There Were Once Great Men…

Wilson_Ralph_04_630We’ve heard all week about the saga involving Ray Rice, Roger Goodell, and the Baltimore Ravens.  It seems to have put the game of football as a whole at a cross roads.  Goodell has dug in while many have called for his resignation.  He’s ordered an internal investigation led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller but to many it isn’t enough.  There has been talk of repercussions, sponsors dropping the league, maybe even a boycott.  Maybe we just need a reminder that there were great men that brought it this sport and maybe there could be more great men who can help lead it into the future.

This Sunday will mark the first game in Buffalo Bills history that it’s founder Ralph C. Wilson won’t be around for.  He died this past March 25th at the age of 95 after 54 years of owning one of the city of Buffalo’s two major sports franchise.  Wilson originally wanted to get into the AFL in the late 50’s with the new franchise in South Florida but when the Miami team went to someone else he told AFL founder Lamar Hunt to “count me in with Buffalo”.  Over 50 years later when someone mentions the city of Buffalo football is surely brought to mind.  The passion for their football team is ingrained as a way of life in Western New York.  Wilson birthed that way of life when he founded the Bills in late 1959.

For almost 20 years the vultures have been circling around the Buffalo Bills franchise.  As far back as the early 90’s, in the middle of the Bills’ heyday as 4-time AFC Champions, there were rumors that the team would be moved to Los Angeles.  By the end of the Bills’ 4-year Super Bowl run Wilson was already 75 years old and the line of succession had already been set – Ralph Wilson’s family would sell the team upon it’s death.  Big wigs from Los Angeles, Toronto and other large metropolises sniffed around the Bills for 20 years but Ralph stand firm on his plan to hold onto the team, in Buffalo, until his death.  After his death this past March his hand-picked trust set out to carry out his plan to sell off the Bills with one very specific instruction – that the franchise does not, under any circumstance, leave Western New York.  That’s how earlier this week it came to pass that Ralph C. Wilson’s $25,000 investment in 1959 turned into a $1.4 billion entity and it did so with the team’s long term security in Buffalo as strong as it’s ever been.

wilson-ralph-kelly-jimAnd so for the first time in two decades fans of the Buffalo Bills will be going to the stadium this Sunday with the knowledge that their children will be able to come to the games and watch their home town Bills when they are their age with kids of their own.  If that’s no reason to love this game than I don’t know what is.  It’s important to remember that for every Ray Rice, Roger Goodell, and Jerry Jones there is a Bob Kalsu, a Pete Rozelle, a Ralph Wilson.  Guys like Wilson literally gave the NFL to us fans over his many years of service.  Hell, we don’t need to boycott the NFL.  We just need to take it back.

Erik Venskus

Super Bowl XLVII Preview And Prediction

Super Bowl XVLII - Ray Ray's last ride

Super Bowl XLVII – Ray Ray’s last ride

Super Bowl XLVII.  Brother vrs. Brother.  Ray Lewis’ last game.  The 49ers’ drive for 6.  There are plenty of sub-plots to this Super Bowl.  One thing you can most definitely expect between these two teams is a smash-mouth football game.  Both of these teams pride themselves on their physicality.  The Ravens defense might be a bit older and not as fast as they once were but they will still get their money’s worth when they lay a hit on their opponents.  The 49ers play a physical brand of football themselves, led by their All-World middle linebacker Patrick Willis.  The two quarterbacks matching up in this game, the Ravens’ Joe Flacco and the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick, couldn’t be any more different.  Flacco is a traditional pocket passer.  Kaepernick represents the new generation of running QBs’, guys like Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Michael Vick.  Here is how the teams match up:

