49ers' playoff plan starts now

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49ers' playoff plan starts now

The number of folks who have been wrong about the 49ers are legion -- probably including the 49ers themselves.

And while they have been basking the glory of being 7-1 when most folks saw far less, the interesting part starts now. The playoff plans start now. The expectations start now.

The world is now different, and the comparison point is no longer Mike Singletary, but Bill Walsh.

We know how they got here, because the story is told breathlessly every single day. A decent defense is now elite. A poor offense is now careful and efficient. Frank Gore has been revivified -- revivified himself. Other than grabbing their throats against Dallas, they have beaten bad teams, underachieving teams, confounding teams and intriguing teams on bad days.

RELATED: Midseason review: Offense

The how they got here doesnt matter, though. Theyre 7-1, and nobody else is. Its how they intend to keep doing as theyve done so as to maximize their tickets in January.

The Harbaugh Family Singers have made a hit record out of that old Anglican hymn Whos Got It Better Than us? And while the refrain has routinely been No-body, the answer is actually key to their long-term health.

Long-term, of course, being the playoffs.

RELATED: Midseason review: Defense

By now, being up five with eight to go means their magic number is four. But being five up on Seattle and Arizona, and six up on St. Louis, is as close to unconditional center as one can get this early in the process. None of the other even have wild card aspirations, so they have nothing to play for save their own safety.

Thus, their world has gotten considerably smaller, and as a result these are their new obstacles:

RELATED: Midseason review: Special teams

GREEN BAY
The toughest of all, because the one thing the Packers cannot do, the 49ers have shown no signs of exploiting. Green Bay is an easy mark for a top-level quarterback with lots of weapons, but the 49ers have not shown any signs of having either. And the Packers force teams into a shootout, which the 49ers are loath to engage. They also rank among the top teams in the league against the run, which would seem to force the 49ers to throw even more. The key to a deep run in January, then, demands that they avoid the Packers in the second round.

NEW ORLEANS
The Saints are a lot like the Packers, only with a more accomplished running game, and a less accomplished run defense. In short, Gore will get his, but hell have to get his and then some to keep up with what Drew Brees and his offense are used to getting. The 49ers will be better positioned if they can get the Saints at home, but that would be the case with every team but Green Bay anyway.

NEW YORK GIANTS
Everything you need to know about the wildly dysfunctional NFL East is explained by the Giants being two games better than anyone else in it. The Giants have no discernible running game, and Eli Mannings renaissance explains why they are not treading mud with the Eagles and Redskins. They are also generous against the run, putting them particularly vulnerable against a team that likes to run and thrives against one-dimensional offenses.

CHICAGO
Matt Forte is most of the offense, and the defense is better against the run than the pass. At home, they are difficult. On the road, they are ordinary. They will be a wild card team, so their stay isnt likely to be long or fruitful.

ATLANTA
The Falcons are excellent against the run, mediocre against the pass, and middle of the pack in all offensive phases. In short, Matt Ryan has to steal a game, and while he is capable enough of doing so that Atlanta could end up winning the South and hosting an opening round game, theyll have to play the second week out in the open. They are 9-4 over the past two years outside Georgia, but theyre not nearly so imposing outside.

Every other team is 4-4 or worse, and while theres lots of time left to change the wild card and NFL South teams, the 49ers world view looks suspiciously narrow -- Wisconsin and Louisiana.

So Whos Got It Better Than Them? Were going to find out soon enough. The fact that theyre going to have wait for their fate is news enough.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.

A sports-related pie-fixing scandal? Hell never felt so fun

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AP

A sports-related pie-fixing scandal? Hell never felt so fun

I’m liking this 2017 so far. Then again, after 2016, nearly any year would be an improvement.

Just this last weekend we got a flat-earth scandal that turned into a mock-up about media self-importance and fake news (yay Kyrie Irving and his impish sense of satire!).

We got the overblown Russell-Hates-Kevin narrative, and the faux Russell-Secretly-Loves-Kevin counternarrative, all because we are stunningly attracted to meaningless and utterly contrived drama (yay our ability to B.S. ourselves!).

We got the NBA All-Star Game ripped for having no defense even though last year’s game was, if anything, worse (yay short attention span!).

We got the Boogie Cousins trade and the national revulsion of all the thought processes the Sacramento Kings put into this perpetually rolling disaster (yay making Boogie and Vivek Ranadive household names!).

And now we got the Great Sutton United Pie-Fixing Scandal. Yeah, pie-fixing. Hell never felt so fun.

So here’s the deal. Sutton United, a very small fry in English soccer, got to the fifth round of the FA Cup, a competition in which all the clubs in England are commingled and play each other until one team remains. The big clubs almost always win, so any time a small club goes deep, it’s a big deal.

Anyway, Sutton went deeper in the competition than nearly anyone in the last century, a charming development given that it is such a small club that it had a stadium caretaker, goalie coach and backup goalie all in one massive fellow, a 46-year-old guy named Wayne Shaw. Shaw became the globular embodiment of the entire Sutton Experience, a jolly lark for everyone involved and especially when he ate a pie on the bench in the final minutes of Sutton’s Cup-exiting loss to Arsenal.

And now he’s been eased into resigning his jobs with the club, because – and this is so very British – there were betting shops taking action on whether he would in fact eat a pie on the bench, and he either did or did not tip off his pals that he was going to chow down on television.

He did eat the pie. His pals collected on their bets. The sport’s governing body opened an investigation into market manipulation by gambling – which is hilarious given that no fewer than 10 gambling establishments have advertising deals with English soccer clubs. Shaw was invited to quit to kill the story, and he took the hint.

