Checking In With The Giants

romo49ers

I haven’t written about the Giants in a while. I’ve been trying to puzzle out why, but I think the reason is pretty basic. Last season was difficult and weird, but mostly difficult. There were some incredibly awesome games mired in months and months of one or another part of the team malfunctioning and dragging the Giants down. Apart from the no-hitter, Yusmeiro Petit’s almost-perfecto, Barry Zito’s last pitch and this game, the 2013 season is one I am eager to leave behind.

As such, I was not all that excited to write about the Giants’ offseason. There was a lot of online hand-wringing about the Giants’ moves (and non-moves) over the last few months. The team we saw stumble to 76-86 is coming back, almost to a man. Most of the Giants’ moves happened early, before big-name free agents started to get snatched up by eager teams. What additions were made seemed conservative, given the talent available on the market. It was a strange offseason; so many ball clubs were willing to take chances and overpay that the Giants were priced out of a lot of free agents.

The reason I struggled to address this is because it merits reexamining the 2013 season. The question is, are the Giants as bad as they played last year? Around June, once the World Series giddiness wore off and the Giants being bad became the norm, I would have said yes. The team seemed irreparable, and the season looked lost well before the Dodgers streaked into 1st place.

Having taken a little distance from the season, Sabean’s actions make a little more sense. From where I sit right now, I don’t think the Giants were as bad as they played in 2013. The front office didn’t do much to add strength to the team, but they addressed some of the more glaring problems of last season. The addition of Tim Hudson means another steady hand in the rotation, which was the first thing to run off the rails last season. Matt Cain should be able to bounce back, and Madison Bumgarner seems to get better every season. Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincecum are the biggest questions. Lincecum was given a fairly generous deal, and the Giants seem content to bet on him to improve. They have less faith in Vogelsong, but given how 2013 went, that isn’t really surprising.

Michael Morse was the only other major addition. The Giants were hoping to get some power without breaking the bank. Carlos Beltran and Shin-Soo Choo were never really options, and Morse has enough pop to make up for his lack of defensive skills.

I don’t hate what the Giants have done so far. Their problems last season started with the rotation, and I understand Sabean betting on Lincecum to change up his style and become more consistent. I’m also fairly averse to blockbuster deals; I’m really happy that things like this didn’t happen to the Giants, or this, or this. A lot of things need to go right for the Giants to contend in 2014, but a lot more would have to go wrong for them to repeat the travesty of last season.

You’re (Probably) Wrong About Richard Sherman

NFL: NFC Championship-San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks

Richard Sherman did a very Richard Sherman thing when followed one of the defining plays of the 2013 NFL season with an excited, adrenaline-fueled proclamation of his own greatness. His athletic touchdown-saving tip ended the NFC Championship, securing a Super Bowl berth for the Seahawks and ending the 49ers’ season. It was an incredible play that will be talked about for a long time, but any mention of it will no doubt be followed by a long debate about his post game interview.

The reaction to his interview was immediate, and complicated. Criticism poured in from all sides; football fans, ordinary people, fellow athletes and celebrities gave opinions on his rant, many of them on Twitter. Some were overtly racist, while others used colloquialisms (thug etc.) to assert codified racism without using the n-word. However, a study came out showing that the response was basically 50/50, and there were as many people on Twitter applauding the cornerback as there were criticizing him.

Sports blogs (and other sites not normally used to sports topics) were soon packed with posts, most of them defending Sherman and lambasting his attackers. Many posts addressed the issue of his race, and some went so far as to claim that the mere fact of his race made his success and subsequent celebration a subject of public derision. His defenders were quick to cite his upbringing in Compton, his GPA at school and at Stanford and his charity work as evidence that he was the farthest thing from a thug. Others said that his candor was refreshing, and we should not expect athletes playing a sport as violent as football to restrain themselves at all times.

