Lion’s Den: NFC Championship Preview

All of my photoshop creations are not created equal.  This one?  Not really my best effort.  You'd never know it but the Ultimate Warrior and the Hulk had massive massive domes.  Makes it tough to paste over.  Anyway...

All of my photoshop endeavors are not created equal. This one? Not really my best effort. You’d never know it but the Ultimate Warrior and the Hulk had massive massive domes. Makes it tough to paste over. Anyway…

I can’t wait for this game. If Sunday’s NFL games were a wrestling card, Seattle v. San Francisco would be the main event. This is fitting because of the level of animosity these two squads have for each other combined with the physicality of both teams. It’s like a wrestling feud. As a young lion cub, the Wrestlemania VI showdown between the Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan was epic. I can’t think of an event I was more hyped up for. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The Lion feels the same way with this game. For some reason, Richard Sherman reminds me of the Ultimate Warrior. Maybe it’s the intensity. Maybe it’s the hair. Most likely it’s the steroids. If Vince McMahon were the NFL Commissioner, (can you imagine?), he would be encouraging the media to call Richard Sherman the Ultimate Shermanator. By the way, you should all know the Ultimate Warrior is alive and well.  I’m not sure there’s really a good fit for Hogan since the Niners aren’t exactly America’s team, but I’ll go with Harbaugh there since he’s the real star of the show in San Fran.  I digress, back to football.  I love the way these teams play the game. They block and tackle and play defense and try to hurt you. The Lion has even sought opinions from the Lone Jerk Seahawk fan, NTMVW and will mix them in with my own thoughts on the matchups. I will break them down one last time, and give you my final predictions. (We will do something a little different for the Super Bowl). While some of the Lion’s predictions have been dead on and others less so, I have one prediction for this game that I guarantee. What is that Prediction? Pain.

NFC Championship Game 6:30 PM FOX

San Francisco at Seattle -3.5: Thanks to the NFL Network replaying their regular season contests this week, I have a refreshed recollection of the matchups that will matter in this game. In case you don’t remember, in Week 2, the Seahawks straight up bullied the Niners at home 29-3. In Week 14, the Niners won 19-17. I looked back to last year, and saw the same pattern.  The Seahawks rolled at home 41-13, and the Niners won a low scoring, close game in SF 13-6. Those numbers suggest that the Seahawks should win big. Here is another number to wet your beak, in his two starts in Seattle, Kaepernick has been outscored by a combined 71-16 margin. Those two games are Kaepernick’s two largest losses. It’s easy to see why. It’s no secret that the Seahawks are much tougher at home. Why then, does Vegas have the line so close? The Lion knows. These teams match up almost dead even with each other. Here are the most important ones in terms effecting on the outcome.

