The Passing of the Torch

 Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.

One of the most charismatic Presidents of the United States, a man whose time was cut too short, provided us with a quote that defines the world as we know it. He foresaw a young generation taking the reigns of the world and staking their claim as the next crop of successful Americans. They’ve seen the hardships of the world, and they know, at a young age, what dilemmas they will face as they grow older. Kennedy was a man of youth himself, and believed that just as presidents step down to make way for a new direction, the torch must one day be passed down to the next generation in all evolving events.

The same is true in sports. There will always be an elite set of players who reign over the sport like a Mt. Rushmore of the talented and famous. Those players define the sport and all who grow up with it. Everyone remembers their favorite players from their time. The fans of the 80’s would have grown up with Joe Montana, John Riggins, Lawrence Taylor, Jerry Rice and The Fridge. The 90’s? The Triplets in Dallas, Deion Sanders, Barry Sanders and Derrick Thomas.

Even after 17 bruising years, he’s still one of the most
feared players in the league.

Who are the 2000’s? Well, there’s a plethora of players who define their positions and the sport. I mean, who can you think of right off the top? Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson, Ed Reed, and…definitely Ray Lewis.

The first time I watched Ray was against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in ’06 on opening day. The Ravens dominated that game, winning 27-0. But with it being my first real look at the play of Ray Lewis, I was beyond mesmerized. The tenacity, ferocity, and passion that he played with were unprecedented. When he had his arms reaching for a player, you could be sure that they wouldn’t see the rest of the play. It was a moment of (almost) clarity for me that there were players who were so powerful and unrelenting in their play. It wasn’t until the end of the season when I realized that there’s only one Ray Lewis, one of the best linebackers in football history.

Out of pure boredom two years later, I watched a San Francisco 49ers game in  Week 2 versus my Seahawks. I remember it because I was curious to see what all the hype was surrounding this kid called Patrick Willis. Yes, I speak as though they’re kids, that’s just my style.

Patrick Willis. The One. The Only. The Best.

It was astonishing. Willis was the most dominant player on that squad, never allowing a single tackle to evade him. He finished with only eight tackles, but each one of them came at a time when his team direly needed a stop. And to top it all off, Willis began a surge of scores with an 86-yard interception return for a touchdown to take the lead in the third quarter. The 49ers would win that game in OT on a field goal.

After just two seasons of my thinking that Lewis was the only player of his kind, I found his match. A young buck with a hunger for hard hits and takeaways. Both were the scariest players on their respective defenses. Teams couldn’t run without accounting for them. Quarterbacks couldn’t pass without keeping an eye on where they were. To this day, they still keep their eyes on those two stalwart ‘backers. And it’s scarily ironic that they’re both exactly the same build, both being 6’ 1″ and 240 lbs.

Ray Lewis’ time has come. Sunday, February 3rd will be the last game of his career. The last chance he has to leave the field with it all. His final opportunity to show the people of the football world why he’s the name of the decade. He’s Ray Effing Lewis. The time has come for him to go out with a bang, and leave the field, win or lose, for Patrick Willis to take over the title of best linebacker in football.

We’ll miss jarring hits like these, and the man who
delivers them in #52

Don’t get me wrong, though, Willis is not Lewis. And he never will be. But Ray knows as well as the rest of the league that someone will pick up the torch. Who better than another dominant player like Patrick?

Lewis is what remains of the older generation of football players. He defines what used to be, and what used to be wasn’t a long time ago. Still Patrick Willis the new generation of football players, and he has slowly become the definition of the youth movement in football.

I don’t think there’s a single player at the middle linebacker position more deserving of the title. He’s more powerful, aggressive, driven, passionate, and competitive than any player on the field where he presides. He doesn’t have the bravado and showmanship that Lewis has brought to every game he’s ever played, but he’s still a match. He let’s his playing do the talking. He powers over offenses like King Kong tossing over a line of Jeeps in the middle of New York City. If you’re a wide receiver with the ball running towards Willis…say goodnight, buddy.

The torch has to be passed at some point. Lewis was the future of the position at his zenith. He defined how linebackers play today. Like Lawrence Taylor, Lewis made quarterbacks, offensive coordinators, and head coaches insomniacs in the week leading up to playing him. And like Lewis, Willis makes you pay for every mistake you make.

Lewis and Willis are not the same. They never will be. They have their own styles of play and their own styles of leading. But they’re the best at what they do.

And now, they meet.

They meet on the biggest stage in all of sports. Both are riding highs: Willis, being in his first Super Bowl after years of toiling on one of the most underachieving teams in the NFL from 2007-10; and Lewis, Super Bowl XLVII being the last game of his legendary career. Both will leave legacies, and both have changed the game and how we view the power of defense, especially in this golden age of passing offenses.

Willis’ time to be recognized as the best
is well overdue. But his moment is here.

Now it’s time for Ray Lewis to hand off the terrorizing of quarterbacks to Willis. Lewis has done his part. He’s been the hallmark of a franchise, and a nation. He’ll be talked about forever. Defensive coordinators will tell their players to watch film of Lewis to see what it really means to play defense.

Where better to hand it off than on the biggest stage in sports? Patrick, get ready. This is your stage. This is where Ray shows his best for the last time, and where you prove why you’ll be the best for years to come.

It’s time for you to don the hot, fiery torch. Don’t burn yourself.

Y’all get yo popcorn ready. On Tuesday, we rustle through the trash and rediscover the beginnings of our modern San Francisco 49ers. Tweet us @aceing82!

