NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

Picture: The friendly chat between Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh after the Stanford-USC game in 2009. Harbaugh’s team went for two when they were up 48-21, setting up a memorable post game handshake. The warm and fuzzy feelings between the two will be on full display on Sunday.

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Let’s do little comparison, shall we?
TEAM A: 25 first downs, 409 total yards, 301 passing yards, 5.8 yards per play
TEAM B: 13 first downs,  277 total yards, 103 passing yards, 4.9 yards per play
Team A should win comfortably, right?
Team A was the New Orleans Saints. Team B was the Seattle Seahawks.
The Seahawks won that game 23-15, and it wasn’t even as close as the score indicated. It was 23-8 ‘Hawks until the final 30 seconds, when the Saints scored a late garbage time touchdown on 4th and 6.
So what the hell happened?
    Usually, you can point to turnovers when a score doesn’t reflect the outcome. It is true that there was a costly one in the second quarter by Mark Ingram, whose careless fumble gave the Seahawks an easy six points. (Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, says the author of this article while pointing and laughing.)
    But the tide turned much earlier than that. Reports of the demise of Drew Brees’ outdoor ineptitude have been greatly exaggerated. The little guy was straight up embarrassing in the first quarter. I saw a short person wearing a gold helmet and a number 9 come out of the tunnel at Century Link Field, but that’s about as far as the resemblance to the former Super Bowl champion quarterback stretched. Looking nerve-wracked and skittish, he never seemed comfortable from the start. Wearing gloves to combat the rain and chill of the Pacific Northwest, the ball slipped and fluttered out of his hands, in contrast to the tight spirals he normally throws. His errant passes killed whatever slim chance his squad had in the first place. But it didn’t stop there.
    It seemed like whatever syndrome Drew Brees has that shuts down his motor skills in adverse conditions is common to certain members of the Saints special teams, namely their holder and punter. First, the Saints punter Thomas Morestead let a snap hit him square in the nether regions, then promptly fired off a 16 yard shank that had potential to hit one of Seattle’s “12th Men” in the head. Secondly, the Saints kicker, recently-signed Shayne Graham, missed two field goals that would have put the Saints within striking distance at the end. His holder turned the laces in on a 45 yard miss. It was reminiscent of Dan Marino-Ray Finkel.
    So what’s the significance about how poorly the Saints played? Because if they didn’t make all of those stupid mistakes, they would have won that game. But they didn’t, and this is not to make excuses for the Saints- it’s to point out that their opponent next week won’t be making the same kind of mistakes. And the Hawk’s margin for error has shrunk greatly. Russell Wilson will have to complete more than nine passes next week. The Niners will not hand the Seahawks the ball at midfield for the entire first half. Seriously, between the shanked punt, the fumble and the missed kicks, it felt like Seattle spent half of Saturday afternoon in Saint territory. And how did the Seahawks take advantage? Field goals, for the most part. And on Sunday, we saw how the the San Francisco 49ers deal with teams who can’t score in the red zone.

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    Everyone’s favorite towel-wearing quarterback, Cameron Newton, looked pretty good in the first half. I’m not going to lie, I love me some Cam. I’ve been on the Newton Bandwagon since he was at Auburn. The only non-Eagle I like more in today’s NFL is LaGarrete Blount, but we’ll get into that later in the week.
    But when you get half a dozen cracks at the end zone from the goal line, you should score. No matter who you are, and no matter who you’re playing against, you should at least get one touchdown out of it. There is no excuse, specially when you were moving the ball to get into the red zone so effortlessly. Think of the short-yardage options the Panthers have: Cam Newton, a 6’5” beast of a quarterback who runs like an athletic tight end, who you can roll out or run a sneak with; Mike Tolbert, generously listed at 243 pounds on his 5’9” frame; and a fleet of taller pass catchers, most notably Greg Olsen, who matches up favorably with most linebackers.
But they couldn’t score.
    And the credit must go to the 49ers, who used those stops as a catalyst to keep the first half close when the Panthers were threatening to take control of the game. Carolina was riding high between the solid defensive play and the home crowd, but the battle-tested 49ers kept the pedal down. And they drove right over the Panthers in the second half, grinding the hosts into a fine powder.
    The momentum of the game went the way of the 49ers just prior to halftime. Cam led the Panthers down the field on a nine minute, clock eating drive where they mixed in pass and run expertly down to the Carolina one yard line. After the aforementioned goal line stand and a Graham Gano FG, Colin Kaepernick took the ball with 3:41 left before the break, down 10-6. Gore, Boldin, and Crabtree all had a hand in the crucial drive, but a toe-tapping touchdown by NFL Combine Hall-of-Famer Vernon Davis was the crushing blow. As well as it seemed the Panthers played, they were down going into the half. That weighs on a locker room. They looked flat from there on out.
    The Panthers second half drives: Punt, Punt, INT, clock expires.
    The 49ers offensive line manhandled an excellent front seven of the Panthers as the game progressed, and Frank Gore always seems to get stronger as the opponents grow tired. Anquan Boldin continues to prove his playoff acumen, and Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis are as athletic and talented as anyone in the NFL. And the defense? What more needs to be said about arguably the best unit in the NFL?
    
    In fact, the NFC Championship Game pits them against the only one you can argue is better. Top to bottom, there are no more talented rosters in the NFL. These are the two best teams in the league. The two best quarterbacks are playing in the AFCCG, but as far as complete units, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers stand above the rest. Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman. Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. Kaep vs. Russell. Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch. Harbaugh vs. Carroll. This is basically football pornography.

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    Who wins? On the Seahawks side, home field advantage is the first and best argument you can make. Although the 12th man thing is overstated, cheesy, and rips off Texas A&M pretty shamelessly, it’s still a great benefit to be in front of those fans in that weather. They’ve only lost there once in the past two years. The Niners have gotten steamrolled in Cascadia by a combined score of, say, roughly 10,000 to 0 on their last two visits (The actual combined score was 71-16, although it felt worse than that). The Seahawks offensive line was opening holes for Marshawn Lynch down the stretch on Saturday, and their secondary is tops in the league. The only team I can think of off the top of my head that wouldn’t be an underdog against these Seahawks, in Seattle, would be the ’07 Patriots. And I just don’t see Randy Moss and Tom Brady coming out of that tunnel on Sunday.
    On the other hand, the Hawks have shown some recent vulnerability at home in the past month. A loss to the Cardinals proves that it can be done, and they had the game handed to them by a hapless road team last week. I think on a neutral field, New Orleans would have beaten Seattle. The 49ers are not going to be afraid of the big, bad Seahawks, having defeated them at Candlestick in their last meeting. The Niners defense should not allow Marshawn Lynch to run roughshod. Kaepernick is a proven playoff winner, and Russell Wilson will be forced to put the offense on his back, which I’m not sure he can do at this point in his career. 100 yards passing isn’t going to cut it this week, and SF’s defense is far superior to NO’s.
    Seattle wins home games against good teams because they feed off the energy from the home crowd, force turnovers and score quickly before the opponent can adjust to their surroundings. That allows them to ratchet up the pass rush, neglect stopping the run, and let Richard Sherman and Co. have target practice with the opposing receivers. The 49ers should be used to this environment by now. They’ve all been in Seattle before, and they’re probably really tired of getting kicked around. In most likely the loudest game ever, I like San Francisco, 27-20.
    
    San Francisco +3 1/2 over SEATTLE
AFC stuff later this week.

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