Crab Update: Get a Grip

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The NFL and its media affiliates have been starved for news for some time now, which explains the hysteria around Michael Crabtree’s torn achilles tendon. There has been a slow trickle of reports from OTA’s, but NFL news outlets are running on fumes as the least exciting part of the offseason wears on. An injury to a major player on a high profile team is a juicy tidbit. The news that the 49ers number one receiver would be out for the season dropped like a bomb, with some pundits going as far as to claim that this injury meant the 49ers were no longer contenders, and were unlikely to even play reasonably well in 2013.

This isn’t surprising. Michael Crabtree is very talented, and it is a legitimate loss. But there are plenty of reasons why 49ers fans shouldn’t freak out. Crabtree was a great receiver late last season who showed an uncanny ability to move the ball after catches. He was hard-nosed and difficult to tackle, turning short receptions into huge gains. He was also Kaepernick’s favorite target, something which has been discussed at length. While their chemistry was great, and it will be exciting to see them back together after Crabtree recovers, it should be viewed as something that sprung up in the context of the 2012 season.

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© Brian Bahr/Getty Images North America

When Kaepernick was shunted into the quarterback role in November, the 49ers had considerable depth at wide receiver. Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham were not stars by any means, but both were productive parts of a functioning offense that had led the 49ers to a 6-2 record. Kaepernick’s first start against the Bears was the game that cemented him as a viable candidate for the job of starter. He targeted almost every receiver on the roster in that game, finding Vernon Davis more than anyone else in the 32-7 blowout. The next game against New Orleans was the same; Manningham and Delanie Walker had big days, but Kaepernick used most receivers in a big road win. Unfortunately, both Kyle Williams and running back Kendall Hunter would get injured at the Superdome, shrinking the depth chart. At this point, Crabtree and Kaepernick began to connect more, as the budding quarterback learned the value of putting the ball in the number one receiver’s hands. Mario Manningham was injured two weeks later in Seattle, leaving the depth chart depleted of receivers save for Crabtree and an unreliable Randy Moss. Crabtree began to break out, but he was also given the lion’s share of opportunities to do so. The often-discussed chemistry between Kaep and Crabtree was not just something that developed randomly; it became a necessity. This is a good thing; the chemistry was developed under injury-related duress that shook up the depth chart, much like what the 49ers are facing now. It would not be surprising if Kaepernick showed a similar connection to one or several of the 49ers wideouts next season.

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© US Presswire

The second glaringly obvious reason we should not worry too much is Jim Harbaugh. Endless praise has been heaped upon Harbaugh and his coaching staff for turning the 49ers from a perennial bummer into one of the league’s elite. Harbaugh came in and constructed an offense that played to Alex Smith’s strengths as a conservative, accurate passer and led the 49ers to a 13-3 season. He is a master at recognizing and harnessing the abilities of his players, and, given his track record, should be able to further evolve the 49ers’ offense to compensate for the loss of Crabtree. Much of the apocalyptic wailing about Crabtree’s injury has overplayed his role in the offense, the whiner in question making the assumption that the 49ers’ offense will (and should) look the same as the one we saw last year.

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© Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America

The fact that Kaepernick targeted Crabtree as much as he did led to some great plays, but it was also a tendency that could be exploited by opposing defenses. Alex Smith showed some remarkable late-season chemistry with star tight end Vernon Davis in 2011, but this meant Davis was facing double and triple coverage in 2012 and saw a remarkable decrease in his receiving numbers even before Kaepernick emerged as the starter. Crabtree’s injury opens up space for some of the 49ers’ other receivers to play a role. Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette have already been discussed as candidates for number two receiver behind Anquan Boldin, but Manningham, Williams and even A. J. Jenkins will be approaching practices with even more drive knowing that they have an opportunity to move up the depth chart.

Let’s take it easy, people. We’re in good hands.

