Thursday, January 31, 2013

Why 49ers Will Beat Ravens in Super Bowl

It's just about a lock.

Though 49ers are favored by just 3-to-4 1/2 points in Sunday's Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens, when you talk to insiders, SF is as close to a can't-miss as you can get.

Here's how one New York bookie described the game: "The line could be Niners by ten. It's not quite like the game after the '94 season, when the 49ers were favored by 20 1/2 over the Chargers, but it's not that far from it. The Ravens are lucky to be in this game. They're in it because of that crazy, 70-yard pass play they made in the last second of the Broncos' game. That screwed Denver, which is the best team in the AFC, better than New England. The 49ers vs. Denver, that would be a more even match-up"

No question, the Niners are the better team, with superior personnel at the key positions. The most important is QB .There the 49ers have a definite edge. The Ravens' Joe Flacco is just a passer, and a pretty good one at that, particularly in these playoffs. But the Niners' QB Colin Kaepernick passes just as well and, in addition, has other lethal skills. Not only is he an exceptional runner but he also can expertly execute the baffling read-option offense, which killed Green Bay in the Niners' first playoff game. Pro defensive coordinators haven't seen enough of the read-option yet to devise an antidote, so it could be a problem for the Ravens.

The Niners' receiving corps is also superior. The Ravens' have only one WR, Anquan Boldin, who can damage the Niners. He's been a terror in these three post-season games, catching 16 passes for 276 yards and 3 TDs. The 49ers, though, have two terrors, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. Even the Niners' secondary receivers, Delanie Walker and Randy Moss, are more of a threat than any of the other Ravens' wideouts.

You can't win a Super Bowl without a punishing running game or a dominant defense. The Niners have both. Their rushing unit (4th in the league), featuring a monster O-line averaging 320 pounds per man, is particularly potent. The Ravens are strong in both categories, but a notch or two behind the Niners. Look for 49ers' RB Frank Gore to be a major force on Sunday.

The surefire way for the Niners to win this game is to generate a consistent pass rush against Flacco, who's has 8 TD passes and no picks in three playoff games this post season. He's been so successful because he's had plenty of time to set up and look for receivers. Not being a nimble scrambler, when under pressure, he's not as accurate. Expect lots of disruptive 49er blitzes.

But there's another side to this. As much as everything points to a Niners' win, there's an outside chance for a Ravens' upset. They could follow in the footsteps of the New York Giants, who whipped New England in two recent Super Bowls, in 2008 and 2012 seasons. Do you think the Giants were the better team in either game? No way. In 2008, the Super Bowl stumble was the Pats' lone loss of the season. The Giants started to sizzle in the playoffs and, riding a great defense and QB Eli Manning's hot hand, toppled the seemingly unbeatable Patriots.

Though the Ravens' defense isn't anywhere near as dominant as those killer Giants' D units, the Ravens could, with some key Niners' turnovers and mistakes by the relatively inexperienced 49ers' QB, sneak away with a victory.

That, however, is highly unlikely.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ugly Lakers' Power Struggle--Howard vs. D'Antoni

Where will center Dwight Howard be next season--with the Los Angeles Lakers or with another team? It's not clear, but one thing  you can be sure of--Mike D'Antoni won't be coaching him.

Howard is currently playing for D'Antoni and hates every minute of it. The coach knows it and so do the other Lakers..Normally one of the top two or three defenders in the league, Howard is drastically under-performing. So are the Lakers, now a miserable 17-23, even though they're stocked with All-stars like Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash.

The problem is D'Antoni's offense-first system, which devalues defense in general and, most glaringly, what Howard does best--play defense under the basket. Howard can't stomach the system. Neither can the other players. They've been mostly tactful and hiding their feelings. Lately, though, Howard, thoroughly frustrated and fed up, hasn't been hiding his. Sources close to some players say Howard is so miserable, feeling shackled by that system and misused, that he either wants to be traded or wants D'Antoni fired. Howard's media pals have even been putting out the word that he's unhappy.

Trade rumors are flying, with the most interesting, a three-way deal, sending Howard to Brooklyn, Brook Lopez to Minneapolis and Kevin Love to the Lakers. A trade, if the deal is right, is certainly possible. Howard's other preferred destination is Dallas. Anywhere, he's been telling his buddies, as long as there's no D'Antoni.

Is Lakers' management getting the word? It's not clear. GM Mitch Kupchak yesterday gave D'Antoni a vote of confidence.You never can tell about one of those. It could also be the kiss of death.

The Lakers could solve the problem by admitting the obvious, that hiring D'Antoni was a big mistake. His racehorse offensive style is totally wrong for the Lakers' slow, aging personnel. His major adjustment, putting seven-foot Gasol with the second unit, is bone-headed, ruining one of the team's strengths, having two seven-footers in the starting lineup. He's apparently so in love with his system he's not likely to alter it significantly.

