Feb 042013
 

FlaccoSo the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers 34-31 last night in Super Bowl XLVII. I can’t call it one of the best Super Bowls I watched, but rather would call it one of the more bizarre football games I have witnessed. So here is a not so quick, highly opinionated take on last night’s game.

The Ravens deserved to win

I am no Ratbirds fan. Not even close. I can’t stand Ray Lewis (more on that later), and think that John Harbaugh is the more pompous of the brothers. None the less, the Ravens deserved to win last night. The Ravens dominated the first half of play and had a huge halftime lead, and the game should have been over by the end of the third quarter. But the Ravens didn’t wake up after the lights went back on, and the 49ers stormed back, similar to the Patriots’ comeback in Week 15 against the Niners. In the end the comeback would not be enough; the Raven’s defense did just enough to secure the win, and they were aided by poor clock management and even  poorer play-calling on the part of San Francisco.

Jacoby Jones should have been the MVP

There’s no question that Joe Flacco had a good game, but the Ravens don’t win that contest without the performance of Jacoby Jones. Jones tied a Super Bowl record with a 108 yard kickoff return to open the second half after having made a brilliant play on a 56 yard touchdown pass near the end of the first half. That was Jones’ only reception of the night, but he finished the game with 234 return yards, to give him 290 total yards for the night. That was three more yards than what Flacco threw for, in a very efficient 22/33 performance with three touchdown passes, all of which came in the first half. The award is arguable, but Jones seems to be the better candidate, having an impact similar to that of the one offered by  Desmond Howard in Super Bowl XXXI for the Green Bay Packers.

I’m betting the Houston Texans wish they hadn’t let go of Jones.

Flacco has huge leverage

Whether or not Flacco deserved to be MVP of the Super Bowl, he is, and the fact that he helped deliver a title to Baltimore means significant leverage for the Ravens’ quarterback in coming contract negotiations. The truth is that Flacco took a huge step forward in his development this year, although he is still not a consistent enough performer to count among the league’s best. But that won’t stop Flacco from seeking top dollar, in the neighborhood of $20 million per year.

As noted on Pro Football Talk, the Ravens will now almost certainly tag Flacco with the exclusive franchise tag, placing his 2013 pay in excess of the $20 million mark that Flacco desires. There’s very little chance that the Ravens would allow less successful teams to make a run at Flacco by applying the non-exclusive tag. So it looks like Joe is going to be cashing in on his Super Bowl win in short order.

Worst Color Commentator EVER…

Am I the only one who was both baffled and horrified by the on air performance of Phil Simms as the “color” commentator? Between the man “seeing” things before plays that he failed to share with the audience to not seeming to understand the strategy behind the game of football, Simms was a complete bust during the Super Bowl broadcast.

While Simms was miserable throughout the game, the final drive served as proof positive that Simms has no business being on the air. First, Simms was barely critical of a final 49ers drive that demonstrated poor clock management and poor play selection. Second, Simms started out by calling the final 49ers’ offensive play a “good no call” and then retreated back from his position to the point where no one, even Simms, knew exactly what his thoughts were. Finally, Simms seemed out of touch with the idea that the Ravens’ would (Very wisely) take a safety on the punt in the game’s next to last play, killing valuable clock time while protecting the Baltimore lead. If you didn’t know who the commentators were, you would be convinced that Jim Nance knows far more about football than Phil Simms, and that might very well be the truth.

I haven’t checked to see who is broadcasting next year’s Super Bowl. But if it is CBS doing the honors, I hope they will rent Troy Aikman away from FOX for a day.

Jones and CulliverKarma bites Culliver

I was ranting all week about the need for karma to make an appearance at this year’s Super Bowl and it did… just not in the way that I expected. Chris Culliver, the 49ers’ cornerback who went off in a rant about the possibility of gay players in the NFL (newsflash idiot… there already are gay players in the NFL), got lit up like a Christmas tree by Flacco and the Ravens. Culliver found himself to be a frequent target of Flacco during the game. Culliver was the one who got burned on Jacoby Jones’ terrific touchdown play, and was also responsible for a pass interference penalty on a key third down with only nine minutes remaining in the game.

Right about now Culliver needs a hug, but I wouldn’t blame any of his teammates for not giving it to him. Culliver can claim all he wants that there is no homophobia or hate in his heart, but there was plenty that came out of his mouth.

Good bye, Ray

Speaking of karma, I am convinced it took the easy way out after targeting Culliver instead of Ray Lewis. But for those who share my disdain of the Ravens’ criminal linebacker,  we can take solace in the fact that the retirement party is nearly complete; there’s just a parade left to go and then we’ll just have to deal with the man as a talking head going forward.

Still, Ray just couldn’t resist giving us more fodder upon which to despise him. In an interview with CBS’ Shannon Sharpe, Lewis was asked directly about the double murder in which he was implicated in 2000. His response? Why of course it was to blame the investigatory process.

Said Lewis, “It’s simple. God has never made a mistake. That’s just who He is, you see. And if our system — it’s the sad thing about our system — if our system took the time to really investigate what happened 13 years ago, maybe they would have got to the bottom line truth. But the saddest thing ever was that a man looked me in my face and told me, ‘We know you didn’t do this, but you’re going down for it anyway.’ To the family, if you knew, if you really knew the way God works, he don’t use people who commits anything like that for His glory. No way. It’s the total opposite.”

