Thursday, January 31, 2013

2014 Brazil WC Roster Prediction - Jan 2013

As the US enters the final round of WC qualifying - the 10 games of the Hexagonal (6 team group), where top 3 advances automatically and 4th place plays a home/away vs Oceania champion - this is my best guess into Klinsmann's mind come WC 23 man roster selection time in 2014.

Tim Howard (S), Brad Guzan, Bill Hamid

In the mix:  Sean Johnson, Nick Rimando, Tally Hal

Currently at 84 caps, Howard will eclipse the 100 game mark likely before Brazil.  It is probably his last WC, but there is still no clear cut young keeper in waiting that will supplant him post-'14.  Guzan will definitely be the backup.  In my gut, Bill Hamid will earn the nod over Sean Johnson, who is currently Klinsmann's 3rd string.

Carlos Bocanegra (S), Geoff Cameron (S), Clarence Goodson, Omar Gonzalez

In the mix: Tim Ream, Oguchi Onyewu, Zak Whitbread, Matt Besler, George John, Maurice Edu

This is my 4th Brazil prediction but the first time I'm including Bocanegra.  Yes, he'll be 35 and slower than ever.  But with a year and a half to go, he's still Klinsmann's first choice for starter and captain amidst all the uncertainty at CB.  Omar finally forces his way onto Klinsmann's squad with a unparalleled CB play in the MLS.  If Cameron and Gonzalez prove themselves reliable through the Hex however, Boca might find himself replaced by youthful speed come June '14.  CBs in England - Ream and Whitbread just have not made the right impression on Klins.  Onyewu might have wasted his last shot.  Also worth mentioning, Maurice Edu has been given a look back at CB as well.

Outside Backs
Fabian Johnson (S), Timothy Chandler (S), Steve Cherundolo, Eric Lichaj

In the mix: Michael Parkhurst, Edgar Castillo, Alfredo Morales, Jonathan Spector, Michael Orozco Fiscal, AJ DeLaGarza

Timothy Chandler could get cap-tied as soon as the 1st game in the Hex.  If so, he will probably be the starter at RB in Brazil alongside his German-born compatriot, the long awaited LB savior of US Soccer, Fabian Johnson.  Cherundolo might still be the most reliable bench option we have, even at 35.  I'm taking a big risk on listing Lichaj, whom Klinsmann has shown little to no interest for, instead of his regular backup rotation.  Otherwise, Parkhurst would probably be the first call.

Central/Defensive Midfielders
Michael Bradley (S), Danny Williams (S), Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu

In the mix: Kyle Beckerman

Given that Klinsmann will probably choose to play no less than 2 and sometimes even 3 of these 4 players above at the same time, all four naturally defensive midfielders will probably make the team.  If you're counting, that's also 4 German-born players, so far.

Attacking Midfielders
Landon Donovan (S), Brek Shea (S), Sasha Kljestan, Graham Zusi

In the mix: Josh Gatt, Mix Diskerud, Jose Francisco Torres, Stuart Holden, Benny Feilhaber, Joe Corona, Robbie Rogers, Brad Davis, Alejandro Bedoya

Toughest group to predict by far.  Nobody should dare predict that Donovan won't be on the plane until it actually happens.  But the fact that he's decided to not join the team for the first game of the Hex is worrisome, if for no other reason than losing the respect of European-hardened teammates.  Zusi has emerged as Klinsmann's go-to backup on the right side, while I believe that Shea will get his act together in time to claim the starting left side.  Kljestan adds a 2nd consecutive great club year to barely beat out Torres and Diskerud.  Holden just can't be counted on until after he emerges from his last competitive game in May 2014 injury free.

Clint Dempsey (S), Jozy Altidore (S), Hercules Gomez, Terrence Boyd

In the mix: Eddie Johnson, Juan Agudelo, Edson Buddle, Teal Bunbury, Chris Wondolowski

Dempsey starts.  Jozy and Hercules battle each other for the other spot.  Boyd beats out all the MLS options for the bench and becomes Klinsmann's 5th German-born convert in Brazil.

Predicted Starting Line-up


Friday, January 25, 2013

49ers' Significant Playoff Games

1981 NFC Championship vs Cowboys
The 49ers' rite of passage game.  Tom Landry and the 'Boys were the dominant past which had suppressed the 49ers.  No more.  Montana to Clark.  28-27.  Enter Bill Walsh to NFL hegemony.

1988 NFC Championship at Chicago
Having lost all 3 road playoff game in Walsh's tenure thus far, SF had a tough task at Soldier Field.  Also, the Bears' vaunted 4-6 defense had been all the rage while the 49ers had been underachievers in the playoffs for the prior 3 years.  Then Jerry Rice happened: 133 yards, 2 TDs.  9ers win 28-3.

