Monday, January 30, 2012

Bay Area Sports Notes: 49ers, Raiders, A's

Well, like we try to do at least once a month here at the Bay Area Sports Journal, we're going to use today's post to sort of touch on a lot of different topics happening right now in the Bay Area sports scene. From the Raiders hiring a new coach, the 49ers #1 offseason priority to A's offseason and their pursuing of Manny Ramirez.

49ers: We'll start with the hot topic team around the Bay Area right now, which is the San Francisco 49ers, who came within 15 minutes of representing the NFC in Indy at the Super Bowl on Sunday. However, they were unable to pull it out in the end, and much of the can be attributed to their horrid third down percentage and poor play from their receiving corps. Alex Smith didn't have his best day, in wet conditions, but his receivers failed to do much of anything to help them out as the wideouts attributed for just 1 catch and 4 yards on in game. So obviously, the 49ers number one priority in terms of the area they need to upgrade the most, I think it's unquestionably the receiving corps. Luckily for them, this particular draft comes stocked with at least 5 potential first round wideouts, and this years free agent market certainly has no shortage of impact receivers either. Now, we'll spend many of hours and posts between now and the summer discussing who the 49ers could potentially target in free agency, as well as who may fall to them in the late first round of April's draft, but I just wanted to get out my early targets if I were running the team. Their are three free agent, number-one receivers hitting the market, assuming they don't get franchised, and I'd be happy with either of them. Those three names are Dwaye Bowe, Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston, and I'd probably rank them in that order too.

Raiders: Also, being so wrapped up in the NFL playoffs and the 49ers over the last few weeks, we haven't yet talked about Reggie McKenzie's first big hire as Raiders GM, bringing in Dennis Allen, who was Denver's defensive coordinator in 2011. He's just 39 years old and brings a focus a defensive philosophy to the Raiders head coaching spot, something they haven't had in many years. Ultimately, horrid defensive play down the stretch is what cost the Raiders a trip to the playoffs as they were definitely the best team in the AFC West in 2011. I'm not too sure yet what to make of the Allen hiring, as he's young and doesn't have a bunch of experience to judge from, but I think the Raiders looked just across the Bay and saw just how successful the 49ers were with a premium defense and average offense and figured it was time they change philosophy. That's a good move in my opinion, so I see this move as a step in the right direction.

Athletics: And the third and final team we're going to discuss here today are the Oakland Athletics and the somewhat bizarre offseason they've had. They started off by dealing every player that had any value on the roster, including their top three pitchers, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey. Then in this latter part of the offseason, they've all the sudden started adding veteran pieces back to the puzzle, including the re-signing of Coco Crisp, and now their apparent serious interest in Manny Ramirez. They also inked Bartolo Colon to a deal after dealing away Guillermo Moscoso. I can kind of understand pursuing Ramirez, being that he'd draw some fans out to the Coliseum, would come pretty cheaply and would provide offense at the DH spot. However, I feel like they may have just blocked one of their better prospects in Michael Taylor, from his natural position by bringing back Crisp, and I just don't get the Colon signing a bit. Maybe they added him hoping he'll dominate the first half and they'll have a trading chip come July? I just don't really get those two signings with the theme of their offseason being in fire sale mode and looking to rid as much payroll as possible. I do like the addition of Seth Smith and the signing of Jonny Gomes, who came cheaply but could payoff big time if he just hits .250, with the pop he has. Smith is a very solid hitter who will now have an everyday gig and should respond with a .280/25/85 line, or thereabouts. Watching him over the years as a Giants fan, he's sneaky good. The A's have been one of the more active teams over the last couple of weeks, and according the Lou Wolfe, they'll be adding more before Opening Day! Like with the 49ers, we'll have much more A's talk with Spring Training quickly approaching.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Giants Lock Up Lincecum, Sandoval

We're going to go ahead and fully switch gears for a second as we look ahead to Spring Training. The Giants locked up ace Tim Lincecum and all-star third basemen Pablo Sandoval to multi-year deals and baseball fever is starting to pick up in the Bay Area now that the 49ers season has ended. Here is the lastest recording for our show, The Giants BlogCast: and Share Branded Video Content.

Also, wanted to give our readers a heads up that I'll be joining the Phil Naessens show on The Baseball Page, on Thursday 1/26 to talk a bit about the upcoming Giants season. Be sure to check that out Thursday night!

Monday, January 23, 2012

49ers Come Up Short In NFC Championship

The 49ers had their shot, they had the lead heading into the 4th quarter of play on a wet, sloppy field, but the Giants had just too much fire power offensively in the end. Victory Cruz had a field day tearing up the Niners secondary, and even when the pressure was on him, Eli Manning hung in and played a heckuva game.

The 49ers sacked Eli 6 times, they were in his face on numerous other occasions, but Eli managed to put up a big fat goose egg in the turnover column while the 49ers had two costly ones, and when all was said and done, that was the difference in this game. Now, I know nobody is feeling worse about things than Kyle Williams, who muffed two punts, which gave the Giants some easy points on a short field. I kept telling the people I was watching the game with that the 49ers are going to have to force a big turnover themselves in the waning minutes, or else they aren't going to do it. Their offense was stagnant vs. the Giants defense, really all day save for Alex Smith's two TD tosses to Vernon Davis. Smith completed just 12 of 26 pass attempts, and although they seemed to have a nice rythym to their running game, they only ran Gore 16 times, which on a wet and sloppy field took me by surprise. I mean, this team was really in control of the game after that 3rd quarter and had all the momentum and all they had to do was put together a final 15 minutes of solid play, but they just came up short. I mean, set aside the muffed punts, and the 49ers win this one, probably easily. However, the Giants cashed in with 10 points on 49ers turnovers while the 49ers couldn't get the Giants to cough one up. I credit Eli for that, cause there were a few times where the 49ers had him and he pitched it out last second to find Ahmad Bradshaw and gain yardage rather than getting sacked and possibly fumbling the ball. I think the 49ers were a better team, but they didn't play with the Giants on Sunday, and didn't deserve to win the game.

