Jun 112013
 

Arians and Palmer7. Arizona Cardinals
Head Coach: Bruce Arians
2012 Record: 5-11
2012 Offense: 250 points scored, 32st in points, 32nd in yards (28th passing, 32nd rushing)
2012 Defense: 357 points allowed, 17th in points, 12th in yards (5th passing, 28th rushing)

Key Additions
Head Coach Bruce Arians, QB Carson Palmer, RB Rashard Mendenhall, DL Frostee Rucker, LB Karlos Dansby, LB Lorenzo Alexander, LB Jasper Brinkley, CB Javier Arenas, CB Jerraud Powers, S Yeremiah Bell, CB Antoine Cason, S Curtis Taylor, DE Matt Shaughnessy, G Jonathan Cooper, LB Kevin Minter, S Tyrann Mathieu, G Earl Watford

Key Losses
S Adrian Wilson, QB Kevin Kolb, QB Brian Hoyer, QB John Skelton, S Kerry Rhodes, S James Sanders, CB William Gay, LB Quentin Groves, LB Paris Lenon, RB Beanie Wells, WR Early Doucet, CB Greg Toler, RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, DE Vonnie Holliday, DE Nick Eason, LB Stewart Bradley

Why 2013 will be better
The Cardinals offensive line gave up 58 sacks in 2012… that’s right – 58. It’s hard to imagine the line performing that poorly again. So by default one can expect the offense to fare better than it did last season. Tackle Levi Brown spent last season on IR, so his return is good news for the Cardinals. Jonathan Cooper will start next to him, meaning the left side of the line will be a vast improvement over last season. Center Lyle Sendlein returns, flanked by another rookie in Watford. Only second year player Bobby Massie returns as a starter from all 16 games at right tackle. Carson Palmer will bring stability to the quarterback position and will love throwing to Larry Fitzgerald. That will result in huge fantasy number for the pair; it remains to be seen whether or not it will convert to wins. Despite a solid defensive last core from last year, this group also went through an off-season overhaul, particularly at linebacker and in the secondary. If Mendenhall can return from injury (and attitude) to post 1,000 rushing yards, the Cardinals could be looking at an 8 or 9 win season.

Why 2013 will be worse
I’m not sold on Mendenhall as the answer at running back, and I’m really not sold on Carson Palmer. Palmer will put up big numbers for yards and will rack up some touchdowns, but he also has a knack for interceptions and lost fumbles, and has never proven to be a quarterback who can will his team to victory. He may stop the revolving the door and increase the point totals, but he’s not a guy I would stake the franchise on. The key to 2013 will once again be the defense, and as long as Palmer and the offense don’t turn the ball over with the frequency that the Cardinals’ offense did last season, the worst the Cardinals are looking at is another five win season.

Outlook
The Arizona Cardinals started off the 2012 season with four straight victories before collapsing the rest of the way, with an offense that scored 20 or more points only once in the team’s final twelve games. So it was no wonder that the Cardinals cleaned house in the offseason, on the roster as well as on the coaching staff. Palmer is an upgrade, but he’s not the answer, at least not by himself. Mendenhall has to bounce back in a big way for the Cardinals to rack up more wins, and an offensive line with two rookie guards has to find its chemistry early. Bruce Arians proved last season with the Colts that he is a tremendous coach, and it will take no less of an effort than the one he gave last season for the Cardinals to exceed six wins.

Feb 042013
 

FlaccoSo the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers 34-31 last night in Super Bowl XLVII. I can’t call it one of the best Super Bowls I watched, but rather would call it one of the more bizarre football games I have witnessed. So here is a not so quick, highly opinionated take on last night’s game.

The Ravens deserved to win

I am no Ratbirds fan. Not even close. I can’t stand Ray Lewis (more on that later), and think that John Harbaugh is the more pompous of the brothers. None the less, the Ravens deserved to win last night. The Ravens dominated the first half of play and had a huge halftime lead, and the game should have been over by the end of the third quarter. But the Ravens didn’t wake up after the lights went back on, and the 49ers stormed back, similar to the Patriots’ comeback in Week 15 against the Niners. In the end the comeback would not be enough; the Raven’s defense did just enough to secure the win, and they were aided by poor clock management and even  poorer play-calling on the part of San Francisco.

Jacoby Jones should have been the MVP

There’s no question that Joe Flacco had a good game, but the Ravens don’t win that contest without the performance of Jacoby Jones. Jones tied a Super Bowl record with a 108 yard kickoff return to open the second half after having made a brilliant play on a 56 yard touchdown pass near the end of the first half. That was Jones’ only reception of the night, but he finished the game with 234 return yards, to give him 290 total yards for the night. That was three more yards than what Flacco threw for, in a very efficient 22/33 performance with three touchdown passes, all of which came in the first half. The award is arguable, but Jones seems to be the better candidate, having an impact similar to that of the one offered by  Desmond Howard in Super Bowl XXXI for the Green Bay Packers.

I’m betting the Houston Texans wish they hadn’t let go of Jones.

Flacco has huge leverage

Whether or not Flacco deserved to be MVP of the Super Bowl, he is, and the fact that he helped deliver a title to Baltimore means significant leverage for the Ravens’ quarterback in coming contract negotiations. The truth is that Flacco took a huge step forward in his development this year, although he is still not a consistent enough performer to count among the league’s best. But that won’t stop Flacco from seeking top dollar, in the neighborhood of $20 million per year.

As noted on Pro Football Talk, the Ravens will now almost certainly tag Flacco with the exclusive franchise tag, placing his 2013 pay in excess of the $20 million mark that Flacco desires. There’s very little chance that the Ravens would allow less successful teams to make a run at Flacco by applying the non-exclusive tag. So it looks like Joe is going to be cashing in on his Super Bowl win in short order.

Worst Color Commentator EVER…

Am I the only one who was both baffled and horrified by the on air performance of Phil Simms as the “color” commentator? Between the man “seeing” things before plays that he failed to share with the audience to not seeming to understand the strategy behind the game of football, Simms was a complete bust during the Super Bowl broadcast.

While Simms was miserable throughout the game, the final drive served as proof positive that Simms has no business being on the air. First, Simms was barely critical of a final 49ers drive that demonstrated poor clock management and poor play selection. Second, Simms started out by calling the final 49ers’ offensive play a “good no call” and then retreated back from his position to the point where no one, even Simms, knew exactly what his thoughts were. Finally, Simms seemed out of touch with the idea that the Ravens’ would (Very wisely) take a safety on the punt in the game’s next to last play, killing valuable clock time while protecting the Baltimore lead. If you didn’t know who the commentators were, you would be convinced that Jim Nance knows far more about football than Phil Simms, and that might very well be the truth.

