a postseason game outside the Superdome. If they're going to continue this and pull off a colossal upset at Buster Eardrums Field up in Seattle Saturday, they'll need to depend on guys like Khiry Robinson and, Mark Ingram as much as on Brees, and they'll need to "out-physical" the Seahawks both ways. Still a longshot, especially in that outdoor insane asylum, but we'll be here pulling for 'em.  And we hardly need cry for the Eagles (especially those few who went public with sore-loser comments) considering how far they came in one year with a brand-new system and the likelihood they'll be right back in it next year.

"Air Coryell" they're not, but the 2013 San Diego Chargers aren't chopped liver either. They got stronger and stronger as the Cincinnati game went on last Sunday, choking the life out of the game against a strong defense. Everybody seems to be blaming Andy Dalton for this loss, but howzabout we give Mike McCoy, his game plan, and his offensive line some credit for the win? Phillip Rivers is exactly the kind of quarterback who'll thrive in a game where he only has to throw six passes in the first half, and if Mr Less-Is-More is going to have any chance at upsetting Peyton Manning and his record-setting crew on Sunday, he'll need another grind-it-out clock-eating effort from Danny Woodhead, Ryan Matthews, and the offensive line. We don't think it'll be enough, even if it does work, but hey-- that's why they play the games, right?



Saturday, January 4, 2014

Road Trip

File under "Change for Change's Sake:"  The 49ers have become the poster boys for those who would revise the NFL's postseason alignment.  With a 12-4 record, Our Boys will be facing the 8-7-1 Green Bay Packers tomorrow at Lambeau Field under "Ice Bowl" conditions, and more than a few have seized on this as evidence of the league's disparity. (Actually, we see it as evidence of parity, but this blog is not "Semantics Boogie", at least not yet.)

The carpers seem to fall into two general camps. First are those who would simply tweak the home-field advantage to reward the team with the better record, even if that team were the wild-card and their opponent the division winner. In that scenario this weekend's NFC home fields would be reversed, but nothing else would change. The Niners would host as the third seed with Green Bay the sixth, while Philly would play at New Orleans. Others favor more radical surgery: seed the teams 1-6 by record regardless of division titles or anything else. Presumably this would entail, in fact if not in appearance, one big 16-team conference with no divisions. This year's NFC qualifiers would thus be the Seahawks, Panthers, 49ers, Saints, Cardinals, and Eagles, with the Packers sidelined. The Washington Redskins would man the caboose in 16th place-- and as was once said by a baseball owner in 1969, explaining why the leagues adopted divisional play, "Who in the @#$%&! is gonna root for a 12th (or, we might add, 16th) -place team?"

The issue could also be addressed by consolidating the four divisions into two 8-team divisions (East and West in the NFC, North and South in the AFC) while qualifying four wild-cards, which would all but guarantee that the division winners would have the best records. But as one critic pointed out, 14 of each team's games would thus be played within their division. Even if the season expanded to 18 games, such a configuration would radically change the regular season.

So the best answer is to do nothing, play it as it lays, and by all means resist any efforts to expand the postseason derby to 14 teams. (Back, infidel Goodell!)  Good thing the 49ers have played well on the road, isn't it?

Okay, a few quick and topical one-liners before the show starts:

Kansas City at Indianapolis. Y'all know the Chiefs are our favorite AFC team, but we like the Colts, too. (Did you know that next year, their 31st in Indianapolis, they'll have been in Indy as long as they were in Baltimore?) Two well-coached teams, two Number One Pick quarterbacks... we're pulling for Alex and his mates, but if we had to throw down we'd go with the home team, by a field goal, possibly in OT.

New Orleans at Philadelphia.  The whole house here is pulling for the Saints to win and then go up to Seattle and avenge that 2010 playoff defeat, but reality tells us that 10-degree weather and LeSean McCoy will overcome Drew Brees and a lousy run defense. We see Philly pulling away in the second half before Brees mounts an exciting but too-late rally that falls short by a TD or so.

San Diego at Cincinnati. A repeat of 1982's "Freezer Bowl?" Perhaps so. Andy Dalton ain't no Ken Anderson, but whether the Chargers' defense can force him into mistakes is the question. And if he doesn't screw up, the Bengals roll. Too bad, because we like this San Diego team, but the Bengals stay unbeaten at home and win their first playoff game since 1990.  Then it's on to Foxboro...

49ers at Green Bay.  Weather or not, Our Boys have too many weapons for a Packer defense that may be without Clay Matthews.  Three quarters of Kap-versus-Rodgers, big plays, back-and-forth-- and then a fourth quarter of Frank Gore, Navorro Bowman, and disgruntled Cheeseheads abandoning their seats for their cars.   Niners by 14.

Friday, January 3, 2014

TV or Not TV

Has anyone else noticed that empty seats are becoming more and more common at NFL games? This sight, which we've noticed even at such hallowed locations as Heinz Field in Pittsburgh and FedEx  Field in Washington, cannot be a pleasant one for Roger Goodell and the NFL braintrust. While it can be understood that Redskins fans might stay away during the Kirk Cousins auditions over the season's final weeks, seeing empty yellow chairs on Sunday night a few weeks ago when the Steelers beat the Bengals at home and and improved their playoff chances was truly surprising.  