Now, I don't want to just sit here and rag on all the things that went wrong, the Vernon penalties, the muffed punts, the botched reverse, letting Victor Cruz burn you time and time again, I'd rather talk about what this team has going forward. I mean, I was saying whoever won that NFC game should be favored against a flawed New England Patriots team, and I still think that, so it's incredible just to think a minute how far this team has come over the last 12 months. From a laughing stock of football and the poster-team for the NFC Worst (NFC West reference), to being within a quarter of going to the Super Bowl. I don't want to sound like a sore loser, cause I'm not, the 49ers exceeded all my expectations this year, and even though I was hoping for another Cinderella ride like the San Francisco Giants gave us in 2010, I'm content with where this team is and the direction it's headed. Now, for the first time since I created this website 2 years ago, we get to talk about a football team moving in the right direction, a team that is maybe another player or two away from being real legit contenders. I've been saddled with the Raiders and 49ers the last few years, and it's just been one comical mishap after another for each franchise until the 49ers finally broke through this year, and again, they aren't that far off at all from really transforming into year-in and year-out contenders under coach Harbough.

We'll have all spring to talk about the draft and all summer to talk about potential free agents the team could pursue, but just based on needs from this game alone, I think it's pretty clear the 49ers need to re-look both their cornerback depth chart and take a long look at available wide receivers. I know Josh Morgan went down in season and should be back next training camp, but even he should be a 3rd or 4th guy. Michael Crabtree disappeared on Sunday vs. the Giants, even more so than he did vs. the Saints last week, when at least he got free for a TD catch but did little else. I think he's proven how inconsistent he can be and I no longer consider him a #1 type receiving talent. The 49ers went 1-13 on third downs, and I attribute that solely to the receivers failing to get open. I mean, had they converted on just 25% of third down tries, they win the game. Smith had to tuck the ball and run numerous times cause he couldn't find anyone. Vernon Davis managed to put up a huge postseason, even though defenses really had most of their focus, in terms of the Niners passing game, on containing him, but he could only do so much, being a tight end and also being involved in blocking schemes. Also, the 49ers showed in the end they just didn't have enough cover guys to matchup with all the Giants weapons, and barely managed to do so vs. the Saints last week. Carlos Rogers has one spot locked up, but I wouldn't be surprised if the 49ers open up some competition for those CB 2, CB 3 and CB 4 spots, cause in this day and age of the NFL, you need at least 3-4 good cover corners.

Again, we'll have the whole offseason to talk more about the 49ers needs and who they should go after. Starting with what to do with Alex Smith, who's going to be a free agent? Most think he's assuredly coming back as the 49ers starter, and I'm not at all opposed to that, but I hope they add some more depth and competition there than just Colin Kaepernick.

Friday, January 20, 2012

NFL Conference Championship Previews

Well folks, here we are, just two days away from the biggest game the 49ers have played since the 1990's, and the weather in the Bay Area is getting worse, which in my mind, favors the 49ers even more. We'll also talk a little bit about, quite possibly the next 49ers opponent, as we break down the AFC Championship as well.

NFC Championship Preview

As good as the Giants defense is, and Eli Manning can be, if it's raining at the Stick on Sunday, which is looking probable, then the meter definitely tilts towards favoring the 49ers. They have a better defense, especially up front, to stop a running game should it get into a smash-mouth type of wet and muddy ballgame. They also have the rushing attack, not only with Gore and Hunter, but as he showed last week, even Alex Smith can tuck it and run. I'd like to see at least 5 designed runs for Alex Smith as well as Harbough giving him free reign to tuck-and-run every single time he sees a seem and can't find an open receiver. For my money, I take the Gore/Hunter/Smith combo as far as ball carrying, over the Bradshaw, Jacobs and Manning. Eli, while he can pick the 49ers secondary apart if given ample time, is not a mobile QB and if the 49ers pressure him, he's prone to making mistakes. He throws for a lot of yards, he gets his TD's but he throws for a lot of interceptions too, and the 49ers need to be on their game as far as the takeaways. They every time they see an opportunity to knock a ball loose or go for a pick, take it. That's what got them to the NFC championship and that's what will keep them moving forward. At the same time, the toughest part of the New York Giants defense is their pass-rush. If they get Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul all going, and aren't able to protect Alex Smith, then it's going to be very tough for the 49ers to develop any kind of passing game. The way to beat blitzers and pass-rushers is to run right at em or do screen passes right over them and the 49ers need to have a contingency plan for every time Alex drops back to pass.

As long as the 49ers can control the Giants pass rush, and the 49ers do what they've done so well this season, win the turnover battle, I think they'll be extremely tough for the Giants to handle. They need someone else to step up though like Vernon did vs. the Saints and I'm looking to Frank Gore to be that guy (he got hurt early vs. the Giants in November and hasn't had a 100-yard game since). The 49ers crowd will be so loud, louder than Green Bay's fans were able to get on Sunday, that's for sure, and that should make it tough for the Giants to run their no-huddle and hurry-up offense that both the Manning brothers have ran so well over the years. Home field advantage in this case, I believe makes all the difference in the world, so the 49ers need to use that to their advantage and not let their crowd get out of it for a second. That's where Green Bay lost it last week, they got down, and their crowd got out of it, and they played a bad game. I may get a moment Sunday to do a quick pre-game before the NFC Championship, but in case I don't I want to get my prediction out now. I've said over the week, and probably 2 or 3 times in this post, that as long as the 49ers play their game, win the turnover battle, protect Alex Smith and establish the run on a wet field, it'll be their game to lose. After seeing them take it to New Orleans, I don't think the Giants will be able to beat this team, I just don't. Now, if Eli get's going early, the 49ers can't pressure him, and in turn, are in Alex Smith's face every time he drops back to throw, than advantage Giants. They didn't beat Green Bay on a fluke win, they beat them in every facet of the game and when they're on, they're tough, but so are the 49ers. Either way, I think we're in for another nail-biter and a game going that comes down to the final minutes.

