Tuesday, October 25, 2011

NFL Week 8 Predictions

Week 7 Record: 9-4

Season Record: 71-32

Colts at Titans - Both teams were blown out but only the Titans have something to play for.
Saints at Rams - How could my preseason NFC West pick have regressed so much since '10?
Dolphins at Giants - Bushleague throwing his team under the bus puts a smile on my face.
Vikings at Panthers - Cam's inch-perfect bomb to Steve Smith in Wk 7 - sick.
Cardinals at Ravens - Putrid MNF showing by offense.  Why not use Ray Rice more?
Jaguars at Texans - Arian Foster is baaaack.
Redskins at Bills - The Bills' offense finds its groove again.
Lions at Broncos - Tebow would really enrage his critics with a W but Det won't lose 3 straight.
Patriots at Steelers - Pittsburgh has lost to the two best teams they've played so far.
Browns at 49ers - Many writers have SF ranked in the top 4.  Everyone needs to calm down...
Bengals at Seahawks - Rootin for Cincy, but Seattle finds a way to win in an ugly one.
Cowboys at Eagles - Vick and McCoy are refreshed after bye.
Chargers at Chiefs - SD works on 2 min drill and avoids Raider-like turnovers to win.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

NFL Week 7 Predictions

Week 6 Record: 11-2

Season Record: 62-28

Seahawks at Browns - What's cheatey petey's deal?  Losing.
Falcons at Lions - Hey Schwartz.  Scoreboard.  This could be a trap game...
Texans at Titans - Schaub redeems himself from that awful game-ending pass vs Raidas.
Broncos at Dolphins - Most watched game between combined 1-9 records teams ever.  Tebow!
Chargers at Jets - Jets were not impressive on MNF vs Dolphins team who clearly wants Luck.
Bears at Buccaneers - I'm a man, I'm Forte.
Redskins at Panthers - Now there's the Grossman we know and love.
Chiefs at Raiders - How can I possibly dislike the Raiders more?  Oh, they picked up Palmer.
Steelers at Cardinals - C'mon Pittsburgh, put the Cardinals farther in the NFC West hole.
Rams at Cowboys - Lloyd makes some of the most outrageous catches you'll ever see.
Packers at Vikings - Pathetic how far McNabb has fallen.  Benched twice.
Colts at Saints - Payton's injury should make Peyton feel so much better about himself.
Ravens at Jaguars - I feel for Mojo Drew and Marcedes Lewis.  Freakin trojan, Jack del Rio.

Monday, October 17, 2011

49ers 5-1, back in national spotlight!

The 49ers have gone 8 straight seasons since their last playoff appearance - back in 2002 with Mariucci/Garcia/TO/Hearst.  During those eight years, we've gone through Erickson, Nolan and Singletary as head coaches, and outside of an 8-8 record in 2009, they never even had a .500 record, averaging less than 6 wins a year.  In comparison, from 1981 (when Montana took over as QB) to 2002 (when Mariucci got let go), they made the playoffs 18 out of 22 years.  (We had double digit regular season wins 19 times, but missed out in 1991 - the season Montana and Young were both hurt and Bono won 5 games en route to 10 wins, but lost to the Falcons in a head to head tiebreaker.)

All that to say, it is all at once surprising, amazing and refreshing to see the 49ers at 5-1, coming off a big win over an undefeated team (even if it is the upstart Lions).  They are finally, once again, the biggest story in the NFL, even if it is just week 7.

There were several moments in yesterday's game that made me think that the clock had indeed struck midnight and we were about to return to the mediocrity of the last 8 years.

- First moment, when Vanden Bosch raced around our LT and strip-sacked Alex Smith and recovered the fumble in one seemingly fatal swoop on our very first play from scrimmage.  Smith was confidently winding up to throw deep at that moment - perhaps Harbaugh's design to grab the game by the scruff of its neck.

- 2nd moment, after two straight punts, the Lions drive for a TD, going up 10-0.  Harbaugh makes the mistake of throwing a challenge flag even though every score is reviewed automatically by the league.  This has the unintended positive consequence of causing Schwartz to act up and therefore firing up Harbaugh and the niners.

- 3rd moment.  After Detroit takes the early 3rd quarter lead, Crabtree toe-tapping efforts are ruled a no catch and Delanie Walker drops a relatively easy TD catch.  SF settles for a FG.

- 4th moment.  The pressure starts to mount on Alex Smith as the Lions' d-line is closing in.  His passes have started sailing and one overshoots Crabtree and lands in the arms of Lions saftey, Spievey.  This seems to be the momentum grabber that the home team needs.  Is this the Alex Smith of the past rearing his head?  Will this crush the delicate confidence that Harbaugh has built in him the last few months?  Is this where the 49ers fairytale season goes bad?