I haven’t checked to see who is broadcasting next year’s Super Bowl. But if it is CBS doing the honors, I hope they will rent Troy Aikman away from FOX for a day.

Jones and CulliverKarma bites Culliver

I was ranting all week about the need for karma to make an appearance at this year’s Super Bowl and it did… just not in the way that I expected. Chris Culliver, the 49ers’ cornerback who went off in a rant about the possibility of gay players in the NFL (newsflash idiot… there already are gay players in the NFL), got lit up like a Christmas tree by Flacco and the Ravens. Culliver found himself to be a frequent target of Flacco during the game. Culliver was the one who got burned on Jacoby Jones’ terrific touchdown play, and was also responsible for a pass interference penalty on a key third down with only nine minutes remaining in the game.

Right about now Culliver needs a hug, but I wouldn’t blame any of his teammates for not giving it to him. Culliver can claim all he wants that there is no homophobia or hate in his heart, but there was plenty that came out of his mouth.

Good bye, Ray

Speaking of karma, I am convinced it took the easy way out after targeting Culliver instead of Ray Lewis. But for those who share my disdain of the Ravens’ criminal linebacker,  we can take solace in the fact that the retirement party is nearly complete; there’s just a parade left to go and then we’ll just have to deal with the man as a talking head going forward.

Still, Ray just couldn’t resist giving us more fodder upon which to despise him. In an interview with CBS’ Shannon Sharpe, Lewis was asked directly about the double murder in which he was implicated in 2000. His response? Why of course it was to blame the investigatory process.

Said Lewis, “It’s simple. God has never made a mistake. That’s just who He is, you see. And if our system — it’s the sad thing about our system — if our system took the time to really investigate what happened 13 years ago, maybe they would have got to the bottom line truth. But the saddest thing ever was that a man looked me in my face and told me, ‘We know you didn’t do this, but you’re going down for it anyway.’ To the family, if you knew, if you really knew the way God works, he don’t use people who commits anything like that for His glory. No way. It’s the total opposite.”

That’s right scumbag…. blame the system. The same system that you refused to cooperate with and eventually had to plead guilty for obstruction to. I also suppose the system is to blame for the disappearance of a blood-splattered white suit. Lewis can talk all he wants about God and about being reformed, but the fact is that God didn’t commit commit those murders. God didn’t investigate the case. And God sure as hell didn’t refuse to cooperate with the investigation, to lie, or to hide a bloody white suit. In my opinion, the type of salvation that Lewis has claimed to possess can only occur when the offender has assumed responsibility for his actions. Other than to pay off the families to avoid a civil finding, and to contribute mightily to the community to presumably assuage his own feelings of guilt, this ass continues to spout drivel and act like it is profound. It’s time for you to go Ray, and for me to mute my television every time your face comes on the screen.

Shut up, Frank

For what seems to be the one hundredth time this season, a player in defeat claims that his team beat themselves or gave the game away. It’s a tired refrain that on the surface is poor sportsmanship and on a deeper level just feels like a complete lack of respect for one’s opponents.

Enter Frank Gore.  Following the game, Gore told the Associated Press, “They got away with one. We showed we were the better team. It was just a couple plays here, a couple plays there.”

Perhaps Frank doesn’t understand (though he should) that every game in the NFL comes down to a few plays “here” and a few plays “there”. The winner executes and the loser doesn’t. And the loser should probably shut the hell up about being the better team when the scoreboard doesn’t agree. I don’t like the Ravens, and I don’t think that they are the best team in football, but I can at least acknowledge that they were the better team on this night and that they are the Super Bowl champions. Show some class, Frank.

GiR 2Gridiron Rats Super Bowl Party

Gridiron Rats officially ended its first full season of NFL football with a small gathering at the Rat’s Lair. We could only get four of our contributors and their families in attendance, but a great time was had by all. The halftime show by Beyonce was pretty good (and I am not usually a fan), but it paled to the post-Beyonce dance performance given by eight kids ranging from 13 to 2 years of age.

The food was fabulous. Rat’s Widow made Belichicken Wings, a dish we found perusing the Patriots Life site. Folks… make this chicken; it was wonderful. She also made cocktail weenies, a very good beer bread and dip, and she provided a tremendous spread of yummies that the kids dove into. Flip Stricland provided a huge bag of steaks that were perfectly marinated. Ghost Rat cooked up about a dozen of these on the grill while Rat’s Widow turned the rest into sandwich meat. And not to be outdone, the Country Preacher and his wife brought along a hash brown casserole that was the perfect complement to the evening’s main dishes.

GiR 1I’ve added some photos of the steaks (yes, I was grilling in the snow) and of our illustrious contributors. The back row has Country Preacher, Flip Strickland, and the Ghost Rat, while the front row has the Preacher’s Wife, Flip’s Wife, and the famous Rat’s Widow. Aren’t those ladies pretty? We are lucky men!

The party only lasted until just after halftime because… you know… we all have little kids. But the power outage intervened and gave everyone time to tuck the little ones in and get back to what turned out to be a pretty dramatic Super Bowl.

 

Jan 202013
 

Kaepernick and GoreThe San Francisco 49ers fought back from an early 17-0 deficit, and shut out the Falcons 14-0 in the second half to earn a 28-24 victory and give the 49ers their first trip to the Super Bowl in eighteen years.

Colin Kaepernick played the part of the clutch pocket quarterback, throwing for 233 yards and one touchdown, while rushing for only 21 yards. Knowing that Kaepernick would not be able to carve up the Falcons’ defense the same way he did the Packers, San Francisco took a patient, conservative approach, relying on Frank Gore and good decision-making by Kaepernick, who was a highly efficient 16 for 21 in the game. Gore ran for 90 yards and two scores, including the game winner with 8:23 left in the game. LaMichael James also scored on a 15 yard touchdown run, while Vernon Davis added a touchdown reception for the 49ers, who now seek to join the Pittsburgh Steelers as the only franchises with six Super Bowl titles. The 49ers have won in each of their five previous trips to the Super Bowl. Head Coach Jim Harbaugh will now square off with his brother John in the Super Bowl.

After the Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter on a pair of Julio Jones touchdowns and a Matt Bryant field goal, the 49ers struck back with two straight touchdowns to close the lead to 17-14. But Matt Ryan was able to connect with Tony Gonzalez for a score just before halftime, and it seemed that the Falcons entered the locker room with renewed momentum as they pushed the lead to 24-14. But San Francisco came out and opened the second half with a seven play scoring drive, and seemed to impose its will from that point forward.

GoreThe simple threat of Kaepernick’s legs seemed to help the 49ers on their second half scoring drives, as both second half touchdowns by Gore saw the running back go nearly untouched as the defense seemed to be hedging its bets. “I kind of figured that coming in and they showed that on film, so I assumed Frank and LaMichael were going to have a big day,” Kaepernick said.

