Sunday, January 27, 2013

NFL '12 Dread News - Week 20

Oh brother, the one time I want my crystal ball to be wrong and what happens? Of course, it nails its prediction right on the head, correctly forecasting the Ravens and 49ers to meet in the Super Bowl. As often as CB has been wrong in the past, you'd think I'd be thrilled that it finally got something right. But for real, there was nothing thrilling about watching the Falcons blow a big lead for the second Sunday in a row. They survived the Seahawks the previous week despite blowing a 20-0 lead. But against the 49ers last Sunday, after having a 17-0 lead early vanish and become a 28-24 deficit late, the Falcons came up 10 yards short on their final chance to score, and the 49ers held on to capture their first NFC championship in 18 years.
It was not a good day last May when I watched the video of WR Julio Jones getting his dreads cut off. But with or without the dreads, it's always a good day seeing him in a Falcons uniform.
After the Falcons traded away 5 draft choices to move up and select Jones early in the 1st round of the 2011 draft, I went to the AJC to check out some of the reader comments. I was strongly in favor of the trade and wanted to see what others thought about it. I disagreed with but understood those who were against it because they thought 5 draft picks were too high a price to pay. But there also were some (either idiots or UGA fans) who didn't like the trade because they actually thought Jones wasn't going to be very good. Huh? I just shook my head in disbelief at the ignorance. There likely weren't too many doubters back then, but that bandwagon must be empty by now after what Julio has done in his first 2 NFL seasons.
Jones just about single-handedly lifted the Falcons to their 17-0 lead last Sunday. Taking advantage of a blown coverage by the 49ers' secondary - involving Pro Bowl S Dashon Goldson - Jones got open deep for a 46-yard TD to catch to cap an 80-yard opening drive. On 3rd and 10 from midfield on the Falcons' 2nd drive Jones made the catch, with Goldson barely missing an INT (photo above), and turned it into a 27-yard gain to set up a FG. Then on the first play of the 2nd quarter, Julio made a highlight reel catch against excellent coverage by CB Tarell Brown, beautifully getting both feet inbounds (photo below) for a 20-yard TD to make the score 17-0.
At that point Jones was on pace for a 400-yard game (!), having already caught 6 passes for 120 yards. And the Falcons already had picked up 10 first downs to none by the 49ers. But I wasn't getting too excited, because the 49ers really hadn't run any of their good plays yet. I don't know what they were waiting for. Not allowing the game to get away from them, the 49ers' offense finally woke up, driving 80, 82, and 82 yards on their next three possessions to pull within 24-21 in the 3rd quarter.

The Falcons ended up gaining 477 total yards; but 77 of those were wasted on two drives in the 3rd quarter that ended with turnovers. First, a pass on 2nd and 10 from the 49ers' 47-yard line intended for WR Roddy White was intercepted by CB Chris Culliver (photo below). And on the next drive, with the Falcons in FG range, QB Matt Ryan dropped a good shotgun snap, and the 49ers recovered. The Falcons take pride in not beating themselves with mistakes and penalties; but those were two huge mistakes right there, and it kept them from increasing their lead. 
Fortunately the 49ers failed to convert either turnover into points. CB Asante Samuel had 4 tackles on the day for the Falcons, but probably his biggest contribution was the words of encouragement (aka trash talk) he had for 49ers K (and former teammate with the Eagles) David Akers right before Akers clanged a 38-yard FG attempt off the upright. That came on the drive following the INT. And then after Ryan's dropped snap, the 49ers drove from their 37-yard line to a 2nd and goal at the Atlanta 5, only to come away empty when CB Dunta Robinson made his biggest play of the season, stripping the ball from WR Michael Crabtree after a catch at the 1-yard line, with the Falcons recovering the fumble.

With the score still 24-21, the Falcons failed to move the ball off their own goal line after the fumble, going three-and-out for the first (and only) time all game. And after a 20-yard punt return the 49ers began their next drive at the Atlanta 38 with 11:46 remaining in the game. Short yardage RB Anthony Dixon converted a 3rd and 1 on his only carry of the game with a 4-yard run to the 25-yard line. And 3 plays later RB Frank Gore's 2nd TD run of the day finally gave the 49ers the lead.

