Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Panthers-Broncos to meet in Super Bowl 50

As the 2015 NFL season nears its end, the table is set for Super Bowl 50. With less than two weeks to prepare ourselves for the big game on February 7, we take a look at the two teams who will be vying for the Lombardi Trophy and the very different roads they've journeyed to get there. While one team we had a feeling could be there since the start of the season (Denver), the other came out of nowhere and has been somewhat of a surprise (Carolina). But I'll start with the one team and one man who everyone in and around the game could possibly remember this Super Bowl by and that's the Denver Broncos and their fading star of a quarterback -- Peyton Manning. 

Just two years removed from their most recent Super Bowl appearance in Super Bowl 48 which Bronco fans would rather forget took place as their team was dismantled, 43-8 by a dominant Seattle defense, this year's Denver team has been polar opposites of their 2013 selves. Making their way to the big game by way of their offense which was tops in the league and among the greatest in league history just two seasons ago, this year's Broncos team made their way back to the Super Bowl in a very different way, flipping the script if you will, by boasting the league's best defense. With future Hall of Fame QB Peyton Manning and the Denver offense taking a backseat, the 2015 Broncos are a team that has thrived and relied heavily on their defense. Mind you this is the same team that endured a rough patch that saw five consecutive weeks without scoring a single offensive touchdown and often looked better with Brock Osweiler in under center and Manning, one of the greatest to ever play the position, on the bench. While their offense has often been under fire and constantly questioned, the same can't be said for the defense, having allowed the fewest yards per game this season (283) and forcing the most sacks (52) under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. 
It's no wonder that this will be Manning's fourth Super Bowl appearance, (frankly, he should've reached this number a long time ago), as he gets set to take the field as the oldest quarterback to ever start a Super Bowl at age 39. And when he does take the field in what could possibly be the last game of his illustrious career, he'll become the first QB ever to make multiple Super Bowl appearances with multiple teams, while also becoming the first at his position to reach four Super Bowl's under four different head coaches. Manning is eclipsed by only Tom Brady and John Elway who have more Super Bowl appearances under their belts. But this game and story line shouldn't be all about Manning even though it most likely will be. The guy simply isn't the player he once was and while his team usually gets to the big game because of him, this year they've made it to the big game in spite of him. That's no knock on arguably the greatest regular season quarterback of all-time, but just further proof that father time waits for no man. 

But back to the Denver defense which won them the right to play in Super Bowl 50 with a dominant performance over the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in the AFC Championship's 20-18 win. Denver's D got to Brady four times for a sack and a heck of a lot more times with quarterback hits mostly provided by Von Miller who had a hell of a game recording 2.5 sacks of his own to go along with one of two Brady interceptions, the hits being the most Tom Terrific has ever suffered in his playoff career. If Manning hoists his second career Lombardi Trophy, one that should help him ride off into the sunset and make stepping away from the game of football a bit easier, it'll most likely be a result of another dominant performance by the defense and not by the potent offenses teams of Manning's Super Bowl past have been known for. 
Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers enter next Sunday's game red-hot and resembling a team of destiny. With a dominant regular season which many believed they could finish undefeated, the lone loss to the division rival Atlanta Falcons in Week 16 is the only blemish on Carolina's 2015 resume. But I was one of the few who believed the Panthers suffering a loss that would disrupt their push for a perfect season would do them more good than harm. And now that they know they could be beaten, they've given it their all and have refused to take their foot off the gas pedal. Well except for maybe that near collapse in the NFC Divisional round meeting where they nearly let Seattle march all the way back from a 31-point deficit in the second half. But Carolina rebounded by not letting a double-digit lead heading into the half of last Sunday's NFC title game get to their head or slip away as the NFC's second-best team in the Arizona Cardinals appeared to be no match for the now 17-1 Panthers who ran away with the 49-15 romp. 

Though Carolina's defense is also stellar but isn't quite up to par with Denver's which could cause problems up the middle and get to the quarterback with the best of 'em, it does feature the balance you want in a team on both sides of the ball. With playmakers on defense such as linebackers Luke Keuchle and Thomas Davis (who suffered a broken arm on Sunday but is expected to play) as well as this year's most shutdown cornerback in Josh Norman, just to name a few, Carolina comes in having caused the most takeaways in the league with 39, 24 of which being interceptions which they led the league in. But even then, this Panthers team has been most known for their offensive scoring ability which is tops in the league and none other than their captain in quarterback Cam Newton. With Newton most likely to be named league MVP, an award his counterpart Peyton Manning has won a record five times, the former Heisman Trophy winner would like nothing more than to capture the first Lombardi Trophy in Carolina Panthers franchise history. 
What's most remarkable about Carolina's explosive offense and the year they've had, is they've managed to do it all without their best receiver as Kelvin Benjamin has been sidelined all season long with a torn ACL he suffered in training camp. With the second-year wide-out expected to make a full recovery in time for the 2016 regular season, Carolina's offense could very well be just as good if not better next year. But before we get ahead of ourselves, the match-up between quarterback's Newton and Manning is an intriguing one because of the 13-year age difference which will be the largest in Super Bowl history. Not to mention the very different playing styles both QB's posses. Through the air or on the ground, Newton can do it all as he showed in Sunday's win with a pair of rushing and passing touchdowns, whereas Sunday's AFC Championship saw the first rush for a first down by Manning all year -- a 12-yard dash which happened to be his longest playoff run since his rookie season. And then there's the fact that this'll be the first ever Super Bowl meeting between two quarterback's taken first overall in their respective Draft's (Manning in 1998 and Newton in 2011). 

