Feb 032013
 

NFL AwardsSuddenly our picks for the post-season awards aren’t looking so far off of the mark.

The NFL announced it’s post-season award winners last night, and we have a recap of the award winners, along with the Gridiron Rats recipient.Um… yeah… we might have pretty well.

Here’s a summary of the award winners.

PetersonMOST VALUABLE PLAYER –  ADRIAN PETERSON, MINNESOTA VIKINGS

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR – ADRIAN PETERSON, MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Adrian Peterson was elected the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, gaining 30.5 of the 50 votes cast by an Associated Press group of NFL writers. Coming off an ACL tear in December 2011, Peterson fell just nine yards short of the single-season rushing record, gaining 2,097 yards and 12 touchdowns. Peterson also captured honors for offensive player of the year, capturing 36 of the 50 first place votes. Peterson is only the third player to win both the MVP and the player of the year honors in a single season, joining Alan Page and Fran Tarkenton.

For the MVP voting, Peyton Manning received 19.5 first place votes. For the Offensive Player of the Year, Peterson finished ahead of Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Calvin Johnson.

Gridiron Rats also gave both awards to Peterson.

JJ WattDEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR – JJ WATT, HOUSTON TEXANS

JJ Watt won the Defensive Player of the Year award Saturday night, with a near unanimous 49 out of 50 first place votes (Von Miller got the lone dissenting vote). Watt had a monster season with 20.5 sacks and 16 pass deflections, to go along with 81 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles. There is little question that “JJ Swatt” was the league’s most disruptive defensive player in 2012.

Not surprisingly, the Gridiron Rats award went to Watt as well. (That’s 3 for 3 if you’re keeping score at home)

Robert-Griffin-IIIOFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR – ROBERT GRIFFIN III, WASHINGTON REDSKINS

Perhaps our most controversial pick, Griffin earned the AP’s recognition with an impressive rookie campaign as he helped transform the Washington Redskins into a playoff team for the first time since 2006. Griffin landed 29 of the 50 first place votes, followed by Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. Griffin finished the season with 3,200 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, only five interceptions, and he ran for another 815 yards and seven touchdowns.

We are now four for four, as the Gridiron Rats award went to Griffin as well.

Luke KuechlyDEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR – LUKE KUECHLY, CAROLINA PANTHERS

Luke Kuechly picked up 28 of 50 first place votes to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Kuechly tallied 164 tackles as a rookie, to go along with one sack, two interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and eight passes defensed. Kuechly received the NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month award in December, recording a league-high 59 tackles over the final five games of the season. Bobby Wagner of Seattle finished second with 11 first place votes, followed by Casey Heyward, Janoris Jenkins, and Lavonte David.

Kuechly also got the nod from Gridiron Rats, meaning we are five for five. Sensing a trend yet?

ManningCOMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR – PEYTON MANNING, DENVER BRONCOS

Anyone who thought Peyton Manning’s best days were behind him proved to be very wrong in 2012, as Manning returned from four neck surgeries and a missed 2011 campaign to lead the Broncos to a 13-3 record and first seed in the AFC playoffs. Manning threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 105.8. Manning beat out Adrian Peterson for this award. Sadly for Manning, his brilliant regular season was once again tarnished by a post-season meltdown.

Not surprisingly, Manning also captured the Gridiron Rats award, placing us one award away from a perfect record. (Can you tell we are a little pleased with ourselves?)

Bruce AriansCOACH OF THE YEAR – BRUCE ARIANS, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

It’s quite a story when an offensive coordinator wins the Coach of the Year Award, but there is no coach more deserving of this award than Bruce Arians. Arians took over when Head Coach Cuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia, and he guided the team to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth just one year removed from finishing with the league’s worst record, allowing the Colts to draft Andrew Luck with the first pick in the NFL Draft. Chuck Pagano finished second in the voting, followed by Pete Carroll and Leslie Frasier.

Arian was our first award winner at Gridiron Rats, meaning we were a perfect seven for seven in foreshadowing the AP winners. Mind you, that wasn’t our goal; we were simply recognizing the players and coaches that we thought were most deserving of these honors. But apparently the AP voters felt much the same way about each award, and if we are to be criticized for our selections (and there is plenty of debate to be had for some of these awards), then at least we have the satisfaction of being supported by the “official” awards.