The coach had better do something. If Howard isn't traded, D'Antoni is almost certainly finished. Howard is under contract only until the end of the season. He can sign a multiple-year contract or walk away. If D'Antoni is still the coach, Howard walks and the Lakers are left empty-handed. The team would never let that happen.

Do you know who's looking at this situation and smiling? A certain coach, with fingers full of championship rings. You know, that guy the Lakers could have--and should have--hired instead of D'Antoni.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Can Falcons Stop 49ers' Kaepernick? No

Everything points to a San Francisco 49ers win in Sunday's NFC championship game against the Falcons in Atlanta. That's why the Niners are a four-point favorite.

The biggest reason to put money on the Niners is QB Colin Kaepernick, who torched the Green Bay Packers last week with his amazingly accurate passing and his mind-blowing rushing--a record (for a QB) 181 yards. The Pack had no idea how to stop him. The Falcons have been unimpressive against scrambling QBs, surrendering a whopping seven yards a scramble. In the second half against Seattle last week QB Russell Wilson ripped the Falcons with both his scrambling and passing. The Atlanta D looked as lost against Wilson in that second half as the Pack did against Kaepernick.

What's to stop Kaepernick from duplicating that superhuman effort?. The biggest weapon against Kaepernick and that lethal read option is a quick, swarming pass rush. But the Falcons best rusher, John Abraham, is hobbled. He'll play Sunday but won't be at full strength.

Kaepernick is an expert that the read option, which befuddles defenses since they don't see it that often. It works well against man-to-man defenses, like the one used by the Falcons. To throttle the read option, it helps to have a savvy, hard-hitting secondary, which the Falcons don't have. Thomas DeCoud and William Moore regularly blow assignments while Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel are lousy tacklers. To slow down the Niners' offense, top-notch secondary play is essential.

Home-field advantage isn't that big of a bonus in this one. The only place in the league that's a lion's den for an opponent is Seattle, where the Niners were destroyed. They won on two other tough home fields, New England and New Orleans, late in the season, so Atlanta shouldn't be a fearsome environment to them.

The Falcons' defense is one of the top five in league, but it could be neutralized by the wizardry of
Kaepernick. The Niners' D, which is superior, particularly against the run, only faltered twice, against Seattle's Wilson and New England's Tom Brady. Atlanta's QB Matt Ryan isn't in Brady's class as a passer and isn't a scrambling threat, so he doesn't scare the Niners. Also, being a home underdog, like Atlanta, isn't an enviable position. Since 1985, home dogs have only been successful twice in eight tries.

Here's what the Falcons need to win. First and foremost, a super, Brady-like passing performance is absolutely necessary.from Ryan, who's had big problems winning in the playoffs. If he plays like he did in the second half of the Seattle game, the Falcons are dead.

Second, the Falcons defense, which has no real stars aside from Abraham, must have its best game of the season and somehow find a way to stop Kaepernick. With a chance to look at the film of Kaepernick rolling over the Pack, maybe Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, a former Niner head coach, will find a way to shut him down. Or maybe Kaepernick may stop himself. After all, this is his first time in an NFL championship game and just his second year in the league. Quite possibly, he'll wilt under the pressure.

So, as usual, the game is in the hands of the QBs. Which one will soar? My money is on Kaepernick.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Last Straw For USC Coach Lane kiffin?

What is it going to take to make USC athletic director Pat Haden fire head football coach Lane Kiffin? Wasn't this heavily-hyped team staggering to a 7-6 season enough? Shouldn't that Sun Bowl embarrassment, losing to a lousy Georgia Tech team,  have been strike three? With the lid finally off that nasty locker-room incident after the Sun Bowl game, Kiffin is looking even worse.

According to two sources close to three USC players, in the locker room in El Paso just after the loss,  players were furious with each other. Verbal attacks escalated into pushing and shoving before coaches broke it up. To keep players from possibly losing scholarships, names are being kept secret--with one exception. QB Matt Barkley, who didn't play because of a shoulder injury, was part of the problem. Some players thought he was healthy enough to play in the bowl game and accused him of not caring about the team. With inexperienced freshman QB Max Vittek in charge USC never had a chance. Also, it was clear some key players were disinterested in the game and they played like it. So the guys with team pride accosted those who didn't give a damn. Peacemakers broke up the fight before it became a bloody mess. USC is trying to sugar-coat something that was really ugly.

According to the sources, Kiffin knew though the mood in the practices that some players' heads weren't in the game, but he didn't do anything about it. That lax locker-room atmosphere, charge the sources, was his fault.

