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Couch View: Championship Sunday

Posted Jan 20, 2014

One of the most anticipated weekends of NFL football in a long time proves to be entertaining for our author, even if he’d rather be watching the Buccaneers from a press box on championship Sunday

I’m sitting on a couch at my friend Mike’s house.  This is not where I want to be on conference championship weekend.

This is no offense to Mike, who makes a mean beef-and-cheese dip.  The couch is comfortable and the company is good.  But where I really want to be on this particular January Sunday is in a press box.  Considering my occupation and my employer, that’s only going to happen when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are back in the NFC Championship Game.  I’ve been there.  By my recollection, the food wasn’t nearly as good in the St. Louis and Philadelphia press boxes (Philly’s claim to fame was warm pretzels and Tasty Kakes…whee!) as it is at Mike’s house, but the stakes were much higher.

Alas, the Buccaneers are not in the NFC Championship Game this year.  That would be Seattle and San Fran, with Denver and New England providing the AFC appetizer.  So we’ll make the best of it, and enjoy one of the most hyped days of NFL football in a long time.  The No-Love-Lost Bowl between the Niners and Hawks.  Brady vs. Manning.  Subway commercials ad nauseum.  Okay, so it’s a pretty good way to spend a day, even if my Bucs aren’t involved.  Let’s see what unfolds.

- The NFC Championship Game seemed destined to turn on a big defensive play...and up stepped Richard Sherman

Speaking of game-day dips, I keep hearing about a Velveeta shortage.  A Velveeta shortage.  I think that might be the very definition of a “First-World Problem.”  I think we can now just say “Velveeta shortage” as short-hand for a problem that wouldn’t really be considered an issue in 90% of the world, much the way that Monty Python sketch led to us referring to junk e-mail “spam.”

It’s an hour before the game and the pregame shows are cranking up their Manning-Brady stories.  I’d make the, “Hey, did you know Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were playing in this game?” joke, except that joke is actually more common than actual Manning-Brady stories.

Okay, I lied.  As always, I skipped the pregame shows.  Oh, how will I ever understand what is going to happen over the next three hours?  Seriously, Champ Bailey reveals in a last-minute sideline interview that he expects to play “a lot more” snaps today than he has in recent games, and that is by far the most useful information of the last 60 minutes.

The Patriots-Broncos game starts with a touchback.  Gee, a touchback in Denver.  I’m telling you right now, the person who is going to field the most kickoffs in this game is that guy who wears the bright orange vest with the K on the front.  (EDIT: The game’s second kickoff goes straight into the arms of the K guy.  I feel vindicated.)

Two minutes and 45 seconds into the game.  I believe that’s when we hear the first audible “Omaha” call from Peyton Manning.  The world is suddenly entranced by the word Omaha.  The Nebraska Tourism Board is having its best week in years.

Question: Why is it an automatic penalty and a tsk-tsk scolding from the announcers if an offensive player spikes the football after a big catch, but it’s totally cool to do that move where you throw the ball to the ground so that it spins like a top?   That’s happened twice already, and both times the NFL official meekly chased after the ball as it was spinning around the field.  Is the delay-of-game rule determined by style points?

It’s funny, we’ve got New England and Denver going at it here and it’s the Broncos who are throwing out some kind of Swiss-Army-Knife tight end situation.  Not long ago, that was the province of the Patriots, but the Gronkowski/Hernandez issues have Brady counting on Michael Hoo-a-too-many-syllables and not much else.  Meanwhile, the Broncos lined up third-string TE Virgil Green in a single-back formation and actually handed it to him for a nine-yard gain, threw the game’s first touchdown pass to second-string TE Jacob Tamme on a play-action rollout, and targeted first-stringer Julius Thomas repeatedly.

I haven’t had a whole lot of opportunities to chill on the couch and watch an entire day of NFL football, but there was the bye week this past fall, when I put the Bucs on the back burner and let the rest of the league action wash over me.  On that weekend, I professed my undying love for the naked bootleg play after watching Peyton Manning pull it off to perfection.  In a moment of beautiful déjà vu, this time around I mentioned my belief that goal-line play-action works best if you run it on first down and…voila!  Mr. Manning demonstrates the point once again with his rollout touchdown pass to Jacob Tamme.  If I were an NFL offensive coordinator – which is about as likely as me being a professional salsa dancer – I would play-action on every first-and-goal…and, of course, quickly be typecast by all opposing defensive coordinators as the coach who goes play-action on every first-and-goal.  So, yeah, you’ve got to mix it up, but I still think play-action at the goal line has the best chance of succeeding, by far, on first down.

