Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Costly Mistakes Doom 49ers on Thursday Night

Week 5 - In the two games the 49ers played against division rival Arizona last season, San Francisco found little success against the Cardinals defense and couldn't find an answer for QB Carson Palmer as Arizona claimed the division crown. But after losing only three games all of last year, Arizona has already reached that mark through the first four weeks having struggled on both sides of the ball to the tune of a 1-3 start. Any thought of digging themselves out of an early hole and repeating as division champs or even contending for a Wild Card spot would be much more realistic if Bruce Arians' Cardinals could avoid the dreaded 1-4 start, making Thursday's game against the 49ers virtually a must-win. And with Palmer out with a concussion, the 49ers would have a golden opportunity against their division foe fall right into their lap facing backup Drew Stanton. However, costly mistakes in both the turnover and penalty department would doom any chance of Chip Kelly and company claiming their second win of the season.

Entering the game as the only team in the league that hasn't scored during the 1st quarter this season, Arizona would find themselves in that same position as both teams failed to muster any points in the opening period. But once the scoring began in the 2nd quarter, it was the 49ers who would strike first as QB Blaine Gabbert went 4 for 4 thru the air, with all four passes to wide-receiver Jeremy Kerley who has become Gabbert's go-to target this season. The fourth pass of the drive would be a 9-yard touchdown which gave Kerley two on the season, matching his total all of last year while with the Jets. Down by a touchdown, the Cardinals would score on the first of three turnovers by the 49ers to tie things up at 7 apiece as Gabbert had a pass deflected which fell into the hands of defensive-end Calais Campbell. Arizona would capitalize just one play later on a touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald. Making his first start in over two years, Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton was held in check nearly all game long, passing for only 124 yards on the night, but two touchdown passes to Fitzgerald who has made a career out of torturing the 49ers, having scored 14 touchdowns against them throughout his career entering the game, would be plenty to help Stanton in an otherwise mediocre performance.
Fitzgerald would see that total reach 16 touchdowns scored against the 49ers by days end, the most ever touchdowns scored by one player against San Francisco thru the air. With the game tied at 7-all at the half, the 49ers would then gift wrap another opportunity for their opponent as return man Chris Davis gave Arizona the ball on the doorstep of the end zone to open the second half as he was stripped of the ball on the kickoff. After appearing to have held Arizona to a field goal, the Niners would shoot themselves in the foot even more on a running into the kicker penalty which gave the Cardinals a second chance to reach the end zone which they would do on the very next play on a rushing touchdown. Expected to see a heavy diet of hand offs to Cardinals running back David Johnson, the second-year back didn't disappoint, putting together one of the best games of his career. It would be a two man show for much of the game for Arizona as Fitzgerald and Johnson accounted for most of the offense, tallying a combined 266 of AZ's 288 total net yards and all four touchdowns. Before it was all said and done Johnson would finish with the best rushing performance of the NFL season so far with 157 yards and became the first player in Cardinals franchise history to record 100+ scrimmage yards in each of the team's first five games of the season.

49ers running back Carlos Hyde would also have himself a nice game statistically, combining for over 100 yards (78 rushing and 36 receiving) and finding the end zone for the sixth time in five weeks as his touchdown in the third quarter brought the 49ers within reach, trailing by a touchdown. But Gabbert's second interception of the night would dampen their chance of pulling off the victory as Arizona scored on a field goal, scoring 17 of their points off of San Francisco turnovers. As for Arizona themselves, Stanton and company managed to play a turnover-free game as the 49ers defense failed to force a takeaway for the second consecutive week. The only other scoring by the 49ers would come late in the fourth quarter as Gabbert took the ball into the end zone himself for a 1-yard rushing touchdown as he totaled 70 yards on the ground. Finishing with 162 yards passing, Gabbert would sling 102 of those yards to receiver Jeremy Kerley who became the 49ers' first 100-yard receiver in nearly an entire season (15 games). Unfortunately it wouldn't be enough as the Cardinals added a late safety to increase their lead and finish the 33-21 victory in Carson Palmer's absence.
Week 6 Preview: With a few extra days of rest, the 49ers will make the trip to east coast as they head to Buffalo to take on the Rex Ryan led (3-2) Bills. And when they do, they'll be doing so with a different quarterback under center as 49ers coach Chip Kelly has made the decision to make a change with Colin Kaepernick taking over as the starter. In need of something to wake up the team which hasn't won since their season-opening shutout of the Rams, Kelly and co. is hoping Kaepernick who is finally healthy after undergoing a series of injuries during the offseason, can be the answer and breathe life back into the 49er offense. Unlike the 49ers, the Bills are currently riding a three game winning streak after dropping each of their first two. The last two times the 49ers and Bills faced one another, it was San Francisco who pulled out on top, outscoring Buffalo 55-6 in those games. The 49er Faithful would want nothing more than for that trend to continue as they hope to head into the Week 8 BYE week on a 2-game win streak.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

49ers Squander 14-0 lead to Fall to Dallas

Week 4 - Since a dominant win in Week 1 at home against the Rams to open the season, the 49ers have yet to play again at their home field of Levi's Stadium and have yet to add another victory, entering Sunday's meeting with the (2-1) Cowboys on a two game losing skid at 1-2 on the year. But with rookie QB Dak Prescott and first round running back Ezekiel Elliott learning more and more and adapting quite well to the NFL week after week, these aren't the same exact Dallas Cowboy 49ers head coach Chip Kelly grew accustomed to facing while with the Eagles. With many claiming the Cowboys' season was done for the moment starting quarterback Tony Romo went down with a back injury during the preseason and was ruled out for 6-8 weeks, Dallas' crop of talented rookies have answered the call and have flipped the script to keep their season afloat.

