ZERO DARK THIRTY-FIVE
It's a shame that the Bro Bowl, which was a lights out game, might wind up going down in history because of the lights went out. Although my personal theory is that Beyonce wanted to do an encore for MTV Unplugged, it's impossible to tell what impact the blowout had on what was, up to that point, a, um, blowout. It was as if the first 40 minute break had left the Niners flatter than Jay Zed trying to hit B sharp, but the second 40 certainly seemed to take some of the wind out of the Ravens' sails.
But it made for an incredible, one-sided, third quarter, after a first half the Ravens hadn't quite dominated, although they'd built up a big lead. In the end the Niners outgained Baltimore by 100 yards, but the Ravens had more possession, and when it came down to business in the red zone, they dominated. In the fourth quarter I thought Baltimore's Harbaugh out-coached his little brother (and as a bigger brother, I know what that feels like) and Colin Kaepernick's relative lack of experience showed, because when then crunch game down, the Ravens wanted to force him into making quick decisions-and my old adage of first and goal being the best down for play action proved true again, as well as my sense on third and fourth downs that, in the face of all-out pressure, you want to extend the play if you can, and find your second option if you can't make a good throw to your first.
Do I think the fourth down interference should've been called? Yes, because there's a difference between the collision five yards off the line, and the jersey-grab in the end zone. Usually, a grab is what gets the flag, and I don't believe that falls into 'let 'em play'. Given the game's previous DPI calls, I think it easily could've been flagged, but I wasn't surprised when it was not. I was more surprised on third-down, when Smith should have been called for the helmet-to-helmet spear on Crabtree, who was an unprotected receiver at the time (he wasn't a runner, or else the call would have had to be a fumble). That this one went un-flagged was disgraceful for the current NFL (five years ago, it's simply a great play). The league will have to be careful with how much hitting they allow against an option QB once he's completed the handoff—the Ravens came close to being gratuitous a number of times, but then they came close after a lot of plays.
But Jerome Boger's crew was best at keeping the flags in their pocket. Cary Williams shoves the linesman and doesn't even get penalised, when he should have been ejected? Brandon Ayanbadejo holds like The Big Show giving a bear hug on Jacoby Jones' 108 kickoff return, and it's not called—though Dashon Goldson simply whiffs on a tackle too. Ed Reed was clearly offside on the two-point conversion—and there were a couple of uncalled neutral-zone infractions when the Ravens were jumping the count—something Kaepernick's slow play-changing let them do. There was a late hit on Joe Staley that started a scuffle. And although the 'illegal formation' call on the game's first play was an obvious penalty it's not an 'illegal formation'. Semantically speaking, it's for ineligible receiver or illegal forward pass. You can line up as many players as you want on the line of scrimmage (at least you still could in the 2011 NFL rules, which are the latest ones available); you just can't throw the ball to any of them except the two on the end of the line! It may just be that they call it illegal formation for convenience sake.
One thing the NFL may need to address is the deliberate penalties the Ravens were willing to take on the intentional safety. Obviously, the penalty would result in a safety, but the time would have already disappeared. The league allows for running time off the clock when a defense stalls; they need to consider putting time back on when the offense does the same. Super Bowl end-games keep staying one step ahead of the rules.
Having said that, I thought Jim Harbaugh should have gone for it on fourth and two, after that roughing call, though Willie McGinest wanted the points. As I said, I questioned the play-calling at the goal-line, and I thought when they were backed up to their own goal the Niners should have run something better than a draw on third down. And they needed to get something better from the two stars of media week. Chris Culliver's homophobic comments about the 'sweet stuff' would've carried more power, though no less stupidity, had he played like a macho-man on Sunday (in fairness, Donte Whitner didn't have a great game either), and Randy Moss' claim to be the greatest receiver of all time might've made more sense if he'd ever shown up to catch the ball. In fact, Moss' post-season performance balances pretty neatly on the fulcrum of his famous pouting withdrawal from Minnesota's 41-0 loss to the Giants in 2000's NFL championship. His career postseason is 15g, 54 catches, 977 yards, 10 TD, which looks good until you realise 16 catches, 436 yards, and five TD of that came in his first three playoff games, before that debacle against the Giants. Jerry Rice, in almost double the games, 29, had triple the catches 151, 2245 yards and 22 TD. At age 40, in three playoff games for Oakland, Rice still turned in 14 catches, 203 yards and 2 scores. At age 39 he had 9/183/1. Come back after a big Super Bowl, Randy.
What won the game for the Ravens was winning the one-on-one battles: Joe Flacco evading the rush, Anquan Boldin hanging on to balls thrown near him, Jacoby Jones not playing leap-frog but running for the goal line. That's what the game comes down to sometimes, for all the discussion of the strategic chessboard, or the lawyeriffic rabbinical parsing of the rule book: players have to make plays. Is Joe Flacco 'elite' now? Peter King has now joined the group which thinks the term is meaningless—so he hedged his bets by saying Flacco's 'top echelon'. Of course in the same column he moaned about New Orleans allowing smoking in bars and casinos (don't ask!) but immediately praised a restaurant where he ate oysters smoked in cigar tobacco. When you're a gourmet raving over a dessert made from Cocoa Puffs this makes a certain amount of sense. So let's say the Super Bowl MVP has now proved he's 'echelon', and watch the cash registers go ka-ching as the Ravens try to re-up (now that's a Baltimore word) him while he's free to test the free agency waters.