That’s right scumbag…. blame the system. The same system that you refused to cooperate with and eventually had to plead guilty for obstruction to. I also suppose the system is to blame for the disappearance of a blood-splattered white suit. Lewis can talk all he wants about God and about being reformed, but the fact is that God didn’t commit commit those murders. God didn’t investigate the case. And God sure as hell didn’t refuse to cooperate with the investigation, to lie, or to hide a bloody white suit. In my opinion, the type of salvation that Lewis has claimed to possess can only occur when the offender has assumed responsibility for his actions. Other than to pay off the families to avoid a civil finding, and to contribute mightily to the community to presumably assuage his own feelings of guilt, this ass continues to spout drivel and act like it is profound. It’s time for you to go Ray, and for me to mute my television every time your face comes on the screen.

Shut up, Frank

For what seems to be the one hundredth time this season, a player in defeat claims that his team beat themselves or gave the game away. It’s a tired refrain that on the surface is poor sportsmanship and on a deeper level just feels like a complete lack of respect for one’s opponents.

Enter Frank Gore.  Following the game, Gore told the Associated Press, “They got away with one. We showed we were the better team. It was just a couple plays here, a couple plays there.”

Perhaps Frank doesn’t understand (though he should) that every game in the NFL comes down to a few plays “here” and a few plays “there”. The winner executes and the loser doesn’t. And the loser should probably shut the hell up about being the better team when the scoreboard doesn’t agree. I don’t like the Ravens, and I don’t think that they are the best team in football, but I can at least acknowledge that they were the better team on this night and that they are the Super Bowl champions. Show some class, Frank.

GiR 2Gridiron Rats Super Bowl Party

Gridiron Rats officially ended its first full season of NFL football with a small gathering at the Rat’s Lair. We could only get four of our contributors and their families in attendance, but a great time was had by all. The halftime show by Beyonce was pretty good (and I am not usually a fan), but it paled to the post-Beyonce dance performance given by eight kids ranging from 13 to 2 years of age.

The food was fabulous. Rat’s Widow made Belichicken Wings, a dish we found perusing the Patriots Life site. Folks… make this chicken; it was wonderful. She also made cocktail weenies, a very good beer bread and dip, and she provided a tremendous spread of yummies that the kids dove into. Flip Stricland provided a huge bag of steaks that were perfectly marinated. Ghost Rat cooked up about a dozen of these on the grill while Rat’s Widow turned the rest into sandwich meat. And not to be outdone, the Country Preacher and his wife brought along a hash brown casserole that was the perfect complement to the evening’s main dishes.

GiR 1I’ve added some photos of the steaks (yes, I was grilling in the snow) and of our illustrious contributors. The back row has Country Preacher, Flip Strickland, and the Ghost Rat, while the front row has the Preacher’s Wife, Flip’s Wife, and the famous Rat’s Widow. Aren’t those ladies pretty? We are lucky men!

The party only lasted until just after halftime because… you know… we all have little kids. But the power outage intervened and gave everyone time to tuck the little ones in and get back to what turned out to be a pretty dramatic Super Bowl.

 

Jan 212013
 

Jack-and-Jackie-HarbaughSuper Bowl XLVII is sure to give us all its share of storylines over the next two weeks as the San Francisco 49ers prepare to take on the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans. So let me offer a first set of reactions to the championship weekend and the upcoming game in two weeks.