Can you imagine this happening in an Alabama locker room with coach Nick Saban in charge? No way. Kiffin, though, isn't a dominant force. His laid-back style doesn't command respect 

It's way past the time to dump Kiffin. Strangely, a few days ago, Haden fired basketball coach Kevin O'Neill, who had just engineered a nice win over Utah. O'Neill was ineffective and had put his team in a hole, but Kiffin is worse and his team is in a deeper hole.
Apparently the main reason Haden is reluctant to dump Kiffin is to save that coveted star-studded recruiting class. Well, that class, last summer regarded as No.1, is slipping down the Top10 on the major recruiting sites as players decommit. Expect more bailouts in the next few weeks. For some reason Haden doesn't see that Kiffin has become a liability.

Something happened today, though, that might spur Haden to pull the plug on Kiffin. Oregon coach Chip Kelly just skipped out of Eugene, deciding to take the Philadelphia Eagles head coaching job after initially turning it down. Possibly he got wind that NCAA is about to lower the boom on Oregon. Losing Kelly has to hurt Oregon and boost the rest of the league. With Kelly in charge, everyone was scared of Oregon. Top high school players were flocking to Eugene. Suddenly, though, Oregon is less of a threat, which makes the USC head coaching job more attractive. So now Haden might find it easier to hire a top-level coach.

Hanging onto Kiffin is an unpopular stance. Judging the mood of the USC community on the Internet, most fans and alums want Kiffin out. He is, though, getting support from some sources. USC haters love Kiffin.and hope the school keeps him. They get great comfort watching the Trojans go down in flames.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

49ers--QB Battle Causing Locker-Room Tension

 Don't let the smiles and the chatter about brotherhood fool you. The 49ers locker room is a hotbed of tension, which could undermine the team in tonight's crucial battle with the Green Bay Packers.

The problem? That QB competition between deposed veteran Alex Smith and new starter Colin Kaepernick. It began in November, when Smith was out with a concussion. Kaepernick, in his second year, stepped in, starting his first game against the Chicago Bears on Monday night. An instant hit, the youngster destroyed a defense that seemed impregnable, hitting 16 of 23 passes for 246 yards and two TDs. Smith hasn't played since, while Kaepernick led the Niners to the second seed in the NFC playoffs.

Many 49ers think Smith got a raw deal. That venerable rule, that a player shouldn't lose his job due to injury, was ignored by coach Jim Harbaugh. Here's what really angers the Smith faction. At the time of his concussion, he was having a great year. Everything that Kaepernick has done, the Smith faction argues, Smith could have done just as well. The Kaepernick crew is equally as passionate about him.

According to sources close to several players, tension fostered by this QB battle is killing team cameraderie. This is a time for unity, not squabbles. Locker-room conflict could derail the team's efforts to beat the Packers.

Though Smith has been trying to be a good soldier he hasn't been able to muffle his anger. Clearly he's miffed at what he considers mistreatment by Harbaugh.

Is the team better under Kaepernick? That's open to debate. Under Kaepernick, a scrambler and a superior runner, the offense is more wide open, posing a deep-passing threat missing under Smith. The offense may be more restricted, predictable and less of a scoring threat with Smith at QB, but it's less mistake-prone and, with its reliance on rushing, more in the old-fashioned smash-mouth mode, the team's identity in recent years.
Actually, the Niners can win with either QB. The key to this team is its defense, which was shaky late in the season, so it's vulnerable to  something corrosive and divisive like locker-room tension.

If the Niners, a slight, three-point favorite, lose to the Packers, which is very possible, insiders will point to this tension as a factor.
 As long as Kaepernick and Smith are the QBs, this tension won't go away.

Win or lose, you can bet this is Smith's last season as a 49er. Harbaugh is too smart to go into the fall with this acidic QB conflict eating away at the team.



Monday, January 7, 2013

Why Alabama Beats Notre Dame

This one is no-brainer.

Alabama wins tonight in the national championship battle against Notre Dame in Miami. If you're betting, smart money is on the Irish, who are underdogs by between 9.5 and 11. Bama should win, but not by much, most likely in a low-scoring game.

These are both defensive giants, two of the best in college football. Bama's stats are slightly better--No. 1 overall on defense, first against the run and second in points allowed (10.7 per game). Notre Dame is a notch behind, 6th overall, but tops in points allowed (10.3 per game). 

The heart of this Notre Dame team is its front seven, headed by linebacker Manti Te'o, who just missed winning the Heisman Trophy. Only Stanford, with its monster linebacker corps, matches the Irish front seven, which is also the beefiest in college ball. Neither offense dazzles, with Notre Dame's at No.49 and Bama's at No.39. Against these two brick-wall defenses, neither so-so offense will shine. So expect a score in the high teens or mid-20s. Only an attack of jitters, leading to lots of turnovers, could turn this into a high-scoring affair.

