2016 NFC West Previews & Predictions

Michael Bennett & Cliff Avril sandwich Drew Brees amid the din of Qwest Field.

Michael Bennett & Cliff Avril sandwich Drew Brees amid the din of Qwest Field.

If you go back to last year’s NFC Divisional Round, the Seattle Seahawks learned the hard way how valuable the homefield advantage was they had enjoyed the previous two seasons. After having traveled 8,931 miles in round trips to Phoenix, Minnesota in the Wildcard, then taking the field in Carolina, they were an exhausted team. Falling behind 31-0 by halftime to the eventual NFC Champion Panthers. Their season came to a close with a 31-24 defeat at the hands of Cam Newton and company.

In an attempt to make it to their 3rd Super Bowl in 4 years, Seattle needs to draw teams up to the Pacific Northwest. Let them fatigue with the travel. Yet a question remains: So who are they?? The team that fell behind big in Carolina or the team that came roaring back outscoring them 24-0 in the 2nd half??

seahawksalt22016 NFC West Predictions

Seattle Seahawks 12-4**

Arizona Cardinals 10-6*

San Francisco 49ers 6-10

LA Rams 4-12

The first question that will arise from the desert will invariably be: “What about the Arizona Cardinals? They won the NFC West last year?”

Which is 100% true. Yet let’s take you back to week 17 of the 2016 campaign and offer the genesis why they aren’t favored.

In week 10 the Cardinals had knocked off the Seahawks in a rousing 39-32 road win to become the media darling of the NFC West. National sports shows and pundits flocked to the desert to interview this team. Some even waxed philosophical about Carson Palmer for league MVP, he was having that good of a season. Yet a date with an old bully loomed in the last week of the season.

There was an outside chance the Cardinals had a shot at homefield advantage, and more important could knock the Seahawks from the playoffs. Just as important to the Cardinals psyche was the chance to sweep their nemesis and prove to themselves the first win was no fluke. They had become the heavy in the NFC West and this would cement that notion to both teams…to everyone.

carsonpalmerWell the Seahawks punched the Cardinals right in the mouth as Palmer deteriorated (12 of 25 for 129 yards 1 TD / 1 int) into his worst performance of the year. He was pulled in the 2nd quarter in the middle of being routed 30-6 by intermission, finally falling 36-6. His spotty play continued against Green Bay in the divisional round of the playoffs, as the offense struggled for continuity in a 26-20 overtime win.

The only reason they won that game was Larry Fitzgerald early in overtime caught an intermediate route, cleared Clay Matthews, and in normal circumstances runs out of bounds with a 1st down. However Fitzgerald knew he had to take matters into his own hands and turned upfield instead of going out of bounds. He ran like the Cardinal’s playoff life depended on it going 75 yards to the Green Bay 3. Winning the game with a shovel pass 2 plays later.

Then comes the 4 interception and 2 fumble meltdown 49-15 loss to the Panthers in the NFC Championship Game. Palmer finished with 3 poor games when the stakes were the highest and has to prove he’s not a shot fighter. He hasn’t had a good postseason outing since the 2002 Orange Bowl in college. Only problem is Pete Carroll was his coach then and not the division rival as he is now. Much like a boxer after a vicious knockout loss, the Arizona Cardinals need to win the battle with themselves psychologically. Starting with Palmer. That is why they aren’t favored.

Bruce Arians and the window for the Arizona Cardinals is going to close after this season. Its now or never to make it to the Super Bowl with Palmer (37 yrs of age) and Larry Fitzgerald (33 yrs of age) leading the charge. David Johnson is coming into his own at RB and should rush for 1,300 yards this season.

The Cardinals had the 5th best defense in football and pulled off a coup of a trade picking up OLB Chandler Jones from New England. However his addition is offset by Tyrann Mathieu rehabbing another blown out knee. Can Defensive Coordinator James Bettcher get enough out of top pick DT Robert Nkimdiche and Jones in the rush to keep from his exotic blitz packages?? Mathieu had CB like coverage skills when 100% healthy. This season he could get exposed by those blitzes so they need the front seven to get after opposing QBs.

rams.takingfield.losangeles

The L.A. Rams taking the field for the 1st time in the 21st century.

In Los Angeles we had 90,000 come out to the LA Coliseum to witness the Rams returning to Southern California, and we are in the honeymoon stage. Lets not forget this was the 32nd or dead last offense in the NFL last season, and 1st pick Jared Goff needs a lot of work.  Despite RB Todd Gurley’s 1,106 yd 10 TD debut season, this is a team that had to take a QB#1 overall after tossing an anemic 11 TDs last season. It looks like journeyman Case Keenum will start as the prized rookie (Goff) learns the pro game from the sidelines. The question that arises… Can Coach Jeff Fisher and QB Coach Chris Weinke get Goff ready to be an NFL signal caller?? Maybe they will…but not this season.

