Welcome to New Orleans

The players have arrived, the media has arrived and New Orleans has welcomed them all to the first Superbowl the city has hosted since hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005. With Mardi Gras in full swing the city is the place the be this week as it prepares to host one of sports biggest events on Sunday.

Today marks media day, which is pretty self explanatory. The players are likely to get grilled by journalists from all over the world not just regarding the game, but their back stories and all manner of trivial things. It’s a great spectacle and really helps to capture the personal aspect of the sport, offering the opportunity to see players who normally wear helmets when they’re on the field and hear them speak. For all the latest news on the event I suggest you check out ProFootballTalk.com anf NFL.com for video content.

I’m saving my Superbowl preview for later in the week, but here’s my take on some of the other miscellaneous news items around the NFL at the moment:

– Cowboys nose tackle Jay Ratliff was arrested for DUI last week, and apparently his blood alcohol content was double the legal limit. You don’t need me to tell you he’s in trouble, but I will tell you if Roger Goodell decides to punish him with a suspension then the Cowboys will miss the big man. Ratliff is almost unique in the league as a dynamic NT who can not only stuff the run but also rush the passer, and his presence in the middle of the field can often hinder the play of opposing centres, leading to missed assignments and botched snaps.

– Joe Flacco called a cold weather Superbowl “retarded”. Not sure if that’s a wise thing to say, but he is right and it is a bad idea. Next year will be the acid test for the idea and New York will be praying that the weather is unseasonably warm for the big game. If, and it’s a huge if, the game is a success it could open the door for the Superbowl to be held in New England, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh amongst other cities. I love cold weather football and it is a staple of most play-off games. However the Superbowl is not just a game as today’s media day shows. The week is an event, and when you have thousands of members of the press and tens of thousands of supporters migrating to a city you can bet they would rather they could venture outside in shorts and a t-shirt than a coat and gloves.

– The Philadelphia Eagles are approaching the date when they’ll have to make a decision on their quarterback, Michael Vick. On February 6 Vick is due a $3 million roster bonus, whilst his total salary for next season is five times that amount. Clearly Vick didn’t play to that level last season (or the year before for that matter) and it’s likely he’ll either be released or traded. There is a possibility that new Eagles head honcho Chip Kelly tries to keep Vick by getting him to renegotiate his contract, but I don’t think Kelly wants Vick as his QB next year as he attempts to resurrect the birds. Kelly does like his QB’s to be agile, which Vick is, but he also likes them to avoid turnovers and sacks whilst making quick decisions. Vick is terrible at all three of those, and at 33 he’s past the age where he can be expected to improve significantly, if at all. Expect Vick to move on, although your guess is as good as mine with regards to his next stop.

– As I write this Adam Schefter has tweeted that Randy Moss has proclaimed himself the greatest WR of all time, and Jerry Rice responded by saying “put my numbers alongside his”. Well played, Jerry.

– Rob Ryan said he’d find a new defensive coordinator job in “five minutes” after he was tin tacked by the Dallas Cowboys. He’s still waiting after the St. Louis Rams decided not to hire him after contract negotiations broke down, with the hold up thought to be the scheme he wanted to run and the scheme HC Jeff Fisher favours. Ryan has always been a 3-4 guy whilst Fisher has operated with a 4-3 front during his career, so I’d hazard a guess that the reports are true and that’s the reason Ryan is still unemployed. Personally I don’t rate him all that much anyway, and his units have never been as successful as his fathers (Buddy Ryan) or brother (Rex). Buddy was famously the DC on the 1985 Chicago Bears Superbowl team.

That’s all for today, and remember to check out media day for all things Superbowl XLVII related.