The best players in this game are all on defense, and they will dominate. Incidentally, the matchup to watch is the Notre Dame front seven vs. the Bama offensive line, easily the best in the nation, stocked with future NFL players. Focus on the line play, not the work of the skill players, who, in this game, aren't that skilled.

Bama is clearly the better team, having navigated a tough SEC schedule, losing only once, to rugged Texas A&M, which is headed by Heisman-Trophy winning QB, Johnny Manziel, who played brilliantly. Undefeated Notre Dame survived a less impressive schedule, usually winning modestly and twice, against Pitt and Stanford, winning miraculously. Expecting a very good Notre Dame that's lucky to be undefeated to topple a veteran national championship team is expecting too much. Oregon or Stanford or Texas A&M would be a better matchup against Bama. All could probably whip Notre Dame handily.

What has many Bama fans on edge, though, is that some of the SEC cream has turned sour in the bowl season. Who would have thought that heavy favorites Florida and LSU would lose to lesser teams? If those Goliaths could falter, why not Bama?

The answer to that one is simple. Bama is coached by Nick Saban, a dictatorial control freak who simply won't allow his team to lose a national championship game to a lesser team. A loss to Notre Dame in this game, to Saban, just isn't possible. And that's how his players will play.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Fire Lane Kiffin!

Why is Lane Kiffin still coaching the USC football team?

Hasn't he done everything possible to get himself fired?  A pre-season No.1 pick, USC has ridiculously under-performed, finishing 7-6, dropping five out of their last six, looking worse with each game. Given the downward spiral, if they had to play another game, can you imagine what a stinker that would be?

Coach Lane Kiffin is the problem Three sources close to three SC players report that most of the team has tuned out the coach. For the last few games SC has been essentially been a rudderless ship, spiraling out of control. The players, insist the sources, have lost respect for the coach. Much of it is apparently due to the lousy job the coach's father, Monte, has done as defensive coordinator. The elder Kiffin, who's been a disaster, should have been fired long ago. In fact he should never have been hired. The defense is rarely properly prepared and, in the second half, never makes effective adjustments. The players blame Lane for not dumping Monty, who's been a cancer. Lane finally fired his father but, for the team, it was too late..

The Sun Bowl on New Year's Eve should have been the last straw for Lane Kiffin. That El Paso debacle, losing to a mediocre Georgia Tech team, should have been enough for USC's athletic director Pat Haden to boot Kiffin out the door. Has there been as more embarrassing Trojan loss? Tech, which was walloped by lowly Middle Tennessee State early in the season, should have been a breeze for the Trojans. Instead, the one-dimensional Yellow Jackets breezed by the Trojans, who looked half-asleep.

The Sun Bowl should have been a positive preview of next season, a romp by passionate players showing how they were going to tear up the Pac-12. But what we saw was a team that doesn't care, headed by a rookie QB Max Wittek, who's nowhere near ready to lead a major college team. THIS is what SC fans have to look forward to? Ugh!

Blame Lane Kiffin for the Sun Bowl fiasco. I know the game was in El Paso, the last place anybody with any sense wants to be on New Year's Eve. But you're on national TV,  playing for the honor of your school and the Pac-12 conference. You suck it up and play like hell, give it your all. The SC players were in El Paso, but their heads were elsewhere, certainly not in the game. It's up to the coach and his staff to fire up those players. They didn't do it. They didn't even come close.

It wasn't just the Sun Bowl. The SC games have been a showcase of coaching errors since mid-November. The defense is usually set up wrong and the offense, particularly in the Notre Dame loss,  is often a muddle of misdirection.

AD Haden is apparently reluctant to fire Kiffin for two reasons. One, with the team saddled with sanctions, it's hard to attract a quality coach. Also, there's a Grade A recruiting class coming that might bolt if Kiffin was canned. But looking at the mess that's SC football, some of those hotshots might bail anyway. One blue-chipper, Santa Monica wide receiver Sebastian LaRue,  has just decommitted. Will others follow?

Star wide receiver  Robert Woods, who could have stayed, announced he's leaving for the NFL. Why stick with a loser?  USC will start the season outside the Top 25. Without a seasoned QB, chances of cracking the Top 25 are slim.

If Haden was smart, he'd bite the bullet, collect buy-out money from rich alums and get rid of Kiffin. The rest of the Pac-12, of course, is rooting for Haden to do nothing. They'd just love watching the uppity Trojans sink to the lower depths of the Pac-12.