Vernon Davis caught five passes for 106 yards and a score. Michael Crabtree, who has been under investigation this week for sexual assault, caught six passes for 57 yards. Randy Moss added three receptions for 46 yards.

RyanThe Falcons’ loss spoiled a terrific outing by Matt Ryan, who threw for a Falcons’ post-season record 396 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. But the interception and a fumble on a mishandled snap helped do in the Falcons, who are now 1-4 with Ryan at the helm in the post-season. The Falcons’ rushing attack, which found new life against the Seahawks last week, was suffocated by the 49ers’ defense. Jacquizz Rodgers ran for 32 yards and Michael Turner ran for 30 as the Falcons were held to only 81 yards on the ground. Julio Jones finished with eleven catches for 182 yards and two scores, while Roddy White caught seven passes for 100 yards. Gonzalez, likely playing in the last game of his soon to be Hall of Fame career, added eight catches for 78 yards and one touchdown.

The Falcons had opportunities in the second half, but couldn’t seem to make plays when they needed to. “We didn’t make the plays when we had the opportunity,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “There were five or six plays, like in most hard-fought games, that make a difference. There were ebbs and flows and changes in momentum, and they made more plays than we did.”

Jan 142013
 

Atlanta FalconsWe had one more great game on Sunday, as the Atlanta Falcons beat the Seattle Seahawks 30-28 after surging out to a 20-0 lead, then squandered the lead in the final minute, only to come back with a late field goal and emerge victorious. The later game was not nearly as dramatic, as the New England Patriots overpowered the Houston Texans 41-28 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate.

Atlanta Falcons 30 Seattle Seahawks 28
Pete Carroll’s attempts to freeze the kicker backfired as Matt Bryant’s first attempt was wide right, but then he connected on his second try as the Falcons came back in the game’s final seconds to beat the Seahawks.

The Atlanta Falcons wasted no time taking control of the game, racing out to an early 10-0 lead en route to a 20-0 halftime advantage. The Seahawks missed an opportunity to score at the end of the first half when Russell Wilson was sacked and the Seahawks, with no timeouts remaining, failed to get another play off. The teams then traded touchdowns in the third quarter before Seattle scored three straight touchdowns in twelve and a half minutes to take a 28-27 lead.

But starting on their own 28 yard line, the Falcons needed just two plays to cover 41 yards in 18 seconds, setting up Matt Bryant for the game winning 49 yard field goal. The ensuing kickoff was botched and the Seahawks recovered the ball at their own 46 yard line, but were unable to get in field goal range. A desperation pass by Wilson was intercepted in the end zone by Jacoby Jones to end the game.

Matt Ryan had a mixed day at quarterback, but was successful in getting the playoff monkey off of his back. Ryan was 24/35 for 250 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Michael Turner rushed for 98 yards as the Falcons were able to effectively pound the ball on the Seahawks, and Jacquizz Rodgers added 64 yards.

For the Seahawks, Wilson ended his rookie season with a 24/36 performance for 385 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, as well as 60 rushing yards on seven carries, including a touchdown. The Seahawks were never able to get Marshawn Lynch integrated into the game, and Lynch was limited to just 46 yards on 16 carries. Zach Miller had a big receiving day for the Seahawks, catching eight passes for 142 yards and a score, while Golden Tate added six catches for 103 yards and one touchdown.

Atlanta will host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship on Sunday.

New England Patriots 41 Houston Texans 28
Tom Brady threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns as the Patriots once again overwhelmed the Texans at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots lost Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead to injuries, but didn’t miss a beat as Shane Vereen ran for once score and caught two more playing out of Woodhead’s spot. Stevan Ridley rushed for 82 yards on 15 carries, while Vereen added 41 yards. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez teamed up for fourteen receptions for a combined 216 yards.

With the victory, Tom Brady became the winningest starting quarterback in NFL playoff history, passing Joe Montana with his 17th post-season win. Brady currently has a 17-6 post-season record.

Arian Foster led the Texans’ offense with 90 yards and a score on 22 carries, but Matt Schaub suffered through an inconsistent and inaccurate day as the Patriots’ secondary was once again up to the task of playing tight man to man coverage on the Texans’ receivers and tight ends. Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels caught eight and nine passes respectively for 95 and 81 yards, but were limited in yards after the catch and were unable to produce big plays. The most effective receiver was Foster himself, as he caught seven passes for 63 yards and a score.

Rob Ninkovich once again came up big for the Patriots on defense. The linebacker had four tackles, two passes defended, one quarterback hit, an interception, an onside kick recovery and a tackle for a loss. Aqib Talib and Steve Gregory both had active days with ten tackles each, and Devin McCourty had another solid day at safety and in special teams, where he prevented the game’s opening kickoff from being returned for a touchdown. Danieal Manning had a fantastic day returning kickoffs, averaging 54 yards on four returns, including the 90 yard return to open the game.

The Patriots, who held a 17-13 halftime advantage, scored the first 21 points of the second half to take a 38-13 lead. The Texans were able to add 15 points in the fourth quarter to close the gap, but the context was never seriously in doubt after Vereen scored his third touchdown with 13:07 remaining.

The Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday in the AFC Championship.

Jan 132013
 

The Denver Broncos vs Baltimore Ravens AFC Divisional playoff game.Saturday was a great day to be a football fan. It was also a pretty good day to be a Harbaugh brother.

The early game, and we use the term “early” loosely, turned out to be a classic as the Baltimore Ravens edged the Denver Broncos 38-35 in double overtime in the fourth longest playoff game in NFL history. And while that game was wrapping up, the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers were engaged in their own slugfest, which the 49ers eventually took control of as they went on to a 45-31 victory. Here are quick recaps for the two games.

Baltmore Ravens 38 Denver Broncos 35 (2OT)

Justin Tucker kicked a 47 yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime to give Head Coach John Harbaugh’s Ravens a shocking 38-35 win over the host Broncos.

Ray Rice ran for 131 and a score on 30 carries, and Joe Flacco lit up the Broncos’ secondary for 331 yards and three scores, including an inexcusable 70 yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with only 41 seconds remaining to allow the Ravens to force overtime. Torrey Smith also burned Champ Bailey for two big touchdown receptions as the Ravens generated 479 yards of offense.

The Denver loss spoiled an amazing performance by Trindon Holliday, who ran back a first half punt 90 yards for a touchdown and then brought the opening kickoff of the second half back for a 104 yard score.

Peyton Manning struggled for consistency, having a solid first half, but seemingly melting under pressure in the second half and in overtime. Manning was 28/43 for 290 yards and three scored, but threw two costly interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown in the first quarter by Corey Graham, and another that was picked off by Graham near the end of the first overtime that set up the game winning field goal.