  • I know I am going to get sick of this particular storyline really fast, but consider for a moment… a father who is a coach raises two sons who both grow up and become football coaches. Those two coaches will now face off in one of the best known sporting events on the entire planet. Jack and Jackie Harbaugh have to be incredibly proud of their sons. I don’t know how they are going to endure the media obtrusiveness in the next two weeks or, for that matter, how they will watch a game that pits their sons against one another. But when one just sits back and considers the math of the situation, it’s hard not to marvel at this accomplishment.
  • The storyline I am already very sick of is the endless Ray Lewis retirement party. Obviously I wanted my Patriots to end his career, but since that didn’t happen I have a feeling that I am about to become a 49ers’ fan for the next two weeks. Of course we also have T Sizzle to thank for my particular feelings on that as well.
  • The Super Bowl will pit the old guard against the new. In one corner… Joe Flacco, the classic drop back pocket passer who can occasionally burn you for a run but will never be confused with Usain Bolt. In the other corner… Colin Kaepernick, the guy who can burn you with his laser like throws, his ability to run, or who can scare you into not defending the guy who has the ball. I have a feeling it is going to be a memorable battle.
  • Speaking of Colin Kaepernick… exactly how much of a genius does Jim Harbaugh look like right now for benching Alex Smith? All Smith did was win, and he still got benched in favor of the second year player from the University Nevada (Reno). I will own up to being one who thought the move would be a short term disaster but a long term gain. And while Kaepernick still has one game left to prove that prediction right, he has more than acquitted his coach of any criticism that the move might have earned. It was a gutsy call, and it is paying immediate dividends.  Watch it pay more dividends in the off-season as the 49ers move Smith to a team willing to pay a steep price to get him.
  • I know Tony Gonzalez doesn’t want to go through the grind of another off-season, more mini-camps, workouts, training camp, and a pre-season to line up for the Falcons next season, but am I the only guy who thinks he should be returning? Gonzalez can clearly still play at a world class level and his loss will be a blow to the Falcons next season.
  • Is David Akers going to kill the 49ers? When he clanked the goal post on the field goal today I had to cringe, even if I was cheering for the Falcons. Akers has had a miserable season and his post-season hasn’t been much better. You have to wonder if Jim Harbaugh is praying that the game doesn’t come down to a last second field goal attempt, or whether Harbaugh will manage the game differently to insure that it doesn’t. 49ers’ fans have to be squeamish about this guy, who is almost sure to be cut following the Super Bowl.
  • Will the Patriots’ try to acquire Bernard Pollard in the off-season? He actually would not really represent an upgrade to the Patriots’ secondary, but Bill Belichick is known for signing guys that have killed him in the past. Let’s see… Pollard has now injured Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Stevan Ridley. Enough already… either get the guy on the team, or send him out for a night on the town with Plaxico Burress, but something’s got to give.
  • Speaking of Belichick… is the man ever going to realize that it probably wouldn’t hurt him to appear a little more human in his post-game conferences? Tonight’s was especially hard to watch, and even the reporters seemed hard pressed to find a question they could ask him, for fear of pissing Belichick off. Making matters worse was when Belichick declined a post-game interview with CBS, sending Shannon Sharpe into a tirade. “There’s something to be said about being gracious in defeat,” Sharpe said. “We’ve seen the New England Patriots five times in the last 12 years be victorious. And we’ve seen the opposing coaches that lost come out and talk to our Steve Tasker. Coach Cowher did it when the Steelers lost to them. We saw this last week when the Patriots beat the Texans. Bill Belichick makes it real easy for you to root against the Patriots. You can’t be a poor sport all the time. You’re not gonna win all the time. And he does this every time he loses. It is unacceptable.” Personally, I don’t think much of Shannon Sharpe, and he has never been particularly gracious towards the Patriots, but in this case he is right. Belichick’s own feelings about losing are not the point; coming out and being graceful in defeat is. It’s classic Belichick to say little when you win and even less when you lose, but it’s getting to be an old act even among Patriots’ fans.
  • Finally, a little GiR note on the Super Bowl. One of our contributors… Reyno Island… accurately predicted a San Francisco-Baltimore match-up in his pre-season predictions. Three of us got it half right, as both Brodrick Kincaid and I picked San Francisco to represent the NFC  and Country Preacher picked Baltimore to represent the AFC. Nice going, Reyno!

That’s probably enough to get us started. We have two weeks of media blitz in the waiting, along with the non-game known as the Pro Bowl taking place next week. We have one more game left in the season before someone heads off to Disney and the whole cycle starts all over again.

Jan 132013
 

The Denver Broncos vs Baltimore Ravens AFC Divisional playoff game.Saturday was a great day to be a football fan. It was also a pretty good day to be a Harbaugh brother.

The early game, and we use the term “early” loosely, turned out to be a classic as the Baltimore Ravens edged the Denver Broncos 38-35 in double overtime in the fourth longest playoff game in NFL history. And while that game was wrapping up, the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers were engaged in their own slugfest, which the 49ers eventually took control of as they went on to a 45-31 victory. Here are quick recaps for the two games.

Baltmore Ravens 38 Denver Broncos 35 (2OT)

Justin Tucker kicked a 47 yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime to give Head Coach John Harbaugh’s Ravens a shocking 38-35 win over the host Broncos.

Ray Rice ran for 131 and a score on 30 carries, and Joe Flacco lit up the Broncos’ secondary for 331 yards and three scores, including an inexcusable 70 yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with only 41 seconds remaining to allow the Ravens to force overtime. Torrey Smith also burned Champ Bailey for two big touchdown receptions as the Ravens generated 479 yards of offense.

The Denver loss spoiled an amazing performance by Trindon Holliday, who ran back a first half punt 90 yards for a touchdown and then brought the opening kickoff of the second half back for a 104 yard score.

Peyton Manning struggled for consistency, having a solid first half, but seemingly melting under pressure in the second half and in overtime. Manning was 28/43 for 290 yards and three scored, but threw two costly interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown in the first quarter by Corey Graham, and another that was picked off by Graham near the end of the first overtime that set up the game winning field goal.

While Broncos’ fans will no doubt point to some suspect officiating as costing them some opportunities, there are too many internal causes for the defeat. At the end of the first half the Broncos got the ball back with 36 seconds left on the clock and time-outs in hand, but chose to instead run out the clock. The Broncos similarly had a chance to end the game on a third down play late in the fourth quarter and chose to run the ball on third and seven rather than let Manning try to pass for the first down. But the biggest reason for the Broncos loss was the pitiful play of the secondary, including Champ Bailey getting beat deep twice and Rahim Moore giving up the late bomb to Jones. After the game, Moore said, “It is my fault, plain and simple.” But really the fault rests with a secondary that helped make Joe Flacco looked more like Peyton Manning than Manning did.

Baltimore will now travel to face the winner of the New England Patriots – Houston Texans match-up in the AFC Championship.

San Francisco 49ers 45 Green Bay Packers 31

Four plays into the game, Colin Kaepernick threw an interception that Sam Shields returned 52 yards for a Green Bay touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. But after that, Kaepernick was unflappable, as he threw for 263 yards and two scores, and ran for another 181 yards and two scores as the 49ers dominated the Packers 45-31  at Candlestick Park.

