A Writer's Room of Requirement

A home for the many random insights that cross my mind from time to time.

Archive for the category “Football”

2013 NFL Predictions

Every year, I go team by team and game by game and sketch out my predictions for the NFL season.  I don’t always publish my prognostications, but I like to return to them next year and see just how wrong I was.  Let’s see how laughable this forecast appears at the conclusion of the 2013 season.

NFC East

New York Giants 9-7
Washington 9-7
Dallas Cowboys 6-10
Philadelphia Eagles 5-11

The Giants have the quarterback, coach, and organizational stability to contend every year.  They will defeat Washington in the last week of the regular season to clinch the division title.  Washington will take a step back as they face a tougher schedule and deal with RG3’s recovery from knee surgery.  The Cowboys have some talent but lack depth and possess one of the league’s most dysfunctional front offices.  The Eagles could show improvement, but I feel they need another year to bolster their defense and truly implement Chip Kelly’s offense.

NFC North

Chicago Bears 12-4
Detroit Lions 11-5
Green Bay Packers 9-7
Minnesota Vikings 6-10

The bears have improved the line and talent around Jay Cutler and Matt Forte.  Coach Marc Trestman will infuse new life into this offense and this team.  The Lions will bounce back behind top talents Calvin Johnson and N’Damukong Suh and a last place schedule.  Aaron Rodgers will do his best to buoy the Packers, but his line can’t protect him and the defense can’t protect his leads.  Adrian Peterson can’t single handedly carry the Vikings to the playoffs two years in a row.  Expect a big drop off in Minnesota.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons 12-4
New Orleans Saints 10-6
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 8-8
Carolina Panthers 8-8

The Falcons impressed me with their playoff run last year.  I think they have what it takes to make a serious championship run this year.  The Saints will bounce back with Sean Payton at the helm, but a lackluster defense and a tough division will keep them out of the playoffs.  Similarly, Tampa Bay and Carolina will improve, but poor coaching and the division will keep them from reaching their goals this season.

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks 11-5
San Francisco 49ers 11-5
St Louis Rams 8-8
Arizona Cardinals 7-9

The 49ers have the best coach, quarterback, and overall talent in the division, but no Super Bowl loser has returned to the title game since the early ’90s Bills and no Super Bowl loser has won the following year’s championship since the immortal ’72 Dolphins.  The emotional letdown, the Super Bowl hangover, will keep San Francisco from performing at full power this year, but I am already predicting their victory at the conclusion of the 2014 season.  The Seahawks will take advantage of the Niners letdown to fully realize their power and claim the league’s toughest division.  The Rams and Cardinals will show significant improvement.  The play of quarterback Sam Bradford will limit the Rams.  The Cardinals finally have a legitimate starting QB in Carson Palmer, but I question the hire of Bruce Arians.

AFC East

New England Patriots 10-6
Miami Dolphins 6-10
Buffalo Bills 5-11
New York Jets 2-14

The Patriots have entered a period of transition, a period of retooling, but until coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady fail to win ten games, I’m not gonna pencil them in for anything less.  Many critics like the Dolphins, but I don’t trust Tannehill at quarterback and I wouldn’t hire their front office to buy my groceries.  They continually make bad decisions in free agency.  Outside of running back CJ Spiller, the Bills have exactly nil to get excited about.  The Jets have an above average coach, but their dreadful front office has built the least talented team in football.

AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals 10-6
Baltimore Ravens 10-6
Pittsburgh Steelers 7-9
Cleveland Browns 7-9

The Bengals have talent and depth at every level of the roster.  I remain unconvinced by QB Andy Dalton and coach Marvin Lewis, but they have more than enough talent to clinch the division.  The Ravens endured a lot of roster turnover following their Super Bowl run, but they kept their most important piece, coach John Harbaugh.  Harbaugh and the team’s pride will prevent them from sliding too far.  The Steelers have just looked old the last couple of years and they have difficulty keep Roethlisberger upright for more than twelve or thirteen games.  The Browns will show marked signs of improvement, but they remain at least a season and a quarterback away from contending for a playoff spot.

AFC South

Houston Texans 9-7
Indianapolis Colts 8-8
Tennessee Titans 5-11
Jacksonville Jagaurs 4-12

The championship window has closed for the Texans, but they can still pace this weak division.  The Colts can’t maintain the emotional high of playing for a sick coach this year, but improvement from Andrew Luck will keep them from sliding too far.  The Titans and Jagaurs both need at least a couple of drafts to rebuild and cut dead wait before they can expect to approach .500.