By punching their ticket to the big game, Carolina is only the ninth team to enter the Super Bowl with one loss or fewer, joining only the 2007 Patriots to have done it in the last 30 years. It'll also be the franchise's second Super Bowl appearance, still seeking their first victory. As for Denver, it'll be their eighth appearance, tying the Patriots, Cowboys and Steelers for the most all-time, and a win would give them their third. For what it's worth, 10 of the last 11 Super Bowl winners have donned white uniforms. Coincidentally, Carolina's only other Super Bowl appearance was in 2004 and resulted in a loss to the Patriots while wearing their white uni's. This time around they've chosen to go with black, allowing Denver to go with the more popular white uniforms. Superstitious or not, it's something Bronco fans should be ecstatic about considering they won't be wearing the orange uni's that seem to be bad luck seeing as they were demolished in them two years ago and have gone 0-4 all-time in Super Bowl's while in orange. 
Prediction: Now for how I think the big game will play out. Super Bowl 50 will be the third consecutive Super Bowl in which both No. 1 seeds reach the big game, proving once again just how important home field advantage is come playoff time. And with this game being played on the neutral grounds of San Francisco at Santa Clara's Levi's Stadium, home of the 49ers, there'll be no home field advantage for either coach Ron Rivera or coach Gary Kubiak. As we've learned in the past and most notably the last time Denver made its trip to the Super Bowl, defense wins championships. With that said, all signs would point towards me taking the defensive-minded Broncos, right? Wrong! I'm not going to claim that the only reason the Broncos are Super Bowl-bound is because of a missed extra-point by the usually automatic Stephen Gostkowski, but the truth is that the missed PAT (ending a streak of 523 consecutive makes) changed the entire complexion of how coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots approached the game, having to go for that failed two-point conversion with just seconds remaining which sealed the Broncos' win and sent New England packing. 

I'll also give Peyton some credit for the two first half drives he led the Broncos offense on which resulted in touchdowns, but I'm afraid he'll be asked to put up a lot more points against a high octane offense like Carolina's. Something I don't think he'll be able to do as the opposing team's secondary will once again prove to be his kryptonite. Though I don't necessarily see Newton and the Carolina offense running amok quite like they have in each of the past two games as they'll have a much better defense in front of them come Super Bowl Sunday, I just don't see any offense exchanging punches with Carolina, and certainly not one led by the aging Peyton Manning and a run game that failed to get going until late against the Patriots. But that's not to say Denver doesn't stand a chance. If they can contain Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart on the ground like they did New England's ground attack and apply the same pressure to Newton that doomed Brady, they'll pull off the upset. With that said, it'll be intriguing to see how they approach a QB of Newton's caliber whom possesses arguably the most dangerous duel-threat ability in the game. Regardless, I'm taking Carolina who I think pulls off the 27-17 win with receiver and kick return specialist Teddy Ginn Jr. scoring a late touchdown to seal it for the Panthers' first-ever Super Bowl triumph.

Follow me on Twitter: @FraserKnowsBest 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Niners hope to cash-in their Chips with Kelly hire

The search is over. Less than two weeks after the San Francisco 49ers played their last down of football during the 2015 regular season which ended in an overtime victory over the division rival Rams, the team that finished the year with an overall record of 5-11 is already expected to take on the makeup of an entirely different franchise come the start of next season. Hours after the Niners' season finale, first-year head coach Jim Tomsula was relieved of his head coaching duties after a disappointing one and done experiment which saw San Francisco finish in the cellar of arguably the league's toughest division -- the NFC West. In search of the next heir of the throne, 49ers team owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke searched high and low before making their new hire. With such candidates as Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, Buccaneers OC Dirk Koetter, former Giants head coach Tom Coughlin and former head coach Mike Shanahan who made his way to the final cut, it was former Eagles head coach Chip Kelly who won the job over Shanahan to become the 20th head coach in 49ers franchise history.

Kelly, who broke out onto the NFL head coaching scene after a successful career at the collegiate level with the Oregon Ducks, jump-started his NFL career with back-to-back 10-6 seasons before a disappointing 2015 campaign that was cut short as he was let go by the Philadelphia Eagles the second to last week of the regular season. After making a handful of deals and personnel changes that backfired as well as reportedly losing the locker room as the season wore on, Philadelphia went 6-9 under Kelly this season before winning their final game without him as Philly posted a second-place finish in the NFC East behind Washington. In three seasons with the Eagles, Kelly boasted an overall record of 26-21 with one playoff appearance in 2013 when he became the first head coach in franchise history and only the second coach in league history to win a division title in his first year. Viewed by many as an offensive mastermind, Kelly gets a second chance less than a month after being fired by the Eagles and will be introduced by the 49ers during a press conference expected sometime next week. Speaking of second chances, the hiring of Kelly might also spawn a second chance for one Niner that's only a few seasons removed from bursting on the scene himself.
Being looked upon as the anti-Jim Tomsula, Kelly brings with him to the Bay Area, a very innovative offensive system which 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick appears to fit perfectly. Despite a pair of disappointing seasons after taking the league by storm in his first season and a half at the helm of the Niners quarterback position, the acquisition of Kelly should breathe life back into Kaepernick's career with the team after it appeared to be a foregone conclusion that his time with the organization had come to an end. Instead, San Francisco's QB situation heading into the 2016 season should be one of the most interesting considering it wasn't long ago that rumors swirled regarding a possible trade involving Kaepernick to the Eagles while Chip was still in Philly. The two can now work together on putting their past behind them in hopes of a more successful second act. Because at this point, if anyone can groom Kaepernick into being the duel-threat quarterback he was once known as and give the San Francisco offense the shot in the arm it so desperately needs, it's Chip, right?