The 49ers could be the surprise of the season with Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick leading a new charge under Chip Kelly. Carlos Hyde will have to become the every down back Frank Gore used to be and rush for 1,200 or better. Kaepernick and an improved Gabbert will win 6 games this year as the 49ers build back to respectability.

Now Russell is as big a threat in the pocket as outside of it.

Now Russell is as big a threat in the pocket as outside of it.

Which brings us to Seattle. The Seahawks had a dress rehearsal of the upcoming year without Marshawn Lynch in 2015.  Wilson became the focal point of the offense and developed as a total signal caller. In completing 329 of 483 for 4,024 yds 34 TDs to just 8 ints, Wilson graduated from being the resourceful scrambler to a bonafide elite QB add MVP candidate.

With so much attention on Wilson, Rawls (830 yds / 4 TDs) was able to settle into the RB position along with Christine Michael. The defense is still one of the NFL’s best although they lost LB Bruce Irvin to the Raiders. Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, and Richard Sherman are still patrolling the secondary with LBs Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright eating up the passing lanes underneath. The Seahawks have to get more from Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett up front this year. At times the pass rush wasn’t there last year and exposed the back 7 some.

Seattle is the class of this division and should challenge for homefield advantage.

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Alex Smith v. Colin Kaepernick: In Whom Do You Trust

Today’s football game between the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs isn’t just another football game. The saga playing out will be the Alex Smith v Colin Kaepernick debate. Did the 49ers keep the right quarterback?? Most 49er fans think they did. Is that because they’re blind loyalists and wanted to move on with the new QB??

Alex Smith goes back to San Fran to take on the 49ers

Alex Smith goes back to San Fran to take on the 49ers

This has a similar backdrop to the 1994 game between the Chiefs and 49ers. In that one Steve Young brought the 49ers to Arrowhead to face his predecessor Joe Montana, now a Chief. However this one is taking place in San Francisco. Its a shame this game couldn’t happen at Candlestick Park with all the history.

For the record, The Chancellor of Football believes the 49ers kept the wrong quarterback.

Short sighted 49er fans forget that Smith drove Harbaugh’s first team to an NFC best 13-3 record. Then knocked off the Saints with “The Catch III” playoff winner to Vernon Davis in the final seconds. Smith didn’t lose that NFC Championship Game to the Giants. Those two muffed punts by Kyle Williams did them in.

In 2012 the 49ers were an established contender at 7-4, when Harbaugh made the switch to Kapernick. Smith said all the right things as he watched the 49ers make the Super Bowl. They lost that game to a superior team and the game revealed Kaepernick’s fatal flaw that still haunts him.

Kaepernick is dazzling when he runs but suspect when throwing.

Kaepernick is dazzling when he runs but suspect when throwing.

He makes splash plays when he runs the football but hasn’t developed as a downfield quarterback. Watch his play. He can’t throw his receiver open to a designated spot in the defense, and relies on a straight path to drill the football to his receivers. In other words, he can only complete passes like a game of catch. He hasn’t shown the ability to throw on time and drop the ball in over the linebackers or the fade routes to Crabtree Richard Sheman was talking about.

This is why you see so many of his interceptions by defenders undercutting his throws. Think back to the Monday Night game against Chicago. Kaepernick hasn’t developed the touch that failed him on that final throw in Super Bowl XLVII, and is still throwing the same way. Relies too much on running and scrambling instead of allowing the specificity of the planned offensive play to take shape.

As these two went on separate paths, the 49ers went 12-4 and did make it back to the NFC Championship Game. Not only did Smith have a better record the year before with the 49ers but went 11-5 with a new team and new offense. Yes the Chiefs lost in the AFC Wildcard 45-44 but it was the most points scored by a team that lost an NFL playoff game ever.

Is Harbaugh going to make it in San Francisco past this year??

Is Harbaugh going to make it in San Francisco past this year??

Last year Kaepernick threw for 3,197 yards 21 TDs to only 8 interceptions. Smith tossed 23 TDs, 7 interceptions and 3,313 yards. So the tale of the tape is close.

Isn’t it ironic that after a week in which the NFL community is questioning whether Harbaugh has lost his locker room, here comes what ultimately could be his demise in San Francisco?? The Chancellor of Football told you before the season, Harbaugh will be out after this year.

Both teams are showing up to today’s game at 2-2 and Smith knows this defense pretty well. If you think this game doesn’t mean a lot to him, look at last week’s footage between the Texans and Bills. Before that game Ryan Fitzpatrick passionately told the Texans what beating his former team meant.

