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The Game Manager, Week 17: Goodbye and Hello

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The playoffs are coming, the playoffs are coming! That means a preview. Also: The 49ers squeezed one more loss into 2018, locked up the second pick in the 2019 draft, and have 31 bye weeks before their next game.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints
“NFC you in the Championship Game! Get it?”
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but I do have a confession. I love the 49ers (that’s not the confession), but I look forward to the NFL playoffs more than any regular season Niner game. While I mourn the death of another 49er season, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like a kid on Christmas Eve, looking forward to presents under the tree. That’s not evidence of a lack of passion for the 49ers as much as it’s indicative of my love for playoff football.

I’m a playoff fetishist. I watch playoffs of sports I don’t follow very closely (college basketball) or even really like (hockey). When two teams play with their season on the line, I’m in. In a perfect world, I’d get both the 49ers and playoffs in January, but we all know this world isn’t perfect.

The 49ers won’t play again until this summer, which sucks. But by the time they do, Jimmy G will likely be back under center, which is pretty awesome. And while there are no more Niners games to write about for awhile, this column isn’t going anywhere. I’ll be back each week throughout the postseason to break down the action. Excited? Relieved? Anyone?

But before we move on to 2019, let’s look at how we ended 2018.

Tanksgiving III: The Final Chapter

I think most people agreed it was foolish to hope for an Arizona upset of Seattle to give the 49ers the top pick in the draft. But it seemed reasonable to expect the Niners to stay in the second spot, since they only needed two of these four results to not happen:

Because the Ravens and Chargers had something to play for, the Niners best chance was for Cowboys and Falcons victories. The latter seemed like a toss-up, and the former was likely as long as Dallas gave full effort despite having nothing to gain.

The odds were not in the 49ers favor.

Both morning games were back and forth, as Dallas blew two double-digit leads while Atlanta came back from down 17-0 to up 31-20. Then things really went all rollercoaster. Let’s go to the time stamps:

12:50pm PST: A Giants touchdown gives them a 32-28 lead on Dallas just as the Bucs score to draw within 31-26 of Atlanta. Matt Ryan promptly throws an interception at the very same moment Dallas fumbles a kickoff. Things are bleak.

12:52pm: Tampa Bay scores a TD to take the lead 32-31, but fails again on the two-point try.

12:54pm: Dallas holds New York to a FG, and trails 35-28.

1pm: Both Atlanta and Dallas drive inside the opponent’s 30. With 1:34 left, Dak Prescott misses a wide open Amari Cooper for a sure TD. Moments later, Julio Jones commits a 15-yard penalty, moving them out of field goal range.

1:03pm: With Dallas trailing and facing a desperation 4th and 15, this happens:

1:05pm: As the Beasley TD catch is overturned, Ryan finds Jones on 3rd down to get into chip shot range.

1:06pm: Not wanting overtime, Dallas goes for two and converts. They lead 36-35.

1:08pm: Just as it appears the Niners have the second pick locked down, Dallas is called for a taunting penalty, leading to the Giants starting near midfield — one first down from a shot at their own game-winning kick.

1:10pm: Matt Bryant nails his kick, giving Atlanta the last-second win. One down, one to go.

1:11pm: Facing their own desperation 4th down, Eli Manning throws to the sticks, where Cody Latimer, who had two spectacular one-handed grabs, one for a TD, one setting up another, promptly drops it. Probably because he used two hands. The game’s over and the 49ers clinch no worse than the second pick.

Of course, that didn’t mean the day didn’t hold any disappointment. While Seattle beating Arizona seemed a foregone conclusion, the Cardinals threw a scare into the Seahawks while the 49ers were getting stomped. Down 24-21 late in the 4th quarter, the Cardinals were at the edge of FG range with two minutes left. Josh Rosen fired a strike downfield which should’ve given them a 1st and goal with a shot at winning, but was dropped by WR Trent Sherfield (that’s a real person -- I checked).

Suddenly, the 49ers chances at the top overall pick, which had reached almost 50 percent, was about to fall to zero.

Zane Gonzalez drilled a 55-yard FG to tie the game, but it left 1:49 for Seattle to set up Sebastian Janikowski for the game-winning kick.

