NFC Championship Game Preview: 49ers @ Seahawks

Seahawks 49ersby Jim Bearor

           For the most part, I’ll spare the statistics, because as I said in my earlier post, I’m not going to be able to give numbers and matchups that aren’t already out there.

            We all know Seattle has home field advantage, but many people don’t truly appreciate how much playing in CenturyLink Stadium benefits the Seahawks.  Since the beginning of last year – AKA the beginning of the Russell Wilson era – the Seahawks have gone 16-1 at home (yeah I know what I said about stats, but come on, that’s unbelievable). 

Seattle fans are notoriously loud already, and this game could be the loudest yet. This is not only because their team is playing for a Super Bowl berth, but also due to the unusual policies concerning ticket sales enacted by CenturyLink earlier this week. Tickets were available Monday morning for the NFC Championship game, but only to those who live in Washington, Montana, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, Hawaii, or the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia (the Broncos have done something very similar to this as well). Obviously their intent is to keep San Fran fans out of the stadium.

Controversial? Maybe, but my NFC Championship Preview isn’t the place for an ethics discussion (because I said so).

Bottom line: the place is going to be rocking, and I think it will affect the Niners – Colin Kaepernick in particular. Although he has had some rushing success in his two games at Seattle (118 yards total), Kaep has struggled throwing the ball. He has completed 32 of his 64 passes for 371 yards – which comes out to be around 5.8 yards per attempt – and has only one passing touchdown versus four interceptions.  I’m a Kaepernick fan, but those struggles can’t be ignored.

While this all this suggests Kaepernick might get rattled and cost his team the game, I’m not completely convinced that this is how it will play out.  Yes, the noise will be a factor – a HUGE factor – but in his young career, Colin has proven that he is the kind of player who can handle the pressure that comes with big games like this. So I expect to see Colin take the field on Sunday night as confident as he seems to be in those Beats commercials.

It’s pretty for Kaep easy to keep the right state of mind though when you’re handing the ball off more than you’re forced to drop back and pass against the biggest, baddest, most ball-hawkingest secondary on the planet.  The Seahawks know this, and I believe Bobby Wagner and a fully healed KJ Wright will be bringing the heat early and often, daring Kaepernick to test his luck through the air. It will take a great deal of stress off of Seattle’s offense if they can keep San Fran’s ground game in check — including Kaepernick tucking and running on designed passes.

Speaking of tall orders, Russell Wilson is going to have his hands full if the front seven of the 49ers takes away the running game. The offensive line for Seattle is impressive, but not as good as the group they’re facing.  I think the 49ers are going to give Marshawn Lynch a very tough time, in hopes of putting Wilson on the spot. 

Essentially, I believe that San Francisco and Seattle will come in with very similar gameplans.  Both will try to force the other’s young quarterback to try and make plays against a staunch defense.  The only differences I see are that the Seahawks have a better secondary, and the 49ers have a better set of lineman and ‘backers. 

Here is what it comes down to: the 49ers may have an easier time forcing the ball into Russell Wilson’s hands, but if the Seahawks somehow manage to contain Gore and Kaepernick on the ground, Kaepernick will be given the near-impossible task of throwing on the Legion of Boom in their own dojo.

So to wrap things up, CenturyLink Stadium is going to be very loud, each team is going to target the opposing quarterback, CenturyLink Stadium is going to be very loud, Kaepernick hasn’t had success in Seattle thus far in his career, and CenturyLink Stadium is going to be very loud.

Wilson and Kaepernick both put together impressive games, but Seattle’s D forces one big turnover that makes the difference. 

Seattle wins, 20-13.

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Key Matchups and My Prediction for Broncos – Patriots

Patriots Broncos

by Jim Bearor

There are only three weeks left of football – maybe the best football we’ve seen all year – but still, the NFL season is almost over, and that sucks.  As excited as I am to see a new champion emerge, I am equally as scared to go about my life without football for the next several months, and I know there are thousands of fans who feel the same way.

Knowing the end is near changes how we view things.  Playoff games are already overanalyzed, and the magnifying glass only gets bigger as the weeks go by.  Here we are, the day before the AFC and NFC Championship Games, and every aspect of both games has been broken down. All positional matchups have already been covered, and I’m sure that every possible result has been predicted by one “expert” or another. This makes it awful tough for me to offer a “unique take” on it all, but I’ll give it a whack anyway.

I firmly believe that despite the high-profile quarterbacks on either end, the AFC Title game will be won at –or near – the line of scrimmage. More specifically, here are a couple positional matchups that deserve more attention.

When the Patriots have the ball

The offensive line of New England has improved a great deal as the season has gone on.  Although it is the same patchwork group that allowed Brady to be sacked 40 times in the regular season, their suddenly dominant run blocking has defined the team’s playoff run to this point.  How well they handle Denver’s defensive line on inside handoffs – primarily Terrance Knighton and Shawn Phillips – will determine what role the Broncos linebackers will play.  If the Patriots have difficulty moving the ball inside, that frees up Linebackers Trevathan and Woodyard to focus on pass coverage.

Another matchup that draws my attention is WR Danny Amendola versus Champ Bailey.  While I’m not positive that this is how Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio will play things, I’m fairly certain that CB Rodgers-Cromartie will be tasked with keeping the versatile Julian Edelman in check.  If this is how it works out, I think Amendola’s speed creates major problems for an aging Bailey.  Maybe he will get some extra safety help, which could leave DRC and Edelman 1-on-1.  Regardless of how they choose to defend the two small, speedy wideouts, the Broncos are going to have their hands full without starting Corner Chris Harris in the lineup

When the Broncos have the ball

The injuries to Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork will most likely become targets for the Denver offense, which means Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Jamie Collins have a lot of slack to pick up – and in recent weeks, they’ve done exactly that.  But keeping tabs on Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball without sending too many defenders is crucial, as the Pats will need to  dedicate most of their resources to pass coverage if they have any hope of containing Thomas, Thomas, Decker, and Welker.