As for my personal opinion, I believe Kelly used the team's current quarterback situation as a major selling-point and won over the hearts of Baalke and York over in the interview room by explaining to them that they already have a diamond in the rough in QB Colin Kaepernick, and one that would fit his system to a tee. Unlike in Philly, the 54-year old Kelly won't be given the keys to the kingdom. In other words, he won't have control over personnel decisions quite like he did with the Eagles. But that will allow him to focus strictly on coaching while also putting GM Trent Baalke on the hot seat who desperately needs the Kelly hire to work out for the 49ers or his days could be numbered. Kelly also has a few things of his own that he'll need to work on in his second rodeo including the relations he has with his players and the way he conducts things in the clubhouse, both of which were hot topics and areas of concern during his often criticized tenure with the Eagles. How things shape out in Kelly's first season in the Bay Area is anyone's guess at this point, but one thing that is certain is that April's NFL Draft should be an interesting one for the 49ers who own the 7th overall pick are in need of playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Chip Kelly on landing the job in SF: "As one of the most historic franchises in the National Football League, I realize the high standards and expectations that this position demands and I embrace the challenges ahead."

Follow me on Twitter: @FraserKnowsBest 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Niners bookend 2015 Season with a Win

Entering Sunday's 2015 regular season finale, a few things were on the line for the San Francisco 49ers and their long-time rivals the St. Louis Rams. A win for the 49ers would mean they would avoid their worst finish since 2005 when the franchise finished with a record of 4-12. As for the Rams who could be playing football in southern California as early as next season while relocating from St. Louis to Los Angeles, a win would make it four straight victories in what's been a disappointing year for Jeff Fisher and company.

After being blown out, 27-6 in the first meeting between bitter foes, the 49ers kept it close and took a 7-3 lead after QB Blaine Gabbert connected with Anquan Boldin who broke free of a tackle and trotted into the end zone on the first play of the second quarter. Getting his second start in as many weeks at running back for the Niners was DuJuan Harris who had himself an all around nice game. Harris broke off a big gain in the second quarter that went for 48-yards and set up the first of Phil Dawson's four field goals on the afternoon. Leading 10-3, the Rams would quickly respond with scores on each of their next three drives. A pair of Greg Zuerlein field goals and a Tre Mason touchdown run from 4-yards out would put St. Louis ahead. Gabbert had a pass batted in the air and intercepted for a 42-yard return which set up the Rams' lone touchdown just two plays later. Trailing 16-10 at halftime, the 49ers would keep the Rams scoreless in the second half. 
After inching closer with a field goal in the third, San Francisco tied it up with another in the fourth as the game was sent to overtime with both teams knotted up at 16. With San Francisco failing to score on the opening possession during overtime, St. Louis appeared to be on their way to a fourth consecutive victory as Zuerlein stepped up with a chance to win it with a 48-yard field goal. But after missing wide right from 52-yards earlier in the game, the day would go from bad to worse for Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein who had the potential game-winner blocked by second-year corner Dontae Johnson. The block would keep the Niners alive and give them one final chance to finish the season on top. With under five minutes to go, Gabbert completed a pass to receiver Quinton Patton who broke a tackle and nearly took it to the house before being stopped short of the end zone. The 33-yard reception would be all Phil Dawson needed in what could be his final game as a Niner, as he split the uprights one for the game-winning 23-yard field goal which led to hugs and high-fives all around. Gabbert threw for a career-high 354 yards and a touchdown, with 86 of those yards going to DuJuan Harris who led all receivers. The free-agent-to-be and journeyman who was signed to five different teams this season, rushed for a game-high 67 yards on 16 carries.

Unfortunately, one Niner would walk off the field a winner but would leave the stadium jobless. Despite the 19-16 overtime win, Niners head coach Jim Tomsula was relieved of his head coaching duties just hours after the game. In his only season at the helm, San Francisco finished 5-11 under the rookie head coach who spent a total of nine seasons with the organization, serving as the team's defensive-line coach. With the 49ers head coaching vacancy now the main focus of the offseason, who they nab next is anyone's guess at this point. But that hasn't stopped some of the early candidates from surfacing with such names as Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Hue Jackson and Adam Gase leading the pack, as well as the recently fired Chip Kelly who on Sunday was bounced from Philly after three seasons. As for some positive news, linebacker NaVorro Bowman added another nine tackles on Sunday to add to his league-leading 154 tackles and was named to the Pro Bowl. It might not be the last we hear of Bowman's name this year, however, as he's a prime candidate to win the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year Award after missing the entire 2014 season following his major knee injury suffered in the NFC title game two seasons ago.
2016 Preview - With the 2015 regular season in the books, the regular season opponents for 2016 have been announced as the 49ers will host the following: Saints, Buccaneers, Patriots, Jets, Cowboys, Cardinals, Rams and Seahawks. Meanwhile, they'll hit the road to face the following: Falcons, Panthers, Bills, Bears, Dolphins, Cardinals, Rams and Seahawks. As for April's Draft, the 49ers sit in the top 10, owning the no. 7 pick.