Niner’s OL v. Seattle’s DL : I have complimented the 49ers guys before. LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Jonathon Goodwin, RG Alex Boone, and RT Anthony Davis disappointed me a little against Green Bay, but they had a great bounce back game last week against a VERY good Carolina front seven. They shut down Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson’s pass rush, and got Gore 4.9 yards a carry. On the other side of the ball, is an underrated Seattle DL. One of my biggest miscalculations of the playoffs was that Jahari Evans and the Saints OL would beat Seattle’s DL. Michael Bennett owned Evans. It wasn’t even close. However, the Saints had plenty of success running the football, especially during the first half. Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson combined for 106 yards on 23 carries. The Niners OL are a better run blocking unit than the Saints. As you would expect, in both games this year, the Niners were able to run on Seattle. In Week 14, Gore ran for 110 yards on 17 carries for a 6.5 average. They did so without Iupati, who was hurt. In week 2, the Niners had to abandon the run once they fell behind, but as a team they averaged 5.0 yards a carry. The Niners absolutely need to establish the run to have any chance of winning this game because you really can’t pass on Seattle’s Secondary. (More on that later).  I mentioned last week Seattle likes to go small and roll out 4 undersized, faster DL to get after the passer. When Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin are on the field together, they are especially susceptible to the run.  If San Fran can maintain the run, Pete Carroll will be forced to use different personnel and get out of this “Nascar” formation.  Anytime you can dictate another team’s personnel changes you want to do so. Having said all of this, I don’t think SF will be able to necessarily win this matchup, at least not easily. If you take away Gore’s 51 yard 4th quarter run from the week 14 matchup, the stats look very different. That run happened to be the longest run given up by Seattle all year by wide margin. The Hawks only have given up a total of 6 runs of 20+ yards all season, good enough for 2nd in the league in that statistic. (San Fran is first). Long runs are often prevented more by Safeties than front seven, and we will get to Earl Thomas later. The Niners also have great blocking WRs, so Bolden blocking a DB is a huge factor. (blah blah everything is related, blah). Seriously, this is a close one because Seattle knows how to stop the run. To fully access this matchup, it’s necessary to go a little deeper and see what kinds of run plays are successful against Seattle. (I’m laying it all on the line this week). When it comes to stopping the run, Pete Carroll generally believes in the defensive philosophy of his former D coordinator Monte Kiffin. He likes to play an attacking 4-3 defense, similar to the one played by Tampa in the 90’s. By attacking, I mean that he has each defensive lineman responsible for 1 gap. A gap is the space between 2 OL. Carroll wants his guys to essentially attack those spaces. In contrast, a two gap defense requires a defender to control the OL across from him and make a play on either side. This 1 gap scheme works very well in stopping outside runs, read-option plays and the type of zone blocking schemes that I talked about Denver using in my AFC preview. Anything that takes time to develop doesn’t work against such an attacking defense. However, this scheme is not particularly great at stopping quick hitting plays between the tackles. Seattle is especially beatable on plays that involve misdirection and a pulling OL,TE or FB. Jim Harbaugh knows this. Look at Gore’s 51 yard run. Notice how the left side of the defense attacks up field, running themselves right into blockers coming from the other side of the play. Also notice that Gore does not bounce the run outside, but gets north/south immediately and cuts up field and then cuts back against the over pursing defenders. This is the type of play SF can run effectively against Seattle. They must not abandon the power running game. Of course, we haven’t discussed pass blocking yet. Seattle did get to Drew Brees, and even strip sacked him two times. Surprisingly, in the games against the Niners, they haven’t really been able to harass Kaepernick. If the 49ers stick to the power run game, and keep Carroll’s pass rushing personnel off the field, they will win the pass protection battle as well. Advantage SF.

Seattle’s WR v. SF DBs: Wow, the Lion may have gone a little overboard on line play there. What can I say? I get excited about collisions. I will keep this one short. The weakest position group on Seattle’s squad is by far the WRs. Sidney Rice, while a burner with great size, disappears for stretches and has bad hands. Golden Tate is scrappy and has great hands, but is undersized and a little slow. If you could put Tate’s hands and heart in Rice’s body you would have one hell of a player.  Zach Miller is just slightly better than a replacement level TE. (Side rant, Dear NFL GM’s: DO NOT allow Pete Carroll to draft USC WR Marquese Lee. You’re welcome).  San Fran is not great in coverage, but it they have been able to shut down Seattle’s WR. They have limited Wilson to less than 200 yards passing in both games. Donte Whitner and Eric Reid are great safeties against the run but are susceptible to getting sucked to the line of scrimmage and beat over the top. They provided no help last week on Steve Smith’s long TD catch. (Although maybe that was by choice considering there were questions on his health). It is a shame that Seattle doesn’t have a guy with game breaking speed to get behind the SF safeties. Oh wait, they gave up a slew of draft picks for a guy named Percy Harvin who would be the x-factor in this game, however, he isn’t playing thanks to the concussion he suffered last week. It was very obvious that the Saints were concerned with Harvin last week. It seemed like their mission was to knock him out of the game. They succeeded and help the Niners in the process. Sans Harving, I am going to call this matchup even, although I would have given the Seahawks a slight edge if Harvin could have actually played a few snaps. Draw.

