Archive for January, 2013

Born and bred a winner - Dennis Pitta

Born and bred a winner – Dennis Pitta

by Lawrence Vos

Super Bowl XLVII will likely be one of the more brutal games played in recent championship memory.

The Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers are playing against each other in the Har-Bowl because they execute to the highest standard the two most fundamental aspects of professional football, the ability to block and the ability to tackle.

I have to say the hype surrounding the running ability of Colin Kaepernick has gone a bit galactic, but sustaining long clock dwindling drives, through a dominant running game will be a big key to this game.

So without further ado here are my top five individual matc=hups for this game…

1) Ravens tight-end Dennis Pitta against the 49ers outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith.

Pitta, in his third season, was second on the team in receptions (61) and receiving touchdowns (7). He had five catches in the AFC Championship and score. In five playoff games he has scored three touchdowns. What frustrates fantasy football fans with Pitta is that his production is as boing-boing as Zebedee with a spring freshly sprayed with WD-40. Twice this season he failed to register a catch and once he got just one grab. In other games he went up to eight catches (at Philadelphia) and 125 yards (home against the Broncos).

The 49ers outside linebackers will need to show discipline in their pass coverage skills, as Brooks will likely be man marking Pitta for the majority of the game. Both Brooks and Smith are excellent at rushing the passer, combining for 26 sacks and 5 forced fumbles this season, but they can play so hard that Pitta could find himself open throughout the game for those 8-12 yard gains that help sustain drives.

Prediction – Pitta to get 6 catches for 77 yards and one TD

2) 49ers wide-receiver Michael Crabtree against the Ravens cornerbacks Corey Graham and Carey Williams

It took a change of quarterback (in Week 10) for Crabtree to move from an average NFL stater to a top 10 in his position. The former Texas Tech wide-out went from 39 catches for 440 yards in games 1-8 to an outstanding 46 catches for 665 yards in games 9-16. Crabtree’s touchdown total doubles in the second half of the season and his yards per catch went up from 11.3 to 14.5 during that span.

Despite a quiet performance in the NFC Championship Crabtree still managed 7 catches. Now he faces a pair of cornerbacks who are not exactly household names. Graham stepped up to a starting role when the Ravens lost up-and coming star Lardarius Webb after six games. Williams in his fourth year with the Ravens had four interceptions this year, the first season he recorded picks in his five year career.

Crabtree knows how to find separation in the end-zone and also has the advantage of being Kaepernick’s out and out number one target. With Randy Moss on the opposite side of the field and rampant post-hibernation tight-end Vernon Davis ready to perform, Crabtree may find himself in a number of single coverage battles that he has the speed and guile to win. Now he has the confidence to match the talent, and could put up MVP type stats if the Ravens focus too hard on trying to stop the running game.

Prediction – Crabtree to lead the game in receptions with 11 for 131 yards and two tds. MVP like numbers but he isn’t a quarterback so he wont win the award.

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by Lawrence Vos

When the 2012 season began there certainly was no thought in my head that I would be witnessing the dawn of a new dynasty, from a team that I grew up idolising.

I predicted the Houston Texans to finally rise to the occasion and win a Vince Lombardi Trophy. I even went as far as to say they would beat the Detroit Lions in said game.

The Lions were their typical basement dwelling selves, and the Texans got knocked out in the final eight by a fading Patriots team.

When the Baltimore Ravens shutout the New England Patriots in the second half of the AFC Championship I was one of millions of neutrals to punch a proverbial fist in the air.

Not having to suffer another four hours of Tom Brady’s smug mug, and his puppet master the evil Emperor Belichick was one of the true delights of a truly remarkable NFL season.

Perhaps the most remarkable performance of the season was San Francisco 49ers second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick single-handed destruction of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional playoffs.

To then somehow defy ridiculous odds, a longer shot than a bullet fired from Mars, we have two brothers, both head coaches in the NFL, both facing each other in the Super Bowl.

So, to the game, which mercifully pits two teams in the big dance who have never faced each other at this stage, and who have both not reached the Super Bowl for over a decade.