The two teams fought a back and forth battle throughout the first half, with the 49ers taking a 24-21 lead on a David Akers field goal to end the half. After an Green Bay field goal almost midway through the third quarter, San Francisco took control of the game. Kaepernick exploded for a 56 yard touchdown run to put the Niners in front, and then Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon each scored on two yard runs as San Francisco closed the door and advanced to next week’s NFC championship, where they will face the winner of the Atlanta Falcons – Seattle Seahawks contest.

Michael Crabtree had a huge game for San Francisco, catching nine passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, while Gore ran for 119 yards and one score. James Jones caught four passes for 87 yards and a score for the Packers, while Greg Jennings added six catches for 54 yards and one touchdown.

The Green Bay offensive line did a good job of limiting the San Francisco pass rush, limiting the 49ers to one sack and three quarterback hits. But Aaron Rodgers never seemed to get into synch in the contest, and Kaepernick was simply too much for the Packers’ defense. The young quarterback is making Head Coach Jim Harbaugh look like a genius for choosing to start him over veteran Alex Smith. “It feels good. We’re one step closer to where we want to be,” Kaepernick said. “I feel like I had a lot to prove. A lot of people doubted my ability to lead this team.”

Jan 102013
 

Packers - 49ersIn a span of five playoff appearances between 1995 and 2001, the Green Bay Packers stood in the San Francisco 49ers path to a sixth Super Bowl Championship. On four of five occasions Green Bay emerged victorious and have had good luck in Candlestick Park where they have emerged victorious twice in three chances. Fast forward to 2013 where the 49ers, still chasing the elusive sixth world championship, are set to renew their playoff rivalry with Green Bay. This will be a rematch of Week One when San Francisco drew first blood, limiting the anemic Green Bay running game to 45 yards, and offensively received stellar performances by QB Alex Smith (20-26, 211 yards, 2 TDs) and RB Frank Gore (112 Yards, 1 TD). Much has changed since the 30-22 San Francisco victory that was never in question despite what the score may indicate. While the Niners have continued their winning ways throughout the season, Colin Kaepernick—a Wisconsin born Packer fan– has replaced Alex Smith and will be making his first playoff start. Meanwhile, the loss to the 49ers was the first loss of three that would occur in the first five weeks for Green Bay. The Packers would recover in stellar fashion behind the MVP caliber play of QB Aaron Rodgers (ironically, a Niner fan growing up) by winning 9 of their last 11 en route divisional crown and a 4th consecutive playoff appearance.

Keys for Green Bay
Despite the constant threat of being torched through the air by Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay rushing attack—and attack is a term used lightly here—is not likely to foster any type of impactful effort against the league’s number four ranked defense against the run. DuJaun Harris was superb in his 100 yard effort against the Vikings and FB John Kuhn picked up a score on the ground as well. However, there are vast differences. The X-Factor for Green Bay will be the ability for Don Barclay and the Packer offensive line to give Rodgers the time needed to work effectively against a pass defense that has been as effective against the pass as it has against the run. Given time to executive, Rodgers should enjoy some level of effectiveness to finally healthy targets Randall Cobb and Greg Jennings. Rodgers, looking to up his playoff record to 6-2, was able to pick up 279 yards through the air in the week one contest. It should be noted that Rodgers has never come back against a team above .500 in the fourth quarter in 18 tries; the Packers will need to build an early lead for Rodgers to avoid such a predicament in his first ever trip to Candlestick.

The Packers defense will need to build off their successful performance against Adrian Peterson in the Wild Card round. Peterson, who averaged over 200 yards per game against Green Bay in 2012 in two regular season games, and torched them for 199 yards in Minnesota’s playoff clinching week 17 victory, was held to 99 yards in the Packers 24-10 victory a week ago. They were also successful in limiting QB Joe Webb on the ground. While nowhere near the level of Kaepernick it was suspected that the main asset Webb could utilize was the speed element of his game—which Green Bay had no time to game plan for due to the Vikings late QB change. In Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick (5 rushing TDs in 2012), San Francisco boasts an RB that has had recent success against the Packers combined with a QB with elite speed. Additionally, LaMichael James is a handful when spelling Gore in relief. Ultimately, Green Bay will need to mirror last weeks’ effort if their 17th ranked defense is to contain the Niners 4th ranked rushing attack. To do so B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and C.J. Wilson must be effective in dealing with the physical multiple tight end and goal line type sets that San Francisco’s used in Week 1. If the Packers can limit the San Francisco running game they could find themselves trending toward their performance in their Super Bowl winning run a couple of seasons ago which was buoyed by a strong run defense throughout the playoffs. Charles Woodson and the Green Bay secondary remains the strong suit of the Packer defense, but stopping the run will go a long way toward stacking the odds against an inexperienced QB by forcing their opponents to move away from the balanced attack the 49ers favor.

Green Bay passed the test against the number 2 rushing attack in the league last week and also where able to get a look at an option style quarterback—albeit one less talented than Kaepernick—in Webb. Kaepernick, in his 5-2 run as a starter, threw 10 touchdowns against only three picks to go with his 5 rushing scored and his 7.2 yards per carry clip. The Packers struggled with Alex Smith in Week 1 and Kaepernick’s speed element makes him profoundly more difficult to game plan for. Nonetheless, if there is a weakness in Kaepernick’s game to compliment his lack of post season experience it is his propensity to put the ball on the ground. He fumbled seven times in seven starts but lost only one—the Packers will need to capitalize if Kaepernick puts the ball on the ground. Furthermore, the Packers remain solid in the secondary and will hope to benefit from mistakes that can be forced if the Packer front seven can pressure Kaepernick.