Life Before Greatness: The 49ers Rise from the Rubble of a Golden Era

2003-2010                                                                                         2011-2012

In today’s modern world, every great piece of art rises from the rubble of some other form. Music, film, painting, sculpturing, etc., are all a version of a form that was once the evolution of the forms that came before it. It’s a cycle that will continue for as long as art is a part of our civilization, and it can’t be stopped.

The way sports evolve is something of an enigma. I wouldn’t consider baseball an example because of the way their lack of a salary cap articulates success for the teams with the most money. Why do you think the Yankees have won 27 World Series since 1901? Cold…hard…big-city cash. There’s no possible way that baseball can evolve this way, unless big money teams fall victim to embezzlement, or some form of financial crime.

Football is continuously evolving, becoming a different form of what it once was. The league used to stress the importance of running the ball and playing tough defense. Now, it has become a league where, without an elite quarterback, you will be lucky if you even make the postseason. But there are so many teams who have the intangibles. Every year, multiple teams rise up and win games that they wouldn’t have won the year before. At the same time, teams fall from grace with the same speed. I predict 2010-2020 will be the decade of parity for Super Bowl Champions. Every team is on the rise and decline. No one team is more dominant than the other.

The San Francisco 49ers, as amazing as they have been in the last two years, are not any exception to the rule. Thanks to the era of football we watch, the 49ers can’t be super every year. But for the last two years, they’ve evolved into the next best thing.

But hold on just a moment. Evolution won’t always be positive.

You all remember the 49ers of the 1980’s. Bill Walsh and the quick rhythm West Coast offense, Joe Montana to Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott patrolling the defense as one of the most feared hitters in NFL history, and, of course, their four Super Bowl wins. They were the Kings of the Hill, the best of the best. And they were lucky enough to have another Hall-of-Fame quarterback sitting behind Montana in Steve Young, who led them to a fifth Super Bowl win in 1994.

Those teams were the face of that era of football, when franchises and fans had more patience with their teams. Those 49er teams were consistently giving their fans reasons to believe that they’d be in contention for a title every season.

The 49ers, however, became a victim of the evolution into the modern era of football. The sport and its decision makers have the shortest memory span of any in football’s past. The mentality of “win now, or you’re gone” began to envelop the league in the last decade, and it has become the culprit of premature evaluations of players and coaches, hundreds of lost jobs, and the burning down of storied franchises. The monetary constraints and need to keep fan interest and star power strong and consistent is more important than ever. Teams have continued to win Super Bowls, of course, but it’s harder and harder now for teams to maintain the core group of their best players.

Every tackle hurts that much more
when you’re losing.
San Francisco hasn’t reached the top since that last title win in ’94. 1999 and 2000 were seasons below .500, their first since 1982. And 2002 was the last time they made it to, and won a game in, the playoffs.

Bay Area fans who grew up in the Golden Age of 49ers football will tell you how much of a struggle it was to watch their team in the 2000’s. 49ers football, as far as they knew, was a mentality of winning, of being the best every year. They were witness to teams that, year in and year out, were favorites to win the Super Bowl.

As a fan of Seattle since their 2005 season in which they lost the Super Bowl, I can tell you that I know how Niners fans feel, if only in a small way. I watched Seattle in the middle of their four consecutive division-winning seasons. I always assumed that they were going to be in the playoffs and have a chance to win it all every year. Then, in 2008, one of the worst years for Seattle sports, they went 4-12 and completely belly-flopped on the winning culture I thought was always a part of Seahawks football.

And I watched my team beat those terrible 49ers teams of the 2000’s. It was strange for me to have seen film of the 49ers teams from their hey day, and then watch them get pummeled game after game.

Arnaz Battle loses a fumble.
The red and gold were laughing stocks for almost an entire decade. For eight dark years, the team did not post a record above 8-8. In 2004, they went 2-14 and, for the first time since 1964, owned the first pick in the draft in 2005. Fans thought that maybe the pain was over. Two seasons with an overall record of 9-23 were hard enough. With that first selection, the 49ers picked quarterback Alex Smith from the University of Utah. In college, he was poised, he was confident, and he was a leader who could take a team and carry them to the finish line. Smith looked like the miracle response to the prayers of San Fran fans.

You know how that turned out. For Smith’s first five seasons, he was considered a bust. The 49ers did not get better. In fact, they got worse. They won only 16 games over the next three years and would disappoint fans over and over again, in complete contrast to the Niners of old. Fans kept their hopes up, reminding themselves that there was a time when the 49ers were the best in the business. When they were contested by and answered to nobody.

But the losses kept coming. From 2003 to 2010, their overall record was an abysmal 46-82. Their seventeen previous division titles were a distant memory. There was nothing but a shell of a team. No matter how you looked at them, analyzed them, measured up the statistics…the 49ers were gone. Darkness set over Candlestick Park every game, with every fan simply hoping for a win.
But, lo and behold, a savior, a real answer, was about to walk through the gates of Candlestick. The former kingdom of champions was about to be jolted back awake.

Coach Jim Harbaugh brought a winning
culture back to the 49ers franchise.
Jim Harbaugh, the former coach of the Stanford Cardinal, the man who groomed one of the best college quarterbacks, Andrew Luck, since the great Peyton Manning, and was once a brilliant quarterback himself for fifteen years in the NFL, was coming to San Francisco. Harbaugh, whose brother, John, coached the consistently brilliant Baltimore Ravens on the east coast, signed a five-year, $25 million contract to revitalize a franchise once known for winning big.

And, boy, have they.