NFC Championship Prediction:

San Francisco 49ers 27 - New York Giants 24

AFC Championship Preview

Oh, by the way, there is another game going on this weekend, and if the 49ers do win, I'm sure every single TV in Northern California will be tuned into it. After the 49ers/Giants game, the AFC Championship figures to be a pretty darn good matchup itself. This Patriots offense is such a unique offense that can beat you with a variety of players while the Baltimore defense is really second to none in the NFL right now. New England has the receivers with Branch and Welker to cause the corners to focus there, and then they have Gronkowski and Hernandez at tight end, who pose an extremely tough matchup for any defender, linebacker, safety or corner. They're basically wide receivers in tight-end bodies, and I think it'll be tough for the Ravens to account for all the weapons. I mean, they barely pulled it out against a rookie QB in their own house last week, so it's tough to see them straightening up enough over the week to go into Foxboro and beat a Patriots team that has arguably the best offense in the football right now, certainly the AFC. The only way I see the Ravens pulling this one out is if Joe Flacco steps up and has a big game himself. Ray Rice should be able to dice through the Pats defense, but it won't matter if they get down early to the Pats, cause the game will probably rest on the arm of Flacco. And even though the Patriots defense can be exposed, they also play opportunistic football, and I could see them causing takeaways if they get after Flacco. I just see to many things needing to line up in order for the Ravens to win, and I just don't see it happening for them on the road. It should be another very good matchup though, kind of like the 49ers/Saints, a defensive powerhouse vs. a true offensive juggernaut.


New England Patriots 31 - Baltimore Ravens 23

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Giants - 49ers Trash Talk Begins

Well, we're mid-way through the week, and there's already been enough trash talk between the Giants and the 49ers via Twitter, that it's almost comical. It just adds another element to what should be an epic NFC Championship at a potentially wet Candlestick Park.

The forecast calls for rain this weekend, and if you live in the Bay Area, you could almost feel it coming on Wednesday, as it's been a little overcast all morning. I think if the weather report does hold up and the teams are playing on a wet field come Sunday, it exponentially helps the 49ers. The 49ers have a better run game and can control the ball on the ground. I would expect to see a lot more of Alex Smith on the move in this game as well, whether it's straight QB-sneak calls, or roll-out QB choices, I think Harbough will give him free reign to tuck it in and run whenever he sees a hole. I was hoping he'd do it more often against the Saints, but he didn't until the play called for it and ended in that beautiful sweep out for a touchdown. One thing Aaron Rodgers did at will seemingly vs. this Giants defense was pick up some yards on the ground, leading the Packers with 66 yards on just 7 rushes. Smith can move better than Rodgers, and if the Giants will are going to expose that, then the 49ers need to take full advantage. They managed to beat the Saints without really establishing a run game. They had a few big plays including Smith's run and Gore's 42-yarder to help give them 150 rush yards for the game, but they never really go into rhythm with it. That will have to change in order to beat the Giants. The 49ers cannot be a one-dimensional offense and as good as he looked vs. the Saints, they cannot rely on Smith throwing for 300 yards against that defense.

As for the trash talk, it all started with Giants' wideout Victor Cruz saying his team is much more content going on the road to play the 49ers than they would have been had they had to face the Saints. That's fair enough, I mean, the Saints demolished the Giants when they played in season whereas the 49ers just beat them by 7. The fact that the Giants already lost to the 49ers, when the 49ers didn't have their best offensive player, Frank Gore, should be a concern for that team though. As good as their pass-rush can be, a good running attack and short pass game can beat a good pass rush. I know they weren't 100% right defensively, and there leader on defense, linebacker Michael Foley, when the 49ers beat the Giants in November. The Giants played OK, and Eli got his yards, but the 49ers already outplayed this team, this season, on the very turf they'll lineup on this Sunday. They should be rolling into this game with all the confidence in the world and I think they are. In response to some of the Giants chatter, all Donte Whitner had to say was, "In San Francisco, we talk with out pads", and then partner in crime Dashon Goldson reiterating that the 49ers hit and tackle, they don't miss. Sure, the trash talk helps make for a more intriguing matchup, but this game is already under the microscope and is (obviously because of the New York team no doubt) getting the most media play, in a week where Tom Brady will face the ultimate test in a rugged Baltimore defense.

I said this in our last post, and reiterated it a bit in this one, but again, I have all the confidence in the world in the 49ers right now, much like I felt about the 2010 San Francisco Giants. As long as they play their game, get the rushing attack established and keep Alex protected on offense, at the same time control the Giants' running game and making them one-dimensional, this is there game to loose. If they get another quick 14-0 lead like they did vs. the Saints, it wouldn't hurt either. I said it all season long, and even though they proved me wrong Saturday, this team plays much better with a lead, even a small one, and they need to ensure they get out to an early one Sunday.

As I've been doing over the last few weeks, we'll have our final thoughts and preview/prediction for this game, as well as the AFC game in Friday's post, but as of now, I wouldn't be surprised to see a 49ers-Patriots Super Bowl match-up.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Giants Pull off upset, will meet Niners in NFC Championship

If you thought last weeks crowd was rockin', just wait till you see what they have in store next Sunday for the first NFC Championship game played in San Francisco since the early 1990's.

