Oct 092013
 

Rats RankingsWe lost a couple of the unbeaten teams this week, as the Seahawks fell to the Colts and the Bengals bested the Patriots in a defensive struggle. That leaves us with the Broncos, Saints and Chiefs all locked at 5-0. On the flip side, the Giants and Jaguars have both started the year at 0-5, while the Steelers and Buccaneers benefited from byes to stay at 0-4. In the stunner of the week, the Jets outplayed the Falcons on Monday Night Football, while the Raiders got out to an early lead and then held on the beat the Chargers in another relative surprise. Our contributors have been polled, and here are our rankings and questions as we move into Week Six. Last week’s rankings are in [brackets].

1. Denver Broncos (5-0, six first place votes) [1] – Can anyone but the Broncos beat the Broncos?
2. New Orleans Saints (5-0) [4] – Can Drew Brees keep taking a beating and keep on ticking?
3. Seattle Seahawks (4-1) [2] – Still the best team in the NFC?
4. Kansas City Chiefs (5-0) [7] – Will it be the 9-0 Chiefs versus the 9-0 Broncos?
5. Indianapolis Colts (4-1) [12] – Does the AFC South belong to Indy once again?
6. New England Patriots (4-1) [5] – Is that a Gronk sighting?
7. San Francisco 49ers (3-2) [8] – Isn’t Frank Gore amazing when he gets the ball?
8. Chicago Bears (3-2) [3] – Has the inevitable drama involving Jay Cutler begun?
9. Miami Dolphins (3-2) [6] – Does Miami now have two teams to cheer for?
10. Cincinnati Bengals (3-2) [10] – Was this a statement win, or just the rain?
11. Green Bay Packers (2-2) [13] – Ready to roll, or more hot and cold?
12. Detroit Lions (3-2) [14] – Why did they move up? Because reality settled in for #s 16 and 17.
13. Dallas Cowboys (2-3) [15] – Why is it that Tony Romo always manages to kill a brilliant performance with one stupid decision?
14. Tennessee Titans (3-2) [16] – Can they manage with Jake Locker gone?
15. Baltimore Ravens (3-2) [17] – Can they slow down the Packers?
16. Houston Texans (3-2) [9] – Will it be five games in a row for Matt Schaub to throw a pick six?
17. Atlanta Falcons (1-4) [11] – Is Mike Smith trying to coach the Falcons out of the playoff hunt?
18. New York Jets (3-2) [20] – Will the real Geno Smith please stand up?
19. Arizona Cardinals (3-2) [23] – When is the last time the Cardinals won games in spite of their quarterback? Oh yeah… guess nothing has changed.
20. Cleveland Browns (3-2) [27] – Is Brandon Weeden’s return the worst thing that could happen to this suddenly resurgent club?
21. St. Louis Rams (2-3) [18] – Think they are missing Steven Jackson? Yeah, and so are the Falcons.
22. San Diego Chargers (2-3) [22] – With this record, is it like Norv Turner is still there?
23. Philadelphia Eagles (2-3) [21] – Is Chip Kelly wishing the Eagles could play the Giants every week?
24. Minnesota Vikings (1-3) [25] – Is it time to move from one failed quarterback to another?
25. Carolina Panthers (1-3) [19] – They played like that AFTER a bye week?
26. Buffalo Bills (2-3) [24] – Is there a spike in barrels going over Niagara Falls with EJ Manuel injured?
27. Oakland Raiders (2-3) [30] – Is anyone else thinking this team is going to be deadly after they spend $50 million in the coming off-season?
28. Washington Football Club (1-3) [31] – Is that Daniel Snyder’s final answer on the name of his team? This is ours.
29. Pittsburgh Steelers (0-4) [28] – Is this team really going to lose to the Jets?
30. New York Giants (0-5) [26] – How is Eli still standing with an offensive line this bad?
31. Tampa bay Buccaneers (0-4) [29] – Did the bye help, or is this just an extra week between losses?
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-5) [32] – So what will the Broncos’ team tweets be like AFTER the game?

To be fair to Sharpe, he had a really good question that got preempted by our commentary. For Washington, he asks: “Do they need more French players?” It’s a fair question.

See you next time!

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 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

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)

Dec 142012
 

49ers - PatriotsWeek 15 features a possible foreshadowing of the Super Bowl when the San Francisco 49ers roll into Foxboro to square off against the New England Patriots on Sunday night. The Patriots are 10-3, riding a seven game winning streak including a 42-14 thrashing of the Houston Texans on Monday night, while the 49ers are 9-3-1, and coming off a win over the Miami Dolphins last Sunday.