1994 NFC Championship vs Cowboys
This was the real NFL championship that year.  3 straight years before, the 9ers had lost in the NFC Conference Championship.  Montana's last 9ers playoff game vs the Giants started this streak.  The last 2 years, the Cowboys had been the ones to eliminate them.  Steve Young just couldn't win when it really counted.  Then we jumped out to a 21-0 lead and won 38-28.  I wasn't old enough to enjoy "The Catch", so this ranks as my favorite non-SB 49er game ever.

1998 Divisional Rd vs Packers
3 straight years we had been eliminated by Favre and the Green Packers.  With 8 seconds left and down 4, Young drops back (nearly falls) and launches a perfect strike to a sandwiched TO.  TO cried.  9ers overcame the Pack in Young's last playoff run ever.

2002 Wild Card vs Giants
The 49ers missed the postseason in consecutive seasons '99 and '00 (the first time since '79-'80), then were promptly dismissed by the Pack in '01.  Then we found ourselves down 38-14 to the Giants in the 3rd quarter.  Jeff Garcia proceeds to lead the 9ers on a 25-0 run to edge out NY 39-38.  And, in the spirit of the game, I don't think you deserve pass interference if you mess up a field goal try that badly.

2011 Divisional Rd vs Saints
9 long years.  No playoffs in 9 stinkin years.  Then Harbaugh resurrects a franchise from 6 wins to 13 wins and a 1st round bye.  Against NO, the 9ers jump out to a 17-0 lead but find themselves down 3 with mere seconds left.  Alex Smith's strike to Vernon Davis conjures memories of Clark and TO's catches.  Vernon Davis' cries 9er nation's cathartic tears.

2012 NFC Championship at Falcons
An anemic offense and 2 Kyle Williams turnovers on kick returns vs NY cost the 49ers a Superbowl spot a year ago.  This year with a Kaepernick-led explosive offense, the 49ers turned a 17-0 deficit on the road vs Atlanta into glory.  The defense shut out the Falcons in the 2nd half to book the long-awaited (18 years) trip back to the big game.

Monday, January 21, 2013

49ers advance to their 6th Superbowl!

Key moments from the 2012 NFC Championship

- After being dominated the entire 1st quarter (9ers had no first downs while Falcons had no punts) and going down 17-0, SF finally responds with a 11 play, 6:46 minute, 80 yard TD drive.  It was capped off by a 15 yard LaMichael James run from a read-option handoff.  What was encouraging was that the 9ers didn't panic, but opted to hand off to Gore 4 straight times to start the drive.

- After a Falcon 3 and out (finally), the 49ers drove 91 yards for 2nd straight TD.  This drive was notable for Kaepernick's lone positive rush of the day - a 23 yard broken play scamper up the left sideline - as well as Vernon Davis' reappearance in the SF offense.  He accounted for 3 catches for 48, including the 4 yd TD reception.

- Though Atlanta scored a TD to end the half, the 49ers started the 3rd quarter with a 3rd consecutive TD drive.  7 plays, 82 yards - Randy Moss contributed with 2 catches totaling 38 yards, while Gore had 4 rushes for 24 yards and a TD.

- Next 2 Falcon possessions ended in turnovers - a Culliver interception just past midfield and a Ryan fumbled snap well inside FG territory.  Disappointingly, the 49ers squandered both ensuing scoring opportunities with a Akers missed 38 yarder and a Crabtree goalline fumble.  That's 10 points we should've had.

- However, Crabtree didn't fumble away our field position, and Atlanta's ensuing 3 and out punt coupled with Ginn's 20 yard return provided us with a short field.  6 plays and 38 yards later including Gore's 9 yard read-option run, SF had a 28-24 lead.

- Atlanta went on a 7 minute, 70 yard, 14 play march, needing a TD to win.  (On one 3rd down play, Harry Douglas brought down a pass, fell, lost control of the ball since it clearly moved after contact with the ground but was still ruled a catch even after replay.  Utterly ridiculous.) Inside 2 minutes, the last 4 downs from the SF 16 were as follows:
1) 1 yd Rodgers run stuffed by Patrick Willis on first down.
2) 5 yard pass to Snelling, tackled by Willis while Ahmad Brooks piledrove Ryan and his left shoulder into the ground causing injury.
3) Ahmad Brooks bats down a Ryan pass at the line of scrimmage intended for an open Roddy White on the right.
4) NaVorro Bowman contacts White withing 5 yards and breaks up a short pass up the middle - turnover on downs.

The 9ers defense allowed 24 points in the first half, but shut them out in the 2nd half.  This is the 2nd greatest comeback in championship game history - only behind Peyton's beautiful 18 point comeback against the Patriots in 2006.