The New York Giants went into Lambo and pulled out the upset in very, very convincing fashion, so much so to the point where I was watching that fourth quarter thinking, "This team may actually cause more problems for SF than Green Bay if they play like this again." They've been the team that's hit the hot streak as the playoffs got started, winning 3-straight to clinch the NFC East and then knocking off the Falcons in round one in a matchup that wasn't even close (24-2). They really remind me of the 2010 baseball Giants, as they really caught fire at the tail end of the year and manage to just keep winning. They're a very well rounded team, much like the Niners and even though, yes, there's no doubt I'd rather be hosting the NFC Championship in San Fran rather than traveling to Green Bay, the Packers, believe it or not, have more holes in them than the Giants do right now. New York has the QB who can pick you apart if given time, plus a defense much tougher than a New Orleans D that was amongst the leagues worst defenses. They are going to be tough to run on, tough to pass on and they're going to probably drop Eli Manning back 45-50 times and let him try and find soft spots in the 49ers defense. New York's running game doesn't scare me that much, but they're much more formidable than the Saints and the Packers, bringing the two-headed monster of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. Bradshaw has me a little worried as he's a lot like Darren Sproles, who really had a field day with 14 receptions Saturday vs. the 49ers.

On top of Eli scouring the field, and Bradshaw and Jacobs out of the backfield, New York has a good O-Line, and 3 very good, deep threat receivers the 49ers are going to have to account for. I really think they're going to have to bracket cover Hakeem Nicks because of his deep ability (280 yards, 4 TD's in 2 postseason games in 2012). Let Eli have all he wants underneath and in short routes, just don't expose yourselves deep, something I think the Niners did a very good job of versus New Orleans (sans the Graham and Sproles big TD's). Luckily, despite what they showed vs. a sub par Packers defense, the Giants aren't a real big play team. They want to play a lot like the 49ers, but if they need to win it through the air, Eli is a guy who's done it more than once and has a ring on his finger to prove it. It seems like Eli picked apart Atlanta and Green Bay at will, and he did, but both of those defenses had huge miscues all game. The Green Bay secondary was doing spins and turns trying to keep up with Giants' receivers, you could tell they either weren't prepared, or they just got caught off their game, cause they looked bad. The 49ers are going to be a much tougher defensive matchup than the Giants have seen over the last 5 weeks. That said, this isn't going to be easy by any stretch. Yes the 49ers beat New York, in New York in the regular season, but the Giants were sputtering then and without Ahmad Bradshaw. Now they come to stick, at full strength with a full array of weapons, so the 49ers have to prep for them exactly like they did New Orleans, just don't plan on scoring nearly as many points.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

49ers Pull it out with "The Catch" Part 3

With the 49ers down 3 points and on their own side of the field with 40 seconds left, I'm sure a lot of people thought they were finally down for the count. But in a moment eerily similar to the Steve Young-to-Terrell Owens game winner way back in '98 that beat the Packers, Alex Smith found Vernon Davis down the middle on a 14-yard strike with 9 seconds left to send SF to the NFC Championship.

Vernon Davis, who's numbers were down this year despite Alex Smith's success, had by far his best game of 2011/2012, regular season, preseason or postseason, he was a beast today. If he doesn't come up with that TD catch on that perfectly thrown ball by Smith, and hold onto that ball with two defenders barreling into him, then the 49ers would have had to take their chance at a field goal and possibly OT against a Saints offense that was gaining momentum. More importantly, he came up with that big 35-yard catch and run prior to that to put the 49ers in position to tie or win. But first of all, the reason Vernon Davis was able to go for nearly 200 yards on 7 catches, 2 of which were for 6, was because Alex Smith was absolutely on his game today. I really wish Smith would have done the Steve Young "monkey off my back" sign after the victory, cause this game really solidified his arrival as a legit NFL QB. He won this game on his arm. The 49ers running game was never established, granted Gore broke one big 40 yard run, this game was won on the arm and legs of Mr. Alex Smith, the one 49ers fans loved to hate coming into the 2011 season. I know he proved to me today that he is for real, and maybe he was a little late to the party, but he's arrived, and the connection he has with Jim Harbough and his offensive players is really something special. Smith's only blunder on the afternoon was a fumble in which he probably should have tucked the ball and taken the sack but tried to make something happen on that Roman Harper blitz in which the ball popped out of Smith's hand.

Alex Smith arrived, and showed he could keep up with the elite offenses when need be, and the defense, for the most part, did exactly what they do best, cause turnovers and hit the Saints in the mouth. They had Aldon Smith or Justin Smith in Drew Brees' face consistently, and although they did give up the two big plays to, wouldn't you know it, Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham, the defense came out aggressive from the start and you could tell Brees just was never real comfortable. He did throw for 463 yards, but it took him 63 tosses in order to make it there, and he also mixed in a few interceptions, so by comparison, Smith's game (299 yards on 42 attempts, 3 TD's and 0 Int's) blew Brees' out of the water. I said Dashon Goldson had to have a big game, and he did. I said Aldon Smith had to be on the field and be effective at getting after Drew Brees and he was. They had to account for Graham and Sproles, and even though they each managed to reach paydirt, the 49ers basically shut them down on the most every other play. Graham's TD was the only big play he had all game, take away the borderline PI call he got off Goldson early in the first, but that was nullified by Donte Whitner's clock-cleaning hit on Pierre Thomas that not only knocked the ball loose and gave the 49ers possession deep in their own territory, but also knocked Thomas out of the game, and he was the team's most effective rusher vs. Detroit last week with 2 TD's.