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Rockies Series

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Jeff Chiu/AP

It is sad that the Giants’ dominance of the Rockies is over. It is clear that the Rox are not nearly as impressed with Giants pitching this season this year as they were last year, when they only managed to beat the Giants four times in eighteen games. And who can blame them? The Giants’ sputtering rotation is the talk of the baseball world, and mediocre starts have become a part of their game plan. This series was no different; New Lincecum was New Lincecum, and the two veterans muscled their teams back into winning position after struggling early on.

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AP Photo/Ben Margot

Looking at Lincecum’s stats from game one can be deceptive; its not like he was that bad. At the same time, from the first inning on, everyone was saying “Oh, so its going to be one of THOSE games”. He didn’t look sharp or confident and therefore it seemed like everything went against him. He still managed to rack up 8 K’s, and, despite no run support, put in seven innings of work. It was a game of inches; Scutaro and Pagan messed up a couple of plays that became big things that swallowed up any hope of a win. Even Bochy seemed aware of the feeling of impending loss; running Sandy Rosario out in the eighth was the closest thing to the white flag that the Giants have at this point. After getting wins against better pitchers, it is annoying to see the Giants owned by Tyler Chatwood. It seems that when they face mediocrity, the Giants respond in kind.

Getty Images/Ezra Shaw

Getty Images/Ezra Shaw

This felt a lot like game one; Zito dug a hole early, and after Juan Nicasio got Belt to strike out with the bases loaded in the first inning things looked grim. Zito never was able to pull off a 1-2-3 inning, but managed to grind out six innings of work, keeping the lead within spitting distance for the Giants. Nicasio had similar struggles but some great defense, in particular from Nolan Arenado, kept the Giants off the board. It looked like the Giants were going to get played out of another one, but then the absurdity started. Back to back doubles put the Giants on the board and set them up to tear into the bullpen, culminating in a perfect at-bat from Zen master Marco Scutaro that forced Ottavino to walk in a run. The Giants forced extra innings, and a comeback was in the works until Romo gave up a home run to the ever-obnoxious Troy Tulowitzki. It is difficult to understand what happened next; Angel Pagan managed to pull off one of the most ridiculous feats in baseball, hitting a game winning inside the park home run. It was a joyous moment, but also one that perfectly encapsulates the “lightning in a bottle” formula the Giants have for winning games. It will certainly put some swagger in their step going forward, but it came on the heels of a bad start and a rough outing for Sergio Romo, both of which are bad signs.

Josie Lepe/San Jose Mercury News

Josie Lepe/San Jose Mercury News

 

No doubt drawing a little inspiration from Zito, Cain made the mistake (or brilliant strategic maneuver) of putting the Giants in a hole early. People were quick to commend him for holding on and shutting out the Rox after his rough first inning, but Cain can do a lot better. Thankfully, the Giants picked him up quickly, scoring two two-out RBIs off of Jon Garland to wrestle the lead from the Rockies. The Rox’ bullpen couldn’t stop the bleeding, and, despite another poor showing from hardly-a-replacement-for-Casilla Sandy Rosario, the Giants held the lead. I wonder if any fans at the ballpark feel gipped because they didn’t get to see a bottom-of-the-ninth comeback…..

Yet another baffing series from the Giants. Bad starts turned into wins are fun, but it also feels like borrowing with bad credit. The Giants got a big, nasty taste of what happens when they cannot pick up the rotation last week, and may be looking at more of the same from the hard-swinging A’s. It is great to win, but at this point it would be even greater if the Giants’ starters could go for more than two games without hitting a wall. Time will tell.

Nationals Series

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John G. Mabanglo/EPA

I guess I got what I asked for. Sort of. Everybody was reeling after that road trip, and it seemed unlikely after falling to two mediocre teams on the road that the Giants could hold their own against the mighty Nationals. But these are professionals, these Giants, and they showed that they aren’t going to get stuck in a slump for long. There was yet another comeback, but the Giants staunched the bleeding and stopped committing errors. They also kept the most hyped young player in baseball in check for two games, holding him to two hits in the entire series.