(Self-congratulatory) Stats of the week

Tying a bow on a couple of record pursuits we’ve been following:

  • Back in Week 5, I floated the idea the Niners had a shot to compile the least turnovers ever, as well as the record for least interceptions in a season. At the time, they were on pace for just over nine and three respectively. They actually underachieved their pace in both categories, tolling seven and two. They didn’t get a single interception from a cornerback. They’re now officially the worst team in NFL history at taking the ball from their opponent, and least likely to intercept. Sometimes I hate being right. #Humblebrag
  • I started saying George Kittle was arguably the best tight end in the game in Week 4. I suggested his season could be historic in Week 10. And last week, I predicted Kyle Shanahan would go out of his way to help Kittle the single-season tight end receiving record to make up for his oversight of not trying harder to get Kittle the single-game record a few weeks back. Shanahan indeed gave him every opportunity to break the record, which of course Kittle did in style.

I only wish I could show you footage of me watching that play live at home. This is the closest I can come to describing the scene:

Playoffs?!

Wherein I set myself to look like a fool by trying to rank the NFL’s title contenders, and why they will -- or won’t -- win it all. You’ll see my order is slightly different than the oddsmakers.

The favorite

While there are many dangerous teams out there, one appears to me to be head and shoulders above the rest.

New Orleans Saints

Why: Drew Brees is having another career year in a career full of them. He’s backed by two game-breakers on offense in Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, and a defense that has strengthened as the season progressed.

Why not: They averaged less than 19 points over their last five games after scoring 37+ over their first 11. And besides Thomas, they don’t have a dependable receiving threat, which is why the team felt compelled to sign the corpses of Dez Bryant and Brandon Marshall.

The challengers

They may have stumbled a bit of late, but let’s not forget two teams that spent most of 2018 dominating their opponents.

Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs

Why: They were considered the best teams in their respective conferences for the majority of the season. They were both 9-1 when they met in what was probably the game of the year. (A game so good America couldn’t allow it to be played outside its borders.) They both have explosive offenses, and despite struggling on defense, each has pass rushers who can change a game.

Why not: The Chiefs, whose defense was always known to be suspect, couldn’t get stops down the stretch in primetime games against the Chargers and Seahawks in Weeks 15 and 16. Some deficits even Patrick Mahomes can’t overcome. Also, Andy Reid is notorious for poor strategy and playoff failure.

For the Rams, whose star-studded defense failed to live up to the hype, it was their vaunted offense which struggled. After scoring 33+ points in nine of their first 11 games (and falling one point short another time), they failed to reach that mark in four straight blowing out the Niners. Jared Goff in particular has looked shakier. Could January be the month we learn we learn he isn’t truly an elite QB?

The contenders

It’s a cliche, but as with most cliches, there’s a good reason for it: These are the dreaded “Teams Nobody Wants To Face.”

New England Patriots

Why: They’re the Patriots. Is there any team you’d feel confident in saying will beat them in January? After seizing back the bye in Week 16, rumors of their demise may have been exaggerated.

Why not: They’ve struggled mightily at times, not just losing more than usual (including back to back December losses for the first time since 2002), but getting blown out by the likes of Detroit, Jacksonville and Tennessee -- albeit all on the road. Brady’s numbers are down across the board, and the eye test seems to agree — he just might be (finally) getting old.

Chicago Bears

Why: Defense. Particularly a game-changing force in Khalil Mack. Creating sacks and turnovers in an age of offensive fireworks, the Bears are the rare team which can win with defense alone. They can also run the ball with three distinct ground weapons in Tarik Cohen, Jordan Howard, and Mitchell Trubisky.

Why not: Trubisky may be one of the best running QB’s in the league, but his passing is inconsistent, and it’s hard to imagine him getting through the postseason without a stinker. Also, Matt Nagy has never coached a playoff game, and is 0-2 as a coordinator.

San Diego Carson Los Angeles Chargers

Why: It was only two weeks ago the Chargers were the hip pick to go all the way. It was Philip Rivers’ time, and he was finally going to fill the hole in his soul that thus far only fathering children has.

