Throughout my life as a sports fan I’ve come to learn two things as fact. Sports always break your heart. And they always make it better. This is not to say that your favorite team will go winless or win its respective championship, but there will be bad times and good times. Highs, as well and lows. (That is, unless you’re a Cleveland Browns or Kansas City Chiefs fan. Then it’s just mostly lows.) In all seriousness, if you’re lucky to live long enough, you will no doubt experience both.
Flash back to January 3, 1999, where the Green Bay Packers visited the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC Wild Card game at Candlestick Park. The Packers, led by future Hall of Fame QB Brett Favre, were coming off of back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and looked to extend their streak of deep playoff runs. The 49ers, looking to avenge playoff losses to Green Bay in the previous three seasons, were led by a future Hall of Fame QB of their own in Steve Young.
In a game that featured a flurry of turnovers, the 49ers took a 23-20 lead with 6:16 left in the 4th quarter, then intercepted Brett Favre on a typical what-the-F-is-Favre-doing-lobbing-that-ball-up-in-the-air-so-late-in-such-a-big-game throw. After failing to convert a first down, the 49ers punted and the Packers took over on their own 11-yard line with 4:19 remaining. This time, Favre delivered his typical Brett-Favre-is-a-gunslinger-with-no-fear 4th quarter come backs, capped by a touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman (yes, this Antonio Freeman) with just 1:55 to play.
Steve Young then drove the 49ers the length of the field on an equally epic and impressive drive (see side note*) capped by a miraculous throw and catch from Young to Terrell Owens for the game-winning touchdown with only seconds left. Owens – who had dropped four catches that day and fumbled once – cried like a baby from sheer emotion as he was mobbed by his teammates. As a 12-year old Packers fan at the time, I sobbed right along with him.**
*Side note: I just want to take a moment for the obligatory Packer fan rant about this game. On the final drive, before Steve Young found ‘T-O’ for the game-winning touchdown (heck, before we started calling him ‘T-O’ and not Terrell Owens), JERRY RICE FUMBLED! Plain as day, he fumbled. Even John Madden, with his astute observation skills, can be heard pointing out that his knee was not down before the ball came out. Of course, instant replay wasn’t reintroduced until the very next season, so the catch stood and the rest is history. NFL Films regularly re-broadcasts this game as one of the ‘Greatest Games in NFL History’. Owens’ catch is now referred to throughout San Francisco as ‘The Catch II’. Packer fans everywhere just remember how Jerry Rice fumbled the football.
** I actually don’t recall if I cried or not, but if there is somehow secret video footage taken during that moment and it appeared that there was maybe a chance I was crying, I wouldn’t deny it.
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This Saturday, just over 14 years since ‘The Catch II’, the Packers visit the 49ers at Candlestick once again in the first playoff matchup between these two teams since that miraculous catch. The setting and the colors are the same, but a lot has changed since that historic January day in 1999. The 49ers struggled for almost a decade to mirror the success of the 1990s, while the Packer have consistently been one of the most successful teams in the NFL. Now, lead by a different future Hall of Fame quarterback, they return to Candlestick to seek vengeance for the ghost of teams past and Packer fans everywhere.
As a native of Chico, California, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers grew up cheering for Joe Montana and the 49ers. San Francisco starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick, born in Milwaukee before moving out to California as a kid, loved Brett Favre and the Packers. On Saturday, the two will face each other, as well as their former favorite teams. Sports are weird like that.
Sports are funny in another way, too. They provide opportunities for redemption, not just for players, but for fans as well. Sports give us hope that even if we leave one game brokenhearted that sometime down the line we will be elated – reimbursed for our past sacrifices, if you will. For Packer fans, the next chance comes on Saturday night, 14 years later. Who will win? I can’t tell you for sure (see my pick below). All I know is that some fans will be ecstatic that their team is moving on, while others will feel dejected as another season comes to an end. As fans, there are no guarantees as to whether we’ll be on the winning or losing side. What is certain, however, is that more games will be played in the future, which will provide more opportunities for elation, heartbreak, vindication, and vengeance. Sports are great like that.
Also, Jerry Rice fumbled.
Divisional Playoff Picks
(Home teams in CAPS. All lines per Sportsbook.com as of 7:00 pm on Thursday, January 10th.)
DENVER (-10) over Baltimore
Like the Patriots/Texans match up (see below), this game features two teams who have played fairly recently, with the Broncos clobbering the Ravens 34-17 in Baltimore in Week 15. Denver has won 11 straight and seems destined to meet New England for another Manning-Brady epic in the AFC Championship game.