Seattle DB v. San Fran WR: I told you last week that Seattle’s secondary is the best unit in the last 5 years or so of the NFL. SF WR’s have not been able to get open and I don’t see any reason that will change. They only got 150 yards per game through the air in the two matchups this season. The advantage the Niners WR s normally have over their opponents is their size. Bolden and Crabtree are both big and physical, but they are not bigger or more physical than Seattle’s crew. This is the most lopsided matchup in this game. I will say this for San Fran, Crabtree didn’t play in the blowout loss in the beginning of the season. In his place was Kyle Williams, who was subsequently cut from the team. The In a fit of roid rage, the Ultimate Shermanator begged Carroll to let them go man on defense and shadow Bolden. Carroll obliged him, and Sherman completely dominated that matchup. In SF, the Seahwaks went back to their usual coverage scheme. Normally the Hawks play a basic Cover 3 Zone. Every high school team runs it. Seattle just has the best players in the world doing it. Crabtree did play in the second matchup and did make some big third down catches in the Niners win. They will need him to do at least that much this week. I am interested to see Earl Thomas match up with Vernon Davis. Thomas is one of the rare safeties in the league big and fast enough to handle Davis. He has won the matchups so far, and he shut down Jimmy Graham last week as I predicted. I will talk about this more later, but I think the best SF can hope for is not to let Seattle DBs force too many turnovers. In his three starts against Seattle, Kaepernick has thrown a total of five interceptions. Yikes. What I would do if I were Harbaugh is throw underneath routes to backs coming out of the backfield, or second TE Vance McDonald, similar to what the Patriots do with Vereen. KJ Wright, Seattle’s best Cover LB, is probably still out this week. Since the Hawks play zone, these routes could be open. They were open in the game in San Fran. Even if Harbaugh listens to me, this overall matchup is not close, and Seattle probably will punish whoever lurks across the middle. NTMVW predicts that Kam Chancellor is going to kill somebody this week. Kam is quite the hitter, and I don’t dismiss the possibility. HUGE Advantage Seattle

Seattle OL v. SF DL: This matchup is the key to the game for Seattle. In their win against the 49ers, Marshawn Lynch had 98 yards and 2 TDs. In the loss, he had only 70 yards. These stats are a little deceiving though. In both games, he averaged only 3.5 yards per carry. Seattle committed to the run in the first game because they had the lead. Lynch ran 28 times. In the second game, they had to move the chains and score so they passed on third and long. What really killed the Niners in the past is Russell Wilson on the read option. The Niners played inspired run defense in Carolina this week against a running qb in Cam Newton and contained the read option. Ahmad Brooks seems to have figured out what to do when he is the “read” defender. He ignores the dive and just hits the quarterback as hard as he can. This works as long as you can trust your companions to get the RB. I want to talk about Lynch for a minute. He is very overrated. He is an adequate runner, but he is very inconsistent. The Lion suspects he is a front runner. What I mean by that is when things are going well and the Defense gets turnovers and there is a short field and the crowd is into it, Lynch runs like an animal. When things are going poorly, he quits. He did in Buffalo, where it was a lot more noticeable because the Bills stink. He does it still but it is not that noticeable because things often go well. If Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis hit him in the mouth early, he will fold. When it comes to pass protection, Aldon Smith appears to finally be healthy, and he creates an edge pass rush presence for San Fran that they sorely missed when he was out. This is bad news for the Hawks, because Russell Okung is banged up a little. For some reason the Niners have his number. I know the Niners will get pressure on Wilson, but he has the escapability to extend plays. Actually, I want to talk about that, so I am going to wrap up this matchup by giving the edge to the away team. Advantage SF