2011 became a season of redemption. Jim Harbaugh, with his blue-collar mentality, the aggression of a linebacker, and the passion of a seasoned veteran, somehow took the same roster that had been lackluster and disappointing for eight seasons, and showed how underachieving they really were.  No one believed that a rookie college coach, no matter how much NFL experience he had as a player, would be able to take this terminally ill team to even eight wins.

They went 13-3 and almost claimed a conference championship.

Harbaugh turned Patrick Willis, perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and the San Fran defense into the best unit in the league. He stressed running the ball on an offense that carried one of the best power runners in the league in Frank Gore and one of biggest stalwart offensive lines in the NFC. Most importantly, Jim Harbaugh turned Alex Smith from liability and draft bust, into the most efficient and reliable quarterback in the NFL. Smith may have been a game manager and not a team carrier, but he was a primary reason why the 49ers were able to succeed in 2011.

Harbaugh took the whole team and forced it to evolve into a team that emphasized smash mouth football. He knew that to counteract the passing trend taking over the NFL, he would need to find the antithesis that would pose a unique problem for any opposition that the 49ers would face. Why not go back to the roots of the football? Run the ball and stop the run? That almost got them to the Super Bowl last year.

2012 NFC Championship Game.

Don’t forget that if it weren’t for a couple of gaffes on kick returns against the eventual Super Bowl winners New York Giants, we could be talking about the 49ers who are returning to the biggest stage for a second straight championship after a Cinderella Super Bowl win last year. 

This time, second year quarterback Colin Kaepernick is taking them to the Super Bowl for real, after taking over the starting job from Smith in Week 9 in Tom Brady circa 2001 fashion when Smith suffered a concussion against the St. Louis Rams. Kaepernick added a running dimension to his position and molded the team into one of the most explosive offenses in the league.

The team has become a playoff contender for years to come. Maybe not a Super Bowl contender for every year, but certainly the fans of the Bay Area need not worry with Harbaugh, Kaepernick, and their paralysis-inducing defense eating teams for dinner.

Even though we all know the 49ers have a winning history, the fans of the 49ers deserve the wins that are rolling in.

San Francisco became a team feared by the league because of the unique problem it posed to all other teams. They went against the grain, and allowed themselves to grow into an identity that seemed foreign to them. The 49ers are not the Packers, the Patriots, or even the Ravens. They simply became better in their own way.

I’m personally rooting for Baltimore, simply because I believe that every player on that Ravens team has toiled for too long to be denied a championship now.

But San Francisco has risen from a broken team, pieces of what they once were, to the top of the NFL food chain through reinvention, innovation, and realizing the opportunity before them. Take a step a back and take in what you’ve just read. The fans, the franchise, and everyone who has been a part of the struggles of being in the cellar is finally being rewarded.

San Francisco’s turn around is the model of what teams can become with the right vision. Evolving, it seems, is not to conform to what is trending, unless you have the talent on your team to conform and believe that it’s the best way to win. Evolving is more about how you make the new, incoming and outgoing pieces fit. A coach cannot simply choose their team’s identity, but rather finds an identity that makes the machine work. You can’t shove a gear into a machine that doesn’t quite fit. It stops the entire process.

Not only have they risen back out of the scrap heap, but San Francisco is transforming everything we know about the game today.

Perhaps San Francisco, and not the Baltimore Ravens, are the real team of destiny this year.

The Immortal Joe Flacco

Joe Flacco, finally in the element he deserves to be in.

I felt weird even writing that title for this spot. Immortal? Flacco? A few weeks ago, I would have put the word “infamous” in its place. Flacco is not a great quarterback. He’s not Tom Brady. He’s not Peyton Manning. 

He already beat those guys. He’s one of the best.

We, as fans of the game watching on our asses from our couches, make quick opinions in our heads about how good or players are. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never watched those players play as long as you hear the stories or if you’ve watched all of their games. We judge based on what we feel and hear. I certainly know that I can’t even make an educated guess when it comes to evaluating players.

And we all felt that Joe Flacco, for the last four and 3/4 years was good, but not great. Yeah, he’s won postseason games like nobody’s business, but did he ever reach the Super Bowl? Nah. When he goes through the regular season, where he’s never been consistently good like the Mannings and Bradys and Ryans of the league, we don’t automatically put him on the pedestal of the best in the league.

Years of preparation are paying
off for Joe Flacco.

That’s about the change.

Flacco, who is 8-4 in the postseason, and is now riding an eight TD, no INT streak into the Super Bowl, has a shot to make a place for himself in the fraternity of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game. At the end of the game on February 3rd, Joe Flacco could be holding the fabled Lombardi Trophy. He’ll be interviewed for NFL Network’s acclaimed doco series “America’s Game”. He’ll be the new “Discount Double Check” kid of Advertising U.S.A.

Prepare yourselves, ’cause this stuff’s about to go cray.

It’s not Flacco’s having a Cinderella story season. He’s been an above-par quarterback every year since he was drafted in the first round by Ozzie Newsome and the Baltimore Ravens. He’s won a postseason game in every one of the five years since then. He’s fast, he’s tall, he’s strong, and he has a cannon for an arm (maybe the strongest arm in the NFL in front of Bears’ quarterback Jay Cutler). For some reason, I’ve always had the feeling that he’s a great quarterback in the making. But when you’re winning playoff games right off the bat, there’s only so much room to improve. Once you’ve made the playoffs, your next step is the Super Bowl. Forget about winning a playoff game. Win the whole damn thing.