- 5th moment.  Early 4th quarter, Stafford throws what should be a ridiculously uncontroversial TD pass but is for some reason initially called incomplete for a 19-15 lead.  The 49ers, having managed only 1 TD on the day will need not just a score, but a TD to win.

But in the last 8 minutes, down 4 points:

- Aldon Smith sacks Matt Stafford for loss of 18, eventually forcing a punt.

- Ted Ginn returns a punt 40 yards, back to the (original line of scrimmage at) Det 35 yard line.

- Kendall Hunter and Frank Gore combine for three 9 yard gashing runs.

- On 4th down and goal, after a poor 3rd down incomplete pass, Alex Smith throws a dart to Delanie Walker (who dropped an easier TD pass earlier) on a quick slant.  I could tell right away that his knee was close to being down and that it would be reviewed.  I couldn't even celebrate the TD.  But replays were conclusive.  His knee was thisclose, but not down.  TD!

- 49ers pass D causes Stafford to throw incompletions on 2nd, 3rd and 4th down.  Nothing for you, Megatron!

- Akers nails a 37 yard FG after the 49ers force the Lions to use all 3 timeouts.

- Anthony Davis saves Detroit coach Jim Schwartz's life by getting between Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh.  haha.

Harbaugh may have been overly excited about the win and probably should have calmed down for the 5 seconds it would have taken for the customary coaches handshake, but Schwartz's furious reaction was downright childish and laughable.  Hey Schwartz, you got a handshake, now go lick your wounds.  And next time, how about you try not to taunt the opposing coach in the middle of the game.  Scoreboard.

Back to the 49ers - this was the biggest game in many, many years.  One interesting article I read said that Harbaugh was simply better at being Singletary than Singletary was.  Simply put: run the ball, play solid D, and make sure your QB doesn't turn it over.  Some interviews (of which there were many - I heard two 49ers on national radio on the way to work today) have shed some light on the change Harbaugh brought to the team.  Delanie Walker disclosed that many players were selfish last year.  But Harbaugh, for example, built team chemistry by insisting on roommates in camp and on the road, even for veterans.  He disallowed headphones and demanded players to eat with teammates they didn't know and learn new things about each other.  And as with any good leader, Harbaugh doesn't hold himself completely at arm's length from his team and they love him for it.  I wonder how well he will do when he gets a real offseason to truly prepare.

However, the rush to suddenly proclaim SF the possible #2 seed in the NFC with first round bye, is a bit premature.  Let's get to 8 wins first or whatever is enough to win this weak division.  As with nearly every team, everyone in every season has some lulls, a bad patch and some unlucky injuries.  Let's see if we're still the talk of the league in another 6 weeks.  But for now, I can once again dare to dream about Superbowls, can't I?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

NFL Week 6 Predictions

Week 5 Record: 8-5

Season Record: 51-26

Panthers at Falcons - ATL were playing well but couldn't score enough to discourage Rodgers.
Colts at Bengals - I'm tired of picking Indy to finally win one.  Cincy will amazingly be 4-2.
49ers at Lions - Game of the week.  This one puts SF in the limelight!
Rams at Packers - easy survivor pick of the week.
Bills at Giants - Battle for NY could become a shootout.  Who's more exciting than Cruz?
Jaguars at Steelers - How Jack del Rio still has a job is beyond me.
Eagles at Redskins - Philly's 1-4.  I formally retract my playoff prediction.  But they get the upset.
Browns at Raiders - Oakland finally has a chance to be good going forward.  just sayin.
Texans at Ravens - Bonehead decision by Schaub on last play against 10 defenders.
Cowboys at Patriots - AFC East race is already over.  NFC East race still has 4 teams.
Saints at Buccaneers - After 48-3 whoopin, can they respond vs Saints?  nah.
Vikings at Bears - It should be the AP vs Forte show - whoever gets more yards, gets the W.
Dolphins at Jets - Who's the Mia QB anyway?  Hope he outplays trojan Sanchez.

US v Honduras / Ecuador Thoughts

Random Observations:

VS Honduras
- There was extremely sloppy short passing in what seemed like a monsoon.
- Dempsey is far and away our best technical player.  His goal was class, something we don't see from Americans often.
- Brek Shea continues to prove that he's a deserving starter.
- Danny Williams - Klinsmann finally capped his first player.  Fittingly, it was a German-born player who seems to love America, (in the mold of Klinsmann himself).  Apparently Danny visited the US for the first time in June and ended up with an American girlfriend, who immediately moved back to Germany with him.  He loves America!  On the field, he says he plays central midfield in Germany, but has been deployed on the right wing for us.  He's physical, tough and decently skilled.  A good find.
- Orozco Fiscal was terrible.  Klinsmann had said that the reason he hadn't called Omar Gonzalez and George John was that our "best players are here (in camp)" - a shocking statement considering how bad Fiscal had performed to date.
- Gooch is back.
- Shea and Gooch missed sitters.  Had we won 3-0, pundits could stop saying that we've only scored 2 goals in 4 games.
- Tim Howard was outstanding, having to make save after save in the slick rain.

