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.

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