NFL: THE Game!

By: Shawn Davis

Time to play this thing already!
Time to play this thing already!

I may be severely jet-lagged from my Los Angeles flight but is there a game this weekend? I took some time off to get my column-writing skills in order (while gorging myself on Chick-fil-A) so I could return a much better, albeit average, storyteller. For the Championship games, I won with the Ravens pick and took it on the chin with the Falcons over the 49ers (sorry).

Baltimore walks into Massachusetts with a level of confidence that other teams don’t seem to have and the Patriots will spend all year trying to figure out where they fall short when the birds fly into town. As for the Falcons, well, I thought they would find a way to slow the 49ers down – just a tad. What they need to do for next year is develop an aptitude to put teams away when they march out to big leads. That might have helped them celebrate Tony Gonzalez’s retirement tour in New Orleans to offset all the talk surrounding Ray Lewis and his “last ride.” (I’ll keep my mouth shut on that topic.)

So there’s one more game this season – and aside from being near-suicidal at that thought – I’m excited to watch this Super Bowl without an emotional interest. I can watch the game free of a discernible bias either way. I made no mistake about wanting the Denver Broncos to win because Peyton Manning is one of my favorite players in NFL history. Had they actually held on to win against the Ravens – don’t get me started on that again – I would have watched the contest with one eye open, for sure. It feels liberating to sit for this game with my bucket of wings, tuna salad and a HOT date just wishing for a great game – with a side order of funny commercials. The last Super Bowl where I just sat back and didn’t pull for one team over the other was two years ago when the Packers defeated the Steelers, 31-25, in XLV. Although, to be fair, I wanted the Packers to get the win so Aaron Rodgers would get a ring because Ben Roethlisberger already boasted two. However what was more important to me was the quality of the product on the field because I was backing both franchises.

Professional Football Hall of Fame note: Cris Carter is still waiting for a call from the Hall – for the fifth year in a row. There is a logjam of receivers waiting to get in, among them: Andre Reed and Tim Brown, who are contemporaries of Carter, also waiting for their yellow blazer and bronze bust. Okay Carter has 130 receiving touchdowns, which happens to be more touchdowns than Walter Payton and Jim Brown. He’s the only player with that many scores to be denied entry into football’s highest level. What does it all mean if one of the greatest receivers in the game cannot get a ticket?

Also, why the knock against the value of receivers or the critiquing of their numbers because of the new passing age? It’s asinine – and unfortunately it happens. You can only judge a player by his numbers or else why keep track of any of it? The numbers are what they are. Quarterback statistics aren’t devalued with all the new passing rules so why should the wide receiver position, arguably the most exciting athlete on the field, fall under a dark cloud of hypocrisy?

The ONLY game that matters…

Baltimore @ San Francisco

I’m going to shy away from the typical “These are the matchups to watch…” sort of feature because it’s been done to death. Can we all agree? While that industry staple has been proven I like to just go on what I see, and more importantly, feel, as this game approaches.

One opinion I’ve been hearing a lot is that if this game turns into a shoot-out, possible but I think unlikely, then it would favor the 49ers because of the dual threat element that Colin Kaepernick represents. Has anyone really been watching the Ravens play this postseason? They’ve scored 24, 38 and 28 in their last three times taking the field and are winning in spite of their defense. At this point in the Ravens history, their offense is the dominant side of the football, they are. While still a solid unit, they’ve had a bend-but-don’t-break mentality that causes them to depend on more offensive support than they have in the past. Keep that in mind. There are also games where they find ways to sleepwalk…as the game is being played: A 43-13 blowout loss to the Texans, a 34-17 defeat to the Broncos, a lazy 16-13 overtime win against the Chargers and a 31-29 let’s-almost-give-this-one-away to the Cowboys. Keep those in mind.

Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Dennis Pitta have all put themselves under the lights at crucial moments during this playoff run – and I feel two or three of those men above must show up big to be joyful once the confetti falls. The Ravens have been strong this postseason and I feel they continue their level of play on Sunday. This is a team that functions better with a lead than they do when playing from behind so it will be in their best interest to get up early.