Jan 162013
 

Patriots - RavensYes, the Baltimore Ravens beat the New England Patriots 31-30 in a Week Three Sunday night contest. Yes, the Patriots lost tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season this past weekend when he broke his forearm for the second time this season. Yes, the Ravens are playing with a lot of emotional energy and momentum as they try to extend the career of future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis.

None of that will determine the outcome on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.

The Ravens come into the contest fresh off a stunning and thrilling double overtime win over the Denver Broncos. While the Ravens escaped with a win, the Broncos were as guilty of handing the Ravens the game as the Ravens were responsible for making it happen. The heralded Broncos’ defense, which was the second best defense in the NFL this season (3rd against both the pass and the run) was shredded by Joe Flacco and Ray Rice to the tune of 486 combined rushing and passing yards. Pro-Bowler Champ Bailey got burned badly twice for touchdowns, while Rahim Moore was responsible for allowing an inexcusable game-tying touchdown in the final minute. On offense, Peyton Manning made key mistakes and the play-calling was overly conservative, all of which contributed to allowing Baltimore a chance to win the game.

While such mistakes are possible on any given Sunday, they are not crimes the New England Patriots are likely to commit.

For their part, the Patriots handily dismissed of the Houston Texans 41-28 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score suggests. While the Texans didn’t fold early this time around, the Patriots dominated the third quarter and early fourth to build a 38-13 lead and coasted from there, despite not being overly sharp on offense, and while losing Gronkowski, Danny Woodhead, and Chandler Jones to injuries. The Patriots simply took care of business, pretty or not, and they are highly motivated to take on the Ravens and earn their sixth Super Bowl bid in twelve seasons.

That’s not to say that this is going to be an easy victory for the Patriots to earn. But the Patriots got the better of the possible AFC championship game match-ups with the Ravens, and they have the added benefit of playing the game in the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium in what is currently forecast to be typical cold, windy January weather in Foxboro.

Here’s how the contest breaks down:

Ridley - RavensWhen the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley’s production has tailed off a bit in terms of yards gained, but he is still running for a solid average per carry and is more than enough to keep the Ravens’ defense honest. Denver ran for 125 yards against the Ravens, with their running game suffering the loss of Knowshon Moreno, but Ronnie Hillman was productive in gaining 83 yards. The Colts were similarly effective in rushing the ball against the Ravens in the wildcard game two weeks ago, gaining 152 yards on the ground.

The Patriots’ rushing attack was seventh in the league this season, averaging 136.5 yards per game. The Ravens still maintain a tough run defense, but slipped to 20th in the league this season, yielding over 122 yards per game on the ground. The versatile backfield group of Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen, running behind a stout offensive line, is likely to match the Patriots’ season average for yards. Ridley will grind yards between the tackles while Vereen has good speed to the edge and is always capable of breaking a big play. I expect that the Patriots will look to serve up a heavy dose of hurry-up offense, seeking to tire out a Ravens’ defense that looked heavily winded against the Broncos last Saturday. If the Patriots can secure a second half lead, look for the Patriots to pound Ridley and Vereen against a tired defense, killing valuable time off the clock.

Terrell Suggs had ten tackles and two sacks in the divisional round win over the Broncos. Ray Lewis is still fierce against the run, and assists Haloti Ngata, Ma’ake Kemoeatu, Pernell McPhee, Terrence Cody and Arthur Jones in trying to limit the Patriots’ rushing attack.

Prediction: 130 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns

Brady - Ravens

When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady was not overly sharp on Sunday and was hampered by dropped passes, yet still piled up 344 yards and three scores. Just as importantly, Brady protected the ball and did not throw any interceptions. The Patriots’ passing attack will be without Rob Gronkowski, but the Patriots are used to life without Gronk, and have plenty of players ready to step up. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are likely to once again be the keys to the Patriots’ short passing attack, while Brandon Lloyd has made his presence felt at key points in the season. Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead are reliable receivers coming out of the backfield who will likely get their opportunity to match up against the Ravens’ linebackers. Part of what will dictate the action is the defense that the Ravens line up with. If the Ravens line up in a base defense, it means mismatches with Vereen and Hernandez on linebackers, while if the Ravens move to a nickle defense, the Patriots will seek to exploit it with the run.