That’s the mantra of all teams with playoff aspirations. The 2000 Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens team said that there are plenty of those consistent underachievers who say, “OK, boys. Let’s just make it to the tournament”, or, “Let’s just see what happens.” But the Ravens said, “We’re here, we’ve got the opportunity. Why settle for less?”

Joe Flacco is seizing the moment.

And right now, that’s exactly how the 2012 Ravens are operating. This isn’t some lucky, destiny-ridden Super Bowl run. This is an all out assault. And Joe Flacco is at the head of it.

Baltimore preaches team, team, team. But their leaders in the retiring LB Ray Lewis and their younger gun in Flacco are spearheading a force of complete aggression and raw winning emotion that are propelling these written-off division champions into the stratosphere of NFL history.

Now, Flacco is seizing his opportunity to become greater than he could ever imagine. Obviously he didn’t start playing football without the dream of winning a championship. But never under such emotion-driven circumstances. Flacco is ready for the big time. He’s been preparing himself since his days at Delaware, where the NFL doesn’t look.

It’s time for Flacco to achieve something bigger than anything he’s ever achieved in his life.

It’s time for him to be called one of the greatest.

Tune in tomorrow to read about the passing of the torch between the best linebackers in football. Tweet at @aceing82!

The (Apparently Second) Best Week of the Year

I’m not going to linger… I’m not going to talk about it…

…WHAT IN THE HELL, PETE CARROLL? I MEAN, SERIOUSLY! Your team is down 7-0. You have a chance to come away with some points. 4th DOWN. Any coach with a strong background KNOWS to go for the field goal to at least establish something. Come away with three points. In the end, those three extra points would have won the game.

In any case, I look forward to next year, and Carroll will certainly take this game and put it in the ground, six feet down. Seattle is young, raw, and talented, and will be a Super Bowl contender next season.

But enough about the pain of being a fan in the NFL. Let’s look forward to a weekend of what is, without out a doubt, going to be one of the best weekends of postseason football that you or I have ever seen.

Oh, you don’t believe me? You’re one of the few. Let’s change your mind here:

NFC Championship Game – San Francisco 49ers vs. Atlanta Falcons

How is this not a compelling game? A high flying offense in Atlanta, at home, versus the tough, versatile running game that San Francisco is going to bring in the Georgia Dome. Not to mention, or TO mention, San Francisco’s stalwart defense featuring Smith & Smith Inc. The NFC has brought in some of the best Championship games in the last four years, and this match-up is going to be all of that, plus more.

The real story in this game, though, is how the Mike Nolan and the Falcons’ defense plan to stop Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick ran wild on Green Bay last weekend, rushing for an NFL record 181 yards, the most for a quarterback in the regular or postseason. Safety Thomas DeCoud has been a ballhawk in the secondary for Atlanta, but that may have to change if the Falcons plan on keeping Kaep’n Rush contained. But the problem is that even if they keep Kaepernick in the pocket, they’ll have to gear their other cornerbacks towards stopping 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree.

Crabtree has become Kaepernick’s security blanket since the quarterback change all those weeks ago. He’s been targeted three times as often as the San Fran receiver with the second most targets, Randy Moss. So Atlanta has its work cut out for them in two spots. Oh, by the way, San Fran can kill you with RB Frank Gore both running and receiving.

But the 49ers aren’t about to have a picnic in Atlanta. The defense is going to be destroyed if they can’t control the line of scrimmage against RB Michael Turner and Atlanta’s array of receivers in WR’s Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas, TE Tony Gonzalez (who, if not handled on third downs, can win the whole day by himself), and RB Jacquizz Rodgers. There isn’t a single Falcon offensive player who doesn’t power over their defenders. Matt Ryan has been ice cold and on target most of the year, and he’ll beat you if you don’t pressure him. But even then, he’ll beat you on his third read options even when you do get near him. Aldon Smith will have to be on his A game if the 49ers plan to halt Atlanta and their famous fast, first quarter starts.

This game has all the intangibles that have this game looking like another classic in the making. In the end, though, it will be the Falcons on top. Matt Ryan and Mike Smith finally have a playoff win under his belt, and they’re not about to let this opportunity go easy. The Falcons have a lot more to play for, and have the fire power to set the pace and keep San Fran from keeping up.
San Francisco – 27, Atlanta – 34

AFC Championship Game – Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots

If you’re going to tell me that New England going to their sixth Super Bowl in the Belichick-Brady era, then one second. Cool your jets and pump your breaks. This is no sure thing for the Pats. I assume that you all watched the Baltimore – Denver game last weekend, so you’ll know that Flacco, despite his struggles in the regular season on the road, is money in any stadium in the postseason. He’s had one of the most successful starts to a career in the playoffs and has been to the title game before. His deep ball ability won them a spot in this game, when he tossed a 70-yard bomb to Jacoby Jones for a touchdown, tying the game, and sending it into two OT’s, winning with a field goal. In fact, he and the Ravens were in this very stadium a year ago, when they lost a heart breaker to New England in the last seconds. You think Baltimore’s forgotten the sting of that game? Hell no.

The entire Black and Purple team, franchise, and fans know exactly how much it matters that they win this game, and they can do it. Not only do they have that chip on their shoulder, but they want to send MLB Ray Lewis off with a second ring on his finger. And he’s super charged as well. Against the Colts in the wild card round, Lewis played a very average game for him. He then proceeded to be right near the ball on every play against Denver and was a huge reason why Baltimore held up against the fifth best offense in the league.