Before the switch to Colin Kaepernick, most of the football world felt that the 49ers had to play a tight game or one with a lead because Alex Smith didn’t have the type of “game” to rally back from a large deficit. Whether you agree with that opinion or not, the 49ers are built to play both ways. We’ve witnessed them win in high-scoring affairs (the 41-34 clash in New England) and storm back from deficits (How ya doing Atlanta?) in a calm, yet confident manner.

As with any game that’s played in front of buckets of artery clogging, cheese bathed goodies, we all look to the quarterbacks. I’m not viewing the two starters in regards to the defenses they’re going to be facing, I’m just taking a closer look into what each one of them brings to the field.

Flacco: I will not take part in the debate on whether or not he is an “elite” quarterback or not because I feel that’s irrelevant, for the most part. However he is 8-4 in his playoff career and is a player you can feel comfortable building a franchise round. I like that one there; so I’ll just call him a “franchise” guy and be done with it.

– Arm: While not the most accurate of passers, 60.5% for his career, he can put some heat on the deep ball. (Ask the Broncos.) Having Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin as threats downfield, his throwing ability can really be showcased. (Again, ask the secondary in Denver how dangerous of a weapon the Ravens’ deep attack has become.) One of the most frustrating things about Flacco – and the fuel for his detractors – is how average he looks on some Sundays when he has the tools to be as elite as he thinks he is. One thing cannot be denied: He is the reason Ray Lewis even has a chance to enjoy his “last ride.”

Kaepernick: Along with Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin and Cam Newton, Kaepernick is the type of weapon that everyone thought Michael Vick would become; deadly from the pocket, first and foremost, and they heighten their effectiveness by using their legs and athletic ability. Since taking over the position he has been a revelation going 7-2 (winning two playoff games along the way) and quieting any doubts about him relegating Smith to clipboard duty.

– Legs + Arm: Have you not watched any tape of this guy? Unconvinced? Watch the playoff game versus the Packers.

The best way to pressure quarterbacks has been with a strong and consistent pass rush directly through the middle; basically, breaking down the protection through the center and guard positions – or the a- and b-gaps for you aficionados out there. Doing that, you alter his launch point – and if he isn’t mobile – he becomes skittish and cowers away from contact that doesn’t even exist. (Watch ANY quarterback after a few snaps where the pocket dissolves around him if any of this seems like a foreign concept.)

The 49ers can pressure this way – and the odds say they will. Baltimore on the other hand, has to think long and hard about how they will approach their defensive scheme as it pertains to Kaepernick. A very basic game-plan can be employed to counter Flacco and if executed the way I’m sure they want it to be…a trophy will be raised. With Kaepernick, a little more detail and layers must be added to control the fires he sets all over the field. What’s the small problem with more detail and layers you might ask? You put more responsibility in the hands of defenders in the hopes they can execute in real-time action; but, as is common with human beings, circumstances can force plans off the structured path when you have to apply classroom lessons to real-world application. More detail; a greater chance for things to go wrong if the game doesn’t go according to plan.

This is how I would go about defending Kaepernick (and then hoping for the best): Use the front-four to generate most of the pressure while dropping everyone into coverage and using one linebacker to spy him. As for when the 49ers come out in their read-option look? Have a linebacker and safety (or nickel corner) each have a responsibility for the quarterback and running back, respectively. This CANNOT be overlooked. Blitzing can be done but it has to be selective, and I feel the strategy to employ them versus this breed of quarterback is to bring an outside delay-blitz on the blind side; alter the blitz assignment among all FAST defenders. If you’re going to get to him, you have to get there quickly because if he escapes the attempt, well…look at their playoff game against the Packers; it could turn in terrible ways.

These teams are evenly matched and this could shape up to be a really tightly played game. I’m not going to spend too much time thinking about the many ways this game could break – one way or the other. At the end of the day, it’s still a football that will be kicked and thrown around the field…so I won’t analyze it any more than I already have. Besides, I’m not on the ESPN payroll for that, and if I was, I would write as many contradictory comments to match the sketchy media credentials that are given out for media day. I said it!

Last year I picked the Patriots when I felt sooooo confident that the Giants would win. In fact, after I published the piece I wanted my pick to go to the dumps. Sometimes you just have to trust what you feel and what your eyes tell you. I think.

My pick: 49ers over Ravens, 30-21.

Conference Championship Week: 1-1

Playoffs: 7-3

Regular Season: 164-92



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