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Maricio Jose Sanchez

Game one was emotional from start to finish. Let’s face it, none of us had much hope that Vogelsong would be able to keep the Nats at bay, let alone shut them out. But he turned in the best start of the season, and one of the most memorable of his career, with or without the injury. The Nationals, on the other hand, were only hoping for a mediocre start out of Duke, who was ushered in to fill a spot in the rotation after they lost Ross Detwiler. The Giants’ bats were alive once again, and they chased Duke out of the game after three innings. Vogelsong seemed unstoppable until he swung awkwardly at an inside pitch from Craig Stammen and was removed from the game soon after with a fractured hand.

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AP Photo

Although the first game was a big win for the Giants, game two felt even bigger. Pitching duels like Starsburg v. Cain require error-free play; winning or losing one often comes down to a few crucial mistakes. Cain looked good after a slow start, but the Giants were cold against Strasburg, only getting five hits in seven innings. Once again, it came down to the last gasp of the game; Gregor Blanco knocked a two out, two strike hanging slider over Bryce Harper’s head for an RBI triple. One could make the argument that the Giants should have lost this game; their starter was slightly less sharp and they played a little bit worse, but these games hinge on the bullpens, and the Giants had enough depth to take advantage of a couple of lazy late-game pitches.

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Maricio Jose Sanchez

Off games are going to happen on occasion; it is far more satisfying to get outplayed and lose by inches, which was the case in game three, than to struggle through a bad start and hope for a comeback. Bryce Harper finally showed up, putting the Nats on the board with a home run and stifling the Giants’ comeback in the tenth with a double off of Jeremy Affeldt. Harper and Bumgarner exchanged complements after the game; Bumgarner has already done so much for the Giants it is hard to see him as a young star like Harper. Game three was the meeting of two immensely talented young players; I can only hope that the next time they face off Bumgarner can keep Harper off-balance as well as Cain and Vogelsong did.

We can breathe a little easier, for a few days at least. The Giants functioned well in this series; they played up to the skill level and pitching of the Nationals. It wasn’t dominant, but it was the team performing as they were designed to perform. Comebacks are fun, but long starts, solid hitting and a functioning bullpen are far more reassuring signs of sustainable success. Also, we don’t have to look at this moustache for a while:

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Michael Crabtree Tears Achilles Tendon in OTAs

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Earlier this year I was dragging my feet through life, still trying to get over the Super Bowl. I was going to get some dim sum when I decided to wander into one of the big aquarium stores on Clement. I was browsing through the tanks of exotic fish and coral when I found a little jar full of Indonesian Red Devil Crabs. I decided to get one, so I bought a tank, some gravel and a plastic container of some foul-smelling food and took a crab home.

After I got everything set up I tried to figure out what to name the bright red beast. I had spent the Super Bowl nervously eating dungeness crab at my friend’s party, and later hung the crab shells ceremoniously from a tree in his back yard. So I named him Michael Crabtree, stuck the tank on my coffee table and spent the next few days following free agency while watching him scuttle around.

He was doing fine until a couple weeks ago. I hadn’t really interacted with Michael much other than feeding him every other day and yelling at him while watching the draft. I was on my way out when I noticed one of his red legs on one side of the tank and the rest of him on the other. I did some frenzied research and learned that this was a natural part of the molting process, and that any limb he lost would grow back after he shed his shell. I watched as he lost a couple more legs and a claw, and scuttled a lot less than usual. A few days later he didn’t scuttle it all, and now the tank is empty.

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Michael Crabtree is undergoing tests on a possible tear in his Achilles tendon. The surgery necessary to repair this damage is serious, but not necessarily a season ender. Whether or not Crabtree plays this season, the 49ers must now reassess their receiving corps. The Anquan Boldin trade just became even more significant, but the 49ers offense is probably much less threatening no matter who steps up to fill the 2nd receiver role.