Now they face the number one offense, but nothing has changed. All they are is fast. Know why? Because Brady doesn’t get pressured. It’s time to unleash the Kruger. Paul Kruger has been seriously Watt-ish this postseason, and he’s about to play in what could be the most important game of his career. He’ll be asked to rush for Brady with all of his will and might, while Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs hold up the middle and left side of the line. This isn’t going to be an easy one for Tom Brady, but he’s at his best in the postseason. He’ll be doing his best to keep the rush off and operate with WR Wes Welker to keep a short, quick rhythm game going. The Ravens’ secondary is no Legion of Boom, and Brady will be ready to exploit that.
Joe Flacco, however, showed last year that he can keep up with Tom Brady, playing one of his best games that season in the AFC Championship Game. And he did the same against Peyton Manning and the Broncos, keeping up blow for blow and willing his team to the upset. New England plays bend-but-don’t-break defense in the secondary, with safety Devin McCourty ball-hawking like Ed Reed, who, don’t forget, just happens to be the Ravens’ Hall-of-Fame bound safety. But Flacco’s a real man with the deep ball. He’s got an arm that simply flicks the ball like a short pass for 60 yards, and he always puts the ball right where Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin can grab it and where DB’s can’t even see it.

I want Flacco in the Super Bowl. I want John Harbaugh in the Super Bowl. And I want Ray Lewis in the Super Bowl. We’ve all seen Tom Brady in action and what he’s capable of. But I’m not sure that their greatness will overcome a Ravens unit that is riding the high of an upset, the power of their retiring legend, the idea that this is their destiny, and so many other chips that shoulder pads aren’t needed. This is finally Baltimore’s time, and they aren’t going to fall.
Baltimore – 30, New England, 27

Are you prepared for a Baltimore-Atlanta Super Bowl? I am. It’s time to separate the boys from the men and all that jazz. Good luck to all of the teams, and I’ll see y’all after the games!

The Rundown: Division Playoffs

Boys and girls of the NFL world! Before you go to sleep, I have to get my thoughts out on where the we stand for the games coming up. If you’re an article-reading nut like me, you’ve probably read the same story lines over and over again, so let’s get those out and done with now:

  1. Matt Ryan needs a win for credibility.
  2. The Ravens are probably not going to win in Denver.
  3. The AFC Championship looks like one last Brady vs. Manning hurrah.
  4. Green Bay vs. San Francisco looks like the battle of the crappy kickers.
Blah, blah, blah, hutututut, on with it. There’s more to the games in this round.

Nate Gray of the Nate Gray Zone sent me his thoughts on his picks:

And I agree almost completely. Let’s take a short look at what we’ve got here:

Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos (24-31)
No, Baltimore is nowhere near as good as Denver on either sides of the ball. Joe Flacco is not Peyton Manning, and even though LB Ray Lewis is a surefire Hall of Famer, Denver’s Von Miller is tearing it up and will punish the Raven’s offense if they slip up.

I do believe Denver will win, but I only give them a slight advantage. Keep in mind, the playoffs are a place where good teams can become great. All bets are off, no matter how good a team’s record is. Green Bay and the New York Giants won it all in the last two years, and the last six Super Bowls included a wild card team who no one thought had a chance.

I’m not saying the Ravens are getting hot at the right time, because they’re luke-warm, if I’m being nice. But anything can happen, and Denver is not invulnerable.

Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers (27-24)

Green Bay didn’t come into the postseason with a winning streak. Hell, they lost to the team that they beat in the wildcard in the season finale. But Aaron Rodgers is one of the best, if not the best, quarterback in the league. He’s proven that he can win in the postseason, and he can win on a long road with the team in a wild card seeding. I pick the Packers only because I think Colin Kaepernick won’t be able to dial it up in pressure. Kaep hasn’t faced this kind of pressure all season long, handily beating the teams San Fran won against, losing big time to one division rival in the Seattle Seahawks, and losing a nail biter against another rival in St. Louis.

Please put it out of your minds that this is some sort of legit rematch from Week 1. These are NOT EVEN CLOSE to the same teams we saw at the beginning of the season. Rodgers was continuing a slump that started last season and ended in Week 5. San Fran’s starting QB in Week 1 was Alex Smith, and Justin Smith was healthy on a defense that would go on to terrorize opponents until his triceps injury in Week 15. Since then, Green Bay has improved, and the 49ers are less of a sure thing and more of a “I know what you’re thinking, but you’re probably not right” team. The game could go either way, but I trust Mike McCarthy and his offense much more than San Fran from top to bottom.

Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons (24-20)

Matt Ryan has a monkey on his back, we all know it. I’ve been reading articles about how Ryan is actually statistically better on the road than he is at home this season (I’m not counting passer ratings, but rather raw, unprocessed stats). Atlanta just hasn’t given me enough confidence to believe that this is the year they move on after one game. The defense is not in a good position battle, as they’ve been mediocre against the run and Beast Mode, Skittles junkie Marshawn Lynch is coming to town on a streak of five consecutive 100-yard performances. Oh, and that one rookie for the Blue’s is pretty fleet-of-foot, too.

Russell Wilson has ignited a read-option attack that’s become a hallmark of Seattle’s winning strategy. Of course, Atlanta has a 2-1 record against teams that ran the same offense this season (Carolina twice, and Washington). But Seattle is a different monster altogether. They are complete package team that won’t be stopped on offense. And Legion of Boom in the defensive secondary will give Roddy White and Julio Jones of Atlanta a tough time trying to simply locate the ball. I expect one of the two to surpass 100 yards receiving, but I doubt that they’ll have a serious impact on the game.