THE BROADCAST PICTURE
I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to do the past few seasons with two different broadcasters. With Channel Four, we try to keep the show loose, offering something you can't get elsewhere, and which we hope suits the early morning hours. You won't realise it, but Nat and I worked with five different producers this season (all of whom had worked on the show before), and it was a tribute to their skills that we moved seamlessly from week to week.
With the BBC, we try to present a show that offers analysis that's easier for the new viewer to grasp but just as telling, and presented more slickly, than you'll find elsewhere. Remember, Chappers and I did just two games this season—and the Wembley game was just highlights—so you need to credit both his talent in staying on top of the game, and the hard work of producer Ron Chakraborty and his team when you see us work so seamlessly with Willie McGinest, who'd just walked into the booth minutes before kickoff!
As with Rod Woodson in 2008 and 2009, it was a pleasure for me to be able to share analysis with someone I could learn from, and as with those shows, I thought the higher energy of being on site kept the presentation exciting while never going over the heads of the newer viewers. I hope we kept them tuned in, at least until the blackout!
Both the C4 and BBC contracts are up this season, and I can't say where the new NFL deals will wind up, or whether I'll be a part of them. But I have appreciated all the positive feedback from you, I love that you're able to appreciate the different styles of the two shows, and I also like your constructive criticism. Basically though I feel blessed to have been able to play such a part in the seasons for both broadcasters, and I hope it continues.
DECK THE HALL:
It was really hard to argue with any of the guys going into the Hall of Fame, and I suspect that we will have to see a full complement of seven going in for years to come. Had I been voting, I'd have given my five votes to Jonathan Ogden, Will Shields, Larry Allen, Aeneas Williams and either Cris Carter or Warren Sapp. Given the logjam in the hall, I see no problem with guys not going in on the first ballot—Michael Strahan, who will be voted in eventually, said as much himself. Carter was the best of the three receivers on offer, and a worthy candidate, but we are reaching the point where the statistical bar for passing accomplishments needs to be raised. I think Tim Brown is a borderline case, and Andre Reed would not make the cut for me. But there is a knock-on effect: for example, the vote for Curtis Martin might not have been positive had not Floyd Little been voted in two years earlier, and Martin's induction makes Jerome Bettis' inevitable. But Martin may be the poster boy for the 'Hall Of Very Good for a Long Time', and Bettis is one for the 'Very Good Player On Very Good Teams'. The only arguments against Sapp are his personality, which in these votes can be a factor, and the fact that, dominating as he was, he had a tendency to be much less so in alternate years.
Bill Parcells is certainly a Hall of Famer—his overall record isn't worse than, say, Marv Levy's, he's won a couple of Super Bowls, and he was one of the best-ever at turning around a moribund team (and then wearing out his welcome!). His departure from the Pats may have lost him some votes, but his election was due, and it will be interesting to see if the knock-on effect helps other coaches with two Super Bowl wins, like, uh, Tom Coughlin—who has nothing like the persona of Parcells.
Charles Haley basically has to get in because Fred Dean did–they have similar resumes only Haley's is probably better. He and Strahan may have got in each other's way, but to me Haley and Dean were sort of one-trick ponies, whose trick is incredibly useful to championship teams, and a trick that shows up in the stat line. Sacks are really the only stat linemen have, so guys with big sack numbers have a hook to hang their candidacies on. This probably helped Curley Culp, for whom I also would have voted, because he helped define the nose tackle position, and he was damn good at it. Like La'Roi Glover, he was a college wrestler who was a master of leverage, and the Chiefs' D was better when he moved Buck Buchanan off the center than it was when Buck was blocking the sun. The probably for Culp is that his Chiefs' team is one of those that has already accumulated a lot of places in the Hall, although, to my mind, there still needs to be some recognition for Jim Tyrer (who won't get in because of his post-football life) .
A similar situation applies to Dave Robinson of the Packers. And again, I don't believe the Lombardi Packers are over-represented in the Hall, at least not until Jerry Kramer gets in. I wasn't convinced by Robinson until I looked back at his career. He's on the all decade team for the Sixties (as is Kramer) but he really had a short peak—but it was a hell of peak. Injury and disagreement with coach Dan Devine probably had a lot to do with his quick decline, but he was a prototype for the 3-4 elephant kind of linebacker, even though he played in a 4-3, and he was known as a big-game player.
I'd like to see owners given their own little wing of the Hall and let them vote themselves in. Apparently, from the press-room buzz, the debate against Art Modell was so strong that he's unlikely to be voted in by the writers at all; Eddie DeBartolo was caught cheating by the commissioner, and had to give the team to his sister, which hardly seems like a Hall argument to me. But in a sport where the winners' trophy is presented to the guy who wrote the cheques, immortality is a tricky subject.
THE FINAL SCOREBOARD:
I finished this year picking 172 games correctly, or 64.7 per cent, which was exactly the same as last year, although this year my percentage was slightly better because of a tie. In fact, in 2008 I had the exact same record, 172 correct and one tie, as this year. I've been making the weekly picks for nfluk.com for eight seasons, and in three of them I've picked 172 right, in another 174, and in another 175. That's five of the eight years within three games over a 21 week season. It may not be good, but it's consistent! I hope to be back next year to suffer making the picks for another year, in the meantime, look for something like last year's Ask Mike, or previous years' Coast to Coast, in the off-season. It's been another spectacular NFL season, and thanks for reading.
LAST WEEK: 0-1
REGULAR SEASON: 165-90-1