I could go on and on and on about this game, and I'm sure I'll talk about it a little more throughout the week, especially as we preview the NFC Championship which very likely could be another offense vs. defense battle if Vegas odds prevail and Green Bay beats New York. But this game, to me, was a benchmark for Smith. If Smith came out and played badly and the 49ers lost in bad way, then questions would have undoubtedly come into play this offseason as to whether or not Smith is the guy that can take this team to the next level. But he eliminated any need for that talk. No matter what happens in Green Bay next week, or if the 49ers get lucky enough, in San Francisco again, he proved he can win a playoff game against a team and QB that he wasn't supposed to beat. For all Alex Smith has been through, anyone who's followed the 49ers over the last 6 years can't help but feel great for Mr. Alex Smith! For all the defense did, and the game Vernon had, the 49ers don't win this game today without Smith doing what he did, and it very well may have earned him his long-term stay in San Francisco. (He'll be getting some big bucks this offseason, tell you that much!)

Friday, January 13, 2012

49ers - Saints, NFL Weekend Preview: Part 2

We did our main preview of the 49ers-Saints game in our last post here, but like I said yesterday, we'll do one more small section on the game on what needs to happen for the 49ers to win the game! We'll also use the second part of the post to preview the other 3 games going down this weekend, the weekend that determines who will wind up playing in each respective Conference Championship game.

First off, we'll start with the 49ers of course. As I said yesterday, we're going to keep it mostly to what the 49ers have to do to win this game, and win it they certainly can if they play the style of football that got them here. What has to happen is the 49ers have to dictate the tempo of the game early, they can't let the Saints control the ball and let Drew Brees drop back and throw 40 times. They have to keep the Saints offense off the field with good running and sound short-route passes and screens, then take your shot's deep, cause they have to be aggressive and show confidence early. Go conservative early, but surprise the Saints with some deep balls too, and open up the playbook, but the Saints are a blitzing team and Smith is going to have to make good, quick decisions in order to avoid turnovers, just as he's done all year. They're going to have to put up some points, so I wouldn't hesitate to bust out some trickery on offense, and pull out some plays that we haven't seen all year, plus the Saints secondary is average at best, so Smith can pick them apart if he makes smart choices. The 49ers will most likely have to score 24-30 points to win this, at least.

That brings us to the defense, just like the Saints will do to Alex, the 49ers have to have pressure on Brees all day long. Play Aldon Smith! Play Aldon Smith in as many snaps as he can take whether it's as a down D-end or an outside backer, they need his pass-rush. Also, they need to take away the Saints two secret weapons in Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. They need to matchup players onto those two that can keep up with them. I suggested putting Goldson on Graham all day, and put an extra DB on the field every time Sproles is out there. If the 49ers get the early lead, and can play with their defense, they can win this. If Brees get's the ball frequently and has open receivers and little pressure, then the 49ers probably won't be able to keep up. My Prediction, 49ers pull it out in a close one, 27-24... Here is the rest of our playoff weekend predictions.

NFC Divisional Round Predictions:

San Francisco 49ers 27 - New Orleans Saints 24

Again, most of the talk about this game is above and in the previous post, but the 49ers have the defense to disrupt Drew Brees and give him problems, plus the 49ers have the home field advantage as the Stick will be rockin. Drew Brees has a career 107 QB rating and 12 TD's and 2 Int's vs. 49ers' defenses, but he's never faced one like this and could have issues with the January gusts at Candlestick Point.

Green Bay Packers 31 - New York Giants 27

I think this one will be closer than people are thinking and the Giants should pose some problems for Aaron Rogers and the Packer passing attack which hasn't been quite as crisp the last few weeks of the season. I still think the Pack pull it out in Lambo and conditions they're so used to. The thing is, the Packers defense has so many holes right now, that the Giants should be able to keep up with them offensively, especially if Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs can get going like they did last week and that defense plays lights out like they did vs. Atlanta (only 2 points allowed came on a Safety caused by Eli Manning's intentional grounding in the endzone). If they bring that against the defending champs, then I doubt the Packers will just have their way with the Giants defense like they've had their way with so many D's this season.

AFC Divisional Round Predictions:

New England Patriots 35 - Denver Broncos 17

As much magic as Tebow pulled out vs. the Steelers rock-solid defense, I just don't see him being able to keep up with a healthy Tom Brady and the top passing attack in the league. Denver can get burned through the air, as they showed last week allowing a broken down and beat up Roethlisberger to throw for 282 yards and a TD, though they did sack him 5 times (again though, his mobility because of the ankle was basically nil). The Broncos had the home field and did pull off a huge upset in round one, no doubt about it, but now they travel to the loud, frigid Northeast where the Patriots play so darn well in Foxboro. Unless the Broncos pull can win the turnover battle and rattle up the Pats passing game, they don't have much of a chance. If it were in Denver, then maybe they have a shot, but not away in a notoriously tough place to play, I don't see them pulling out another one. Especially after seeing the Pats defense finish so strongly vs. the Bills (2 sacks, 4 picks, one for a TD), the Patriots don't have the best defense, but they have some speed to keep up with Tebow and Demaryius Thomas.

Baltimore Ravens 20 - Houston Texans 13

It's really too bad the Texans lost Matt Schaub, cause with him, and Foster and Andre Johnson healthy like we saw last week, they are legit Super Bowl contenders. But in enters rookie T.J. Yates, who if this team was playing any other playoff team besides a very green Bengals squad last week, probably loses. Yates' play was sporadic, his TD toss to Johnson was spot on, but for the most part, he showed he's still a rookie and missed some easy reads and open receivers. Now he faces a defense that will not only bring more heat than Cinci, but they have better coverage and a much tougher front-7 and I expect that front to eat Yates alive while still containing Foster enough to pull out the W. The only way the Texans win is if they pull out an early lead and can play with a lead, cause their defense, while not Raven-good, is very formidable. The Ravens also struggle to come back in games, and if you have them down early, you can beat them. All in all though, with the rookie traveling into the cold climate of Baltimore in January, I just can't see them taking it to the ferocious Baltimore defense.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

49ers - Saints Preview: Part 1

Well, in the biggest game for the 49ers since 2002, I figured I'd give it so much attention, we'll do a two-part preview to the 49ers-Saints game this Saturday at Candlestick Park.