Corey Graham and Carey Williams are capable cornerbacks who will have their hands full on Sunday. Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard are fearless and experienced safeties who can play coverage or go for the big hit, though Reed is known as a gambler. However, the linebacking corps is where the Ravens are going to experience problems. While Paul Kruger has emerged as as the Ravens’ best defensive player and is a pass rush threat who is also more than capable in coverage, both Lewis and Suggs will be liabilities in defending the pass. Similarly, the Patriots may be able to exploit match-ups against Dannell Ellerbe, and I would expect Vereen and Woodhead to be running short routes in Ellerbe’s assignment area. This mismatch between receivers and linebackers is complicated by the fact that the Ravens have struggled to get consistent pressure on the quarterback from their defensive line, and have had to bring linebackers to aid the pass rush. Brady excels at identifying the blitzing linebacker and exploiting the open area.

Prediction: 270 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns

Rice - PatriotsWhen the Ravens run

Although Ray Rice’s production tailed off, the return of right guard Marshal Yanda has bolstered the Ravens’ offensive line and Rice was able to run for 131 yards against the Broncos after rushing for 68 yards against the Bengals (Bernard Pierce ran for 103 yards in that game). Pierce is emerging as an offensive threat, but is struggling with an injury suffered against the Broncos. Vonta Leach is a versatile fullback who excels at creating room for Rice to run in. The Patriots’ defensive front is among the best in the game, anchored by Vince Wilfork. Brandon Deaderick, Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes excel in run defense, while Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are effective in setting the edge. Justin Francis is an adequate replacement if Jones is unable to go due to injury. While Arian Foster was able to gain 90 yards last week against the Patriots, much of that came in a short succession of runs. Otherwise, Foster constantly found his running lanes clogged as he averaged 4.1 yards per carry (22 carries) which included a 21 yard run and a 19 yard run in the second quarter. Factoring those two runs out, Foster struggled for 50 yards on 20 carries.

Although Ray Rice is the only running back to have rushed for over 100 yards against the Patriots this season, he did so with 101 yards in Week Three. Rice is likely to average four yards per carry this week, and will likely hit at least one run of over twenty yards, but he is going to have a hard time finding room to run against a disciplined defensive front. Rice is one of two keys that the Patriots are looking to take away from the Ravens this Sunday.

Prediction: 110 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown


FlaccoWhen the Ravens pass

The other key that the Patriots will be looking to take away is the deep ball, particularly from Torrey Smith. While Smith does not make a ton of catches, he simply makes big plays, as Denver found out last week and as the Patriots know all too well from Week Three. Enter Aqib Talib, who plays with a level of swagger and confidence that is rare in Patriots’ cornerbacks. Talib’s skills make this a much tougher match-up for the Ravens than in the first meeting, but I still expect safety help whenever Smith is on the field. One of the keys to Baltimore winning this game is to hit big plays downfield, and that is something the Patriots must take away.

Joe Flacco excels in throwing the deep ball, and has emerged as the top of the “near elite” quarterbacks after Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers. And we might be talking about Flacco very differently had it not been for an outstanding play by Sterling Moore (on Lee Evans) in last year’s AFC Championship. Having said that, Flacco is better at throwing the deep ball than he is in the short and intermediate passing games; his post-season passing percentage in two playoff games this season is a mere 52.6. Talib and rookie Alfonzo Dennard (if healthy) are good bets to limit the production of Smith and Anquan Boldin, though both receivers will get their share of catches. Jacoby Jones is also a threat, and Kyle Arrington may have his hands full with the speedy receiver. Devin McCourty excels at safety and will take advantage of any mistakes made by Flacco, though his 22 TD, 10 INT season makes it unlikely that he will commit too many mistakes. Steve Gregory is playing extremely well and also limits yards after the catch.