Follow me on Twitter: @FraserKnowsBest

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Three-headed Bronxter

Until this past Monday, the New York Yankees have had themselves a pretty pedestrian offseason as the Bronx Bombers have watched from the outside looking in as the game's top free-agents signed elsewhere. But the Yanks finally nabbed a sexy talent with the recent acquisition of one of the most dominant closers in the game to add to an already robust back end of the bullpen and create a three-headed monster. That's right, 27-year old Cuban sensation Aroldis Chapman is heading to New York where he'll be donning the pinstripes in 2016 and joining the 1-2 punch of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller.

In what's been a firesale of top talent for the Cincinnati Reds since July, their All-Star closer is the latest marquee name to be moved following the team's 98-loss season in 2015. Other notable names that found new homes after starring for the Reds this past season are Todd Frazier, Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake. Brandon Phillips would also be on that list had it not been for a blocked trade to the Nationals which the second baseman himself ordered just a week ago. Earlier reports this offseason had Chapman being traded to the Dodgers, but the L.A. ball club had a change of heart and the deal fell through after news surfaced of an alleged domestic violence dispute between Chapman and his girlfriend back on October 30. Chapman's girlfriend, the victim of the incident, was hiding in the backyard when more than a dozen policemen showed up to Chapman's home where she claims he allegedly choked her before firing off eight shots in his garage. The incident which is pending investigation, contributed to what eventually became a nixed trade to the Dodgers which ultimately led to a decrease in Chapman's trade value. That's where the Yankees came in to pull off what many (including myself) consider to be a steal.
Given the stability both Betances & Miller provide, the Yankees were one of the few teams that could pull off a trade for Chapman without feeling the immediate effects of a suspension if and when one is handed down. And for the low price of just four Minor Leaguers -- right-handed pitchers Caleb Cotham and Rookie Davis and infielders Eric Jagielo and Tony Renda, none of whom that jump off the page at you, you have to applaud New York for making the move. With an aging rotation no longer reliable like it used to be, the Yankees are now leaning heavily on their relief corps which should help shorten games as the 7th, 8th and 9th innings appear to be in good hands no matter the situation or order they're called upon.

Likely to receive a suspension given Major League Baseball's recent stand on domestic violence and the zero tolerance policy for domestic violence in sports altogether, the Yankees did their homework and believe the reward is worth the risk. Rumors have also occurred regarding a possible trade involving last year's closer Andrew Miller whom Yankees GM Brian Cashman said he spoke to directly and explained his intentions to keep him despite making the deal for Chapman. If the Yanks do keep all three -- Betances, Chapman and Miller, not only would they climb atop the list of the most dominant bullpens in baseball, but they would also be the first team in MLB history to showcase a 'pen with three pitchers who had at least 100 strikeouts in relief the season before. The acquisition of Chapman also gives Yankees manager Joe Girardi the luxury of having the top three relievers by strikeouts and K's per nine innings in the bigs. His latest addition, however, might be his most talented yet. An All-Star in each of the past four seasons, the Cuban defector who will become a free-agent at the end of next season is coming off a 2015 campaign in which he saved 33 games and struck out 116 batters in 66 1/3 innings while posting an ERA of 1.63.
It's no myth that Chapman throws a mean fastball. Just to put Chapman's heat into perspective, the Cuban fire-baller threw the 62 fastest pitches in the big leagues last season, ranging from 102.36 mph to 103.92 mph. And his 1,694 pitches registered at 100 mph and above are 1,192 more than the next closest pitcher (Kelvin Herrera of the Royals) since Chapman's debut in 2009. While a shutdown bullpen is definitely nice to have and figures to help the Yankees contend for a trip back to the postseason, will it be enough to combat the reigning division champion Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox whom made a splash of their own with the free-agent signing of $217 Million dollar man David Price? One thing is for certain, the AL East should make for some interesting baseball in the new year.

Follow me on Twitter: @FraserKnowsBest

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

49ers unable to tame Lions

Week 16 - Heading into Detroit for their final road game of the season, the (4-10) 49ers entered Sunday's game hoping to exit the Motor City with a win and return home with a winning-streak to finish what's been a disappointing season. But with the (5-9) Lions playing their best football of the season as of late, the Niners would be put to the test. A challenge they appeared to be willing to accept as they jumped out to an early lead by scoring a touchdown on their first drive for the first time all year. It would also mark their first 1st quarter touchdown of the 2015 season.

After putting up a fight which saw the Niners not only score the first 7-points of the game, but also stick around in a back and forth first half, the San Francisco offense disappeared after halftime as they were shutout in the second half. 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin who caught his first career ball against the Lions, got things started off by becoming just the 13th player in NFL history to record 1,000 career receptions when he caught a 5-yard pass on the first play of the game. A series of runs and short passes helped San Francisco march all the way to the goal line where they put an exclamation point on the drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass from QB Blaine Gabbert to tight-end Vance McDonald. The Lions answered by scoring a 36-yard field goal and a 29-yard touchdown on back to back drives to take their first lead. A fake punt in which Detroit converted a first down on a direct snap would setup the go-ahead touchdown. But Gabbert would have other plans as the Niners jumped back ahead after a 16-yard touchdown connection to Torrey Smith.
Gabbert managed to go without throwing an interception in the game but a 9-yard sack in which he fumbled the ball at the 1-yard line would cost him in the second quarter. Detroit's Joique Bell would capitalize on the very next play by scampering into the end zone for a touchdown. Niners kicker Phil Dawson would split a pair of field goals, missing a 45-yarder and making one from 40, only to be outdone by Detroit's Matt Prater who kicked a pair including one with time expiring to send his team into the locker room at the half, leading 20-17. Aside from keeping it a close game, San Francisco would also tie a season-high 17 first half points. Unfortunately, it would be all the scoring they would do as they failed to scratch a single point on the scoreboard in the second half. The 49ers shot themselves in the foot nearly all afternoon long as they were called for offsides or for being in the neutral zone seven times to set a single-game high by an NFL team this year, six of which came in the first half, the most for any team since 1993.