As I watched the interview on Sunday, I felt no surprise at what I was hearing, but I was also annoyed. Lost in the discussion of Sherman’s off the field activities, past and race is the mere fact of what he said. Having an excited moment and proclaiming your greatness to the world isn’t wrong; it was the way he did it that I found obnoxious and, frankly, pathetic:

“I’m the best corner in the game, when you come try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you going to get.”

This quote came immediately after he made a ‘choking’ gesture towards 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It wasn’t his assumption of the title of greatest corner in the game -there are very few people who could challenge him on that point- as much as his compulsion to couch that claim in an insult that bothered me.

Richard Sherman has the right to say anything he wants when in front of a mic. Anyone who posted, tweeted or said anything racist about him should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. However, I still hold that many people, myself included, simply took issue with the insults. They felt wholly unnecessary, particularly after a play of that magnitude. As the aforementioned Emory study showed, there are plenty who disagree with me, and found his words thrilling and refreshing. I personally dislike almost all pre-and post-game interviews for the endless platitudes that they typically contain, and I can understand someone preferring Sherman’s breathless excitement.

I have been an athlete in some form for most of my life. I have, on occasion, beaten opponents with skill and luck, and, more often, I have myself been overpowered and come out the loser. Never in any sport I played would directly insulting a team or competitor I had just bested be considered ‘right’. I am certainly not alone in this. Anyone who has played any kind of sport, no matter how serious, is aware of this aspect of sportsmanship.

Many Seahawks fans compared Sherman to Muhammad Ali, who would often verbally jab at his opponents and detractors before and after fights. I can see the comparison on a superficial level, but it starts to lose legitimacy when you consider that the game on Sunday was the NFC Championship between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, not Sherman v. Crabtree. Sherman’s remarks, when compared with Ali’s greatest speeches, were reductive and did not acknowledge his or the other team, or the greater context of the game itself. Sherman admitted as much himself the next day.

The idea that his interview is somehow something we should rally around, that fans genuinely want more candor from athletes is ridiculous. Earlier this season, Jonathan Martin was candid and spoke his mind and was roundly criticized as ‘weak’ by many football fans. Equally ridiculous is the claim that we should feel okay with Sherman’s brazen insults because football is violent, and that a more open, verbal expression of this violence should be welcomed. Many defended Richie Incognito’s criminal harassment of Martin with a similar argument, stating that the violent nature of football made Incognito’s actions ‘necessary’. Maybe I am giving it too much credit, but part of the value of sportsmanship is to limit the ugly externalities of this violence. Discouraging insults both in front of the press and in the locker room prevents emotions from manifesting in ugly ways and keeps a football game from erupting in a dangerous brawl.

Since his arrival in the NFL, Sherman has gone out of his way to raise himself to the status of superstar. He has done this, first and foremost, by working to become arguably the best at his position. He has supplemented his work with a highly-cultivated persona, known for his propensity for speaking out. This was documented in Sports Illustrated earlier this year. He has reaped the benefits; he appeared in two different commercials which ran during the NFC Championship, one for Nike shoes and the other for Dr. Dre’s Beats headphones. An NFL cornerback is not a ‘hot’ position (indeed, part of why Sherman is so good is how little the receivers he guards are thrown to, meaning his actual in-game camera time is negligible), and outbursts like his post game interview on Sunday help his persona grow beyond this limitation. Obviously Sherman could not have calculated the level of controversy that would surround his words, nor imagined the shameful, racist attacks that would be directed at him, but it made him a household name. His rant, however genuine, was just one piece of a constructed persona, one which Sherman is largely benefitting from. All the responses and the responses to the responses have added to this.

Sherman’s persona is abrasive in the extreme, and his defensive style relies on physically harassing receivers. People have a right to dislike what Sherman said and the way he plays, and that dislike should not inherently viewed as racist or ignorant.