49ers, Ravens and Harbaugh’s to meet at Superbowl XLVII

Sunday’s Championship games saw one nail-biter and one blowout, although not in the fashion that many expected. The New England Patriots were favoured by 7.5 points by the odds makers at home to Baltimore, yet they wound up losing 28-13 as the Ravens progressed to the big game literally against the odds. San Francisco overcame the Falcons in Atlanta despite falling behind 17-0 early in the second quarter thanks to some crucial defensive adjustments and a near unstoppable running game. Here’s a few things I took away from the two games:

– Colin Kaepernick showed a maturity beyond his nine NFL starts in a strange way – by not making plays. Nearly every time the 49ers ran the read-option  the Falcons outside linebackers would key in on Kaepernick, not allowing him any room to run with the football. Wisely, Kaepernick took what the defense gave him and handed the ball off to Frank Gore and LaMichael James a combined 26 times. The pair combined to rush for three touchdowns, so it’s safe to say the offensive plan worked as far as San Francisco was concerned. Kaepernick himself only rushed twice for 21 yards, but that was all he needed to do on the day.

– Matt Ryan set a Falcons franchise record for passing yards in a play-off game with 396, although it wasn’t enough. Ryan was excellent in the first half and threw for three touchdowns on the day, however he threw a crucial interception in the second half and despite the gaudy numbers his performance wasn’t quite good enough to get the Falcons in to the big game. Who’d have thought it would be Ryan and not Joe Flacco who came out of Sunday having to answer questions about their play in crucial situations and games? Ryan also lost a fumble on a regulation snap late in the game, not a clutch play by any stretch of the imagination.

– One storyline to keep an eye on over the coming fortnight is 49ers kicker David Akers. I loved Akers when he was with the Eagles between 1999 and 2010, but it’s hard to deny that his play has declined significantly over recent years. The Eagles cut ties with Akers after he missed two kicks under 40 yards against the Packers in the 2010 divisional round, and this season the veteran lead the league in missed field goals. San Fran brought Billy Cundiff in to challenge Akers before Sundays game but Akers beat him out in practise, and NFL rules state that you can’t release and then re-sign a player during the play-offs so the teams hands are tied when it comes to the Superbowl. Akers had one kick on Sunday from 38 yards – and he hit the upright. Not too encouraging if you’re relying on your kicker for points in the biggest game of them all.

– Dunta Robinson made a huge play when he stripped Michael Crabtree on the one yard line. Crabtree was trying to reach for the goal line and a score when Robinson ripped the ball loose and the Falcons recovered. In the end it didn’t matter, but it was a great defensive play.

– Julio Jones had 11 catches for 182 yards and two scores. Huge numbers I know, but like Ryan Jones wasn’t able to produce at the same level in the second half as he did in the first. Nevertheless Jones is clearly a top five NFL wide out at the moment and his future is as bright as any player in the league.

– Tom Brady had a strangely poor game, at least by his lofty standards. He may have thrown for 320 yards but he was twice intercepted and only completed 29 of 54 passes for a 53 percent completion rate. Brady received little help in the running game, but its hard to deny that his reputation as one of the greatest clutch QB’s of all time is slipping. It’s been eight years since his and the Patriots last Superbowl victory despite their consistent excellence, in the regular season at least.

– Stevan Ridley fumbled the ball in the fourth quarter after he was rocked by Bernard Pollard. Pollard crashed his helmet into Ridley’s but the hit was legal because Ridley was carrying the football, and it appeared as if the running back was unconscious before he even hit the ground. Pollard was flagged earlier in the game for an illegal blow to the head when Wes Welker went up for a catch, which was called correctly by the officials as Welker was a defenceless receiver.

– Rob Ninkovich had two sacks for the Patriots after they were unable to sack Flacco when the two teams met during the regular season. Ninkovich may not be appearing in the Superbowl but he was excellent at rushing the passer from the outside linebacker position in this game.

– Joe Flacco keeps adding to the value of his next contract. His current deal expires after this season but it’s looking more and more likely that the Ravens will pony up big bucks to keep the fifth year QB in Baltimore. The Ravens have reached the play-offs in all five of his years in the league and his play recently has elevated him in to Brady, Manning and Rodgers territory. Three touchdowns and no picks represented a mature and efficient performance in this game and Flacco became the first ever QB to beat Tom Brady when Brady was winning at half time, at home.