This game will not be a repeat of the blowout win over the Texans, but the match-ups are not dissimilar. New England features a balanced offense capable of running and passing effectively, against a San Francisco defense that is stout against both the run and the pass, but susceptible to throws to tight ends. On the other side, San Francisco has the second rated rushing offense but is going against a tough run defense anchored by Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo.  The 49ers passing attack is fairly weak, ranking 26th in the league, but Colin Kapernick is a mobile and unpredictable quarterback who can make plays with his legs as easily as he can with his arm. We won’t be seeing another 42-14 blowout, but the match-ups do seem to favor a New England win in what is likely to be a hard fought contest. The 49ers defense does not have the weaknesses that the Patriots are used to exploiting, but the big question is whether or not Colin Kaepernick can score the points that will be needed to win this game.

Here’s how the contest will break down.

When the Patriots run
This is a tough match-up for the Patriots, despite having a solid rushing attack this season. The Niners excel at stopping the run, and generally can do it with five defenders. Isaac Sopoaga, Ray McDonald, and Justin Smith create a formidable wall, and are supplemented by Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman inside, so Stevan Ridley is going to find it difficult to find running room in the middle. But his bruising style is similar to those backs who have given the 49ers trouble this year, so expect the Patriots to test the middle early in the game. This seems like a game where the Patriots might rely more on Shane Vereen or Brandon Bolden to find running room around the edges, but more than likely the biggest damage that Patriots’ backs will be doing is catching balls out of the backfield. Look for the Patriots to be below their season average of 140 yards, probably somewhere around 100. They do need to establish a running threat early in order to be able to sell play actions, but some of their better play actions against the Texans were on runs that appeared to be going outside, which could help sell the play action even without an effective ground game this Sunday. Advantage: 49ers

When the Patriots pass
New England is used to going up against defenses that are statistically excellent and then putting up both yards and points against them, and they have been doing so all season, even in their losses. The 49ers have perhaps the best pass rusher in the game in Aldon Smith, plus Justin Smith is a powerful bull rusher, but they will have to apply consistent pressure with only three or four rushers in order to avoid having Brady carve up the field the way he did against the Texans. The Patriots are known for making pass rushers disappear through flawlessly executed technique, so more than likely the 49ers will need to send more rushers to be able to get to Brady. This opens up the 49er defense to some mismatches.

One of those mismatches is Danny Woodhead, who will likely be active in the short passing and screen game. Woodhead will likely be covered by Patrick Willis (or Bowman) and should find success getting five to ten yards a connection. Aaron Hernandez will find himself getting attention from Donte Whitner, who is undoubtedly the weak link in the 49ers’ secondary. Whitner is the strong safety in the defensive formation, which is exactly where the Patriots like to throw the most. Look for Hernandez to be a frequent target. Another match-up where the Patriots seem to have an edge is Wes Welker against Carlos Rodgers. Rodgers struggles against speedy slot receivers, and Welker is among the league’s best. A steady rotation of passes to Hernandez, Welker, and Woodhead could give the 49ers fits in pass coverage. If Tarrell Brown is moved over to play Welker, then look for Brandon Lloyd to get some chances. Otherwise, Lloyd figures to have a quiet night.

At the end of the day, the 49ers are a solid pass defense, but the Patriots’ receivers are simply too talented to keep in check, particularly with Tom Brady’s ability to read and respond instantly to coverages. Look for Brady to throw in the neighborhood of 250 yards and two scores. Advantage: Patriots

When the 49ers run
The 49ers have the second best rushing attack, averaging 161.5 ypg, but are going up against a run defense that ranks eighth, yielding only 100.8 ypg. Moreover, the Patriots have a knack for taking away the opposing team’s greatest offensive threat, which in this case is Frank Gore. Gore has rushed for 1,035 yards this season along with seven touchdowns, and is the key to the 49ers’ attack. Vince Wilfork has been a terror inside over the past month and is playing some of the best football of his career. Look for Wilfork to routinely line up over the weakside guard in this contest. Kyle Love is becoming a tough inside defender and will play opposite Wilfork. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones both excel at setting the edge and forcing the action back inside, so Gore is going to have to work hard for every yard he gets. Jerod Mayo is a solid run stuffer, as is Brandon Spikes, who is fighting off an ankle injury. Look also for the Patriots to sneak a safety into the box, confident in their ability to cover the 49ers’ receivers in man to man. Similar to the Patriots, look for San Francisco to only run for about 100-110 yards in this contest. Advantage: Patriots

When the 49ers pass
Jim Harbaugh has opted for Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith, and I still hold that Harbaugh is intentionally choosing long-term gain over short-term pain. In this game, the Patriots will focus on limiting the 49ers running game and seek to keep Kaepernick in the pocket, forcing him to beat the Patriots with his arm, something he has not yet been asked to do as a starting quarterback. Where Mayo blitzed frequently last week against the Texans, this week he will be assigned the “spy” role for both Gore and Kaepernick. Trevor Scott and Dont’a Hightower will be called upon to assist Ninkowich and Jones in setting the edge and keeping Kaepernick in the middle of the field.

