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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The Super Bowl By The Numbers

Super Bowl XLVII is Sunday.  I did this last year and am updating again with some more facts from this year’s game:

  • CBS will broadcast their 18th Super Bowl this Sunday.  That is more than any other network.  NBC is in 2nd place with 17 Super Bowl broadcasts.
  • Today will be Super Bowl #8 at the Superdome

    Today will be Super Bowl #8 at the Superdome

    This year’s Super Bowl will be the 8th at the Louisiana Superdome.  The city of New Orleans has now hosted 11 Super Bowls, pulling one ahead of the city of Miami for the most all-time.  Miami has hosted 5 at the Orange Bowl and 5 at Sun Life Stadium.  New Orleans hosted 3 at Tulane Stadium in addition to the 8 at the Superdome.

  • Pat Summerall has announced the most Super Bowls with 11.  Al Michaels and Dick Enberg are tied for 2nd all-time 2nd all-time when he announces his 8th Super Bowl.  John Madden has the most appearances as colour-man with 11 games.
  • Sunday’s game will be the 3rd Super Bowl that Jim Nantz and Phil Simms have called together.  This will be Simms’ 5th Super Bowl broadcast having previously called 2 with Greg Gumbel.
  • Jack Buck announced 16 Super Bowls on the radio, most all-time.
  • The Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers each have 8 Super Bowl appearances, tied for the most all-time.
  • The Steelers has 6 Super Bowl victories, which is the most all-time.  The 49ers look to match them this year.
  • There have been 6 re-matches in Super Bowl history.  The Cowboys and the Steelers are the only two teams to play each other in the Super Bowl 3 times.
  • Former Cowboy and 49er Charles Haley 5 Super Bowl rings - more than any other player

    Former Cowboy and 49er Charles Haley 5 Super Bowl rings – more than any other player

    Defensive End Charles Haley has the most Super Bowl victories with 5.  He won 2 with the San Fransisco 49ers and 3 with the Dallas Cowboys

  • One player has played in 6 Super Bowls.  Defensive lineman Mike Lodish played in 4 with the Buffalo Bills and 2 with the Denver Broncos.  Wide receiver Don Beebe played in 4 with the Buffalo Bills and 1 with the Green Bay Packers but was on injured reserve in 1997 when the Packers went to their 2nd straight Super Bowl.
  • The longest pass play in Super Bowl history was a 85 yard touchdown pass from Carolina Panthers QB Jake Delhomme to WR Muhsin Muhammad in Super Bowl XXXVIII.  The longest running play was a 75 yard touchdown run by Pittsburgh Steelers running back Willie Parker in Super Bowl XL.
  • The longest interception return was a 100 yard TD return by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison in Super Bowl XLIII.  That was also the longest play in Super Bowl history.  The longest fumble return in Super Bowl history was Dallas Cowboys’ defensive tackle Leon Lett’s infamous 64 yard fumble return in Super Bowl XXVII.  Lett fumbled the ball back to the Bills right before he reached the end zone when wide receiver Don Beebe came from behind to knock the ball loose.
  • The longest field goal in Super Bowl history is a 54 yard field goal from Buffalo Bills kicker Steve Christie in Super Bowl XXVIII.  The longest punt in Super Bowl history was a 63 yarder by Cincinnati Bengals punter Lee Johnson in Super Bowl XXIII.
  • The longest kickoff return in Super Bowl history was a 99 yard TD return by Green Bay Packers receiver Desmond Howard in Super Bowl XXXI.  The longest punt return in Super Bowl history was a 45 yard return by San Fransisco 49ers receiver John Taylor in Super Bowl XXIII.  No punt has ever been returned for a TD in the Super Bowl.
  • The highest scoring Super Bowl of all-time was Super Bowl XXIX in which the San Fransisco 49ers defeated the San Diego Chargers by a score of 49-26.  There were 75 total points scored in the game.
  • MIA K Garo Yepremian's botch lead to the Redskins' only TD in the 1972 game

    MIA K Garo Yepremian’s botch lead to the Redskins’ only TD in the 1972 game

    The lowest scoring Super Bowl in history was Super Bowl VII in which the Miami Dolphins defeated the Washington Redskins by a score of 14-7.  21 total points were scored in that one.