– Two of those touchdown tosses went to Anquan Boldin. Both were excellent plays on both Flacco and Boldin’s behalf, and were near identical. Flacco read one on one coverage and trusted his man to go and grab the ball ahead of the defender using his size and excellent hands. Boldin obliged and the two second half touchdowns were ultimately the difference between the two teams. Boldin lost in the Superbowl four years ago as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, so he’ll be looking to make amends this time round as his career nears an end.

Those were my takes from last weekends games, but obviously the biggest game is yet to come. I’ll attempt to write some insightful posts about the big game and preview the ‘Harbaugh’ bowl from plenty of different angles. If there’s anything you’d like me to write about or discuss then please just leave a comment.

NFC Championship game preview

With just a couple of hours to go until San Francisco take on Atlanta in the Georgia Dome, here’s my preview of what promises to be an epic battle between the two potential NFC representatives in the Superbowl.

When Atlanta has the ball..

Offensive co-ordinator Dirk Koetter was employed last off-season in large part because head coach Mike Smith wanted to open up the passing game. Koetter has delivered exactly what Smith wanted and taken quarterback Matt Ryan’s game to a new level. Ryan has always played well during his five year NFL career but he’s well and truly established himself this season as a top 10 QB. Julio Jones gives the Falcons an elite deep threat and in addition to the dependable Roddy White and future hall of fame Tight End Tony Gonzalez Ryan is almost spoilt for choice when it comes to distributing the football. Michael Turner still churns out the tough yards in the running game which gives Atlanta an important change of pace in goal line and short yardage situations. The Falcons will be up against it tonight, however, against one of if not the best defense in football. San Francisco boasts the best inside linebacker combo in the game thanks to Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman, so you can almost forget about running the ball straight up the pipe when those two are manning the middle of the field. Justin Smith is perhaps the best 3-4 defensive end in the game, further strengthening the niners front seven. However their secondary is good, not great, and the Falcons should be able to take advantage of some mismatches as the game wears on.

When San Francisco has the ball..

Halfway through the season the 49ers offense was described using words such as “methodical” and “efficient”. That all changed when Alex Smith was benched for the current golden boy of the NFL, Colin Kaepernick, who broke the NFL rushing record for a QB in a single game with 181 yards against Green Bay last week. Kaepernick threw for two touchdowns and rushed for two more in a breathtaking display of dual threat QB play and it’s likely the fast indoor surface in the Georgia Dome will suit the former second round pick perfectly. Michael Crabtree has evolved into a move-the-chains type receiver and gives Kapernick a reliable outlet in crucial situations, whilst Vernon Davis is one of the best play making Tight Ends in football. Frank Gore is a consistent and valuable running back who helps give the 49ers multiple running options when you include Kapernick. Atlanta has an experienced defense that boats names such as Asante Samuel at cornerback and John Abraham at defensive end who should help the unit deal with the pressure of such an important game. On the other hand it might suit the niners to face a defense who are perhaps past their physical peak when facing an athlete like Kaepernick.

Prediction

Whilst San Francisco are coming off the most impressive win of any of the four remaining teams last week Atlanta is the NFC’s number one seed and has home field advantage. Personally I’m excited for this game as I can’t see either defense having a great day in favourable offensive conditions. Often running quarterbacks come unstuck in January when they have to play outside in near freezing temperatures – not so tonight. The other benefit Kaepernick has is that teams don’t have a book on him: how can you plan to stop an attack that’s so original and has only been in effect for five or six weeks? The Falcons were lucky last week that Pete Carroll chose to ice the kicker, they won’t get the same break this time round and that’s the kind of margin which could decide the game.

49ers 30, Falcons 28

AFC Championship game preview

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on here, thanks to university deadlines amongst other things, however I handed in my final piece of work for a while (thank god) this week so I’m free to go back to writing about something I actually enjoy, the NFL!