After kickoff it was the home team who dominated most of the first half, as the 49ers jumped out to an early lead once Dallas' opening-drive resulted in a missed field goal by kicker Dan Bailey. The field goal attempt which went wide-left would mark the first time this season that Dallas failed to score on their opening-drive. For a team that's been terrible on third downs this year, the 49ers bucked the trend on their first offensive possession by scoring on a 33-yard touchdown on 3rd & 7 when QB Blaine Gabbert found a wide-open Jeremy Kerley who scored the easy touchdown and his first with the team to put San Francisco ahead early. After going 0-for-10 on third downs last week in Seattle, the Niners got off to a blazing start by going 6-for-6 on third downs in this one, including a touchdown ran in on 3rd & 1 by running back Carlos Hyde in the second quarter. But even with Chip Kelly's offense scoring touchdowns on each of their first two offensive possessions and Dallas facing their largest deficit of the season, the tables would be turned before the half as the Cowboys offense mustered up a pair of unanswered touchdowns of their own to tie the game at 14. With the 49ers winning an earlier challenge for Dallas having their foot on the goal line when recovering a punt that would've pinned the 49ers inside the 1-yard line, coach Kelly's decision not to challenge a punt return when Cowboys return man Lucky Whitehead's knee touched the ground after breaking a tackle, would haunt him for 11 costly yards. Then came a horrendous penalty call on the 49ers which would change the entire complexion of the game.
Facing a 3rd & 6 near midfield and yet to sniff the end zone, the San Francisco defense would come up with another stop to force a sack. What should've been a Dallas punt, turned into a momentum-swining first down as 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt was called for "unnecessary roughness" for a baby push on Prescott while he was wrapped up. The 15-yard penalty and automatic first down would breathe new life back into the drive and allowed the Cowboys to score their first touchdown just three plays later as Prescott found receiver Terrance Williams streaking down the right sideline for a 20-yard touchdown. Making matters worse, a shanked punt on San Francisco's following drive would put Dallas in position to tie the game just before the half as the Cowboys rookie QB utilized his future Hall of Fame tight-end and the sideline to perfection in the 2 minute offense with a 1:50 remaining in the half. And with just 16 seconds to go, Prescott capitalized by connected with Brice Butler in the end zone for the game-tying touchdown.

With San Francisco's lead gone with the wind, the 49ers were in need of a jolt on offense and appeared destined for an equally fast start to begin the second half when Carlos Hyde rumbled for a 32-yard carry on the first play of the third quarter. Gabbert would follow that up with possibly the best placed pass of his career as he connected with tight-end Garrett Celek who hauled in a one-hander for a 29-yard gain on a throw that only the receiver could've caught. Unfortunately, it would be the last offensive highlight of the day for the Niners who had to settle for a Phil Dawson field goal which helped them retake the lead at 17-14. From there on the game would turn into the 'Zeke show as Elliott rushed for 50 yards on 7 carries on Dallas' following drive before finishing with 96 yards in the second half alone, capped off with a 1-yard touchdown to give the Cowboys their first lead of the game. After forcing Dallas to punt on their following drive and setting up shop near midfield thanks to a nice return from Kerley, the Niners gave the ball right back to their opponent as Gabbert went for the home run pass to Torrey Smith on first down and under-threw him as Dallas' Morris Claiborne came up with the easy interception. They would turn the turnover into three points as Bailey banged in a field goal to give Dallas a 7-point lead.
Facing four down territory, the 49ers would have one final chance as they faced a 4th and 6 call in which they would come up short as Gabbert threw shy of the first down marker and gaining only 3 yards on a pass to Smith. The game would then be iced on a 47-yard catch and go to Cole Beasley as Dallas came out on top, 24-17. Though he would have a close call during Dallas' opening-drive which almost saw 49ers Pro-Bowl safety Eric Reid come up with the first thrown interception of Prescott's career, the talented rookie saw his record streak of consecutive pass attempts without an interception to begin a career continue thru his first 131 career pass attempts as he threw for 245 yards and a pair of touchdowns without his star receiver Dez Bryant who missed the game with a knee injury. Elliott added a career-best 138-yards on the ground to best his former Ohio State teammate Carlos Hyde who rushed for 74-yards as the two met at midfield after the game to swap jerseys. With the loss, San Francisco fell to 1-3 on the year, but an even bigger blow than the loss itself would be the injury to Pro-Bowl linebacker NaVorro Bowman who left the game midway thru the 3rd quarter on a non-contact play. Bowman would be carted off the field with what later revealed to be a ruptured Achilles tendon which would rule Bowman out for the remainder of the season. While the injury opened the flood gates for Elliott to roam free through the middle in the second half, the bigger picture is that the 49ers will be without their emotional leader on defense going forward.

Week 5 Preview - Entering Week 4 with 8 takeaways thru the first three weeks (tied for 3rd most in the NFL), the 49ers failed to add a single takeaway in their loss to the Cowboys. They'll need to get back on track in the takeaway department if they plan to win on a short week when they host the (1-3) Arizona Cardinals on Thursday Night Football. After dominating their way to a division crown just a season ago, the Cardinals have resembled anything but a division champion this season while struggling to the tone of back-to-back losses to the Bills and Rams. Still seeking their first road win of the year, the Cardinals will be without QB Carson Palmer who suffered a concussion in Week 4 as backup Drew Stanton gets the start. As for the 49ers who had little luck against Arizona in both meetings a season ago, the Cardinals are one of the teams who have struggled just as much as they have to begin 2016 and might have a chance to come up with their second win of the year. The 49ers will also be helped out a bit on the defensive front with Aaron Lynch returning from a 4-game suspension served for violating the league's substance abuse policy. If the offense struggles, expect an appearance from 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick.