49ers at Seahawks: Dealing With It

willisMichael Macor

The 49ers season ended yesterday with a slightly underthrown pass, tipped into the hands of Malcolm Smith. Despite leading a jaw-droppingly effective drive to Seattle’s 18 yard line, Colin Kaepernick failed to execute the perfect throw to put the 49ers over the edge. It is difficult to explain how I feel about this game. The 49ers, in my opinion, played a great game. They were playing their fourth straight road game, and were no doubt exhausted after winning in the cold at Lambeau and out-muscling the Panthers in Carolina. In a game where they had no real advantage, the 49ers managed to win through three quarters. Unfortunately, the referees got involved in the course of the game (more on that later) and the Seahawks were able to take advantage. All that said, it took a career play from one of the better defensive backs in the league to keep the 49ers from winning. Had a few things gone differently in the regular season, and the 49ers had the chance to play at home, there is do doubt in my mind that they would have won. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Run Game

Greg Roman yet again failed to use Frank Gore effectively. He had one of the worst games of his career, rushing just 11 times for 14 yards. However, this had more to do the play calling than Gore himself. The 49ers pushed him up the middle constantly into a stacked box. His largest gain of the day (9 yards) was off the right end, which allowed him to cut around Seattle’s front seven.

Fortunately, Kaepernick more than made up for this, rushing for 130 yards on 11 attempts, including a scorching 58 yard run that set up a 49ers touchdown. Overall, the run game gets good marks, partially for Kaep’s production and for the excellent downfield blocking.

Defense

The defense was ferocious on Sunday, keeping Marshawn Lynch bottled up for most of the game and hassling Russell Wilson constantly. Aldon Smith strip sacked Wilson on the first play of the game, allowing the 49ers to score 3 points early on. They gave up some big plays, but weathered the worst of what the Seahawks (and the referees) threw at them.

The Bad Things

Turnovers

The 49ers once again lost the turnover battle, losing the ball 3 times to the Seahawks’ 1. This has as much to do with the Seahawks’ ball security and commitment to the run as it has to do with the Kaep’s play. Forcing turnovers is the Seahawks’ bread and butter, and the 49ers could find the balance between moving the ball and playing conservatively.

Officiating

More on Gene Steratore’s poor effort here.

Other Things

Colin Kaepernick

The most interesting thing about this game was watching Kaep. We saw the best and worst of what the 49ers’ young quarterback has to offer, from his incredible speed and laser throws to his poor decision making and lack of touch. He carried the team in the first half, shredding the Seahawks on the ground, but couldn’t fully adapt to the Seahawks’ adjustments. He distributed the ball fairly well, but made a poor call throwing to Crabtree on the final play. If Kaep can learn to use short passes effectively and put better touch on the ball, the sky is the limit. Even if yesterday was his peak, the 49ers could still win a Super Bowl.

The “Seattle Curse”

One of the silver linings of this game was the overall feeling that the 49ers’ struggles in Seattle have less to do with the venue than originally thought. The crowd noise didn’t have any effect, and the 49ers looked much more composed on offense than week 2. As I said before the playoffs started, the 49ers can win in Seattle, and they nearly did yesterday.

Robbed, Again

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Kirby Lee

I felt surprisingly emotionless after last night’s game. It was upsetting, but in a way that was different from the Super Bowl. Maybe I learned last February that playing “what if” after a tough loss is unwise, or I was better braced for a loss. After months of buildup and a week filled with internet trash-talking, I was totally prepared to embrace the rivalry and come away from the game hating the Seahawks. That didn’t happen. Their fan base is obnoxious and doesn’t deserve the win, but any anger I felt last night was directed at the referees. If you look at last night’s game as a series of semi-connected events, the 49ers were given multiple opportunities to take the lead and failed to do exactly that. The three turnovers in the 4th quarter are the 49ers’ fault, no question. However, that entire series of events came after the game pivoted on a crucial point. After being behind for most of the game, a mishandled penalty by the referees gave Seattle a possession they never should have had. The Seahawks used that possession to score a touchdown and take a lead they would never surrender. Despite barely keeping up with the 49ers for much of the game, the Seahawks were suddenly in the ideal position: ahead of the 49ers and only a couple of defensive stands away from a trip to the Super Bowl.