Harbaugh's decision to go with Kaepernick has been justified simply because the 49ers have advanced further than Alex Smith was able to take us last year.  This year, we even had to play this NFC Championship on the road, against the team with the best record in the league.  Kaep's big play ability with both his feet and his arm has even made up for a comparatively less stout defense than we had last year.

Another fact of note: this is only the 49ers' 3rd playoff win on the road, ever.  We are now 3-9 all time on the road in the playoffs.
1970 Divisional Round at Minnesota 17-14
1998 NFC Championship 28-3 at Chicago 28-3
2012 NFC Championship at Atlanta 28-24

By the way, my 38-24 prediction would've been right on had we scored that FG and Crabtree fumble.  Just sayin.

Its been 18 years since the 49ers have been to the Superbowl.  We are the only team in history with more than 1 appearance to be undefeated in the biggest game.  Think about that - there is no team that is even 2-0 in the SB, while we are 5-0.  And now, the 49ers have a chance to tie for the most Superbowl wins in NFL history (Pittsburgh has won 6, but lost 2) and regain our status of greatest NFL franchise in the Superbowl era.

Friday, January 18, 2013

49ers v Falcons Prediction

Reasons why the 9ers shouldn't be the favorite:
- Simple.  We are playing on the road in a noisy indoor stadium.  Interestingly, the 49ers haven't won a road playoff game since 1989 at Soldier Field (Harbaugh was the backup Bears QB).
- We haven't won 3 straight games all year.  This is the 3rd game.  Unlike last year, we are susceptible to lapses in concentration.
- Our defense has been susceptible lately as well.  Justin Smith is not 100%.
- Kaepernick is starting just his 9th game of his career.  Matt Ryan is starting his 82nd game.
- Atlanta was up 27-7 on Seattle's vaunted defense going into the 4th quarter.
- Atlanta outrushed Seattle 167 yards to 123.
- Atlanta's receiving corp is much more experienced and prolific than ours.  They were 6th in passing yards this year.  We were 23rd.
- Atlanta's won 13 games in the regular season, losing only 3, including an irrelevant last game of the season.
- David Akers has been unreliable.
- We are a 4 point overdog, never a good motivational position to be in, especially on the road.

What do we have to do to win:
- Our offensive line should dominate their inferior rush defense.  Kaepernick and Gore both need big days.
- Our offense needs to control the clock and limit their possessions, just as we did against Green Bay's defense.
- Our TEs need to exploit their linebackers/safeties for big chunks of yards.
- Our defensive line needs to get constant pressure on the QB without the aid of blitzes.
- Our secondary needs to limit pass interference penalties on that indoor fast track.
- Our kicker needs to be automatic under 50 yards.

Before the playoffs began, if you asked me which teams I feared more out of GB, Seattle and Atlanta, the Falcons would have been last.  I figured if they even reached this round, we would crush 'em by double digits.  Now, after a week of being widely panned by national critics, the 49ers may be facing a highly motivated home team.  Also, with all the publicity that Kaepernick has received, will he be able to play with this new pressure?  Will the team keep its concentration?

I think so.  Last year we were happy to be here.  This year, its all business.

49ers 38 - Falcons 24

Also, lets go Ravens.  I'm holding out hope for an upset, but I think NE wins 31-17.

UCLA beats OSU for 10th straight, Jamaal Wilkes jersey retired

I took my boys and my parents to see the 24th ranked Bruins get to a 10 game winning streak.  Its UCLA's first 10 game streak since the 2008-09 season (and we lost the next game).  The season before in 2007-08, we actually had a 14 win streak that was snapped in the Final Four vs Memphis.  While we're on the subject, the 2006-07 team started their season on a 14 game win streak.  And the 2005-06 team went on a 12 game tear, finally losing in the national championship.

This is also the first time UCLA has opened the conference schedule with a 5-0 record since Howland's 2003-04 team, which promptly lost its next 6.  Against Oregon State, we have won 23 of the last 24 games played at home.

Shabazz led all scorers with 21 points in our 74-64 victory.  Kyle Anderson might have been the player of the game though, as he shot 7-9 from the field, 17 points, and had another strong night on the boards with 9.  Also with 17, Travis Wear has been on a tear of late ever since his 22 points in that massive game vs Missouri.  In the past 6 games, he scored 100 points exactly, a 16.7 per game average.

But the biggest reason I wanted to be there was for Jamaal Wilkes' jersey retirement.  We haven't had one since 2004 when Gail Goodrich was honored.  Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton (announcing the game for ESPN), Marques Johnson, Mike Warren, Don McLean (announcing game on radio) and other Bruin greats were on hand as Wilkes' #52 was unveiled in the rafters.  Even AC Green, former Laker great and OSU alum, was in attendance.