In what's been a nightmarish season for 49ers running backs this year with injuries sustained to Carlos Hyde, Reggie Bush and now Shaun Draughn, DuJuan Harris got the nod and was one of the few bright spots for San Francisco on Sunday. Signed by San Francisco as recent as Tuesday just days before Sunday's game, Harris rushed for a career-high 73 yards to lead all players. Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne was also promoted to the team just in time for Sunday's affair and received his heaviest workload yet, rushing for 27 yards on 9 carries and catching a career-best 5 receptions for 20 yards. With both Harris and Hayne still getting their feet wet with their respected team, one name that has been around for quite awhile now in Detroit is receiver Calvin Johnson, better known as Megatron. In what may be his final home game in a Lions uniform, the ?-time Pro Bowl wide-out caught six passes for 77 yards including a fourth quarter touchdown as quarterback Matthew Stafford was sure to send his favorite target off with one last touchdown reception if he indeed plays elsewhere in 2016. Stafford threw for a pair of TD's and eclipsed the 300-yard mark with 301 yards on the afternoon, inching closer to his fifth consecutive 4,000 yard season, needing only 36-yards with one game remaining. Gabbert tallied 225 yards and a pair of touchdowns of his own, but did so in a losing effort as the Niners fell, 32-17.
Week 17 Preview - After falling to 4-11 on the season, the 49ers head back home to meet with the division-rival (7-8) St. Louis Rams where they'll hope to avoid their first four-win season since 2005. As for the Rams who are coming off a 23-17 win over the Seahawks in Seattle, St. Louis will look to finish their disappointing season by finishing with an even .500 record. And their rookie running back Todd Gurley who ran amok versus the Niners in their first meeting this year by racking up 133 yards and a touchdown, will be called upon to do the same thing a second time around. After holding Detroit to fewer than 90-yards on Sunday, the 49er run defense will once again need a strong effort in this one if they plan to end 2015 on a high note and avenge the 27-6 loss to St. Louis earlier this year.

Follow me on Twitter: @FraserKnowsBest 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Kobe's Last Hurrah

The Mamba's still venomous - While we all knew this was the end of the Kobe Bryant era entering the 2015-16 season but refused to believe it, the Los Angeles Lakers guard finally put the rumors to rest three weeks ago when he held a live press conference regarding his decision to finally hang 'em up at the end of the season after 20 years in the league. Along with Kobe explaining his decision in front of a live television audience, was a poem he had written explaining that he was ready to let go of the game of basketball. After appearing to have shot himself to an early retirement with many pleading for the Mamba to call it quits in midseason, Bryant has instead responded to his critics by playing his best ball in years as of late. That's right, Kobe is finally beginning to resemble the iconic basketball player we all know and love.

In his last four games, Kobe has put up the following:

31 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists.
22 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists.
22 points, 3 rebounds, 6 assists.
25 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists.

Even if it is just a small sample size of the Kobe Bryant we all grew accustomed to seeing on a nightly basis, the fact remains -- it's refreshing to see one of the most celebrated players the game has ever known playing good basketball once again. Though I can truly say I didn't go as far as saying Kobe needed to reconsider his decision and retire now during his slump, I can admit that I thought Kobe had begun to resemble a man who was forcing himself thru something he can no longer do and that's taking on a rigorous 82-game season for a 20th time. But over the last four games he's proven otherwise. He's also ditched the poor shot selection that was eating away at his shooting percentage at the start of the season and has been a lot more productive in every facet while also getting others involved. As hard as it was to watch one of the game's all-time greats struggling the way he was, I wasn't ready for my all-time favorite player to walk away from the game for good. Bryant, a 17-time All-Star and 5-time NBA Champion, had this to say about his recent play, "I just feel good. my legs feel fine. I feel like me."
With the Lakers currently owning a record of 5-23, worst in the Western Conference and above only the 1-29 Philadelphia 76ers who's lone win on the season came at the hands of L.A., the last three seasons which saw Kobe plagued by different injuries, has somewhat helped us all accept this whole rebuilding stage that the Lakers and their fans aren't necessarily used to and has helped prepare us to move on towards a Kobe-less Laker team. With a good crop of young talent picked in the last two NBA Drafts in guards Jordan Clarkson, DeAngelo Russell and forward Julius Randle, L.A. is once again in good position to acquire some top talent in next year's Draft while preparing for life after Bryant. And as the season wears on and the games dwindle down, the only advice I can say to you as not only a Laker fan but an all around fan of basketball is this -- soak in as much of Kobe's final season as you can as we may never seen a talent quite like his again. Not to mention one who's played a record all 20 seasons with the same franchise. We may see another turnaround jumper and another intense first pump after a made basket, but we'll never see another hunger on the court like the one we saw when Kobe Bean Bryant was on the hardwood. 