Keys for San Francisco
Whether it’s John Harbaugh firing his offensive coordinator with a month to go in the season or brother Jim replacing Alex Smith in-season despite a 21-6-1 run as a starting including last season’s post season run, no one will ever accuse the Harbaughs of following conventional wisdom. Last week, John was successful in Baltimore’s first effort of the season with the Ravens defeated the Colts 24-9. This week it is Jim’s turn to throw egg on the critics of his bold move—though his risk to a much higher degree. How Colin Kaepernick performs in his first season start will not only determine whether or not the 49ers earn a shot at an NFC Championship and Super Bowl appearance it was also validate or invalidate Harbaugh’s risky switch. So far, in the regular season, Harbaugh has been rewarded; however, with a quarterback who has been successful and won recently in the playoffs sitting idle the stakes couldn’t be any higher. Pro Bowler’s Joe Staley and Mike Iaputi will need their usual effectiveness in protection. Additionally, Gore and James will need to continue on their recent run of success on the ground. If the Niners are successful in those two key areas it will go a long way to mitigating any nerves and the overall inexperience of Kaepernick. Furthermore, Kaepernick will then be able to target Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree and pick apart the Green Bay secondary.

If you hold up the starting lineup for last year’s 49ers team and the 2012 unit you will note minimal change to the defense on paper. However, the Justin Smith that lined up on the defensive line in 2011 was perhaps the top defensive player in the league last year—making 1st Team All-Pro and 2nd Team All-Pro simultaneously. This year he enters the game after missing two weeks with a triceps injury—emotional impact only goes so far and it will only be known as the game unfolds how much of a physical impact his return will have. Smith went down against New England and the defense quickly unraveled and matters got bad as they gave up 28 unanswered points. Bad turned to ugly the following week when the Seattle scored 42 points in Smith’s absence. How effective Justin Smith is on Saturday with also impact the other Smith—Alden—whose 19.5 sacks this season were a strong derivative of the double teams faced by his namesake at on the defensive line. The Niners will need Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, NT Isaac Sopoaga, and LE Ray McDonald to get pressure on Aaron Rodgers and what will likely be a one dimensional Packer attack

With Pro Bowl Safeties Donte Whitner and FS Dashon Goldson, in addition to CB’s Tarell Brown and Carlos Rodgers (who experienced a career year in 2012), the Niners fourth ranked passing defense is healthy and matches up well with Greg Jennings and Randall Cobb. Jennings has been catching his stride lately with 3 TDs in as many games and Cobb is healthy; however, the Niners will need to keep the Packer deep threats in front of them. With the front seven likely to limit the Packer ground game, the San Francisco secondary will need to limit buy not completely ground the league’s top quarterback.

The Outcome
This is the most interesting of the three games this weekend that feature rematches of regular season lop-sided affairs. The unknown that is Kaepernick in this situation makes this game a virtual pick ‘em in the eyes of many. Questions surrounding Justin Smith’s healthy only further muddy the picture of what the outcome could be. If Smith is healthy and Kaepernick is not caught in the moment it would be hard to pick against the 49ers in a game at home against a team that is 4-4 on the road. The Packers offense will likely be rendered one dimensional against San Francisco—however, that one dimension happens to be the best player in the league. The Packers were workmanlike in taking apart the Vikings last weekend; meanwhile, the Niners have been prone to embarrassing performances on defense in the absence of Smith. Nonetheless, I am counting on Smith to return in grand fashion and Kaepernick to seize the moment. Rodgers will have a strong day but in the end will move to 0-19 when attempting to comeback against better than .500 opponents. This could be one for the ages.

San Francisco 28 Green Bay 27

Sep 242012
 

Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do….

In the end, the Ne England Patriots cannot blame this loss on utterly horrific officiating. Not when their run defense got lit up by Ray Rice and their secondary got torched by Joe Flacco, the result of an inability to apply meaningful quarterback pressure throughout the game. And not when, instead of running the ball at the end of the game, the Patriots went to the air and provided the Ravens with additional timeouts, nor when Josh McDaniels outguessed himself instead of placing his trust in the game plan that placed the Patriots comfortably in front of the Ravens midway through the fourth quarter. No, these things were on the Patriots, not on the officials.

But the officials sure didn’t help.

There were no fewer than four phantom calls*** on the Patriots, all of which led to Ravens points; the worst of which was a defensive holding call on linebacker Brandon Spikes when it was clear that Spikes was the one being held. That call led not only to Ravens points, but also to the best line of the night, when Spikes let the officials know after the game (in most unflattering terms) that Foot Locker was calling and it was time to get back to work.

(*** Update: Here is a great analysis of all the penalties called in the game. This doesn’t get into the ones not called, much to the relief of Michael Oher.)