In part one, I wanted to talk a little bit about what I think the offense and defense each need to focus on, and then in part 2, we'll do a straight list of things that need to happen in order for the 49ers to win, and things that, if happen, the 49ers haven't a snowflakes chance in hell. Now, starting with the offense, I don't think they should change anything up from what they did all year, at least at the start of the game. Establish the run, let Alex do some play fakes and some easy short-route completions, I don't care if they're only 3-5 yards, they have to keep the ball moving and keep the clock running offensively. Obviously, they're going to need Frank Gore and the offensive line to be on their A-game, and not only in the running game. The Saints aren't a top defense by any means, and the 49ers shouldn't have too much of a problem getting the run game going, but what the Saints front does do is bring a lot of pressure and they'll blitz you, especially if they get a lead. That's where having Gore is so key, because he's one of the best, if not the best, blitz pick-up/blocking backs in the NFL. Again, that's why I say a lot of screens, and short routes against this team will be effective if executed properly. Get Frank to bust off a couple 10-15 yard runs to get the defense honest, and then take your chance down field on a play fake. I'm not saying go all-out conservative by any stretch, cause they're going to have to score some points. Take your shots down field and take them with regularity, but don't try and play the Saints game and keep up with them via the pass. Ball control/game clock control while establishing the run should be the team approach to start the game.

Defensively, they really need to focus on two key players in my mind, and those two are the ones that pose the toughest matchup for defenses, Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. I would assign Dashon Goldson to Graham, just because he's got the strength and speed to keep up with the TE/WR and has cover skills as a college CB. If that means using Goldson as a quasi-linebacker/cornerback than albeit. Let Reggie Williams or Madieu Williams slide into the safety spot if need be or come up with defensive schemes that use Goldson on Graham. As with Sproles, I really think they need to treat him like a wideout and when the dudes on the field, bring in an extra DB to account for him. The 49ers have a strong enough front to play with an extra DB in the lineup and sort of a 3-3 front. As good as Pierre Thomas looked vs. Lions, I'm not at all worried about him at all. I doubt he averages 8 YPC vs. the 49ers stout D, but Sproles does worry me, so keep as much speed on the field as you possibly can. As for the receivers, I have confidence in the way that Carlos Rogers has been playing, that he should battle Marques Colston pretty well, but it's going to be on the 49ers front getting pressure on Mr. Brees. The 49ers absolutely have to have Brees under pressure all-day long from start to finish. Play Aldon Smith as much as he possibly can take, and bring 5+ guys each and every time Brees drops back to pass. Again, I have confidence in this teams' secondary when the team's pass rush is on it's game. That's when they get their picks and play their best.

Either way, it's going to shape up as a very good battle at the 'Stick Saturday, and if your lucky enough to have tickets, your in for one helluva a battle. An offensive powerhouse vs. a defensive juggernaut. The ultimate strength vs. strength game! Check back tomorrow for more 49ers and Saints talk as well as predictions for the weekends games!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Raiders Give Jackson the Axe

Well, in a week that has the 49ers squaring up with the Mr. Unstoppable, Drew Brees, at Candlestick Park, the big talk in the Bay Area Tuesday lied around the Oakland Raiders. After just one season as head coach, Hugh Jackson was ousted after his squad finished the season terribly.

It came as a surprise to me, I'll tell you that much. I mean, I heard the rumblings over the weekend, but you normally hear some level of that with every team that just misses the playoffs and probably should have made it. This shakes up the whole Raiders organization because Jackson had full control and last say on player movement. He was the one that, probably, signed off on the Carson Palmer deal and then once his team lost 4 of their last 5 ballgames, and their stronghold on the AFC West. But what I think really sealed his fate was after the season when he threw his players, mainly star linebacker Rolando McClain, under the bus and blamed missing the playoffs solely on the players. Now, I've coached, granted at Senior Little League level, but one thing you never, ever do as a coach, is place blame on players publicly. If you have a problem with a player, it's between you and them, you don't make it a public issue, and Jackson had no problem doing just that. Couple that with the fact that the team just hired, Reggie Mckenzie and the two probably did not hit it off, as Jackson wanted more say in personnel issues and McKenzie was probably less than impressed with Jackson's performance as a coach and leader over the last month or more. All that said, I think Jackson did a pretty good job until that end of season meltdown. I wouldn't have done the Carson Palmer deal, would have held out for Orton at like 1/16 of the price, but that's water under the bridge now. I do think Jackson will find another home as an NFL head coach at some point, but this was the right move for the Raiders.

Whichever coach is brought in will immediately enter a tough situation, as the Raiders are set to enter 2012 with 2 QB's expecting to start in Carson Palmer and Jason Campbell. My guess is they deal Campbell and try and get some draft picks back. There is a major lack of QB options this winter, outside of RG3, Andrew Luck, Kyle Orton and Matt Flynn (who I'm still not really sold on), there aren't any starting caliber QB's who will be free this summer. I could see Miami definitely having some interest in Campbell, as well as Washington. I think whatever team doesn't get Griffin or Luck should go after Campbell before trying to sign Matt Flynn. That's just my personal opinion. Campbell had the Raiders on a clear road to the playoffs and he went down and this team was never the same. At the same time, after an offseason and preseason working with Raider receivers, I'd expect a much better Carson Palmer in 2012 Raider fans, and as long as Run DMC is healthy and those receivers stay on the field, this team will be a playoff squad. As for coaches, I'm haven't a clue yet who they're thinking of, but with Al Davis passed on, it may make coaching the Raiders a little more desirable. When Davis was alive, bless him, he had complete control of everything, rumors spread that he'd even call down plays to head coaches on occasion.