The Patriots’ linebackers are generally solid in coverage, but they will be challenged by Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. Ray Rice has not factored as a huge receiving threat out of the backfield this season, but this is one area that the Ravens could seek to take advantage of, particularly since the Patriots seemed content to allow Arian Foster to go uncovered out of the backfield on numerous occasions last Sunday. Foster caught seven balls for 63 yards and a touchdown, and this has to be an area of concern for the Patriots.

The New England pass rush has not been consistent throughout the season, and the reshuffled Raven’s offense has performed admirably in pass protection, surrendering only two sacks so far in the post-season. The Patriots may need to get creative in blitzes to give Flacco less time to look down the field.

One very interesting development in the Patriots’ defensive evolution took place last Sunday when Rob Ninkovich picked off a Matt Schaub pass to end a Texans’ drive. On the play, the Patriots put only one man on the defensive line in a three point stance, and moved Mayo up to the right side of the defensive front to give the appearance of an all-out blitz. Schaub read this and saw that the middle of the field was wide open, but the Patriots had baited him. When Schaub stepped back to pass, Ninkovich dropped into coverage, exactly where Schaub thought he had a free pass. The result was an acrobatic play by Ninkovich to pick the ball off and steal any momentum the Texans might have. This is significant because we have not seen this type of scheming in the New England defense since the days of Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, and speaks as to how far the defensive unit has come since a miserable early part of the season. Flacco will get his yards, but the Patriots know his tendencies and are likely to create some confusion for him as the game goes on.

Prediction: 280 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns, 1 interception

Special Teams

Justin Tucker is an excellent rookie kicker who has missed only three field goals this season and looks to be at the beginning of a spectacular career. Sam Koch is a steady punter who is capable of giving the Patriots poor starting field position. Jacoby Jones is one of the game’s best returners; the Patriots will need to fix the coverage issues that they experienced last week against the Texans.

For the Patriots, Stephen Goskowski has overcome his early season struggles to have another successful campaign. Zoltan Mesko had an inconsistent season as the punter, but had a huge game last week against the Texans. I expect averages for both punters to come down in the colder weather this week, but Mesko is also capable of pinning the Ravens deep. McCourty is an inconsistent kickoff returner, while Welker always represents the potential of a big play in the punt return game.

Intangibles

Unlike the Texans, the Ravens won’t play scared and have a chip on their shoulder. Similarly, New England is playing with a strong sense of purpose after falling just short in last year’s Super Bowl.

One highly important piece is turnovers. The Patriots are the best in the league at +25 (41 takeaways versus 16 giveaways), while the Ravens come in at +9 (25 takeaways versus 16 giveaways). The lesson in these numbers is that both teams are proficient at protecting the ball, but the Patriots excel in forcing mistakes and turnovers. The Patriots were +1 in this department last week against Matt Schaub and the Texans, while Baltimore came out two Peyton Manning interceptions ahead last week. In the previous week however, Ray Rice loss two fumbles against the Colts. Fumbles are a rarity for Rice, but he will have to secure the ball this week against ballhawks like Mayo, Spikes, and Ninkovich. Just as special teams have the potential to shape this game, so too do turnovers.

One extra concern to note for the Patriots is their uncharacteristic trend of giving up points to end the first half, and giving up easy points once a lead has been established. If the Patriots can get in front of the Ravens on Sunday, they need to go for the kill and never let up.

Brady - VereenPrediction

If you simply compare the rosters between the two teams, the Ravens fare well, as their roster is loaded with talented players, even if they lack some of the depth of the Patriots, particularly on defense. Add the factor of the Ravens seeking revenge for last season’s loss in the AFC Championship, and Ravens’ fans have plenty of room to be hopeful. But revenge is only so much of a motivator, and it doesn’t replace execution. This game will come down to match-ups and execution, and that’s what gives Patriots’ fans confidence for a win.