UCLA retired jerseys (and the year they were retired) include:
Lew Alcindor 1990
Bill Walton 1990
Walt Hazzard 1996
Sidney Wicks 1996
Marques Johnson 1996
Ed O'Bannon 1996
Gail Goodrich 2004

Jamaal Wilkes 2012
Reggie Miller 2012 (Jan 30th)
Don Barksdale 2012 (Feb 7th)

I'm trying to understand why it took so long for Alcindor and Walton's jerseys to be raised.  And why the same year?  And why did Hazzard, Wicks and Johnson have the retirements the same year alongside Ed O'Bannon, who only waited 1 year?  And why jam 3 retirements into this season?  Just strange administrative decisions, if you ask me.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

49ers: NFC Championship Game History

The San Francisco 49ers are about to play in their 14th NFC Championship.  Its their 2nd straight NFC Championship game, the first time they have played in consecutive NFL semifinals since they played in 3 straight from 1992-94.  In fact, of the 14 times the 49ers have made it, only twice (1981, 1997) did they make the NFC Championship without playing it in the year before or reaching it the year after.  Since the playoffs take place in the following calendar year, we'll denote each 49ers appearance by the regular season's calendar year.  ( For instance, the 49ers are about to play in the 2012 NFC Championship).  The years in which the 49ers were victorious are in bold.

Dallas Cowboys 17 - SF 49ers 10
Kezar Stadium (SF)

Dallas Cowboys 14 - SF 49ers 3
Texas Stadium

SF 49ers 28 - Dallas Cowboys 27
Candlestick Park

Washington Redskins 24 - SF 49ers 21
RFK Stadium

SF 49ers 23 - Chicago Bears 0
Candlestick Park

SF 49ers 28 - Chicago Bears 3
Soldier Field

SF 49ers 30 - Los Angeles Rams 3
Candlestick Park

New York Giants 15 - SF 49ers 13
Candlestick Park

Dallas Cowboys 30 - SF 49ers 20
Candlestick Park

Dallas Cowboys 38 - SF 49ers 21
Texas Stadium

SF 49ers 38 - Dallas Cowboys 28
Candlestick Park

Green Bay Packers 23 - SF 49ers 10
Candlestick Park

New York Giants 20 - SF 49ers 17
Candlestick Park

SF 49ers v Atlanta Falcons
Georgia Dome

Random Observations:

- In our 13 previous conference championship games, we have won 5 and lost 8.  Starting with the Walsh dynasty, which is really the 49ers that I know, they've actually been 5-6.  From 1990 on, we've been 1-5.

- From 1981 to 1997, we played in 10 of the 17 NFC Championship games.  Considering our sustained excellence over 17 years, the fact that there was a 13 year absence is quite sad.

- We went on to win the Superbowl after each of our 5 NFC Championship victories.

- SF will be tied with Dallas in appearances with 14, but 7 of theirs were before 1980.  They are 8-6 overall and they also haven't made it since 1995.

- Of the 13 previous games, we've played Dallas 6 times, more than any other team, winning only twice.

- The 49ers have hosted 9 NFC Championships, far and away the most by any team.  Dallas and Washington have each hosted 5.

- Our record at home in this game is 4-5.  (4-4 at Candlestick Park since our 1st NFC champ game was played at Kezar Stadium.)

- The 1981 game against Dallas featured Montana-Clark's "The Catch", which jump-started the Walsh dynasty.

- The sweetest NFC championship win was the 1994 game over Dallas.  It was the 3rd consecutive meeting between these rivals in the NFC Championship, with SF coming up short both times before in '93 and '92.  The 49ers also disappointingly missed the '91 playoffs (even with a 10 win season).  As for 1990....  

- The most bitter NFC championship loss may have been the 1990 game where our hopes of an unprecedented Superbowl 3-peat was abruptly ended by the Giants in a 2 point loss.  This was the last playoff game Montana played for the 49ers.

- The 1997 loss to GB was just about as painful because the Packers had ended our postseason 3 consecutive years ('95, '96, '97 - which is clearly why TO's '98 "The Catch II" to beat the Packers was so cathartic).  If anyone was writing the storybook properly, we were supposed to finally prevail in 1997 (or at least in '98) and win the SB, just as the '94 49ers defeated the Cowboys on the 3rd try.

- Our record on the road is only 1-3, with our lone victory coming at Soldier Field in 1988.  We lost at Texas Stadium twice and RFK once.

- Atlanta has played in this game twice before - beating the Vikings in '98 (30-27) and losing to the Eagles (27-10) in '04.  The Falcons were on the road both times so this is the first time Atlanta will host the NFC Championship.