AFC West

Denver Broncos 12-4
Kansas City Chiefs 9-7
San Diego Chargers 5-11
Oakland Raiders 5-11

The Broncos look stronger on paper than any team in the conference.  They should easily conquer their division.  The Chiefs always had the talent, but now they have an adequate quarterback and coach.  The new regimes in San Diego and Oakland will need at least a couple of years to rebuild their respective programs.

Wildcard Round

Seattle over Detroit, San Francisco over New York, New England over Kansas City, Baltimore over Houston

Divisional Round

Atlanta over San Francisco, Seattle over Chicago, Denver over Baltimore, Cincinnati over New England

Conference Championship

Atlanta over Seattle, Cincinnati over Denver

Super Bowl

Atlanta over Cincinnati

In the NFC, Seattle still feels a year or two away and San Francisco has the Super Bowl hangover.  The Bears look good, but I can’t imagine a title run in Trestman’s first year.  That leaves the window open for the Falcons.  They are the right team at the right time.

In the AFC, the Broncos have the best team on paper, but John Fox has too much of the Marty Schottenheimer gene.  His steady conservatism will win a lot of regular season games, but it lacks the necessary edge in the playoffs.  That leaves the AFC wide open.  The Bengals have the youth and talent to make an unexpected deep run like the Ravens did last year.

As much as I hate to laud the pretty boys, you can’t win a championship without a game changing quarterback.  Matt Ryan exceeds Andy Dalton by orders of magnitude.  The Atlanta Falcons follow Matt Ryan to their first Super Bowl championship.

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The Day After a Super Bowl Loss

kap loss

I feel a dull ache in the pit of my stomach.  I took a sucker punch to the gut and the fist came out the other side.  I mourn for the 2012 San Francisco 49ers like I would a loyal dog freshly buried.  It hurts – not an active sharpness – but merely a ceiling on my happiness.  My nostalgia longs for the hope that I held just 48-hours ago.

I have longed for a major championship from one of my teams – my 49ers, my Reds, and especially my Hokies – since San Francisco last took home the championship in the winter of 1995.  They constantly build up your hope.  The Hokie football team starts 6-0 only for it to fall apart in November.  The Reds finally build a contender after a 15-year playoff drought but drop three straight deciding games to the eventual champions in the NLDS.  The 49ers make it to the Super Bowl for the first time since I attended elementary school only to lose by a goal line stand.  The hopes always come crashing to earth.

I suppose I should count myself lucky.  The Reds and 49ers have both won championships within my memory.  The Hokies have failed to win ten games in a season only twice since my freshman year and even managed to win the Orange Bowl.  Since I took up soccer in 2009, my local team, the Richmond Kickers, have won a championship and my EPL team, Liverpool FC, won a lesser cup last spring.  I do not intend to whine, but every sports fan wants the ultimate prize.  We want to bask in the glory of a world championship.  We invest so much faith into our sports teams, we surrender so much power to something we cannot control, that we feel our teams’ disappointment with every setback.

I never once lost faith in the 49ers last night.  Perhaps I was simply in denial.  Down fifteen at halftime, I looked up the greatest Super Bowl comeback.  I balked when I realized it was only ten points, but I did not give up.  When we went down by 22 in the third, I simply recalled the 17-point deficit the team had overcome in the NFC championship game.  When the lights went out at the Superdome, I called it a sign from God and prophesied a comeback on Facebook.

The 49ers almost proved me right.  With the power outage stunting Baltimore’s emotional advantage, San Francisco stormed back with superior talent on a 23-6 run through the second half.  In the sight of adversity, my faith strengthened even more.  Not only could we win, but winning became our destiny.  It was fated.  Down five with under three minutes left at the Baltimore 5-yard line, victory seemed clinical.  The offense would simply run down the clock and march the ball into the end zone.  Baltimore would try an unfortunate Hail Mary.  My team would stand in the center of the field as champions.

It didn’t happen that way.  I believe the referees missed the pass interference call on the fourth down play, but I do not believe that is the main reason we lost.  I want to second the guess the playcalling in the goal line series.  I wonder if Kap would have had more success running the ball himself.  Our offensive line, arguably the best in football, got us there.  I prefer to rely on them in that situation.  However, I recall we have one of the best coaches in football.  I do not presume to question Coach Harbaugh.