While Broncos’ fans will no doubt point to some suspect officiating as costing them some opportunities, there are too many internal causes for the defeat. At the end of the first half the Broncos got the ball back with 36 seconds left on the clock and time-outs in hand, but chose to instead run out the clock. The Broncos similarly had a chance to end the game on a third down play late in the fourth quarter and chose to run the ball on third and seven rather than let Manning try to pass for the first down. But the biggest reason for the Broncos loss was the pitiful play of the secondary, including Champ Bailey getting beat deep twice and Rahim Moore giving up the late bomb to Jones. After the game, Moore said, “It is my fault, plain and simple.” But really the fault rests with a secondary that helped make Joe Flacco looked more like Peyton Manning than Manning did.

Baltimore will now travel to face the winner of the New England Patriots – Houston Texans match-up in the AFC Championship.

San Francisco 49ers 45 Green Bay Packers 31

Four plays into the game, Colin Kaepernick threw an interception that Sam Shields returned 52 yards for a Green Bay touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. But after that, Kaepernick was unflappable, as he threw for 263 yards and two scores, and ran for another 181 yards and two scores as the 49ers dominated the Packers 45-31  at Candlestick Park.

The two teams fought a back and forth battle throughout the first half, with the 49ers taking a 24-21 lead on a David Akers field goal to end the half. After an Green Bay field goal almost midway through the third quarter, San Francisco took control of the game. Kaepernick exploded for a 56 yard touchdown run to put the Niners in front, and then Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon each scored on two yard runs as San Francisco closed the door and advanced to next week’s NFC championship, where they will face the winner of the Atlanta Falcons – Seattle Seahawks contest.

Michael Crabtree had a huge game for San Francisco, catching nine passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, while Gore ran for 119 yards and one score. James Jones caught four passes for 87 yards and a score for the Packers, while Greg Jennings added six catches for 54 yards and one touchdown.

The Green Bay offensive line did a good job of limiting the San Francisco pass rush, limiting the 49ers to one sack and three quarterback hits. But Aaron Rodgers never seemed to get into synch in the contest, and Kaepernick was simply too much for the Packers’ defense. The young quarterback is making Head Coach Jim Harbaugh look like a genius for choosing to start him over veteran Alex Smith. “It feels good. We’re one step closer to where we want to be,” Kaepernick said. “I feel like I had a lot to prove. A lot of people doubted my ability to lead this team.”

Jan 102013
 

Packers - 49ersIn a span of five playoff appearances between 1995 and 2001, the Green Bay Packers stood in the San Francisco 49ers path to a sixth Super Bowl Championship. On four of five occasions Green Bay emerged victorious and have had good luck in Candlestick Park where they have emerged victorious twice in three chances. Fast forward to 2013 where the 49ers, still chasing the elusive sixth world championship, are set to renew their playoff rivalry with Green Bay. This will be a rematch of Week One when San Francisco drew first blood, limiting the anemic Green Bay running game to 45 yards, and offensively received stellar performances by QB Alex Smith (20-26, 211 yards, 2 TDs) and RB Frank Gore (112 Yards, 1 TD). Much has changed since the 30-22 San Francisco victory that was never in question despite what the score may indicate. While the Niners have continued their winning ways throughout the season, Colin Kaepernick—a Wisconsin born Packer fan– has replaced Alex Smith and will be making his first playoff start. Meanwhile, the loss to the 49ers was the first loss of three that would occur in the first five weeks for Green Bay. The Packers would recover in stellar fashion behind the MVP caliber play of QB Aaron Rodgers (ironically, a Niner fan growing up) by winning 9 of their last 11 en route divisional crown and a 4th consecutive playoff appearance.

Keys for Green Bay
Despite the constant threat of being torched through the air by Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay rushing attack—and attack is a term used lightly here—is not likely to foster any type of impactful effort against the league’s number four ranked defense against the run. DuJaun Harris was superb in his 100 yard effort against the Vikings and FB John Kuhn picked up a score on the ground as well. However, there are vast differences. The X-Factor for Green Bay will be the ability for Don Barclay and the Packer offensive line to give Rodgers the time needed to work effectively against a pass defense that has been as effective against the pass as it has against the run. Given time to executive, Rodgers should enjoy some level of effectiveness to finally healthy targets Randall Cobb and Greg Jennings. Rodgers, looking to up his playoff record to 6-2, was able to pick up 279 yards through the air in the week one contest. It should be noted that Rodgers has never come back against a team above .500 in the fourth quarter in 18 tries; the Packers will need to build an early lead for Rodgers to avoid such a predicament in his first ever trip to Candlestick.

The Packers defense will need to build off their successful performance against Adrian Peterson in the Wild Card round. Peterson, who averaged over 200 yards per game against Green Bay in 2012 in two regular season games, and torched them for 199 yards in Minnesota’s playoff clinching week 17 victory, was held to 99 yards in the Packers 24-10 victory a week ago. They were also successful in limiting QB Joe Webb on the ground. While nowhere near the level of Kaepernick it was suspected that the main asset Webb could utilize was the speed element of his game—which Green Bay had no time to game plan for due to the Vikings late QB change. In Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick (5 rushing TDs in 2012), San Francisco boasts an RB that has had recent success against the Packers combined with a QB with elite speed. Additionally, LaMichael James is a handful when spelling Gore in relief. Ultimately, Green Bay will need to mirror last weeks’ effort if their 17th ranked defense is to contain the Niners 4th ranked rushing attack. To do so B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and C.J. Wilson must be effective in dealing with the physical multiple tight end and goal line type sets that San Francisco’s used in Week 1. If the Packers can limit the San Francisco running game they could find themselves trending toward their performance in their Super Bowl winning run a couple of seasons ago which was buoyed by a strong run defense throughout the playoffs. Charles Woodson and the Green Bay secondary remains the strong suit of the Packer defense, but stopping the run will go a long way toward stacking the odds against an inexperienced QB by forcing their opponents to move away from the balanced attack the 49ers favor.

Green Bay passed the test against the number 2 rushing attack in the league last week and also where able to get a look at an option style quarterback—albeit one less talented than Kaepernick—in Webb. Kaepernick, in his 5-2 run as a starter, threw 10 touchdowns against only three picks to go with his 5 rushing scored and his 7.2 yards per carry clip. The Packers struggled with Alex Smith in Week 1 and Kaepernick’s speed element makes him profoundly more difficult to game plan for. Nonetheless, if there is a weakness in Kaepernick’s game to compliment his lack of post season experience it is his propensity to put the ball on the ground. He fumbled seven times in seven starts but lost only one—the Packers will need to capitalize if Kaepernick puts the ball on the ground. Furthermore, the Packers remain solid in the secondary and will hope to benefit from mistakes that can be forced if the Packer front seven can pressure Kaepernick.

