Contrary to my image as a seeker of truth and a believer in rational thought, I’m an incredibly superstitious person. I have a long-running feud with black cats and will not cross one’s path if I can avoid it. I’m a sports addict who earnestly believes that wearing the colors of your favorite team or sports hero has a positive outcome on the contest, because it has been proven to me time and time again.
Case in point: Are you ready for some football? For the past two years I’ve been wearing a pair of teal, bright green and hi-viz yellow Adidas trail running shoes. I bought them on sale and didn’t realize until about a year in that they were Seattle Seahawks’ colors. That’s problematic, since I’m a die-hard fan of the Super Bowl-bound San Francisco 49ers, the Seahawks’ biggest rival in the NFC West.
After the Seahawks narrowly defeated the Niners at 27-24 in early November, I felt traitorous every time I wore the shoes. I stopped wearing them and ordered a pair of Puma California Casual sneakers in 49ers’ colors – red, white and gold – for Christmas. I was rewarded a few days later when the 49ers defeated the Seahawks at home 26-21 in the final game of the regular season.
My new red, white and gold sneakers have turned out to be quite lucky. As NFC West champs, the 13-3 Niners entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed. The 49ers’ suffocating defense steamrolled the Minnesota Vikings 27-10 in the Divisional Playoffs, while Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers managed to survive mercurial quarterback Russel Wilson and the dreaded Seattle Seahawks 28-23.
That set up past Sunday’s ideal confrontation between the 49ers and the Packers in the NFC Championship. Ideal because the 49ers crushed Green Bay at Lambeau Field 37-8 back in November, in the process making Rodgers, 36 and in his 15th season, look as if he’s lost a half-step. Better the aging Chico native and former Pleasant Valley High School standout than the elusive scrambler Wilson, who has given the Niners fits over the past decade.
I’ve been watching the NFL since I was a toddler and hit my head on the coffee table while cheering on Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts. Since that knock on the noggin I’ve developed a certain intuition in predicting the outcomes of games. Unfortunately, if I attempt to use this insight for personal gain by, say, betting on the NFL, it doesn’t work. The same taboo may apply to making predictions in writing. The few times I’ve tried it, it hasn’t turned out well.
If I had written a prediction for the NFC Championship game, I would have gotten the outcome right—a dominating 49er win—but the means to victory wrong. Back in November, 49er franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had one of his best games of the season against the Packers, passing for 227 yards and two TDs, including six receptions by all-pro tight end George Kittle for 129 yards. Firing on all cylinders, the Niners defense throttled Rodgers while Jimmy G and company ran the score up 23-0 by halftime.
Such a halftime lead wouldn’t be safe from an Aaron Rodgers in his prime, but this year’s model doesn’t have that same old comeback magic. That’s the half-step he’s missing. The Niners sacked Rodgers five times and hurried his throw 38 times, limiting him to a season low 104 yards passing, on their way to a 37-8 romp.
The Niners romped again on Sunday, but in completely different fashion on the offensive side of the ball, as unheralded running back Raheem Mostert picked the perfect day to have the game of his life, rushing for 220 yards and four TDs. Mostert signaled his intention to dominate the game with a 36-yard TD run early in the first quarter, and behind key blocking provided by tight end Kittle and wide receiver Deebo Samuel, he made Green Bay’s line and secondary look like they were standing still, repeatedly ripping off 15-yard runs.
There wasn’t much for Jimmy G to do but give the ball to the man with the hot hand. Garoppolo threw an astonishingly low eight passes, completing six, in the Niners’ 37-20 victory. It was somewhat disappointing not to see Jimmy G get to do his thing with all the offensive tools at his disposal, because when he’s on it, he throws hypersonic darts.
Stats-wise, Aaron Rodgers had a so-so game (for him), completing 31 of 37 passes for 326 yards, two TDs and two interceptions. Sunday, he faced an even larger halftime deficit, 27-0. The Packers managed to claw back 20 points in the second half, but never really threatened in the game. There was never any sense Rodgers would lead the Pack to yet another miraculous 4th quarter comeback.
Not with 49ers defensive ends Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead swarming in his face most of the game—and Mostert’s record-setting rushing performance. Rodgers did what he could, but in the end, lost what might turn out to be his last best chance to play in the Super Bowl again.
If he’d won, there’s no doubt I’d be supporting the Northern California homeboy and the Pack over quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. Mahomes put his stamp on the Chiefs 35-24 win over the Tennessee Titans in Sunday’s AFC Championship game with a slippery 27-yard TD run off of a broken play to put the Chiefs ahead just as the first half ended. They never looked back, with Mahomes completing 23 of 35 passes for 294 yards and three TDs.
Like Seattle quarterback Russel Wilson, Mahomes is one of those guys you love to watch play, unless he’s playing against your team. Like Russel, Mahomes is a true scrambler, capable of extending the play with his legs and his canon-like arm, which can fire from any direction. Defenders get irritated chasing Mahomes around, not to mention exhausted, then he makes fools out of them with sidearm passes, elusiveness and speed.
For the 49ers, playing Mahomes and the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV Feb. 2 is roughly analogous to playing Russel and the Seahawks, and that’s not a good thing when it comes to my predictive capabilities. If the 49ers fail to keep the Kansas City gunslinger corralled, the game could turn into a high-scoring shootout in which the Chiefs prevail.
Therefore, I’m rescinding my prediction in the headline that the 49ers will win Super Bowl LIV. Call the headline clickbait if you want, or say I’m hedging my bets, but this game is too close to call. I’ll admit superstition played a role in this decision. I don’t want to jinx the 49ers by predicting their victory in print.
But I can say what the 49ers must do to win.
On defense, the 49ers, a youngish crew of giants lead on the field by former Seahawk cornerback Richard Sherman—long a thorn in the 49ers’ side until the wily veteran joined the team three seasons ago—have a singular mission: Shut down Mahomes. Do that, presuming it’s possible, and they win the game.
On offense, the 49ers can’t depend on Mostert to have back-to-back personal best games. Running backs Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida, who’ve been running with Mostert as a three-back tandem all season, must share the load and rush for 150 yards combined.
Garoppolo must have a franchise quarterback performance and involve his talented receiving corps, including Kittle, Samuel and wide receiver Emanuel Sanders, early in the game. If Jimmy G can open up the middle with the passing game, it’s going to be a long day for KC.
As for me, I’ll be wearing my lucking red, white and gold Puma sneakers on game day, although I’m beginning to wonder just how lucky they’ll be for this occasion.
Turns out the Kansas City Chiefs have pretty much the same colors.