Other than Ed Reed’s two vicious head shots (as noted by a reader… since when does Reed turn dirty?), the worst behavior of the night however belonged to Patriots Head Coach, who physically grabbed one of the officials after the game, seemingly to get an explanation as to why the winning field goal (which clearly went over the crossbar and was good)*** was not reviewed. In truth it was not a reviewable play. Of course, Belichick could have been grabbing the official to demand an explanation about a thousand different things, but he made the mistake of making physical contact. While Belichick stated after the game that he didn’t expect to be fined, the fact is that he should be, and he should be fined heavily.

(*** Update: According to former NFL Vice President for Officiating Mike Pereira,”The entire ball must pass inside the outside edge of the upright… A FG that goes over the top of an upright is not reviewable because you cannot determine when exactly the ball is directly over the pole” Judging by that interpretation, and this photo (or the video here), the Patriots may well be right that the field goal was in fact wide right. Pereira guessed that it was good, and I would say that replay would not have been able to establish otherwise. In any event, the announcers got the rule wrong.)

While I can appreciate Belichick’s frustration, he acted no better than John Fox on Monday night, or than the Ravens did in their post-game interviews after they fell to the Eagles last week. It’s not the officials fault that they suck; they just do. It is the fault of the NFL that the replacement officials are on the field to begin with, and the fault goes specifically to Commissioner Roger Goodell. But in his post-game interview, Belicjhick got far more conciliatory and wouldn’t go there, at least not as strongly as he did on the field.

“It’s our job to just go out there and control what we can control,” said Belichick following the game. That’s what we’re going to try to work on. You can’t control anything else. You’d have to talk to those guys. Go talk to the officials about the way they called the game. Go talk to the league about the way they called it. I don’t know, but we’ve got to go out and control it the best we can.”

That’s a wise statement from a head coach following a loss (are you listening, John Harbaugh?), but a coach who can keep that cool under media scrutiny, and who is as accomplished as Belichick, should have kept his head on the field as well. Frankly, I will be shocked if he isn’t fined at least $50,000 for the incident.

Back to the game… yes, there was a game last night… the Patriots will look back on this as a wasted opportunity. They dominated the first quarter to get out to an early 13-0 lead. The Ravens struck back in the second quarter to grab a 14-13 lead, only to have the Patriots drive to field right before the half to take a 20-14 lead into the half. And the third quarter and the first half of the fourth belonged to the Patriots, who struck back after an early Ravens touchdown to stake a 9 point lead, possess the ball, and seemed to be driving home the final nail in the coffin after John Harbaugh got called for Unsportsmanlike Conduct when he went on the field to intimidate an official. No John… no one (not even you) believes that you were calling a time out. The Patriots had the game locked up, and then could not convert first downs to put the game on ice. Coupled with red zone opportunities in which the Patriots were forced by the Ravens defense to settle for field goals, and you had a recipe for Joe Flacco to carve up the Patriots secondary and score 10 points in the closing minutes and pull out the one point win.

And it never should have happened. Josh McDaniels devised a game plan that took advantage of the Patriots strengths, and had an aging Ravens defense looking every bit of old and tired. And then McDaniels, for the second straight week, got in his own way and infused unneeded trickery, too much Woodhead instead of Ridley, and too many tight formations without Aaron Hernandez***. Maybe McDaniels thought he was back in Denver with the likes of Kyle Orton. Whatever it was, McDaniels’ play-calling helped the Patriots miss opportunities, and the Ravens were more than capable of taking advantage. Joe Flacco may not be the best quarterback in football, but he was good enough on this night to out-duel Brady and win the game when the Patriots failed to cash in.

(*** Update: A great raised on Patriots Life: why did the Patriots never go for two? They were up by “two scores”, meaning nine points. A two-point conversion would have given the Patriots a 10 point lead and the field goal would have only tied the game. Had the conversion failed, it would have made no difference in the outcome. Bad coaching call?)

With respect to the defense, elder statesman Vince Wilfork summed it up:”We really couldn’t get off the field,” Wilfork said after the game. “Offense played their tails off and we just left them out to dry. We can’t do that.”

How the game broke down:

When the Patriots ran:

The Patriots did not run the ball effectively, as Ridley and Danny Woodhead combined for just 71 yards on 28 carries.  Edelman had a huge loss on an ill-conceived end-around. Advantage: Ravens

When the Patriots passed:

This is where the game was “won” by the Patriots, as Brady went 28 – 41 for 338 yards, but only one touchdown. Wes Welker had 8 catches for 142 yards, while the acrobatic Brandon Lloyd caught 9 passes for 108 yards. Julian Edelman was effective until he was injured just before halftime, catching four passes, including a touchdown strike. Rob Gronkowski only caught two passes on the night. Advantage: Patriots

When the Ravens ran:

Ray Rice ran for 101 yards on 20 carries and was hard to bring down most of the night. His effectiveness, coupled with the lack of a Patriots pass rush, had the Patriots’ defense off balance. Advantage: Ravens

When the Ravens passed:

Flacco overcame a rough start to throw for 382 yards and three touchdowns, slicing through the Patriots’ secondary after the first quarter. Wide receiver Torrey Smith caught 6 passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns on the same day that his younger brother died in a motorcycle accident. The Patriots’ secondary did a decent job in coverage, but Flacco had way too much time to throw and the receivers eventually got open. Advantage: Ravens

Special Teams:

Both teams had good nights here, with no major gaffes. The Patriots were able to pin the Ravens deep a couple of times, but the Ravens’ offense responded. Advantage: Even

Game Log –  

FIRST QUARTER

Patriots possession:

Patriots open in hurry up. After a quick first down to Brandon Lloyd, a botched snap and a sack defuse Patriot series. Solid punt return has Ravens set up near midfield.