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Monday, October 3, 2016

Giants Month in Review - September 2016

And just like that, the San Francisco Giants' regular season is over. With a dominant finish to the first half of the season followed by a troublesome struggle-filled second half which saw the Giants lose their grasp on the NL Western division after having a first place lead over the Dodgers for over two months, Bruce Bochy's ball club at times seemed out of playoff contention but was still very much alive. In need of a strong finish in September to secure a spot in the Postseason, the Giants had both the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals to worry about with both NL Wild Card spots up for grabs. Finishing the month of September with a mediocre record of 13-15, the Giants' season hung in the balance with two October affairs against the rival Dodgers who had already clinched the NL West but were still hoping to play spoilers against their most hated rival.

With the Mets clinching the top NL Wild Card spot on the second to last day of the regular season with a road victory over the Phillies and the Cardinals hot on San Francisco's tracks who were hoping to steal the NL's second Wild Card spot, the Giants finished off the regular season at home with a 3-game sweep of the Dodgers to punch their ticket into the Postseason. With the Cardinals winning their final four games of the season, the Giants needed a 4-game win streak of their own in order to avoid a tie with St. Louis. Thankfully, the Giants were able to do just that, winning their final four games while playing possibly their best ball of the second half down the stretch. One win in particular came on Saturday which saw Giants pitcher Ty Blach make only his second career start in which he out-dueled arguably the game's best pitcher in Clayton Kershaw, logging 8 innings of 3-hit ball and allowing one walk while striking out six to notch his first career win as the Giants blanked the Dodgers with a 3-0 victory. Oh yeah, he also collected a pair of hits at the plate, including his first career base knock against Kershaw.
In what was a tale of two halves for San Francisco, will now be a clean slate for the Giants now that they've squeaked into the Postseason by way of the second Wild Card berth, the same route they took to reach and win the World Series in 2014. But unlike the Pirates who the Giants knocked off to win the Wild Card playoff in 2014, the Mets are the reigning National League champions and have some playoff experience under their belt, something Pittsburgh lacked. But still, Bruce Bochy's ball club has shown time and time again that they know how to flip the switch come playoff time, even if the bullpen isn't what it once was. The shifting of the closer spot being given back to Sergio Romo who closed out the 2012 World Series, however, appears to have given the bullpen a slight jolt, having pitched better as of late. And with Giants ace Madison Bumgarner toeing the rubber opposite of New York's hard-throwing Noah Syndergaard on Wednesday, San Francisco is very capable of continuing their pattern of even year success.

The Giants finished the month of September with a record of 13-15, but evened out at 15-wins and 15-losses when factoring in the two October wins against L.A. to closeout the regular season. Losing 3 of 4 in Chicago to the Cubs (all 1-run games), 2 of 3 in Colorado and a 3-game sweep at home at the hands of the Padres ignited a rocky first half of September which saw few highlights aside from a 3-game road sweep of the D-Backs. But even then, the Giants came thru in the clutch with their backs against the wall. In a season in which Buster Posey notched career hit No. 1,000 and Jeff Samardzija achieved his 1,000th career strikeout, Matt Cain, Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner all collected their 100th career wins. But none of them are ready to call it quits just yet in 2016 as the goal remains -- winning their fourth World Series title in seven years.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

More of the Same for 49ers in Seattle

Week 3 - With the 49ers and Seahawks both 1-1 on the year and coming off of their first loss of the season, Sunday saw the two division foes renew rivalries in Seattle where San Francisco hasn't had any luck since Alex Smith was the quarterback. But with Seattle entering the game having scored only one touchdown through their first two games, you would've thought Chip Kelly's team had a chance to steal one from the struggling Seahawks, right? Wrong. Instead, a return home to host one of their most hated rivals would awaken Seattle from their offensive slumber, scoring a touchdown just three plays into the game.

For the past six years, the 49er defense has had their hands full with trying to contain Marshawn Lynch who would almost always reek havoc against them before deciding to retire this past offseason. But even with Lynch no longer on the field to give San Francisco a headache, the Niner defense couldn't seem to find an answer for the Seattle run game as Christine Michael found hole after hole in the first half and collected his first two career touchdowns before finishing the game with a career-high 106 yards rushing. With both of his touchdowns coming in each of Seattle's first two drives, the 49ers allowed Michael to become the first Seahawks running back to tally a pair of first quarter touchdowns since Shaun Alexander in 2005. With the 49ers offense being no stranger to the three & out this year, they would add to their league-lead with five more on Sunday. Unable to generate any offense of their own in the first half, a field goal would be all San Francisco would have to show for thanks to Pro-Bowl linebacker NaVorro Bowman who forced a Jimmy Graham fumble to put kicker Phil Dawson in business. Unfortunately, Graham would redeem himself on Seattle's following drive.
With Seattle QB Russell Wilson playing through an ankle injury suffered in Week 1, the 49ers secondary was still unable to find a solution for the Seahawks' passing attack as Doug Baldwin hauled in a 59-yard reception in the second quarter followed by an 18-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Graham on the very next play. Though it would be all the points they would need, they would add a Steven Hauschka field goal before the half to take a 24-3 lead into the locker room. Wilson would torch the Niners thru the air for 243 yards before getting hurt in the third quarter when second-year linebacker Eli Harold sacked Wilson and landed awkwardly on Wilson's left ankle. And though he would only sit out for a play before returning to prove he was alright, Pete Carroll chose not to risk further injury to his franchise quarterback and elected to bring in the backup. Rookie Trevone Boykin would keep the route going by throwing for his first career touchdown just a few drives later when he connected with Baldwin for a 16-yard TD who went on to rack up a career-best 164 yards receiving. With his first career touchdown under his belt, Boykin would also be greeted with his first career interception as Niners linebacker Nick Bellore stepped in front of a pass to come up with the easy pick which would also be his first.