And don’t get me started on Michael Turner. He’s lost the tread on his tires, let alone any decline. Jacquizz Rogers will be the deciding factor in this game if it’s close, but I don’t know that he’ll be there to save the day with enough time on the clock. Seattle will take this one and move on to play their grudge rematch in Green Bay.

Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots (23-35)

This is one pick that I really do hope is wrong. All of my picks are based on the most realistic possibility in my mind. I absolutely believe that the New England Patriots will win this game. They’ve played it before. Just hit rewind on the tape.

But Houston was my AFC pick this year. Not only that, I’ve been so sour since Brian Cushing went out for the season on an ACL tear after a BS “tackle” on the play. I can’t stand to see New England win this one. We need new blood!
But I digress.

Win this game, and the Patriots are in against Manning, possibly for the last time. New England’s defense has become a bend-but-don’t-break unit once again, ball-hawking Oppa Ed Reed Style. And on the offense, Brady has had Stevan Ridley, finally a complimentary back in a passing offense for Tommy, to keep defenses true. It helped, in part, to keep Wade Phillips on his heels when they beat Houston 42-14 earlier in the season. This is as good a time as any for New England to capitalize and bring Brady closer to a fourth ring. 

But if Houston wants to win, J.J. Watt needs to be 1000% better than in their last meeting. Watt was non-consequential last time and that’s not him. He’s got to be in a higher zone than he’s ever been to pressure Brady. And Matt Schaub has to, HAS TO, elevate his game to the Pro Bowl status he was deemed worthy of. Without extra effort against a team they know, there will almost certainly be disappointment in what was once considered their “season of all Texans seasons”.


It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Hey Hey Hey, everyone! Happy New Year! Hope you all have had a great winter vacay. We, Will and I, have had our own little vacation, so we haven’t had a lot of time to write for the blog. But we’re back! And at a good time, too.

The postseason seeding has finally come together, and it’s an interesting lineup of teams this year. The NFC has three new entries in the Redskins, Seahawks, and Vikings in the wild card round. On the other side, the AFC only has one new entry in the Colts. The Big Three of the 2012 quarterback draft class (Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson) all have their teams in the postseason, and RG3 and Wilson are facing off on the first wild card weekend, while Luck faces a shuffling Ravens team without a lot of momentum coming in.

Let’s take a moment and examine these teams to see what we can expect from the twelve best of 2012 by seeding:


Denver Broncos: Without a doubt, this team is the most complete in the NFL. We can speculate and say that the Texans and 49ers are just as stacked on both sides of the ball, but Denver has the numbers and talent to clearly show them above the rest. The offense is ranked fourth in the NFL with 397.9 yards per game and second if you go by its 30.1 points per game total. And the defense ain’t too bad neither, having allowed only 290.8 yards a game.

Peyton Manning needs to keep this team chugging
along at the same pace that’s gotten them to 13-3.

Peyton Manning was the missing piece on the offense that finally made a talented unit into one of the most consistent in the league. Manning is fully integrated in the MVP award conversation, let alone Comeback Player of the Year, and it’s safe to say that he’s not going to squander what could be his best shot at another Super Bowl ring. And defensively, second-year linebacker Von Miller, who himself is vying for the Defensive Player of the Year award, is motoring a defense who, since Week 6, has given up less that 12 points a game. The team is riding an eleven-game win streak, so they have to be accounted for on every level. This team is the Super Bowl favorite, hands down.

New England Patriots: Who woulda thunk it? The Patriots in the playoffs. What a change of pace. New England is annoyingly consistent and continues to be a force in the late season. And it’s all thanks to Tom Brady, who solidly shoots the offense into the stratosphere, killing opponents with his many weapons in WR’s Wes Welker, Deion Branch, and Brandon Lloyd, and TE’s Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Also, the running game has finally proven to be a difference maker, making the Pats a more diverse team on offense. Stevan Ridley has had a great season keeping some pressure off of Brady, scoring on short yardage touchdowns and grabbing the first down in a pinch.

Who else would we put in this picture? He’s been playing
lights out again, and he wants a fourth ring.

The defense, on the other hand, hasn’t been great yards- or points-wise, but they get takeaways when they need them the most. It’s been a huge help having Aqib Talib playing cornerback the way they needed it, along with the payoff stemming from moving Devin McCourty to the safety position. This is the side of the ball, however, that will make or break this team’s Super Bowl opportunity. If Tom-terrific can’t quite get it done on offense and the defense can’t hold in make-or-break situations, then New England, and Tommy, can say “wait ’till next year” for another season.

Houston Texans: I really don’t know how you can go from being undefeated halfway through the season, to a team with only one loss, to being called the best team in the league, to being shattered by the Patriots, to losing your last two games, and then to losing home-field advantage in the last loss of the season. Especially considering that that last loss came against a division rival with a rookie QB who hasn’t been as on-target as he was earlier in the season. Coach Gary Kubiak had better toss out his copy of “How To Look Awesome And Then Suck for Dummies”.

J.J. Watt, the man who has to lead the charge
to get the defense going.