VS Ecuador
- Gooch is probably the standout story from this 2 game series.  This is as good as I've ever seen him play.  He was strong, solid but not overly physical defensively while confident and dependable on the ball.
- Possession vs Ecuador was noticeably impressive since we were playing a South American team.  Essentially, I thought we were the much better team at holding the ball.
- Creating opportunities to score is still an issue.  We mostly managed long distance shots.  Shea and Dempsey seemed to be the only ones who had the skill set to generate opportunities.  Jozy has not been able to even get shots off, much less replicate his impressive club scoring form.
- The left-sided Chandler and Shea combination continues to be a good partnership.  Chandler constantly put the ball in dangerous spaces for Shea to run onto.  In comparison, Williams and Cherundolo on the right need to work on their understanding.  Very rarely was either in threatening crossing position.
- Edu had an awful game.  He seemed unaware of where opponents were positioned and his touch was off.
- Cherundolo may have got beaten around the edge a few times, but Spector is completely unusable at RB.  Seriously, can he play CB?
- Ream is in horrible form.  Lalas was as upset as I've ever seen describing his poor fundamentals.
- I'm still not sure what Beckerman offers that Bradley doesn't, but Klinsmann obviously prefers him as his CDM right now.

It has been 5 games since Klinsmann has taken over and our record is 1 win, 3 losses, 1 draw.  I thought we really deserved to win vs Mexico, Costa Rica and arguably Ecuador but we were plagued by the inability to repeatedly create good goal scoring opportunities in the box.  This may not be something that can be fixed immediately since goal-scoring is not necessarily something that can be gained from a change of tactics, but is rather found innately in a player.  However, Klinsmann's greatest achievement and contribution to US Soccer is the confidence to, and the mindset of, keeping and building our attack through possession.  When all else fails, we no longer just rely on booting the ball upfield and hope one of our speedy forwards or wings catches up to it.

Also, under Klinsmann, it seems that our attacking players have a more defined role in creating offense.  Many times with Bob Bradley, it almost felt like we relied solely on Dempsey and Donovan to make their runs by tucking inside and perhaps draw fouls.  The only width on the outside was provided by the fullbacks, who may or may not have been that adventurous depending on the danger posed by opposing wings.  Now with the addition of Shea, a true winger, and another player on the right wing (a spot that has been a revolving door thus far between Donovan, Rogers and Danny Williams) alongside 2 central attacking midfielders (who are protected by a CDM - Beckerman), Klinsmann has committed 5 players to the attack, instead of Bradley's customary 4 (2 forwards plus Dempsey, Donovan).

Brek Shea has been Klinsmann's biggest find, although Bradley did give him his first few caps to underwhelming results.  There is no question that Shea is the starter at left wing for the foreseeable future.  However, at the beginning of Klinsmann's tenure, it was clear that we needed help at striker and most importantly, in defense.  The only position where we've been well stocked is the midfield.  (You could argue that Shea is a forward if we play 4-3-3).  Then again, it must be said that Shea provides a bonafide wing option, one that Dempsey and probably even Donovan are not best suited for.

5 games ago, defense was the major area of concern for me.  I thought that besides Timothy Chandler, Klinsmann would have to spend the next few years finding or developing the 3 other starters.  So Onyewu's sudden return to great form as proven vs Honduras and especially Ecuador, is major news.  At 29 years old, he will be 32 by Brazil 2014 and can be slotted in as our defensive veteran starter, if all goes well.  As for Chandler, he has been as good as advertised, showing the speed, strength and skill to check opposing wings as well as be a legitimate threat going forward.  That's two spots that we hope are set in stone.

Klinsmann has been continually relying upon Bocanegra and Cherundolo for the other two spots, since they constitute our best options right now.  However by WC 2014, they will both be 35, hardly the preferred age for a defense that was already considered a step slow in 2010.  So, thus far Klinsmann's selections for younger defenders besides Chandler have been Michael Orozco Fiscal, Edgar Castillo, Tim Ream and Jonathan Spector.  Orozco and Castillo received generous playing time while Ream and Spector saw but a few precious minutes just this last week.  However, it is inarguable that all 4 have been disappointments.

