Thursday, January 17, 2013

Zach's Fearless Playoff Predictions: Conference Championships

          Doris Kearns Goodwin has been in the news lately, since her Lincoln biography Team of Rivals was adapted into a film starring DanielPlainview and now seems likely to win Best Picture.  She was also in the most recent installment of Ken Burns’ Baseball, where she talked about how, as a Boston Red Sox fan, there came a point in the 2003 ALCS when she simply couldn’t take the pressure of the postseason anymore:

Goodwin: The tension is so great for me that I’m embarrassed to admit that when the other team is up in a close game I cannot even watch the game.  I run out of the house sometimes and I know that’s crazy.  You have this sense that as long as you don’t watch, something bad is not going to happen.  And then you just pray that by the time you come back, your worst fears will not be realized, and you’ll suddenly see them up to bat again.  I mean, it makes no sense at all.

            I agree with Goodwin.  If you’re not watching a game, something good has to happen, right?  Going into this weekend, I had a vision: The Seahawks would stomp over the Falcons, then march into San Francisco and overwhelm the untested Colin Kaepernick, and romp my beloved Patriots in the Super Bowl.  This vision was a nightmare that seemed to close to comfort.  So remembering Goodwin’s insight, I decided I would try my hardest to make the Seahawks lose.  I would not watch Sunday morning’s game.  I would reverse jinx them by picking them to beat the Falcons by 20 in my column last week, and I even put money on them winning in a three team tease along with Baltimore beating Denver and the Patriots winning by 10.  If I won, I’d win a sizeable sum of cash.
            Well of course the Ravens and Patriots covered, and Matt Bryant provided me with the happiest feeling I’ve ever experienced at not winning $500.  Goodwin was right and my reverse jinx worked.  I truly believe that had the Seahawks defense maintained their composure on those final two Matt Ryan passes and not taken advice from the Broncos’ secondary the night before, Seattle would win the Super Bowl XLVII.  So on behalf of nervous Seahawk haters everywhere, I thank you for your continued support.  Keep it the good mojo through next season, when they go through a sophomore slump!
            Now that good has overcome evil once more, let’s continue with this weekend’s predictions.

            San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons (-4)
            Sunday, January 20, 3:00pm EST, FOX