When the 49ers have the ball

Kaepernick has broken out for the 49ers in 2012

Kaepernick has broken out for the 49ers in 2012

The challenge that the 49ers offense brings is their three-pronged rushing attack with 3 different looks.  Frank Gore, at 217 pounds, is the bruiser of the bunch.  5’9″, 195 lb. rookie LaMichael James comes in as the speed guy.  Then there is Kaepernick, standing at 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighing 230 lbs.  What makes things trickier is the effectiveness of the read-option.  Kaepernick can either hand the ball off to one of the running backs or keep it himself and the defense will need to be ready for either player.  Key in the defense of the read option is the play of the middle linebackers so Ray Lewis is going to have to be ready to defend that play.  Does he still have the speed to track down either the running back or quarterback out there?  We are going to see early and often tonight.  Kaepernick has a laser arm to go with his legs but the Ravens’ secondary, and Ed Reed in particular, have done a great job of keeping the passing plays in front of them all post-season long.  They held both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady without a completion in the air of more than 25 yards.  The 49ers have an awful lot of weapons to get down the field – Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Mario Manningham, Randy Moss.  It is tough to defend all of those guys in the open field.  The 49ers love to use their tight ends down the middle of the field.  It will be up to the old men – Lewis and Reed – to try and keep Vernon Davis and Delaney Walker at bay.  There has been a lot of talk about Lewis in the weeks leading up to the game and be prepared for the spotlight to be on him when the game starts as well because he really will be one of the focal points of the Ravens’ defense.

When the Ravens have the ball

The oft-criticized Flacco will look to silence his critics with a Super Bowl victory

The oft-criticized Flacco will look to silence his critics with a Super Bowl victory

Ray Rice is going to get hit in this game and he is going to get hit hard.  The 49ers may have one of the most physical front sevens in the NFL.  Aldon Smith has been quiet in the post-season and seems poised for a break-out game but the Ravens offensive line has played exceptionally well since they inserted veteran Bryant McKinnie into the starting lineup.  Expect to see a lot of Bernard Pierce, a bigger and more physical back than Rice, in the lineup as the Ravens try to match strength for strength.  Fullback Vonta Leach will also play a big role.  In the passing game we all know that Joe Flacco likes to sling it.  The 49ers have a decent secondary with Carlos Rogers and DaShon Goldson but they are susceptible down the field.  Expect Flacco to target speedster Torrey Smith early and often and tight end Dennis Pitta might be a mis-match for the incredibly overrated strong safety Donte Whitner.  The Ravens love to use Ray Rice in the passing game as well but the 49ers linebackers are very fast.  When Flacco gains confidence he is very good so the key for the 49ers defense will be to pressure him early and make him miss on his throws.  Aldon Smith NEEDS to get involved for the 49ers to have early success against Flacco and the Ravens offense.

Prediction

This is a tough one to predict.  I think that there will be a lot of defense in this game but I still think both teams can hit on big plays.  The most interesting storyline to me is that Lewis will be so important to that Ravens defense but at the same time he could be a liability out there with the speed of the 49ers offense.  You always talk about destiny and what was meant to be and all that and Ray Lewis is going to leave it all on the field and his teammates will do the same for Ray Ray’s last game.  On the flip side the 49ers are the prototypical new-age NFL team.  Fast and physical.  Clearly, at least on paper, the 49ers are the better team.  The final score will come down to what trumps all – emotion or talent.  Today I have to go with the talent.  The Ravens defense will be just a step slow to keep up with the 49ers offense.  The Niners take their 6th Super Bowl in as many tries.

Final Score Prediction: San Fransisco 49ers 28, Baltimore Ravens 24

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NFL Championship Sunday Playoff Picks

Championship Sunday is here and 3 of the 4 teams playing today were playing on Championship Sunday last year.  The Patriots, Ravens, and 49ers are all making their second trip in a row to their Conference’s respective championship game.  The Falcons are the new team in the equation, replacing last year’s eventual Super Bowl champion Giants.  The Harbaugh brothers were swept out of a chance to make the Super Bowl last year.  Will it happen again this season?

49ers QB Colin Kaepernick

49ers QB Colin Kaepernick

NFC Championship Game – San Fransisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons, 3:00 PM on FOX – The Falcons are 4-point underdogs at home to the Niners and most people don’t have much faith in the home-team.  While the Falcons got their first playoff win in the Matt Ryan-Mike Smith era last week they were practically begging the Seahawks to steal the game from them before putting it away on a last second field goal.  There was some question as to how 2nd year Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick would acclimate himself in the playoffs and he answered those questions resoundingly last week when he passed for 263 yards, ran for 181 and scored two touchdowns each through the air and on the ground.  I’m not sure if Kaepernick will match the success of his first career playoff start but the Falcons defense will need all hands on deck to stop him.  Veteran defensive end John Abraham missed the second half of last week’s game but should be good to go for this week.  Falcons cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson will try to slow down the Niners weapons on offense.  The bottom line is that while the 49ers offense can beat you the strength of their team really lies on the defensive side of the ball.  Good defense is sometimes forgotten during the post-season when guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are flinging around the rock.  The Niners have the best defense left in the tournament and it’s not really that close.  I’m going to predict that Matt Ryan and company will have a long day dealing with that San Fransisco front 7.  Michael Turner will have trouble as well.  The game will rest on the shoulders of Matt Ryan and I just don’t see him making enough big plays to win this game.  The Falcons defense won’t do enough to overcome this and the 49ers will head to their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season.