It was a day of baffling officiating. The Seahawks were given generous spots numerous times, providing first downs that were not earned and keeping drives alive. Donte Whiter was penalized for a tackle which he had no control over, while the Seahawks administered numerous helmet to helmet hits (with LaMichael James and Vernon Davis on the receiving end) that were never flagged. The referees also seemed unwilling to penalize Russell Wilson for intentional grounding; it took Wilson committing the penalty twice and Coach Harbaugh hassling the referees to get a flag thrown. Navorro Bowman sacrificed his leg to hold on to a fumble and give the 49ers possession at the 1 yard line, only to have the referees give possession to the Seahawks once Marshawn Lynch snatched the ball away from him.

The worst penalty came in the 4th quarter. With the score 17-13 in the 49ers’ favor, Andy Lee punted the ball away from San Francisco’s 20 yard line. He was tackled in the leg by Chris Maragos. A review of the play held that the tackle should have resulted in 15 yards and a fresh set of downs for the 49ers. Instead, the referees called it a 5 yard penalty and allowed the Seahawks to take possession. The Seahawks managed to put together a drive and score, putting them 3 points ahead of the 49ers. When they were ahead, the 49ers played conservatively and challenged Seattle’s defense to make plays. When they fell behind, Kaep was forced to throw more, and Seattle was primed to force turnovers.I cannot say that the 49ers would have won had the officials done their job properly, but I can say there is simply no excuse for these failures. Given what happened, no one can honestly say that the better team won yesterday.

As I watched the 49ers squander their final opportunities, it felt meaningless. If the rules are not enforced as they are written, the game loses legitimacy in my mind. The stats from each team are remarkably similar; the same yardage, penalties, passes and almost everything else. However, when a team loses a possession and the other gains one and it allows them to put the other team behind, it makes everything that occurs after suspect. It is becoming more and more difficult to accept this kind of error. The NFL has done the bare minimum to address problems with officiating, and we can only hope that games like this put more pressure on them.

49ers vs. Seahawks: What To Watch For

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Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group

When Cam Newton threw the game-ending interception to Donte Whitner last Sunday, it felt like the culmination of something that has been developing since the offseason. The two most touted teams in the NFC will be facing off in one of the most talked-about environments in sports. It is remarkable what a difference a few regular season plays can make in the playoffs: if Ahmad Brooks wasn’t flagged for strip-sacking Drew Brees, if Luke Kuechly didn’t break up a perfect pass to Vance McDonald, if the Rams had called a run play from the 1 yard line in the last second of their game against the Seahawks, the NFC Championship would be taking place at Candlestick. Instead, as if the script were written before the 2013 season began, the 49ers will head to Seattle with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

I wouldn’t say my attitude about this game is overbearingly confident. I know the 49ers can win, and I know how they can win, but the pressure is certainly on them to execute. Their last two trips to Seattle were blowouts, ugly, boring and not really characteristic of the 49ers we had grown accustomed to. Most cite the crowd noise as a deciding factor, but there were plenty of things the 49ers did wrong. The 49ers seemed to lack a cohesive game plan, or at least an effective one. The offense looked confused in all four quarters, and the Seahawks took advantage. More importantly, a lot went right for the Seahawks, including a slew of turnovers and some bizarre play calling from Greg Roman. Here is what I will be watching for:

Run Game

The strangest aspect of the 49ers last two games in Seattle was the run game. For whatever reason, Frank Gore saw season-low use twice at Century Link. In 2012, he was given the ball 6 times for a respectable 28 yards. In 2013, he got 9 carries for an abysmal 16 yards. When the 49ers faced Seattle at home this year, Gore was given the ball 17 times for 110 yards, including a monster run in the 4th quarter that effectively ended Seattle’s chances. In most of the 49ers’ wins over the last two seasons, Gore was given the ball more than 15 times, more than his total carries in his last two games in Seattle combined. Whatever happens tomorrow, the 49ers need to commit to the run. Even if Gore gets stuffed more often than he breaks through, it is essential that the 49ers attack the Seahawks on the ground.