Ravens possession:

Ravens open with Ray Rice carrying twice, then quick pass to Boldin comes up short.  Ravens punt and Patriots start at their own 10.

Patriots possession:

Brady to Edelman for a quick 8. Woodhead for only one, then squeezes out first down on next carry. Brady to Welker for big 59 yard gain to the Ravens 20. Ridley for no gain. Ridley for one, and the Ravens defensive players getting frisky after end of play. Referees need to keep control.  Edelman has TD in hands but Reed makes big play to force field goal attempt. Patriots connect to take early 3-0 lead.

Ravens possession:

First play is a Flacco pass picked off by Steve Gregory.

Patriots possession:

Brandon Boldin takes third down carry into the end zone. Patriots up 10-0.

Ravens possession:

Three plays and the Ravens again come up a yard short as Patriots secondary not giving Flacco receivers to throw to.

Patriots possession:

Patriots start backed up at own 8 after penalty on punt return. After an incompletion, Ridley runs for four. Brady converts to Lloyd.  Two plays later, a nice catch by Lloyd for another first down. Timeout by Ravens. Personal foul after cheap  head shot on Brady scramble. Patriots stalled by two awful officiating calls on Gronk and Edelman, settle for field goal and 13-0 lead.

Ravens possession:

Incomplete pass and short Rice run close the quarter.

SECOND QUARTER

Ravens possession:

Quick incomplete pass should have ended drive but PI call extends drive.Rice run for first down called back by Boldin hold. Passes to Pierce nets first down. Pierce again for 7! Then first down to Leach. Short run by Rice and incomplete bring up third down. Boldin comes up a yard short. Officials botch and give a measurement to the Ravens when the ball is a yard short. Then officials reverse call and grants first down. Two Rice runs for a first down before Flacco hits Torrey Smith for a touchdown pass. Patriots 13-7.

Patriots possession:

Gronk and Edelman net Patriots first down, then Brady to Edelman for another.  Woodhead into Ravens territory, then Edelman for huge loss on end around. Patriots punt and force fair catch inside the Ravens’ 10 yard line.

Ravens possession:

Flacco squeezes out first down on short scramble under pressure. Then a big pass play to Jacoby Jones to Patriots’ 36 yard line. Rice carries to 26 for another first down. A few plays later, Flacco to Pitta for a touchdown due to pathetic tackling attempts by Gregory and McCourty. Ravens 14 Patriots 13.

Patriots possession:

On second play, pass to Gronk for first down. Then defensive holding call for 5 yards. Patriots able to squeeze out a first down before a defensive contact penalty against the Ravens. Then Deion Branch gets his first grab for a first down. Then Welker for  a grab to get it inside the 10 with 13 seconds left. Incomplete pass on the next play before a touchdown strike to Edelman. Patriots go into locker room up 20-14. Brady has now thrown at least one touchdown pass in 35 straight games.

THIRD QUARTER

Ravens possession:

Rice out of the gate for a 15 yard gain. Then a bad defensive holding call against Kyle Arrington; phantom call. Two short gains to bring up 3rd and 2 which is converted by Torrey Smith. A few plays later, 32 yard reception to Smith for first and goal. rice runs it in on the next play. Ravens 21 Patriots 20.

Patriots possession:

Quick first down strike to Lloyd. Then Ridley for about four followed by an incomplete to Winslow before a first down completion to Welker. Woodhead to midfield for three and then for one. First down pass to Lloyd. Then a personal foul against Pollard to get the Patriots to the 21. Woodhead for 3. Another first down to Lloyd. First and goal. Woodhead to the 5. Woodhead in for the score. Patriots 27 Ravens 21.

Ravens possession:

Two plays in Flacco hits Smith for 37 yards. Holding call against the Ravens wipes out a fist down. Patriots struggling to pressure Flacco. Long incomplete brings up Ravens punt.

Patriots possession:

First pass is a first down strike to Winslow. Ridley loses a yard. Brandon Lloyd for 10 to bring up third and one. Ridley converts. Lloyd for another ten. Defensive holding for five yards. Pass to Welker beings up third and three. Pass to Branch… results in 15 yards with blow to the head by Ed Reed. Ridley carries it to the 4.

FOURTH QUARTER

Patriots possession:

Welker gets it to the two, but Patriots forced to settle for field goal. Patriots lead 30-21.

Ravens possession:

Pitta for four yards, then Rice for a first down. McCourty drops a pick on the next play and then a 24 yard gain to Boldin. Two Rice  runs bring up a third down on the Patriots 35. Rice stopped short on third down, and Ravens get stuffed by Chung on fourth down. Bad coaching call by John Harbaugh, given that the Ravens could have gotten the game to a one score difference.

Patriots possession:

Quick strike to Lloyd for first down. Two plays later, another first down to Welker. On third and long, Brady is incomplete to Woodhead, forcing a punt.

Ravens possession:

Backed up snide own ten, quick strike to Rice brings the ball to the 20. Holding on next play brings it back to the 10. Rice runs to the 15. Defensive holding on McCourty bails the Ravens out; another phantom call. Flacco to Jones for 21 yards, then Smith to the Patriots 42. Flacco hits Rice on a short pass and he brings it to the Patriots 10 yard line. Flacco sacked,Pena wiped out by defensive holding. Flacco hits  Smith in he end zone for a touchdown. Patriots 30 Ravens 28.

