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Peyton Manning’s big day

If you’re not sick of hearing about Peyton Manning yet, just wait till after today’s Super Bowl. Win or lose, we’ll be hearing a ton about Peyton and how this game will affect his legacy. He’s intense to the point of being annoying to his teammates, because he’s so obsessed with the details. Russell Wilson potentially has that same attribute, if not the classic NFL quarterback pedigree. He’s younger and plays a much different style. The question now is whether he can win a Super Bowl with that style.

The era of the dropback passer is alive and well irrespective of the trend of the mobile quarterback. The guys winning Super Bowls come from the same mold. Bigger guys who can kill you by throwing from the pocket under pressure. If Peyton wins, that trend continues. If Russell Wislon wins, then perhaps we really are seeing an evolution of the NFL game.

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Early Super Bowl money being placed on Denver over Seattle

The early lines for the 2014 Super Bowl were all over the place last night. At first Seattle was favored on many sportsbooks and then the money came flooding in on Denver. Now we’re seeing the Broncos as 1.5 to 1 point favorites in most places.

In the video above, Howie Long makes a great point – that the officiating will play a big role in this game regarding how much Seattle defenders can get away with versus Denever receivers, and likewise whether Denver can run their pick plays with impunity. NFL officiating has become a disgrace, so expect plenty of controversy.

Also, we’re seeing two completely different quarterbacks. Peyton Manning is a classic drop back passer and one of the all-time greats. Russell Wilson is a mobile quarterback who makes big plays but also huge mistakes with his improvizing. Frankly, Wilson is a bit overrated – he’s riding the Seahawks bus to the Super Bowl, not driving it.

It should be a great game.

NFL Championship Game Free Picks

AFC Championship Game: Patriots vs. Broncos, 3:00PM ET
After the Broncos hung on to beat the Chargers last Sunday in the Divisional round, oddsmakers opened the line for the AFC title game at Denver -6.5, which immediately drew New England bettors. The line quickly dropped to Denver -4.5 but has since been bet back up to 5, indicating that books are receiving good two-way action on today’s game.

All of that aside, the Patriots have accomplished remarkable feats this year despite losing Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Brandon Spikes, Tommy Kelly, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker since the start of the offseason. It’s a testament to Bill Belichick’s ability to plan around his strengths and attack opponents’ weaknesses that the Pats are once again back in the AFC title game. That said, the Patriots might finally face their end, ironically at the hands of Peyton Manning, whom they have bested plenty over the past decade.

If Denver can stop LeGarrette Blount, which is no easy task, especially since they too are depleted defensively due to injuries, and force Brady to work outside the numbers, then the Broncos could flip the script on Belichick. It sounds insane for Denver to put the ball in Brady’s hands but New England, in its latest rebirth, is a team that plays power football and uses play-action to stretch defenses vertically. Take away Brady’s ability to use the middle of the field to get the ball to Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola and the Broncos may turn this thing into a track meet.

Again, Belichick has done amazing things with his defenses, including using rookie Jamie Collins as a moveable chess piece in last week’s win over the Colts. But tight end Julius Thomas didn’t play in the first meeting between these two teams, which gives Belichick one more weapon to worry about. While it’s tempting to take the points with a red-hot Patriots team (if not the smart thing based on the value that the point spread offers), I like the Broncos.
FREE PICK: Broncos -5.

NFC Championship Game: 49ers vs. Seahawks, 6:30PM ET
Perhaps no team remaining in the playoff field is playing better than the Niners, whom have put together impressive back-to-back wins against the Packers and Panthers. This would be a perfect time to wax poetically about how difficult it is to win three-straight road games in the postseason but if any team is build to win on the road, it’s San Fran. First and foremost they play outstanding defense, their physical, they can pound the ball on the ground, and Colin Kaepernick’s ability to test the edge gives pause to even the most aggressive defensive coordinators.

But obviously San Francisco will meet its perfect match tonight in Seattle, which too plays outstanding defense, can run the ball and is just as physical is its counterpart – if not more physical. Pete Carroll’s hybrid front often gives opponents fits and nobody plays the Cover 3 better than the Hawks, who are tough to beat outside the numbers. Russell Wilson is also a versatile threat who forces defenses to adjust to his mobility.

So who offers the most value? Honestly, it’s the Niners, who are 3.5-point underdogs. One would expect this game to come down to a field goal based on how evenly matched these two teams are, although I don’t view the game that way.

I admit that this is more of a hunch than anything, but I believe Kaepernick will struggle today. Carolina gave him trouble for most of the first half last week in Carolina and Seattle will be even tougher on him today. The Panthers problem is that they couldn’t reach pay dirt twice in the first half when they had the ball at the goal line. And one thing that has separated Seattle and San Francisco in the previous three meetings is execution inside the red zone. The Hawks have made 11 trips inside the red zone versus San Francisco in the past three meetings, averaging 5.9 points in those three games. The Niners, meanwhile, averaged 2.6 points in 10 trips. Even though Wilson has struggled for nearly a month, I’ll take him in the red zone tonight over Kaepernick, who has had his fair share of issues in Seattle. While the Niners settle for field goals (much like they did a week ago in the first half against the Panthers), I expect the Hawks to eventually pull away with touchdowns.
FREE PICK: Seahawks -3.5.