Run Defense

Stopping Marshawn Lynch early and often will be essential. The 49ers have to focus on fundamentals; sound tackling, speed and aggression are the only way to slow Lynch down. Russell Wilson’s drop in production has been well-documented, but he doesn’t have to have a big game for the Seahawks to win. If Lynch can get going against the 49ers, the Seahawks can control the clock and wear the defense down. This was what happened in week 2, when Lynch rushed for 98 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Penalties

Week 2 saw the 49ers penalized a season high 12 times for 121 yards. Many of these penalties killed drives or gave Seattle’s offense a fresh set of downs. The 49ers did a great job staying controlled last week against an overly-aggressive Carolina team, and the same must happen on Sunday. The Seahawks are the most penalized team in the league, but this is a symptom of their defensive strategy. This strategy is only effective if the other team lacks discipline; the 49ers can turn the Seahawks’ flagrant disregard for the rules into an advantage if they stay calm and collected.

Let Colin Kaepernick Run

Kaep rushed 9 times in week 2 for a massive 87 yards. He was held more in check in week 13, but was still able to convert on a huge 3rd down during the 49ers final drive. He has been held mostly in check this season, and for good reason, but in a game like this the 49ers will need to use every weapon available. Designed runs and improvised scrambles were the key to the 49ers beating Green Bay, and they could be a huge difference maker on Sunday.

Turnovers

The 49ers turned over the ball a season-high 5 times in week 2. They haven’t turned the ball over more than 2 times since. Of all the things that went right for Seattle in that game, this was the biggest. It had a lot to do with the pass-heavy attack the 49ers employed, as well as the aggression of the Seahawks’ secondary. The 49ers have to win the turnover battle if they want to go to the Super Bowl. Kaep needs to be accurate and controlled, and understand that Seattle’s coverage is designed to force turnovers. The 49ers have done a great job with ball security since week 2, and that trend needs to continue.

The Wall Street Journal Attacks Seahawks’ Defense

legionofPI2Getty Images

The Wall Street Journal made waves in the NFC West after releasing an article about the Seattle Seahawks’ defense. The article cites a number of semi-reputable sources, all of whom claim that Seahawks’ defensive backs willfully ignore the threat of penalties and commit constant holding and defensive pass interference. The article even goes as far as to backhandedly praise this defensive tactic as a form of gamesmanship; the Seahawks and their coaches know that referees aren’t going to flag every penalty, so they use this to their advantage.

This ‘style’ employed by the Seahawks has been the subject of numerous complaints. It fits with Seattle’s reputation as a ‘dirty’ team, and calls into question the actual, legitimate skill of their lauded defensive backfield. The Seahawks lead the league in penalties (pass interference in particular) but in the playoffs, where referees seem less willing to penalize players, Seattle’s strategy gives them a distinct advantage.

The most interesting aspect of this article is the paper itself. The Seahawks’ propensity for illicit play has been blogged about extensively, but the Wall Street Journal is a major editorial with a much wider readership than any sports blog. Although the article does not say it outright, there is a tacit criticism of NFL officiating imbedded within the subject matter. No doubt the league and the referees dislike this sort of exposure. When a popular paper like the Wall Street Journal calls the efficacy of referees into question, it makes the officiating of Sunday’s games central to their outcome in the minds of fans.

There are complaints about officiating every week of the NFL season, and the playoffs are no exception. I will be curious to see whether this article has any perceptible influence on how the officiating crews enforce the rules on Sunday.