In all seriousness, the Texans can still be dominant. They haven’t lost any key players since losing Brian Cushing earlier in the season. Matt Schaub hasn’t looked like the Pro Bowler he was to begin the year and right now is the best time to get back there. He’s got Andre Johnson, Jacoby Jones, Owen Daniels, and Arian Foster catching passes for him, along with Foster himself being a force on almost every down. The entire offense needs a regrouping, and fast. The defense has also lost some of its power since losing Cushing, however its still an important part to how the Texans win. J.J. Watt is still playing quality football, but the linebackers and the secondary are getting beaten consistently. Yes, they did hold Adrian Peterson to 86 yards in Week 16, but they still lost because they made Christian Ponder look like Aaron Rodgers Lite. If they want any chance at winning even their first playoff game against an upstart Cincinnati Bengals team, they had better get it together on both sides of the ball.

Baltimore Ravens: I don’t see this team winning the Super Bowl. At all. I mean, seriously, the team doesn’t even know that it has weapons. They run everything through Flacco and it hasn’t helped. Joe Flacco is not Peyton Manning, he doesn’t seem to make everyone around him better. Sure, he’s got a .45 Magnum for an arm and can make the deep pass to Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, but here’s the deal: until they learn to give RB Ray Rice 25 to 30 carries a game, the Ravens have a hobo’s chance in Wyoming to succeed going forward. The playoffs are not for teams with identity crises, especially when you face teams who know exactly what they want to be their strengths in the most crucial times of games.

If the Raven want any chance at even a win,
they need to feed the ball to this guy, Ray Rice.

The defense is also suspect, and I’m not sure that having Ray Lewis back is the answer to all of their problems. They haven’t been the defense that Baltimore has been known for over the last decade. They’re ranked 17th in the league, allowing 350.9 yards and 20.1 points per game. Now, the points part doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but when you’re allowing so many yards, better teams are going to score with that much leeway. You can bend and not break, but this team has broken a few times on both sides of the ball that makes their Super Bowl chances pretty much zero.

Indianapolis Colts: For Andrew Luck to be so good in his first season is a very promising sign. But he’s been declining recently. Not badly, but for a rookie who is making his postseason debut soon, it might bring on some concern for Colts fans. The team’s engine is headed by eight starters on offense who weren’t even on the team last season. That’s like forcing a Hummer to run with water in the gas tank and rubber bands holding the transmission together. It’s worked thus far, but eventually it doesn’t work. I hope Luck gets a playoff win, especially considering how weak the Ravens have looked late this season. But I don’t know that this attacking unit can hold.

He’s been one of the best first round picks in NFL
history. Let’s see if he can make it more.

The defense is in roughly the same shape. Some players like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are a little older, and there’s a lot of new blood. They’re ranked 26th in the league, so they’re not really scary to go against. But they look like they’re a unit that can pick up the pace in the postseason. They’ve been consistently average, but Luck isn’t the only reason that they’ve gone from two wins last season to eleven this season. I’m not sure I’m sold on a deep playoff run here, but crazier things have happened in the NFL.

Side note: How incredible would it be to watch Luck beat Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship game? WHAT A SHOW IT WOULD BE.

Cincinnati Bengals: The team has won six of their last seven games. Yeah, they’ve lost one game since Week 10. The defense is stifling, the offense is high octane, and they’re riding a three game winning streak into the playoffs. If any team in the AFC is ready for a deep playoff run, look out: it might be the Queen City Cats.

Geno Atkins is a prime reason as to why the Bengals
are so hot on defense.

Cincinnati is a force on both sides of the ball as of late. This isn’t the only team we’ve seen get hot late in the past few seasons. Of course, these are the Bengals, originally the Bungles of the 90’s. They’re a young team that’s destined to get better and better, year after year. Andy Dalton to A.J. Green has, in its second season, already become a fearsome connection, accumulating 1350 yards and 11 TD’s on the year. Other receivers on the team such as Brandon Tate, Marvin Jones, and Andrew Hawkins are quickly rising and making this receiving corps. one of the most deep and talented rotations in the league. And defensively, coordinator Mike Zimmer has worked magic again for a fifth year. The unit allows only 20 points per game total, and only 12.7 since Week 10. The whole team has come together and formed into a complete unit, ready to make a deep playoff run.


Atlanta Falcons: The team is 13-3 going against one of the ten weakest schedule in the league. However, they’ve won when they’ve needed to, and they wrapped up the top seed in the conference a game early. Matt Ryan has the offense running again, with Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and Jacquizz Rogers working to restore some positive vibes going into the playoffs.

Thomas DeCoud, the ball hawking safety, and leader of
the Falcons defense.

You may have noticed that I mentioned Rogers, and not Michael Turner. That’s because I think Turner is going to be supplanted as the starter in the postseason. Rogers has looked like a force from the backfield, running and receiving, and he’s productive as hell. Turner’s losing tread on the tires after four season of bruising technique, and Rogers will get hot at the right time for the Falcons. They’ll likely face either the Packers, Seahawks, or Vikings, and they’ll need a back who can truly attack those defenses in multiple formations. Rogers will be that back.

The defense is also a huge part of the Falcons and their Mid-Season Reputation Reformation and Implementation Project (we’ll call it the MSRRIP). It’s a group that has become a force that is hard to run or pass safely against. It’s one of those units that can play well with a lead and hold opponents in crunch time. FS Thomas DeCoud is the only real ball-hawk on the team, but we don’t know how Asante Samuel will be since his absence from postseason play back from 2008 with Philadelphia. The team is 0-3 in postseason play since Mike Smith and Matt Ryan came to town, so it’s now or ridicule for the Atlanta Falcons. They’re an NFC power until proven otherwise.