The Falcons started their next drive with 8:23 on the clock - usually enough time for two possessions. But as they slowly drove down the field, it became apparent that it was going to be do or die on this one drive. Perhaps the biggest play of the drive was the 22-yard pass to WR Harry Douglas to convert a 3rd and 2 from midfield. They showed the replay about a dozen times trying to get a close look at whether or not Douglas held onto the ball after he hit the ground; but what got lost in that controversy was that he never should have been on the ground in the first place. Douglas was wide open on a wheel route in front of the 49ers' sideline, and if he catches the pass (which was perfect) in stride, he probably takes it to the house. And even if he doesn't score, the Falcons could have kicked a FG and then gotten the ball back with plenty of time for another drive, on which they would have needed only another FG to win. But instead, for some reason Douglas misjudged the pass and stumbled and fell as he was making the catch.

6 plays later the drive, and the Falcons' hopes, died with an incomplete pass to White on 4th and 4 with 1:09 to play. Roddy (and no doubt a lot of Falcons fan) wanted a penalty called (photo below) on LB NaVorro Bowman, who broke up the pass; and yes, Bowman did pretty much mug White on the play. But this was a legal mugging, because it was not further than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, it wasn't holding, and it was before the pass was thrown. No penalty. Even though Ryan was just 7 for 14 with an INT on passes intended for White, Roddy picked up enough yards to make the dread stars list. 
RB Jacquizz Rodgers got most of the carries in the 2nd half for the Falcons, as starter Michael Turner left early in the 2nd half due to injury. Jacquizz finished with 35 yards rushing on 11 carries, with his best run being a 9-yard gain on the final drive on which he dragged 290-pound DE Ray McDonald for a couple of extra yards. It was one of 5 tackles for McDonald. One other tidbit. After he was injured on a play in the 2nd quarter, Falcons 2nd year DE Cliff Matthews had his helmet off, revealing a skull cap and what looked like might be beginner dreads underneath it. Hopefully we'll be welcoming Matthews to the house for next season.

I realize that the 49ers and Patriots played a highly entertaining game back in Week 15. But when last Sunday began, I was desperately hoping they would not be meeting again in the Super Bowl. And with the 49ers already having won, I needed the Ravens to come to my rescue. Thankfully they did exactly that, going back to New England and making amends for their season-ending loss to the Patriots last year with an easier than expected 28-13 victory.

You know, I was stunned when the opening betting line for the game had the Patriots as a nine and a half point favorite. I was like, "Why"? In their most recent meetings the Patriots have struggled to beat Baltimore. QB Tom Brady has played much worse against the Ravens than against any other team in the league. Remember that Monday night game back in 2007? The undefeated Patriots went to Baltimore late in the season to face a struggling Ravens team, yet a proud Ravens team that had gone 13-3 the year before. What I remember most about that game was Bart Scott picking up that penalty flag and disgustedly throwing it as far as he could (lol). I also remember the Patriots being very fortunate to escape with their perfect record intact. Including that game as well as this season's meeting back in Week 3, the Patriots had gone 4-2 vs. the Ravens in their last 6 meetings prior to last Sunday. But they very easily could have been 0-6, that's how close the games have been. I'd bet if you had polled all the Patriots players and coaches, a majority would rather have gotten on the plane out to Denver than stayed at home to face the Ravens. 

The game got off to an exciting start for me, as Ravens LB Dannell Ellerbe had his helmet come off while making a tackle on the 2nd play from scrimmage. TE Aaron Hernandez picked up the first down on that play, but the Patriots punted 4 plays later. The Patriots took the lead on their next drive but had to settle for a 31-yard FG on the 13th play of the drive. The Ravens went three-and-out on their ensuing possession, but the game changed in their favor on that drive. That's because on 3rd and 12, as he was breaking up a pass, CB Aqib Talib, the Patriots' best cover corner, strained his hamstring and had to come out of the game. That was bad news for the Patriots, because it forced them to put players on the field they didn't want to.  
One of those players was CB Marquice Cole. The Patriots picked up Cole as a free agent this season no doubt because they had been impressed by his play on special teams against them while he was with the N.Y. Jets in his first 3 seasons in the league. But let's face it. If there were no such thing as special teams plays in the NFL, Cole would have a difficult time keeping a job just as a CB. Maybe he would do well against a team's third or fourth receiver. But I couldn't believe it when the Patriots on several plays assigned him to cover the Ravens' go-to WR, Anquan Boldin. Can you say mismatch? A 26-yard reception by Boldin against Cole on 3rd and 9 (photo above) early in the 3rd quarter will not be included in Marquice's highlight reel. Nor will be the TD catch Boldin had against him in the 4th quarter that increased the Ravens' lead to 28-13. I'm not familiar with the personnel in the New England secondary. But if Cole is their 2nd best option to cover a WR as talented as Boldin, they've got big problems. 
While Boldin is the Ravens' best WR, Torrey Smith is their most important. I might have mentioned that a time or two during these past few weeks. Smith did not take one to the house this week; but he still made a bit of an impact. Torrey had 4 catches for 69 yards, with one reception on each of the Ravens' TD drives, including a 25-yard catch to the 15-yard line in the 2nd quarter (photo above) on the drive that gave Baltimore a 7-3 lead.