  • The largest margin of victory in Super Bowl history was Super Bowl XXIV in which the San Fransisco 49ers defeated the Denver Broncos by a score of 55-10.
  • The smallest margin of victory in Super Bowl history was Super Bowl XXV in which the New York Giants defeated the Buffalo Bills by a score of 20-19.
  • Don Shula has coached the most games in Super Bowl history with 6.  He coached 1 for the Baltimore Colts and 5 for the Miami Dolphins.  Chuck Noll has won the most Super Bowls as a head coach, winning 4 with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
  • The oldest coach ever to win a Super Bowl was St. Louis Rams head coach Dick Vermeil in Super Bowl XXXIV.  He was 63 years and 92 days old when he won that game.  The youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl was Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin in Super Bowl XLIII.  He was 36 years and 341 days when he won it.
  • No head coach has ever won a Super Bowl with two different teams.
  • Obviously this year’s game will be the first time that the two head coaches in the Super Bowl – Jim Harbaugh of the San Fransisco 49ers and John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens – are brothers
  • The Super Bowl has never gone into overtime.
  • The 49ers are 5-0 all-time in the Super Bowl.  They are looking for their 6th Super Bowl win which would tie them for the most all-time.  The Steelers are 6-2 in the Super Bowl all-time.
  • The Ravens are 1-0 in the Super Bowl.  Their only appearance came back after the 2000 season when they defeated the New York Giants 34-7.  Ray Lewis was the MVP of that Super Bowl.
  • Joe Montana has won Super Bowl MVP 3 times, more than anyone in Super Bowl history.  Colin Kaepernick will try to join Montana and Steve Young as a Super Bowl MVP starting quarterback for the 49ers.  In all but one of the 5 previous Super Bowl wins for the 49ers has the starting quarterback won the game’s MVP.

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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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Breaking down the mess that Peyton Manning has left in his wake

So Peyton Manning called John Elway this morning and informed him that he has decided to join the Denver Broncos.  Now the Broncos and Manning’s representation with put the finishing touches on the contract which the parameters seemed to have been established during the recruiting process.  Here’s a breakdown on how it will affect the other teams and players left in the wake:

  • Tim Tebow, current Broncos starting QB – Tebow will now be placed on the trading block.  Tebow was an exciting player last year but he still needs time to develop into the NFL game.  Elway and Fox clearly preferred a more traditional pocket passer and they jumped at the chance to acquire Manning and mitigate whatever backlash from the fan base that would be caused by jettisoning Tebow.  Now Tebow will be shopped around to other teams, some who need a QB and even some who don’t.  The best play for Tebow would be to go somewhere where he could develop but I could imagine one of the teams desperate to sell tickets, and there is two of them down in Florida where Tebow is heralded as football royalty, might make a big push to get him in and sell tickets.
  • San Fransisco 49ers – The 49ers and Alex Smith where playing a cat and mouse game that culminated in the Niners dabbling in the Peyton sweepstakes and Smith flirting with the Dolphins and the Seahawks.  You would assume that the Niners would move quickly to bring Smith back in the fold.
  • Alex Smith, current 49ers starting QB – Smith and the Niners are clearly the best fits for each other but negotiations turned south for whatever reason and led to the situation that I outlined above.  Smith looks to have two choices now – re-sign with the 49ers or essentially punish them by signing with the Dolphins.  Of course you could make the argument that he would be punishing himself if he signed with Miami.  I think cooler heads will prevail and these two sides will get back together and work things out.  You don’t fix what’s not broken and the Niners and Smith were a score away from the Super Bowl last season.
  • Tennessee Titans – They were the other runner-up in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes.  Honestly the collateral damage seems to be limited here.  The Titans made it no secret that it was an ownership call to pursue Manning and it didn’t come from the football people.  Matt Hasselbeck has always been a pro and he knows that he doesn’t have much time left in the game so he should come in and work hard like he always has.  Jake Locker shouldn’t be effected either because he was either going to develop under Hasselbeck or develop under Manning, now it should take less time for him to get in the lineup with Hasselbeck in front of him.
  • Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are in a slightly worse position than they were yesterday.  Sure they could try and acquire Tebow but there will be 30 other teams that could be in on him.  The Manning signing puts pressure on the Niners to re-sign Smith and let’s face it – if your choices are San Fransisco and Miami who would you choose?  The only hope is that the Smith/Niners relationship is damaged beyond repair but it doesn’t seem that bad at this point.
  • Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jaguars are a new entry into the QB carousel.  Like the Titans in the Manning sweepstakes the football guys would just as well go with what they have, 2nd year QB Blaine Gabbert battling it out with newly signed Chad Henne, but their is a new ownership in Jacksonville and the Jags haven’t been able to sell tickets in years.  If it comes down to an ownership call (and as we’ve seen in the past few weeks it could happen) expect Jacksonville to jump into the Tebow derby and try to bring him home.
  • Cleveland Browns – The Browns only shot at acquiring a veteran quarterback was if Peyton chose Tennessee.  Mike Holmgren would have no doubt tried to re-unite with Matt Hasselbeck but since that won’t happen they will probably sit tight.  Unfortunately for them sitting tight probably means reaching for Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill with the #4 pick.  They could jump into the Tebow derby but I doubt they will.
  • Matt Flynn/Seattle Seahawks – Matt Flynn, the other QB on the free agent market, played his situation as best he could.  He identified the two teams, Seattle and Miami, desperate for a QB that Peyton Manning wouldn’t consider.  He visited with both of them and made a call on where he felt most comfortable.  Now both Flynn and the Seahawks can sit back and watch everything else unfold.

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Best Super Bowls of all-time – #7 – Super Bowl XXIII – San Fransisco 49ers vrs. Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Montana and the San Fransisco 49ers had been one of the top teams in the NFC since they beat the Miami Dolphins 4 years prior in the Super Bowl however they had not been back to the big game since.  Boomer Esiason and the Cincinnati Bengals were a talented team who were becoming the class of the AFC.  Esiason was the league MVP however the NFC was known to have been the dominant conference back in that time and Montana and the Niners were heavy favorites in the game.

Super Bowl XXIII – San Fransisco 49ers vrs. Cincinnati Bengals – January 22, 1989, broadcast on NBC, announced by Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen

Jerry Rice made his acrobatic one-handed catch in the 1st half

The game started off auspiciously for both teams.  49ers starting offensive tackle Steve Wallace broke his ankle on the first drive of the game and had to be carted off of the field.  A few plays later Bengals defensive tackle Tim Krumrie broke a bone in his leg in two places and had to be carted off himself.  When things calmed down the Niners were driving down the field for a score.  They had a few drops deep in Cincinnati territory and had to settle for a 41 yard field goal from kicker Mike Cofer.  The Niners held the Bengals and on their next drive.  On the 49ers next drive Jerry Rice made one of the more famous catches in Super Bowl history when he caught a ball with one hand after he tipped it to himself with his other hand.  They moved the ball inside the Bengals’ 10 but safety David Fulcher stonewalled fullback Tom Rathman on 3rd and goal from the 2.  Niners’ center Randy Cross botched the snap on the field goal attempt and Cofer could not convert on the 19 yard attempt, the shortest field goal miss in Super Bowl history.  The two teams went back and forth for the rest of the half without either team being in position to score.  Finally towards the end of the first half Bengals cornerback Ray Horton took a short San Fransisco punt and returned it into 49ers’ territory to the 44 yard line.  They could only manage 28 yards on the drive but it was enough to set up kicker Jim Breech for a game tying 34 yard field goal with 1:15 left to go in the half.  That was all the scoring in the first half, the teams were tied at 3-3 going into the break.