            There are two ways to look at the Falcons’ insane win over the Seahawks.  The first would be to say that Atlanta had a supremely lucky game with a few huge breaks toward the end.  Seattle had two huge errors in the 2nd quarter in their failures to convert on 4th and 1 or score a single point in the last few seconds, with the ball at the Atlanta 6.  As a team, the Falcons ran for 167 yards, by far their highest game total all season; additionally, Michael Turner only had more rushing yards in two other games all year, and Jacquizz Rodgers had a career-best rushing game.  As a result of their successful rushing attack (due undeniably in large part to the absence of Chris Clemons), the pressure was off Matt Ryan, who still threw two interceptions and whose fourth quarter stat line (prior to his final two completions) read 2/5, 3 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT.
             If you’re an Atlanta fan, you have to be concerned about your defense.  Prior to Sunday’s game, Russell Wilson had never passed for more than 300 yards; on Sunday, he had 385 yards through the air. As a team, the Seahawks totaled 491 yards (the only other time Seattle eclipsed this number was their 58-0 victory over the Cardinals).  This was the 7th time this season Atlanta has given up more than 400 yards to an opponent, although their record in those games is somehow 5-2.  Like Seattle, the 49ers have a mobile quarterback, grinding running game, and better linemen.  They played a tougher schedule and have more playoff experience. 
            So, as stated above, that’s one way to look at the game.  But another way is to say that Seattle was playing the best football of any team going into last week, did not seem affected by the air travel as evidenced by the Redskins game two weeks ago, and this was by far the Falcons’ most impressive win (previously they had faced only two playoff teams all year).  I mean, they were up 27-7 in the fourth quarter.  And the Seahawks were the team that beat San Francisco by 29 points four weeks ago, remember?
            Let’s stick with the latter view for a second and consider the relatively few quality arguments for why the Falcons will win Sunday.  Atlanta now moves to 9-1 on the season at home (their one loss being a meaningless Week 17 defeat to the Buccaneers), while San Francisco is 5-3 on the road.  In their last four road games, San Francisco has surrendered an average of 28.3 points, which is just below their average points allowed per game in the playoffs during the Harbaugh regime.  The 49ers have not played a road playoff game since January 2003, and haven’t won a road playoff game since 1989 (when Colin Kaepernick was two years old).  Sunday’s win gave Matt Ryan his seventh game-winning drive this season, tying him for the all-time single season record.  San Francisco hasn’t won in Atlanta since 2001. 
            It’s also still questionable how healthy the 49ers really are at this point.  But most of the serious concerns about Justin Smith, Dashon Goldson, and Vernon Davis were alleviated with Saturday night’s demolishing of the Packers.  To say they were dominant in that game is an understatement; Colin Kaepernick alone had more passing yards and rushing yards than the Packers team combined.  Yes, he had the early interception return, but you could commend Kaepernick for overcoming early adversity.  They didn’t panic, and in spite of putting up 45 points and 579 total yards, they still technically played a rather typical conservative-style 49ers offense.  They rushed the ball 43 times, did not attempt any 4th down conversions, did not turn the ball over after the interception, and dominated time of possession (38:01 to 21:59).  All of this against a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and a team which had only lost twice in their last 12 games.
            The question is how likely it is that we will see a repeat performance of what Kaepernick showed us Saturday.  The answer is that of course it is not likely (remember that 181 rushing yards was the most ever by a quarterback in any game).  But after watching this guy, how can you believe any defense, let alone the Falcons’, can entirely contain him?  Like Russell Wilson, he doesn’t make mistakes and has an uncanny instinct when deciding whether to run or pass.  Unlike the 5”11’, 204-pound Wilson, Kaepernick has the size and build of a wide receiver (6”5’, 233 pounds) and isn’t a rookie.  Last week seemed like an illustration of what he could do every week given a healthy offense.
            Here’s a couple more interesting thoughts.  This weekend, I noticed there is a pattern with eventual NFC Champions and the way they play in the divisional round.

NFC Champion
Margin of victory in Divisional Round
2011 New York Giants
17 (Defeated Green Bay 37-20)
2010 Green Bay Packers
27 (Defeated Atlanta 48-21)
2009 New Orleans Saints
31 (Defeated Arizona 45-14)
2008 Arizona Cardinals
20 (Defeated Carolina 33-13)

Average: 23.75 points

            Notice that these results tend to be a bit one-sided?  Now, let’s look at the team which lost the NFC Championship and how they played in the divisional round:

NFC Runner-Up
Margin of victory in Divisional Round
2011 San Francisco 49ers
4 (Defeated New Orleans 36-32)
2010 Chicago Bears
11 (Defeated Seattle 35-24)
2009 Minnesota Vikings
31 (Defeated Dallas 34-3)
2008 Philadelphia Eagles
12 (Defeated New York 23-11)

Average: 14.5 points

            With the exception of 2009, when both the Saints and the Vikings won their divisional games in 31-point blowouts, the NFC Champion was involved in a blowout the week before.  In the cases of New York, Green Bay, and Arizona, their divisional game was on the road.  Now let’s think for a second – what does a blowout win really mean for a team?  For one thing, it gives you confidence; it makes you believe that if you are beating one playoff team by three touchdowns, then you can reasonably beat any playoff team.  Blowout wins also enable teams to rest their starters and retain their most effective play calls until a future close 4th quarter.  It simultaneously gives you confidence, experience, and momentum.
            On the contrary, the team that wins the close game expounds so much energy in their victory that maybe they are left complacent.  These teams are just happy to have a single playoff win in dramatic fashion, since these particular four playoff teams (along with the Falcons this year) had not won a postseason game in at least four seasons prior to their divisional victory.  This may have been the cases especially with San Francisco (who few people really thought would beat the Saints) and Philadelphia (who were happy to savor in the defeat of their most heated rival; although had the ’08 Eagles reached the Super Bowl, it would have made Bradley Cooper believe his romance with Jennifer Lawrence was blessed by the sports gods).
            The Falcons finally proved to their fans they can win in the playoffs. Good for them.  They won against a team which would have beat them on a neutral field, had an exhilarating game-winning drive and field goal, and somehow overcame what would have been one of the biggest fourth-quarter choke jobs in NFL history.  Atlanta fans are content with miraculously avoiding the labels “team that went 0-4 in the playoffs” and “team with the biggest playoff collapse this side of Frank Reich.”  The 49ers know they can win in the playoffs against quality opponents, and are ready to take it to the next level.  A 49ers win would also continue my favorite factoid, which is that since 2006, every NFC champion played the Patriots during the regular season.  This is an easy call.