Brace yourself for a lot of talk about the chemistry between Kaepernick and Crabtree, but consider the whole of last year. The 49ers lost two receivers late in the 2012 season, so any potential for chemistry there was lost. Crabtree was a huge asset, but the 49ers offense showed that it can weather a quarterback/offensive style change mid-season. There is decent depth at receiver, and a run game that should be even better than it was last year. If Crabtree’s injury keeps him off the field in 2013, the 49ers will have to adapt and move on. Fortunately, they have most of the offseason practice time to sort out a plan of action, and should figure things out before they take on Green Bay.

I’m going to go get another crab this week. Maybe I’ll name him Quinton Patton.

Super Bowl L

49ersinjeansSuper Bowl L will be played at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. It was the logical choice after a lot of Silicon Valley tech giants started to write checks, giving Jed York the cash he needed to qualify as a viable host. The week leading up to the Super Bowl will be filled with events all over the Bay Area, hopefully serving as a generator of revenue for the region.

This will be a big celebration, as it marks the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl. It will showcase the Bay Area as well as the history of the Super Bowl, which hopefully means the week leading up to the game will be filled with more than endless, bleary-eyed rants about each team from exhausted analysts. While it will be a big event, the Bay is no stranger to celebrations of this size. The America’s Cup will take place in the Bay later this year and San Francisco also played host to two World Series in the last three years.

The most interesting factor will be the 49ers themselves. They are very well set up after this years draft to maintain their status as a Super Bowl contender for the next five or six years. They have built a strong foundation around Colin Kaepernick, and, barring a meltdown, should have a pretty good chance to be the first team to play the Super Bowl at their home stadium.

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© Getty Images

© Getty Images

Ryan Vogelsong fractured his hand in tonight’s shutout of the Washington Nationals. He was in the middle of his best outing of the season when he swung at an inside pitch from Nats reliever Craig Stammen. He will go under the knife this Tuesday and should return within six weeks.

Get well soon Vogey.

Reality

© Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

© Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

I miss torture. Remember how torture worked? Lincecum/Bumgarner/Cain would pitch lights-out, going strong into the late innings. Somewhere along the line the Giants would score a run or two, probably off a sacrifice fly. Then the bullpen would take over and we would be on the edge of our seat until Wilson/Casilla/Romo got the save. That was the style that won two World Series and the style that the Giants have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in.

Whatever is happening now is the opposite; we are on the edge of our seat from the first pitch on. We know the bad inning is coming, we just don’t know which one it will be. Somewhere around the early-middle of the game the starter will lose it, giving up five or six runs in what feels like the most painful way possible. Sometimes it’s back to back home runs or even a grand slam. All of a sudden, (insert middling NL team here) are on top, and the Giants are in a familiar hole.

What has kept the Giants in first place the last few weeks was their ability to work out of that hole. They would go after wins in the late innings, sometimes only getting there in the bottom of the ninth. Twelve of the Giants twenty-four wins have been come-from-behind victories. These sorts of games are fun and full of drama, but they depend on the Giants to hit well and play flawless defense. Both of those things came unraveled on the road trip which thankfully ended yesterday.

There is a lot to be concerned about at this point, with every aspect of the Giants’ game. The only thing that is likely to change within the next couple of games is the astounding number of errors the Giants racked up in Canada and Colorado. Thirteen errors in six games is so awful that I can only see it as an aberration, a team-wide case of the yips that should go away as quickly as it started.

The unfortunate side to this was the nature of the errors committed; many of the over-throws and misplays helped to exacerbate what was already a poor showing for the Giants starting pitchers. The errors speak to a frustration with the game and sometimes an over-eagerness to make plays when it would be safer to hold on to the ball and keep runs off the board.

While it may seem logical that the errors are what is preventing any of the Giants’ starters from lasting, pitching was a problem long before the Giants left for Toronto. Each individual starter’s struggles have been explored at length, and some small progress has been made, but rotation as a whole is in a slump , and that is the unsettling reality that Bochy and Righetti must now tackle.