Evaluating the 49ers’ Hot Streak

gorehawks3AP Photo/ John Froschauer)

The 49ers will attempt to pick up their ninth win in a row on Sunday. I was tired of hearing about this game before the season even started; this matchup has been beaten to death by the ranks of sports punditry. As such, I have limited my consumption of 49ers-related information this week. Even so, the pro-49ers narrative has filtered through. Bloggers, pundits and fans seem more confident about this game than I expected. The 49ers’ last two trips to Seattle saw them totally discombobulated. They were two uncharacteristically bad games that showcased some of the worst tendencies of the current incarnation of the 49ers.

The narrative follows a basic logic, namely that the 49ers are hot and the Seahawks are cooling off. The 49ers have been playing their most consistent football of the season. All three phases of the game have been solid, if not excellent, for the last eight games. The offense hasn’t been spectacular, but the team has limited turnovers and controlled the game. Colin Kaepernick has been highly efficient, tossing 12 touchdowns against 2 interceptions over the last eight games for a QBR average of 102.14. However, he played a mediocre game against Seattle at home, where he completed just over half of his passes with 1 touchdown and 1 interception.

The story of the Seahawks’ lack of recent success centers on the offense. The defense has been just as good as it was in week 2, forcing a staggering 19 turnovers in the last eight games and generally stymying elite offenses. However, the Seahawks offense has been hard pressed to keep up with this defensive production. After an early to midseason hot streak, Russell Wilson has been underwhelming, tossing 4 touchdowns against 3 interceptions in the last five games for an average QBR of 77.5. These offensive struggles hurt Seattle against Arizona, when the defense forced 4 turnovers, but the offense managed just 192 yards in the 10-17 loss. All that said, the Seahawks have still gone 3-2, and have proven that they can rely on their defense and run game to win. Wilson has played well and poorly against the 49ers in the past; counting on him to struggle on Sunday isn’t a strategy that I find reassuring.

I like the way the 49ers are playing. Greg Roman has simplified the game plan and shown a better balance between the pass and run, allowing the offense to do what it does best. The defense has also proven capable of withstanding the pressure of the playoffs, helped a great deal by their depth and the unsung heroics of players like Tramaine Brock, Tony Jerrod-Eddie and Dan Skuta. However, they will need to play on another level if they want to get back to the Super Bowl. They faced down one of the best defenses in the NFL on the road in Carolina and managed to get enough done to win, but the Seahawks are better, particularity at home. The 49ers are playing winning football, but I won’t believe that their hot streak puts them above the Seahawks until I see it.

49ers at Panthers: Revenge

NFL: Divisional Round-San Franciso 49ers at Carolina Panthers

The 49ers notched their eighth straight win today, out-executing the formidable Carolina Panthers on the road and moving just one game away from the Super Bowl. It was not a perfect four quarters of football, but considering that it was a road game against a team that had an extra week to rest and prepare, I can find little to complain about. True to form, the offense struggled early on but managed to put everything together in the second half. It was a game that showcased the 49ers’ resilience and maturity, two traits that were lacking early in the season. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Second Half Adjustments

The 49ers were a totally different team in the second half. They made some great changes at halftime that helped the whole team make big plays and wear down the Panthers. The second half started perfectly: the defense forced a Carolina 3-and-out, and the 49ers offense came right back with a 77 yard scoring drive. The momentum shifted away from the Panthers, and stayed with the 49ers for the rest of the game.

Defense

The Panthers were able to pick up plenty of yards on the 49ers’ defense, but they couldn’t score when it counted. The defense was able to force two turnovers, pressure Cam Newton and hold the Panthers to just 93 yards rushing, their second lowest total of the season. Most importantly, they stayed in control and never gave up on the game. There is no better example of this than the two goal line stands in the first half. Newton was able to lead two great drives to the 49ers’ 1 yard line, but couldn’t punch it in. Some gutsy stops from Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks held the Panthers to just 3 points. Those two stands kept the 49ers offense within reach of the lead.