Joe Montana explains the quarterback position

Here’s a quote from Joe Montana:

“The game is changing. Nobody wants to throw with pressure anymore. But the guys who can win in this league are the ones who can make throws from the pocket.”

You can read the article for more context, as Montana is discussing how he likes the game of Colin Kaepernick but sees room for improvement. Kapernick is part of the new wave of mobile quarterbacks, but give him and head coach Jim Harbaugh credit as they have tried to limit how often Kaepernick takes off and runs. He’s starting to look more like a young John Elway as opposed to a “running quarterback” like year one RG3.

But as Montana points out, the most important part of a quarterback’s game involves throwing in the pocket, and particularly the ability to make the right throw accurately under pressure. This is where many young quarterbacks struggle, but it can be even more difficult to develop this skill for mobile quarterbacks who take off running when the pressure gets too hot, as opposed to shifting in the pocket and making the big throw. Relying on scrambling will cause a quarterback to leave some big throws on the field, limiting some big plays.

We’ll see if Kaepernick or Russell Wilson can actually win a Super Bowl. One of them will be matched up against a classic pocket passer in either Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. And yes, the game is changing and we’re seeing more mobile quarterbacks. But Montana is pointing out a critical element for ultimate success in the NFL, and this gives us some perspective as we enjoy the rest of the NFL playoff season.

Jim Harbaugh whines about read-option ruling

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, as Jim Harbaugh wants to keep any advantage he has with Colin Kaepernick playing quarterback. But, Harbaugh is also a baby who loves to whine when he doesn’t get his way. He’s a great coach, but he cries with the best of them.

His latest antics involve the NFL’s interpretation of what is a legal hit on a quarterback in the read-option offense. Basically, as long as a quarterback is faking the run, he can be treated like a runner by the defense, and he doesn’t get the modern, over-the-top protections that the league has put in place for passers. Basically, the rules of traditional football apply. Naturally, Harbaugh responded by saying the ruling was “flawed and a bit biased.”

This sets up what was already the most interesting storyline of 2013 in the NFL – will the read-option continue to proliferate or will it be a fad?

I’ve always been in the fad camp, because coaches are taking huge risks when they run their quarterback and let them take hits usually reserved for running backs. You want your quarterback to have a long career (if he’s a good one), but running backs have very short careers for a reason. Having your quarterback act like a running back is a huge mistake in the long run.

That’s why I was saying all last year that Mike Shanahan was committing coaching malpractice by letting a stud like RG3 run so much. He was hailed as a genius as Griffin and the Redskins offense racked up huge stats against defenses who were not prepared to handle the read option and Griffin’s amazing athleticism, but then he was rightfully ripped to shreds when he kept playing and running RG3 after he was clearly hurt and limited. He never should have let him run like that to begin with. Now, with the clarification of the rule, it’s an even bigger risk.

We know why he did it. In the short run it’s almost impossible to resist turning Griffin or Kaepernick loose. Look what happened to the pathetic Packers defense in the playoffs against Kaepernick and the 49ers. But in the long run you risk a quarterback’s career by playing with fire too many times.

Now, it’s important to differentiate between the read-option and planned quarterback runs with scrambling. Having a mobile quarterback like Griffin and Kaepernick is a huge advantage, and having them take off when the opportunity presents itself is an important weapon. Look how many games quarterbacks like John Elway, Steve Young and Donovan McNabb won with scrambles that broke the back of the defense. Mobility is a real weapon, but you don’t have to go to that well too often with planned runs that put your quarterback in danger.

That’s particularly true with Robert Griffin III, who is one of the best quarterback prospects in a generation. He can be the next John Elway with his golden arm and accuracy, but you put all of that at risk when you run him too much, particularly with with his history of knee injuries.

It’s less true with a guy like Russell Wilson. I know Seattle fans and many in the media want to anoint this kid as a “great” quarterback, but he really didn’t start playing well until the Seahawks started running the read-option to mix up the offense. Russell Wilson was a third-round pick for a reason. He doesn’t have the size or arm of RG3. If he just played from the pocket, I don’t think he’d be nearly as effective, and he might be the quarterback who suffers the most from defenses adjusting to the read-option and this rule clarification that makes it clear that defenses can light him up if he’s faking the run.

Now, throw in Chip kelly and whatever the hell he has planned with Micheal Vick and the Eagles and you have even more intrigue around the read-option for this season. And with Vivk at this stage in his career, I’d probably run him even with his injury history, as he’s shown that he really can’t cut it playing strictly as a pocket quarterback. And that’s where the read-option in the NFL makes most sense. If you don’t have a real franchise quarterback that you want to keep around for years, then read-option quarterbacks can be treated more like disposable commodities like running backs. Grab a group like Vick, Tim Tebow, Vince Young and Terrelle Pryor and just rotate the next one in when one goes down.

But don’t do that with a franchise quarterback like RG3. Let’s see what the Shanahans do with RG3 this year, and let’s see if he has some growing pains taking the read-option out of his arsenal. In the long run it will make him better, and he’ll have a better chance of being around ten years from now.

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