            Prediction: San Francisco 27, Atlanta 10

"And he grew up to be Keanu Reeves."
            Playoff doppelganger: 2010 NFC Championship, Green Bay 21, Chicago 14.  Aaron Rodgers came in on an incredible hot streak (4 TDs, 136.8 QB rating the week before at Atlanta), and although he and the offense did not play up to the level of their previous games, the inexperienced home team (led by Jay Cutler and the inimitable Caleb Hanie) was no match.  The Packers were dominant on both sides of the ball, and the more you watched that team, the more you realized that no team could adequately match up against them.

            Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots (-8.5)
            Sunday, January 20, 6:30pm EST, CBS

            Like the Falcons, you can read the Ravens’ dramatic, improbable, double-overtime win as either a case of extreme luck and good fortune, or just a very good team in Denver simply getting beat by a better team in Baltimore.  I tend to take two main, related points from Saturday’s game: Baltimore and Denver were extremely evenly matched, and as a Patriots fan, playing the Ravens in Foxboro is not dramatically different than traveling to Denver to play the Broncos.  You could argue that Denver was fortunate to even be in the game, since 14 of their points somehow came on kickoff returns against the league’s top-ranked special teams unit; but how could you say the Ravens weren’t lucky in the ways they scored game-tying touchdowns in the final seconds of each half?
            It’s difficult to adequately critique the Ravens because, frankly, they’re a little strange and the numbers don’t paint a complete picture.  For example, Ray Rice appeared to have a good game statistically against Denver (30-131 yards, 1 TD).  But doesn’t it seem like the running game got one-dimensional as the game went on, and the Broncos successfully sniffed out those stupid Rice runs up the middle?  On runs up the middle, Rice had 14 attempts for 72 yards.  But take away his game-best 32 yard run, and that number goes to 13-40 (3.0 yards per rush).  Bernard Pierce was ineffective, and only four of the team’s 21 first downs were gained on the ground.
            Fortunately for the Ravens, Joe (Flacco) and the passing game bailed them out.  The deep throws worked in particular, as the Denver secondary fell asleep with Baltimore scoring three touchdowns on passing plays of 32+ yards.  The vaunted Bronco defensive line, which led the NFL in sacks, was unable to supply pressure on Flacco.  The Ravens defense, on the other hand, was blessed with defending a banged up running game sans Knowshon Moreno, and a 36-year-old quarterback who gave his best Brett Favre imitation.  They shouldn’t expect the same when they travel to Foxboro.
            Let’s think back to the last time the Patriots and the Ravens met, week three in Baltimore.  At that point, the Patriots’ secondary looked very different.  They did not have Aqib Talib, and Devin McCourty was playing cornerback alongside Kyle Arrington and Patrick Chung.  That night, they gave up 382 yards on 28 completions and three touchdowns to Joe Flacco, and the Patriots blew a nine-point lead with just over four minutes remaining in the game.  They surrendered 161 of those passing yards in the fourth quarter alone.  Torrey Smith in particular burned the Pats secondary, with 127 yards and two touchdowns.  The Patriots gave up a season-high 503 yards; New England was 7-0 in all other games where they gave up 400+ yards.
            But since that game, Talib joined the team and both him and a rookie named Alfonzo Dennard have stepped up huge, proving that the best antidotes to a horrendous defense are Jayhawks and Cornhuskers, naturally.  Meanwhile, McCourty has transitioned into one of the league’s premier safeties.  Gone are the days of Ras-I Dowling and Sterling Moore; this is a secondary which, since Talib became a Patriot eight games ago, has held opponents to an average of 19 points per game and has forced 11 interceptions.  They gave up 28 points and 343 passing yards to the Texans, but much of that offense came after the Pats opened up a 25-point fourth quarter lead.  Talib did have an interception when he played against the Ravens in 2010 as a Buccaneer.
            On the other side of the ball, Tom hasn’t exactly been spectacular against Baltimore.  In his seven games against the Ravens, he has 7 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.  But he is 5-2 against them, although four of those wins were by six points or less.  Joe Flacco is 2-3 against New England, but his touchdown to interception ratio is 9 to 4.  Every Patriot fan with memories of 2009 still has nightmares of Ray Rice running up the middle for 80 yards and the Ravens taking a 24-0 first quarter lead.  In his five games against New England, Rice has an average of 103.6 yards. 
            So in other words, the Patriots tend to struggle offensive and defensively against the Ravens, but somehow still win games, even if Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff are to blame. So why should we believe that the results will be different against an improved Patriots defense?  Granted, Rob Gronkowski is injured, which is a major blow to the offense.  But the reality is, when Gronkowski is gone and the pace of the game is slowed (with more of an emphasis on the ground game and short out passing patterns), the Patriots’ defense stays off the field, resulting in fewer points given up.  On the other side of the ball, in the last two weeks, the Ravens have given up 272 yards rushing to opponents – and these yards were gained by the likes of Vick Ballard, Ronnie Hillman, and Jacob Hester.  Either those guys are much better than people think, or the Baltimore defensive line is beginning to wear thin.
            Then there is the symbolic factor.  The Ravens want Ray Lewis to go out as a champion.  If you don’t believe this is important for this franchise, think again.  But is that hunger any less intense than Tom Brady’s desire to win his fourth title (tying him for the all-time record) at the stadium where he won his first, against (potentially) the team he idolized as a kid growing up in Northern California?  I guess the answer depends on which team you’re pulling for.  Like the Falcons, Ravens’ fans will have a great story to tell future generations, about the old man going into Denver as a double-digit underdog and beating them in five quarters.  They’ve won their biggest game of the season, and it was exhilarating.  Tom Brady still has miles to go before he sleeps.