Baltimore Ravens path to the Super Bowl

My feeling was that a year ago when former Buffalo Bills wide receiver Lee Evans dropped a Joe Flacco pass in the end-zone against the Patriots in the AFC Championship that the drop was the last chance for the current Baltimore Ravens team to reach their second Super Bowl for the next ten to fifteen years.

Their defensive captain Ray Lewis had already cemented his place in history and lifted a Super Bowl, so when he tore his triceps and was not projected to return until the playoffs I just thought the Ravens were going to personify their leader on the field and limp into the night like a wounded bird with a broken wing. Instead they have fought far harder than I or any non Ravens fan thought possible.

The whole ‘Wild Card entry reaches the Super Bowl’ is no longer such a rare occurence,  The New York Giants did it only last season. The Ravens run actually bears a remarkable resemblance to the Giants in that they won a home Wild Card game and then they beat the number one and number two seed on the road.

This is not the same Ravens team that sent chills down the spine of the teams they played, as this season they allowed over 420 yards five times in the regular season and twice in the playoffs. They also leaked 150+ yard rushing yards in five games.

What mattered was their playoff performances where the rushing yards allowed has gone down during each playoff performance.

San Francisco 49ers path to the Super Bowl 

The 49ers followed a similar playoff rout to the Ravens, having suffered a painful NFC Championship loss to the Giants a year ago.

When their coach decided that veteran quarterback Alex Smith was no longer good enough to remain the number one there were plenty of cynics, myself included. I believe in redemption and thought Smith, who was 6-2-1 when pulled, was enough of a game manager to get the Niners to the big dance. He remains the 49ers quarterback rating leader for 2012.

Coach Harbaugh’s call to install Colin Kaepernick as the signal caller was brave, and proved to be the edge that the 49ers needed for a deep playoff push.

What made the 49ers turn from a wannabee to a conference champion was not Kaepernick alone, it was a monster offensive line, a workhorse gritty Frank Gore at running back and a defense that man for man is superior to the Ravens defense.

Kapernick said of Gore just today: “He’s a great player. He’s a great leader. He’s a workhorse. He’s going to do whatever it takes to win and we need Frank Gore to be Frank. That will be good enough on Sunday. I think you can put Frank in any offense and he will be successful. He’s the type of running back that can adapt. He can do anything we need him to do. I think that’s why he has been doing so well.”

The 49ers defense had four first team All-Pro’s on defense (the REAL judge of excellence) linebackers Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman along with safety Dashon Goldson, compared to zero first team Ravens.

Part Two of my preview will look at breaking down some of the key match-ups.

The most underrated starting players in the Super Bowl

The most underrated starting players in the Super Bowl

The argument is that the quarterback position is the toughest in all of professional football.

You have to know an offense inside out, have to read a defense quicker than a bionic word scanner and spend time avoiding gentlemen bigger, faster (and no disrespect) uglier than you for sixty minutes a game.

Big deal – you get to front the Pepsi adverts, go home every night to a beautiful model and a pile of money higher than a busted meth cook house.

The real men have no necks, no fear and no chance of much glory, but without them their teams are simply not the same.

Ladies and gentlemen introducing Bruce Miller and Terzell Vonta Leach, the two starting fullbacks in Super Bowl XLVII.

In the combined 161 regular season games played by Miller and Leach they have ran the ball 33 times for 96 yards – an average of just under three yards a carry.

No exactly prime time production, but their primary objective is not to partake in the noble art of carrying the pigskin, they are there to clear a path, like a snow-plow lumbering through a 20ft drift.

Let’s look at the stats for the lead tailbacks production with Leach and Miller as the fullback on the field:

Leach

2004 (as a Packer) Ahman Green 1,163 rushing yards 7 touchdowns and a trip the Pro Bowl

2005 (as a Packer) Samkon Gado 582 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns

2006 (as a Packer and Texan) Ron Dayne 612 yards rushing and 5 touchdowns

2007 (as a Texan) Ron Dayne 773 yards rushing and 6 touchdowns

2008  (as a Texan) Steve Slaton 1,282 yards rushing 9 touchdowns

2009 (as a Texan) Steve Slaton 437 yards rushing (no Texan back played all 16 games)

