Friday, January 18, 2013

NFL Championship Week YouTube Time-Suck

In preparation for the divisional round of the playoffs, I've spent an unforgivable amount of hours on YouTube, merrily going down the internet's rabbit hole. I had so much fun doing it that I might make it a tradition. I also realized Ray Lewis has quite a few man-crushes on quarterbacks.

Is Ray Lewis Peyton Manning's Biggest Fan?

Last week's divisional game between the Ravens and Broncos could have been Ray Lewis' last game in the NFL if it weren't for a late 4th quarter 70-yard Flacco bomb to tie the game and send it to
overtime. That pass set up this week's AFC Championship rematch and put the Ravens in position to continue their surprising run. Another side effect of that unlikely play was the abrupt conclusion of Peyton Manning's much-heralded comeback season. Peyton needn't feel sad though, because at least Ray thinks the world of him:


Love, Hate, Love: Tom-Tom and Ray-Ray

Sunday's AFC Championship game featuring the Ravens and Patriots is a rematch of last year's contest. A year ago, Baltimore's since-exiled kicker Billy Cundiff missed a field goal to tie the game at 23 with seconds left in the 4th quarter. This video features amazing/agonizing white-guy trash talk and some awkward compliments at the end of games:

Colin Freakin' Kaepernick! (Sorry Alex, We Hardly Knew Ye)

After his breakout game against Chicago, Kaepernick was restricted by a conservative game plan that limited his runs and didn't highlight his skills The run against St. Louis (at 1:15 in the video) showed a flash of the running game that Harbaugh kept mostly under wraps until last week's divisional playoff win over Green Bay. If last week was indicative of a more explosive game plan rather than just a one-off performance, the rest of the league should be scared. This 49er fan is delighted. A lot's been written about Kaepernick in the last few weeks, so it's important to watch this highlight video of laser beam passes and loping, majestic runs to remind us that Kap isn't hype, he's the goods:


Comic Relief! The NFL "Bad Lip Reading" Video

This video is unrepentantly stupid - a celebration of gibberish and sophomoric humor - which is probably why I couldn't turn it off. It's also incredibly viral (11.5 million views so far after only 3 days online). I dare you to start watching this video and turn it off before it ends. If you can, you're infinitely more refined than I am.  Good luck:

Ok, that's enough time wasted. Enjoy the games this weekend. Before I go, quick predictions for the games:

San Francisco 38, Atlanta 24 - I don't think the Falcons can match SF's defensive intensity, and the dome will be like a track for Kap. I expect another big day from the SF rushing attack and for Harbaugh to use David Akers as little as humanly possible. "4th and 3? Go for it!"
New England 28, Baltimore 27 - Last year, Cundiff's missed field goal robbed the Ravens of a chance at a Super Bowl, and I expect another close game this year. The Patriots are a better team and have an infinitely better quarterback. The Ray Lewis factor should keep Baltimore close, but if Tom gets rolling, that could change quickly. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

When He’s Right, He’s Right

Some of the best sports conversations of my life have been with my dad. Colin Fleming and I are very different people, and we dont have a ton of common interests, but weve always been able to talk about whats going on in the sports world and share our opinions with one another. More often than not, I find that my dads put a good amount of thought into what he says, and we usually agree. When we disagree, its damn near impossible for me to admit when he has a better handle on something than I do, but goddddddamnit, this is one of those times.

            Long before Alex Smith was benched following a midseason concussion, Colin Kaepernick was my dads guy. Dad couldnt wait to see Kaepernick play, and when Smiths Injury finally cracked open the door, my dad was ecstatic.

 He can do things Alex just cant do. Youll never win a title with Alex. With this guy, you have a chance.

My response was simple enough:

How can you bench a guy that has a top five passer rating in the NFL and got the Niners to the NFC Championship game last year??

            That was always my fallback response, my reasoning for defending poor Alex Smith. I just couldnt wrap my mind around the thought that Alex deserved to lose his job. He got us within one win of a Super Bowl appearance, how could anyone say he is incapable of getting to the next level? Alex is accurate, doesnt turn the ball over, and has completely reversed the course of a once-doomed career. Before 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was lured away from Stanford before the 2011 season, Smiths career had been depressing to watch.