Just like with the Falcons earlier in the day, the Patriots' offense got a lot of yards (428) but not enough points; and most importantly, no points in the 2nd half. Shut out after halftime and only 1 TD all game. You probably can count with one hand the number of times the Patriots have been held to a single TD at home with Brady at QB over the years. The TD came on an 11-play, 76-yard drive, putting New England up 10-7 with 4:18 remaining until halftime. Then the Patriots had a great chance for another TD on their next drive after picking up a 1st down at the Baltimore 10 with :26 on the clock. But Brady, a 13-year veteran, unbelievably and brutally mismanaged the clock; and the Patriots, who should have gotten 3 shots at the end zone if necessary - ran just one play before settling for a FG to make it 13-7. Wow.

The Ravens punted on their first possession in the 2nd half but scored on their next two, driving 87 and 63 yards for touchdowns to take a 21-13 lead early in the 4th quarter. From there the Patriots turned the ball over on all 4 of their remaining possessions (a fumble, 2 INT, and a turnover on downs), with perhaps the most important of the four being the pick by Ellerbe with 6:49 to go. The Ravens, now leading 28-13, had just punted and on the first play after the punt a 36-yard catch and run by WR Wes Welker moved the ball to the 24-yard line. But on the very next play DE Pernell McPhee jumped up (photo above) and deflected the pass high into the air, and Ellerbe (broken thumb and all) was able to hang on for the INT (photo below).
What is it the Ravens are doing that causes Brady so much trouble? You'd think that other teams might try the same thing. But while other teams struggle to stop Brady the Ravens at least slow him down a bit. Guess they just have his number. Yes, it's true that Brady's favorite target, TE Rob Gronkowski, did not play due to injury. But he didn't play for most of last week's game either and for several games before that, and yet the Patriots didn't have trouble moving the ball. Even if Gronkowski had been on the field, I think the Ravens still would have somehow found a way to win. They're playing like a team on a mission.


Quality not quantity is the thing with the Bears. Only players with dreads are two DBs who made the Pro Bowl this season - Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings - and Lance Louis, who arguably was the team's best O-lineman. Disappointingly Louis kept his sick dreads reduced almost all season, and the one game he had them at full blast (photo below) he suffered a season-ending injury on a borderline cheap shot by Vikings DE Jared Allen in Week 12. Details from the Chicago Tribune:
ACTIVE: CB Tim Jennings, CB Charles Tillman
INACTIVE: G Lance Louis (IR), DE Aston Whiteside (PS)
After missing his rookie season due to injury, Mikel Leshoure (photo below) did OK in his debut season (except for too many fumbles) and, as expected, led the division in TD among players with dreads. Joique Bell, with dreads just starting to escape the confines of his helmet, also a big contributor on offense. But Nate Burleson and his beginner dreads went on IR after breaking his leg in Week 7. I hate to admit it, but Louis Delmas' permanently reduced dreads don't look half bad. They're getting really long. Unfortunately Delmas still having issues with his knee, which refuses to fully heal.
ACTIVE: RB Joique Bell, S Louis Delmas, CB Jonte Green, RB Mikel Leshoure, DE Willie Young
INACTIVE: CB Dwight "Bill" Bentley (IR), WR Nate Burleson (IR), CB Jacob Lacey (IR), CB Lionel Smith (PS)
Packers unsuccessful in attempt to horde all the sick dreads in the league - but they certainly have their share. Ended season with league-leading 13 players with dreads on the roster. I don't know if there was a game in which they started all 4 DBs with dreads, but they could have, with Tramon Williams and Davon House on the corners and Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings at safety. Added the sick dreads of Terrell Manning and the super long dreads of Jerron McMillian in the draft. With the defense well stocked, Packers finally added some dreads to the offense this season, first signing Cedric Benson and then (after he got injured) giving Alex Green and DuJuan Harris (both in photo below) a chance to carry the ball. Johnny White, with dreads the longest of any RB in the league, also was on roster for a few games. What I like is that almost all the dreads are sick and that there were hardly any reduced dreads all season.
ACTIVE: S Morgan Burnett, RB Alex Green, RB DuJuan Harris, CB Davon House, S M.D. Jennings, LB Jamari Lattimore, LB Terrell Manning, S Jerron McMillian, LB Dezman Moses, LB Erik Walden, CB Tramon Williams
INACTIVE: RB Cedric Benson (IR), LB Desmond Bishop (IR)
I'm no expert on offensive line play, but apparently Phil Loadholt did very well this season. It was good to hear some of the praise he was getting. I wish Devin Aromashodu was back with the Bears (Jay Cutler probably does too). He had only 11 catches this season. Sickest dreads on the active roster belong to Mistral Raymond (photo below), a minor contributor on defense. Awesome dreads of Bobby Felder stayed on the practice squad all season. Hopefully we'll see them on the field in 2013.
ACTIVE: WR Devin Aromashodu, OT Phil Loadholt, S Mistral Raymond
INACTIVE: CB Bobby Felder (PS)