Hey, dreams die all the time. But it’s still pie-fixing. Let that rattle around your head for a minute. Pie-fixing. Not match-fixing. Not point-shaving. Pie-fixing.

Now how can you not love this year?

Sure, it sucks for Shaw, but it serves as a series of cautionary tales for athletes around the world.

* Gambling is everywhere, and every time you inch toward it, you dance on the third rail.

* If you want to help your friends, give them cash.

* This is a horribly delicious way to lose your gig.

* And finally, fun in the 21st century isn’t ever truly fun because someone in a suit and a snugly-placed stick is going to make sure you pay full retail for that fun.

But it is nice to know that something that has never happened before is now part of our year. Pie-fixing is a thing now, as silly in its way as Irving’s flat-earth narrative was. And as we steer away from normal games as being too run-of-the-mill-fuddy-duddy entertainment, we have replaced them with sideshows.

Or do you forget how many people complained Saturday and Sunday that the dunk contest wasn’t interesting enough? How stupid is that?

Lots. Lots of stupid. But against pie-tin-shaped planets and pies turned into betting coups, how can it possibly compare?

We chase a lot of idiotic narratives in our sporting lives. The great What Will The Patriots Do To Roger Goodell story died like the old dog it was. We still try to flog Warriors-Thunder as a rivalry in search of better TV ratings when all the obvious evidence is that it is no such thing unless you think a couple that broke up nine months ago is still a solid story. We have Bachelor fantasy leagues, for God’s sake.

This would leave most normal folks in despair, thus matching their everyday experiences, but yin meets yang, and every time it looks like we are all barrel-rolling into the sun, we get Irving, and then we get Wayne Shaw.

In short, 2017 is going to be fun of grand surprises for us all. I look forward to the day President Trump tries to fete the Patriots and only gets to Skype with Bob Kraft and the equipment guys who midwifed DeflateGate, and Mark Davis in Las Vegas, just to see if he can get a P.F. Chang’s into the Bellagio.

Why not? This is sport’s year-long tribute to sketch comedy, and evidently everyone is signing on enthusiastically to replace lessons of morality and honor and equality and dignity and sportsmanship with slackened jaws and belly laughs.

So yay sports! Or as it is clearly becoming, A Night At The Improv.
 

Patriots win one for the ages, but where does it rank?

Patriots win one for the ages, but where does it rank?

The price of watching Roger Goodell being booed back to the Bronze Age is a subtle but real one, and one that people will feel very dearly soon enough.

The last great cathartic Super Bowl is now done, with the New England Patriots winning the brilliant and decisive battle to be sports’ new evil empire. In doing so, it rendered Goodell a permanent and risible punch line in National Football League history, the mall cop who wanted the death penalty for littering, and in the words of the song “got what he wanted but he lost what he had.”

True, $40 million a year can make the dissolution of your public persona a reasonably decent tradeoff, but we lost the argument about who won his windmill tilt with the Patriots. It’s done, and he is now permanently and irrevocably a figure of ridicule.

But that’s not the only debating point America lost Sunday night, and while you wouldn’t think it given how much time we are willing to shouting at each other, quality arguments are not easily replaced.

We have almost surely lost the mindless debate about the best quarterback ever, because there is nothing anyone can bring up that the words “Tom Brady” cannot rebut except calling his own plays, and since that is no longer allowed in football, it is a silly asterisk to apply.

We have almost surely lost the equally silly shouter about the best coach ever. Bill Belichick is defiantly not fun, but he has built, improved and bronzed an organizational model that is slowly swallowing the rest of the sport. That and five trophies makes him the equal if not better of the short list of Paul Brown, George Halas, Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh and Tom Landry.

Plus, Belichick locked up the most absurd response to a question in coaching history Monday when he said, “As great as today feels . . . we're five weeks behind the other teams for the 2017 season.” Even allowing for Gregg Popovich in-game interviews, the so-grim-he-could-make-a-robot-cry worship-the-process response has now become a cliché. If 2017 prep was so important, he should have skipped yesterday’s game, and he definitely should have chosen not to waste so much time on the trophy stand after the game when training camp drills needed to be scheduled.

Oh, and DeflateGate died. Dead. No zombie possibilities here.

We do have a meatheaded argument ahead of us about which championship in the last year is the best, which can be settled here.

1. Leicester City, because 5,000-1 is 5,000-1, and the whole world understands that. Plus, there was invaluable three-month buildup that engaged non-soccer fans.

2. Chicago Cubs, because 108 years is 108 years.

3. New England Patriots, because . . . well, I don’t have to explain it unless you have no useful memory span. “Down 25 In The Third Quarter” is the new “Down 3-1.”

4. Cleveland Cavaliers, because they slayed the first unbeatable Warrior team by coming from 3-1 down, and even as a silver medalist, it will always be an internet meme, which is what passes for memorable in our decrepit culture.

5. (tie) Villanova basketball and Clemson football in a tie, because they were essentially the same great game.

7. The Pittsburgh Penguins, because the Stanley Cup Final was devoid of drama or high moments, and only 14:53 of overtime. Feh.

But everything else is settled, and this Super Bowl will not be topped for a long time. Our current cycle of absurd championships is almost surely going to end soon, because “Down 3-1” has happened twice in eight months (three times, if you count Warriors over Thunder), and the bar has now been placed well beyond reasonable clearing.

Indeed, the only thing left is for a championship team to spontaneously combust on the award stand. But if they do so and ignite Roger Goodell along the way, that would be an ending America would cheerfully endorse.

But that also isn’t an argument any more, and yes, that includes Gary Bettman.