Smith was famously drafted with the top pick in a draft that included future MVP and Super Bowl winner Aaron Rodgers. My family are all Cal fans, so when Rodgers, a UC Berkeley product, was projected as a possible top pick in 2005, we were hopeful that the 49ers would use their choice on a Golden Bear. Instead, the 49ers chose Smith from the University of Utah, and a cloud descended over Candlestick Park. That stench from that pick lingered long enough to send Head Coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary packing, but when Harbaugh arrived, it seemed as though Smith had finally been given a decent opportunity to succeed. Smith figured out how to win, even if it was through ball control and short gains. I was proud of Alex, even after lustily booing him at the Stick and chanting we want Carr! when the 49ers got destroyed at home by the Eagles in 2010. I like a good comeback story, and I wanted to believe that maybe Alex just hadnt been coached well, or the revolving door of Offensive Coordinators had left him unsure of what kind of system to prepare for. It was uplifting to see Smith avoid becoming, well, David Carr.

Before last weeks divisional playoff matchup against the Packers, I still wasnt convinced that Alex deserved to lose his job. I reminded my dad that Alex hadnt done anything to lose his gig this year.  My dads response was brutal, but accurate. This isnt little league. Kaepernick is better, he can throw harder than Alex, hes more accurate, he can run faster, and hes bigger.

Now that Kaepernick has the 49ers back in the NFC Championship game after defeating Green Bay 45-31 on Saturday, Im finally capable of being honest with myself and admitting that my dad was right.

Feel good stories be damned, I cant imagine Alex starting for the 49ers anymore. It took a dominating playoff win for the notion to leave me, but Im on the Kaepernick bus – although my dad is still driving. Theres no quarterback Id rather have. Id rather have Kap than Brady, Rodgers or Brees.

Whoa there, Dad. Hit the brakesor is he right again? If he is, Im not ready to admit it yet.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Bridge Traffic's NFL Wildcard Weekend Preview

It's that time of year again.

Wildcard Weekend: Rookie Stars, Ginger Kids, and Medical Miracles

New Years is over, and the NFL playoffs are here just in time for the nation to continue its ongoing attempt at realizing the new-age American Dream: a collective, simultaneous hangover.  It might just happen: there are reasons galore to stay planted on the couch for the entire weekend, sloppily day-drinking and fattening yourself on bean dip. The NFLs opening playoff weekend is often the most exciting three days of football all year. The leagues playoff formula almost ensures intriguing matchups, and this year is no different. ESPN wont have to add any contrived drama to make the weekends slate of games appeal to more than just the entrenched NFL fans and degenerate gamblers across the country.

Cincinnati Bengals (#6 Seed, 10-6) vs. Houston Texans (#3 Seed, 12-4)
- 1:30 PT Saturday on NBC

Andy Dalton, who is easily the NFLs most talented daywalker and his Cincinnati Bengals are matched up against the Houston Texans in the opening round of the playoffs for the second time in as many years. Dalton will try to make Bengals fans forget his three-turnover gamefrom last year’s 31-10 playoff loss as Cincinnati hopes to earn its first playoff victory since beating Houstons previous NFL franchise, the Oilers, on wildcard weekend in 1990. Ickey Woods scored that games first touchdown, and Boomer Esiason scored 3 TDs. Its been that long. Twenty-two years between playoff wins is a lot to ask of any fan base outside of Cleveland city limits, so the Bengals are undoubtedly hungry and ready to go.
The Texans finished the season with a whimper, losing their last two games to slide out of a bye and into wildcard weekend. The loss to Minnesota in week sixteen wasnt as troubling as this weeks loss to the Colts. At least against Minnesota, Matt Schaub and company ran into a red-hot team that was fighting for its playoff life. The Vikings beat Green Bay this week in a must win game for both teams (the Packers needed to win to secure a bye) behind another monster performance (199 yds, 2 TDs) by their future hall of fame running back, Adrian Peterson. Indianapolis, however, had nothing to gain or lose in week seventeen. They were locked into the fifth seed in the AFC, and still handily beat the Texans and denied them a bye.  Some might say that the Colts were motivated by the return of their head coach Chuck Pagano (more on this later), the loss should still provide ample reason for concern in the Houston camp leading up to this Saturdays matchup.
The difference maker for the Texans this season is the NFLs only openly-vegan running back, Arian Foster. If Foster and the Houston offensive line can control the game on the ground, the Texan defense and their star QB killer J.J. Watt should be able to get plenty of rest and keep the pressure on the Andy Dalton.
If that happens, and the Texans can execute their game-plan of running the ball and controlling time of possession and field position, Houston should easily win this game. The Bengals have some nice pieces (A.J. Green would be the top receiver on every team in the league except Detroit), but they are a few years away from threatening to win the AFC. The formula for a Cincinnati victory has to be to pounce on Houston early and force them to throw from behind. While Texan wideout Andre Johnson had his best season since 2009 and is capable of stretching the field, the Texans play much better with a lead.
The Texans boast a much more complete team with a markedly better defense than Cincinnati and should win despite their late-season hiccups. It should be close though. Houston is favored by 4.5 points and I see this game as a toss-up on a neutral field. Giving the Texans 3 for home field seems pretty reasonable, but 4.5 seems high. Bengals seem like the play against the spread.