If you thought the buzzards are starting to circle above Harbaugh now, don’t let them lose this football game. By the way…Joe Montana and the Chiefs won that game in 1994 too.

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NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks

Well here we are again for the third time during the 2013 season, this time with a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII at stake. We named the first battle Ali v. Frazier I in week 2 of the regular season and now it’s time to get ready for The Rumble in The Jungle or Ali v Frazier III

The game NFL fans have anticipated since last year's NFC Divisional Round of the playoffs.

The game NFL fans have anticipated since last year’s NFC Divisional Round of the playoffs.

A gem of a defensive battle looms in the Pacific Northwest between two teams whose coaches hate one another from back in their college days a few years back. This game will boil down to the defense that forces the first turnover.

The George Halas Trophy.

The George Halas Trophy.

Although the Seahawks aren’t asking much from Russell Wilson, he has to play better than he did against New Orleans. He will have to make a few plays on the go while they establish the running game. The exact same thing holds true with Colin Kaepernick.

The one wild card is Anquan Boldin. He is the one player the 49ers have that can change the game. He looks to make plays when the team needs him most. Yet he has to make the most of his opportunities. There won’t be many against Seattle’s secondary.

Seattle has been our pick to win the Super Bowl since last January and nothing has changed. This is one of the finest defenses in modern football history which will take them to the Super Bowl if the offense doesn’t turn the football over. For the 49ers to win they have to force turnovers early and take the crowd out of it. However the Seahawks will run the football and play a tight game and allow the defense to play on a long field.

In the end….we have to stay the course with Seattle in a 26-16 win tonight.

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NFC Divisional Playoff: San Francisco 49ers @ Carolina Panthers

This is the one playoff game this weekend that could have been interesting. With Carolina wideout Steve Smith at 60% by his own admission, or at least doubtful, it takes steam out of this match-up. Smith is the conscious and fighting spirit of that football team. Although the league’s #2 defense is intact, this team peaked a few weeks ago.

Cam Newton is going into his first NFL playoff game.

Cam Newton is going into his first NFL playoff game.

Cam Newton can’t play sporadic and expect the defense to keep him in a playoff game until he finds his accuracy. Sure they won 10-9 in Candlestick but that really woke the Niners up for this one. In that previous game Vernon Davis left injured, Michael Crabtree didn’t play, and Aldon Smith was just coming back and rounding into shape. Colin Kaepernick is coming off of a third career playoff win and they haven’t lost since Crabtree has come back.

The best all around linebacker in the NFL. Last year's Taylor Blitz Defensive Player of the Year: Navorro Bowman

The best all around linebacker in the NFL. Last year’s Taylor Blitz Defensive Player of the Year: Navorro Bowman

One element of this game is the threat of the pass from the Tight End position. Vernon Davis has the speed to pull Luke Kuechely deep where he has to play the run honestly. Consequently Greg Olsen doesn’t do the same and Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman will creep up and shut down the run.

So watch for Frank Gore to have a good day and San Francisco to dominate the time of possession. The Niners win 26-13 today.

Even when I think back to Cam Newton’s National Championship performance against Oregon. His play that day wasn’t transcendent. Stars have to come out when the games get big like this. Weaknesses are magnified and without Smith 100%, he has to play above a pedestrian performance. He has to be a star for them to win. Just can’t see that in his first playoff game.

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Top Ten Quarterbacks Going Into 2013

NFL_Logo_NewWhen you’re outlining the play of NFL quarterback, you have to assess how the player will do going into the given season based upon performance and relative age. Will the quarterback break down during the season if he’s older?? What will be his prospects based upon the receiving talent coming into the new year.

The Chancellor of Football bases his analysis on a multitude of things. How does the quarterback fare statistically and is he still in his prime?? With Robert Griffin III just coming back from serious knee surgery, we left him off of this list. Everyone has their opinions and without further adieu here is ours.

Honorable Mention. Matt Schaub – Houston Texans: This has been a model quarterback in the regular season over the last 5 seasons, 3 of which he threw for more than 4,000 yards. His listing here is he has yet to gain a signature win in the playoffs. At 31 years of age we may have seen the best of Schaub who’s prime is passing with each day. This season is going to make or break his career in Houston where it’s Super Bowl or bust with an aging team.

Colin's 181 yard rushing performance was a transcendent performance.

Colin’s 181 yard rushing performance was a transcendent performance.

10. Colin Kaepernick -San Francisco 49ers: Now the knock on him is he hasn’t played a complete season as a starting quarterback. It doesn’t matter, you can’t underscore the performance he had in last year’s playoff run. The Pistol formation and the read option is a part of the NFL as it evolves into a space game.