            Prediction: New England 30, Baltimore 20

"And he grew up to be Louie Anderson."
            Playoff Doppelganger: 1993 AFC Championship, Buffalo 30, Kansas City 13.  Had to go back deep into the history books for this one, but stay with me a second.  Joe Montana was trying to go out with one more ring on a Chiefs team with Marcus Allen and Dave Krieg (the average age of that team was 56.7 years).  Buffalo was vying for its fourth straight AFC title, and fans were getting sick of them getting to the Super Bowl and laying an egg.  Of course, that exact thing happened a couple weeks later, permanently scarring the emotions of Bills fans like Vincent Gallo and Anjelica Houston in Buffalo ’66.
            (Side note completely unrelated to this game: Do people realize that Silver Linings Playbook is the exact same movie as Buffalo ’66?  It’s beyond uncanny.  Watch the opening scene from Buffalo ’66.  It’s the exact same shit.  I mean, Christina Ricci and Jennifer Lawrence both play dancers for chrissake!  Gallo and David O. Russell are both assholes in real life.  Can someone create a GIF or a picture comparing these two movies like they did with Avatarand Pocahontas and BenjaminButton and Forrest Gump?  A few months ago, the odds of Vincent Gallo significantly affecting the Best Picture race seemed about as likely as Kevin Kolb affecting the Patriots’ and Seahawks’ playoff seedings.  Oh wait.  The Mayans did get their revenge in 2012 somehow.)

Thoughts? Disagreements? Are there Seahawks fans who want to viciously attack me like Nikki Minaj attacks Mariah on American Idol? Let me know below.

(UPDATE: I bit the bullet and made my own Silver Linings Playbook-Buffalo '66 illustration, which I've included below. I'm still thinking of ways to make it funnier.)