Minnesota Vikings (#6 Seed, 10-6) vs. Green Bay Packers (#3 Seed, 11-5)
- 5pm Saturday on NBC

You dont have to delve to deeply into your foggy memories to recall the Vikings and Packers most recent matchup. The two teams played a hard-fought game at the Metrodome in Minneapolis this past Sunday. It was a huge game for both teams. For the Vikings, a playoff berth hung in the balance, while Green Bay stood to lose its #2 seed and accompanying bye if they dropped the game. Minnesota did what it has all year – hand the ball off to the inhuman Adrian All Day Peterson. Peterson led the Vikings to a narrow victory and continued to bewilder the medical community and NFL fans alike by running for huge yards and threatening to break Eric Dickersons all time rushing record set in 1984, all less than a year removed  from surgery to repair a torn ACL. The second half of that sentence is as impressive as any stat Peterson can claim when he enters the Hall of Fame.
 Athletes recovering from ACL surgery often never regain the lateral quickness and strength they had before surgery, and if they recover some of that burst, it usually takes years to happen. Nobody expected Adrian Peterson to play at all in the early half of the season except Adrian himself, and you would have had to have been a fool to expect anything other than a pedestrian year  when he did eventually return from someone who had surgery after Christmas last year and spent New Years Eve 2012 in a hospital bed.
In his ongoing campaign to prove that he is not a creature native to the Earth, Peterson, after not playing a down in the preseason, put on his pads for week one and began what would become the greatest season an NFL running back has ever had. While AD ended up nine yards short of Eric Dickersons 2,105 rushing yards when the season concluded in Minnesota last week, Peterson has the honor of being not only a freak athlete, but a medical marvel as well.
Its hard to imagine either coach wasnt going all out last week when so much was resting on the game, so it will be interesting to see if either kept some tricks up their sleeve for the rematch. If not, both defenses should have an advantage, though both face difficult tasks. Minnesota has AD, and Green Bay has arguably the best quarterback in the league, Super Bowl XLV MVP Aaron Rodgers. By default, Im leaning towards the Packers to win because of their home field advantage, but the Vikings are not to be trifled with. In addition to the Pack, Minnesota already beat San Francisco, Chicago and Houston this year and is going into the playoffs on a four game winning streak. The frozen tundra of Lambeau Field has been the site of some of the most exciting playoff games in my lifetime, and this may be yet another. While the Packers are favored more heavily (8 points) than their AFC third-seed counterpart Houston Texans are against the Bengals, I think Green Bay is more vulnerable to be upset, although I dont know you can call it an upset with the Vikings winning last week – Vegas is funny like that sometimes. Picking the game straight, Ill take The Pack, but Ill take the Vikings to cover the 8, even if Christian Ponder is throwing passes outdoors in Lambeau Field in January. I think I just talked myself out of that. On second thought why would I ever bet on Christian Ponder. Final verdict: PACK PACK PACK PACK. 