2010 (as a Texan) Arian Foster 1,161 yards rushing 16 tds and a trip to the Pro Bowl and voted an All Pro

2011 (as a Raven) Ray Rice 1,364 yards rushing 12 tds and a trip to the Pro Bowl

2012 (as a Raven) Ray Rice 1.134 yards rushing 9 tds and a trip to the Pro Bowl

Miller

2011 (as a 49er) Frank Gore  1.211 yards rushing and 8 touchdowns and a trip to the Pro Bowl

2012 (as a 49er) Frank Gore  1.214 yards rushing and 8 touchdowns and a trip to the Pro Bowl

That’s 11 seasons sacrificing their bodies for colleagues to go to the Pro Bowl six times. Now Leach has been recognised for the outstanding man-beast that he is, with three consecutive Pro Bowl and All Pro (the real mark of talent) call-ups in the last three seasons.

Miller on the other hand has helped Frank Gore to the Pro Bowl last season and this season, but has not been given any individual recognition by voters.

When you sit down next Sunday to the biggest show on earth (on turf) pay a thought to Miller and Leach. They may not touch the ball once between them, but they will likely lay a hit that will win one of their teams the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

alexsssAlex Smith should have played football in Phoenix,  considering the amount of times he has risen from the ashes.

Since being selected as the overall number one pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, Smith has somehow managed to stay with the same team, despite missing a whole year (2008) and failing to win more than seven games in his first five seasons.

Under the tutelage of Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary Alex Smith managed 19 regular season wins in 54 games – with 0 playoff games.

In a rather bizarre coincidence Smith has managed 19 regular season wins (and a tie) under his current head coach Jim Harbaugh, himself a former NFL quarterback.

These 19 wins have come in just two seasons and have been coupled with a playoff win and an appearance in the 2012 NFC Championship.

Most head coaches would have given up on a quarterback who won 35% of his games, but Harbaugh somehow helped Smith out of his slumber.

Smith led the 49ers to a 13-3 record in 2011 and was looking to make his second consecutive playoff run in 2012. He was sailing along with a starting record 0f 6-2-1, completing over 70% of his passes, when Coach Harbaugh decided that simply wasn’t cutting the mustard.

The decision to drop Smith, and replace him with a raw second year quarterback by the name of Colin Kaepernick, was a move bolder than a 100 foot high brass monkey’s balls.

Turns out it was the right move, as the 49ers are in their first Super Bowl for two decades and despite suiting up for the game Alex Smith is about as likely to throw a pass next Sunday as I am.

Smith, like all former number one picks, will have dreamed of playing in the big game, not just holding a clipboard and hoping he gets a shot if the starter gets injured. I’m not saying Smith wishes any ill of Kaepernick, far from it, but he knows he is one errant Kaepernick scramble from a spot on the field in front of a global audience.

Unfortunately Smith is looking to become the second quarterback in Super Bowl history to both be drafted number one overall, suit up in a Super Bowl and not make a single pass. That honour has already been bestowed upon Drew Bledsoe, the former New England Patriots quarterback who kept the pine warm in Super Bowl XXXVI.

For Smith’s sake I hope he gets to make just one pass attempt in the Super Bowl – unlikely – but that would be a great story.

Unlike Rocky's desire I do see a rematch from the regular season

Unlike Rocky’s desire I do see a rematch from the regular season

Its one of the great Hollywood lines.

Apollo Creed the heavyweight champion has just been taken the distance by the unknown southpaw Rocky Balboa.

Just as the bell goes at the end of the 15th round Creed turns to Balboa and utters; “Ain’t gonna be no rematch.”

With one of the few breaths left Rocky retorts; “Don’t want one.”

This was of course an exchange of lines from a fictitious movie, where the heavy underdog   finally finds a purpose and emerges a hero.

With the NFC and AFC Championship games starting in less than 24 hours there are two Hollywood scripts that are waiting to grace the silver screen.

For two future Hall of Fame enshrinees it is an opportunity to match Rocky, and take a further step to becoming a World Champion.

Both the Atlanta Falcons tight-end Tony Gonzales and the Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis have huge emotional investment from their fans as Sunday ‘could’ be their last ever NFL game.