- The first and only time the 49ers played the Falcons in the postseason was in the 1998 playoffs where the Falcons beat SF 20-18 in the Georgia Dome.  It was the last playoff game for Steve Young.  Ironically, SF had also just beaten the Packers to advance.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Candlestick & Kaepernick, 49ers beat the Pack

The whole season led to this game, for the team and for me personally.  The NFC West title was nice and a lot closer than we all thought it would be, but it was the assumed outcome from the preseason.  However, getting that first round bye so we could host our first playoff game - that was where our season should really begin.  Ever since last January's heartbreaker vs the Giants, we had been .  And it led to this divisional playoff at Candlestick on Saturday, Jan 12, 2013.  We had traveled to the Bay for a Friday funeral so it just happened that we had a free Saturday AND inlaws as babysitters.

I couldn't pass up this chance.  Who knows, this could be the last of so many historic playoff games held at Candlestick before the move in 2014.  (I certainly hope not - that would mean we won't win the division next year).  This was going to be the 27th playoff game played there (9ers are now 20-7), the most of any NFL stadium in history.  From Dwight Clark's catch to TO's catch to Vernon's catch - all at Candlestick.  Also, we were playing one of the most storied teams in football - the Packers own 9 championships (before 1966) and 4 Superbowls.  Plus, they were the nemesis who had beat us 4 of the 5 times we've met in the postseason.  And, with reigning NFL MVP Rodgers in his prime, many had picked them as the preseason favorite to win the SB.  Lastly, the greatness of modern football teams can be hard to maintain.  We came out of nowhere last season and our window could close just as fast.  If we win it all this year and I merely watched our last playoff home game on TV a mere 25 miles away, I'd regret it forever.

I had probably spent multiple hours of my life last week scouring ticket sites last week and by Thursday night decided that paying about $50 over face value per ticket was about the best rate we were going to find, especially for 3 seats together (one old college roommate was persuaded easily).  But right before we pulled the trigger, I decided to check Ticketmaster and lo and behold, the 49ers had just released more tix.  We were going for face.  What's more, my parents were gifting a pair to my wife and I.

The last and first time I went to Candlestick was in 2003 (Garcia and TO's last 9ers game).  Traffic getting to the stadium was not nearly as bad as I thought.  We rolled into the rundown neighborhood of South SF nearly 2 hours before kickoff.  Walking from a distant parking lot, I noted the distinct lack of a criminal element feel, even while breathing in some 2nd hand illegal smoke.  Sure, there was back and forth banter with Packer fans, but it felt good-natured ("Discount double-check this!"), not intimidating the way it would at a dodger or trojan game.  We walked across a strange wood/concrete bridge, the kind you'd see at Frontierland in Disneyland, to get from the far lot to the close one.  There was a bottleneck before walking up that 2 way bridge and another going up the main escalator to the upper level.

Candlestick might be historic, built in 1960 for the Giants and retrofitted in 1971 for the 49ers, but its still oddly shaped for a football stadium and just seems barren and dated.  It has no modern amenities nor aesthetic charm and contains little true sentimental value on its own merit.  The "concrete baffling" which encircles the top of the stadium was originally designed to decrease the wind factor, but is only effective in its memorable unattractiveness.  To combat the wind and chill of Candlestick in January, we came with at least 5 layers and a blanket.  (Had Walmart or Target sold 49ers snuggies, I might have been persuaded.  Snuggie, you missed your chance).

I bought a 12 inch polish sausage for $8 (not bad at all for stadium fare) and we made our way to our seats in section UB53.  It was in the Northeast corner, upper tier, left (when facing the field) of the scoreboard, just about in line with the North endzone.  A pretty decent view, especially remembering the less enjoyable views of football from upper endzone seats.  Also more enjoyable was the fact that we were away from the rowdier fans in the upper reserve behind us.  Our section was full of more good-natured 49er fans who loved to high-five everyone around them every single 1st down.  And we had a lot of 1st downs.  Also memorable was the fact that most of our section stood for large portions of the game - something I did not expect outside of college football.  The normal wine & cheese 9er fans clearly turn up the intensity and the noise when it comes to the playoffs.  I guess just like UCLA basketball fans, our standards are too high to get worked up for just anything.  Huey Lewis & the News sang the national anthem and timed it perfectly with the jets above.

To beat the league MVP with a QB starting his 8th game, I thought we needed these things: minimize Packer possessions by controlling the clock through running the ball, decimate the Packers' porous offensive line to apply pressure while containing Rodgers' rollout ability, avoid big plays and pass interference calls on their playmakers, avoid turnovers and capitalize on our field goals.  Through 1 quarter, it seemed we were not successful.  However, the truth was the Packers had scored in unlikely ways.  The 2 key plays: a pick-six and a lucky deep bomb were not reliable ways to score.