Colin Kaepernick

It wasn’t an incredible game for Kaep, but it showed his cool-headedness in the face of a smothering defense. He looked out of sorts for much of the first half, but was able to lead some great drives and ensure that the 49ers ended the second quarter with the lead. He was efficient and conservative, which was the right game plan against a defense like Carolina’s. A big day from Frank Gore and a turnover-free offense was all the 49ers needed to keep the game out of reach.

The Bad Thing

Slow Starts

For the third week in a row, the 49ers opened their scoring with a field goal. Their struggle to complete drives is worrisome, and needs to be rectified as soon as possible. Wasting early opportunities isn’t going to fly against the remaining three teams.

The Other Things

Staying Calm

This was a scrappy game; the Panthers were clearly working overtime to get in the 49ers heads. The 49ers, for their part, stayed relatively sedate and let the Panthers rack up damaging penalties. That said, Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and even Jim Harbaugh got swept up in the emotion of the game, and could have cost their team if they had kept it up. Going forward, the 49ers must remain calm and focused. Emotions will be high, and the cooler-headed team will have a distinct advantage.

Officiating

There were plenty of legitimate complaints about the officiating after the game. It certainly favored the 49ers at several points, but the Panthers got the benefit of some stupid calls as well. All that said, the claim that the refs gave the game away isn’t legitimate. When an offense reaches the 1 yard line twice and only picks up three points, they have issues that go beyond the referees. A ridiculous ‘roughing the passer’ penalty on Dan Skuta helped to sustain the Panthers’ penultimate drive, but Newton failed to capitalize, instead throwing a game ending interception.

49ers vs. Panthers: What to Watch For

Cam Newton, Ahmad Brooks

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

The 49ers are heading to Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round. Just like last Sunday, this game is a replay of a matchup that took place in the regular season. However, the 49ers failed to strike a decisive blow against the Panthers in week 10. Instead, they wheezed out the worst offensive effort in Colin Kaepernick’s career as starting quarterback. This game promises to be very different from the last time these two teams met; the stakes are higher, and both teams are playing football elevated well above their just-enough-to-win sputtering in the regular season. The Panthers have two significant advantages: they will be playing at home after enjoying a week off, but the 49ers have more than enough talent to take them on.

Before I go into the details, I have to say that this game is the ‘all in’ moment for me. Should the 49ers fall short, I will be very bummed, but it wouldn’t bother me as much as a loss in the NFC Championship Game would. I don’t mind the Panthers; of the remaining NFC teams (besides the 49ers, of course), their road to the playoffs has been the most surprising and the least obnoxious. I didn’t have high hopes for this season, and I would be happier if my pessimism was realized against a team I don’t actively dislike. Should the 49ers win, they have to go to the Superbowl. A loss in Seattle or a defeat by the Saints in the last game at Candlestick Park would be truly unbearable. Here is what I will be watching for:

Comeback Players

The biggest story about the 49ers going into this game is how their rejuvenated offense will look. The last time they played Carolina, the offense piled up a measly 151 yards and failed to score a single touchdown. The Panthers’ front seven had their way with Kaep, but more importantly the 49ers lost both Vernon Davis and Garrett Celek to injuries mid-game. Both tight ends play a crucial role in run blocking, and Davis provides tremendous speed as a receiver. Both are healthy, and should help the offense get going a little better than they did in week 10.

Michael Crabtree did not see action against the Panthers. After Davis’ departure, Kaep was left with Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams as his primary targets. Needless to say, the passing game was lacking. Since Crabtree’s return, the 49ers have been on something of a hot streak:

Having Crabtree, Davis and Boldin will put a lot more pressure on the Panthers’ secondary, which wasn’t really tested the last time these teams met.

Aldon Smith is the final piece of the puzzle. He saw limited use against the Panthers in week 10, but has since become one of the best edge-rushers in the league. He harried the Packers last week, disrupting their entire offensive scheme with vicious bull rushes and constant pressure on Aaron Rodgers. His presence means big things for both him and his fellow pass rush specialists on Sunday.