Still the Raiders aren't going to get an established head coach like a Bill Cowher or Jeff Fischer. Heck, they probably couldn't even get Steve Marriuci out of retirement and he loves the Bay Area. Unless they want to go with a guy desperate for a HC job like Mike Martz or Denny Green, they need a bright eyed, rattle the troops, college-type coach if you ask me (Chip Kelly anyone?). They need a Pete Carroll-type would be ideal for the Raiders, though he's locked up with the Seahawks, but maybe try and pluck a premium college coach up. Jim Mora Jr. would have been another young, fiery head coach perfect for this job but he just signed on with UCLA They need someone who's well known enough to the players to command their respect, at the same time, they need someone with energy and who will fire that team up rather than sit back and point fingers.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Wild Card Weekend Review: 49ers Get Saints

Well, the Texans game was exciting until they just pulled away late, but other than that, no game this weekend came close to the drama the Pittsburgh Steelers/Denver Broncos game brought. At the same time, the 49ers couldn't get their wish, and indeed will end up playing New Orleans after Drew Brees disected the Lions defense.

Gotta give it up to Tebow and Demaryius Thomas for their performance against the Steelers on Sunday, cause Pittsburgh's defense was playing pretty stoutly. They weren't allowing Tebow or McGahee to get any running space, so Denver had to beat them through the air and Tim Tebow did just that, breaking 300 yards and throwing for a couple of scores. Demaryius Thomas was probably the most valuable receiver of Wild Card weekend as well, as he reeled in 204 receiving yards, a huge 50 yard pass-interference play and the game winning 80-yard TD catch. That was a big day for Thomas in the maturation category as I think he finally showed his real potential, and will be a beast from here on out. They'll need him to be with Eric Decker likely sidelined for the rest of the year. The other, less exciting games went pretty much as I predicted; Eli Manning and Ahmad Bradshaw tore up Atlanta while Arien Foster and a healthy Andre Johnson carried the Texans, and of course, Drew Brees ate up the Detroit secondary!

Now, onto week two, in which the 49ers step into play. Now we'll probably be talking this game all week, so we won't get into it too much now, but my early thoughts are that the 49ers are going to have to be pressuring Drew Brees at all times. If they want to run Darren Sproles or Pierre Thomas, let them, the linebackers will track them down, but I'd have at least 5-6 guys going at Brees each play. The 49ers are corners have played strongly lately, but Tarrell Brown and Carlos Rogers will have their hands full as they'll likely be the ones covering Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston. And the Saints have more weapons than that, so the nickel and dime backs will have to be on their games next Sunday. Offensively, obviously the team will have to score, but I honestly think they need to do whatever they can to keep Drew Brees off the field. Play defense with your offense, so to speak. Do short 5-yard routes and screen plays, a lot of Frank Gore and Kendal Hunter. Just try and keep getting first downs and let the rest fall into place. We'll get more in-depth as we get into our game preview later on in the week, but what a wild-card weekend, just too bad Detroit couldn't pull off the upset!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Wild Card Weekend Predictions

I just wanted to jump in real quickly with my picks for this weekends NFL Wild Card matchups, guessing both the winning team and final score for each game with a brief reason as to why.

AFC WILD CARD Predictions

Houston 23 over Cinicinnati 17

In a defensive battle, with two young QB's and WR's with with injury concerns, the Texans get the advantage because A - They're at home and B - They have the best RB duo in the league and an early lead could spell trouble for Cinci. Andre Johnson needs to be healthy (looks like he is) and pose at least a threat for Cinci's corners to back off though and keep 8 out of the box, otherwise they could shut down Foster and Tate.

Pittsburgh 21, over Denver 13

I just don't see Tebow dicing through the Pitt. defense, even if they are banged up, and even if Ben Roethlisberger isn't 100%. Still though, without Rashard Mendenhall, the Pittsburgh is looking like the surest bet to be 1 and done. Even if Denver wins, the winner of this game is doomed next week!

NFC WILD CARD Predictions

New Orleans 38, Detroit 31

In a shootout in the Bayou, I see Drew Brees and Co. walking away the victors. The only way Detroit can get to them is if they get Kevin Smith going like he did that one game a few weeks back and Matt Stafford is perfect. Otherwise, it's tough to see Brees lose a playoff game vs. an average defense at home!

New York 28 over Atlanta 20

If this game were in Atl., I think the Falcons have a better shot, but I just am not a big fan of Matt Ryan on the road in the load Meadowlands environment. Not to mention, it'll be tough sledding for them to get any kind of run game going against the Giants defense which is finally healthy (last 2 games held Jets and Cowboys to combined 28 points and a combined 84 yards to starting RB's Shaun Green and Felix Jones. I see the Giants walking away the victors here, even though Atlanta won more games and is coming off a huge win in week 17!

Now we can look back Monday and see how terribly off I was!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A's Re-sign Coco Crisp, Now What?

Well, after the A's dealt away right-handed ace Trevor Cahill, premiere lefty Gio Gonzalez and all-star closer Andrew Bailey, then let every single one of their free agents walk without attempt to re-sign any, most people thought the A's were entering full-rebuild mode.