Patriots possession:

On second play, big first down catch and run by Welker. Three plays later, interception wiped out by illegal contact and automatic first down. Unsportsmanlike conduct against John Harbaugh nets 15 and another first down.Ridley for one yard and a Baltimore time-out. Patriots then take their first time-out. The crowd is pissed, but they have little room to complain; the Ravens have benefited from phantom calls all night long. Brady sacked to bring up third down. Ravens calls second time-out. Brady passes incomplete to bring up fourth down at 2:01.

Ravens possession:

Flacco to Jones for 24 yards. Pitta for short gain. Big pass to Pitta to get it to Patriots 35. Nothing for Rice inside, then an incomplete pass. Jones draws a PI call inside the 10 against McCourty… Very clear call on Devin.  Ravens kick field goal to win the game, 31-30.

FINAL SCORE: Baltimore 31 New England 30

Key Moment: Phantom defensive holding call against Patriots’ linebacker Brandon Spikes, which negated a Patriots sack of Joe Flacco by Chandler Jones and Kyle Love, and gave the Ravens a first and goal instead of a 3rd and 22 while the Ravens were still down by 9.

What should have been the key moment: John Harbaugh’s decision to go for it on fourth down despite needing to get within one score with 10:56 to go in the game. The Patriots stopped Bernard Pierce for a one yard loss, and seemingly had complete control of the game.

Game Ball: Torrey Smith, who played extremely well despite a heavy heart from losing his brother in the early morning hours prior to the game. It was a brave and gutsy performance by Smith and my heart goes out to him, despite Ray Lewis’ incomprehensible post-game comments that somehow compared the two events.

Sep 172012
 

The Baltimore Ravens were just full of quotes after their painful 24-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. The target of their crowing was the poor officiating throughout the game.

According to Joe Flacco:

“I think those guys were on us tight like that the whole game and there was a lot of holding and grabbing going on … for them to make that (offensive pass interference) call was kind of crazy,” said Flacco. “He didn’t even throw a flag. He threw a blue beanie and then put his hands in the air like offensive pass interference…I mean, come on.” According to the New York Post, Flacco said after the game that the replacement refs are “affecting the integrity of the game.” Flacco said he hates complaining because he doesn’t want to “sound like a baby,” but that it needed to be said.

And this from Ray Lewis:

“The game is played the way the game is played, but there’s some serious calls the refs missed,” Lewis said after the game. “And that’s just the way it is, man, all around the league. And that, for our league to be what it is, we have to correct that. Because these games are critical. And guys are giving everything they got all across the league, but there are calls that the regular refs, if they were here, we know the way calls would be made. For the conversations to be had the way they had on the sidelines saying ‘If the real refs were here, that could would have been made.’ That shouldn’t happen. That shouldn’t be the case around the league. But it is. And we have to deal with it.”

Ray Lewis on NFL Officiating

I have two reactions to the Ravens’ crowing. First, both Flacco and Lewis are right; the officiating on Sunday sucked all across the NFL. This is a problem that really does impact the integrity of the game, and the NFL is very close to sabotaging its own product on the field. Lewis made that point far more eloquently than Flacco did, but that leads to my second point.

Both men must realize that sounding off as they did following a Ravens’ loss, was simply not that bright. Flacco said he didn’t want to “sound like a baby”, yet that’s exactly what Flacco sounded like. What seems lost on Flacco is that the officials made poor calls both ways, and the officials were not the ones responsible for Flacco’s fumble that set up an Eagles’ touchdown, nor were they responsible for his interception that also led to an Eagles’ touchdown. Flacco was a mere 22 for 42 on the day, so coming out and blasting the refs for doing a crap job is a little like the pot calling the kettle black. Take responsibility for yourself, Joe.

Lewis was more on point by noting that all payers across the league were dealing with poor officiating, and that it impacted everyone. However, he made the mistake of isolating one play (and his interpretation of it) as a specific cause of concern. That was not wise, given the play may not have been what Lewis thought it was. Lewis would have been better off to decline comment on the topic, given the fact that the Ravens’ could gain nothing by complaining about the officiating after a loss.

And while John Harbaugh referred to the officiating in the game as “chaotic” (a much more benign term than Flacco used), he at least had the good sense to accept criticism for some questionable play-calling on the part of the Ravens’ offense. And at the end of the day, no matter how bad the officiating, the Raven’s had more control over whether or not they won the game than the officials did.

The best comment on the day over officiating came from the NFL’s former Vice President for Officiating Mike Pereira, when he tweeted “I’m officially over it. The regular refs need to get back on the field. Enough is enough.”

Amen, Mike. And at least you didn’t say it after a loss.

May 222012
 

Baltimore Ravens

Head Coach: John Harbaugh

Projected Starting Quarterback: Joe Flacco

2011 Record:  12 wins, 4 losses (1st in AFC North)

1-1 in postseason (lost in AFC Championship Game)

15th in Total Offense, 3rd in Total Defense

2002-2011 10 year record: 94 wins, 66 losses (7th in NFL)

5 wins, 6 losses in postseason

No Super Bowl appearances

1-0 All-time in Super Bowl