Reviled no more

The end of Tebow! The resurrection of Alex Smith! And more amazing-yet-true tales from the NFL division playoffs

Topics: Football,

Reviled no more Character gaining

Like campaigning as a right-wing loon in Iowa or taking hallucinatory drugs in preparation for the Bar exam, playoff football is all about peaking at the right time. And after this weekend’s division-round games, all four of the remaining teams in the NFL playoffs can legitimately feel that they have the best shot at winning Super Bowl 46. (Not “XLVI”: I refuse to honor the NFL’s grandiose insistence on using Roman numerals to denote its championship game for the same reason that I refuse to call a small Starbucks coffee a “tall.”)

My team, the San Francisco 49ers, are channeling the ghosts of Joe Montana and Dwight Clark after coming back not once but twice in the last four minutes to beat the unstoppable New Orleans Saints in one of the most thrilling playoff games ever played. (Gloating and hubristic reminder: in my previous piece I called the 49ers to win 30-28. The final score: 49ers 36, Saints 32.)

The New England Patriots have the confident glow of an omnipotent serial killer with a medical degree after they surgically carved up the corpse of the 1958 Nebraska Cornhuskers, aka the Denver Broncos. The contrast between Tom Brady’s laser-like passes and Tim Tebow’s wishful heaves was excruciating, but there could be an upside to Tebow’s abysmal showing: It might switch Tebowmania from Christian triumphalism to Christian humility. (Slightly less gloating but still disturbingly hubristic reminder: I called it 31-17 for New England. The final score: Patriots 45, Broncos10.)

The Baltimore Ravens are feeling like the guy who went to Vegas with a $10 stake and came back with a million bucks after Houston Texans’ punt returner Jacoby Jones suffered the biggest brain-freeze since Jim Marshall’s wrong-way run in 1964, snatching clumsily at an erratically bouncing ball as two large, malevolent, and heavily muscled men approached him at full speed. Jones’ brain fart heard ‘round the world was the difference in the Nevermores’ triumph over the most balanced and dangerous team in the AFC. (Most gloating and hubristic reminder yet: I called it 24-14 Baltimore. The final score: Ravens 20, Texans 13.)



And the New York Giants can light up the most expensive Cohiba in the playoff humidor. Continuing their month-long hot streak, the boys in blue rolled up the defending champion Green Bay Packers as if they were an old, moth-eaten rug and placed them thoughtfully in cold storage for the winter. The Giants were helped by the fact that the Green Bay receivers appeared to mistake the football for an incoming hand grenade, but they would have whupped on the flat, stale and unprofitable Pack anyway. Besides, any team that cannot knock down a Hail Mary pass does not deserve to repeat as champions. (Spoiler alert: Do not read the next sentence unless you want this column’s shocking and dramatic ending, namely that I have no idea what I’m talking about, prematurely revealed. I called Packers 28-21. Final score: 37-20, Giants. Hey, that’s why they call it hubris!)

The NFC championship game looks more compelling than the AFC game. The Ravens-Patriots game is another one of those irresistible force vs. immovable object matchups that the NBA, I mean the NFL, is filled with this year, now that thanks to insanely great quarterback play, superb receivers and the best crop of tight ends in league history, playing D is no longer necessary to win. The Patriots’ defense is so bad that the Ravens have a chance, but Baltimore’s offense looked so constipated against Houston – although to be fair, Houston’s tough defense had a lot to do with that – and Brady and gang looked so sharp, that it is hard to imagine Baltimore going into Foxboro and coming away with a win.

No team in the league can match up with the Patriots’ tight ends, Gronkowski and Hernandez, and there’s no reason to think the Ravens can. To win, the Ravens are going to have to put a lot more pressure on Brady than they did on Houston rookie QB T.J. Yates — who would actually have played quite well if someone had told him that there is a position in football called “free safety.” Ferocious Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs, who was mostly invisible during the game, will have to materialize against the Patriots. The Ravens’ less-than-dynamic offense should be able to put up points against the feeble New England defense, but not enough.