Follow me on Twitter: @FraserKnowsBest

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Turnover happy 49ers lose to Bengals

Week 15 - Sunday's meeting between the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals was a clash between two teams going in completely opposite directions. With a win by the visiting Bengals, Cincinnati would clinch a playoff spot. But with backup QB AJ McCarron making his first career start, a win would have to be fought for. And with former Alabama quarterbacks a combined 0-13 since 1987, McCarron would be called upon to buck the trend while filling in for the injured Andy Dalton. After a scoreless first quarter which saw the 49ers force a turnover on downs as the Bengals elected to go for it on a fourth and 1 attempt, Cincinnati would get things going in the second. 

Forcing three 49er turnovers in the second quarter, the Bengals capitalized on two of them, jumping out to a double-digit lead. Two of the miscues would be dealt to quarterback Blaine Gabbert as tight-end Vance McDonald had a pair of dropped passes result in interceptions, meanwhile, Anquan Boldin had a would-be first down reception stripped from his grasp as he went down, fumbling the ball. Bengals running back Jeremy Hill scored the first two of Cincy's three second quarter touchdowns with a pair of 1-yard runs at the goal line. The third being thru the air as McCarron's only touchdown pass on the afternoon went to a wide-open Tyler Kroft on a 20-yard dart to the rookie tight-end. Trailing 24-0, the Niners would finally get on the board after recovering a Jeremy Hill fumble as he was ran into by his own teammate. Five plays later, the offense would punch it in as fullback Bruce Miller recorded his first career touchdown with a 1-yard run up the middle. After blocking a field goal attempt a week ago versus Cleveland, the Niners had one of their own blocked on Sunday as kicker Phil Dawson who had made his last 19 field goal attempts, watched number twenty hit the hand of a Bengals defender.
With Anquan Boldin zeroing in on 1,000 career receptions, the 13-year veteran caught 8 passes for 74 yards on Sunday including one for a 15-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that pulled San Francisco within two scores. The 49ers would recover the ensuing on-side kick following the touchdown, but Gabbert would be picked off in the end zone for a third time just two plays later, helping Cincy seal the 24-20 victory. Despite holding the Bengals to less than 200 yards thru the air and only 68 yards on the ground, the four 49er turnovers including three by Blaine Gabbert who threw for 295 yards, were too much for the 49ers to overcome on a day they fell behind, 24-0. As for McCarron who played turnover-free football while passing for 192 yards and a touchdown, the two-time National Champion with the Crimson Tide, became the first Alabama alum to win a game as the starting QB since Jeff Rutledge of the Giants in 1987. With the win, the Bengals improved to 11-3 and clinched their fifth straight playoff berth with an AFC North division title still up for grabs and next on their Christmas wishlist. As for San Francisco, the loss dropped the 49ers to 4-10 on the year and guarantees them their first last place finish in the NFC West since 2005.

Week 16 Preview - In what will be their final road game of the season, the 49ers head north to take on the (5-9) Detroit Lions. Already eliminated from playoff contention, Matt Stafford and company will look to finish the season strong in what could potentially be the final home game for Lions receiver Calvin Johnson who's in the final year of his contract. Coming off a 35-27 win on the road over the Saints, Detroit hopes to make it consecutive wins. The 49ers on the other hand are just hoping to complete the 2015 season on a high note coming off another string of back to back losses. 

Follow me on Twitter: @FraserKnowsBest 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

49ers Fail to cash-in vs Money Manziel, Browns

Week 14 - Entering Sunday's meeting in Cleveland between the (4-8) San Francisco 49ers and (2-10) Browns, the Niners found themselves in unfamiliar territory -- facing a team with a worse record than their own. Dealing with quarterback issues of their own, the Browns have had their guy all season long in second-year pro Johnny Manziel, but the team's unwillingness to commit to the former Heisman Trophy winner coupled with his poor decision making off the field, has left him on the sidelines more often than on the field. But with Manziel getting the call in this one after serving the last two games on the bench following his restriction set by coach Mike Pettine, the Browns' mobile QB was able to help snap Cleveland's 7-game losing streak. 

After their overtime victory over the Bears last week, the Niners came into this one looking rather surprised and played like a team that underestimated their opponent. Early on, however, the San Francisco defense would make their presence felt by blocking a 42-yard field goal attempt by kicker Travis Coons to keep the game scoreless. But the Niners' inability to get anything going on offense, aided the Browns who scored on their next possession. With only two rushing touchdowns all year for the Browns entering the game, the 49ers would see a steady diet of second-year running back Isiah Crowell who broke off a 50-yard run before doubling Cleveland's rushing touchdown total with his first of two TD's on the afternoon. San Francisco went into the half trailing 10-3, but could've easily been down by 17+ had it not been for a number of miscues by the Browns offense. Third-string running back Glenn Winston showed exactly why he's the Browns' third option at running back as he fumbled his only rush attempt on the afternoon. Manziel would endure a brain-cramp of his own after being flushed from the pocket and throwing an errant pass across his body to midfield which 49ers rookie safety Jaquiski Tartt snagged in midair for his first career interception. 
The Niners would open the second half just as sluggish as the first as the Cleveland defense which entered the game with only 8 sacks on the year, feasted on QB Blaine Gabbert who was sacked nine times in this game alone as the Browns took advantage of a weak 49er o-line and doubled their season sack total. Seeking their first December win since 2012, Manziel helped inch the Browns closer to a W after connecting with his tight-end Gary Barnidge for a 2-yard touchdown. The Browns weren't done there as Crowell added to an already stellar day with his second rush of 50-yards or more with a 54-yard dash en route to a season-high 145-yard performance, including a career-high 95-yards before contact. He would capitalize on the big gain five plays later with his second touchdown. With the game already out of reach, Gabbert and the 49er offense would finally put together a nice drive, marching 94-yards and scoring on a 6-yard touchdown pass in garbage time to receiver Jerome Simpson, his first of the season. Rather poor for a 49ers offense versus a Cleveland defense that has surrendered the third most passing touchdowns this season (25), behind only the Eagles and Saints. 