The Ravens came into the playoffs as losers of four of their final five games. While their defense performed admirably on the road in the second half in Denver, shutting down Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense, the team will find it harder to execute to the same level in Foxboro this Sunday. The Patriots’ offense enjoys mismatches against the Ravens’ defenders that make it unlikely that the Ravens will hold the Patriots under 30 points. If Baltimore is to win this game, they will have to do so by winning a slugfest, and the Patriots’ defense is far better than it was when the two teams squared off early in the season. While the Ravens were able to win in Week Three, it was only after the Patriots squandered a two score lead late in the game in Baltimore.

Torrey Smith is right when he says the Ravens are a different team than they were a year ago; the trouble for the Ravens is that they are not necessarily a better team than they were a year ago. The offense has made strides in the passing game and has better playmakers than it did a year ago, although it is generally on par with where it was in 2011 statistically. But the Ravens’ defense has taken a significant step backward, in part due to health and in part to age. The Patriots are likely to draw the Ravens into a shootout, and the Ravens don’t currently seem equipped to win such a shootout with a team that won’t self-destruct the way Denver did in their divisional game, particularly on the road in New England. This game will see some early jitters for both sides as it will take time for the Patriots’ offense to find their rhythm, and an early Ravens lead is possible. But the Patriots will pull even or better by halftime, and the Patriots’ offense will physically pound the Ravens’ defense in the second half of the game. Both teams suffered from special teams lapses in the divisional round, so big plays are possible there. In the end, the Patriots’ offense will wear the Ravens down, and move on to the team’s eighth Super Bowl appearance.

New England Patriots 34 Baltimore Ravens 27

Jan 142013
 

Vote!Thanks for the nice turnout in our poll for NFL Most Valuable Player. Our reader’s choices reflected our own results, at least as far as the top three players are concerned. Adrian Peterson was a runaway pick of our readers, followed by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Here are the overall results:

Poll #21: Who is your choice for NFL MVP this season?

Adrian Peterson, Minnesota (54%, 19 Votes)
Peyton Manning, Denver (23%, 8 Votes)
Tom Brady, New England (11%, 4 Votes)
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay (6%, 2 Votes)
JJ Watt, Houston (6%, 2 Votes)
Robert Griffin III, Washington (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 35

Our new poll focuses on the list of 2013 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There are a maximum of five individuals who can emerge from the group of nominees to be inducted, and we want to get a sense of who our readers would like to see inducted next summer. Please note that you can vote for up to five people. You can see our synopsis of each candidate here.

Poll #22: Which five individuals should be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013?

G Larry Allen (DAL)
G Will Shields (KC)
T Jonathan Ogden (BAL)
RB Jerome Bettis (PIT)
WR Tim Brown (OAK/LA)
WR Cris Carter (MIN)
WR Andre Reed (BUF)
DT Warren Sapp (TB)
DE Michael Strahan (NYG)
DE Charles Haley (SF)
LB Kevin Greene (LA)
CB Aeneas Williams (AZ)
Bill Parcells (NYG)
Ed DeBartolo, Jr. (SF)
Art Modell (CLE/BAL)

We will leave this poll up for two weeks, and will announce the results on January 28.

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 072013
 

WilsonThey saved the best for last on wildcard weekend, with the Washington Redskins and the Seattle Seahawks giving us the most exciting game of the post-season’s opening weekend. Here’s a quick recap of the four games from Saturday and Sunday.

Houston Texans 19 Cincinnati Bengals 13
The Texans didn’t look great, but the Bengals looked worse in the opening contest. Arian Foster ran for 140 yards and a touchdown as the Texans held on to win. Matt Schaub went 29/38 for 262 yards, but threw a pick six that accounted for Cincinnati’s only touchdown of the day. Andy Dalton was not sharp, going 14/30 for 127 yards and a pick. The Texans’ defense limited the Bengals’ rushing game to just 80 yards on the day. The Texans now travel to New England to face the Patriots, where they lost 42-14 last month.

Green Bay Packers 24 Minnesota Vikings 10
Clay Matthews walked the talk as the Green Bay Packers not only stopped Adrian Peterson from again eclipsing the 200 yard mark, but held Peterson under the 100 yard mark as he gained 99 yards on 22 carries. Joe Webb was the Vikings’ emergency starter due to an injury to Christian Ponder, and Webb was just 11/30 for 180 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Aaron Rodgers had another solid outing, throwing for 274 yards and a touchdown on 23/33 passing. The Packers were able to cruise despite only gaining 76 yards on the ground, and must now travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers, a team that they lost to in Week 1.

