Sunday, January 29, 2012

Super Thoughts

  The Tata Steel chess tournament in Wijk ann Zee, Holland just ended with a resounding victory by Armenian Levon Aronian, who won 7 of his 13 games while losing only 2. Despite beating Aronian in their individual encounter, world ranked #1 Magnus Carlsen couldn’t keep up the pace and could win only 4 games against 1 loss enroute to tying for second place with the Azerbaijani Radjabov (the only undefeated player) and former American now Italian Fabiano Caruana. Defending champion Hikaru Nakamura of America shook off a slow start to go unbeaten after his round 2 loss to Aronian and finish tied for fifth. It was a super performance by Aronian, who will now play a match with former champion Kramnik in April as both prepare for the upcoming candidate matches of the next World Championship cycle.

  Now that the first super-GM chess tournament of the year is over, I can turn my attention to the Super Bowl, which is a rematch of the 2008 contest between the Giants and the Patriots. I ran into my friend Dennis at the Hy-Vee drug store yesterday. I hadn’t had a chance to talk to him in a couple of months. Dennis is a huge Packers fan and was still upset over their playoff loss at the hands of the Giants 2 weeks ago. I thought the Packers were going to repeat last year’s championship and even predicted it a few weeks ago, but they ran into a hot Giants team that was playing their 3rd playoff game in 3 weeks (including the season finale against the Cowboys in which the winner was in the playoffs as the NFC East champion).

  The Giants haven’t had much of a defense until the last few weeks, but the one thing they can do well is hurry the quarterback and even the best quarterbacks can look ordinary when they don’t have time to look over the field and make an unhurried throw. Packer QB Aaron Rodgers did not play up to his superhuman standards, but played well enough to win the game if the rest of the team had stepped up. Without an all-world performance from their all-world quarterback, the Packers weren’t able to overcome their receiver’s continual habit of dropping passes, and weren’t helped by their 4 turnovers (including a fumble and interception by Rodgers). Despite all their problems, the Packers were only losing 13-10 with 10 seconds left in the half, but their defense botched the Giant’s desperation pass on the last play of the first half and found themselves down 20-10 at halftime.

  I’m still not sure how the Giants managed to win the NFC championship game against the 49ers on Sunday. The 49er defense is of championship quality and their offense was top notch against the Saints, but except for allowing a couple of TD passes to All-Pro tight end Vernon Davis, the Giant Defense held the 49ers in check and were bailed out by 2 late game punt-return fumbles by Kyle Williams to escape with a 20-17 overtime victory.

  The Giants seem to be a team of destiny, replaying the same script as the Super Bowl champs of 4 years ago by barely slipping into the playoffs, beating Green Bay on the road, and winning the NFC Championship in overtime on the road. They are even playing the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, albeit a 15-3 team and not the 18-0 version chasing immortality as last time. The Patriots looked quite pedestrian in barely getting past a Baltimore Ravens team that self-destructed in the final minute when Lee Evans failed to secure the winning touchdown pass (allowing it to be knocked out of his hands) and Iowa native Billy Cundiff missed a short game-tying field goal in the closing seconds.

  The odds makers are saying the Patriots are a 3 point favorite in the big game, but the sports experts I hear on the radio are split between the two teams. The Giants are the last team to have beaten the Patriots with a 24-20 win in New England in Week 8 of the regular season. The conventional wisdom favoring the Giants is not only are the Giants the team of destiny, the Patriots defense is suspect at best. I saw the Patriots get crushed by the Steelers and lose to the Giants in the last minute, but I also saw them beat Broncos and Ravens in the playoffs and I think that their defense is much improved from earlier in the season.

  Football games are often compared to chess matches. Most of the time I think it’s a stupid analogy. In chess, both players start with the same number and types of pieces and everything is out in the open, the winner being the one who ‘sees’ more than their opponent. In football, the teams have differing strengths and weaknesses and deception plays a huge role as both sides use personnel groupings and formations to disguise their plans and create mismatches. But in this case, the chess analogy seems to hold truer to me. New England coach Bill Belichick and Giants coach Tom Coughlin worked together when they were members of Bill Parcells' Giant staff of the late 80’s and they have a familiarity with each other’s styles. And since the teams have already played each other, I’m not sure either side will be able to spring too many surprises on each other, so like a chess game the winner will be who can best use the forces at their command.

  I’ve been wrong on almost every sports prediction I’ve ever made on this blog, but that won’t stop me from making a prediction. I think the Patriots are the slightly better team and that Belichick will be able to take away the Giants pass rush with quick passes, while on defense the Patriots massive tackles will stop the Giants running game without help and be able to load the defense with pass defenders. If the teams played 11 times, I’d expect the Patriots to win 6 times to the Giants 5, but since they will only play once, I'm picking the Patriots to not only win but cover the spread 28-24, but since I'm a lifelong Giants fan, I'd like nothing better than to be wrong.