The NFL Semi-Finals.

Not A Longshot in Sight.

Not A Longshot in Sight.

Is Conference Championship Sunday better than Super Bowl Sunday?  Is this the one-day pinnacle of the NFL season?  I’ve heard this argument made, and while it makes sense on some levels (you’re getting two premium games as opposed to one) I really don’t like to hear Super Bowl Sunday disrespected in this way.  I can hear people saying all the pros you might list about Super Bowl Sunday don’t really apply to the football: parties, crazy prop betting, the commercials.  Well, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?  If you are basing your argument solely on the amount of football, then your basic regular season week would reign supreme.  Siding with the conference championship games is like saying you prefer your birthday to Christmas, because on your birthday you don’t have to buy anyone else gifts.  Poor attitude.  So, while this Sunday is big, let’s not get it confused with the real thing.

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The media, the fans, the announcers, they all love to boil games down to one thing.  If it’s possible to sum up a game in one sentence, or a quickly formed fragment–that’s the road people will take.  The games couldn’t be any better for that this weekend.

BRADY vs. MANNING

I can’t believe this is the 1st game of the day.  No disrespect to the further west residing people of Seattle, but I never thought this game would be the appetizer.  Is it TV network based?  It has to be.  Anyway, the battle between the generation’s two best quarterbacks will kick things off on Sunday.  The hype has actually become so intense around the quarterbacks that people are backing off.  The thing has been to say, “You know what, no matter what happens Sunday–it’s not going to define the legacies of these players.”  I’ve read that 100 times.  You know what I say to that?

ERRONEOUS, ERRONEOUS on all counts.

This game doesn’t impact their legacies?  Are you serious?  At some point we’re going to watch these guys battle in a big game for the final time.  They will eventually stop playing Super Bowls and wining MVPs.  For all we know, this could be it–what if Pey-Pey gets a scary neck scan after the season?  We’re not talking about whether or not these guys are making the Hall of Fame, we’re talking about best of ALL TIME.  You’re telling me if Peyton get’s his butt kicked again this Sunday, he’s got any claim to being the best?  With one Super Bowl and a career of getting bested by his most significant rival?  No chance.  And, for Brady we’re now about 10 years gone from his peak as a “winner.” A couple more losses in big games, and he’ll have officially faded away.  A fourth Super Bowl and he might be kicking aside Montana and Elway.  So don’t tell me the legacies are set.  They’re never set.  Ask O.J.

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Defense vs. DEFENSE

I heard Ray Lewis breaking down the NFC championship game on Friday and he was speaking with a particular level of passion.  I didn’t exactly follow what he was saying, but I could tell he was fired up for this game.  Ray Lewis would like to play on both of these teams.  Seriously, anyone need a pre-game dance?

Colin Kaepernick has started to exert his control over the Niners a bit, so I might be stretching it with my headline there, but this is still the game that has everyone relying on the old “smashmouth football,” routine.  We’re going to line up AND PUNCH YOU IN THE MOUTH.

In Seattle, the defense, the crowd, it’s all morphed into this aura of invincibility.  And, aside from a blip against the Cardinals (and really, sometimes Carson Palmer just beats you), the Seahawks have been impossible to handle at home.  That includes throttling the same Niners on their last visit.  The Seahawks defense ate Kaepernick alive and the blowout put an apparent gulf between these two teams.  But, in the weeks and months since, the Niners clipped Seattle in San Francisco and are playing what most people perceive to be the better brand of football.  The question is, can they play it in Seattle, against that DEFENSE?

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The Picks…

Big Dub, 7-0-1 (Whistle)

Three more wins to go for Pick ‘Em Immortality.

New England (+5.5) over Denver.  As much as I hate Peyton I have to admit the matchup between him and Brady is a coin flip. The defenses of each team is a coin flip. Special teams? Keep flipping the coin. The only edge I can clearly give any team comes at head coach. Do you really trust John Fox in this spot? I know Peyton is the one who really runs the show, but I just have this feeling that Fox is going to eff this thing up more so than Peyton.

San Francisco (+3.5) over Seattle.  Russell Wilson has proven an ability to manage games and not lose games, but I’m not sold on his ability to win games. The Nners and Seahawks are even across the board except offensively. Too many weapons for San Fran to go along with a red-hot Kaepernick.

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Grossy, 5-2-1

Denver (-5.5) over New England.  What I noticed right away was that the line felt a bit high.  I was expecting to see the 3, 3.5 stuck on this, but for Denver to be this favored indicates to me that they are the better team.  They blew a big lead to New England on the road this year, but that game was so odd, you almost just throw it out.  Hard to imagine a New England team this decimated making it to the Super Bowl and the line is telling me Denver.

Seattle (-3.5) over San Francisco.  Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense might not be in top form, but I’ve seen no indications that the Niners can win in Seattle.  I’m not sure they can even compete.  I think Kaepernick’s rise the last two weeks has been a bit overblown.  Pete Carroll’s going to the Bowl.  Live with it.

***

Kraft, 3-5

  1. New England (+5.5) over Denver
  2. Seattle (-3.5) over San Francisco

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Nichols, 4-3-1

  1. New England (+5.5) over Denver
  2. Seattle (-3.5) over San Francisco

Goodell’s Fantasy Weekend.