Baltimore Ravens 24 Indianapolis Colts 9
The Colts hung around for the first half, but the Baltimore Ravens’ passing attack was simply too much for Indianapolis in the second half as the Ravens whipped the Colts 24-9. Anquan Boldin caught five passes for 145 yards and one touchdown to spark the Ravens and extend the career of linebacker Ray Lewis by another game. Rookie running back Bernard Pierce partially stole the show on Sunday, running for 103 yards on just 13 carries, while Ray Rice rushed for 70 yards on 15 carries. Joe Flacco threw for 282 yards and two scores, outdueling rookie Andrew Luck, who threw for 288 yards, but no touchdowns and one interception. Vick Ballard ran for 91 yards as the Colts shredded the Ravens’ defense for 152 rushing yards, but turnovers and sacks on offense and poor run defense stifled the Colts’ chances to pull off the upset. The Ravens now square off against the Denver Broncos. Denver beat Baltimore 34-17 in Week 15.

Seattle Seahawks 24 Washington Redskins 14
The Redskins raced out to an early 14-0 lead, but the Seahawks fought back and scored an unanswered 24 points to lead Seattle into the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. Russell Wilson threw for 187 yards and one score and ran for another 67 yards, while Marshawn Lynch pounded the Redskins’ defense for 132 yards and one touchdown. Robert Griffin III left the game after injuring his knee midway through the fourth quarter, though it was obvious that he was still feeling the effects of his earlier injury. Griffin went 10/19 for 89 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. The Seahawks now travel to Atlanta to square off against the Falcons. This will be the first meeting of the season between the two teams.

Jan 072013
 

Rat's Awards ImageOur final award this season is for the Most Valuable Player. Here is where we take the statistically amazing years by some players and factor in their overall value to the success of their team. This year’s MVP vote was a close one, with the winner getting 4 first place votes and the runner-up receiving the other three. And we bet you can guess who those players are.

Our MVP nominees included: Tom Brady (NE), Arian Foster (HOU), Robert Griffin III (WAS), Andrew Luck (IND), Peyton Manning (DEN), Adrian Peterson (MIN), Aaron Rodgers (GB), Matt Ryan (ATL), Aldon Smith (SF) and JJ Watt (HOU).

Tom Brady3rd Place – Tom Brady, New England Patriots
The numbers: 4,827 yards, 34 TD, 8 INT, 12-4 record
Arguments for: Tom Brady had another stellar season as the Patriots’ signal-caller, with a TD:INT ration of better than 4:1 as he threw for over 4,000 yards and led the Patriots to yet another division title and second seed in the AFC playoffs. he did it with a revolving corps of receivers yet again as the Patriots struggled with injuries to key players throughout the season.
Arguments against: Despite some uneducated opinions, Brady is not the product of the Patriots’ system, but rather the driver behind it. None the less, the talent surrounding Brady is extraordinary, particularly the tight end duo of Hernandez and Gronk, the phenomenal slot receiver Wes Welker, and a highly competent group of running backs. Had Ryan Mallett been forced to take over this team due to injury, there is a very fair chance that the Patriots still win the division.

Manning2nd Place – Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
The numbers: 4659 yards, 37 TD, 11 INT, 13-3 record
Arguments for: All Peyton Manning did in returning from a missed season is lead a new team to a 13-3 record, division title, and first overall seed in the AFC Playoffs. He finished sixth in passing yards, third in touchdowns and co-led the league in completion percentage.
Arguments against: Tim Tebow led this team to a division title last season. While the Broncos had the fourth rated offense in the NFL, they also had the second rated defense, so there is a fair argument that another quarterback still gets this team to the post-season the weak AFC West, though it’s doubtful that the Broncos would have gotten the #1 seed.