Last week was wild, and will go down in history as one of the best Divisional Play-off weekends ever. Although the Patriots handled the Texans pretty comfortably the other three games were nail biters and saw both sublime (Colin Kaepernick) and ridiculous (Rahim Moore) play. On the AFC side of the ball Baltimore will meet New England after they won a six-quarter thriller against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. It means that Ray Lewis can continue his long and irritating farewell tour for at least another week, and having already pitted wits against Manning Lewis will now get the opportunity to eliminate Tom Brady from the play-offs. Here’s an in depth preview of what promises to be a titanic clash at Gillette Stadium Sunday night:

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) @ New England Patriots (12-4), AFC Championship game 6:30 ET

Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots have now reached the AFC Championship game in seven of the last twelve seasons. Just digest that for a minute. In a league of parity where there is a strict salary cap and a draft system geared towards helping the ‘have not’s’ of the NFL world New England has flat out beaten the system since the turn of the century. Of course Baltimore have been pretty successful themselves, and they’re back in the same spot they were last season when they lost to the Patriots in this round. This weekend may be a rematch between the same two teams but Baltimore in particular are a far different team to this time last year. Having once been a defensive team that suffocated high flying attacks the Ravens have transformed into an offensive force to be reckoned with thanks to stud running back Ray Rice, speedy wide receiver Torrey Smith and maturing quarterback Joe Flacco. New England on the other hand are a similar unit to the team that lost to the New York Giants in Superbowl XLVI last February. The defense has improved, granted, but the offense remains the well oiled machine it has always been with Tom Brady pulling the strings.

When Baltimore has the ball..

One of the things pundits and analysts always cite when they discuss beating the Patriots is the ability to keep Tom Brady off the field. This means you have to have a dominant running or short passing game and the ability to sustain long drives. Baltimore does have an elite RB in Ray Rice but puzzlingly the team often fails to give him the touches he deserves. Coach John Harbaugh has to correct this on Sunday and feed the ball to the little man from Rutgers. Vince Wilfork could have a key role to play as the Patriots standout nose tackle and the Ravens offensive line will have their hands full keeping the 350 pound man from suffocating the comparatively minuscule Rice. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes also gives New England two very good inside linebackers capable off stuffing rushing lanes, so this battle will be key to the outcome of the contest.Through the air, Flacco will be sure to target Smith with the deep ball as the dread locked wideout has averaged 17.2 yards per catch this season, a ridiculously high number that could lead to the Patriots giving corner back Aqib Talib help when covering the Ravens number one threat. Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin are reliable possession receivers, so Smith is by no means the Ravens only threat. When it’s all said and done the Ravens usually perform on offense when their QB does, and after last weeks breakout performance Flacco will want to prove it was no fluke. He has all the tools of an elite QB and with his upcoming free agency each good play means more money when he hits the open market.

When New England has the ball..

The Patriots have so many weapons, even without Rob Gronkowski, that it’s difficult to key in on one player in order to stop them. With Brady pulling the strings they’re able to spread the ball around to the likes of TE Aaron Hernandez and WR Wes Welker and let them make yards after the catch. Passes rarely travel a long way in the air in this offense and shifty players like Welker suit it perfectly as they’re able to extend a short dump off into a significant gain. Baltimore has struggled at times this season on defense because mainstay’s such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have lost a step. However, they’re still functional and know how to win which is an invaluable intangible to have. Darnell Ellerbe has turned into a very good inside linebacker for the Ravens and Terrell Suggs is still a pass rushing force off the edge, not to mention dynamic nose tackle Haloti Ngata. All in all there are enough good players on this defensive unit to at least keep Brady and the Pats in some kind of check, although it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if New England were able to score 30, maybe 35 points on Sunday.

Prediction

New England looked like the best team in the league last Sunday by blowing out the Texans whilst Baltimore scraped past the Broncos. However that game was in Denver against the conference’s number one seed, so the Ravens deserve props just for getting here. Unfortunately I think it’s as far as they’ll go as they just don’t have the speed on defense to keep the high flying Pats offense in check. Joe Flacco may well keep it close into the second half but ultimately I just don’t think the likes of Lewis and Reed have enough left in the tank to take Baltimore to the big game in New Orleans. Ravens 27, Patriots 38

I’ll be back with my NFC Championship game preview before Sunday night, so keep checking in for that and feel free to post your predictions for the games in the comments section.