Indianapolis Colts (#5 Seed, 11-5) vs. Baltimore Ravens (#4 Seed, 10-6) 
-1pm Sunday on CBS

            Despite their fearsome reputation, the Ravens defense has been truly mediocre this year. How else would one describe a unit that ranked 17th in yards allowed per game, 12th in scoring defense, and 28th in plays from scrimmage? The last stat is the most concerning for the Harbaughlers. If you cant get off the field, its hard to control a game and maintain your energy when it matters most at the end of games, and the Ravens offense hasnt been explosive enough to make up for that. Ray Rice is an all pro, but his lack of usage in the offensive scheme led to a late season Offensive Coordinator change. Quarterback Joe Flacco has spent his career thus far playing for a team with a dominating defense led by the soon-to-retire Ray Lewis.  Now that the veil has been pulled back a bit and Baltimores defense looks a bit exposed, the question of whether or not Flacco can lead the offense effectively and score enough to counteract the defenses steady deterioration remains unanswered.
Fortunately for Flacco and the Ravens, the Colts defense isnt mediocre, its just awful. The Colts cannot stop the run, allowing more yards on the ground this season (2200!) than every team save the Jags, Bills and Saints. The Colts could be the worst 11-5 team Ive ever seen. Theyve ridden a wave of good will known as Chuck Strong, as head coach Chuck Pagano battled leukemia this year, returning to the team for Colts game last week again the Texans. Inspirational stories are not to be discounted when it comes to motivating young players, and intangible forces have propelled squads to Super Bowl runs.  That said, the Colts played in an abysmal division this season and had a soft schedule. This game doesnt really interest me enough to write much more about it, so Ill just stop. Colts are seven point dogs, and I think that sounds about right. I wouldnt bet this game at all, but if you felt the need I suppose Id go with Baltimore.

Seattle Seahawks (#5 Seed, 11-5) vs. Washington Redskins
-Sunday at 1:30 PT on Fox

This game is undisputedly the glamour matchup of the weekend. The Seahawks have been nothing short of a revalation this year. Before the season, the Seahawks and their free-agent acquisition, QB Matt Flynn, were not expected to make much of an impact on the league. Instead, rookie QB Russell Wilson ended the Matt Flynn era before it began and won the starting job in training camp, then proceeded to astound the league by leading the hawks to an 11-5 record (10-6 to those living in Green Bay) and a wildcard berth. The Seahawks have won on the strength of a balanced offensive attack and a frighteningly efficient defense. Wilson and receivers Sidney Rice and Golden Tate meshed well early, and Oakland native and former Cal star Marshawn Lynch has turned into the best running back in the NFL not named Adrian Peterson. Theres plenty of reason for optimism in Seattle. They are what the 49ers were last year – an extremely talented young team that just shifted from a mediocre team to an elite-level contender. The Seahawks are the team that nobody wants to play right now. They got stronger as the season went on, including a three week stretch (weeks 14-16) where they averaged 50 points a game. Lets review: rookie quarterback. Unproven teammates. Fifty Points a game. Theres something magical happening in Seattle. The Seahawks also have the most imposing home field in the NFL, going a perfect 8-0 at the Stadium formerly known as Qwest. Unfortunately for Pete Carrolls boys, the five seed will only give them a home playoff game if they make it to the NFC Championship game and face Minnesota. In other words, not happening.
The Seahawks will be facing an offense that resembles theirs in many ways. Also led by a rookie QB, Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, The Redskins and like to play a read-option offense that allows their mobile young quarterback to attack defenses with both his impressive arm and freakish running ability. At the beginning of the season, nobody would have put Russell Wilson in the same category as RG3, but now they are both solid contenders for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Seeing them battle on Sunday will be a real treat. Also worth watching out for: Washington rookie RB Alfred Morris. Morris doesnt get enough recognition because he plays with fellow stud rookie Griffin, but Morris has been a huge part of Washingtons offensive success. Without the threat of Morris in the backfield, Griffin couldnt have been nearly as effective this year. The balanced attack, much like Seattles, has been the biggest reason for Washingtons surprising NFC East title run. Unfortunately for Washington, RG3 has been a little banged up near the end of the year, and if he isnt full-strength, Washington is in trouble (despite the best efforts of Kirk Cousins).
The Hawks are three point favorites on the road (the only favored road squad this weekend), and thats justified. Their defense has been much better than Washingtons this year, and will be the difference in the game if Seattle hopes to win, which I think they will. Take the Seattle cover.

Enjoy the weekend, dont drink and drive, and keep the delivery pizzas to a three-pie limit over the course of the four games. Moderation in everything, right?