With a stable of playmakers on both sides of the ball, people were calling the Chargers the most complete team in the league.

Why not: They lost at home to Baltimore in primetime with home field advantage within their grasp. Now they’ll have to play on Wild Card weekend against those same Ravens, this time in Baltimore. Oh yeah, and Anthony Lynn reminds one of a young Andy Reid at the end of games. That’s not a good thing.

The dark horses

...And the rest.

Houston Texans

Why: Have you seen Deshaun Watson play? He can carry a team, and has at his disposal arguably the best WR in the sport in DeAndre Hopkins. Their defense is strong, and any team that can run off nine straight wins cannot be ignored.

Why not: Have you seen Bill O’Brien coach? Also, three of the wins in their streak were gifted with terrible moves by opposing coaches Frank Reich, Jason Garrett, and Vance Joseph. And in losing the bye with their defeat at Philadelphia, they guaranteed any game against the Patriots will be in frigid New England.

Seattle Seahawks

Why: Russell Wilson, a strong running game, and a solid defense. Plus, say what you want about Pete Carroll, he’s successful in big games. Well, except for that one time.

Any excuse to post that will do.

Why not: Playing on the road. Barring a miracle, Seattle will not have the 12th Man behind them. Winning three games on the road is a tall task, even for the playoff-tested Seahawks.

Dallas Cowboys

Why: Ezekiel Elliot and that defense. Like the Bears, the Cowboys do it the old fashioned way with running and D. And Amari Cooper has given a them the big play threat they’ve lacked for some time.

Why not: Jason Garrett and, to a lesser extent, Prescott. Garrett will be the lesser coach in every game they play, and Prescott will be similarly outclassed in his QB matchups.

Baltimore Ravens

Why: Lamar Jackson’s scintillating running, and the defense. The D is looking as good as anyone’s, stifling the red-hot Chargers and limiting the explosive Chiefs on the road in December.

Why not: Lamar Jackson’s inconsistent passing, and an offense lacking playmakers. They’ll have to win tight ones against better competition than the Browns, who almost became the second team from Ohio to eliminate them from the postseason with a last-minute comeback on the final Sunday in the last two years.

Philadelphia Eagles

Why: Nick Foles playing. Ever since he took over for Carson Wentz, the Eagles have resembled the team of destiny he led last year. His legend is growing.

Why not: Nick Foles not playing. Foles suffered a rib injury on Sunday. Though he’s confident he can play, the injury could cost him a shot to repeat his legendary run from last season. (It already cost him a million dollars.)

Indianapolis Colts

Why: They have an improving defense, one of the best offensive lines in the sport, an underrated cast of playmakers, and have won nine of 10, but mostly because Captain Luck is leading the troops.

Why not: Frank Reich has done a great job, but he cost the team the division title with one of the most bizarre decisions of the year, back in Week 4.

“A tie is better than a loss, especially in a division game which has extra meaning for playoff tiebreakers. Tie with the Texans and the team’s next matchup decides the season series. Lose and it’s a split, at best. (Not that Indianapolis or Houston will be atop the division come Christmas, but it’s too early for pragmatism to kick in.)”

Written on September 30th, that proved prescient -- well, except for that parenthetical. Reich’s decision wasn’t analytically sound, ended Houston’s nine-game losing streak and jumpstarted their nine-game winning streak, and ultimately cost Indianapolis a home playoff game. All because he hates ties. Now the Colts have to head out on the road, where they’ll need a lot of luck, and a lot of Luck.

Poll

Which of the teams playing on Wild Card weekend is most likely to win the Super Bowl?

This poll is closed

  • 39%
    Chicago Bears
    (60 votes)
  • 5%
    Houston Texans
    (8 votes)
  • 0%
    Dallas Cowboys
    (1 vote)
  • 1%
    Baltimore Ravens
    (2 votes)
  • 32%
    Los Angeles Chargers
    (50 votes)
  • 5%
    Seattle Seahawks
    (9 votes)
  • 7%
    Philadelphia Eagles
    (12 votes)
  • 6%
    Indianapolis Colts
    (10 votes)
152 votes total Vote Now