As for the 49ers, QB Blaine Gabbert would have another forget performance passing for only 119 yards and an interception to give the Seattle defense their first takeaway of the year. Carlos Hyde would be the lone bright spot on the day for the 49ers as he turned a would-be mediocre performance into a career day thanks to a strong fourth quarter. With only his second career 100 yard performance, Hyde became the first running back to rush for over 100 yards against the Seattle defense since Kansas City's Jamaal Charles did so on November 16, 2014. And though both of his touchdowns would both come during garbage-time in the fourth quarter with the game well out of reach, they would both come against Seattle's first-string defense as Carroll elected not to dump his starters for the bench late in the game. Hyde's late-game heroics would make the game look a lot closer on the scoreboard than it actually was as Seattle pulled off the 37-18 victory.
Week 4: With (1-2) San Francisco returning home to host the (2-1) Dallas Cowboys, Chip Kelly and company is hoping a return to Levi's Stadium will help ignite the defense which kept the opposition from scoring in their Week 1 win at home. But with Rookie QB Dak Prescott playing turnover-free football thru the first three games of his career, it'll be an intriguing match-up if the 49er defense can play anywhere near as dominant as they did in the Monday night opener. Coming off back-to-back wins following a season-opening loss to the Giants, the Cowboys appear to have struck gold with Prescott filling in quite nicely under center for the injury-riddled Tony Romo. Prescott isn't the only Cowboy the 49ers will have to keep a close eye on as Rookie RB and first round draft pick Ezekiel Elliott is coming off his first career 100 yard performance (140 yards on 30 carries) and is looking more and more like the dominant back we saw at Ohio State week after week. Having been torched in consecutive weeks, the 49er secondary could catch a huge break if Pro-Bowl wide-out Dez Bryant who is currently awaiting the results of an MRI for his knee, isn't able to play on Sunday.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

49ers stick around before falling late to Panthers

Week 2 - With the 49ers on the road in Carolina on short rest to face the defending NFC Champion Panthers (0-1), they'd be given a tall task if they wanted to improve to 2-0 on the year. As if being on short rest wasn't already a disadvantage in the NFL, Carolina on the other hand had as much rest as you could possibly want, having played four days earlier than San Francisco in the Thursday night opener in a Super Bowl rematch against the Broncos. And with the Panthers coming up short, suffering a heart-wrenching 21-20 loss on a missed field goal by kicker Graham Gano as time expired, we all knew Carolina would come into their home-opener with a chip on their shoulder and in need of a big win to bounce back and avoid an 0-2 start. After kickoff, it would be the 49ers who got off to a fast start as the San Francisco defense came up with an interception on Cam Newton's first pass attempt of the afternoon just two plays in.

Unfortunately, the 49ers would have to settle for a Phil Dawson field goal. After forcing Carolina to punt on their second possession, the Niners had a chance to jump out to an even bigger lead in the 1st quarter, but a Carlos Hyde fumble inside his own 20 would put the Panthers on the board and ahead as the ball was recovered and taken into the end zone for a Carolina touchdown. The 49er defense would turn the tables on Carolina's next offensive possession, forcing a fumble and this time capitalizing with a trip to the end zone as Blaine Gabbert found Torrey Smith for a 28-yard touchdown. San Francisco's 10-7 lead would be short lived, however, as a 78-yard bomb on Carolina's next play would put them back ahead for good as Newton connected with his tight-end Greg Olsen who was left all alone down the middle. The Panthers would add a late field goal to take a 17-10 lead into the half as San Francisco still had hopes of pulling off the upset.
Those hopes would vanish, reappear and then vanish once again in the second half as the game soon became the Kelvin Benjamin show. Having missed all of the 2015 season last year with a torn ACL suffered during training camp, the former first round draft pick has picked up right where he left off before the injury and has shown no ill effects of a surgically repaired knee as he caught touchdown passes on back to back drives to open the second half. Thanks to their dominant 3rd quarter, the Panthers lead would improve to 31-10 as the game seemed well out of reach for the 49ers. But as soon as the 4th quarter started, things began to turn in the 49ers favor. Two plays into the final period, the San Francisco defense would flush Newton out of the pocket for a sack, forcing him to fumble and turning the miscue into three points. A muffed punt return by Ted Ginn Jr. on the ensuing kick would put the Niners offense right back in business on the 1-yard line. Gabbert would do it himself on the very next play, prancing into the end zone untouched.

With plenty of game left and the Panthers hanging onto a 34-20 lead midway thru the 4th, the 49ers would pull off their biggest play of the game on a 75-yard catch and dash touchdown as Gabbert found tight-end Vance McDonald who was aided with a nice block from receiver Quinton Patton as he ran down the sideline for the score. After Carolina answered with a field goal to make it a two possession game, Gabbert who had registered a clean game up to that point, would suffer a pair of late 4th quarter interceptions, dooming any chance of pulling off the miraculous comeback. Newton would put the Niners out of their misery with a late touchdown to Devin Funchess, giving him four touchdown passes on the afternoon and putting him over the 350-yards passing mark. Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart would suffer a hamstring injury early on in the game which opened the door for backup RB Fozzy Whittaker who filled in quite nicely by rushing for 100 yards on 16 carries in Stewart's absence. As for San Francisco's run game which wasn't nearly as effective as it was in Week 1, Carlos Hyde and Shaun Draughn were held to a combined 55 yards on 23 carries. Gabbert finished with 243 passing yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in the 46-27 loss.
Week 3 Preview - With the 49ers traveling to Seattle to take on the bitter rival Seahawks (1-1) in Week 3, San Francisco will need a win in order to hang on to first place in the division. With the Rams, Cardinals, Seahawks and 49ers all 1-1 thru the first two weeks of the season, the 49ers are the only team in the NFC West with a 1-0 record within the division, thus giving them sole possession of first place in the early going. Though it's been years since the 49ers have able to pull off a win in Seattle, Pete Carroll's Seahawks haven't looked too good thru the first two weeks after surviving a late scare at Home to the Dolphins in Week 1 followed by a loss to the Rams on Sunday. But by no means will coach Chip Kelly and company be able to underestimate Seattle QB Russell Wilson, even if he's still hobbled by a sprained ankle suffered in Week 1. With another stout effort on defense and a bounce back performance on the ground from Carlos Hyde as well as clean game in the turnover department from Blaine Gabbert, the 49ers may be able to leave Seattle with a 'W'.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