Ream may have had a great rookie MLS season last year and a ton of potential, but if he doesn't recover from this disaster of a year with a strong domestic start in 2012, we cannot consider him for WC qualifying in June.  Klinsmann's continual choice of Orozco is an enigma to me.  He's been called into camp 3 times but has failed to prove that he is worth his place each time.  Castillo and Spector are unusable at fullback - the former a poor defender, the latter with poor foot speed.  If Klinsmann's belief is truly that he has been using the best players in the last 5 games, then we truly in trouble.

At striker, Altidore continues to be our best option while Agudelo is his main backup.  Klinsmann has opted for a single striker in all 5 games but it must be stated that no striker has scored a goal under his watch.

After our two European November friendlies (perhaps France and another team that is done with Euro 2012 qualifying), I'll post my predictions for Brazil 2014 roster - the 1st Klinsmann edition.  Suffice to say, much has changed.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

NFL Week 5 Predictions

Week 4 Record: 11-5

Season Record: 43-21

Eagles at Bills - In spite of my better judgement, I'm taking the 1-3 Eagles over the 3-1 Bills.
Chiefs at Colts - Indy's got to win one of these games, right?
Cardinals at Vikings - Minn should be pondering a QB change soon, but they get their 1st W.
Seahawks at Giants - Giants stole one last week, earns one this week.
Titans at Steelers - Pittsburgh ravaged by injuries, finds a way to win.
Saints at Panthers - As impressive as Cam's been, Carolina will still finish last in their division.
Bengals at Jaguars - In the battle of the rookie QBs, Mojo Drew carries the day.
Raiders at Texans - Foster's back, but can the Houston D hold back Run DMC?
Buccaneers at 49ers - I fear a letdown after a big win over Philly.  But playoffs are possible!
Chargers at Broncos - SD's been underwhelming, but the Broncos just suck.
Jets at Patriots - Rex goes back to ground n pound, Belicheat dominates with aerial assault.
Packers at Falcons - Rodgers, 409 yards passing, 6 TDs.  Rodgers > Brady.
Bears at Lions - I want to say this is Detroit's first loss, but this is Megatron's world now.

Quarter Season Playoff Predictions

AFC East: New England
AFC North: Baltimore
AFC South: Houston
AFC West: San Diego
Wildcards: Buffalo, Pittsburgh

NFC East: NY Giants
NFC North: Green Bay
NFC South: New Orleans
NFC West: San Francisco
Wildcards: Detroit, Philadelphia

I'm taking flyers on the 2 Pennsylvania teams - with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia's talent, experience and coaching eventually manifesting itself, they will both earn at least wildcard spots at the expense of overachieving teams like Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Oakland or Atlanta.

As for real Superbowl contenders, it looks like it'll be one of these 4 teams: Packers, Saints, Patriots and Ravens.  I'll say Detroit, while still undefeated now, is perhaps still one year away.  Philly and Pittsburgh might burn all their gas just getting to the postseason.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Signature game for Harbaugh and Alex Smith

In a crazy game at Philadelphia where the Niners found themselves down 20-3 in the 3rd quarter, Alex Smith led 3 unanswered touchdown drives (2 passing TDs - Josh Morgan, Vernon Davis), including Frank Gore's manly 12 yard TD run, to win the game by 1.

It must be noted that the Eagles also missed two 4th quarter FGs (39 yds, 33 yds) and fumbled away the ball in game-winning FG position in the closing minutes.  (You also can't forget Ronnie Brown's insane backwards pass at the goalline which the Niners recovered in the 2nd quarter).  If they convert on any of those chances, SF loses the game.

Back in the preseason, with basically no offseason to install his offense or his philosophy, I thought this would be a tough inaugural year for Harbaugh.  I still believed that he had the makings of a very good NFL coach, but I didn't think the 49ers would be able to compete immediately with the up-and-coming Rams or the Cardinals, both of which seemingly have a bonafide NFL QB.

After 4 games, the Niners are just one lousy quarter away from being 4-0 and they're 2 games on top of the NFC West.  The Rams are winless and the Seahawks are hapless.  However, the Cardinals are one horribly ruled non-fumble away from being 2-2.

So what have we learned?

1) Alex Smith is a capable game managing QB in the NFL.  You're not going to see him going off on a 400 yard, 4 TDs, 2 rushing TDs kind of game, which Rodgers dropped on the league yesterday serving to remind 49er fans of what we missed, even on Alex Smith's signature day.  But after a miserable first half, Alex showed enough poise to bring us back.

2) We will not be getting Andrew Luck.  We can't even tank in this pathetic NFC West division bad enough to get him.  I guess Harbaugh is too good of a coach.  Perhaps we should've kept Singletary one more year, haha.  I'm still convinced you can't win a SB these days without a superstar QB, which we don't have.

3) Our first playoff appearance since 2002 is a real possibility.  The two vital games vs the Cardinals will probably determine that.  If we're not gonna get Luck, we better make the playoffs.