I was a really big fan of “LOST.”  I know it was divisive, even among fans, but I will defend it to the end.  Still, what were the chances that Josh “Sawyer” Holloway’s next starring vehicle on television would be a show called “Intelligence?”

Jon Bon Jovi is in the Owner’s Box for the New England Patriots, two seats down from Mr. Robert Kraft.  I have to admit, we had a little debate going on at Mike’s house about whether or not that was really Bon Jovi on the edge of the screen, until we saw that there was a placard reading JON BON JOVI right in front of the person in question.  Thanks, Denver luxury box people, that was helpful.  The placard was a little hard to read, but as soon as it came into focus it was a four-man race to make the “Patriots are living on a prayer” joke.  I did not win.

There’s a good collection of 10 and 11-year-olds at Mike’s house, our sons, and they would rather be running around than watching SERIOUSLY IMPORTANT FOOTBALL GAMES.  There’s a ping-pong table in the garage, and the boys at the table are complaining that the balls keep rolling into the dark street on missed volleys.  Oh, really?  VELVEETA SHORTAGE!

Here’s some serious football analysis at halftime of the first game: Denver and New England are obviously two very good teams, but there is an enormous difference between the two wide receiver groups.  Peyton Manning has Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker.  Coming out of halftime, CBS’ Phil Simms asks this aloud, regarding Tom Brady and the Patriots: “Can Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman or Aaron Dobson start to dominate?”  No, Phil.  No, they cannot.

Broncos DT Terrance Knighton is obviously having a very good game.  Late in the third quarter, he knifes into the Patriots backfield to stop Stevan Ridley for a loss of one on second and two.  Knighton goes off the field for third down to catch his breath, and the Patriots throw an incompletion.  A weird sequence follows in which Denver calls a timeout just moments before it looks like New England will have to burn its own timeout before a fourth-down play.  A hidden advantage for Denver: The whole delay allows Knighton to get back on the field and when the fourth-down play finally happens he beats the center off the snap and sacks Brady on fourth down to turn the ball over on downs.

Two unnecessary things happen late in the fourth quarter.  1) CBS’ Jim Nantz informs the viewers that New England’s fourth-and-three attempt, down 23-3, is an important play.  2) A new “Robocop” reboot is announced.

Speaking of movies, allow me to let you in on this conversation that happened during the lull between the two Sunday games.  One of the ladies who was at Sunday’s get-together, who I shall not reveal but whose name rhymes with “Flecca,” wanted us to name a specific movie actor, and the movie she chose to help us along was “The Guardian.”  I have never heard of this movie.  (A quick iPad foray to imdb.com tells me that it also stares Ashton Kutcher and is about a troubled former swim champ joining the Coast Guard, so I’m going to go back to never hearing of it.) Here are some other movies one could have chosen to help us guess the actor in question: The Untouchables, Dances With Wolves, Waterworld, Tin Cup, Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, No Way Out, The Bodyguard, JFK.  Yeah, choosing The Guardian as Kevin Costner’s signature film is like introducing George Clooney as the former star of “The Facts of Life.”

By the way, a 54-yard field goal in Denver is now officially a gimme.  The Broncos didn’t give it a second thought with a little more than two minutes remaining and Matt Prater hit a shot that would have been good from at least 60.  Those of us who were hoping for a dramatic Championship Sunday can only pray that the nightcap between San Francisco and Seattle will be more dramatic.

[Edit: It was.  For the seventh straight year, the NFC delivered on championship weekend.  The NFC rules!]

Before we get started on Game Two, I just want to say that “J.R. Sweezy” is my favorite name in the NFL right now.  Sweezy is the Seahawks’ starting right guard and not the fourth member of O-Town, just so you know.

Our hopes for an exciting night game are piqued early when Aldon Smith forces and recovers a Russell Wilson fumble on the first play from scrimmage.  Wow.  The room is in agreement that this game will be decided at the end by a big play on defense, not offense.

[Edit: It was.  We are really smart.]

We are also in agreement that the running games are going to be completely marginalized in this game.

[Edit: Now, that’s some terrible football analysis right there.  It was based on the first two or three drives of the game.  Perhaps we forgot that these are the two teams in the NFL that run the ball on the highest percentage of plays; it’s not like they’re going to give up after some early struggles.  San Francisco eventually rushes for 161 yards – most of it by the amazing Colin Kaepernick – while Seattle counters with 115.  For a good stretch of the game, Kaepernick’s running was the only thing that was working for San Fran’s offense.]

