After a decade of mostly familiar names, Super Bowl XLVII is set to provide some welcome new blood under center. Sunday will mark the first title game in five years to feature two quarterbacks who’ve never been here before, but that’s about where their similarities in experience end. For Colin Kaepernick, this start in New Orleans comes barely three months after the first of his NFL career. For Joe Flacco, it’s the next step in his playoff success. But even with all the pressure young Kaepernick is set to face, in my mind, and in terms of scheme, support, and circumstance, there will be more of it placed on Flacco.
Like the 49ers, previous versions of these Ravens relied on a bruising running game and great defense to buttress a young quarterback as he improved from week-to-week. This year, those areas of strength have lagged. After a long stretch of dominance, Baltimore's famed and historic defense fell to the middle of the pack in nearly every category, and although the Ray Rice–led running game is still formidable, its efficiency and production took a step back.
This means that for the first time, the Ravens have become Joe Flacco’s team, and more than ever, Baltimore has relied on its passing attack. Ray Rice has been a steady bailout option for most of Flacco’s career, but it’s Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, and Dennis Pitta who will be the keys come Sunday night.
On any given Sunday (or Monday or Thursday), your NFL Run & Shootaround crew will be gathered around multiple televisions, making inappropriate jokes and generally regressing to the mean. Catch up on all the NFL action right here.
Anquan Boldin: Hall of Famer?
Anquan Boldin has not made a Pro Bowl since leaving the Arizona Cardinals at the end of the 2009 season. He has not had a 1,000-yard season in Baltimore, and the beast who caught 11 touchdowns in 2008 has been limited to a total of seven touchdowns in his past two seasons. Up until these playoffs, Boldin had mostly fallen off the casual fan's radar — if your interactions with the NFL come mostly from highlights, fantasy, and Red Zone, you might have even forgotten that Anquan Boldin was still in the league.
Last Friday, two days before the NFC divisional playoff game, I gave highly scientific, feelings-based reasons for why the Atlanta Falcons would defeat the Seattle Seahawks. These reasons included trusting the blind confidence of Mark Wahlberg and Big Boi, predicting that Nate "Sterling" Silver's luck had finally run out, and the fact that Seahawks fans were spending less time getting hyped up and more time discussing which franchise's bird was more ferocious.
And I was completely right.
Last week, the Falcons were favored, barely, but no one expected them to actually win. This week, these same Falcons, again playing at home, are not only expected to lose, but are actually underdogs.
It was Sunday, January 17, 1999. I was in Augusta, Georgia, for the first big junior tennis tournament of the season, the Mayor's Cup. Two days earlier, I walked onto the court, unseeded, for my first-round match with the 9-seed. The end result: a three-set loss. Ever the type to get down on myself, I was bummed, a feeling that continued through my first-round consolation match the following day. I lost that too. I had traveled all the way to Augusta, during my long MLK weekend, to go 0-2. I was devastated.
Then, to make matters worse, I couldn't leave. I had made the trek with a couple other players, and they were still in the tournament. So on Sunday, the penultimate day of the tournament, I showed up to the tennis center in street clothes, my racket back at the hotel. Coming empty-handed meant both spectators and participants alike were reminded that you're a loser. I was 11, and at that point in my life it got no worse than this.
Ray Lewis has described many things as “awesome.” He dieted and exercised before this season and showed up to camp at his lightest weight in some 15 years: “It’s awesome,” he said, “I feel great.” Earlier this season he described Joe Flacco and the Ravens' much-improved offense as “awesome.” Last week, as he took a victory lap around the Ravens’ stadium one last time, he described it as “the most awesome thing you could ever ask for in any professional career.” After Baltimore’s twist-filled victory over Denver on Saturday, Lewis began doing that postgame proselytizing thing that’s common in such contexts. Maybe it’s the awareness that Lewis is nearing the end or maybe it was the delirium of the game, but there was something wildly moving and strange about his incantations. He said some cold-blooded shit about “weapons,” just as the tool that had been forged for his demise, Peyton Manning, walked up to hug him. Then his eyes got gone and serene as he admired his team’s mile-high handiwork: “Man … it’s just awesome,” he said, all blissful and blessed, clouds of mist surrounding his face, as though the Creator had taken a highlighter to him. There’ve been few players over the past decade as intense and absorbing as Lewis. For those of us who remember when “Ray Lewis weapons” turned up a different kind of search-engine result, there hasn’t been another athlete whose path to righteousness has felt so visceral and extreme.