PetersonWINNER – Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
The numbers: 2,097 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns, 217 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown
Arguments for: Simply put, the Vikings don’t come close to the playoffs without the performance of Adrian Peterson this season. Minnesota had the 20th rated offense in the NFL and the 16th rated defense, so neither unit propelled this team to a 10-6 record and a very unexpected wildcard bid. Nor was it the performance of quarterback Christian Ponder, who had a passer rating of 81.2 and 18 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, but who was inconsistent in his performances throughout the season. By comparison, during the Vikings’ four game winning streak at the end of the season to make the playoffs, Paterson amassed 651 yards, or an average of 162.7 per game. In the Vikings’ ten wins, Peterson ran for 1,235 yards, or 123.5 per game. No Peterson, no playoffs, and likely another losing record in Minnesota.
Arguments against: We’re not sure there is a good argument against Peterson being this year’s MVP. While there is at least one other player who is arguably equally deserving, there is no one more deserving. Yes, the Vikes got bounced in the first round of the playoffs, but this is a regular season award, voted for prior to the playoffs.

Jan 032013
 

Vote!OK, so I’m going to pretend that Poll #20 never happened. Despite decent traffic, no one seemed interested in the poll, so we’ll call it a dud and move on.

Poll #21 looks at our reader’s choice fr the 2012 MVP, grabbing the top six players from our own site’s MVP voting. Our MVP will be announced on Monday, January 7, but we’ll leave this poll up until the 14th before getting back onto our regular schedule. The GiR award winners in seven categories will begin rolling out tomorrow morning. We begin tomorrow with Head Coach of the Year and Comeback Player. On Saturday we will have the Offensive and defensive Rookies of the Year, followed on Sunday with Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year.

Poll #21: Who is your choice for NFL MVP this season?

Tom Brady, New England
Robert Griffin III, Washington
Peyton Manning, Denver
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
JJ Watt, Houston

Jan 022013
 

15cgvike1203.jpgMinnesota Head Coach Leslie Frazier has given a high appraisal of backup quarterback Joe Webb’s ability, making it no secret that he feels Webb can be an NFL starter. So it was faith in Christian Ponder, rather than the sense he lacked depth at the QB position, that prompted Frazier to stick with Ponder through his mid-season struggles. Ponder rewarded his coach with a 234 yard 3 td performance in Week 17 at home that capped a 4-game winning streak, in which Ponder was picked off only once, and launched Minnesota into this week’s re-match at Lambeau. Ponder’s ability to relocate his early season efficiency in conjunction with Frazier’s guile and Adrian Peterson’s historic comeback season have turned around a franchise that bottomed out at 3-13 just a season ago.

For Green Bay, 2012 was more of the same from a franchise that has taken on a level of consistency and success in the McCarthy-Rodgers era. Aaron Rodgers overcame the lack of a marquee running attack and injuries to both Greg Jennings and Randall Cobb to post MVP caliber numbers. Green Bay overcame a 2-3 start, albeit a controversial loss to Seattle thrown into that mix, to win 11 of their final 13 games. Saturday brings round three of the Vikings-Packer series back to Lambeau where the Packers overcame a 14-10 halftime deficit against Minnesota on Dec. 2 and have not lost since opening day.

The Keys for Minnesota
It was Ponder’s 2 interceptions thrown to Morgan Burnett that sunk the Vikings on Dec 2nd and rendered Adrian Peterson’s 210 yard performance for naught. Fast forward to Week 17 when Peterson rushed for 199 yards but Ponder avoided turnovers and passed for three scores in the wild card clinching victory. Ponder will need to be equally as efficient if Minnesota is to win the rubber match. Additionally—it almost goes without saying—Peterson needs to continue his dominance against the Packer defense.

If Minnesota did one thing right on the other side of the ball in Week 17 it was in the pass rush where they were able to register 5 sacks. Unfortunately, the back end of the defense did not fare as well—giving up 365 yards and 34 points. Greg Jennings seems to be returning to form while Randall Cobb is likely to be available for Rodgers this week. Minnesota will need to slow down Green Bay in the secondary if they are to move on.

