Friday, January 3, 2014

Preemptive Whining Commences!

TV Screen Capture of Jim Harbaugh from a Few Weeks Ago
[Update]: Many thanks to my wife Judy for suggesting I take the picture of Jim Harbaugh's ugly mug on the sideline.  It is a classic.

Well, the preemptive whining has already begun on two fronts: (1) it is so unfair that the 49ers (12-4) have to go play in Green Bay (8-7-1) just because the 49ers are a wild card!; and (2) it is so unfair that the 49ers have to play in such miserable and unsafe conditions!

On the playoff seeding front, here is what Mike Florio, from NBC Sports, has to say:
"Yes, it’s unfair that a team like the 12-4 49ers must venture to Green Bay for Ice Bowl II when the Packers cobbled together a measly 8-7-1 record en route to the NFC North crown.
It’s as unfair as it is for the 11-5 Saints to have to travel to play the 10-6 Eagles on Saturday night.  And it’s as unfair as it was when the 2010 Saints, also 11-5, had to travel to Seattle to play the 7-9 Seahawks.  And it’s as unfair as when the 2011 Steelers, at 12-4, had to leave safety Ryan Clark home (due to a medical inability to play at altitude) for a playoffs game at Denver against the 8-8 Broncos."
On the cold weather front (pun intended), I came across an NBC Sports article about the cold weather games this weekend.  Some of the fan comments are priceless:
"What if some player were to be hospitalized for pneumonia and or die? Would NFL do anything? I mean if a fan in the stands is hospitalized or dead who cares, NFL wouldn’t. Sorry brutal weather makes me think of brutal things."  [This one was from an apparent 49ers fan, "16x8equal49ers"] 
"No freaking chance I would go to that game at Lambeau. No chance."
"Classic example of why all NFL teams should have dome stadiums and all NFL games should be played indoors." 
"This is so stupid. Grown ass men feel the need to be tough by playing a game in weather they have no business being outside during." 
"Build a retractable roof dome for arctic weather. Or does someone need to have a frost-bitten finger snap off mid-game before the NFL does anything about it?"
"Retractable roof seems like the smart thing to do for both the players and the fans. Who wants to pay a fortune to freeze their butt off? Wouldn’t want to take my kid or my gramp to a game in that kind of weather. Get real NFL."
 "This is NOT football weather. This is IDIOT weather."
I also read a Live Chat from this morning in one of the local Bay Area papers, which contained this "question" and response: 

"I have no feel for this game. Playing in this kind of weather is just stupid. If the NFL were really concerned about player safety they would have moved the game to a warmer venue.  Then you have to ask your self WHY does any East Coast team play in an open stadium?"

"If you think this is stupid, what about putting the neutral-site Super Bowl in New Jersey next month?"
And another NBC Sports article (what is it with NBC?) frets about the fact that the NFL has not set a temperature below which it is unsafe to play:
"It’s a bit surprising that the league hasn’t worked with experts to identify a temperature at which it automatically becomes unsafe to be outdoors for extended periods of time.  That’s likely because the league has never had to do it.

After Sunday’s game at Green Bay, the NFL may have to do it."
But the greatest one I have seen so far brings together both of these themes, the playoff seeding issue and the cold weather:
"The NFL rewards division winners more than it does overall win-loss records when it comes to the postseason, which is why Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers are being punished by having to go on the road to face the Green Bay Packers in what could be almost inhumane, Hoth-like conditions."
Harbaugh and the 49ers are being punished?  The conditions are almost inhumane?  Hoth-like (OK, I admit I had to look that one up)? 

The bottom line is that the next couple of days are going to be a lot of fun, leading up to the game.  If by some chance the Packers win, look out below!

Here are my thoughts on the outcome of the game.  We all know the "on any given Sunday" mantra, and of course it is true at some level.  But if I had to bet my house on the outcome of this game, I would reluctantly pick the 49ers.  This is based largely on the 49ers defense.  On offense, I think the Packers have equal or better players at QB, WR, and RB, while the 49ers have a better TE and offensive linemen.  On defense, I think the 49ers have better players on the defensive line and at linebacker, but at least given the current injury situation for the 49ers, I think the Packers are better at defensive back.  I don't have much of a feel for the 49ers special teams, but since the Packers' special teams are not that good, I will go out on a limb and say that the 49ers special teams are equal to or better than the Packers.

The biggest wild card of all in this wild card matchup is the weather.  We know that the Packers can play well in the cold.  They don't always do so, but they have the capability to play well, and while the conditions are colder than anybody is used to, the cold should not have a huge effect on Green Bay.  The 49ers are another story.  There is just no relevant history on how they will perform in these conditions - as mentioned earlier this week, the 49ers have not played with temperatures below freezing (let alone below zero) in the three years Harbaugh has been coach.  Kaepernick's early years in Fond du Lac and Milwaukee are not likely to carry over and help him out many years later.  The home field advantage, including the cold weather, give the Packers a real shot in this game.  Go Pack!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Playoff Bound Packers Hoping for Redemption

Contra Costa Times Sports Section, Dec. 30, 2013

San Francisco Chronicle Sports Section, Dec. 30, 2013
What a great victory for the Packers on Sunday.  There were so many individual moments that could have gone the other way and spoiled the chance for the 33-28 win over the Bears in the final regular season game, clinching the NFC North Championship and getting a home game in the playoffs.