49ers Welcome Rams back to L.A. with 28-point Spanking

The Silence of the Lambs - With the 49ers and Rams the last two teams to take the field to start the 2016-17 NFL season, all eyes were on Los Angeles and San Francisco for many reasons as football fans in L.A. finally had a team to call their own again and fans of the red and gold anxiously awaited the start of the Chip Kelly era. And with the 49ers 2 1/2 point underdogs at home despite an eight game winning-streak on Monday Night Football (all by double-digits), San Francisco took it to the odds makers once again after pulling a 20-3 upset against the Vikings to open last season on Monday night. And boy would the books be wrong once again in this one as the 49ers recorded their first ever shutout victory to open a season in franchise history.

After a punt on their initial drive, the 49ers got things going on their second possession with running back Carlos Hyde capitalizing on an 11-yard touchdown run up the middle to put San Francisco up early. As for Hyde's counterpart -- Todd Gurley, who ran amok in his rookie season last year, including a dominant Week 8 performance against the Niners in which he tallied 133 yards on the ground, the San Francisco defense was well prepared for the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year this time around as they held him to a measly 47 yards on 17 carries. With the game expected to be an offensive struggle with both team's leading running backs expected to carry the load, only half of that expectation would live up to the billing as Gurley and company were simply stopped in their tracks and failed to get anything going on offense throughout. The one first half drive which appeared to be promising for the Rams, soon went up in flames as Keenum had a pass deflect off a teammates helmet and into the arms of 49ers Pro Bowl linebacker NaVorro Bowman for an interception. It would be the first of two interceptions by the 49ers defense as pre-season standout Ray-Ray Armstrong continued to shine on Monday night with an interception of his own late in the third quarter.
Hoping to turn that turnover into points, the 49ers would do just that as San Francisco marched their way down the field with backup running back Shaun Draughn punching it in from 3-yards out to pull ahead, 14-0. Looking to make it three consecutive scoring drives for the Niners, they would appear to be heading in the right direction after crossing midfield and into enemy territory on an 11-yard catch and go to Draughn who dodged a pair of tackles, but the second-year 49er would be stripped from behind after one too many nifty moves. Luckily, it wouldn't come back to haunt the Niners as they went into the half in command of a 14-0 lead. While the Rams were still unable to generate any offense to start the second half, their defense managed to step it up, forcing four straight three and outs by the 49er offense as they failed to convert a single first down in the third quarter. To put the struggle into perspective, at one point in the game there would be more punts (15) than points scored (14). But as soon as the fourth quarter began, it's like the 49ers remembered how to play offense again, driving down the field to score their third touchdown, this time through the air as QB Blaine Gabbert found tight-end Vance McDonald for the easy score to make it 21-0.

With the game out of reach and down to its last few minutes, things would get chippy when Rams Pro-Bowl defensive tackle Aaron Donald got into a scuffle with Niners receiver Quinton Patton, knocking the helmet off his head before making contact with an official. After tacking on a pair of penalties, Donald would be disqualified as he slammed his helmet on the turf before walking off the field. It would only get worse as Carlos Hyde ran it in for his second touchdown of the night just plays later as the 49ers put the Rams out of their misery by making it a 28-0 route. Converting 28 first downs compared to L.A.'s 10, it would be the first shutout victory for the Niners since a 2012 victory against the Jets and their sixth consecutive season-opening win, the most they've stringed together in franchise history as they begin the year 1-0 in the Chip Kelly era.
As for the Rams and their fans living in L.A., the 21 year wait was spoiled as they were held scoreless for the first time since Week 11 of 2011. After trading up in the off-season to acquire the first overall pick in the NFL Draft to select QB Jared Goff out of Cal, the Rams elected not to start the season with Goff as the quarterback following  a disappointing pre-season in which he struggled mightily. But after seeing QB Case Keenum's poor attempt at the position, it's hard to believe the Rams aren't better off handing the reigns to Goff going forward just to get him as many reps as possible. Not to mention he can't do much worse under center than Keenum did as he was held to just 130 yards while completing 17 of 35 pass attempts. Gabbert didn't necessarily have himself a game for the ages either, completing 22 of 35 passes for 170 yards and adding another 43 yards on the ground, but he did what he needed to and allowed Carlos Hyde to do the rest, rushing for 88 yards and a pair of TD's.

Week 2 Preview: With the exception of a Shaun Draughn fumble in the second quarter, the 49ers played an extremely clean game, committing only two penalties and not allowing a single sack. Though it's just one game, it's a huge step forward after being one of the most penalized teams in the league a season ago and owning one of the NFL's worst offensive-lines. With a match-up on the road against the defending NFC Champion Carolina Panthers in Week 2, the Niners will once again need a stellar performance on defense and a clean game in the penalty department if they want to improve to 2-0 with another upset victory over reigning MVP Cam Newton and company. It won't be easy, however, as Carolina's linebackers Luke Keuchle & Thomas Davis will most likely be a handful for Gabbert and the 49er offense. Not to mention the Panthers will be playing with a chip on their shoulder while looking to avenge a tough loss at Denver to open the season on Thursday night which means they'll be very rested come kickoff. 