Keys for San Francisco
Whether it’s John Harbaugh firing his offensive coordinator with a month to go in the season or brother Jim replacing Alex Smith in-season despite a 21-6-1 run as a starting including last season’s post season run, no one will ever accuse the Harbaughs of following conventional wisdom. Last week, John was successful in Baltimore’s first effort of the season with the Ravens defeated the Colts 24-9. This week it is Jim’s turn to throw egg on the critics of his bold move—though his risk to a much higher degree. How Colin Kaepernick performs in his first season start will not only determine whether or not the 49ers earn a shot at an NFC Championship and Super Bowl appearance it was also validate or invalidate Harbaugh’s risky switch. So far, in the regular season, Harbaugh has been rewarded; however, with a quarterback who has been successful and won recently in the playoffs sitting idle the stakes couldn’t be any higher. Pro Bowler’s Joe Staley and Mike Iaputi will need their usual effectiveness in protection. Additionally, Gore and James will need to continue on their recent run of success on the ground. If the Niners are successful in those two key areas it will go a long way to mitigating any nerves and the overall inexperience of Kaepernick. Furthermore, Kaepernick will then be able to target Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree and pick apart the Green Bay secondary.

If you hold up the starting lineup for last year’s 49ers team and the 2012 unit you will note minimal change to the defense on paper. However, the Justin Smith that lined up on the defensive line in 2011 was perhaps the top defensive player in the league last year—making 1st Team All-Pro and 2nd Team All-Pro simultaneously. This year he enters the game after missing two weeks with a triceps injury—emotional impact only goes so far and it will only be known as the game unfolds how much of a physical impact his return will have. Smith went down against New England and the defense quickly unraveled and matters got bad as they gave up 28 unanswered points. Bad turned to ugly the following week when the Seattle scored 42 points in Smith’s absence. How effective Justin Smith is on Saturday with also impact the other Smith—Alden—whose 19.5 sacks this season were a strong derivative of the double teams faced by his namesake at on the defensive line. The Niners will need Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, NT Isaac Sopoaga, and LE Ray McDonald to get pressure on Aaron Rodgers and what will likely be a one dimensional Packer attack

With Pro Bowl Safeties Donte Whitner and FS Dashon Goldson, in addition to CB’s Tarell Brown and Carlos Rodgers (who experienced a career year in 2012), the Niners fourth ranked passing defense is healthy and matches up well with Greg Jennings and Randall Cobb. Jennings has been catching his stride lately with 3 TDs in as many games and Cobb is healthy; however, the Niners will need to keep the Packer deep threats in front of them. With the front seven likely to limit the Packer ground game, the San Francisco secondary will need to limit buy not completely ground the league’s top quarterback.

The Outcome
This is the most interesting of the three games this weekend that feature rematches of regular season lop-sided affairs. The unknown that is Kaepernick in this situation makes this game a virtual pick ‘em in the eyes of many. Questions surrounding Justin Smith’s healthy only further muddy the picture of what the outcome could be. If Smith is healthy and Kaepernick is not caught in the moment it would be hard to pick against the 49ers in a game at home against a team that is 4-4 on the road. The Packers offense will likely be rendered one dimensional against San Francisco—however, that one dimension happens to be the best player in the league. The Packers were workmanlike in taking apart the Vikings last weekend; meanwhile, the Niners have been prone to embarrassing performances on defense in the absence of Smith. Nonetheless, I am counting on Smith to return in grand fashion and Kaepernick to seize the moment. Rodgers will have a strong day but in the end will move to 0-19 when attempting to comeback against better than .500 opponents. This could be one for the ages.

San Francisco 28 Green Bay 27

Jan 092013
 

Falcons - SeahawksThe Atlanta Falcons enter the divisional round of the NFC playoffs with a 13-3 record and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, yet find themselves a two and a half point underdog to the upstart fifth seed Seattle Seahawks when the two teams square off this Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome. (*** see update below)

So much for earning the top seed.

Seattle’s status as favorite in this game is deserved, but the game promises to be perhaps the most exciting game of the divisional round. It also marks the only divisional round contest that is not a rematch of a regular season contest. Plus it pairs two teams with very different styles of football. Brace yourselves in for a fun ride this Sunday.

Here’s how I see the game breaking down.

When Seattle runs
Marshawn Lynch ran for 1,590 yards this season and 11 touchdowns, and racked up another 132 yards and a score in last week’s wildcard win over Washington. Lynch’s running prowess and ability to break tackles may force the Falcons to load the box rather than play a Cover 2, making Atlanta susceptible to Seattle’s passing attack. It doesn’t help that Atlanta has given up 4.8 yards per rush this season, and ranks 21st against the run at 123.2 yards per game. Russell Wilson is an effective manager of the Read Option and his athleticism may give the Falcons fits, and Robert Turbin also serves as an efficient back. Atanta’s Stephen Nicholas and Akeem Dent are solid linebackers, but will need to wrap up Lynch rather than try to bring him down with arm tackles or big hits. This match-up favors the Seahawks, and I would expect Lynch to again rush for more than 100 yards, while Wilson and Turbin tack on another 40 or 50. One thing to watch is Lynch’s ball protection. He fumbled five times during the season (losing two) and lost a fumble last weekend in the wildcard game.

When Seattle passes
Seattle does not possess a prolific passing offense (27th in the NFL, 189.4 ypg), so they are simply hoping for a “good enough” effort against the Falcons. Wilson has a 64.1 completion percentage this season, outstanding for a rookie quarterback. But the running game will be the key to the passing game’s success, as it will be far easier for Wilson to connect with targets downfield if the Falcons are forced to bring up safeties in run defense. Once again, Atlanta is vulnerable because they suffer in applying pressure to the quarterback, and managed only 29 sacks on the season. Wilson’s mobility further negates what little pass rush the Falcons will bring. Neither Sidney Rice nor Golden Tate is a true number one receiver, but both are reliable targets. Tate is a speedster who is capable of acrobatic catches and making big plays downfield, while Rice is a durable possession receiver. On the other side, Daunta Robinson and Asante Samuel are capable corners, with Samuel being known as a gambler in coverage. Thomas DeCoud and Chris Hope are among the best safety tandems in the league, but the Falcons still ranked only 23rd in pass defense this season. Sean Witherspoon will need to confuse Wilson and try to force him to make mistakes, and John Abraham and Kroy Biermann will need to get pressure on Wilson to take him out of his comfort zone. Look for Wilson to only pass for around 200 yards, but it may be more than enough to keep the chains moving and keep the Atlanta defense off balance.