Anyone who is not a fan of the final four teams should be having their heart-strings pulled by these two living legends, as they battle through to the Super Bowl complete with teary post-game press conferences and premature confetti.

Problem is some dreams are not meant to come true, and Sunday will be where the analogy of this particular Hollywood boxing film will fade away like a reel of archived 1970’s celluloid.

I just can’t see the Baltimore Ravens stopping the New England Patriots (who will be at home) from returning to the Super Bowl, where I predict they will battle the San Francisco 49ers, fresh after defrosting from a cryogenic freezing process administered in the mid 1990’s. Saying that I must have Sylvester Stallone on the brain as the whole defrosting comparison led me to think of Demolition Man.

I am admittedly making a big hash out of my playoff predictions this season, with my only two highlights being predicting the exact correct score for the Texans v Bengals Wild-card game and the fact that the Falcons would actually advance from the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

So to my predictions – about as scientifically prepared as Bob the Builder with a bunsen burner brewing crystal meth (yes I am watching Breaking Bad – currently just started Season Tw0 in case you were wondering)…

49ers @ Falcons

49ers backs Frank Gore and Lamichael James will grind out the tough yards behind battering ram fullback Bruce Miller. The Falcons will be intent on holding Kapernick to under 75 yards rushing so Gore will want to get 20 carries. If Gore gets over 25 I can see the Niners winning by at least a touchdown. 49ers outside linebackers containing Tony Gonzales. Dialing up too many blitzes will give Tony time to get warmed up so the 49ers will need Ahmad Brooks to remain patient.

49ers to win 31-27 in a game that looks close if you just see the final score but in truth is dominated by the 49ers for the majority of the game. I don’t think Colin Kaepernick will be as dominant as he was against a porous Packers defense, but I do see him passing for three touchdowns.

Ravens @ Patriots

Pats tight-end Aaron Hernandez need to have a big game. As the Boston Mayor informed the media ‘Gonk’ is out, so Hernandez will be asked to form part of the big woven safety blanket that consists of Wes Welker and any Patriots running back named Ridley, Vereen or Woodhead. The Ravens will be determined to get in the grill of Tom Brady to stop him getting into that mesmeric rhythm that has taken him to five previous Super Bowls. The Ravens gave up two special teams touchdowns last week, something that the previous Super Bowl winning Ravens team would not have allowed. I have predicted the Ravens to lose the last two weeks so I feel obliged to do the same again. This time I don’t see the result being as close as last year. I do see the Patriots offense stalling in the red-zone, but my bold prediction is Pats kicker Gotkowski connecting on five field goals.

Patriots to win 29-19 in a game where Tom Brady is rattled but not derailed.

This gives me a 49ers v Patriots Super Bowl. To end on a pugilistic note a knockout game you must agree.

kaep Cast your mind back to April 29 2011, the day the San Francisco 49ers introduced their rookie quarterback to the national media.

Asked if he was the Niners quarterback of the future Colin Kaepernick said: ““Well, I think I’m going to come in and just work as hard as I can and try to compete for that starting spot.

“When it comes down to it, that’s going to be Coach Harbaugh’s decision whether her feels I’m ready and he feels I’m the best quarterback for that. For me, I’m just going to try to do my part and work hard.”

Well barely 19 months later and all that hard work must have paid off as Kaepernick is not only the 49ers starting quarterback, he is also 60 minutes from an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII and is just about the hottest quarterback in the entire United States of America.

Kaepernick not only beat the Green Bay Packers last Sunday in the divisional playoffs he made them roll over and beg for a bone. Passing for 263 yards and two touchdowns in is playoff debut is enough for any mortal, but it appears Kaepernick is more Zeus that Perseus after he ALSO rushed for 181 yards, not only a playoff rushing record for a quarterback, but the greatest rushing performance by a quarterback in NFL history.

Just pause for a minute to suck that one in to your statistics filled male brain (sorry to all female NFL stats geeks) the most rushing yards by a quarterback in NFL history. More the Michael Vick, more than Randall Cunningham, more than Steve Young.

Talking of Steve Young, he was the last 49ers quarterback to lift a Vince Lombardi Trophy, way back in 1995.