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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Giants Month in Review - August 2016

If the month of July was a bad dream for the San Francisco Giants who saw their division lead in the NL West drop to as low as 1-game, August was a nightmare with Buster Posey's head-first slide (shown above) being the lasting image of another disappointing month. Beginning the month by losing four of their first five series to the tone of a 5-10 record, the Giants' free-fall continued as August 16 saw the G-Men fall out of first place for the first time since the month of May. With the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers playing some of their best ball of the year despite being without their best player in ace Clayton Kershaw and the Giants doing the exact opposite, San Francisco would watch L.A. leap-frog them in the standings by as many as 3 games.

After a sluggish 9-game road trip in which the Giants lost back to back series in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. by dropping two of three before turning the tables in Miami to take two of three against the Marlins, San Francisco returned home where they would lose seven of ten. A heart-wrenching loss to the Baltimore Orioles in the series-finale which the Giants were 1-out away from winning, coupled with a 3-game sweep at the hands of the Pirates left a sour taste in the mouth of Giants fans. And though they would take the first two games at home against the reigning National League champion New York Mets, they would drop the next two to split the 4-game series. Even considering their month-long struggle, the Giants remained in striking distance of rival L.A. and had themselves a golden opportunity to recapture first place with a date with the Dodgers. Unfortunately, Bruce Bochy's ball club would fail to show up to yet another series as they dropped the first two games before salvaging the series-finale thanks to a career night from the newly acquired Matt Moore who came within one out of becoming the first Giants pitcher to no-hit the Dodgers in over 100 years.
Needing one more out to etch his name into the record books, Dodgers rookie Corey Seager fought off a 2-out single to end Moore's near perfect night as the Giants completed the 4-0 victory. Though Moore would fall just short, one Giants pitcher who did make history was All-Star Madison Bumgarner who recorded his 200th strikeout of the season against the Dodgers, joining some elite company (Christy Mathewson, Amos Rusie, Juan Marichal and former teammate Tim Lincecum) with his third consecutive 200 strikeout season and becoming the first left-hander in franchise history to accomplish the feat.

Following the brief three-game trip to L.A., the Giants returned home to AT&T Park for five games where they would play host to the lowly Atlanta Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks. After taking two of three against the Braves including a 13-4 shellacking in which the Giants matched a franchise-record (SF-era) with four triples in the same game which would also witness second baseman Joe Panik log his first career multi-home run game, San Francisco split the two-game set with the D-Backs, thanks to another strong outing from Matt Moore to closeout the month. With an 11-16 record in August, the Giants currently sit 1.5 games behind first place with an overall record of 72-60. And unless they wake up fast, the Giants could see the window of opportunity close as their first match-up of September will be no easy task when they hit the north side of Chicago for a four-game meeting with the Cubs who own the best record in all of baseball at 85-47. And with a 3-game stop at Colorado's Coors Field to follow, the first week of September will be challenging to say the least. With six games against the Dodgers remaining on the schedule, including four in September, the Giants have ample time and a fair chance to catch up and surpass L.A. in the standings, but not if Buster Posey and company continue to slump at the plate like they have been. With a slight edge over the St. Louis Cardinals for the first of two NL Wild Card spots, the Giants will need to finish September strong if they plan to maintain a playoff spot and continue their even year streak of being World Series champions.
Noteworthy: One of the brighter highlights in the month of August was the 7-hit performance by Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford who collected seven base knocks, including a go-ahead knock in the 14th inning of an 8-7 win over the Marlins. Crawford tied an all-time single-game National League record with seven hits in eight at-bats and has continued to be one of the better run-producers for the Giants, leading the team by more than 10 RBI's. With his 7-hit performance, Crawford joins the rare company of Rennie Stennett (1975) and Wilbert Robinson (1892) as the only players in the history of the National League to connect for seven hits in a single ball game. 

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Monday, August 8, 2016

International Hit King

Major League Baseball's exclusive 3,000 Hit Club has a new member and he goes by the name of Ichiro Suzuki. The Japanese baseball sensation who will soon be 43 years old, continues to pile on the milestones long after his prime, with his latest accolade making him just the 30th player in MLB history to reach the 3,000 hit plateau. Re-signing a 1-year deal with the Miami Marlins in the offseason with a club option for 2017, Ichiro has served a limited role almost as a utility man, often coming in to pinch-hit or as the team's fourth outfielder. And with a large contingent of Japanese baseball writers following him on the road after he was unable to collect the milestone hit at home in Miami, it would be Denver's Coors Field which saw the future Hall of Famer etch his name into the record books as he legged out a triple off of Rockies pitcher Chris Rusin for hit No. 3,000.

Given Suzuki didn't make his MLB debut until the age of 27 due to his time in his native Japan, he became only the second player ever to reach 3,000 hits after his 27th birthday, joining Pete Rose as the only other player to reach that feat. He also joins Cap Anson and Rickey Henderson as the only players to record hit No. 3,000 after turning 42. With many doubting Ichiro could succeed in the MLB due to his frame which pundits declared was too fragile upon migrating from Japan to the U.S., Suzuki proved doubters wrong and silenced his critics by winning both the Rookie of the Year and MVP Award in his first campaign while a member of the Seattle Mariners. He would string together a record 10 consecutive seasons with at least 200-hits to begin a career before setting a single-season record with 262 hits in 2004, breaking George Sisler's mark of 254 hits which stood for 84-years. While 3,000 hits is Ichiro's most recent milestone, it's not the only milestone he's accomplished in 2016 as he stole his 500th base back in April which made him one of only eight players to have stolen 500 bags and collect 2,900 hits in a career. And then there's baseball's all-time hits list.
Back in June, Ichiro leapfrogged Pete Rose to become baseball's all-time hits leader when combining the hits he's accumulated throughout his career in both the Japanese League and Major League Baseball. Though it's been several months now since Ichiro connected for hit No. 4,257, one more than Rose finished his career with, it's interesting how little attention it's been given throughout the world of sports. While most critics aren't ready to dub Ichiro the "Hit King" just yet, given 1,278 of those 4,257 career hits came during his time in the Japanese League where the talent pool isn't quite up to par with that of the MLB. However, some would argue that the talent in Japan is just as good and that Ichiro does in fact deserve the crown. Had he played his entire career in the Majors, we likely wouldn't be having this discussion and Ichiro would be crowned without any debate from Rose or anyone else for that matter.