Final Score Prediction – San Fransisco 49ers 30, Atlanta Falcons 17

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick

AFC Championship Game – Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots, 6:30 PM on CBS – They’ll be a lot of cliches used to describe this game – a battle, a bar fight, a bloodbath.  I expect a great game and a close one as well.  No matter what people say about either side anytime these two teams come together they usually play it close.  The Pats are always up for big games like this and you don’t have to ask if the Ravens are going to be ready as it could be Ray Lewis’ last game.  Anyone looking for a blowout in Foxboro should go looking somewhere else.  This is going to be a close game.  I envision more points being scored in this one than last year’s 23-20 AFC final.  The Ravens are a year older on defense and aren’t the juggernaut that they have been in the past.  Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis are both hobbled but I’m guessing Lewis just gets through this one on adrenaline alone.  Ed Reed is the key.  He was quiet last week but he didn’t let Peyton Manning get anything behind him.  He’ll try to do the same with Tom Brady this week.  Defensively the Pats are better than they were last year but I still don’t see a championship caliber defense (not to say that they can’t win a championship, just not on defense alone).  There are some match-up problems for them.  Torrey Smith may be a handful like he was earlier in the season.  If the Pats play the long ball it should open up opportunities for Dennis Pitta and Ray Rice in the middle of the field.  I’ve criticized Joe Flacco a lot but he has come to play during this post-season.  I think he has another strong game today but Tom Brady will be a little bit stronger.  I think the Pats use the home-field to pull this one out but it will be by the most razor-thin of margins (no pun intended).

Final Score Prediction – New England Patriots 31, Baltimore Ravens 30

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Saturday NFL Playoff Picks

I had a good start with my playoff predictions last week going 4-0.  I’ll try to replicate my success this weekend with some good games on the slate.  Here are my picks for Saturday’s match-up

Broncos QB Peyton Manning

Broncos QB Peyton Manning

Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos (4:30 PM, CBS) – A lot of people are liking the Ravens for this game.  It is a continuation of Ray Lewis’ retirement tour and Peyton Manning is 0-3 in playoff games under 30 degrees.  It is supposed to be only about 18 degrees at kick-off.  The Ravens could be primed to go into Denver and upset the Broncos.  I’m not sure I agree with that sentiment though.  For starters those 3 games that Manning lost in the cold were all road games, this one is at home.  The Broncos have a much better defense than the Colts teams as well.  Basically it comes down to this – who do you trust more – Peyton Manning against the Ravens defense or Joe Flacco against the Broncos defense?  I take Manning every time.  Ray Rice will try to keep the Ravens in it but I think at the end of the day Manning gets it done.  Flacco will be a liability for the Ravens and will throw 2 INTs that Manning will take advantage of for TDs.  I say the Broncos take this one by 10.

Final Score Prediction:  Denver Broncos 31, Baltimore Ravens 21

Packers CB Charles Woodson

Packers CB Charles Woodson

Green Bay Packers at San Fransisco 49ers (8:30 PM, FOX) – The Niners have a very underrated defense.  They will test Aaron Rodgers and try to take away the running game and put it on Rodgers to beat them.  The problem is that Rodgers will feel comfortable in his home state of California where the conditions should be conducive to an attacking passing game.  Colin Kaepernick is a wild card in this situation.  This is his first playoff game and the pressure will be on him to keep up with the Packers’ high-powered offense.  The Niners did win a game with Alex Smith at QB last season against the Saints in the playoffs but Smith was a 7-year vet.  Kaepernick is only in his 2nd NFL season.  Most of the guys on the Green Bay roster won a Super Bowl 2 years ago and I think that experience carries them over to another NFL Championship game appearance.  It’ll be close but Green Bay’s offense will be a bit too much for the Niners to keep up with.