The only other scoring on the afternoon for the 49ers would come from kicker Phil Dawson whom the Browns payed a tribute to on the stadium scoreboard with a video, highlighting the 14 seasons he played in Cleveland. Manziel out-threw Gabbert in passing yards, 270 to 194 in the 24-10 win as the Browns recorded just their third victory of the season. 

Week 15 Preview - Falling to 4-9 on the year, the 49ers return home where they'll get set to host the 10-3 Cincinnati Bengals. Having been one of the best teams all season, the Bengals are now limping their way to the finish of the regular season with the recent injury to quarterback Andy Dalton who suffered a fractured thumb during the first quarter of Sunday's 33-20 loss to the rival Steelers. The Bengals are still a very dangerous team without Dalton with play-makers on both sides of the ball, but has to have Cincy fans trembling at the thought of making the playoffs without Dalton under center. Although backup QB AJ McCarron is up for the challenge, comparing his situation of stepping in for an injured star quarterback to the one that catapulted Patriots QB Tom Brady into the spotlight. McCarron, a first-year rookie drafted in the fifth round out of Alabama who won 3 National Championships in college with the Crimson Tide and will be making his first career start on Sunday, will look to keep pace in the race for the AFC's number one seed. Meanwhile, the 49ers who saw their own playoff hopes vanish, will try playing spoiler.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Gabbert's late Heroics Propels 49er past Bears

Week 13 - With the 49ers in Chicago to face off with the (5-6) Bears, San Francisco head coach Jim Tomsula found himself going up against a former colleague -- Vic Fangio who served four seasons as the Niners defensive coordinator before landing the same job title in the windy city during the offseason, as well as Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase whom Tomsula beat out for the head coaching job. In what would be a struggle offensively for most of the game by both teams, the game would have to be decided in overtime. 

After three and outs in each of San Francisco's first two possessions, the Bears took an early 6-0 lead on a pair of Robbie Gould field goals. Celebrating his 34th birthday, the rest of the day would be one to forget for the longtime Chicago kicker. Seeking their first 1st quarter touchdown of the season, the Niners would strike pay dirt in the form of a Jimmie Ward interception he took to the house. Playing in Chicago for the first time not far from Northern Illinois University where he played collegiately before being selected in the first round of last year's Draft, the interception marked the first of Ward's career, helping put his team on the board and end a first quarter touchdown-less drought that had reached 11 games. Kicker Phil Dawson would fail to tack on the ensuing PAT, however, as the 49ers suffered their first missed extra-point since 2003. With the game tied at 6, both teams would exchange rushing touchdowns as Matt Forte scored for Chicago, only to be matched by San Francisco's Shaun Draughn who scored his first touchdown in a Niner uniform.
The game would remain tied at 13 heading into the 4th quarter. It would be there where the Bears and 49ers would once again exchange rushing touchdowns, this time by a pair of unlikely recipients as both Ka'Deem Carey and Blaine Gabbert logged the first rushing touchdowns of their career, both capping six-play drives in the 4th quarter. Carey's would come first as he found the end zone from 4-yards out, followed by the longest rush of the season by a 49er -- a 44-yard scramble up the middle by Gabbert who showed athleticism on the play that nobody knew he had as San Francisco once again tied the game at 20 apiece. But Gabbert's late-game heroics were nearly erased on the ensuing kick as the 49ers special teams surrendered a 74-yard return to Deonte Thompson with under two minutes remaining. The return would put Chicago in position to win as Bears head coach John Fox called on Gould to kick his team to victory. But after missing his previous attempt in the third quarter, nothing was promised. And from 36-yards out, the Bears' Pro Bowl kicker shanked the kick wide left, spoiling his birthday and sending the game into overtime. It would mark the first game of Gould's career in which he missed a pair of field goals 41-yards or fewer.