Prediction: 24-17, Patriots.

The NFC championship game should be a classic. The Giants are on top of their game right now. They had a great defensive scheme against Green Bay; even though they didn’t generate much pressure from their defensive line, their coverage downfield was so good that Aaron Rodgers couldn’t get into one of his insane rhythms. In that way, the Giants resemble the 49ers, who make opposing teams earn every yard, although the 49ers have a better run defense and a slightly better defense overall.

On offense, the edge goes to the Giants, with Eli Manning playing like his big brother and the scary wide receiver trio of Manningham, Hicks and Cruz. By contrast, the 49ers are thin at wideouts. But as the Saints found out, blazingly-fast tight end Vernon Davis poses a severe matchup problem, and running back Frank Gore, even though he seems to be playing hurt, is a bigger threat than Ahmad Bradshaw or Brandon Jacobs. And although it may seem like a ridiculous thing to say after they gave up 462 yards to Drew Brees, the 49ers secondary is playing lights out.

Prediction: 24-20, 49ers.

Part of the reason I like the 49ers is their defense and their kicking game, and of course home-field advantage. But the real reason is Alex Smith.

I know, that’s weird, verging on commitable. Taking Smith over Manning? No one could seriously argue that Smith has achieved even a fraction of what Manning has. But Smith is an X-factor. He is poised to confound his doubters and shock the world. Like he just did.

Saturday’s game, which I attended, etched itself into 49ers lore for a whole bunch of reasons. There was the performance of the defense, holding the potent Saints at bay for those agonizingly long stretches when the 49ers offense struggled. There was Vernon Davis, weeping without shame in the arms of coach Jim Harbaugh after catching the winning pass, a strong man reduced by relief and gratitude and utter emotional exhaustion to his naked human essence, his dissolving face one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen in sports. But what made this game the stuff of legends was the performance of Alex Smith.

Smith has been reviled ever since he put on a 49er uniform. Virtually no one in the Bay Area, including the fans and the so-called “experts,” ever believed in him. The fans have come around some now, but the bandwagon is still not exactly crowded. I saw thousands of Montana and Willis and Young and Lott jerseys in the stadium Saturday. If there were any Alex Smith jerseys, I missed them. As for the rest of the country, fuggedaboutit. New York Post football writer Mark Cannizzaro’s appraisal of Smith (issued just before Smith and the 49ers beat the Giants this year) is typical: “Alex Smith cannot beat you…Here’s the reality about Smith: He is who he has always been since he came into the league as the 49ers’ first-round draft pick in 2005 — a mediocre quarterback.” My own friends derided me for standing up for the guy.

Finally given a real coach and a consistent system, Smith had a remarkable renaissance this year. And then, on Saturday, at the biggest moment in his career, with everything on the line, he came through – and he did it not once but twice. To hang in there for six years, working hard every day, tuning out the doubters, with no one except the guys in the locker room believing you can succeed, takes more than talent. It takes character.

When Smith threw that last perfect pass and Davis caught it just before Roman Harper leveled him just over the goal line, and he held on to the football and got to his feet, Candlestick Park went crazy. Amid all the shouting and screaming, I looked over to a young woman sitting to my left. She was weeping, her head bent, tears running down her face. At that moment I realized that she, like many of the fans in the stadium, like my 23-year-old son who called me up in breathless, disbelieving joy after the game, had not even been alive when Joe Montana and Dwight Clark launched the 49er dynasty 30 years ago.

For her, the memories I had of The Catch, of Young and Lott and Craig and all the rest of the great players and teams of the past, of five Super Bowls and years of happiness, were only legends, replays on TV. Alex Smith and Vernon Davis had given her a priceless gift: her own memories. I think that’s why she was crying. And whether the 49ers win next week or not, they can’t take that away from her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>