On the other hand, Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis is playing in what could be the final game of an undoubtedly Hall of Fame career. His Ravens teammates will likely be playing at a high level with the hopes of extending his career by at least one more game. The one problem is that I just don’t trust Joe Flacco to go into Denver and beat Peyton Manning the way Manning is playing right now, unless the Ravens defense can get pressure on Manning and force him into multiple turnovers.
But that’s the problem. If there are two things Peyton Manning excels at, they are (1) taking care of the ball, and (2) reading the defense and making the necessary changes at the line of scrimmage. He has proved all of the doubters wrong this season and is playing at an MVP-caliber level.
While I think this game will be competitive throughout, Manning is just too consistent and too solid. He will lead the Broncos to a lead and mix in the running game to control the clock. With a lead, the Broncos defense, led by Von Miller, can put a lot of pressure on Joe Flacco and make it difficult for him to get comfortable in the pocket and force him to play catch-up.
Prediction: Denver 34, Baltimore 21
Green Bay (+3) over SAN FRANCISCO
In my 22+ years as an NFL fan, I cannot recall any games off the top of my head that I was less sure of who would win than this one. One minute I feel like the 49ers are just way too solid to lose, while the next I am scolding myself for ever doubting Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. After all, they’ve already proven they can win on the road against good teams en route to a championship, so why should this year be any different?
After much thought and reflection, I have decided to focus on the things I know for sure and use them to help formulate a well-thought-out prediction.
(1) Aaron Rodgers is on an unprecedented roll and finally has his entire stable of receivers back
Over the past two seasons, Aaron Rodgers has set an NFL record for QB rating for a two-season span for 2011 and 2012. He’s simply performed at a level that has been unmatched by any other NFL QB. Even in 2012, considered a ‘down’ year by many, Rodgers has put up the following numbers:
371 / 552, 4,295 yards, 39 TD, 8 INT, 108.0 QB rating
That’s a down year? If any other QB in the NFL puts up those numbers this season, he would be considered a front-runner for the MVP award (see: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady). Considering the fact that Rodgers was without top wide-out Greg Jennings for over half the season, as well as the fact that Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb also each missed some time, his numbers are unbelievable.
On Saturday, Rodgers will have his full stable of receivers to throw to, which should allow him to spread the field and make it tough for the 49ers defense to account for all of his weapons.
(2) Colin Kaepernick adds a wrinkle of unpredictability to the 49ers offense and makes them much more explosive
Kaepernick has a big arm and great athletic ability, which allows him to stretch the pocket and get outside on teams. When he is able to escape the pocket, he has proved deadly, with multiple 50-plus-yard rushing touchdowns already in just seven starts.
(3) The Green Bay defense is as healthy as it’s been all season
Clay Matthews returned to the lineup a few weeks ago, and Charles Woodson returned for the Wild Card playoff game last week. With Woodson in the lineup, he adds another dimension that improves the defense’s open field tackling, as well as its unpredictability.
(4) Aaron Rodgers is 3-1 on the road in playoff games
Eli Manning has the best road playoff record in history at 5-1. Aaron Rodgers can match that mark in this playoffs with a win Saturday and another one against the Falcons in the NFC Championship game (if the Falcons beat the Seahawks on Sunday). Rodgers and the Packers have already proven they can win on the road in the playoffs on the way to the Super Bowl in 2010. Obviously, road games – in a vacuum – are more difficult than home games. Under Aaron Rodgers, however, the Packers are 1-1 at home and 3-1 on the road in playoff games. At the very least, Rodgers has shown that being on the road is not a factor in his abilities on game day. Thus, a home-field advantage likely means less against quarterbacks like Rodgers (and Manning) than it does against other NFL QBs.
(5) Colin Kaepernick is making his first career playoff start
I have been predicting for weeks now that Kaepernick would have a game where he cost his team the game because of turnovers, bad decisions, or inexperience. He did just that against the St. Louis Rams in Week 13. How will he perform under pressure in his first playoff game against the best QB in the game today and a team that won the Super Bowl just two years ago? It’s anyone’s guess. He’s shown flashes of greatness, but has also made costly mistakes. Kaepernick’s success on Saturday will likely be directly correlated to the success of the 49er team as a whole.
(6) San Francisco defensive end Justin Smith is not 100% healthy
Smith has missed two-plus games with a torn triceps, during which time fellow defensive linemen Aldon Smith (unrelated) has failed to record even a single sack. Coincidence? It looks as if Justin Smith will play on Saturday night, but I have to question how close to 100% he actually is. If not at full strength, the Niners pass rush will not be at full strength, which bodes well for Rodgers and the Packers.
(7) Green Bay’s defense has had some trouble stopping the run this season
Look no further than three games against Adrian Peterson where the Packers allowed 210, 199, and 99 yards, respectively. The only other running back to run for 100+ yards on the Packers? Frank Gore in Week 1 (112 yards). If the 49ers can get the run game going, they’ll control the clock, keep Rodgers off the field, and make it difficult for the Packers to get in a rhythm.
