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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Must See Sports - Third Weekend of January 2012

Last week's advantage/disdvantage record: 4-2
Must See Sports 2012 record: 7-7

The NFL playoffs are building to a crescendo. The NBA season is getting into full gear. College basketball is in high gear with conference play. There's some good eatin' on the Must See Sports buffet!

Thursday, January 19


Los Angeles Lakers at Miami Heat

I have no doubt that NBA Commissioner David Stern goes to bed at night, hoping that this is a preview of the 2012 NBA Finals. In spite of the predictions of the Lakers demise due to age and attrition and in spite of the hype (albeit justified) surrounding Lob City and the L.A. Clippers, the Lakers are in first place in the Pacific Division and, as of Wednesday morning, were tied for the third best record in the Western Conference. Kobe Bryant (31 PPG, 6 RPG, 6 APG) appears to have drunk from the Fountain on Youth during the offseason, mounting an early season challenge for the scoring title.

The Heatles are...the Heatles. LeBron James (30 PPG, 8 RPG, 8 APG) may be the most underrated star in the game. In between all of the hype and talk, good or bad, surrounding James and the Heat, it can be easy to focus on LeBron James the celebrity and forget just how dominant King James the basketball player is. LeBron was actually booed earlier this week, at home, after missing three straight free throws. His line for the night?  LeBron had 35 points, 10 assists, and 5 rebounds in a 22 point blowout of the Southwest Division leading San Antonio Spurs, coming back from 17 points down, at one point.

The game is in Miami and the Heat, with each passing day, are looking more and more like a team ready to meet the stratospheric expectations that were heaped upon the in the 2010 offseason. However, Dwyane Wade will not play and LeBron James left the morning shootaround early with an apparent illness.

Advantage: Heat (if LeBron plays), Lakers (if LeBron does not play)

It can be easy to lose sight of the fact that LeBron does everything...everything! 1

Saturday, January 21

NCAA Men’s Basketball

#5 Missouri Tigers at #3 Baylor Bears

Not long ago, I commented that the Baylor Bears were quietly flying under the radar. After a 17-0 start, the radar was beeping wildly. Alas, all good things come to an end and Big XII rival Kansas handed Baylor its first loss of the season. Quincy Acy (12 PPG, 7 RPG), Perry Jones, III (14 PPG, 8 RPG) and the sharp shooting, ball-moving Bears will have an opportunity to redeem themselves against another elite Big XII opponent.

Missouri may have flown more quietly under the radar than Baylor. The Tigers have blown the doors off of their opponents, shooting over 50% from the field and scoring over 80 points per game. Like Baylor, an in conference opponent from Kansas (Kansas State) handed Missouri its only loss this season. Senior guard Marcus Denmon (18 PPG, 6 RPG, 3 APG) is back to finish what he started last year, averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists per game. After being unceremoniously bounced in their first game of the 2011 NCAA Tournament by Cincinnati, the Tigers have begun the 2012 season new and improved.

The winner of this game will keep pace with Big XII leading Kansas (5-0 in conference play). These teams are very similar in that they both shoot well and can play up tempo basketball. I think, however, that Baylor has a more balanced approach, fares better under the boards, and has more different players on the team capable of providing a spark, especially Acy.

Advantage: Baylor

Acy: "Not in my house!" 2

Sunday, January 22

NFL Playoffs – Conference Championship Games

There are some Conference Championship Sundays in which there is not much to anticipate. The matchup tips heavily to a favorite, often the home team, and the game is one sided. Typically, the games have a favorite, but a capable underdog that makes the game interesting and, every now and then pulls off an upset.

This weekend provides something we may get every five or more years: two sets of teams that are similarly capable – a coin toss at a neutral site. The AFC gives us a clash of the titans. One of the greatest defenses of all time in the Ray Lewis/Ed Reed/Terrell Suggs led Baltimore Ravens will face one of the greatest coaching/quarterback tandems of all time in Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

The NFC offers us a matchup of teams who weren’t expected to make it this far. The 49ers were 6-10 last year and are under a rookie Head Coach in Jim Harbuagh, all but certain to win Coach of the Year. The Giants are always competitive, but went on a skid after a fast start and were 7-7 after Week 15.