The Atlanta Falcons are playing the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs on Sunday. Vegas has the Falcons favored by 2.5, but you get +3 for just being the home team, which essentially means Vegas has no clue what it thinks.
Thankfully for you, the curious public often interested in how the future will turn out, I do know what I think. Who knows what "algorithms" and "formulas" and "educated guesses" places like Odds Shark implement (cue my knees getting Gilloolied in 5 ... 4 ... 3 ...), but chances are they all ignore the most important aspect of predicting outcomes: feelings.
I know the Falcons are going to win, because that's what my feelings tell me will happen. That's all I've got, and I couldn't be more thrilled.
A few days before Christmas 2006, having just arrived home in Atlanta for my break between college quarters, I was driving near the Georgia Dome when I spotted a new arrival in the neighborhood — an odd, trailer-like setup erected in a parking lot. Having grown up around the area, whatever it was seemed out of the ordinary, so I hit a U-turn and went to check it out. In that parking lot sat an "Authentic Louisiana-Style" restaurant operating almost as a food truck. About 15 months had passed since Hurricane Katrina, but this was my first real-life experience with what had previously just been data regarding the sheer amount of New Orleanians that had migrated to cities like Houston and Atlanta. I looked at the establishment and felt good. To know that someone could make a life in my city, especially after such a horrible disaster, was a beautiful thing.
The following year, I remember watching the Saints-Falcons game on Monday Night Football in the Georgia Dome. Fully understanding that there was a sizable New Orleans population in the city that had no plans of going back home, I was curious to see how the Dome would look. The answer — very black-and-gold. It was nauseating. While I felt it bubbling in 2006, especially with our unfortunate "damned if you win, damned if you lose" opportunity to play the Saints in the first game back in the Superdome, it was at this point that I knew a real rivalry was no longer just brewing.
No one is safe from the BQBL Summer Jam Screen. Atop the BQBL leader board this week are Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, and Matt Stafford. While these “elite” quarterbacks (whatever that means) had surprisingly atrocious performances, there was nothing surprising about Ryan Lindley’s debut as an NFL quarterback. He was all kinds of entertaining in that “Wow, this is what it would look like if you pulled a dude from the stands and put him under center” type of way. Oh yeah, one more thing: He almost beat the Falcons. Let’s review the carnage from Atlanta’s TAINTiest and FARTiest of football contests (I swear that will be the only FART joke. I swear).
The Atlanta Falcons have an undefeated record going into Week 10. That is important. D-Block is more important.
D-Block is also a talk show, on the Internet, hosted by D-Block. Who is D-Block? The five-man linebacking corps of the Atlanta Falcons: no. 51 Robert James, no. 52 Akeem Dent, no. 53 Mike Peterson, no. 54 Stephen Nicholas, and no. 56 Sean Weatherspoon.
It's the locker room equivalent of the cool-kids' table in high school. It's where everyone wants to be. The difference, however, from the highly cliquish, mean-spirited cool-kids' table of years gone by, is that when it comes to D-Block, everyone is welcome. It doesn't matter who you are in the Falcons organization. If you have proven yourself to be a team player, your voice will be heard on D-Block. Ringleader Peterson told defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, upon his arriving to chat, "Anytime you want to come and relax yourself, you know, get comfortable, grab you a Gatorade, come over here to D-Block."
The Atlanta Falcons are 8-0. Undefeated. "Loss-less," if you will.