Defense

The 49ers defense was incredible in week 10, and gave the team every opportunity to win. It is clear that they have the physicality and strategy to blunt the Panthers’ attack. Whether or not they can shake off the Lambeau chill and stand as strong on the road isn’t clear. Unlike the 49ers, the Panthers’ offense hasn’t changed much since week 10. Stout run defense and pass rush worked well in the past, and should be enough to contain Cam Newton and force him to turn over the ball.

Turnovers

In a defensive battle like this one promises to be, turnovers will be crucial. If the 49ers can keep Newton uncomfortable and be opportunistic, they can level the playing field. The Panthers match up really well with the 49ers and will have a friendly crowd supporting them; ball safety will be critical. The 49ers have won the turnover battle in the last six weeks, forcing 8 turnovers while only coughing up the ball 3 times. If the 49ers can continue that trend, they will be playing for a Super Bowl berth next week.

The Hall of Fame Shouldn’t Matter

hofPaul Buckowski/Times Union

The Baseball Writers Association of America released their voting results today, electing Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas to Cooperstown, and I don’t really have an opinion. Or, rather, I don’t really care. Maybe it was my upbringing in a largely non-baseball household, or the fact that I’ve never been to Cooperstown. When I lived in New York, I made plans to take a road trip to Cooperstown with friends a few times, but like most young people plans, they fell through. I think the real reason I don’t care is that the process that elects former players to the Hall of Fame feels irrelevant.

Every year since I started watching baseball there has been controversy, inconsistencies and debate around the Hall of Fame vote, and every year it gets a little more nauseating. Maybe I’m missing the point, but I have never really enjoyed projecting whether or not a player will go to the Hall of Fame. It just seemed like the worst possible way to enjoy a team sport. I understand that it is the offseason and, no matter how hot the stove gets, there isn’t much to talk about, but putting my hopes in a gaggle of sportswriters to do the right thing doesn’t seem like a good way to spend my time.

The mandate of the BBWAA, at least as it has been conveyed to me, is to uphold a semi-unspoken set of criteria that are supposed to preserve the ‘purity’ (or ‘legitimacy’, ‘validity’ etc.) of the history of baseball as it is represented at Cooperstown. It isn’t clear what role statistics, a player’s relation to the media or their importance to the identity of a given baseball team plays. Grant Brisbee has done a great job pointing out some of the weird inconsistencies in this year’s ballot, showing that the animus of a sportswriter might be a tacit but otherwise important deciding factor in the vote.

I suppose the larger point I would make is that allowing a group of sportswriters, many of whom we don’t read or care about, decide who represents the history of a sport we consume and enjoy seems increasingly pointless. The role of a sportswriter has changed in the last twenty years, and their position as curators of Cooperstown should change too. That is not to say that this process or the Hall of Fame should be done away with entirely, but it shouldn’t be as important. When anyone can create a blog or join in a discussion on the merits of any player online, the voice of ‘traditional’ sportswriters becomes far less impactful. You can certainly argue that, as sports blogs and online discussion platforms take over, something is being lost, but the fact remains that those changes have happened and aren’t going away.

The first baseball player I truly enjoyed watching was Barry Bonds. Reading over the debate around this year’s ballot, I realized that I didn’t really care whether or not he got 75% of the vote this year or any other year. It would be nice, but it wouldn’t make the games I went to as a kid more enjoyable to think about. Nor am I afraid that Bonds or any other player would be forgotten. From where I sit, I can look up the ERA+ of pitchers who played before my grandfather was born. I can access archival images, videos and text that preserve a player as well as any plaque in New York. I have little doubt that this will increase in the coming years. The Baseball Hall of Fame is a good framework for the history of the sport, but as time goes on it will become just one of many synapses connecting fans to the past.

I do not want to diminish the player’s desires to reach Cooperstown, or the honor a Hall of Fame election represents, but there should be many ways to honor a player that go beyond the opinions of some bitter writers.