  1. Knowing that someone can have completely irrational hatred of the Hawks makes me happy. Means that we have arrived once again. And what exactly is the sophomore slump you speak of? Pretty sure only DangerRuss has a strong impact on how we play, and given the fact that he was already breaking down film on the flight back from Atlanta...don't count in him ever falling into that trap. The kid is obsessed with football. Being called the next Peyton Manning is not something you hear very often. We are here to stay, bud.

    The Niners were probably rooting hard for Seattle last weekend to get a home game and another shot at the team who physically dominated them twice this year. They are so lucky that they do not have to play them again. It is a little absurd that San Fran is favored in Atlanta, but that just shows how overrated that team has become. They played bad to close the year against Arizona with the bye in the line. Got raped by the Seahawks. They put up some points against one of the worst team defenses ever in the last few And saying those guys have more playoff experience than the Falcons is completely false. The Falcons continue to baffle every person who tries to analyze them, and that trend will continue this weekend. 32-28 Good Guys.

    The Pats and Ravens meet again, but Billy Cundiff is not walking through that door! No need to break it down...we all know the Ravens winning it all is destiny. Joe outplays Tom as usual. Just for your sake, Zach, your boy Ed Dixon catches the clinching TD reminiscent of the beautiful Sydney Rice catch against NE earlier this year. The Birds take it 23-21 for another soul-crushing loss to add to the scrapbook.

    Oh, and I still have never seen Buffalo 66...I really need to get in that!

  2. Haha, I figured this article would piss you off. For the record, my irrational hatred of Seattle does not mean they've arrived, it only means when the Stealers go 8-8 and miss the playoffs, I need a different scapegoat. It is also so easy to root against Pete Carroll. Did you see how full of shit he was when he "claimed" to the refs that he didn't know who called timeout to ice Matt Bryant? Someday he'll do an interview with Oprah where he reveals his lies.

    The 49ers played bad against the Cardinals? They won comfortably by 14! And if I remember correctly, the Seahawks needed a late completion to Tate to beat the Rams! Yes the Falcons are baffling, but I feel like even that sentence is a euphemism for how bad they are.

    Here's what the final four teams would be if they were Best Picture nominees:

    Patriots- "Lincoln" (Odds-on favorite, Spielberg and Day-Lewis, Field have won multiple times, the disappointing result if you like upsets and surprises.)

    Ravens- "Argo" (No one actually wants to think of Joe Flacco as a Super Bowl winning QB just like they don't want to think of Ben Affleck directing a Best Picture.)

    49ers- "Silver Linings Playbook" (San Francisco has never lost a Super Bowl when they get there, just like the Weinsteins have never lost when they contend for Best Picture. Plus, just as the 49ers just lost to the Seahawks, "Silver Linings" was handily defeated at the Golden Globes by "Les Miserables")

    Falcons- "Life of Pi" (Had a lot of victories/nominations, but there's no way it can win. Have that many people actually seen this movie/watched this team play?)

  3. It is not just you. There was that article on Grantland by the Atlanta fan doing his Simmons-esque emotional roller coaster article for the game, which in the comments section became a massive hatred display toward the Seahawks. "I have hated them ever since they ruined my season back in..." kind of stuff. Usually it is, "I can't root against Seattle. They are just another team..." We finally have an identity, and if people hate us, then I am on board.

    Yes, the Niners played bad against the Cards. Don't just look at the box score. Their offense can be very stagnant when playing a capable defense. And the Rams were the most underrated team of the year. They basically beat the Niners twice and the Hawks once. Ask the Patriots how they fared against those two teams...

    And I dig your comparisons, especially since we both know that Argo is going to win it all!

    And by the way, I know that Pete was not asking who called the timeout. He clearly did and he is smart enough to know that a camera would be on him at that moment. What he was mad about was why they let the kicker still practice the kick when he clearly called the timeout and they whistled it dead before they were set. That is what pissed me off too, but watching the Ravens game last week, I guess you can just run onto the field and practice field goals at any time.