Kick returner Stanford Jennings scored the first TD of the game in the 3rd

The Bengals took the ball to begin the 2nd half and held it for more than half of the 3rd quarter.  Esiason got the Bengals going on their first sustained offensive drive of the game but after 12 plays, 61 yards, and 9:15 of clock time all that they could muster was a 43 yard field goal from Breech to give the Bengals their first lead of the game at 6-3.  The Bengals D forced a punt on the Niners’ first possession of the 2nd half but Esiason threw an interception to linebacker Bill Romanowski on the very first play of the next drive and set the Niners up with a 1st and 10 at the Bengals’ 23 yard line.  The Niners could not generate a 1st down and they settled for a 32 yard field goal by Cofer to tie it at 6-6.  There was less than a minute left in the 3rd quarter and there was still no touchdowns in the game.  No Super Bowl had ever gone without a touchdown through the first 3 quarters.  Bengals running back Stanford Jennings made sure that this Super Bowl wouldn’t be the first.  He took the kickoff after the Cofer field goal and ran it back 93 yards for a touchdown.  It was the first TD of the game and it gave the Bengals their first lead of the game at 13-6 with a little more than a quarter to play.

John Taylor caught the game winning TD with :39 left

Montana was not rattled despite being held out of the end zone for three full quarters.  He hit a 31 yard pass to Rice to open up the next drive.  The next play was a 40 yard pass completion to running back Roger Craig.  After cornerback Lewis Billups dropped a sure interception in the end zone Montana connected with Rice from 14 yards out to tie the game at 13-13.  The Bengals went three-and-out on their next possession.  Montana went deep to Rice yet again, this time going 44 yards on a connection, but the Niners drive stalled and Cofer missed another field goal, this one from 49 yards out.  Esiason and the Bengals went right down the field on the next drive, going 10 plays and 46 yards but once again settled for a Breech field goal, this one from 40 yards out, to give the Bengals a 16-13 lead with 3:20 left to go in the game.  After a penalty on the kickoff the Niners had to start the next drive from their own 8 yard line.  Montana led the 49ers on a 11 play, 92 yard drive.  Montana and Rice keyed the drive, including a 27 yard connection on 2nd and 20 from the Bengals 45 yard line.  Montana capped off the drive by finding receiver John Taylor sliding into the back of the end zone with a 10 yard TD pass with just :39 remaining to give the 49ers a 20-16 lead.  The Bengals couldn’t pull off a miracle and Montana had his 3rd Super Bowl Championship.

Final Score:  San Fransisco 49ers 20, Cincinnati Bengals 16

Montana solidified his “Joe Cool” reputation with his performance in the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XXIII.  The Niners were well on their way to the “Team of the Decade” moniker and would solidify it with a blowout win over the Broncos in the next Super Bowl.  The Bengals have not even made it back to a championship game since the 1988 season.

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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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NFC Divisional Playoff Predictions

What a great weekend for NFC playoff games.  Any of these four teams could represent the NFC in the Super Bowl with a good shot at winning it.  The NFC may not have been this competitive since the mid 90’s.  The Saints and 49ers play in the 2 vrs. 3 game on Saturday afternoon and the Giants visit Green Bay on Sunday evening.  Here are my predictions:

New Orleans Saints (14-3) at San Fransisco 49ers (13-3), Saturday, Jan. 14th, 4:30 PM, FOX