However, the A's just signed center fielder and leadoff man, Coco Crisp to a very lucrative 2 year, $14 million dollar deal, which defies the logic they've been using all offseason. First off, most people thought the A's would be going all young this year and giving Michael Taylor his shot in center, but he'll now likely move over to left field with Crisp's return and the addition of Josh Reddick. Secondly, I think the A's could have gotten Crisp for a helluva lot cheaper than they did, probably closer to 2 years/$10M, but he does have gold-glove defense. It also makes me wonder whether or not Billy Beane may be pulling a page out of Brian Sabean's book and waiting until free agents get desperate enough to sign somewhere, then you get them at a reduced price. Problem with that strategy is that if the player is a good one, he normally finds a home before that plan can come to fruition. Anyhow, if Beane is indeed looking for cheap players to help get A's fans excited for 2012, and help their chances in moving to San Jose, there are plenty of bargain-bin players still left on the market who the A's could definitely use. The names that immediately comes to mind is first basemen Casey Kotchman, who fits Beane's type of player to a T. He's patient, gets on base, and has a good batting average, just doesn't hit for too much power.

Either way, he'd be a huge upgrade at first base over the incumbent Daric Barton and he's still pretty young at 28, so he still hasn't reached his ceiling. They also need some help over at third base, and no the answer is not Kevin Kouzmanoff, obviously. I'd take a gander at Wilson Betemit if I were Beane though, he's a really good hitter (.285, 22 doubles and 8 HR in 97 games) and his most comfortable position is third base. I know Scott Sizemore did some good things after coming over from Detroit last year, but if they could get Betemit on a 1 year/$2M contract, then why they heck not get some competition in there!? Also, they better have a plan B if they're seriously planning on starting the year with Chris Carter in the starting lineup, whether it's at first or DH. The man who's destroyed every level of baseball he's ever played at has managed a mere .178 batting average with a whole 3 home runs in 114 big league at-bats. Small sample, but ugly showing non the less. Plus the one spot where this FA class is still pretty stocked, besides with mediocre pitching, is with DH-types. Carlos Pena would be sweet, even as a first basemen, but probably out of the A's price range. Rual Ibanez though, could very well sign a 1 year, "prove-it" type deal after a huge falloff in 2011. Or even bringing back Johnny Damon if the price is right. Cody Ross or Ryan Ludwick would also be nice right-handed additions who could play outfield or DH.

As far as their pitching staff, after they've dealt away what they did, Billy Beane should add at least one veteran influence to help lead this group of youngsters and as insurance. You probably can't count on too much in 2012 from Brett Anderson, so that leaves the rotation like this at the moment: LH Dallas Braden, RH Brandon McCarthy, RH Guillermo Moscoso, RH Tyson Ross, LH Tommy Milone. They also have the prize from their deal with the D-Backs Jarrod Parker knocking on the door. It looks like a nice young group and you can see why he felt comfortable dealing away Cahill and Gonzalez, but what if Milone and Parker prove to still be a year or 2 away? Not to mention the injury history with Moscoso and McCarthy then Braden coming back from his season-ender in 2011, there are some real questions around that staff. If they could bring back a guy like Harden or Jeff Francis or Brad Penny. None will get more than a one-year deal and all are focused on proving themselves again in 2012 after less-than-spectacular 2011 seasons. As far as their bullpen, it looks like they have plenty of options to take over for Andrew Bailey (Brian Fuentes, Joey Devine, Grant Balfour), and with all those young arms they have in their system, I wouldn't expect any other pitchers to be signed for bullpen duties.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

49ers Clinch 2 Seed, Send 8 to Pro Bowl

It was a great week in the Bay Area for 49ers fans as the Niners finally got some long awaited respect again. Not only are they returning to the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, they're also sending 8 players to Hawaii for the Pro-Bowl in February.

Now, before we get ahead of ourselves and start talking potential 49er opponents for round two of the playoffs, I have to say, I was less than impressed with Sunday's win vs. the Rams. Not only was St. Louis starting a backup QB, but they're one of the worst teams in football, and they nearly came back and took that #2 seed away from San Francisco. It wasn't the offense's fault either, as they cruised through the Rams' defense, with Smith completing nearly 70% of his passes and throwing for a score and 220 yards. The team also rushed for over 100 yards again, although they did rest Gore for much of the game. The 49ers rush defense, which hadn't allowed a rushing score heading into week 16, allowed two more TD's via the ground, one coming against the first unit too. Granted, most of the Rams comeback was in the 4th quarter when most all 49ers starters were sitting, it was a tad unsettling to see them come that close to losing out on the crucial first round bye. But besides the 4th quarter meltdown, things went well in the first half, as Michael Crabtree continued his assault on NFL corners with 2 more TD's and 9 catches for 92 yards. The dude just catches everything you throw in his direction, as evidence of that TD reception from kicker David Akers. The dude is finally coming into his own, and has become a clear cut #1 wideout (starting to be a leader on field as well!).

Crabtree, unfortunately though, won't be joining 8 of his other teammates in Honolulu next month for the NFL version of the All-Star game, as the AFC and NFC square off in the ever meaningless Pro-Bowl. The 49ers and the Patriots each are sending 8 players, which leads all NFL teams. For the 49ers, both kicker and punter David Akers and Andy Lee will get a much deserved trip as those two were arguably a couple of the most valuable 49ers this season. Joining them and starting on the NFC's defense will be Patrick Willis and Carlos Rogers (pictured to right saving a big TD), while Joe Staley will start at RT for the offense. The other three players who earned the honor are Frank Gore, Justin Smith and Dashon Goldson. All who had huge years for 49ers playoff run. Also selected as alternates (which means some of these guys will probably make it) are linebackers NaVorro Bowman (how he wasn't a first-balloter is blowing a lot of minds around the Bay Area) and Ahmad Brooks as well as Vernon Davis, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Ray McDonald, Ted Ginn Jr., Blake Costanzo and Bruce Miller. My guess is Bowman and Davis end up making the team.

Going for the Raiders will be kicker Sebastian Janikowski, punter Shane Lechler and DT Richard Seymour.