Average ATLiens like myself, not used to success, have been handling this news in different ways. Some don't want to jinx the good news and have stayed relatively quiet. They’re completely fine with the fact that the team is remaining under the radar, seemingly not getting the respect it deserves. Others (myself included) are getting used to the good fortunes and taking a turn for the obnoxious — celebrating way too openly, rudely, and aggressively.
And then there are the rappers.
Already an animated bunch, the crop of Atlanta rappers, complete with varying levels of past success, present success, and never success, have taken to their Twitter accounts to cheer on their city's team — before games, during the games, and most important, after the games.
While it might seem like football just started yesterday, incredibly, we're coming up on the halfway point of this NFL season this weekend. Week 9 is a good time to take a step back from the game-to-game grind and examine each team with a longer view — so that's exactly what I'm going to do. Over the rest of the week at Grantland, I'll be taking a look back at how some notable teams and players have performed over the first half while looking forward to how things might change during the final half of the season.
A natural place to start is with the league's only undefeated team. The Atlanta Falcons have been popularly elected as the league's best team, and while I don't necessarily agree, it's not difficult to make a case that the Falcons belong in that discussion. What I'm interested in finding out, though, is why this year's Falcons are a step above the other Matt Ryan–era teams through the first seven games. If anything, the previous Ryan-led Falcons squads have been teams that got hot as the season went along: During their three double-digit win seasons, the Falcons were a combined 13-8 (61.9 percent) across their first seven games and 21-6 (77.8 percent) afterward. You can make anecdotal cases for what changed — the turnover at offensive coordinator, Ryan stepping up his game, Julio Jones taking a step forward in his sophomore campaign — but I'm looking for tangible differences in their play. What is it about the 7-0 Falcons that is different from the guys who showed up over the previous four years? And will it stick into the second half? And beyond?
Each week, the Fantasy Island contestants will submit a preview for each of that weekend's games. The best preview from each game will be selected and combined with the others into one comprehensive guide, and points are awarded based on how many individual previews from each writer are selected. Get it? OK. We sorta do, too.
Panthers at Bears
A thought experiment, on the occasion of Panthers GM Marty Hurney’s Monday-morning firing: If millions of devotees followed your fantasy football team with the passion of NFL fans, and this team started the season 1-5 primarily because you used (wasted?) a first-round selection on Cam Newton, would you be out of a job? Newton’s fantasy points are that of a backup QB (13th overall), and the former no. 1 pick is regressing while contemporaries — Andy Dalton, Christian Ponder, Andrew Luck, RG3, to name a few — improve. Perhaps he’s just suffering from an especially lethal sophomore slump, but this is very concerning. As such, I expect a pick-six or two from the ferocious Bears defense, the 11th highest-scoring entity in all of fantasy football.
On any given Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday), your NFL Run & Shootaround crew will be gathered around multiple televisions, making inappropriate jokes and generally regressing to the mean. Catch up on all the NFL action right here.
The Sure Thing
Sunday afternoon wasn’t Andrew Luck’s first game-winning drive. That was in Week 2, when Luck completed two 20-yard strikes before Indianapolis kicked a go-ahead field goal to sneak past a Minnesota team that hasn’t lost since. But what Luck put together against the Packers yesterday was a little more than two deep outs against coverage begging for them. Down five, with four and a half minutes left, Luck would face three third downs with at least seven yards to go, and he delivered on each.
The signature play came on the second of those third downs, just after the two-minute warning, as Indianapolis faced a third-and-12 from Green Bay’s 47. With Clay Matthews wrapped around him, Luck, falling back and to his left, delivered the ball over the middle to Reggie Wayne for what seemed like his 30th catch of the day. Luck hit Wayne again on the next play, another deep "in" that took the Colts down to the 14, and after a third-down scramble got Indy a first-and-goal inside the 10, it was Wayne who finished things off.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports over the weekend.
Matt Kenseth managed to avoid a 25-car pileup on his way to earning a Sprint Cup victory at Talladega Superspeedway. Kyle Busch, car No. 25 in the pileup, later admitted that he drove in mostly because he "wanted to see what it was like." The only non-car in the pileup, Rex Ryan, said he heard there were free pastries.