Did I just see an inactive player on San Francisco’s sideline clothesline the Seattle gunner?!  The game broadcast doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but I think we’ll be seeing more about this in the days to come.  Speaking of the kicking game, the 49ers’ Kassim Osgood is a special teams dynamo, downing punts at the one and making tackles all over.  Osgood is such a good special teams player that I knew his name before this game.

An apparent Frank Gore touchdown is overturned by replay, leading to an Anthony Dixon scoring dive on fourth down one play later.  Here in the NFL playoffs, it’s seven points either way and all’s well that ends well.  HOWEVER, if this chain of events happened during the weeks that coincide with the fantasy football playoffs, they would have led to screams of anguish and triumph all over the country.

Movie trailers seem to be an increasingly common commercial choice during these big NFL weekends.  We just watched another one for “300: Rise of an Empire,” apparently the sequel to 2006’s popular “300.” (My powers of deduction are impressive, yes.) One of Mike’s guests says that this particular 300 movie has “no historical basis.”  And that’s a shocking departure from the first 300 movie?

At 8:04 p.m. ET, we have San Francisco Jim Harbaugh on the sideline, disagreeing, perhaps a bit vehemently, with one of the officials’ calls.  This is the NFC game’s version of “Omaha.”  Inevitable and fun.  By the way, Harbaugh isn’t just surprised by the call, HE IS INCREDULOUS.

And at 8:32 we have our first real Beast Mode sighting.  Marshawn Lynch delivers in the playoffs again and now might be a good time to measure the decibel level at CenturyLink Field, as opposed to an artificial attempt to get the 12th Man revved up before the opening kickoff.

Lynch’s touchdown run is a 40-yard weaving thing of beauty.  This is a strange game, in that both defenses are clearly dominant units, and both teams have good special teams as well, and yet there have been a pretty large number of home-run plays, too.  Lynch has the 40-yard TD, Kaepernick has a 58-yard run, Doug Baldwin has a 51-yard catch and a 69-yard kickoff return and Jermaine Kearse has a 35-yard scoring catch (and how did THAT one get in there?).

Kearse’s touchdown came on a fourth-and-seven gamble by the Seahawks in the fourth quarter, a play that put the home team on top, 20-17.  San Francisco jumps offside on the play and a flag hits the ground as Russell Wilson looks for his target downfield.  The announcers will tell you that Wilson took a downfield shot because he knew it was a free play.  I’m not so sure.  On replay, it looks like all of the Seattle receivers are running routes straight upfield, by design.  I think the Seahawks were going for it here regardless of the free play.

Ugh, NaVorro Bowman’s leg.  Nobody wants to see that happen to such a great player (or any player, of course).  But see it we do, over and over again.  The thing is, FOX almost has to keep showing the replay because, in addition to Bowman’s injury it looks like he has stripped the football from Kearse’s grasp, which would be kind of an important occurrence at this point in the game.  Eventually we learn that this is not a reviewable play, which seems hard to believe from the standpoint of, “but I can clearly see with my own eyes that this play should be overturned.”  Wager: This kind of play WILL be reviewable by fall of 2014.  Meanwhile, we can add Bowman to the list of players who have replays we don’t want to remember, an unhappy fraternity that includes Napoleon McCallum, Joe Theismann and Tim Krumrie.  Bowman’s was not the most gruesome to watch of those listed (I’d give that to McCallum, personally) but it might be worse because he didn’t even get credit for the great play that unfortunately put him in position to be hurt.

Apparently both coaches in this game recently attended the New Ron Rivera School of Fourth-Down Decision-Making.

At 9:41, Anquan Boldin looks like he might be hurt, which would be a big blow to the 49ers’ comeback chances.  Nope, he’s just tying his shoe.

This has been another NFC Championship Game classic, and it comes down to one do-or-die drive for the 49ers, down by six, with the CenturyLink crowd trying to howl them right out of the building.  This game is getting the ending it deserves…and, boom!  There’s Richard Sherman with the big defensive play to win it.  I guess, in a perfect world, I could do without Sherman’s taunting of Michael Crabtree at the end, but it’s hard to blame any of these guys for the emotions they’re feeling in the immediate aftermath of such an incredible game.

My emotions in the game’s aftermath: Satisfaction at getting to see a fantastic game after the AFC tilt was a bit of a snooze; jealousy that I’m watching these from my friend’s living room; hope that next January I’ll be in a press box somewhere, watching Lovie Smith’s Buccaneers try to win their way back into the Super Bowl.