I want to blame the first half defense.  We have so many all-pros but they did not play their best football against that high-powered Flacco aerial attack.  The special teams likely deserves some blame too.

Ultimately though, we lost because Baltimore wanted it more.  They had more heart on this day.  They came out spewing fire.  The power outage stunted that momentum, but they found their drive again when they needed it most on that final goal line stand.  Their veterans burned for victory.

Despite the ache, hope springs eternal.  I know we will return to this stage, and soon.  These 2012 San Francisco 49ers remind me a lot of the 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers.  That team also rode a superior, linebacker-driven defense and a tough, talented second-year quarterback into the Super Bowl.  The 2006 Steelers had the referee assistance and the emotional edge of the Jerome Bettis retirement that the 2012 49ers lacked.  Of interest to 49ers fans is what happened three years later.  The Steelers returned to the Super Bowl and a fully matured Ben Roethlisberger led the game winning drive to help them capture their second championship of the decade.  While I certainly hope Colin Kaepernick avoids Roethlisberger’s off-field incidents, I truly believe he can become the faster, smarter version of the Steelers’ QB.

In addition to Kap, we still have Jim Harbaugh, one of the top five coaches in the NFL.  The bulk of our road grading offensive line is still under thirty.  Our all-pro laden defense is similarly young with only Justin Smith of worry.  This team remains built to win for the next five years.

Fellow Niners fans, use this loss as fuel.  Add it to the 2-14 season and the eight straight non-winning seasons.  Add it to the muffed punts of January 2012.  When we finally achieve the Quest for Six, it will taste that much sweeter.

The Highs and Lows of Fandom and Matt Ryan

October 26, 2007, Al-Taqaddum Air Base, Iraq

My Army National Guard platoon had the night off from running convoy security missions, so in the wee hours of Friday morning, I settled into my camping chair to watch my now alma mater play college football.  It served as an escape from the the constant stress of  my  occupation.  My deployment to Iraq had caused the second break from school in four years, but I still held Virginia Tech close to my heart.  I had no doubt I would return for my senior year when this strange dream ended.

If I squinted hard enough, my current living space even looked like a dorm room.  The outfitted shipping container had about as much space as one.  I shared it with my buddy Karim.  Like most dorm rooms it had two beds, a couple of desks, a microwave, assorted food stuffs, a TV, and a PS2 all cramped into tight quarters. If you overlooked the body armor, assault rifles, and duffle bags, you couldn’t tell the difference.

Even though I watched the game from half way around the world, the time difference didn’t affect me.  We ran all of our convoy security missions at night.  The lack of traffic on the roads made our convoys faster and safer.  The 7:30 PM start time in Blacksburg felt like a 3:30 PM start time even if local time ran closer to 3 AM.

In the midst of another crazy college football season, the Hokies had rebounded from an early-season dismantling at the hands of LSU to climb back into the championship conversation.  The #8 Hokies entered the primetime showdown with a 6-1 record.  I let my mind imagine a scenario where Virginia Tech ran the table and landed back in the BCS Championship Game.  I began mentally planning how I could switch leave dates with other solders so I could attend the game.  I still believed the Hokies could win the title every year.  I hadn’t yet reached the cynicism that comes with rooting for a team that’s consistently good but never great.

That night #2 Boston College came to Blacksburg behind the arm of QB and Heisman candidate Matt Ryan.  The undefeated Eagles posed a threat but I had a hard time believing they were as good as their record.  The media hadn’t ranked them that high since Doug Flutie played in Boston.  Besides, even if they had found magic in a bottle, Lane Stadium had a way of killing the spirit of visiting teams.  Rivals even lauded our home field advantage as the toughest in the country during that period.  Such accolades only made the fans louder.

With four minutes left in the game, it appeared that my prediction would come true.  Tech held a 10-0 lead.  The Boston College Heisman wannabe had done nothing.  Though our offense once again left something to be desired, Virginia Tech would salt away this win and emerge victorious.

When Ryan threw a touchdown pass two minutes later, my confidence began to waver.  Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer does not have a track record of handling pressure well.  To often he falls into the cliche of “playing not to lose, instead of playing to win.”  Still, BC had to recover the onside kick and drive the field against one of the best defenses in the country with only two minutes on the clock.  No chance.  Right?

BC recovered the onside kick.  Uh-oh.

Pass completion.  Pass completion.  Pass completion.  Time out.  Pass completion. No-no-no-no.