Okay, maybe they were all out for beer and brats at the concessions. That's always possible. But earlier this week ESPN reported that the Colts, Bengals, and Packers had yet to sell out their upcoming quarterfinal playoff games this weekend, and that those games-- playoff games, yet-- might be blacked out in the teams' home towns as a result.

Packer fans were quick to the defensive: apparently the team had sent out its postseason ticket order forms in early December, when the locals were 5-6 and Aaron Rodgers was still under doctors' care. Few indeed would shell out under those circumstances, and Cheesehead Nation firmly denies that "fear of the 49ers" had anything to do with the slow advance sales. Indeed, the last we saw, the unsold block had dropped from 40,000 to about a thousand, with those expected to go today-- and we're confident they will.

The Colts dodged the blackout bullet yesterday, thanks to the corporate folks at Meijer, whose fine gesture will allow military families a chance to see the game up close and personal. Similar acts of kindness toward our servicemen and servicewomen are being reported from Cincinnati, though their blackout risk remains as of this hour. Considering the Bengals have hosted exactly two postseason games since 1990, and the last was in 2009, this one is hard to figure.

In his fine book America's Game, author Michael MacCambridge differentiates the NFL's rush to embrace television with major-league baseball's concurrent stodginess as a key reason why pro football became the nation's number one spectator sport in the 1960s. "Why give our product away for free?" was the baseball lords' argument. The football people, epitomized by commissioner Pete Rozelle, realized that TV exposure sold not only the game, but the stadium experience, as well as the team and league brands, to previously untapped audiences. It was taken for granted that a good percentage of that audience would become interested enough to buy into the entire game-day experience, and that the remainder would be numerous enough that advertisers would pay top dollar to try and grab their attention. As we know, it all worked.

But the advent of high-definition TV, packages like "NFL Sunday Ticket," the proliferation of highlights from other games, and the incredibly sophisticated camera techniques now deployed by the networks give the TV viewer an experience that the fan in the stands can't match. Add to that the traffic, crowding, and winter weather conditions which accompany the stadium experience, and the increasing reports of dangerous parking lot conditions, especially after dark, and the disincentive side of the equation also gets heavier. Back in San Francisco we were on the waiting list for 49er season tickets; by the time we left the area twelve years ago it was already an open question whether we'd even want them if our number somehow came up. The consensus around here is that once, maybe twice, a season might be fun, but the rest of the time we'd rather watch the whole 14-game Sunday-afternoon circus from our command center-- uh, family room, that is.

Yes, the games are still selling out, for the most part-- but where are the people? We have to figure Goodell and his minions cringe whenever the camera reveals rows of empty seats during a late-season playoff-position battle. As perhaps the most interventionist commissioner since Bert Bell, will Goodell do anything about it?

Speaking of TV, we note this postseason is not exactly an advertising man's wet dream. Of the top ten markets in the league, only two-- Philadelphia and Boston-- are represented in the playoffs, while five of the bottom ten--  Green Bay, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and New Orleans-- made it. No Giants, no Cowboys, no Redskins. Sure, we know small-market teams like the Packers and Steelers, not to mention our mid-market 49ers,  have fans all over the country, but when you consider numbers alone, how excited will the marketing people be over, say, a Bengals-Panthers Super Bowl?

Aren't we glad it's not our problem?

Just for fun, here are the 32 NFL teams ranked by size of home base, and presumed home TV audience, according to 2012 US Census figures. (We split NYC between the Giants and Jets, and split the Bay Area between the Niners and Raiders as well, then added San Jose to the 49er base. Of course, this can't take nationwide fan bases into account, but TV audience estimates have to be based on something.)  

1. New York Giants         9,900,000
    New York Jets 9,900,000
3. Chicago Bears 9,500,000
4. Dallas Cowboys 6,700,000
5. Houston Texans 6,200,000
6. Philadelphia Eagles       6,000,000
7. Washington Redskins 5,900,000
8. Miami Dolphins 5,800,000
9. Atlanta Falcons 5,500,000
10. New England Patriots 4,600,000
11. Arizona Cardinals       4,300,000
12. Detroit Lions 4,300,000
13. San Francisco 49ers 4,000,000
14. Seattle Seahawks       3,600,000
15. Minnesota Vikings 3,400,000
16. San Diego Chargers 3,200,000
17. Tampa Bay Bucs        2,800,000
18. St Louis Rams 2,800,000
19. Baltimore Ravens       2,800,000
20. Denver Broncos 2,600,000
21. Pittsburgh Steelers 2,400,000
22. Carolina Panthers       2,300,000
23. Oakland Raiders 2,200,000
24. Cincinnati Bengals 2,100,000
25. Cleveland Browns 2,100,000
26. Kansas City Chiefs 2,000,000
27. Indianapolis Colts       1,900,000
28. Tennessee Titans 1,700,000
29. Jacksonville Jaguars 1,400,000
30. New Orleans Saints 1,200,000
31. Buffalo Bills                1,100,000
32. Green Bay Packers   311,000