What if the Bears' defensive back had picked up that Aaron Rodgers fumble in the second quarter that looked like an incomplete pass, or even batted it out of bounds?  Presumably the Bears, too, are coached to pick up loose balls just in case.  What if Boykin, having scooped it up, tossed it in the direction of the ref before Rodgers came up and told him to run?  The ref would presumably have jumped out of the way of the ball, and at that point everyone would realize it was a live ball.

What if the Packers players did not succeed in talking Mike McCarthy into going for it on 4th and 1 in the final drive, and the Packers never got the ball back?  What if the snap that Rodgers was so clearly not expecting did not basically lodge between Rodgers' hand and body, but bounced off in another direction?

What if, on the final touchdown to Cobb on fourth down, John Kuhn had gotten less of a piece of Julius Peppers, or Peppers' outstretched hand had tripped Rodgers up, or Rodgers didn't see Cobb flying free, or Cobb got his feet tangled with the defender or, heaven forbid, Cobb dropped that ball (it happens)?  This drive represented, as Coach McCarthy aptly said, Aaron Rodgers' finest hour as a Packer.  It may also have represented John Kuhn's finest and most significant single play as a Packer.

Rodgers showed the effects of all those weeks off.  Both of his interceptions, in the first 16 minutes of the game, looked like his fault.  The red zone interception, only the fourth red zone interception of his career, looked particularly bad.  Where and to whom was he throwing the ball?  The ball tipped by Jordy Nelson and then intercepted was poorly placed, too high and behind Nelson.  But Rodgers got better and better as the game went on, and the Packers, both in blocking (Kuhn was in to block, to my eye, much more frequently than usual) and in play selection (greater emphasis on short drops and running plays) did a good job of keeping Rodgers from getting hit as much as he usually is hit.

Jordy Nelson was obviously glad to have Aaron Rodgers back.  He had his best day by far, in catches and yards, since Rodgers went out, getting 10 catches for 161 yards.  We learned, on the Aaron Rodgers radio show on New Year's Eve, that Nelson did this despite having the flu and throwing up on the team bus after the game.  The Packers, without Rodgers, were scoring about 9 fewer points per game than they score with him in the game, and they obviously needed those points on Sunday.  And Randall Cobb, you could say, was eased back into action.  He was thrown to only twice, but caught both balls for touchdowns, including the game winner.

Here in the SF Bay Area, the 49ers fans are already looking past the Packers.  We watched the KTVU 10:00 news Sunday night, and one of the fans was looking forward to the NFC Championship game, 49ers at Seattle, in a couple of weeks.  Yep, the Green Bay Packers are essentially just a speed bump on the way to the NFC Championship game.  Coach Jim Harbaugh is already thinking about keeping his team in the midwest between the Packers game on Sunday and the Panthers game the following week.

The photos at the top of the page are the Monday morning front sports pages from a couple of the local newspapers.  At least some in the local media are being a little more level-headed about this, with one writer pointing out that the 49ers have blown sizable leads two weeks in a row, and that doing so in the playoffs is not going to work.  Another writer noted that the 49ers secondary is a bit shaky heading into the playoffs.

But let's face it, the Packers are also going to have to play better against the 49ers than they did against the Bears.  If Rodgers throws another couple interceptions, that will be trouble.  If the Packers give up more long kick returns, they may never recover.  The Packers did a decent job on defense, especially considering the absence of Clay Matthews.  They gave up 121 yards rushing, and 226 yards passing.  But the Bears probably should have rushed more, as they were getting 5 yards per carry.  And the Bears would have had a lot more passing yards if their elite receivers hadn't dropped a number of catchable balls.  I am not counting on the 49ers to make the same mistakes.  And I would not count on the Packers converting three fourth downs in a single drive to score the game-winning points, either.

The Packers have some obvious advantages at home.  It turns out that the 49ers have not played a single game with temperatures below freezing in the three years Harbaugh has been the coach.  Assuming the Packers manage to sell out the game (shockingly, in doubt as of Wednesday morning), the home crowd should help the Packers and hurt the 49ers.  But the Packers are slight underdogs in this game, and it makes sense that they are - if for no other reason than that the 49ers have a much better defense.

As it happens, we have attended the last three Packers-49ers games, opening day 2012, the playoff game last year, and the opening day game this year.  The Packers lost all three of those games.  The superstitious among us will be glad to know that we are not going to the game this week.  Happy New Year!