Frank Gore looks to lead the 49ers to their first playoff win since 2002

The 49ers will play in their first playoff game since 2002, amazing considering how storied a franchise they are.  They play with a tenacious defense and pound you on the ground with Frank Gore.  Quarterback Alex Smith is a game manager, he succeeds by limiting mistakes.  The team that the 49ers are most like in the remaining playoff field is the Baltimore Ravens, which is interesting because 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and Ravens coach John Harbaugh are brothers.  The Saints surprised no one when their offense lit up the field last weekend against the Lions.  The Saints are near unstoppable at home but they are a bit more vulnerable on the road, particularly outdoors.  The weather will be comfortable in San Fransisco however so Jim won’t have the cold weather advantage that his brother John will have.  Defensively the Saints will give up points but the 49ers aren’t exactly the type of offense that lights up a scoreboard.  They’ll need to pace the offense with the ground game and try and set up play action to get tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree involved.  It’s also crucial that the 49ers offense does not commit any turnovers.  Drew Brees will take advantage of every mistake that you make.  The 49ers handled the ball well during the season but this is the playoffs and the Saints defense is postseason experienced.  The 49ers were also ball hawks on defense during the regular season but again this is a playoff game against the New Orleans Saints.  Drew Brees is as efficient as they come.  As I said last week the Saints have so many weapons and you saw firsthand if you watched the game against Detroit.  You can take Pierre Thomas and Marques Colston out of the game but you still need to account for Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, and Devery Henderson.  The 49ers are stacked on defense but even they may not be able to handle this Saints offense.  One thing I do know is that the Saints aren’t going to score 42 points this week when they play the 49ers defense in San Fransisco.  The question will be whether or not the Niners can hold the Saints to enough points to keep them in the ball game.  At the end of the day I don’t think they can.  It will be close, closer than last week’s game but I see the experienced Saints edging out the 49ers.  The Niners are definitely a team on the rise but they’re not a contender with Alex Smith at the helm.   They’ll have their taste and Harbaugh will get his QB in the off season (Peyton Manning anyone?) and the Niners will be back next year but the Saints move on here.

Prediction – New Orleans Saints 31, San Fransisco 49ers 26

New York Giants (10-7) at Green Bay Packers (15-1), Sunday, Jan. 15, 4:30 PM, FOX

Rodgers and the Packers begin their Super Bowl defense this Sunday

This has the potential to be the best game of the week.  The Packers lost only once during the regular season but they are going to come in cold (pun intended) against a red hot Giants team.  The Giants defense showed up last week and showed the rest of the NFL exactly what it is capable of.  They can rush the passer and they can smother the other team’s running game.  The Packers, however, are not the Falcons.  The Packers offense is built much like the Saints, too many threats to take account for.  They are deep at receiver with Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, James Jones, and Randall Cobb.  Jermichael Finley is a beast at tight end and they have Ryan Grant and James Starks coming out of the back field.  I haven’t even talked about Aaron Rodgers yet either.  He might be the best quarterback in the NFL right now.  If not he’s certainly one of the top 3.  He may run a dome type offense but Rodgers and co. call Lambeau Field their home so the temperatures in the teens won’t bother them too much.  They can get defensive when they need to as well, see last year’s NFC Championship game in Chicago for evidence of that.  The Giants won’t be scared of the cold either.  Eli Manning is the guy who is always left out of the conversation.  Whether it’s with his brother Peyton (he threw more yards this year than Peyton has in a single season his whole career) or with Tom Brady (he beat him head to head in a Super Bowl), or Rodgers and Brees (TBD) he always seems to get left out of those conversations, never put on the same level of those guys.  He can beat any defense on the football field though if him and his guys show up to play.  The trio of Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham have the potential to cause fits for this Packers defense.  The Giants will be able to pound the ball with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.  The could be a problem game for the Packers.  There’s a good chance that this one is going to come down to the very end.  The age old question might come into play at the end of this game – who would you rather have playing quarterback at the end of the game, Aaron Rodgers or Eli Manning?  The answer might come down to who has the ball last.  I don’t know, I’m torn on this one.  Is Green Bay a one and done?  They might be, put I’m not going to pick against them.

Prediction – Green Bay Packers 27, New York Giants 24

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