San Francisco 49ers: They’re a competitive and aggressive team on both sides of the ball. RB Frank Gore is a power hitter and one of the best pass-catching running backs in football, and the whole D from Aldon and Justin Smith to NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis is scary. QB Colin Kaepernick has also shown some serious balls in and outside of the pocket, producing big plays often and in crunch time. We haven’t seen him in the clutch yet, but we can assume he’ll be reliable.

Strangely enough, Willis hasn’t been the best defensive
player for San Fran this year. That speaks volumes.

However, I have one knock on this team, without bias. These guys don’t seem to be able to put back-to-back dominating performances together. It was especially on show in the two week stretch against New England and Seattle. They handily beat the Patriots, despite a late game comeback from Tom Brady, but they were shoved flat on their asses on the Clink’s field against the division rival Seahawks. To go from beating the then best team in the league 41-34, to losing 42-13 against a team on a 108-17 point, two-game win streak is not what a Super Bowl team should look like. But weirder circumstances have been overcome before. If they can string dominant wins together, they’re world champs, plain and simple. If not, then definitely next year with Kaepernick getting a full season of play under his belt.

Green Bay Packers: How do you not consider this team a Super Bowl contender? Aaron Rodgers, though not looking like his 2011 version, is playing lights out, and has gotten the Packers wins in nine of their last eleven. Only problem? They lost to Minnesota in Minneapolis in the season finale with the number two seed and a bye week on the line.

Aaron Rodgers started slowly, but now is the man
of the Packers who will carry his team once again.

They do get to play the Vikings again, but this time on their own turf. I don’t know that Adrian Peterson, with the Hall-of-Fame season he has had, will be affected by the Packer faithful in the stands, but Christian Ponder might be rattled. It’s ideal for the Packers, who need a momentum push before they play on the road against the 49ers, who who beat them in the season opener 30-22 at Lambeau Field. Aaron Rodgers has been rising since that loss, and so it will be a different game this time around. The defense has also become more reliable, going from 32nd to 11th in the league in total yards allowed. The team has always had talent. It’s just a matter of it being healthy. Like a Victoria’s Secret Model, they’re young, they’re hot, and given their talent, they can go the distance.

Washington Redskins: RG3 is hurting. It’s as simple as that. RG3 is the main reason that offense works, and they did their job against the Dallas Cowboys in the season finale. But the ‘Skins rookie quarterback’s knee is still in a bad shape and it’s holding Griffin back from some of the more electric plays he usually produces running the ball. It’s also preventing him from being effective outside of the pocket and pretty much making him Tom Brady with some legs (that’s just average). It’s not a good thing.

He’s hurt, but he’s still RG3, the man who can
do it all and bring this team to unknown possibilities.

The defense has picked up the pace slightly in their seven game win streak, but they are also very suspect. They come up with stops at the right times, as they showed against Dallas, but they are not yet ready to hold off power scoring teams like New England, Denver, Green Bay, and Seattle. Yeah, they are on a seven game win streak, but the most important piece of their offense isn’t at his best, which could hold them back from a deep playoff run.

Seattle Seahawks: My ‘Hawks are in!! #GoHawks #foshizzle #okillstop. This is huge. Russell Wilson has this team hopping at the right time. 170-43 in their last four games is unprecedented. It shows that the offense and defense are both boasting power at the right time of the season. They’re going into wild card weekend on a five game win streak and having won seven of their last eight. There might not be a hotter team in the NFL right now, let alone the NFC.

Marshawn Lynch, third in the league in rushing, was
consistent and the main reason teams fell in Seattle.

Not only is the offense clicking, but the defense has been downright destructive. Richard Sherman has 8 INT’s on the season, with four of those coming in the last four weeks, along with a blocked field goal that he returned for TD against the 49ers. Add CB Brandon Browner coming back from suspension, and you’re getting a Seattle team that has the luck of the world on their side. It’s hard to not see this team, as young as it is, not winning a couple of playoff games. Frankly, I’m starting to get groggy here, writing this bit, and it’s unfortunate because it’s not only my team I’m writing about here, but they’re also the most likely NFC candidate, aside from Green Bay and San Fran, who could make it all the way to the Super Bowl.

Minnesota Vikings: Hellooooooo, Adrian! Here’s the part where Peterson runs all over Clay Matthews. This team relies on their star running back to win almost every game. Aside from the Week 16 Houston game that Christian Ponder finally got off the couch to win, Peterson has been the main reason why this team is in the playoffs. Yeah, Percy Harvin did some hard work earlier in the season, but the problem was that he went on IR and the Vikings had lost their MVP candidate. Well, they got another one. Peterson has already proven twice that even when an opponent’s sole focus is to beat the Vikes on the ground, he’ll still beat you. And he gets to go against the Packers for a third time in the wild card round. He rushed for 211 and 199 yards consecutively in their two meetings this year, and he might be even more dangerous with the Super Bowl on the line.

Let’s all hope the NFL AP is smart enough that they’ll
hand Peterson the MVP trophy. No one deserves it more.

And the defense compliments him in a way. Though ranked 16th in the league, they quietly hold opponents when needed. It gives the offense enough time to either choke or win the game. Minnesota hasn’t been terribly consistent this year on either side of the ball aside from AP2K, but they have the look of one of those low-seeded teams that could get hot at the right time. We know how those teams fared in the last few years. Yeah, they kicked ass. In fact, one of them was the Green Bay Packers of 2010. If Minnesota can make the Packers bite, then the Vikings have the assets to make a run at the championship game. Super Bowl? Well, it’s up to Ponder.

We’ll be back next week to review wild card weekend and make new predictions for the divisional round! Good luck to your team, and I hope Seattle destroys Washington!