Wednesday, January 25, 2012

NFL Conference Championships

Another week is done and now we're just two weeks (and one game) away from finding out who will rule the roost in 2011/12. And then we enter the six month dark age that is the NFL off season. Let's start in the AFC.

"Tight" doesn't do this game justice. "Hanging by a thread" would perhaps be more appropriate. There has been a lot of fuss over decisions by the referees that robbed the Ravens, as well as a scoreboard malfunction that naturally has everyone looking at Bill Belichick with suspicious eyes, and there is maybe some merit in some of the arguments (about the refs at least), but ultimately the Ravens killed themselves. With the game on the line they rushed out the field goal unit with just 19 seconds on the shot clock and a timeout still on the board.

Why do you not take that timeout?

Instead you make the kicker rush out, quickly set up your unit and he bottles it. Just stupid. Just like that, in 19 seconds of crazy the Ravens threw away what had otherwise been a somewhat memorable season for them after their performances against the Steelers for example.

It was an odd game - and in many ways a sub par game - all the way through. Both quarterbacks ended up 22/36, with Flacco throwing for 306 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception, while Brady had an uncharacteristically bad day (by his standards), throwing for 239 yards and 2 interceptions. In particular Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski weren't as effective after the catch as you'd normally expect them to be.

Both defenses certainly came with their lunches packed and ready to hit. Vince Wilfork of the Patriots in particular has been drawing a lot of praise and rightfully so. He was a real force inside for New England and it showed in Ray Rices numbers; just 67 yards from 21 rushing attempts.

Ironically enough though it was a defensive mistake by the Ravens that gave the Patriots a way in for their second score. At no point it would seem did anyone see the danger that Brady might leap over the line on a quick snap from such a short distance, thus nobody was in place just behind the line to take away the quick QB dive. You just get the feeling watching that, that Ray Lewis in his prime would have been over the line the minute the ball moved and would have stuffed Brady almost before he even got airborne.

But the Pats hung in there and by a stroke of unbelievable luck they found themselves dancing in victory when just moments before they had been planning to hunker down for a tough and nail biting over time battle. That means Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are going back to the Super Bowl once more; their fifth together.

And there - unfortunately - they will meet the New York Football Giants.

Because the Harbaugh bowl was not to be, not least because neither Harbaugh made it. Honestly I'm not as disappointed as many 49ers fans, because I never expected us to be in the NFC Championship game in the first place. Hell I didn't even think we'd make the play offs. Make the play offs we did though, and now that we're out of them I kind of just accept that we had a fun run, we had a great season, and now we have a lot to look forward to in 2012/13.

We'll certainly look back on this game and see it as typical of our first season under Jim Harbaugh.

The defense put in another great showing. In particular the front three were impressive as ever, bringing pressure on Eli Manning often without need for a blitz, and when they did get help the four man rush was at times enough to over power the Giants line completely.

The offense however continued its trend throughout the season of not being all that effective. Alex Smith managed to hit his money man Vernon Davis three times for some big plays, but it just wasn't enough. There's an old phrase that gets banded around the football coaching world and that phrase is "feed your stud", as in "get the ball to the best player/s".

When you compare Davis's numbers to Giants receiver Victor Cruz who Eli Manning found 10 times for 142 yards, that really puts it into perspective. Davis was targeted 5 times in total, while Cruz got 17 shots from Manning. Michael Crabtree caught one of his four targets and Kyle Williams zero out of 4 passes on a torrid day for him personally. I think Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks wins though, catching just 5 of the 12 passes swung his way.

And this has been the challenge all season long for the 49ers. The defense may be great at coming up with big interceptions, fumbles and sacks - especially in critical moments - but you need an offense that will actually take advantage of that. Causing turnovers and forcing punts is all well and good, but 1/13 on third down (I'm not even kidding, go and look it up) is just flat out horrible (the Giants were 7/21).

Given the kind of quality the 49ers defense has produced, even an average offense like the Bengals would have been enough to win most games, and just one more touchdown could have put San Francisco through to the big game. In the end the 49ers defense came up with 6 sacks, including 2.5 sacks for the chronically under appreciated Ray McDonald, as well as forcing 12 punts out of the Giants.

Credit to the Giants defense though, they were a big part in why the 49ers came up short so often. They forced 10 punts out of San Francisco's offense, not least because of the three sacks, including 1.5 for Justin Tuck. On offense Eli Manning was just 32 of 58, though it did yield 316 yards and 2 touchdowns. Certainly it matched up favourably to Alex Smith's 12/26 for 196 yards and 2 touchdowns. 

There is one thing though that everyone is waiting for me to bring up and that would be Kyle Williams and his special teams performance. The first thing we need to do is to get some perspective. Ted Ginn.Jr is the normal returns guy, but due to injury it fell to Williams to step up. Kyle is a second year receiver who has not seen much of the football in his career so far, so his confidence is not exactly sky high, especially under the big lights.

The first mistake was pretty stupid, not getting out of the way of the punt and letting it clip his knee. The second mistake was just a basic error that is ridiculously common in the NFL (considering this is supposed to be the big league) of not tucking the ball away high and tight. It still astounds me that guys are making this mistake, young or not.

As a result Williams is getting a ton of flak for his performance and frankly I call bullshit on that. Football is the ultimate team sport. The ultimate team sport. One man very rarely wins or loses a football game. and before people start laying into Williams they need to take a long, hard look at those offensive numbers.

One of thirteen on third downs? That's chronic. Even the Browns offense would come away from a game embarrassed by that. To put it all on the shoulders of Kyle Williams is to misunderstand the nature of football and I personally have no issue with him. Alright, he had a bad day, and it just so happened that it was on the same day as the NFC Championship game. That doesn't make up for his mistakes, but it does acknowledge that it wasn't solely his fault. It was a team loss.

Meanwhile congratulations to the Giants who put on a great effort in all phases and thoroughly deserved their victory. They kept fighting, kept plugging away all game long and in the end they got their just reward. It's funny now looking at it to think that at the end of last season people were calling for Tom Coughlin to be fired, despite winning 10 games.

At the time I said that was stupid and that the Giants still had a long way to go under Coughlin, that they were still a very good team that just needed to clean up some of the issues on offense and get their D-line back to its dominant form of the past. And now here we are, 12 months later, with the Giants headed to Super Bowl 46 and a rematch with the New England Patriots.

It's going to be a hum dinger this year, I can just feel it.

Hopefully later this week I'll get a chance to throw up some diagrams of some of the plays from the weekends action. As you probably already know I'm pretty busy lately and it's only getting more so what with the draft now looming on the horizon which means I'm spending a lot of time looking at the next crop of potential NFL stars.

That also means I wont have time to cover the Pro Bowl, but then nobody cares about the Pro Bowl anyway.

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