(8) The Green Bay running game has been steadily improving over the course of the season
The Packers have started five different running backs over the course of this season. In the Week 1 game against the 49ers, Aaron Rodgers dropped back on over 75% of the Packers’ plays (31 of 61 being without a running back even on the field), as Green Bay was unable to establish any kind of running game (just 45 rush yards). NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert analyzed the Packers’ success (or lack thereof) when having such a high drop back rate. As of late, the Green Bay offense has been much more balanced, with DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant combining for about 20 carries per game over the past several weeks.
(9) Don’t forget about the ’49ers-Selected-Alex-Smith-Number-One-Overall-in-the-2005-Draft-Instead-of-Aaron-Rodgers’ factor
Aaron Rodgers has played with a chip on his shoulder for basically his entire life, as this E:60 feature points out. Leading up to the 2005 NFL Draft, many predicted the San Francisco 49ers (Rodgers’ favorite childhood team) would make him the number one overall pick. Instead they took Alex Smith, Rodgers feel to the 24th pick, and the rest is history. I’m not saying that Rodgers is hell-bent on proving everyone wrong and making the 49ers pay for not choosing him, but I’m not exactly not saying that either. Rodgers has spent the first 8 years of his career proving critics wrong and making people pay for doubting him. That’s what fuels him to be the great player he is. It would be foolish to discount this fact heading into Saturday’s game.
Overall, I think this match up is very even, between two dangerous teams. No matter who wins on Saturday, it will not be surprising, but given the factors above – most notably the fact that Aaron Rodgers is playing at an elite level and excels on the road in the playoffs, as well as the fact that Colin Kaepernick is making his first ever playoff start – I think the edge goes to Green Bay.
Prediction: Green Bay 27, San Francisco 20
Seattle (+2.5) over ATLANTA
I guess this qualifies as the Green Mountain Coffee Bold Roast ‘Bold Pick of the Week’.
Look, Atlanta should win this game. They went 13-3, easily won their division, and sealed home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. They have a solid quarterback playing at a high level and arguably the best receiving tandem in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks are traveling all the way across the country, are led by a rookie QB, and have gone just 4-5 on the road this year (including their Wild Card playoff win at Washington).
Nevertheless, the Seahawks are arguably the hottest team in the NFL, having won six game in a row and eight out of their last nine. Russell Wilson is all of a sudden the best rookie QB in the league this season, and Marshawn Lynch is an absolute BEAST! Although the Seattle defense will miss DE Chris Clemons, who tore his ACL against Washington last weekend, it still has two aggressive, physical corners in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner who are fully capable of going toe-to-toe with the Falcons’ deadly receiver tandem of Julio Jones and Roddy White.
Lastly, is there any team under more pressure for a win that Atlanta? Not only that, is there any player under more pressure than Matt Ryan? To date, he owns the best home winning percentage in NFL history – in regular season games. In the playoffs, he’s 0-3 lifetime and still trying to shake the notion that he can’t win the big game. Granted, one win could start to turn that around, but I think Matty Ice will have to wait until next season.
A crazy, drunk guy on my bus said it best the other day: “If Seattle wins….WATCH OUT!”
Prediction: Seattle 28, Atlanta 27
NEW ENGLAND (-9.5) over Houston
The Texans will try to control the clock and run the ball with Arian Foster with the hopes of setting up the play action pass downfield. It will be key for Houston to avoid falling behind early, as they would be forced to throw the ball more frequently to catch up, which would make them more one-dimensional. This could prove problematic against a Patriots offense that led the NFL in points, and a coach / QB combo that plays well with the lead and isn’t afraid to go for the kill shot when they smell blood.
Patriots QB Tom Brady is playing at his usual elite level and has looked borderline terrifying at times this season, especially in the past 10 games where the Patriots are 9-1 (the lone loss coming to the 49ers in one of the best games of the year, where the Pats erased a 28-point second half deficit only to squander the lead in the games final minutes).
By the way, what’s up with Matt Schaub? He hasn’t looked healthy for a few weeks now, and for a while it looked like he might cost the Texans their first round game against the Bengals. He seemingly has no rhythm throwing the ball and has short-armed a few deep balls in recent weeks as well.
It’s not that I don’t think the Texans are capable of pulling off an upset. I just think the Patriots have too much firepower for the Texans and will find a way to pull away in this game.
Prediction: New England 31, Houston 20
Enjoy the games and stay safe this weekend! I’ll be back next week for a look at the conference championship games.
Last Week’s Record: 3-1
Season Record: 70-54-1