When Atlanta runs
Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers are dynamic and complementary backs, and coupled with Jason Snelling the Falcons should be capable of establishing a running game against the Seahawks, particularly off of both tackles. What is troubling for the Falcons however, is that despite the talent they possess at running back, they have not exhibited a dynamic running game this season. The Falcons come in ranked 29th, totaling only 1,397 yards this season. The Falcons possess a solid offensive line, with their only obvious weakness being at the right guard spot where Robert Kunz will need to step up his game this week. For the Falcons to have any real chance of winning this game, they must establish the run and take the pressure off of Matt Ryan, who will be facing a fierce secondary this week.

When Atlanta passes
The Atlanta Falcons would have the edge in this area of the game against nearly any team in the NFL, but the Seattle Seahawks offer the stiffest test that Matt Ryan and his talented receivers are likely to face this season. Ryan has had an outstanding season (4,719 yards, 32 TD, 14 INT, 68.6 completion percentage) and is usually a clutch performer. Roddy White and Julio Jones are as dynamic as any receiver pair in the league. White caught 92 passes for 1,351 yards and seven scores, while Jones caught 79 passes for 1,198 yards and ten touchdowns. Throw in Tony Gonzalez (93 receptions, 930 yards, 8 TD), Harry Douglas (38 receptions, 396 yards, 1 TD), and Rodgers (53 receptions, 402 yards, 1 TD) and it’s easy to see how the Atlanta passing attack could strike fear into the hearts of nearly any opposing defense. Anyone but Seattle’s, that is. Richard Sherman (6’3″, 200#) and Brandon Browner (6’3, 220#) offer a physical match-up to the 6’1″, 210# White and 6’3″, 220# Jones that the Falcons are not used to contending with. Both are excellent corners that can play their receivers in man coverage, freeing up the safety tandem of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas to play Cover 2, Cover 1 robber, or to step up in run defense if the Falcons should have early success running the ball. Cornerback Marcus Trufant is still decent, but is a shadow of his former self, likely to be targeted whenever he is on the field Sunday. Rookie Bruce Irvin, who had eight sacks this season but only 17 total tackles, must step in to replace the injured Chris Clemons and apply pressure to Ryan. Brandon Mebane, Alan Branch and Red Bryant form a solid wall against the run, but struggle in applying consistent pressure to the passer. Seattle only recorded 33 sacks this season (20th in NFL), so they will need to be creative in blitzes to try to rattle Matty Ice. Ryan will need to throw for over 250 yards for the Falcons to have a realistic chance to win, and will need to amass more than 300 yards and make some big plays downfield in the absence of a solid running game this weekend. Look for Gonzalez to get a heavy dose of targets, and for Rodgers to be used as a receiver out of the backfield.

Special teams
The special teams match-up offers a very slight edge to the Falcons. Matt Bryant is a clutch and reliable kicker for the Falcons, and Matt Bosher is a steady punted who excels in changing field position. Rodgers is a decent kick returner, while Dominique Franks and Harry Douglas have struggled to do much with punt returns. The Seahawks were forced to sign Ryan Longwell to replace an injured Steven Hauschka, while John Ryan is an above average punter. Leon Washington is a solid kick and punt returner who has a knack for positive yardage and absorbing hits.

Intangibles
Mike Smith is 2-0 in head to head match-ups with Pete Carroll, but is 0-3 in the post-season. Atlanta is second in the league in 3rd down conversions (45.1%), while Seattle is ranked 12th (40.2%). Seattle went 4-1 against playoff teams this season, beating Green Bay (sort of), New England, Minnesota and San Francisco while losing their first meeting with the 49ers. The Falcons are 2-0 against playoff teams this season, having beaten the Broncos and Redskins.

Atlanta is 7-1 at home this season, while the Seahawks are a mere 4-5 on the road, plus have the burden of traveling across the country for a second straight week to play an East Coast team. 8 of Russell Wilson’s 10 interceptions this season came on the road.

Atlanta and Seattle are tied at +13 in turnover differential this season, with both teams taking the ball away 31 times against 18 of their own turnovers.

Seattle wins if…  Marshawn Lynch runs for over 100 yards and protects the ball, if Russell Wilson can make some plays with passes downfield and with his legs while avoiding mistakes, they hold the Falcons under 100 yards rushing while stopping big plays to White and Jones.

Atlanta wins if… they tackle Marshawn Lynch on first contact and confuse the rookie Wilson, if they can force two or more Seattle turnovers, they establish a strong ground game and rush for more than 125 yards, and connect on several big plays to White, Jones, and Gonzalez.

Prediction
This game has the potential to go either way, and I would be genuinely surprised if this game turned into a rout one way or the other. Atlanta’s offense will be reliant on Matt Ryan makings some big plays downfield, something he has shown a knack for doing. But the Seattle secondary is going to make that a tall order. The Falcons have not shown that they consistently run the ball, something that could come back to haunt them this week. On the flip side, Seattle’s rushing attack poses problems for the Falcon’s front seven, while the passing attack is capable enough to make key plays. As long as Russell Wilson doesn’t choose this week to start making rookie mistakes, this match-up also seems to favor the Seahawks.

Look for the travel and the home crowd to give the Falcons the early edge and probably en early lead. But just as we saw last weekend against the Redskins, expect the Seahawks to slowly assert control over the game. Provided Marshawn Lynch can hold on to the ball and Russell Wilson can avoid making key mistakes, the Seahawks will pound the ball in the second half and advance to the NFC Championship.

Seahawks 27 Falcons 20

*** UPDATE: I swear I read a site where the Hawks were listed as the favorite. Of course it could be the medication talking, as I have not been able to find that site again and have continually seen the Falcons listed as a one to two and a half point favorite. So I thought I read this, but it’s equally possible that I can’t tell a “+” sign from a “-” sign. Correction noted. In any event, the basic premise is that by record the Falcons should be favored, but the Seahawks feel like the favorite. If in fact the Falcons are favored by a mere two and a half points with home field advantage, and that home field normally counts for two to three points, the Seahawks would appear to be the team to beat in this game.

Jan 022013
 

Seahawks - RedskinsThe Seattle Seahawks can take solace in the fact that the road to the Lombardi Trophy for the past two Super bowl winners—Green Bay and New York—came less a home game for either team. Thankfully, for the rest of the NFC playoff field, the unfriendly confines of CenturyLink Field will remain out of play this post season barring a Vikings-Seahawks matchup. In 2012, Seattle defeated only one team—the Chicago Bears—with a winning record on the road. Nonetheless, other than their opponent, no team heads into the post season hotter. While Washington has won its last 7 starts, Seattle has put together wins in 7 of 8 games during a stretch that has seen them give up more than 17 points only once and score 58, 50, and 42 points in succession.

For Washington, they can look no further than the Seahawks themselves for a prime example of how a home game wild card weekend can prove to be a tremendous advantage against a team that may either match or exceed them in virtually all aspects of the game. While home cooking has not correlated to championship success in recent seasons, it did help a 7-9 Seattle team upend the defending Super Bowl Champion Saints that traveled to Seattle sporting an 11-5 record in 2010. This game is more evenly matched than that game was. Washington, the only playoff team in either conference with 3 home losses, has reversed their early season home misfortunes by winning their last 4 home games—all virtual must win occurrences.

