Hail Mary: 49ers beat the elements and the Packers

On a freezing cold evening in Wisconsin, the San Francisco 49ers produced a complete performance to eventually see off a spirited Green Bay Packers team, 23-20.

The 49ers won as time expired on Phil Dawson’s 33 yard field goal as time expired, this capped off a drive which took the best part of five minutes off the clock at the end to ensure that Aaron Rodgers would have no time to work on a comeback.

It was the most anticipated game of the weekend and even though it was a slow burner, it didn’t disappoint. San Francisco started the brighter and were able to drive down into the Packers red zone twice but they had to settle for field goals as the Cheeseheads would not let them break through.

Then the Green Bay offence started to move and Rodgers found a groove, finding Jordy Nelson from short range for the Packers first lead of the day. Just as the Pack had found some new confidence the 49ers responded immediately and Frank Gore slashed his way into the end zone from 10 yards to regain the Niners lead. The final word of the half went to Mason Crosby, his 34 yard field goal was the final play of the half and it meant that San Francisco only had a three point lead, 13-10.

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The Niners were stopped quickly on their opening second half drive and the momentum was now with Green Bay, but they couldn’t seize the moment and eventually there was no score in the third period. John Kuhn barrelled his way in to the end zone from short yardage early in the fourth quarter to put the Pack ahead again. This was now beginning to be everything we thought it would be, two heavyweights slugging it out.

Colin Kaepernick was responding well to this moment and his scrambling and quickness saw him gain 42 yards down the left sideline which set up a 28 yard TD throw to Vernon Davis to restore the San Francisco lead, 20-17. Rodgers had his team deep in 49ers territory but as earlier in the game it was now the Niners D that stood firm and Mason Crosby had to tie up the game with 5.06 left.

This then was the game winning drive and with only one timeout left Kaepernick showed his maturity by moving the chains with some underneath passing and clock management poise. Green Bay were virtually powerless against the 49ers will to win, and Dawson was cool as ever as he split the uprights to win the game.

The Packers will look back at a season in which they did remarkably well to win the North division without their star QB for the majority of time, but it is San Francisco who go on and will want to set the record straight in Carolina next weekend, the Panthers beat them 10-9 in Week 10 of the regular season.

Hail Mary: Bolts fire up and win in Cincy

San Diego Chargers set up a Division Round match up in Denver next week with a comprehensive win over the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-10.

For as good as Philip Rivers played at quarterback for the Chargers, Andy Dalton had a horror show for the Bengals. Dalton threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, and could never recover from those mistakes.

The Bengals playoff woes continue and have now not won a postseason game for 23 years. San Diego are now the hot team in the AFC having got into the playoffs through the back door, they will fancy their chances against the Broncos next weekend, especially as they beat them just last month in a thrilling Thursday Night Football match.

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It was a slow start but the Chargers got on the board first when Danny Woodhead went in from 5 yards. The home team Bengals went in ahead at halftime after a second quarter in which they found their feet. First Dalton found Jermaine Gresham with a short TD pass and the Mike Nugent kicked a 46 yard field goal to put them ahead for the only time in the game.

Ladarius Green was on the end of a short pass from Rivers, and then off a turnover Nick Novak put the Chargers up by 7 at the end of the third quarter. Cincinnati just could not sustain a drive and San Diego were playing solid but unspectacular, doing the right things at the right time, playing smart. Novak added three more, and when Ronnie Brown sprinted through the line to go 58 yards the win was sealed.

After going unbeaten in the regular season at home the Bengals will once again be wondering what they have to do to win a playoff outing, for San Diego the dream lives on for another week at least.

NFL Playoffs – Wild Card schedule announced

After seventeen bruising weeks of NFL action the top twelve teams have finally taken their place in this years playoffs. Some dramatic finishes to games and some tense waits for others to see if they had made it through, just whet the appetite further for what is to come in the next few weeks.

The wild card round of games always throws together some intriguing matches and this year is no exception.

The top two teams in each conference are of course rewarded with a bye week, so that means the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots get to rest from the AFC, while over in the NFC it’s the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers that get to put their feet up.

This coming weekend the playoff field will get smaller by four. Below is the schedule for the opening round of games in this years postseason.

SATURDAY 4th JANUARY

AFC – KANSAS CITY CHIEFS at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS – 9.35pm UK time

NFC – NEW ORLEANS SAINTS at PHILADELPHIA EAGLES – 1.10am (Sunday morning)

SUNDAY 5th JANUARY

AFC – SAN DIEGO CHARGERS at CINCINNATI BENGALS – 6.05pm

NFC – SAN FRANCISCO 49ers at GREEN BAY PACKERS – 9.40pm

NFL: Wild Card Weekend Predictions

Happy New Year readers, 2013 begins with our play-off line-up set, and now it all comes down to 60 minutes of football to define each team’s season, win and you get another shot at glory, but lose and your season is over.

In terms of the regular season, this column posted a very respectable 163-93, a 63.6% strike rate, and I’m hoping I can keep up the good work at the business end of the season.

At the expense of the Bears and Cowboys, the Vikings and Redskins sneaked into Wildcard weekend, and will be looking to take their chance with both hands, while this year’s line-up sees three rookie QB’s playing on the first weekend of January for the first time that I can remember.

But it all starts with some more experienced signal callers in Houston.