The Giants have been far too lax in addressing this problem; the amount of confidence that Bochy puts in the rotation is not surprising given the Giants’ recent success, but it is becoming clear that good hitting will not always make up for pitching mistakes. The comeback victories and walk-offs may have worsened the problem; the Giants were able to weather bad starts and win anyway. As a result, the rotation was never really taken to task for leaving pitches up and lengthening bad innings.

After this most recent road trip, it has become clear that the Giants could not sustain their winning ways. This team was built first and foremost around pitching; the lineup has been hitting well at the right times, but cannot overpower teams like the Blue Jays or Rockies when so many mistakes are made. Four of the five starters have shown great stuff; if they can return to form, the Giants will be in good shape. Whether it is simply some mechanical tweaks or a pervading lack of confidence, the rotation needs a lot of work. It might do the team some good to lose more. Bochy spoke to the come behind wins after the Giants swept  the Dodgers, asserting that a win is a win, no matter how it happens. While that may be true, the Giants are not getting what they paid for. The Giants’ rotation is one of the most expensive in the league, but it has been performing at a level far below what is expected. This, coupled with the starters’ running off the rails in the last six games should be enough to force the Giants coaching and management to seriously address what is preventing the rotation from dominating.

49ers Rookie Minicamp

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© San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers rookie minicamp has ended, and the glut of Niners draftees and rookie free agents have made their first impressions on the coaching staff and a hand full of starters who showed up to watch the practices. Although much of the media coverage was full of the standard platitudes used to describe rookies from every team, some of the major draft story lines have developed further, many along the lines the experts had predicted. The most engaging of these story lines belong to the rookies who will be tasked with stepping in and starting next season.

Eric Reid was the 49ers’ first pick in the draft, and has already received praise from those watching the practices, including Donte Whitner. What is most striking about Reid is his adoption of Jim Harbaugh’s meritocratic philosophy when it comes to the depth chart. Although it has been acknowledged that Reid is slated to fill Dashon Goldson’s shoes, he is showing no signs of entitlement when it comes to earning the starting role. Reid has impressed with his hitting ability as well as his intelligence, and will be an exciting player to watch.

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© San Francisco 49ers

Although he was not a high profile pick, Vance McDonald is the answer to the loss of Delanie Walker. He has already begun to show himself capable of surpassing Walker; he has better hands and overall receiving ability along with the versatility that allows the 49ers to place him anywhere they need him on the line. He still lacks Delaine’s blocking ability, but has shown a great deal of raw strength and should learn a lot under the league’s best tight end, Vernon Davis. Harbaugh has already spoken to the potential he sees in the rookie.

Quinton Patton is one of the more exciting picks; he was nabbed in the fourth round, despite his talent. Patton’s skills at route running and mobility are going to make a big impression in the upcoming OTAs, after he gets a chance to look over the playbook and use his football smarts. Patton will be even more interesting when he is stacked up next to A.J. Jenkins and some of the 49ers’ other receivers; he is going to be a wildcard in the competition for the Niners 3rd wideout. He looked strong at the minicamp, and has already endeared himself to Jim Harbaugh by showing a lot of initiative in making his own way to the Bay.

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© San Francisco 49ers

One of the less storied rookies was Corey Lemonier, who is slated to act much like Aldon Smith in Vic Fangio’s defense. Although many see him primarily as a pass rush specialist, he showed versatility as an outside linebacker, meaning he could be used next season to spell the Niners’ aggressive pass rush or to supplement their run defense.

Paired with Lemonier on the defensive line is Cornelius “Tank” Carradine, one of the injured draftees who the Niners hope will prove to be an asset filling holes on the defensive line. He has expressed confidence in his ability to recover from a torn ACL and become an valuable addition to the team, but he has not been able to show much yet. Tank has been ordained as the heir apparent to Justin Smith, but won’t be able to step up until he is cleared for practice.

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© San Francisco 49ers

Much like Carradine, Marcus Lattimore could do little during the minicamp except watch is fellow rookies and study the playbook. Though he was one of the more well-known draft picks, Lattimore has not proven particularly talkative or open. Despite this, he has expressed willingness to sit out a season, let his injury heal and absorb what he can from the 49ers’ running corps and offensive line.