1. One of the things that has been maddening about the NFL this season is the inconsistency by the officials in calling penalties on hits on "defenseless" receivers. Here on the Falcons' opening drive S Dashon Goldson is not called for a penalty as he undercuts Falcons WR Roddy White .....

2. ..... sending White to a crash landing. I suppose if White had landed on his head, then maybe a foul would have been called. White held on for a 16-yard catch to convert a 3rd and 9, and Falcons took the lead 2 plays later on a Julio Jones 46-yard TD catch. Roddy finished with 7 receptions for 100 yards and was the only player to make the dread stars list this week.

3. CB Dunta Robinson knocks RB Frank Gore off his feet to make the tackle on a 7-yard run to the SF 40-yard line to convert a 2nd and 7 early in 2nd quarter. I was going to blow the whistle on Gore for not wearing his socks up to his knees like you're required to in the NFL, but the NFL already did, socking Gore with a $10,500 fine a few days after the game. The fine was that large because Gore is a repeat violator. For some reason he is really having a problem complying with this rule. Anyway, 7 plays later .....

4. ..... On 1st and 10 WR Michael Crabtree makes an acrobatic catch against the coverage of CB Asante Samuel in the end zone but doesn't land with both feet inbounds midway through 2nd quarter. But the 49ers scored a TD on the next play on a 15-yard run by RB LaMichael James to pull within 17-7. 

5. Unable to stop Falcons on their first 3 drives, 49ers shift into "whatever it takes" mode on the next drive. RB Jacquizz Rodgers almost drops his pants thanks to a not so subtle yank by LB NaVorro Bowman on 2nd and 9, and the pass falls out of his reach with 6:36 to go until halftime. No PI penalty was called. A pass to Rodgers on 3rd and 9 also was incomplete, and Falcons punted for the first time on 4th down.

6. Knowing he won't stop TE Vernon Davis by trying to wrap him up, Asante Samuel throws his whole body into Davis to knock him out of bounds at the 4-yard line after a 25-yard reception on the final play before the 2-minute warning. Davis got the TD catch on the next play to bring 49ers within 17-14. Samuel finished the game with 4 tackles (4-0) and 0 PBU.

7. On the second play of 4th quarter Michael Crabtree is thinking touchdown after making the catch on 2nd and goal, but Dunta Robinson has other ideas .....

8. ...... As Crabtree tries to power his way into the end zone, Robinson rips the ball loose just in the nick of time .....

9. ...... Robinson goes falling to the turf after the strip, but LB Stephen Nicholas (#54) is there to get the FR for Atlanta at the 1-yard line ......

10. ..... Dunta celebrates after his big play, which preserved the Falcons' 24-21 lead. But the celebration didn't last for long.