The Keys for Seattle
Seattle’s defense relies heavily on strict gap assignment football—they will need to stay disciplined to stop the league’s number one rushing attack. Assuming they are able to contain Alfred Morris and a physically limited Robert Griffin III, Washington will attempt to exploit man coverage from the Seattle secondary. CB Brandon Browner is back from suspension and Richard Sherman had his overturned. Additionally, Safety’s Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas have been adept at stopping both the run and pass all season. Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton, the top two running QB’s to face Seattle this season, collectively scored 25 points against Seattle. Limiting the cutback lanes for Alfred Morris and Griffin and winning the one-on-one battles against the Santana Moss, Pierre Garcon, and Leonard Hankerson will be paramount factors if Seattle is to win on the road.

Washington’s three interceptions against Dallas in their division title clinching performance in Week 17 were more story of Tony Romo’s ineptitude than Washington’s prowess. Offensively, Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle rushing attack has allowed Russell Wilson to exploit the opposition all season long with the play action and to compensate for a lack of talent amongst Seahawk receivers. This will have to continue for Seattle to move on to the divisional round. Washington gave up 281.9 yards per game through the air this season which is more indicative of who they are as a defense than the three pick performance and the 18 points they held Dallas to.

The Keys for Washington
Washington held opponents to 96 yards per game rushing throughout the season. In order to win they must limit a Seattle rushing attack that averaged 161 yards per game and limit the ability of Russell Wilson to feed off the play action. While Washington’s secondary is weak, Seattle’s Achilles heel is its lack of talent at WR—limiting Seattle’s running game and taking away the play action should ground the Seattle passing attack and compensate for Washington’s inadequacy in the secondary.

Offensively, Alfred Morris will need to continue on the course of success he has been on. The rookie rushed for 1613 yards and, more importantly, he came up with a 200 yard 3 touchdown performance in Week 17 with Griffin’s ground game being limited due to injury. If Morris’ cutback game can exploit the league’s 10th ranked rushing defense—and the condition of RG III’s knee improves, the Redskins will be better equipped to deal with the Seattle blitz and physical nature of their pass defense.

The Outcome
The two quarterbacks would easily be the Rookie of the Year in virtually any season had they not come out in the same year. The feature backs are separated by 23 yards on the season. The hot streak that both teams are on is equally incredible and all things point to this game being a pick ‘em type affair. In such cases it’s easy to side with the home team. However, there is one area where these teams are not at least close to even: The Seattle defense is better, particularly against the pass, and has fared well against moving quarterbacks. Seattle 28 – Washington 20

Update: Please note this article was first published with an incorrect note that Seattle was 10-5-1. This has since been corrected.

Dec 312012
 

ken-whisenhuntGM Rod Graves and Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt were fired by the Arizona Cardinals today, one day after the team’s 27-13 loss to the 49ers that capped off a disappointing 5-11 season.

The Cardinals began the year 4-0, but then went into a tailspin, dropping their next ten games as their lack of quarterback play undermined the team’s stout defense. The team ended the year with Brian Hoyer starting as the team’s fourth different starter for the year.

In his six seasons at the helm, Whisenhunt posted a 45-51 record plus 4-2 in the post-season. The Cardinals reached the Super Bowl in the 2008 season, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

 

Dec 172012
 

Frank GoreThe San Francisco 49ers cruised out to a 31-3 lead against the New England Patriots, then saw the lead disappear as Tom Brady led the Patriots in a frantic comeback before Michael Crabtree’s touchdown put the 49ers ahead for good in a 41-34 win on Sunday night. With the victory, the 49ers clinched a spot in the NFC playoffs.

The game did not go according to any pre-game script, and was an ugly affair early as both teams struggled to hang on to the ball in a steady rain at Gillette Stadium. New England’s opening drive set the tone for a strange evening as the team’s three and out was made more interesting by a Stevan Ridley fumble that never was. Ridley was clearly down on the play, but the officials ruled it a turnover before reversing it after booth review. But it was an omen of things to come, particularly for the first half.

After a Patriots’ punt, Colin Kaepernick needed only six plays to connect with Randy Moss on a 24 yard touchdown pass to put the 49ers up 7-0. On the next series Brady hit Brandon Lloyd for a 23 yard gain on the first play, but then went three and out. Punter Zoltan Mesko then pinned the 49ers at their own 8 and the Patriots’ defense forced a three and out of their own when Kaepernick could not handle a snap from center on third down to force a San Francisco punt. But Andy Lee’s booming 56 yard kick, complemented by a holding penalty, set the Patriots back to their own 20 and wiped out their field position advantage.

On the next play Brady tried to force a deep pass to Wes Welker and Carlos Rogers came away with an easy interception as he out-positioned the receiver and then returned the ball to the Patriots’ 5 yard line. But the 49ers would waste the opportunity when Delanie Walker dropped a short pass and Aqib Talib recovered  to thwart the threat. Two Stevan Ridley runs gave the Patriots a 3rd and 1, but Brady’s pass to Aaron Hernandez could not be handled and the Patriots were again forced to punt. Two plays later Kaepernick fumbled again, but the ball was recovered by Frank Gore. San Francisco was able to move the ball to the Patriots’ 21 yard line, but David Akers missed a 39 yard field goal attempt to the left, squandering another 49ers opportunity. Three plays from scrimmage later, the Patriots were facing third and long when disaster struck again. Shane Vereen caught the ball on a screen from Brady and as he was fighting for room to run had the ball jarred loosed by NaVorro Bowman, which was recovered by Chris Culliver at the New England 34.

The New England turnover however, would simply turn into another wasted opportunity, as four plays later the 49ers faced a 4th and 1, as Kaepernick mishandled another snap and the 49ers turned the ball over on downs. This sparked New England, as the offense finally seemed to find a rhythm in an effective 16 play dink and dunk drive that was stopped on a Ray McDonald sack of Tom Brady that forced the Patriots to settle for a 32 yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, cutting the lead to 7-3. But the new-found confidence wouldn’t last long. A pass interference call on Talib netted the 49ers 35 yards, and then three plays later Kaepernick hit Walker for a 34 yard touchdown, increasing the lead to 14-3.

After the 49ers forced a three and out on the next Patriots’ drive, Mesko’s punt appeared to brush the front of the ankle of Ted Ginn, and the ball was recovered by Marquice Cole of the Patriots. But the ruling on the field was that the ball never touched Ginn. Bill Belichick challenged the call, but it was upheld and the 49ers maintained control of the ball. It took ten minutes to sort out the situation since each one of Ed Hochuli’s explanations seemed worse than the last, and both benches were upset as Patriots’ fans led Hochuli know what they thought of the call. The 49ers then used 15 plays and the rest of the first half to march to the Patriots’s 2 yard line, where they were forced to settle for a field goal and a 17-3 halftime lead.