Former USF quarterback B.J. Daniels has become the darling of the sports blog conjecture circuit, and not without good reason. He has been projected to fill in as third string quarterback, practice squad imitator of Russel Wilson (Although this is likely due more to 49ers-Seahawks hysteria than anything else) or even punt returner. It will be interesting to see whether he can out-hustle Colt Mccoy and Scott Tolzien and move up the depth chart, as he has the raw athletic talent to fill in as a surrogate Kaepernick should the unthinkable happen to No. 7.   Lawrence Okoye© Ap                                                                                                                                       My favorite storyline has been that of Lawrence Oyoke, who has fulfilled everything expected of him in minicamp, both in terms of insane athleticism as well as extreme inexperience. He has expressed a very healthy, appreciative outlook on his place with the 49ers, showing a great deal of appreciation for the opportunity and even tweeting awkwardly about Jim Tomsula:

I am a bit over-excited to see what this guy can do; he is in the best position possible with the best team and coaching staff to host him, and can only get better learning from Justin Smith.

Canada

© AP

© AP

The Giants begin their short road trip in Canada, where baseball is played on a giant trampoline covered in grease. Indoor fake turf stadiums are notoriously hard to adjust to, but we all thought the Giants had hit some kind of stride against the talented Braves. The Blue Jays, who made a tremendous amount of noise in the offseason, have had very little other than power to help them win, at home or on the road. I was ready for a pair of fairly inconsequential games that would provide another chance for two of the Giants’ more questionable starters to get a little in-game practice.

What can be taken away from game one that isn’t already a trusim about baseball? While it may not stand out as much as the Giants’ rotation, they are a team that depends on consistent defensive play at all positions. Sometimes, solid defensive players are off by a matter of inches, and make a mistake and move on. Other times, mistakes get lumped together in a couple of games, setting off warning bells and hopefully getting those players suffering from the dropsies to get it together. And sometimes, all the mistakes come in one or two innings, and the game speeds away from from the struggling team who can only shrug and move on. This was the case with the Giants. Whatever discomfort caused the rough first inning, it was clear that once the Jays got started they weren’t going to stop. Zito’s return to relevance in the last couple of years has hinged on his ability to put balls in play, allowing the defense behind him to put in work when a strikeout is not an option. Naturally, this necessitates at the very least competent fielding, and only functions perfectly when the Giants are playing with confidence and skill. If there is something off, the whole system is shaken. Although the Giants seemed poised to rally back, Dickey kept them off-balance and Kontos couldn’t hold on for a late inning miracle.

Pretty much the same scenario came in to play in game two. If there was any chance of Vogelsong making it out of the game in one piece, it required the same crisp defensive play that the Giants used to outplay the Braves at home. The early innings here were even more perplexing than the day before. It was hard to find the line between Vogelsong’s mistakes and the defensive misplays. What was clear was that the Giants were playing miserably, and somewhere in the middle of it all the game got away from them. Whether the early errors derailed Vogelsong and dramatically shortened his outing or he was having an even worse start than the last one irrespective of fielding is only something we can guess at. Bochy’s opinion is the important one; if he thinks Vogelsong got shorted, that will no doubt give Vogelsong more leeway when Bochy is deciding whether to sit him for a start or give him another shot.

When the Giants have two games like this, it is hard to find a reason not to turn off the TV and do something else. Fortunately, the Giants had just enough good plays to keep things interesting. Rallys do happen, and although it didn’t happen to the Giants, that knowledge makes us ask after each seemingly meaningless run dutifully put up by the losing team “Is this where the amazing comeback starts?” This is especially true of the Giants, who are inexplicably good at changing the momentum of games in their favor. There was even some good defense later on; Crawford and Pence kept their focus on the field, enough for the Giants not to be pulling out their hair en route to Colorado. I am looking at these games as a vacation gone wrong; a disastrous little trip into another division we shouldn’t have to worry about anyways.