On the other hand, Kaepernick was leading long clock-consuming drives.  80 yards and 48 yard drives in the 1st half and 3 key consecutive drives of 80, 93 and 93 yards in the 2nd half to seal it.  In the end, the 49ers had dominated the clock 38 minutes to GB's 22.  We had earned 26 first downs to GB's 16.  We had accumulated 579 yards of offense to their 352 (including 323 to 104 total rushing advantage).  This is the most prolific offensive performance in 49ers playoff history, including the romps over the Dolphins, Broncos and Chargers in those Superbowls.  Also most impressive was that the 49ers were 8-13 on 3rd downs.

Kaepernick had set a NFL playoff record for most QB rushing yards ever with 181 yards, bettering Michael Vick's previous mark of 172 yards.  He even outperformed Rodgers with more passing yards (263-257) and averaged 8.3 yards per pass (Rodgers 6.4).  So, on the night he had 444 total yards with 2 passing TDs and 2 rushing TDs.  It's just the 4th time anyone in playoff history has thrown for 2 TDs and rushed for 2 TDs.

There is no question now that Harbaugh's gutsy decision to bench Alex Smith has been justified.  I must admit that I wanted to see Alex finish out this season, banking on his experience to give us a better chance of winning.  But Harbaugh knew that we could have a higher ceiling with Kaepernick and made the unconventional decision.  Even with the added explosiveness, I also figured that Kaep would require a typical beginner's learning curve.  The lack of experience in dealing with defenses that will start game-planning for him might hurt us come playoff time.  Hey, we're not building for the future!  We can't afford to waste this year!  But I was wrong.  GB certainly knew what was coming but couldn't stop him.  (Still, defenses will only get tougher in the next 2 games).

And while the hype has been on rookies Luck, Wilson and RG3, Kaepernick has actually started less games than any of them (by half) but is the only one left still playing.  I'd even argue that he might be a better option than RG3, simply because you never see Kaep take hard hits like RG3 does multiple times a game.

Against the Packers, Kaep rebounded from his horrible pick-6 decision with a drive that culminated in a 20 yard TD run.  Midway through the 3rd quarter, he scored the go-ahead TD with a 56 yard dash.  I will always remember that play because of the relative silence.  After faking the handoff, Candlestick fell strangely quiet, as if we were all trying to figure out who had the ball, and then we realized that he was galloping downfield with no defender in position to stop him, and then we thought "was this really happening?", and then the Stick erupted.  It seemed that he was virtually untouched on both plays.

Two other 9ers on offense finished with big games - Frank Gore rushed for 119 yards, 1 TD, and had another 48 yards receiving.  Michael Crabtree has really emerged with Kaepernick's tenure and he grabbed 9 balls for 119 yards and 2 TDs.  Vernon Davis' role has conversely shrunken but I won't forget Kaep's 44 yard seam pass over the top to Davis that Alex Smith used to throw to him regularly.  At least on the night, Kaep attempted 5 passes to Davis.  Maybe another week or two of practice will help us make better use of Vernon's skills.

Our defense really was amazing.  Though we only finished with 1 sack on Rodgers, we forced 4 punts and intercepted him once.  We held them to 2 TD drives both in the 1st half (until the last garbage time drive) and allowed only 3 meaningful 2nd half points.

The final key moment of the game to me was when the 49ers were up 2 touchdowns with a quarter to play.  GB was driving down the field as Rodgers completed his first 5 passes.  Then came 3rd down and Rodgers' deep ball was just out of Jennings' reach.  Though they were at midfield, they decided to punt on 4th and 5 with nearly 12 minutes left, down 2 TDs.  SF went on a 8 minute TD drive, including lining up for a 4th and 1, and the game was over.  3:30 left, up 3 TDs, we at Candlestick were pulsing in celebration.

After the game, we soaked it in, took a few pictures, then walked down to field level as we exited.  We posed for pictures at the edge of the north endzone of the field, the very same spot that Dwight Clark jump-started the 49ers dynasty with "The Catch" back in 1981.  And that's one of the pieces of history that made what might be my last ever visit to Candlestick absolutely perfect.

Monday, January 7, 2013

2012 49ers Season, Playoff & Packers Historical Facts

For the 2nd straight year, Harbaugh again led the 49ers to the NFC West crown and the #2 overall seed in the NFC.  Had Akers been his normal self and made the 2 OT FGs in both games vs the Rams, we would have finished 13-3 just like last year, instead of 11-4-1.  However, the replacement ref's horrific call which cost the Packers a W early on vs Seattle actually ended up helping us win that first round bye and the right to host Green Bay this week instead of traveling to Lambeau.

This is the first time the 49ers have won back-to-back NFC West titles since doing it 4 times straight from 1992-95.  This is the 19th NFC West title in the 43 years we've played in the West.  That's about 44% - not bad.  But recently, its only our 3rd in the last 15 years - horrifically bad.