The Keys for the Packers
The Green Bay defense proved more than proficient at getting to the quarterback this season—ranking inside the top 5 in sacks. However, they have not fared well against the Vikings pass protections schemes and have sacked Ponder once in two games this season. Green Bay will need to put more pressure on Ponder in the second year quarterbacks playoff debut. The Packers can withstand another big performance by the NFL rushing champion as long as they make the Vikings offense one dimensional.

On the offensive side of the ball Aaron Rodgers will need to produce like Aaron Rodgers typically does. The Vikings defensive line has been able to find Rodgers, who has been able to overcome 7 sacks in the two meetings to produce stellar numbers. One has to wonder if Rodgers overcome back-to-back 5 sack performances? The Packers would be served best not to find out and would likely benefit from better pass protection and a better performance by the running game. They rushed for 72 yards in the week 17 loss versus 137 in their victory on Dec. 2nd. DuJuan Harris will likely get the chance to lead the Packers rushing attack.

Outcome
It can be argued that Minnesota has outplayed Green Bay in 6 of the 8 quarters the teams have played. Two things have held true through the two meetings: Green Bay cannot stop Peterson and Aaron Rodgers has been able to overcome Minnesota’s pressure to exploit the Vikings’ secondary. The “Wild Card” here is Ponder and whether or not he has the ability to build the performance of last week when he not only took care of the ball but he made big plays when needed. Similarly to the Colts and the Redskins, Minnesota getting to this point marks a dramatic resurrection from where they were a year ago. Win or lose, the Vikings are headed in the right direction. However, this week that direction is a return flight to Minneapolis where they can begin an off-season with designs on building on the success of 2012. Green Bay 35 – Minnesota 21

Dec 202012
 

christmas-treeMy goodness, Widows. We are nearing the end of the road on this year’s regular NFL season. I am sure that your fan is eagerly awaiting the most exciting day of the year. The day that fills a football fan’s home with sounds of cheer and delightful smells of food from the kitchen. The day when friends and families gather to celebrate that which is truly important…FOOTBALL! Oh, wait…did you think that I meant Christmas? Sorry, Widows. I meant the Superbowl.

Just so all of you know that I have not been truly converted from Widow to Fan, I turn to one of my tried and not-so-true methods of choosing my teams for this week. Quarterbacks. In particular, which one that I would rather see in my stocking this year if Santa were giving me a cute Quarterback for Christmas. To be short, sweet and to the point so that I can get back to wrapping presents and baking cookies- I appreciate the ability to see nice looking young men when I watch the games and if you can’t be grateful during the holiday season, when can you?

This week, due to the way the holiday falls, we have no Monday night game. In fact, no more Monday night football until next fall. (pausing for any shouts of joy…). Instead we have a Saturday matchup between the Falcons and the Lions. I find Matt Ryan more aesthetically pleasing, so I choose a Falcons win.

Here’s the rest. Happy Holidays to all three of my readers!

Week 16 Widow’s Picks

Falcons over Lions (see above)

Packers over Titans (Locker is cute. Rodgers is cuter)

Panthers over Raiders (I love a Cam Newton smile)

Dolphins over Bills (Ryan Tannehill…and his wife is gorgeous too)

Bengals over Steelers (I usually don’t go for red heads like Andy Dalton, but I can’t wrap my head around finding Ben Roethlisberger the slightest bit attractive and I certainly don’t want to wake up Christmas day and find him under my tree.)

Patriots over Jaguars (Probably not a surprise, but I NEED Tom to come through for me this week and show us that is a far more than a pretty face.)

Colts over Chiefs (Two nice looking quarterbacks, chosen by likelihood of actual winner)

Cowboys over Saints (Tony Romo over Drew Brees)

Redskins over Eagles (I am a big RG III fan)

Buccaneers over Rams (Freeman over Bradford)

Ravens over Giants (I don’t find Eli attractive. At all.)

Texans over Vikings (Matt Schaub over Christian Ponder. I just prefer his looks)

Browns over Broncos (Sorry Manning…See comment above re: Eli…)

Cardinals over Bears (I like the Cardinals’ new guy)

Seahawks over 49ers (Tough call. Colin Kaepernik is a cutie. In the end, I opted for less ink.)

Chargers over Jets (I had to change this one 6 times during the season due to the Jets quarterback crisis.)