SATURDAY 9:30PM

Cincinnati Bengals @ Houston Texans

Andy Dalton and the Bengals finished the regular season with a sweep of their closest rivals in the AFC North, with Pittsburgh and Baltimore both tasting defeat at the hands of Marvin Lewis’ men, and this run will have instilled so much confidence in the Cincinnati camp. The Texans on the other hand, had so many chances to wrap up a first week bye in the last four weeks of the regular season, yet failed to do so, handing the Patriots a rest weekend.

They seemed to hit a wall as teams figured out how to stop Arian Foster running all over them and as the Texans secondary began to be exposed due to all the injuries they suffered on defense. The more worrying thing was how they seemed to just give up in games they were down in, something that they cannot do in playoff football. But JJ Watt has still been a machine throughout the year, and to win this game, the Bengals will have to find a way to keep him quiet-ish.

They say that momentum and confidence plays a huge role in playoff games, and the Giants proved that twice, so I’m giving the Bengals a real live shot at the upset here. They have played the run well all year, are improving all the time in the secondary and play the right type of football to win playoff games on the road. AJ Green needs to get back to the AJ of weeks one to ten if Cincinnati are to take this one, and if he cuts out the drops, he can further expose the Texans struggling secondary.

Verdict: Bengals 17 Texans 13

Money line: Bengals to win – 19/10 @ William Hill

Point spread: Bengals by 1-5pts – 5/1 @Paddy Power

SUNDAY 1:00AM

Minnesota Vikings @ Green Bay Packers

It’s not very often we get a live preview of a wildcard matchup the week before, but in this case, Minnesota’s 37-34 victory at home shows us a lot about what to expect on Sunday morning. The Vikings managed to run the ball well and also Christian Ponder had one of the best games of his season, throwing for three scores.

This will worry many Green Bay fans, as their opportunistic defense should be well set up for a team like the Vikings, who have their best receiver out through injury and a QB who has struggled at times this year, but switch the game to a windy, cold (snowy?) Lambeau Field and we have a totally different ball game. Adrian Peterson’s stat line will likely dictate the result of the game for the Vikings, and if Green Bay can keep him to under 120 yards, they will have a great chance to win this one.

Aaron Rodgers has proven his effectiveness at home in the poor weather, so that wouldn’t affect him, and the return of Greg Jennings to 120 yards receiving and a TD is a huge boost for this team, as would be the probable return of Randall Cobb, who has been an explosive, all-purpose star for the Packers this season.

It is pretty much for certain that, even without a decent running game, Green Bay’s offense will score three touchdowns at home, so it will be up to All-Day and Christian Ponder to keep up, something I just don’t trust the Vikes QB to do without making mistakes in this high-pressure playoff environment.

Verdict: Vikings 20 Packers 30

Money line: Packers to win – 2/7 @ Sky Bet

Point spread: Packers by 6-10pts – 3/1 @ Paddy Power

SUNDAY 6:00PM

Indianapolis Colts @ Baltimore Ravens

I don’t think enough credit has been given to Chuck Pagano, Bruce Arians and the rest of the brains in Indianapolis for turning around this previously rudderless franchise from where it was: Peyton-less and worst in the NFL, to an offensively explosive, young, promising team. They used the draft excellently, and picked up some hardy free agents to compliment the ageless Reggie Wayne and the relentless Dwight Freeney, who were kept at Lucas Oil Stadium as a matter of priority. Andrew Luck has led this team to an 11-5 record. That’s just insane compared to what the Colts could have imagined this time last year.

The problem with Indianapolis is their defense, it’s average across the board, but the secondary has made some plays recently, which springs some hope, but you have to think that Ray Rice and Joe Flacco will pepper this unit and put quite a few points on the board even though the Ravens will struggle to keep all of Indy’s young, quick receivers in check for the whole 60 minutes.

The news of Ray Lewis’ impending retirement at the end of the season will definitely make this Baltimore team play up to it’s best and I’m expecting some real passion from a defensive unit that has struggled a little recently, to make sure that the leader of the dressing room gets an opportunity to finish on a real high.

Verdict: Colts 17 Ravens 27

Money line: Ravens to win – 10/27 @ William Hill

Point spread: Ravens by 7-12pts – 9/2 @ William Hill

SUNDAY 9:30PM

Seattle Seahawks @ Washington Redskins

This is a hugely intriguing game because both teams have rookie QB’s who have stepped up to play at an extremely high level in their first seasons in the NFL, both with their passing and with their feet. It is this added dimension that could determine the outcome of this one, and it will be the team who deals with the threat of the opposition QB run best that will advance.

Russell Wilson has answered any doubts about his height by just running all over the place when he can’t see a receiver open, while RGIII has been absolutely fantastic this year both passing and running, and it is testament to his quality that the only thing people can find wrong with him is that he gets hit too often while running.

Seattle’s defense has been a truly fearsome unit so far this year, dealing with the Patriots and 49’ers, while Wilson helped in putting up 50 points on Arizona and Buffalo in consecutive weeks. Week 17’s hard game against St Louis was perfect preparation for this, and the return of Brandon Browner to the secondary will be a huge boost.

As for the Redskins, their fortunes will be reflected by their running game. If Alfred Morris can get going, he sets up the play action, the bootlegs and the QB runs that make the Washington offense so hard to deal with. The Seahawks will likely prioritise keeping RGIII in the pocket while shutting down Morris and the running game, but that is easier said than done of course.

The Redskins need to be perfect to win this, and it is very rare that a football team is perfect in a game. The Seattle defense is just too good.

Verdict: Seahawks 34 Redskins 17

Money line: Seahawks to win – 4/6 @ William Hill

Point spread: Seahawks by 16-20pts – 12/1 @ Paddy Power