The 49ers then took the second half kickoff and were driving into Patriots’ territory before Devin McCourty picked off a Kaepernick pass in the end zone to end the San Francisco drive. After a 29 yard pass to Brandon Lloyd opened the next drive, the Patriots again found a way to implode, as four plays later Ridley put the ball on the ground and Dashon Goldson ran the ball back 66 yards to set the 49ers up with a first and goal. Kaepernick then lost another snap, but Frank Gore picked up the loose ball and ran it in to the end zone, extending the lead to 24-3. Three  plays later Brady threw a short pass to Hernandez, who was unable to put the ball away, and the ball was picked out of the air by Aldon Smith. On the very next play, Kaepernick his Michael Crabtree for a 27 yard touchdown, and the rout seemed to be on. By this point, the Burn Notice marathon on CLOO was starting to look like an attractive alternative, particularly after Ghost Rat’s pen went flying across the room and the Rat’s Widow was growing alarmed.

Brandon LloydBut the Patriots weren’t quite done yet. Seeming to ignore the score, the Patriots marched 13 plays down the field in methodical form, first having a touchdown nullified by a penalty before Danny Woodhead started to take over the game, first with a 15 yard run and then a 6 yard touchdown run to give the Patriots their first touchdown of the night. Rob Ninkovich almost single-handedly shut down the next 49ers offensive series, forcing a punt. The patriots then drove 86 yards on 9 plays with Brady taking the ball the final yard to cut the lead to 31-17, bringing the soaked crowd at Gillette very much back into the game.

After a 49ers’ three and out, Brady went back to work, throwing six straight passes and connecting with Aaron Hernandez for a five yard touchdown reception, and suddenly it was a game again at 31-24. The touchdown pass marked Brady’s 46th straight game with at least one touchdown pass, and his 4th 30-touchdown pass season. On 2nd and 9 from their own 26, Ninkovich sacked Kaepernick for a huge 13 yard loss, and the 49ers were again forced to punt. They pinned the Patriots back at their own 8 yard line,  but Brady hit Lloyd for 10 yards and then a big 53 yard gain down the sideline to get deep into San Francisco territory. Four plays later Woodhead took the ball in for the score, and the Patriots had fought back to tie the game 31-31.

However, the joy in Foxboro would be short lived. On the ensuing kickoff return, LaMichael James took the ball 62 yards, setting the 49ers up at the Patriots’ 38 yard line. On the next play, Kaepernicjk hit Michael Crabtree, who got away from Kyle Arrington to take the ball in for a score and a 38-31 lead. Two 49ers sacks of Brady stifled the next New England, and the Patriots were forced to punt, nearly catching a break when Ted Ginn muffed the catch but recovered his own fumble. The 49ers went three and out and the Patriots could  do little deep in their own end, choosing to go for it on 4th and 1. Woodhead ran and 8 yard route and was overthrown by Brady, setting the 49ers up to add a field goal that increased the lead to ten. The Patriots then used an 11 play drive to add a field goal of their own and close the gap to 41-34, but were unable to recover the onside kick, sealing the San Francisco win.

When the Patriots ran
Danny Woodhead ran for 61 yards and two scores on 12 carries as the Patriots ran for 95 yards and three touchdowns on the night, but Stevan Ridley’s fumble in the third quarter was a killer as it set up a 49er touchdown. Woodhead was able to find running room, but Ridley was largely a liability on this night. The running game was largely shelved once the Patriots fell into a deep hole. The 49ers defensive front came up big against the run throughout the evening. Advantage: 49ers

When the Patriots passed
Tom Brady threw a career high 65 passes for 443 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in the loss. Brady was out of rhythm for much of the first half and the beginning of the third quarter, but then hit his stride and torched the San Francisco secondary. The pass protection was good for most of the night, though Brady was sacked three times and subject to sporadic pressure throughout the game. Brandon Lloyd was the surprise star of the evening, catching 10 passes for 190 yards as he seemed to have no problem working against Tarrell Brown while making acrobatic catches along the sidelines. Aaron Hernandez also caught ten passes, and Woodhead and Welker each caught five as the Patriots took advantage of mismatches in the secondary throughout the second half to get the Patriots back into the game. Advantage: Patriots

When the 49ers ran
Frank Gore failed to reach the 100 yard mark, which I believed was going to be a key stat on the night, but the 49ers had no problems running the ball. Gore ran for 83 yards, and Goldson added 31 on a fake punt, as the 49ers ran for 180 yards on the night. Double teams on Vince Wilfork helped the 49ers open up some holes in the middle of the field, and timely runs by James and Kaepernick aided scoring drives. Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes had busy nights, but 49ers play design seemed to keep the Patriots guessing as the 49ers built a huge 28 point lead. The 49ers had difficulty running to close out the game, but overall had the advantage on this night. Advantage: 49ers

Michael CrabtreeWhen the 49ers passed
Colin Kaepernick only threw for 216 yards on 14/25 passing, but it was his effective reads and manipulation of the Patriots’ secondary that allowed him to throw for four touchdown passes on the night. Michael Crabtree had a big night with seven catches for 107 yards and two scores, including the touchdown that decided the game. Moss and Walker each added touchdown catches as the patriots’ secondary seemed to bite on every piece of deception that Kaepernick would bait them into. His biggest mistake on the night was the pick by McCourty, but he showed excellent poise and maturity througfhout the game, not even losing confidence despite numerous botched snaps. Advantage: 49ers

Special Teams
Ted Ginn nearly cost the 49ers twice on punt returns. Both Ghost and Mesko had solid nights, as did Andy Lee, while David Akers connected on two field goals after missing an easy one. But it was LaMichael James’ kickoff return that really turned out to be a key play in the game, and the deciding play in this category. Advantage: 49ers

Intangibles
New England turned the ball over four times on the night, a startling number for a team that had only turned the ball over ten times in thirteen previous games, while the 49ers turned over the ball twice despite fumbling the ball six times. Points off turnovers were a huge factor, with the 49ers winning that battle 21-0. The 49ers won despite only a 25% success rate in the red zone, versus 80% by New England. The Niners committed six penalties, while the Patriots were flagged eight times. Advantage: 49ers

Key Moment: LaMichael James’ 62 yard kickoff return with 6:43 left in the game

Game Ball: Michael Crabtree with 7 receptions for 107 yards and two touchdowns

Quote of the Game: “We just spotted them 28 points. We fought hard, but you can’t play poorly against a good team and expect to win. We can’t miss plays that we have opportunities with.” (Tom Brady)