Ray Ratto

49ers beat Patriots at their own game

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49ers beat Patriots at their own game

So here, ultimately, what we learned about the 49ers after this week’s BIGGIDY-BIGGEST GAME OF THE YEAR, and right before this coming week's BIGGIDY-BIGGEST GAME OF THE YEAR:

1.      They can, as they did a year ago against New Orleans, beat the best at the other guys’ game, even when they can’t do it with their own.
2.      Colin Kaepernick is exactly what you thought he was – a player who can do spectacular things, for both teams.
3.      Say what you want about any other player on this well-constructed roster – Justin Smith is unquestionably first among equals, and the team’s most important player.

In beating New England, 41-34, the 49ers are again the nation’s darlings. Overcoming a mountain of statistical trends and the ethereal T. E. P. Brady, they are now the “team to beat” in the January sweepstakes.

[REWIND: 49ers out-slug Patriots 41-34]

Indeed, despite the hoop-de-blah to come about Seattle this weekend, the 49ers are essentially a lock to win the NFC West because they close the season out with Arizona. The only reason they actually need to win Sunday is to keep Green Bay (playing Tennessee and at Minnesota) in third, and hope that somehow Atlanta loses at Detroit and against Tampa Bay.

But we’ve known they were playing for January for awhile now, and Sunday night’s game was a fascinating study in a number of thiungs we should have already known. 

For instance, how Kaepernick can take errors of his own making and survive them (I mean, the 49ers fumbled six times and lost one), and in doing so make himself a folk hero.

This is now a rekindling of the Alex Smith debate. That ship has long sailed, and Smith is now a very distant memory, in that Steve DeBerg way.

But we knew Kaepernick would do wondrous things and make skull-smacking errors because that’s what rookies with physical gifts do. Normally a game with eight fumbles has a more even distribution pattern than seven for you and one for the other guy, and is therefore rejected as a game plan plus.

On a larger scale, though, the 49ers came to Foxborough unlikely to win a shootout, and did. New England got its 34 points, but the 49ers got more than twice as many as you’d have figured them to get, especially without a single legitimate rushing touchdown. Kaepernick threw two to Michael Crtabtree, the undisputed go-to receiver, one each to Randy Moss and Delanie Walker, and amazingly still can’t find Vernon Davis with a pack of bloodhounds.

And the fifth? An inadvertent fumblerooskie by Frank Gore. Hey, it’s better to be lucky than good, and best yet to be both.

But this was a rout in the making until Justin Smith went out with an elbow injury, and suddenly the 49er defense was at sixes and sevens trying to harass Brady or the Patriot offense as a whole. It is clearer now than ever that his work on the defensive line makes all other things possible, and if he misses any appreciable time with the injury (and he is likely to punch the doctor in the face if told he will), the 49ers stop being the team to beat.

That’s how important he is. On a unit that has essentially no outs in the lineup, he is the one that changes the way the other 10 are allowed to play. Even the secondary, which gave up 443 yards but forced Brady to beat them with Brandon Lloyd rather than Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker, was far more effective while Smith was disrupting with Logan Mankins than not.

In sum, we had some evidence that the 49ers could run and with the Patriots, though we doubted they could do it in Massachusetts in December in crap weather. We were largely wrong there. We knew that Colin Kaepernick could do many good and bad things, and remains the damp dynamite of the 49er roster; we were spot-on there.

And we all knew about Justin Smith, though the difference between 10 points with him in the game and 24 when he wasn’t merely illustrates it more starkly. His health is in many ways San Francisco’s.

In all, this was a worthwhile expenditure of their time. They mostly re-established self-evident truths, but since those truths are flattering, self-evident is mostly a good thing. Now they just have to dance in one more graveyard – Seattle – before they arrive home safe and dry when the real season starts in three weeks.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for CSNBayArea.com

The four Super Bowl storylines everybody will be talking about

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USATSI

The four Super Bowl storylines everybody will be talking about

The Monday after the conference championships is devoted to replaying the games we already saw, but Tuesday is devoted to the assembling of the narratives that we will weary of no later than Friday.

And while football purists and gamblers, two demographics on the opposite ends of the Moebius strip of degeneracy, will cheerily break the game down to its molecular level, the rest of us will resort to a few tired carthorses to get us to the start of our individual Super Bowl parties.