Final Score Prediction:  Green Bay Packers 24, San Fransisco 49ers 17

I’ll be back Sunday AM with my Sunday picks.

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NFL Championship Weekend Predictions

The time has come for me to make my picks.  It should make for an exciting championship weekend, as the two games are far better match-ups than people may give them credit for.  My favorite storyline of the weekend is the young upstart Harbaugh brothers, 49 year old John in his 4th season with the Ravens and 48 year old Jim in his 1st season with the 49ers, going against 59 year old Bill Belichick, with 17 seasons and 175 wins (most among active coaches) under his belt and Tom Coughlin, with 16 seasons and 129 wins (4th most among active coaches) under his.  A lot of people expect to see a 2007 rematch between longtime rivals and coaching mates Belichick and Coughlin but I wouldn’t be too quick to count the Harbaugh bros. out just yet.  They are tough games to pick but here are my predictions for Championship Sunday:

AFC Championship Game – Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at New England Patriots (14-3), 3:00 PM (CBS)

Tom Brady will play in his 6th AFC Championship game

The top two seeds meet in Foxboro on Sunday to determine the AFC representative in the Super Bowl.   The Patriots have averaged 40 points in the last 4 games but two of those games were against the same opponent, the Denver Broncos.  I am, a bit surprisingly to be honest, in the minority that think that the Patriots have not been tested enough this year.  The Baltimore Ravens were the 3rd best defense in both points and yards allowed this season.  The only defense the Patriots played all year that had a statistically better defense was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were 1st in both yards and points per game.  The Pats only managed 17 points against them.  There’s been a myth perpetuated in the last few weeks that the Broncos had a good defense because they had two guys that racked up a lot of sacks..  They were 20th in yards per game and 24th in points per game.  In other words they weren’t very good.  The other team they faced in the last 4 games was the Buffalo Bills who were 26th in yards per game and 30th in points per game.  Meanwhile the team that they didn’t score 40 points against, the Miami Dolphins, were 15th in total yards and 6th in total points.  The point is despite the offensive proficiency throughout the season the Pats’ production seemed to drop off against better defenses.  A lot of people are expecting big numbers for the Pats offense this Sunday.  I am not.  Does that mean that I am picking the Ravens to win?  Not necessarily.  How for real is the Patriots defense that we saw last week against the Broncos?  Let’s go back to the numbers.  The Broncos’ offense was 23rd in yards per game and 25th in points per game for the regular season.  Contrast that with the Ravens who were 15th in yards per game and 12th in points per game.  The Ravens are a far more versatile team on both sides of the ball.

Terrell Suggs has been a thorn in Brady's side

Obviously the key for the game is Ravens running back Ray Rice.  The Ravens were 10th in rushing yards per game during the regular season.  The Patriots were 17th in rushing yards given up per game.  It will be a tough match-up and Rice has had success against the Pats in the past.  Receiver Anquan Boldin will be a tough match-up for the Pats as he is a superior route runner and the Pats DB’s have struggled in one-on-one match-ups with receivers like Boldinall season.  Joe Flacco can’t make mistakes, if he turns the ball over he might lose the game for the Ravens.  Obviously the way to neutralize Tom Brady is to put on a pass rush and make him uncomfortable in the pocket.  Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs has had a great deal of success against Brady and the Pats.  The Ravens are strong up front so one of the more intersting match-ups will be the middle linebackers and safeties of the Ravens vrs. the tight ends of the Pats.  Brady had better watch out if Ed Reed is shadowing Rob Gronkowski all game because, as T.J. Yates found out last week, if you keep throwing it Ed Reed’s way he’ll eventually get his hands on one.  Like Flacco Brady will have to play flawless football because a turnover may gave the Ravens offense the extra opportunity that they need to make a play to win the game.  The receivers will be important this game for Brady as they may have to use the outside of the field more.  That means they need big games from Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco.  The x-factor for the Ravens defense may be safety Bernard Pollard (yes, that Bernard Pollard).  He is the weak link up the middle for the Ravens but he is still pretty good.  Ultimately this game will come down to turnovers and pressure on the quarterback.  Flacco was harassed all day by the Texans front 7, but they are a much superior to the front 7 than that of the Pats.  Brady had all day to throw last week but the Ravens are much more stout than the Broncos on defense.  This game is going to be close.  I don’t see the Patriots scoring more than 24 points in the game.  The question is can the Ravens score 24 points or more in the game?  I am going to go very conservative with this pick and say that both teams play a clean game and Brady makes at least one more play than Flacco for a Pats win.  I can see it going the other way too though.  Maybe whoever has the ball last.  Either way I am expecting a good game, not a blowout this Sunday at Gillette.