11. On 3rd and 1 on 49ers' next drive, Dunta Robinson dives at RB Anthony Dixon but misses, and Dixon picks up the 1st down with a 4-yard run to the ATL 25-yard line on his only carry of the game. Robinson finished with 5 tackles (5-0), 1 FF, and 0 PBU. 3 plays later 49ers scored game winning TD on a Frank Gore 9-yard run. 

12. Jacquizz Rodgers hangs on as DE Ray McDonald tries to strip the ball from him. I'm not sure but this might be Rodgers' 9-yard run on which he dragged McDonald for a couple of yards on Falcons' final drive in 4th quarter. But it might not be because McDonald tackled Rodgers on two other plays in the game. McDonald finished with 5 tackles (3-2). Rodgers led Falcons with 35 yards rushing on 11 carries.

13. After 49ers hold on for 28-24 victory it's all good for Anthony Dixon and his two-tone dreads. It's the 49ers' first NFC championship since 1994.

14. Ravens S Bernard Pollard misses the tackle, but LB Dannell Ellerbe doesn't let TE Aaron Hernandez get away, making the tackle (with an assist from LB Ray Lewis) at the Patriots' 40-yard line for a gain of 8 after a catch on 1st and 10 on Patriots' 2nd possession of 1st quarter. 2 plays later .....

15. ..... Lucky for S Ed Reed, WR Brandon Lloyd was wearing a pouch to keep his hands warm, otherwise Lloyd might have broken away for a bigger gain than the 13 yards he picked up on this 3rd and 2 play. The drive ended with a FG 8 plays later, giving New England a 3-0 lead. Lloyd finished with 7 receptions for 70 yards.

16. LB Brandon Spikes latches on to RB Ray Rice to make a tackle during 1st half, one of several close encounters they had through the evening. Spikes tackled Rice on the Ravens' first play from scrimmage, and the second, and on 7 other plays as well ......

17. ..... but Spikes can't make the tackle here. After eluding LB Dont'a Hightower (#54), Rice beats Spikes to the end zone for a 2-yard TD on 2nd and goal, giving Ravens a 7-3 lead with 9:28 remaining in 2nd quarter. 

18. After being called for a personal foul penalty on the previous play, Dannelle Ellerbe takes out his frustration on WR Wes Welker, leveling him after a 7-yard reception to the NE 46-yard line during 2nd quarter. The drive ended with a 1-yard TD catch by Welker - the Patriots' only TD of the game - putting Patriots back in front 10-7.

19. CB Devin McCourty puts a hard hit on WR Torrey Smith, but Smith hangs on for a 23-yard reception to the NE 44-yard line, converting a 2nd and 14 on the 2nd play of a drive late in 3rd quarter. The drive ended with an Anquan Boldin 3-yard TD catch, upping Ravens' lead to 21-13. Smith finished with 4 catches for 69 yards, with all 4 catches coming on scoring drives. 

20. On the 3rd play after Patriots turned the ball over on a fumble, Brandon Spikes tackles WR Jacoby Jones at the 11-yard line after a 6-yard reception on 1st down. Spikes finished with a team-leading 11 tackles (6-5) .....

21. ...... And on the next play Anquan Boldin scores his 2nd TD of the game, beating CB Marquice Cole on an 11-yard reception to complete a 4-play, 47-yard drive, giving Ravens a 28-13 lead with 11:13 remaining in game. Cole finished the night with 5 tackles (3-2) and 0 PBU.

22. Dannell Ellerbe celebrates after intercepting a 1st down pass at the BAL 16-yard line, ending Patriots' threat to get back in the game with 6:49 to play. It was Ellerbe's 2nd career INT and his first since Week 17 of his rookie season in 2009. Dannell finished with 5 tackles (2-3).

23. Start spreadin' the news - Ravens are going to the 'ship. LB Josh Bynes (0 tackles) celebrates Ravens' 28-13 victory for their 1st AFC crown since 2000.

24. Torrey Smith shares a moment with the Lamar Hunt trophy, awarded to the AFC Champs, in the locker room after the game. Don't worry Ravens' fans, Torrey's just using this as a dress rehearsal for when they hand out the real trophy.

I'll have a complete statistical breakdown of the two teams in my mega Super Bowl preview! ....... No, I don't think so. I've already made my prediction, so I'll just have a word or two before the game. We'll also take a look at the Pro Bowl, and I'll wrap up my dreads focus feature. 

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