Colin Kapernick v. Russell Wilson: I normally don’t compare guys that aren’t literally going head to head against each other on the field at the same time, but this matchup is too important to ignore. At first glance these guys are basically the same QB. They are both young, mobile, and have the ability to extend plays. Not so fast. On closer examination they are quite different. I gushed last week about Wilson’s ability to scramble and keep his eyes down field and at the last second launch a missile for a big gain. Kapernick does not possess that ability. When Colin gets outside the pocket he looks to run. NTMVW suspects Kam Chancellor to lay out Colin during the game on one of these runs. It is certainly possible. In watching the tape, Kapernick had great success against Seattle on designed run plays. In the San Francisco win this year, the Lion was thrilled when Colin ran the Alex Smith Sweep that also is identical to the play you ran with QB Eagles in Super Tecmo Bowl.  If I were Harbaugh I would dial up more designed runs so Kapernick wouldn’t have to think.  NTMVW also gave me an excellent observation on Wilson. Throughout Wilson’s brief career, he has paid particular attention to the way Wilson rolls out of the pocket under pressure.  NTMVW opines that while Wilson has good instincts, he often makes the mistake of spinning backward and to his right rather than stepping up in the pocket. Interesting. The Lion suspects that Wilson doesn’t step up in the pocket because he is short. NTMVW also is a little nervous that Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks coming off the edge may also have noticed this tendency of Wilson’s and take advantage of the habit. I would be nervous about this too. I can’t wait to watch for myself because I never noticed it. Good job NTMVW. All in all, Kapernick is definitely bigger and probably a little faster, while Wilson is a better decision maker and tends to be more accurate. Decision making and accuracy are the keys to who wins this battle. In recent weeks, Wilson has been a little off target. Last week, Wilson did not play well, going 9-of-18 for 103 yards, and he missed on a couple of slants thrown behind his receivers. I wonder how much of that was caused by the weather. Brees looked off as well. Seattle and Wilson also struggled down the stretch of the regular season, and the guys on NFC Playbook think that maybe he lost some confidence. Hard to say, but it seems like Seattle has not attacked downfield lately. Colin on the other hand, seems to be on the uptick. However, Seattle seems to befuddle him, especially in the Red Zone. Colin has three picks against two touchdowns in the red zone against Seattle vs. 24 touchdowns against one interception in the red zone against the rest of the league. The Ultimate Shermantor knows how to bait the young QB. Ultimately, the winner of this matchup will come down who doesn’t fuck up, and who makes a play with his legs. I would give the edge to Wilson here, but since Colin is so hot right now, I have to call it Even.

WE ARE TIED. BONUS MATCHUP Harbaugh v. Carroll: These coaches know each other well. Talk about opposite ends of the spectrum. Jim Harbaugh really is a throwback coach. He is negative, intense, angry, “just win” kind of guy. He yells a lot. He probably is hard to live with, but is probably loyal as all get out. There is a story all over the media this week about how his wife hates his pants.

This exemplifies the type of dude Harbaugh is. Conversely, Carroll is a smooth operator. He smiles, and puts his arms around his guys, and is very positive in way that seems to fit very well with the west coast culture as well as the cultural climate millennials grew up in. It’s no wonder they flocked to him at USC. He smiled and played pranks with his players and pretended he didn’t see the massive recruiting violations that were going on all around him. Kind of like how he smiles and ignores his secondary’s massive roided up bodies. While Harbaugh drives his wife crazy, Carroll probably cheats on his without her knowing. I kid, I kid. Obviously I prefer one coach over the other. Just to show you I am not entirely biased, NTMVW agrees with me. Harbaugh was continually ruined Carroll’s seasons at USC with a severely less talented team. Harbaugh beat Carroll outright when USC was favored by the largest spread in history. NTMVW is also concerned that Carroll relies too much on his defense, allowing his offense “to slide into ultra-conservative mode, which can translate into stretches of stagnation.” When you combine is concerns with my own feelings on this matchup, I think we have a winner. Advantage SF

PREDICTION: After watching the tape, the Seahawks blowout at home was the perfect storm and not an accurate reflection of how these two teams truly match up. The game was 12-7 going into the fourth quarter when all hell broke loose. SF kept turning the ball over to Seattle giving them a short field, and momentum at home in front of that crowd. Seattle should get credit for both forcing and taking advantage of these opportunities, but turnovers are often caused by chance. If you take that quarter out of the equation, these teams have played just about even football for 7 quarters this season. When I look back over this preview, I don’t find myself saying the Niners NEED to do something to have a chance to win like I did with New England at Denver. Instead, I find myself saying, if they don’t fuck this up, they will win. Ultimately, as long as they don’t turn the ball over, and convert in the Red Zone, they will win. Those are big ifs. Consider this final stat. Seattle has made 11 red zone trips in its last 3 games against SF. San Francisco has 10 trips in those same games. Seattle has averaged a whopping 5.9 points per red zone trip. They converted an amazing eight touchdowns and three field goals. That would be the best red zone scoring rate in football over a full season. San Francisco, meanwhile, has put up an average of just 2.6 points across its 10 red zone trips.  Over a full season, that is a point and a half worse than Jacksonville’s league-worst figure of 4.0 points per red zone possession. In my opinion that stat is too much of an outlier to continue for two teams that are so evenly matched. A regression to the mean is inevitable. All the 49ers need to do is punch it in when they get close, and they win. Vegas seems to think so. I am going roll with them and take the points. 49ers +3.5

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