Starting with THE INEVITABILITY OF THE PATRIOTS

This will be an argument with no resolution, as those who see history as preordination will see New England as invulnerable, pointing to their record, Philadelphia’s record, and the comfort of the mortal lock. But if it helps you maintain suspense, the Patriots have never won, or even played in, a Super Bowl with a margin as high as a touchdown – the margins have been 3, 3, 3, 4, 4 and 6 in overtime. In short, Bill Belichick’s brain, while always impressive, has never been an overwhelming presence against John Fox, Andy Reid, Tom Coughlin, Pete Carroll or Dan Quinn.

In other words, luck matters, and luck is good.

Next is THE LEGACY

This is ridiculous because the Patriots are in painting-the-gold-bar-gold territory. People long ago made up their minds on Belichick, Tom Brady, Bob Kraft and the rest of the shifting cast of characters – they are either brilliant exemplars, or nefarious cheaters, or both. That’s the great thing about the Patriots – they can be heroes, villains and metaphors for 21st Century America, depending on what you decide. But their place as football figures has long ago been decided, this game will change none of that, and the only thing left is what to carve on the statues.

Third is AMERICA HATES THE PATRIOTS AND WANTS THE EAGLES TO WIN

There are lots of Americas out there, as we are learning every day, and more people probably are rooting for the Eagles just to see something different. That’s not the way to bet, I grant you, but the best way to handle these next two weeks if you do not wear either New England or Philadelphia jerseys is to say nothing. These are two fan bases with reputations, if you know what we mean, and even if you come across gentle souls with a rooting interest, play the percentages. Even the nice ones can turn at any moment.

And finally, JIMMY GAROPPOLO. This discussion only matters of Bob Kraft cops to telling Belichick he ordered him to be moved. Which he won't, damn his eyes. And if Brady looks good next Sunday, they'll take credit for a brilliant move that saved the franchise because history always works best in the rear-view mirror.

NBA All-Star Game more and more reveals personalities rather than skills

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AP

NBA All-Star Game more and more reveals personalities rather than skills

The voting for the NBA All-Star starters was properly instructive to both Adam Silver and the public at large about exactly what the game is meant to be – which is why I totally get their decision not to televise the All-Star draft.

It’s really a personality test for everyone involved, for good and ill.

I think having a draft nobody can see is idiotic, stealing an idea the NHL used and then discarded years ago and then not employing the reason why they did it to begin with, but if the All-Star Game is really an expression of ego, then the next best thing to having no draft is having one nobody can see.

The All-Star Game really only functions as a coronation of the elite by the elite, a festival of mutual backslapping friend-rewarding that has nothing to do with the playing of the game, or the moving of the T-shirts or jerseys or expensive hotel rooms. This is about stratifying the player pool so that everyone knows who’s who and what’s what.

Everything else is irrelevant, and the draft reinforces that. Kevin Durant not wanting to be a captain is strategic thinking by a future industrialist. Stephen Curry not minding being a captain is the perfect who-cares statement for someone who doesn’t mind playing the game because objecting to it takes too much work. LeBron James being a captain is the perfect political muscle-flexing that fits his personality.

Damian Lillard already assuming that he won’t be named to the team is a statement about his being considered the perpetual one-level-down guard. Russell Westbrook being named and then controlling the ball as he would in a regular season game is a statement about how he views his place as a disruptor. And on and on and on – the All-Star Game more and more reveals personalities rather than skills.

Does televising the draft help us understand the actual meaning of the event? Maybe, but the NBA would prefer you consider it a festival of the game itself, which it plainly isn’t. Proof, you say? 192-182 in 2017. 196-173 in 2016. 163-158 in 2015. 163-155 in 2014. There hasn’t been a normal-looking score in 15 years, which means it’s not a game at all.

That isn’t the news, though. It’s that the NBA has made this is a three-day event – the day the captains and starters are named, the day the reserves are picked, and the day that teams are chosen. And every bit of it is about the reaction to that. There is no show thereafter, and the players know it. They care about the selections, because that’s how they’re keeping score.

So go team. Whatever the hell that means.