Or, The Day of the Goat.

If you’re an Eagles fan, conference championship Sunday has a special sting.  For a pretty good stretch it was one of the worst sports days of the year.  Perhaps it is those bad memories, or perhaps it is the city’s singular obsession with the Birds, but in Philly last week these football games had all the hype of the Cotton Bowl.  No one cared other than to grumble some occasional ill-will toward the Giants.  Even I wasn’t too interested in the events.  I certainly was rooting against NY–as I am geographically predisposed to do, but the games were going to be more of an excuse to eat some pizza and shoot the horsebleep with some friends.  Then the crazy stuff started happening….

1.  The first strange thing I noticed was Tom Brady was a bit off.  He had a deflected pick overturned by a somewhat suspect PI call and missed an array of open receivers in the 1st half.  As a devoted Brady fantasy owner, I’ve seen my share of Tommy B this year and there were a handful of games where he showed this slight deviation from perfection.  With the Pats moving the ball, Brady’s hiccups kept the score reasonable and kept the Ravens in the game.  I’m sure Brady’s shoulder will be discussed to the point of exhaustion for the next two weeks in New England.

2.  Flacco to Torrey Smith I.  Never has a worse throw done so much for a team.  At the start of the game, the Ravens looked like they were going to average about 1.2 yards per play.  It was pitiful.  The Pats defense was gaining confidence.  Then, Torrey Smith broke wide open.  Any reasonable QB would have hit Smith for an easy score.  Flacco underthrew him by about 15 yards and almost blew the play, but the big gain that could have been bigger at least let Baltimore believe they could move the ball.  

3.  New England biggest defensive stand  came after Danny Woodhead fumbled a kickoff return (foreshadowing for the afternoon game) with the Pats trailing 17-16.   A 24-16 deficit there instead of 20-16 would have been huge.  The Ravens offense just couldn’t get everything going in the right direction and settled for three points (or attempted FGs) too often.

4.  Joe Flacco’s pick in the 4th quarter was one of his worst throws of the day at a terrible time.  Baltimore would get another chance, but Flacco nearly sunk him with his ill-advised toss down the middle into coverage.  Flacco remained put upon and fatalistic after the game, but he brings it on himself with these hot & cold performances.  

5.  The Lee Evans TD catch/drop/pass breakup got a little lost in the shuffle a few moments later, but the Ravens probably were a few tenths of a second away from winning the game in regulation.  The, to borrow a baseball term, bang-bang play probably deserved at least a courtesy review, but there was none and it set the stage for…

6. The worst clutch kick of all-time.  Maybe Gary Anderson for the Vikings?  That was in a dome.  After a full half day of wracking my brain that’s about all I can come up with.  Cundiff’s miss made Scott Norwood look like Adam Vinatieri in the snow.  That kick wouldn’t have been good from 15 yards.  He duck-hook, double-crossed himself into oblivion.  It was such a bad kick and such a horrific way to lose the game that it wasn’t even funny (except to Pats fans), and missed kicks are ALWAYS funny.  

***

The only person that had any compassion for Billy Cundiff, the only guy who cared one bit about his well-being was San Francisco kick returner, Kyle Williams.  Williams guaranteed that Cundiff would only share top-billing with a duo of mistakes that probably secured his passage to the Arena League.  It was the kind of game that was going to turn on a mistake.  Without the fumbled punt return, the SF and NY offenses might still be out there piling up 3 and outs.  It was a supreme display of defensive football from both teams.  

If Kyle Williams wants to get off the hook he should point a finger at Alex Smith.  Aside from leaning on Vernon Davis for a few plays, Smith was terrible.  Every time he rolled out under pressure you knew he was going to rifle a low line drive off the hash marks, and that’s what he did.  Over and over.  The Giants had him on the run.  

Eli was also under fire the whole game.  The Giants pass protection was a mess.  Eli got hit 20 times, which is slightly inflated by his 1.2 million pass attempts, but still, he was constantly on the ground.  A week after fading late against the Saints the 49ers defense was back and clicking.  

The 49ers defensive backs colliding into each other may have cost them the game.  On two occasions Eli threw what looked to be sure picks only to have the SF players collide and keep each other from getting the interception.  The first collision resulted in an injury.  The 2nd, in overtime, kept SF from really taking momentum.  Gotta call those fly balls, boys.  

When the Giants kicked the winning field goal it set off a wild celebration that featured the happiest punter I’ve ever seen. Steve Weatherford(?) sprinted across the field like he had just nailed a jumper over Craig Ehlo.  I guess it was a real nice hold, but know your role a little bit.  You don’t have to become the NFL version of Thomas Hill.  

***

That’s about all I’ve got for now.  It was an incredibly strange day of football.  You had two teams that deserved to win their games, but were also kind of handed the victories by historical gaffes from the opposition.  It doesn’t matter how we got there, though, we’ve now got the Pats/Giants rematch and two straight weeks of David Tyree highlights.  Good news is, all those Niners defensive players can now make the Pro Bowl–don’t miss it!