Michael Crabtree has 66 receptions this season and will likely be drawing coverage from Aqib Talib (who is day to day) and Randy Moss may have to step up if Mario Manningham can’t go, but either would draw the coverage of Alfonzo Dennard, who is providing to be a steal from the 2012 draft. The tougher match-ups for the Patriots are in the flat, where Vernon Davis has the potential to do some damage, but has yet to emerge as a key Kaepernick target. Look for him to be much more active Sunday night. Delanie Walker might also see some targets over the middle. The 49ers don’t have much depth in their receiving group, and Frank Gore has only 23 catches this season, so the 49ers are not an overly scary passing threat against a Patriots’ secondary that has improved dramatically during their seven game winning streak. Advantage: Patriots

Special Teams
Devin McCourty is an inconsistent kick returner who is capable of an occasional big play. Ted Ginn hasn’t done much in the way of kickoff returns this season. Wes Weler is both consistent and dangerous in the punt return game, while Ginn is again unremarkable but does get a respectable 10 yards per return. Stephen Gostkowski is a solid kicker who has had some occasional struggles this year, while David Akers has been struggling through injury and is not his usual self. Andy Lee is a solid punter and has the edge over Zoltan Mesko. Advantage: Even

Intangibles
The Patriots continue to dominate the turnover battle, with a +24 based on 34 takeaways and only 10 giveaways. The 49ers are roughly in the middle of the pack at +6 with 18 takeaways and 12 giveaways. Both teams protect the ball, but the Patriots are much better at forcing turnovers. Jim Harbaugh is a talented coach in his second year with the 49ers, but has not yet prove himself on the big stage. Bill Belichick excels at devising game plans that take away the opponent’s strengths, and I rather suspect that the Patriots will be focusing on how to control both lines of scrimmage. San Francisco has committed 94 (7.23 pg) penalties this season, compared to the Patriots’ 79 (6.08 pg). Advantage: Patriots

San Francisco wins if… they get consistent pressure on Brady with only four rushers, Frank Gore rushes for 100 yards, Colin Kaepernick protects the ball.

New England wins if… they keep Frank Gore under 100 yards rushing, create and take advantage of passing mismatches on offense, and keep Colin Kaepernick in the pocket.

Prediction
This is going to be a much closer game than Monday night, and the 49ers offer a much tougher defense than the Texans. This game will go down to the wire and will in all likelihood be within one score. What pushes me over the edge on this game is that I can see where the Patriots are going to get their points, as there are offensive mismatches to take advantage of. I am also fairly confident in the ability of the Patriots to make it a frustrating night for Frank Gore, and the 49ers don’t have the type of offense to be able to win a game with the Patriots through the air. I see Kaepernick creating a couple of big plays with his legs but having a frustrating night in the air, and I believe the 49ers are going to have a hard time producing points. Look for a bruising battle with the Patriots eventually squeezing out a win. Projected score: Patriots 24 49ers 20.

Week 7 Recap

 Posted by
Oct 222012
 

There wasn’t much in the way of upsets this week, which will no doubt help our resident “experts” in our picks competition. The logjam in the AFC East was broken up for this week, the AFC North became competitive again, and the Saints continued to long path to recovery with their second straight win. Here’s how Week 7 unfolded:

Oct 222012
 

Wow… we had quite a turnout for this past week’s poll, and we thank all the kind readers from Reddit who visited our site to take part. We had another runaway winner this week, as 42% of you thought that the New Orleans Saints were off to the most disappointing start in the NFL this season. Here are the results from last week’s poll.

 

Poll #10: Which team is off to the most disappointing start?

New Orleans (1-4) (42%, 32 Votes)
Carolina (1-4) (22%, 17 Votes)
New England (3-3) (17%, 13 Votes)
Green Bay (3-3) (9%, 7 Votes)
Pittsburgh (2-3) (4%, 3 Votes)
Kansas City (1-5) (3%, 2 Votes)
Dallas (2-3) (3%, 2 Votes)
Total Voters: 76

This week’s poll takes a first look at the MVP of the season to date. It is a large pool, trying to fit in the top quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, and defensive players to see what fans think of the candidates after seven weeks.

Poll #11: If the season ended today, who would you vote for as the Most Valuable Player?

Tom Brady, New England
Drew Brees, New Orleans
Victor Cruz, New York Giants
Arian Foster, Houston
Frank Gore, San Francisco
AJ Green, Cincinnati
Robert Griffin III, Washington
Percy Harvin, Minnesota
Marshawn Lynch, Seattlle
Eli Manning, New York Giants
Peyton Manning, Denver
Clay Matthews, Green Bay
Alfred Morris, Washington
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh
Matt Ryan, Atlanta
JJ Watt, Houston
Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis
Wes Welker, New England

Week 6 Recap

 Posted by
Oct 142012
 

Through six weeks of the NFL season, all four teams in the AFC East are sitting at 3-3, while every team in the NFC West seemingly has a legitimate shot at making the playoffs while the Saints and Packers are both struggling. My what a strange season 2012 is turning out to be.

Here are your quick game summaries from Week Six.