2011 AFC Championship Game

Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at New England Patriots (14-3)

When the playoffs started, I said that I thought the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers were the teams most likely to represent the AFC. I am sticking with that. The Patriots are eight point favorites at home, which is mind blowing to me. I do not gamble; I do not encourage people to gamble, but I know people do it.

Even if you are the world’s biggest Patriots fan, with a Minuteman earring, a Minuteman tattoo, and you named your first son, “Brady”, put your gambling money on the Ravens! They are NOT going to lose to the Patriots by more than a touchdown. That’s ridiculous!

During the last four years, the Ravens have only lost six regular season games by more than eight points, and have only lost four by more than 10 points. Once per year, the Ravens lose by more than 10 points. Tennessee already filled that quota, back in September, winning 26-13.

Even this guy should bet on the Ravens plus eight points! 7

Breaking down the key elements of the game:

Passing offense – Advantage: Patriots

Monumental advantage. Tom Brady vs Joe Flacco is a no brainer.

Rushing offense – Advantage: Ravens

Strong advantage. Ray Rice is simply a beast and Ricky Williams, off of the bench, averages over four yards per carry. Benjarvis Green-Ellis can provide adequate rushing to keep the Ravens defense honest, but after “The Law Firm” the Patriots have little more than an occasional short yardage threat in rookie Stevan Ridley.

Pass defense – Advantage: Ravens

Strong advantage. The Ravens have two future Hall of Famers on their roster in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and a third on track in Terrell Suggs. The pass rush is fierce, the pass coverage is tight and the collective football IQ is off the charts. The Patriots had the worst pass defense in the AFC in the regular season, but did force 23 interceptions during the regular season, tied for second in the NFL.

Run defense – Advantage: Ravens

Strong advantage. The Ravens barley allow over 90 rushing yards per game. The Patriots, statistically, were in the middle of the pack against the run, but because they built up big leads and have such a soft defense against the pass, opponents did not run as much. The Patriots coughed up 4.6 yards per carry against them, 25th in the NFL, approaching the bottom of the league.

Intangibles – Advantage: Patriots

Moderate advantage. The Patriots have only lost two playoff games in Foxboro since 1978. Both games in the last two seasons, though. One came at the hands of (most of) these very same Ravens. The Ravens are one of the best road playoff teams in NFL history, and Joe Flacco, only in his fourth season, is near the top of the list for road playoff wins by a starting QB in NFL history. The Patriots, however, have Tom Brady and all of the leadership, clutch play, and championship experience that come along with him.

Overall advantage: Ravens

2011 NFC Championship Game

New York Giants (11-7) at San Francisco 49ers (14-3)

Date: January 20, 1991
Location: Candlestick Park – San Francisco, California
Game: 1990 NFC Championship Game
Teams: New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers

After beating the Giants in a Monday Night Football thriller, 7-3, at Candlestick in the regular season, the 49ers sought their third straight Super Bowl championship. Leading 13-9 with less than six minutes remaining in the 4th quarter and having forced the Giants into a punting situation on 4th down, the 49ers appeared to be in the driver’s seat of a close defensive battle, in which only one touchdown was scored during the entire game.

Giants Coach Bill Parcells elected to run a fake punt, instead shifting the ball to linebacker Gary Reasons, who was lined up behind the center in the punt formation. Reasons took off for a 30 yard gain, setting up a fourth Matt Bahr field goal to cut the lead to one point. On the ensuing possession, 49ers running back Roger Craig lost a critical fumble in the final three minutes. The Giants would capitalize on the miscue to set up a winning field goal by Bahr as time expired. The Giants would advance to and win Super Bowl XXV, their second Super Bowl championship in five years.

This game was significant. It ended the 49ers two year run as reigning champs. Craig and Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott, iconic members of the 49ers dynasty in the 1980s, would never play another game for the 49ers, both acquired by the Raiders in the following offseason. Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, who was injured in the game, would never start another game for the 49ers, missing the 1991 season with an elbow injury and a backup to fellow Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young in 1992 before being traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993.

The 1990 NFC Championship Game is considered by many to be one of the greatest games of all time and is part of the “NFL’s Greatest Games” series on NFL Network.

The end of an era. 3

Date: January 22, 2012
Location: Candlestick Park – San Francisco, California
Game: 2011 NFC Championship Game
Teams: New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers

The date has changed and the players are different, but just as much is at stake. Like in 1990, the 49ers nipped the Giants at Candlestick in the regular season. Like in 1990, the Giants are seeking a second Super Bowl championship within the last five years.