Breaking down the 3,000: Ichiro compiled 2,533 of his hits while a member of the Seattle Mariners whom he will one day represent in Cooperstown. Another 311 hits while spending 2+ seasons in New York with the Yankees, and the last 156 hits (and counting) with the Marlins.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Giants Month in Review - July 2016

Turning the page from June to July for the San Francisco Giants, only one win had separated the G-Men from the Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers for tops in the league. But it wouldn't be long before Bruce Bochy saw his ball club climb atop the baseball ranks to capture baseball's top spot following a 7-2 start to the month before putting on the brakes in time for the All-Star break. Aside from Buster Posey and Johnny Cueto who started in the Mid-Summer Classic and Brandon Belt and Madison Bumgarner who made the trip to San Diego as reserves for the NL All-Star team, the rest of the Giants enjoyed their brief break from the game. Maybe a little too much as they appeared to still be on vacation after the All-Star festivities had concluded.

After cruising into the All-Star break with the best record in all of baseball (57-33) for only the second time since the franchise moved out west in 1958, and bested only by a 59-30 mark in 1993, San Francisco would hit a wall and begin to sputter by losing their first six games after the break, being swept on the road by both the Padres and Red Sox. The funk wouldn't end there, however, as they dropped two of three in the Bronx to the Yankees before returning home to lose two of three against the lowly Cincinnati Reds. Another pair of losses to the NL East-leading Washington Nationals would see the Giants' grasp on the NL Western division dwindle down to just a single game over the arch-rival Dodgers after a game in which the G-Men hit into the first ever 3-3-5 triple-play in baseball history and the Nationals' first triple-play since moving from Montreal to Washington in 2006. In need of a spark, the Giants welcomed back their emotional leader -- Hunter Pence (hamstring) off of the disabled-list as well as second baseman Joe Panik who had been battling a concussion, while also adding a bat by trading for Minnesota All-Star Eduardo Nunez. Leading the American League in steals with 26, the Giants went out and nabbed Nunez to fill the void at third base left by the injured Matt Duffy (Achilles) who's been out since mid-June. Nunez, 29 years old, comes in hitting .300 with 12 home runs and 47 RBI and serves as a utility man, playing just about anywhere along the infield.
The newest Giant would make a great first impression, as Nunez connected for a 2-run double in the fourth inning to tie the game in his first start with San Francisco. The Giants would utilize some small ball the rest of the way to seal the much needed win with a 5-3 victory. Though it would take them more than two weeks, the Giants would finally string together their first winning streak of the second half by taking the final two games against the Nats to split the four-game set and finish the month of July with their first pair of consecutive wins since the break. Before their second-half skid, the Giants had taken series victories against the Diamondbacks and Rockies by taking two of three against both clubs before sweeping Arizona at home to end the half. But while their July schedule was looked upon as rather easy, the month of August figures to be anything but, as they hit the road for a 9-game road trip to kickoff the month. After a three-game visit to Philadelphia to face the rebuilding but scrappy Phillies, the Giants will take on the Nationals once more before concluding their trip in Miami to square off with the wild card hopeful Marlins. And when returning to AT&T Park, San Francisco's first homestand won't be any easier as they welcome the Orioles, Pirates and Mets into town. A brief three-game stop in southern California to renew rivalries with the Dodgers will end the stretch of formidable opponents with the Braves and D-Backs rounding out the end of August. 

While you would think the Giants would have the edge in a favorable match-up to begin the month of August by facing the Phillies with Bumgarner on the mound, not so fast as the Giants have actually lost six of the last eight games started by MadBum, including a loss at home to these same Phillies back in late-June. This after they had won his previous ten starts. Bumgarner has logged consecutive strong outings after a disappointing start the first game after the All-Star break, but has suffered from a lack of run support. The Giants hope to get him back on track at the hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park as they currently lead the division by two games ahead of the Dodgers and stand at 61-44 on the year after posting an 11-13 record in July.
The Giants also had one of the more busier afternoon's during the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline on Monday, trading for two lefty arms to address their need for pitching. Even days before the deadline was looming, the Giants had been rumored to be among the teams interested in Rays starting pitcher Matt Moore, but with a starting infielder likely who Tampa Bay wanted in return, San Francisco wasn't expected to pull the trigger on the pitcher who was brought up to be the future of the Rays organization. But with third baseman Matt Duffy battling an injury for over a month now and Nunez on the team, the Giants saw Duffy as expendable and turned those doubts into reality just minutes before the deadline by shipping him to Tampa along with a pair of prospects, including the highly-rated Lucious Fox (infielder). While some Giants fans would disagree, Duffy might not have been the toughest piece to part with, however, as the Giants also dealt their top pitching prospect in Phil Bickford, the club's No.1 draft pick a year ago. Bickford was packaged with catcher Andrew Susac to Milwaukee in exchange for high-volume strikeout reliever Will Smith.
Having been in need of an arm to solidify the bullpen practically all season long, the Giants finally acquired the late-inning relief help they've so desperately needed, but paid a hefty price in doing so. Expected to be added into the mix to pitch the later innings right away, Smith went 1-3 with a 3.68 ERA in Milwaukee this year, striking out 22 batters in 22 innings while missing the first two months of the season due to a knee injury. As for Moore, it's unsure who the lefty starter will replace in the starting rotation out of Matt Cain and Jake Peavy. Boasting a record of 7-7 and an ERA of 4.08 in 21 starts this season, Moore has been pitching lights-out as of late as is riding a hot streak in his last six starts, pitching to the tone of a 1.99 ERA since June 29. With both Moore and Smith 27 years of age and under club control through 2019, both players will have more than just this season to prove the Giants made the right move in giving up top talent at the Minor League level. 