With both teams going three and out on their first possession in overtime, Gabbert wasted little time on San Francisco's second drive as he aired it out along the left sideline where he found Torrey Smith all alone for the 71-yard walk-off touchdown. Prior to his game-winning reception which led to his 49er teammates mobbing him in the end zone, Smith had one catch for five yards. Gabbert threw for 196 yards on the day and led the team in rushing with another 75 yards as the 49ers pulled off the 26-20 overtime victory. Chicago's Jay Cutler threw for 202 yards in a losing effort as San Francisco claimed their first road win of the season and first of Tomsula's career. Niners receiver Anquan Boldin caught five passes for 37 yards, helping him reach 13,000 career receiving yards in what's been a stalwart career in the NFL and one that could very well result in a Hall of Fame induction one day. 
Week 14 Preview - At 4-8 on the year, the 49ers will look to build their first winning-streak of the season when they pay a visit to Cleveland to take on the 2-10 Browns. Coming off a 37-3 shellacking by their inner-state rivals the Cincinnati Bengals, the Browns are looking to bounce back at Home. Having endured quarterback trouble of their own this season, Cleveland has decided to name Johnny Manziel their starting QB heading into Sunday's game. While Manziel gives the Browns their best chance of winning games over fellow QB's Josh McCown who's now injured and Austin Davis, the former Heisman Trophy winner is coming off a 2-game absence as Cleveland coach Mike Pettine decided to discipline his young QB after videos of Manziel partying in his native Texas surfaced over the internet. The Niner defense will look to keep the duel threat quarterback at bey with another stellar showing on defense and build on their first road victory of the season. 

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Garbage roughing call costs 49ers vs Cards

Week 12 - Sunday's meeting between the (3-7) San Francisco 49ers and (8-2) Arizona Cardinals featured the team with the most yards and points per game (AZ) versus the team with the least (SF). And though there would be a wide gap between both team's records and season statistics, it would be hard to tell as both teams were neck and neck for most of this one. Feeling generous, the 49ers would deliver several gifts to the opposition in the first half as the Cardinals punched in their first three points of the game with a field goal after recovering a muffed punt by 49ers returner Bruce Ellington. On their next drive, San Francisco QB Blaine Gabbert would be picked off on an errant pass that was intercepted by Arizona's Tyrann Mathieu. The Cardinals would once again turn the 49ers miscue into points, but not before cornerback Tremaine Brock dropped an easy interception in the end zone which he lost in the sun.

While San Francisco's self-inflicted miscues made things easier for Arizona, they did them no favors on offense as the 49er defense held their own and kept it a close game throughout. The penalties, however, would dig them an early grave. On one third quarter drive by Arizona, the 49ers were called for five penalties -- four pass interference calls and one for illegal hands to the face as the Cardinals used it to their advantage by scoring a 1-yard touchdown ran in by third-string running back David Johnson as both Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson left the game with injuries. San Francisco would answer with a touchdown of their own on the ensuing drive as Gabbert connected with tight-end Vance McDonald in the end zone for the second time in as many weeks. The touchdown coupled with Phil Dawson's second field goal of the day would tie things up at 13 heading into the fourth quarter, but San Francisco's inability to convert on a single third down attempt would make things difficult for the offense.
Though the 49ers would out-gain Arizona in total yards -- 368 to 337 as Blaine Gabbert threw for over 300 yards for only the second time in his career, it wouldn't be enough to pull off the victory as San Francisco was called for a bogus roughing the passer penalty on a sack by second-year defensive-end Quinton Dial. On what looked like any normal quarterback sack on second and long, the officials flagged Dial for brazing the helmet of Arizona's Carson Palmer. Instead of facing a third and 18 situation, the Cardinals were given 15-yards and a first down which changed the complexion of the game. Palmer and the Cardinals offense would eventually reach the end zone as Palmer ran it in himself on a drive that lasted nearly 8 minutes long, but kicker Chandler Catanzaro would miss the extra-point, leaving the door open for some late game heroics by Gabbert and company and a chance to steal a win with just over two minutes remaining in regulation. But after marching down the field all the way to the Arizona 30, Gabbert took a 10-yard sack that brought up fourth and 20. He would find receiver Anquan Boldin across the middle for an 18-yard gain but would come up 2-yards short of the first down as San Francisco turned the ball over on downs.

With the 19-13 victory over San Francisco, the Cardinals achieved their first road win and series sweep of the Niners since 2008. Also with the win, the Cardinals improved to 9-2 on the year, assuring them of their first string of three consecutive winning seasons since 1974-76. Meanwhile, San Francisco dropped to 3-8 with the loss and have officially been eliminated from competing for the division. As for the debatable rouging the passer penalty which basically cost the Niners the game as well as a few other eyebrow-raising calls, guard Alex Boone didn't shy away from letting the league know just how displeased he was with Sunday's officiating, saying in a post-game interview, "I thought those refs sucked." And he wasn't alone as many criticized the officials on Sunday during a variety of games, including the Sunday night game between the previously unbeaten Patriots and Denver Broncos. Whether or not you believe a handful of questionable calls cost New England their first loss of the season, one thing is certain -- the NFL officials have seen far greater days than the one they had on Sunday. 
Week 13 Preview - With the 49ers hitting the road to take on the (5-6) Chicago Bears who are coming off a big Thanksgiving night win against the Packers at Lambeau, they'll be tested on offense by Bears defensive-coordinator Vic Fangio who spent the last four years in San Francisco before landing the job in Chicago during the off-season. Fangio and the Bears D will have somewhat of an easier job defending the run as it's been learned that the 49ers will be without starting running back Carlos Hyde who's been ruled out for the fifth consecutive week as he continues to nurse a banged up foot. Joining him will be TE Garrett Celek who's also been ruled out for SF. But as for those playing in Sunday's game at Soldier Field, the 49ers will have to make Jay Cutler as uncomfortable as possible as the Bears QB has his team winning games once again and still alive in the playoff hunt. As you may recall, Cutler rallied his team to a 28-20 win in San Francisco last season after falling behind early, 17-0 in the first regular season game ever played at Levi's Stadium. 

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