There are a number of differences. The 49ers were the kings of the hill in the NFL as two time defending champs in 1990. The Giants were the #2 seed in the playoffs while the 49ers were #1. It was an eagerly anticipated rematch of a clash of the titans. In 2011, when these teams played in November, there was no “smart money” on these two teams meeting for the NFC Championship.

The Giants got hot late in the season, smoothing out their issues with inconsistent defensive play and anemic running in the final two weeks of the regular season and into the playoffs. The 49ers benefited from playing in a weaker NFC West division while they adjusted to their rookie Head Coach, Jim Harbaugh. Their defense was already high achieving.

What few outside of San Francisco expected was the rise of Alex Smith. The first pick in the 2005 NFL Draft had been dogged throughout his career with inconsistent play, constantly changing offensive coordinators, and an apparent shortage of confidence. Smith is now efficient, much more consistent, and his confidence, already improved, shot through the roof after leading an 85 yard drive in the final two minutes to beat the favored New Orleans Saints, who were the hottest team in the NFL coming into the game.

Alex Smith coming of age. 4

Let’s break this one down:

Passing offense – Advantage: Giants

Strong advantage. Alex Smith did have a breakout year, but the 49ers were still fourth from last in total passing offense. Eli Manning came up just short of 5,000 passing yards and is having one of the best years of his career.

Rushing offense – Advantage: 49ers

Strong advantage. Frank Gore of the 49ers is a man among boys. The Giants struggled badly in the running game until December. When Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs (and the offensive line) are in sync, the Giants can be tough to stop on the ground. The 49ers, specifically Gore, use the run to set up the pass and Gore cannot be stopped, only contained.

Pass defense – Advantage: 49ers

Slight advantage. The 49ers have a very talented, block-shedding defensive line that frees up the linebackers to help in pass coverage. This is a big part of why the 49ers were 2nd in the NFL with 23 interceptions during the regular season. The Giants were fourth from last in the regular season in stopping the pass, but did force 20 interceptions.

The Niners have to contend with Eli Manning, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham. The Giants do not. The only wide receiving threat the 49ers have is Michael Crabtree. Last week, King Crab's claws were dipped in butter with three drops. That cannot happen this week if the 49ers are to compete with their passing game.

Run defense – Advantage: 49ers

Strong advantage. The 49ers allowed fewer than 80 yards per game and only allowed 3.5 yards per carry during the regular season. The Giants can pretty much chuck the running game, except, perhaps for short yardage situations, from their game plan. The Giants have had trouble stopping good running teams, which is what the 49ers are.

Intangibles – Advantage: Giants

Moderate advantage. The 49ers are at home. The 49ers have the better record. The 49ers have a lock down defense and a pounding running attack.

That’s nice. The Giants have Eli Manning. Manning took his game to a higher level this year. Prior to this year, when discussing the best quarterbacks in the game, the phrase, “Manning, Brady, and Brees” rolled off of the tongue easily. Aaron Rodgers is now in that exclusive club. After this season, “Manning, Brady, Bress…” may be the words that roll off of the tongue, but the “Manning” referred to may be a different one than in the past.

Manning is playing at a transcendent level and has carried his team when it needs to be picked up. In addition, the NFL Playoffs are always about momentum and the Giants have it right now. Since Week 16 against the New York Jets, the Giants have looked focused, disciplined, and made few mistakes, relative to earlier in the season. Finally, today’s NFL games are won by passing with playmakers and the Giants have far more playmakers on the offensive side of the ball.

Overall Advantage: Giants

The fortunes of the Giants will depend heavily upon Brandon Jacobs, left, and Eli Manning, right. 5
Wednesday, January 25


Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers

Showtime at Lob City! There has been a lot of talk about which team is #1 in Los Angeles and this matchup will take one step toward settling that debate. Both teams are playing well, but Clippers point guard Chris Paul has been nursing a nagging leg injury and has missed games. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant, in spite of nagging hand and wrist injuries, seems to have taken his game up a notch, as if that were possible, in the early part of this season.

It takes a thousand Justin Biebers before you find a Frank Sinatra.

Advantage: Lakers

The Black Mamba = The Black Sinatra? 6

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