Since the Superbowl era began in 1966, this is the 23rd playoff appearance for the 49ers.  In those past 22 playoff seasons, this is how we fared:
Eliminated in Wild Card round - 2 times.
Eliminated in Divisional round - 7 times.
Eliminated in NFC Championship round - 8 times.
5 Superbowl victories - No losses in the big game (eat your heart out, Brady.)

This is the 6th time the 49ers finished as the 2nd seed in the NFC West and yet have only won the Superbowl from this position once.  (The other 4 championships were won from the #1 seed).
1983 - 10-6 - Div champs, lost in Conf round
1988 - 10-6 - Div champs, Superbowl Champs
1993 - 10-6 - Div champs, lost in Conf round
1995 - 11-5 - Div champs, lost in Div round
2011 - 13-3 - Div champs, lost in Conf round
2012 - 11-4-1 - Div champs, TBD

This is also the first time the 49ers have had double digit number of victories back-to-back since 2001-'02.  Interestingly, we actually won 12 games in 2001 but failed to win the NFC West (because of Kurt Warner).  Before that, SF had been in the double digits for an astounding 16 years straight - from 1983-1998.  You could argue 17 years straight, since 1982 was a strike shortened season and the 49ers won 13 games in 1981 (not to mention the Superbowl).  In fact, in the 35 years that the NFL expanded to 16 games (minus strike shortened year), the 49ers have won double digit games 21 times!  That's 60% of the time.

Though we've finished with double digit wins 20 previous times since the 16 game season began, we've only actually finished with exactly 11 wins once before.  It is eerily similar to this season.  In 1995, the 49ers finished 11-5, just beat out the Packers for the #2 seed, then hosted them in the divisional round.  How'd we do?  We were behind 21-0 by the 2nd quarter and lost 27-17.

Our Playoff history vs the Packers isn't good at all:
1995 Divisional Round - Lost 27-17 in Candlestick - Down 21-0.
1996 Divisional Round - Lost 35-14 at Lambeau - Down 21-0 to start again.
1997 Conference Round - Lost 23-10 in Candlestick - Down 23-3 before late kick return.
1998 Wild Card Round - Won 30-27 in Candlestick - TO's "The Catch II".
2001 Wild Card Round - Lost 25-15 at Lambeau - GB scores last 10 points.
2012 Divisional Round in Candlestick

Though both teams have extensive history - 9 Superbowls between them, it is interesting that they had not faced off in the postseason until the 90s.  But then they met 5 out of 7 years, with the 49ers getting the short end of the stick in painful fashion.  TO's game-winning endzone catch was cathartic for 9er fans because it ended a 3 year streak of season-ending losses to GB, but the truth is the Packers have won 2 Superbowls since the 49ers last hoisted the trophy.

Last season, we were poised for a conference championship showdown with the 15-1 Packers before the Saints upended them prematurely.  Though we beat the Pack 30-22 in Lambeau to open this season, they are clearly a much improved and healthier team now.

To win, we need to take advantage of playing at home, overwhelm their porous offensive line, control the clock, avoid penalties in the secondary and make our field goals.  Can Kaepernick, in just his 8th start, beat the reigning NFL MVP, Aaron Rodgers?

Prediction: 49ers 23 - Packers 20

Sunday, January 6, 2013

UCLA wins 7 straight in beating Stanford

The rumor was that after the loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Howland was on the verge of being axed.  Had he lost to CSUN the following game, boosters would have demanded his head.  Though UCLA won that game easily, they lost the next game vs a ranked SDSU in a nationally televised exhibition, which also exposed the lack of fan support.  Quietly, Howland continued to teach his defensively challenged squad, even using a strangely scheduled exhibition game to work on playing and attacking man-to-man defenses.

His 2 best recruits, Shabazz and Kyle, had been relative disappointments, not to mention that the big man with the most pro potential had suddenly transferred (eventually to Georgetown - good luck motivating Josh, JT).  Then starting with a sparsely attended game at Reliant Stadium, Howland found a way to win.  Then he beat 3 pushovers, scoring an average of 91.7 points a game.  In a measuring stick game, UCLA beat #7 Missouri in overtime, which included two enormous OT 3 pointers from a now-in-shape Shabazz.  Honestly, I would have taken that W over the bowl game vs Baylor.  Maybe its because I'm more a UCLA basketball guy, but a win over a top 10 team pre-conference goes a long way when it comes to tournament selection time.  The last time we beat a ranked team was over #10 Arizona 2 seasons ago.