In my opinion, the biggest x-factor for the Broncos is TE Julius Thomas.  His size and pass-catching ability often creates drastic mismatches for opposing defenses, but the Patriots may have an answer for him.  New England met a similar threat in Week 6 when they faced Jimmy Graham and the Saints.  Graham was held without a catch by physical CB Aqib Talib, and I feel like Thomas might be handled the same way.  I could be wrong though, as Jamie Collins did a great job last week against Colby Fleener.  But Fleener isn’t quite Thomas, so the Pats must either risk that matchup or pull Talib off of Decker or the other Thomas.  Neither of these scenarios bode well for New England.

My Prediction

Belichick has always had Peyton’s number in the playoffs, but Peyton has never had so much talent around him.  Denver’s weapons in the passing game will spread New England’s defense thin, allowing Moreno and Ball to run wild. I also expect the Patriots to move the ball well, relying heavily on the run game again.  Amendola hauls in a couple long balls, and Edelman will perform at about the level that is expected from him.  However, they will not be able to match Denver’s scoring pace, leading to Tom Brady seeing more pressure as New England falls behind and is forced to abandon the ground game.

Denver wins 38-27

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When Watching Brady-Manning XIV, Don’t Forget About the Other Guy

belichick evil

by Jim Bearor

Let’ start off this piece by playing a little round of the “The Dating Game” with quarterbacks, because I always have fun trying to guess. Here we go: Which of these guys is the better playoff quarterback:

Lucky Quarterback #1: 8-7 in last 15 playoff starts

Lucky Quarterback #2: 8-7 in last 15 playoff starts

Welp, sorry about that stat, that doesn’t help at all. But how do things change when I throw in some actual in-game statistics?

Lucky Quarterback #1: 63.49 Completion %, 281.4 YDS/GM, 7.41 YDS/ATT

Lucky Quarterback #2: 62.06 Completion %, 245.9 YDS/GM, 6.74 YDS/ATT

QB #1 might have a slight advantage here, but the difference is almost negligible. Here’s one last hint though:

Lucky Quarterback #1 thinks that Lucky Quarterback #2 has played under the greatest coach of all time for the duration of his career.  Does that do it for you?

That’s right, QB #1 is Peyton Manning, and the QB#2 is Tom Brady.  Of course I took certain liberties choosing which statistics to show, because if I chose something like, say, career playoff record (Peyton’s is 10-11 while Toms tops the NFL’s leaderboard at 18-7), this wouldn’t have been any fun. Brady has Manning’s number in head-to-head matchups as well, where the Brady/Belichick duo have won 9 of their 13 games against Manning, including the regular season.

But Peyton is right by the way – Belichick is the best coach in the league, and probably the smartest man to ever put on a headset (definitely the smartest man to ever wear a sleeveless hoodie).  This is something he has learned from experience, as throughout much of his career in Indianapolis, he has been frustrated by less talented New England squads that seemingly always play to the best of their abilities.  Time and time again in these Brady/Manning Bowls, we have seen Peyton walk off the field after an uncharacteristically bad interception, followed by Brady coming in and embarrassing the Colts defense.  Series of events like this have become engraved in every football fans mind, even the Peyton Manning playoff apologists.

Tom Brady certainly deserves most of the credit whenever his legendary offense is brought up, he is the unquestioned leader of that group.  You can’t however, give Brady credit for the brilliant schemes and execution of the Patriots defense, much like Manning shouldn’t be held accountable for the shortcomings of his defense in Indy for so many years – and don’t forget about Rahim Moore’s big “oops” against the Ravens last year. No, the quarterback isn’t at all responsible for whatever happens with his team’s defense, that is the property of the players on the other side of the ball, and the guy calling the plays — which, for New England, happens to be Bill Belichick.

Throughout his career with the Pats, Coach Belichick has been known for gameplanning to take away the opposing offense’s top threat, and forcing them to beat him in other ways.  More often than not, this proves to be successful.  Either a team is exposed for being one-dimensional, or the pressure is shifted to a group that is not used to being in the spotlight.  For whatever reason though, Belichick’s schemes have worked enough to bring his team to 5 Super Bowls – and for the sake of this conversation, they’ve worked well enough to stifle the greatest statistical quarterback of all time.

While Tony Dungy will likely be a Hall of Famer very soon, and John Fox is no scrub, – although Jim Mora is – nobody is on the same level as Belichick. So when a Brady/Manning Bowl is discussed, Belichick should be the third guy that is mentioned, no question about it. 

To clear things up, I don’t mean to take anything away from Brady.  He is head-and-shoulders a better playoff quarterback than Manning is, and that isn’t something that can be changed this late in either’s career. Brady is better with less help around him (case in point: Troy Brown), and outside of maybe Montana, there is nobody in the history of the NFL more fit to lead a game-winning drive in a game that matters.  All I ask is that the next time you compare the two – which in all likelihood, will probably be in the next hour – don’t leave Belichick out of the discussion.  It’s like snubbing Darth Sidious when talking about how evil Vader was — just careless.

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As always, thanks for reading. Feedback and sharing are always appreciated.


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