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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Durant: Goodbye OKC, Hello Golden State

The moment the buzzer sounded after the Oklahoma City Thunder failed to put the Golden State Warriors out of their misery in the Western Conference Finals, allowing the defending champs to overcome a 3-1 deficit and make it to their second consecutive Finals appearance, Kevin Durant was as good as gone. But where he would decide to take his talents was anybodies guess, with meetings scheduled with the Warriors, Spurs, Clipppers, Celtics, Heat and of course the Thunder. Sure the idea to team up in the Bay Area with Steph Curry and company was a logical one, but we didn't think it would actually happen. Whether it be financial problems or just plain old chemistry issues due to adding yet another superstar to a squad that already has three, KD to Golden State -- the team that just handed him and the Thunder franchise arguably their most crushing defeat, wins the Durant sweepstakes and hands Oklahoma City yet another punch to the gut. But hey, at least Durant was courteous enough to announce his decision on the Fourth of July, making it easier for the pyro's living in Oklahoma to burn their jersey's.

With the salary cap increasing by $24 Million this offseason, the timing was perfect for the Warriors, enabling them to acquire another superstar talent to add to their already star-studded lineup. After setting a record for the most wins in a regular season with 74, the Warriors now have a chance to be even greater than they were in 2015-16, thanks to the signing of Durant. Not to mention Oklahoma City, one of Golden State's biggest threats out west, is now hampered with the departure of their former MVP. With the signing of Durant who agreed to a 2 year, $54.3 Million deal with a player option after the first year, now come the lofty expectations of delivering a championship, something Durant has come close to, four years removed from his only NBA Finals appearance, but has yet to accomplish. Anything short of back-to-back titles for Golden State in 2015-16 was already deemed a failure considering their record-setting regular season, but the pressure to deliver a title will be even higher this coming season. After blowing a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals for the first time ever, head coach Steve Kerr knew work needed to be done and adjustments needed to be made in order to climb back to the hilltop of greatness and become champions once again. Landing Durant was their answer. 
While many criticized LeBron James in the summer of 2010 for making the unpopular decision to leave the Cavs for the sunny beaches of Miami, Durant's decision has also had its fair share of critics, but nowhere near the magnitude of LeBron's. In some ways it's worse and in others it's not quite on par on the hate-o-meter and here's why. James' decision was not only criticized because he left his home state of Ohio, but because the manner in which he made it. As if announcing in front of a live television crew that he would take his talents to South Beach didn't rub people the wrong way, his WWE-like introduction alongside best friend Dwayne Wade and All-Star teammate Chris Bosh where he told the world they would win "not five, not six, not seven..." NBA titles, sealed the deal for most people. But Durant isn't leaving the area in which he was born and raised in, nor was he brought up and brought in to be the savior out of high school like James was.

As for a few reason's it's just as bad if not worse, Kevin Durant is all Oklahoma City fans have ever known. Since being drafted in 2007 by the Thunder, known then as the Seattle SuperSonics, OKC fans have watched Durant grow and develop into one of the game's elite players right before their very eyes. He now leaves them to chase a ring, joining the enemy in the process. And unlike Cleveland's situation when LeBron left, the Thunder are the only major sports franchise in the city (hell, in the state for that matter) which is why they've been so loyal and invested in the team since relocating from Seattle. Durant's contributions inside the Oklahoma City community will never be forgotten, but I think it's safe to say he'll be showered with boo's every time he touches the ball when the Warriors pay a visit to Chesapeake Arena next season. To their credit, the Thunder franchise and their fans were a little more prepared for life after Durant than Cleveland was when LeBron left the Cavs. It wasn't for a lack of help as was the case in Cleveland, but with former Sixth Man of the Year James Harden long gone and both Durant and Serge Ibaka now out the door, the 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder will be an entirely different team than the one that made it's lone NBA Finals appearance in 2012 as the reigns are now handed to Russell Westbrook who's departure from the franchise may be next.
With the future of fellow superstar and teammate of Durant's for eight seasons, Russell Westbrook also uncertain, who will become a free-agent following next season, Durant wasn't exactly promised that his sidekick and partner in crime would be there after next season had he re-signed long-term with OKC. While the possibility of Durant returning to the Thunder the same way LeBron did the Cavs, could present itself say if Golden State wins a title in Durant's first year with the team, he may want to consider being a Warrior for the long haul seeing as they have the potential to be even better than the Heat were when James, Wade, Bosh and Ray Allen teamed up in Miami. With Durant, Curry, Thompson and Green all under the age of 29, younger than Wade was when Miami's super team was formed in 2010, Durant could be part of a dynasty for many seasons to come if he chooses to stay with the Warriors past this season. With an Olympic gold medal, Rookie of the Year Award, four NBA-scoring titles, seven All-Star appearances and an MVP Award to show for, the only thing missing in Durant's trophy case is an NBA title. And for the first time in his career, he'll be on a team that's the odds on favorite to win it all and add to that case heading into the season.

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