UCLA proceeded to handily win its Pac-12 openers vs Cal and Stanford (albeit in ugly fashion) and all of a sudden, Howland finds himself 12-3 with perhaps just a couple more wins away from cracking the top 25 again.  Has the team arrived, ready to make a run at Final Fours for the next few years?  No, this is not like any Howland team we've ever seen.  I remarked earlier in the season that perhaps he has sold his basketball soul to keep his job.  They say in his first 9 seasons, his teams had only scored 90 or more points, 10 times.  This season in 15 games, they've already surpassed that mark 4 times and scored 89 in another.

However, defensively, it is clear that all our new additions (minus Parker) are improving immensely.  Shabazz is in much better game shape and responds well to coaching.  Kyle has become much more comfortable on the court and is far and away the best rebounder on the team (which is an indictment on the Wears).  Jordan Adams' offense has returned to earth a bit, but he's made up for it with notable defensive efforts.

But perhaps the most important defender is Larry Drew.  PG penetration is pretty much the key to basketball, and he's literally stepped up to opposing guards in key moments.  Nobody on our team is a lockdown defender (Powell is the closest we have), but with nearly half our season gone, we are much improved.

Against Stanford, the Wears again fell in love with their jump shots early, but were extremely ineffective on the boards.  In 50 minutes of combined play, the Wears TOTALED FIVE rebounds at the center position.  FIVE.  They were each outrebounded by 4 other players, including the point guard (Drew) and backup shooting guard (Powell).  Thankfully, Shabazz had 10 boards while Kyle had 12.  Most disappointingly, our clear weakness is the lack of interior defense - again, an indictment on the Wears.  Tony Parker might be our strongest defender, but he's only getting a couple minutes a game.

Shabazz is obviously going to leave us after the season.  He might not have the explosive ability that some of the elite athletes - Westbrook or Wade - possess, but he fills up the stat sheet game after game.  His game might not be pretty, but he's effective.  And he's been hitting big jumpers in crunch time, exactly what we expected the #1 recruit in the country to do.

Ultimately, I still think Howland needs a Pac 12 title (or at least contend with Arizona until the last weekend) and a Elite Eight appearance to keep his job.  Now he's put himself in position to make a run at it.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

NFL Reg Season Review, Postseason Predictions

Week 17 Record: 13-3

Final Season Record: 173-82-1

Of ESPN's 12 expert pickers each week plus the computer predicter and the public consensus vote, only 2 outpicked me: Mortensen (178-78) and Wickersham (179-77).  just saying.  I did worse than last year (179-77) but much better than 2010 (158-102).

Regular Season Review

In the NFC, I correctly predicted the 49ers as the West champs with Seattle finishing in 2nd.  I also had the Falcons taking the South over the Saints, but didn't figure NO's calamitous year included a playoff absence.  In the North, I figured the Packers would easily take it instead of the come-from-behind scenario they pulled off in reality.  And I had the Vikings in dead last, not knowing the Lions would be that terrible and the Bears would think so poorly of their coach even after a 10-win season.  Minnesota's last second game-winning FG over the Packers of course sealed the 49ers 1st round bye as well as their own unlikely playoff berth.

The NFC East was hardest to predict and the division title came down to the last game of the reg season.  What wasn't in doubt was that my preseason pick of the Eagles was dead wrong.  Halfway through, it looked like the Giants, with a 3 game lead, had it sown up already.  The Redskins, whom I had last, finished first and the Cowboys, whom I had as a wildcard, failed in Dec again.

So I only picked 3 of 6 NFC playoff teams correctly, though 3 were division champs.

In the AFC, I nailed all four division champs but missed with both wildcard picks.  Denver, Baltimore, Texans and Patriots were relatively easy calls, since they basically led their divisions all season.  The Steelers were usurped by the Bengals while Andrew Luck justified his #1 pick by taking a 2 win team to 11 victories his first season.

Postseason Predictions


Bengals at Texans - Houston wakes up after losing last 2 games of reg season. 
Colts at Ravens - Baltimore's sloppy ways catch up to them.  The Luck legend grows.
Seahawks at Redskins - I'm am holding out faint hope that RG3 grows his legend too.
Vikings at Packers - Minny beats GB for the 2nd time, this time at Lambeau?  naw.

Texans at Patriots - That drubbing in NE does not bode well for Houston.
Colts at Broncos - Colts legend, meet future Colts legend.  Peyton schools pupil.
Packers at 49ers - MVP Rodgers vs Kaep starting his 8th game.  SF defense shows up in upset.
Seahawks at Falcons - I intended to take Seattle because I have no faith in ATL.  But this time, I'm taking the Falcons in a reverse upset, thinking Matt Ryan has finally learned his playoff lessons.

Patriots at Broncos - Peyton vs Brady for old times' sake.  I think Brady pulls it out again, unfortunately.
49ers at Falcons - SF dominates from beginning to end.

49ers over Patriots - Kaepernick establishes a new world order and keeps Brady from matching Montana's 4 championships.