Prediction: New England Patriots 24, Baltimore Ravens 21

NFC Championship Game: New York Giants (11-7) at San Fransisco 49ers (14-3), 6:30 PM (FOX)

Patrick Willis will have to keep the Giants ground game in check

21 years ago these two teams faced off in a great showdown between Bill Parcells’ Giants and George Seifert’s 49ers.  The Giants won that game without even scoring a touchdown on Matt Bahr’s game winning last second field goal.  The Giants won that day by a score of 15-13.  While I expect a few more points to be scored this weekend look for defense to reign again in San Fransisco.  The Niners were consistently good all season on defense.  They finished 4th in the NFL in yards given up per game and 2nd in points given up per game.  The Giants were a mess on defense most of the year due to injuries and underachievement.  They were 27th in yards given up per game and 25th in points per game.  The Giants defense has heat up in the last month however.  They got one of their injuries linebackers, Michael Boley, back for the playoffs and might get another, Mark Herzlich, back for this game.  Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Uymeniora, and Mathias Kiwanuka have all stepped up their games considerably these past few weeks.  They always had the talent to do it and now it’s showing.  They match up well against the 49ers.  The Niners receivers are nothing special, there are no Jerry Rice’s on this team.  That’s good for the Giants because their weakness on defense is on the edges.  Frank Gore is key for the Niners, much like Ray Rice is for the Ravens.  If Gore gets going that will open up play action and Alex Smith will be able to use the middle of the field with Vernon Davis.  The Giants need to get pressure on Smith and force a mistake.  Smith is a game manager, much like Joe Flacco, and if he turns the ball over then he is not doing his job.  Look for the Giants to bring heavy pressure early.

Victor Cruz went from Zoomass to the NFC Championship Game

On the other side of the field it is all about Eli Manning.  Much like his brother and Tom Brady he will pick you apart if you don’t get pressure on him.  Manning has three dependable targets in Victor Cruz, Mario Manningham, and Hakeem Nicks.  He likes to use Bear Pascoe and Jake Ballard in the middle of the field.  The Niners have to get the Smith brothers from another mother going quickly.  Justin Smith can get pressure from any spot on the line and Aldon Smith is one of the best hybrid end/linebackers to come into the league in the last few years.  The 49ers secondary is pretty good but you can beat Donte Whitner with your tight ends and their top cornerback Carlos Rogers is a gambler.  If a Nicks or a Cruz can get behind him then it’s off to the races.  The 49ers will key in on stopping running backs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.  They will try to make Eli Manning beat them on his own.  Not that he can’t do it, but it will make it easier for the Niners to game plan for just Eli and not Eli and the running game.  Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman were key in stopping the run and keeping everything in front of them last week against the Saints.  They will need to do the same thing this week against the Giants offense.  Still, this Giants run looks eerily similar to the one of 2007.  If you don’t remember they beat Green Bay in Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game and went on to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.  But this is a new year and the Niners are a different opponent.  I need to apologize to Alex Smith for expressing doubt in his ability to lead the Niners deep into the playoffs.  He played a hell of a game last weekend against the Saints, particularly in the 4th quarter, but I have to admit that he has not totally swayed me.  The Giants represent a different kind of challenge than the Saints.  They will bring more pressure.  Last week Gregg Williams had to dial up blitz after blitz to generate pressure on Smith which led to more favorable one-on-one match-ups down the field for the 49ers.  The Giants will put pressure on you with a 4 man front which means they can double team and put a shadow on tight end Vernon Davis.  Eli Manning will face a far tougher test this week when he faces the 49ers but Eli has proven himself to be a big game quarterback.  I know people in New England are dying for a 2007 re-match and I hate to appease the masses but I think that Eli and the Giants will be too much for the Niners who will turn the ball over at least twice.  Like I said earlier, I can see the Ravens winning and likewise I can see the 49ers winning this one, especially in their home stadium but I have to go with the Giants on this one with a gun to my head.

Prediction: New York Giants 27, San Fransisco 49ers 20

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