Incomplete.  Holding Penalty.  Incomplete.  <sigh> Okay.  We’ve got this.  We can beat them in overtime if they make the kick.

3rd and 20 from the Virginia Tech 24-yard-line.  Matt Ryan to Andre Callender.  Touchdown.

It felt like a sucker punch to the gut.  The puffed up confidence I had in that Hokie team deflated all at once.  I started at the screen without seeing.  I couldn’t move.  I felt like a shell of my former self.  All life and spirit had left me.  With 11 seconds left on the clock, I prayed for a miracle that I knew wouldn’t come.

I cursed Matt Ryan.  Hokie alums the world over added his name to our all-time villains list.  He joined hated Wahoos and Hurricanes of the past, but while we hated those teams on principle, Ryan stood out as a singular entity.  We would enjoy rooting against him for the duration of his career.

But that didn’t make me feel any better on that October night in the desert.  I didn’t want to face my bleak world just then.  I stood up, turned out the light, and crawled early into bed.

January 20, 2013, Richmond, VA

I’ve loved the San Francisco 49ers since I was eight-years-old.  San Francisco seemed a world away from my home in South Charleston, WV, but my mom made the distance shorter by taking my sister and me to the local public library every week.  I played T-ball and little league football and, despite my lack of athleticism, I couldn’t get enough of sports and competition.  I read every sports book I could find in the children’s and young adult sections and I even tackled a few biographies from the regular non-fiction section after a couple of years.

Those books introduced me to Joe Montana, the largest hero of my childhood.  Nothing seemed impossible for the 49ers QB. It didn’t matter if he was down twenty points in the Super Bowl, I believed he would always find a way to win with his precise accuracy, peerless vision, and cool demeanor.  When I watched his first game back after the elbow injury, the Monday Night game against Detroit, it seemed like a god had descended to take part in our sport.  I cried the day the Niners traded him to Kansas City.  For two years, I became a football bigamist. Cut me some slack; I was nine.  My idol had gone Kansas City, but San Francisco still felt like home.

The 49ers helped me through my parents’ divorce.  They separated the spring before the Niners won their fifth Super Bowl.  I sat next to my dad in the mobile home he rented as Steve Young (no hard feelings) and Jerry Rice ran roughshod over an inferior Chargers team.  Like Hokie games in Afghanistan and Iraq, Super Bowl XXIX let me escape the reality of my situation for a moment.

I had lows as a Niners fan too.  It wasn’t the losing records.  Those just left me numb.  Honestly, its difficult to watch a bad Niners team on the east coast.  It makes it easier to ignore the disappointment.  I saw my first live 49ers game in Nashville in 2005.  When Steve McNair led a second half comeback to bury a pathetic San Francisco team, it just felt expected.

The worst feeling came when I watched the 49ers get suddenly and radically good again only to fumble away a chance at a Super Bowl just when I started to believe.  That sucker punch held shades of a Boston College Matt Ryan.

Except now Matt Ryan quarterbacks the Atlanta Falcons, the team the San Francisco 49ers must face in this year’s NFC Championship Game.  And now Matt Ryan has the ball down four with eight minutes to go.  And now Matt Ryan has moved the ball to the San Francisco ten with 90 seconds left.

I didn’t lack confidence in the defense.  I had seen Willis, Bowman, and the Smiths make any number of spectacular defensive plays over the course of the season.  I just couldn’t convince myself that Matt Ryan wasn’t the football antichrist, sent to earth specifically to destroy my love of football and Joe Montana.  I had flashbacks to the Tech-BC game.  I kept thinking, “Not Again.”

I couldn’t sit still.  The nerves ate me up inside.  Throughout the second half my left leg bounced up and down like the piston in a race car.  The energy bottled up inside me, waiting for that moment to elevate me or destroy me.  When Navarro knocked down Ryan’s pass on fourth down, I leapt from the couch and triumphantly shouted “Yes!” loud enough for the neighbors to hear me.  Maybe Matt Ryan wouldn’t ruin me again.

Still, the game had one minute left on the clock.  It felt like the longest minute of my life.  I paced back and forth in the small living room of my Richmond apartment.  I wore a hole in the rug waiting for the game to end.

When the clock finally struck zeros, I beamed.  Elation and joy coursed through my veins.  For the first time since I was ten years old – eighteen years! – one of my teams would play for a world championship.  Nothing could wipe the grin from my face that evening.  Several times I looked over at my wife:

“Guess what?”

“What?” she’d reply.

“We’re going to the Super Bowl.”

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