Kaepernick will be hoping his bionic inked arms will be wrapped around a Super Bowl in early February, but first to the business of getting there, against an Atlanta Falcons team that finally won a big playoff game (as I correctly predicted last week).

The Falcons managed to blow a 20 point lead in a home playoff game against a rookie quarterback. I know Kaepernick has actually had less starts than the aforementioned rookie Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, but second year man Colin is currently the hottest property since T-Boz burnt down Andre Rison’s house back in the day. And yes I do remember Rison was playing for none other than the Falcons at the time.

Kaepernick is arguably even more mobile than Wilson, and has a supporting cast that is arguably better than the Seahawks.

The Falcons may be the home team, but it was the 49ers who were at this stage a year ago only to blow it against the Giants. I’m confident that Kaepernick is the missing link (no not a hairy cave beast) in enabling San Francisco to return to their holy land.

Nobody is seriously expecting Kaepernick to rush for another 150 yards, but with confidence sky high I am going to make the call now that I predict the 49ers to be representing the National Football Conference in the Super Bowl.

All we need to do now is get a catchy name for Colin Kaepernick. The Falcons have ‘Matty Ice’, the 49ers need something even better for Kaepernick. How about a having a Colinick ? Sounds painful for the Falcons this Sunday.

 

Gronk wont be playing in the Super Bowl regardless if the Pats win on Sunday

Gronk wont be playing in the Super Bowl regardless if the Pats win on Sunday

Five Super Bowl performances in the last eleven seasons is pretty remarkable, all led by the same quarterback and head coach combination is mind-bending.

Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots franchise stand on the verge of a sixth Super Bowl berth in the last dozen seasons, which if they do succeed means they have represented their conference in 50% of Super Bowls since 2002.

They face a Baltimore Ravens team this weekend in  a rematch of last years AFC Championship, a game the Patriots triumphed 23-20.

The Ravens are now in their third conference championship in five years, hoping that it’s third time lucky.

There are many many storylines and matchups to look out for:

– Can Ray Lewis fire up his team enough or will his final NFL game be a heartbreaking defeat?

– Can the Patriots live without the man-beast Rob Gronkowski?

– Can the Ravens pull-off a third playoff win in a row against a fresher team who will have a huge home field advantage?

– Can the Patriots secondary live with the speed of Torrey Smith – will it be Aqib Talib marking Smith to leave Anquan Boldin to have a big game?

– Will there be a Ravens player do a ‘Lee Evans’ and drop a game winning touchdown?

I have to say I love the way the Pats have taken the two tight-end set into a different stratosphere, which is why it’s such a shame that Rob Gronkowski re-broke his arm last weekend and will next suit up in anger in about six-months. I do expect a big game from the ‘other’ tight-end Aaron Hernandez.

Regardless of Hernandez’s stat-line, or the lack of the Gronk, the Patriots are 60 minutes away from their eighth Super Bowl, and for me a seventh time watching those silver helmets take on an NFC opponent.

When you are a supporter of such a dominant team then you are hoping the Super Bowl performances are never-ending, but when you are a fan of one of the other 31 NFL teams you just hope that there are some new teams losing their Super Bowl virginity.

As a neutral it has been a lot of fun seeing the likes of the New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals reach (and in the first two cases win) a Super Bowl.

It’s not so much fun watching the same teams keep going back. The irony is not lost that we have the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL Championship as I grew up watching Joe Montana and Steve Young win three Super Bowls over a seven year stretch.

I do have very clear memories of the Ravens winning their only previous Super Bowl appearance, and likewise the Falcons somewhat flat performance against the John Elway led Denver Broncos in 1999.

As long as the Patriots are held out of this Super Bowl I really don’t mind who wins out of the 49ers and the Falcons. You have to love the dynamism of Colin Kaepernick and then the emotional high that would be experienced if Tony Gonzales the future Hall of Fame tight-end would get if he could somehow play his last game in the Super Bowl.

Just don’t think I can stomach another two-weeks of hype led by Tom Brady’s face and the grey face of Bill ‘the Emperor’ Belichick.

Come on Ray & Ray you wouldn’t want to let down your international admirers would you?