NEW ORLEANS SAINTS at SAN FRANCISCO 49ers
SAT 9.30pm SKY SPORT 2
It’s been party week in New Orleans (see above) between the Saints’ big win on Saturday and then Monday’s BCS Championship game, where locals LSU were so soundly beaten by Alabama they should have broken out the jazz band and coffins for a true French Quarter funeral. Watching that heartless, pulverising demolition of a game at the end of a 72 hour drunk would have made you morose and sober instantly. The great and self-absorbed Alabama coach Nick Saban should now have the Imperial Theme played wherever he goes. He barely needed to gesture to choke the life out of the entire state of Louisiana. Certainly his famously sleek hair was barely ruffled. He came for revenge after a close mid-season loss to the same team, and it was 3 hours of the college football version of the end of the Wild Bunch. Several players were knocked out, and in one incident, we got to watch a guy get his leg broken in ultra-slow motion from multiple angles (and in 3D! Remember 3D? Future of sport? Never mind). I’ve been watching college and NFL football for some time, and I’d never seen anything like it, outside of a badly mismatched MMA fight. Yes, it was that bloody.
Back in the big boy game, the exuberant, talented Saints hit the West Coast into the teeth of a San Francisco winter’s gale, and a reborn San Francisco team. If you only started following the NFL in the last decade you would have no idea that the 49ers were ever any good. If you only started following the NFL last year you would think the 49ers were one of the worst teams in football. A season later, with a change of coach and little else, the team by the Bay are almost back to early 90’s form, when they were one of the most successful teams in the league.
There’s always a lot of discussion about the effect coaches/managers actually have in sport. And then an example like Alex Smith comes along, and you realise that to be great in pro sport you need luck in the front office as much as you do on the field. 14 months ago Alex Smith was looking at losing his starting QB gig, and becoming a lifetime backup somewhere else. His arm was ‘weak’, his ‘hands were too small’ (!). He was regarded as a draft bust, destined to carry a clipboard somewhere like Seattle for a few years, until he eventually fell out of the league.
After the appalling 2010 season San Francisco managed to lure Stanford coach Jim (brother of Raven’s coach John) Harbaugh and Alex Smith is suddenly an elite athlete, his QB rating 30% up on his career average. 30%! In ONE season.
That is some impressive work by the manic, hard-driving Harbaugh, and the defence has improved significantly as well.
At home, looking to erase a decade of pain, San Francisco will be very hard to beat. Especially if it comes down to field goals. I’m not kidding about the wind.
WATCHABILITY RATING: Excellent. Both sides love to throw the ball and have decent running games.
RESULT: Pick ‘em, but I’ll say the 49ers for old times sake.
DENVER BRONCOS at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
SUN 1am SKY SPORT 2
I could have exited last weekend 2-2, but the human miracle machine that is Tim Tebow pulled it off AGAIN, and I went 1-3. I’ve never been so happy to be on the losing side in my life. If you didn’t watch the Steelers/Broncos last weekend, you missed one of the best games of the year. The Steelers were riven with injuries and Tebow, dared to win it with his (terrible) arm, put together one of the best postseason performances by a rookie, ever. That’s what it took to defeat a Pittsburgh team that played its heart, lungs and dodgy ankles out. Denver won in OT, on a beautiful throw and run that went for 80 yards, and short of a decent Cameron Crowe movie you could not have gotten a better result.
This week Tebow and co travel up to freezing Foxboro, and the waiting Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. I think I can hear Belichick drooling from here. The Patriots are on the down side of their dynasty, but still on paper easily possess enough weapons and guile to end the Denver fairytale. But am I going to bet against the cultural phenom that is the Tebow, even on the road against the No1 seed, a team that have dominated the sport for the last dozen years? Hell no.
WATCHABILITY RATING: Off the chart. This may well out rate last week’s Tebow game, which over 25% of American households watched. “American Idol’ gets half that.
HOUSTON TEXANS at BALTIMORE RAVENS
SUN 6pm SKY SPORT 2
And now to the other Harbaugh, who has managed to keep the blood pumping through a Ravens team where the defence averages 82 years old. Defensive linemen and line-backers age in dog years. They absorb the majority of the NFL’s punishment, supposedly equivalent to 10 major car accidents a year. Ray Lewis, the brand name of the franchise and leader of that legendary defence is 36 years old, a whole 6 months younger than Paul Scholes, and has been in the league 16 years. When you watch him being interviewed you realise he’s already reached late-boxer level of dementia but he’s still pile driving people into the AstroTurf with venom for a living, and his living is very good. The Ravens have managed to fashion a decent enough offense considering their QB wouldn’t make the roster of any other post-season team, but its still Ray-Ray, Suggs and co that bring the pain, cutting other teams off at the knees. Houston may yet surprise me, but I think this game is age before beauty boring.
WATCHABILITY RATING: For fans only.
RESULT: Ravens. Ray Rice will carry the rock. Insert lame ‘Wire’ or Poe riff here.
NEW YORK GIANTS at GREEN BAY PACKERS
SUN 9.30pm SKY SPORTS 2
Eli, that miserable toad, looked good last week, and the Giants added another deep threat in Hakeem Nicks, and they still have dragster Victor Cruz up their sleeve. If they play every down as if their life depended on it (and with Tom Coughlin’s blood pressure, that may be the case) they MIGHT have a chance of beating the Packers. That’s what it will take. The Pack haven’t been perfect this year (at 15-1, they only just missed) but they are about as good an NFL team as you will ever see. Much more on them next week. Confident much?
WATCHABILITY RATING: Pretty good. If it’s a Packer blowout, that screaming in glee you hear will be me.
RESULT: The Pack strolls.
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