Clogged lines of scrimmage is a thing of the past outside of obvious goal line and 3rd or 4th and shorts. Kaepernick proved last year he developed touch on his intermediate passing game and learned to exploit Vernon Davis during the playoff run. This year will be a set back season with the loss of Michael Crabtree. Could pass for 3,000 and run for 1,000 with a healthy season. You can’t coach speed…he breaks containment…good bye.

9. Joe Flacco – Baltimore Ravens: When you come through a post season with 1,140 yards 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, it’s hard not to anoint a quarterback among the league’s elite. Not so fast. He only completed 59% of his passes in the regular season which is what he had as a percentage in the playoffs. His security blanket in Anquan Boldin is running routes 2,000 miles to the west. This will have an affect on Flacco coming into 2013.

Think back to every tight situation the Ravens were in, who did Flacco turn to? He turned to Boldin where he hadn’t in years past. See pass to Lee Evans at the end of 2011 AFC Championship Game. Think back to last year’s Super Bowl when the 49ers made it to 31-29. Flacco had a key third down where he needed to keep the Niner’s offense off the field: Who did he go to even with tight coverage?? Boldin. He fought for the ball and a key first down. According to ESPN, he completed 62% of his passe attempt to Boldin and only 48% of his passes to every other Raven.

It took him nearly 5 years to develop a trust for Boldin in key situations. So where do we go from here?? He does have Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith to throw to but how bad will he miss Boldin. Today Jones fails the conditioning contest as the Ravens reported to training camp. Does he turn back into the dink and dunk quarterback throwing outlet passes to Ray Rice or keep throwing down-field?? This will be a season of growing pains early on for him and why he’s 8th on this list.

Mannung delivered in year one as the Broncos finished 13-3 in 2012.

Mannung delivered in year one as the Broncos finished 13-3 in 2012.

8. Peyton Manning -Denver Broncos: In the twilight of his career, he had one of his greatest statistical seasons in 2012. However a closer look at his play down the stretch and against teams in particular, lowered his ranking. His season mirrored that of the Broncos overall, they feasted on a lot of patsies to pad their stats. In the last five weeks of the season, he faced the Chiefs twice, Oakland, Baltimore, and Cleveland or the teams that were 12th (twice), 32nd, 20th, 17th, and 25th against the pass. Not a strong group as the team went 5-0 down the stretch. The only reason the 2-14 Chiefs pass defense wasn’t rated lower (12th), they were a team that had given up at that point of the season, were behind and opponents weren’t passing.

Yet if you look at his play against the five playoff teams faced, two of his worst outings were in this pack. He threw 3 interceptions losing in Atlanta, and 2 more in a 31-23 win against Cincinnati. Still he’s a Super Bowl caliber quarterback in the early part of the season and the AFC West will be better prepared for Manning 2.0. His arm may give out late on him again and he’s had some issues with his neck and arm this off-season. He’s never been that good in cold games and if the Broncos did make it to this year’s Super Bowl, good luck with the weather in New Jersey.

7. Matt Ryan-Atlanta Falcons: ‘Matty Ice” has grown every single year in the NFL and is this season’s version of Joe Flacco. He finally won his first playoff game and has had numerous 4th quarter drives as well. He had to lift his Falcons with a playoff comeback against the Seahawks in the final stanza as well. Last year he completed a whopping 68.6% of his passes for 32 touchdowns. One problem he has is he disappears in the middle of games which necessitates the need to come from behind. If he can make it to Super Bowl XLVIII, this list definitely gets revamped.

Center Max Unger was an All Pro and protected Russell Wilson like The Hope Diamond.

Center Max Unger was an All Pro and protected Russell Wilson like The Hope Diamond.

6. Russell Wilson- Seattle Seahawks: One of the biggest beneficiaries to RGIII when it comes to this list is Wilson. After all his team did beat Washington in the playoffs and took a late 28-27 lead against the Falcons in the divisional round, and appeared headed to the NFC Championship Game as well. However folks that want to talk about Andrew Luck and RG III, forgot that it was Wilson who had the best rookie QB season in NFL history. Not only did he tie Peyton Manning’s 1998 record of 26 TDs thrown, he only had 10 interceptions as compared to the 28 Manning threw. All this while throwing for 3,118 yards and rushing for 489 yards and another 4TDs. He also has Percy Harvin to run after the catch for him at least 65-70 times coming up. He could be Super Bowl bound this year also.

5. Ben Roethlisberger -Pittsburgh Steelers: The quarterback that is always left out of the conversation when you talk about the NFL’s best signal callers. One might look at this list and say Big Ben was only 7-6 as a starter last year. Yet those same pundits forget that the Steelers put in a new offense, one he didn’t favor. Yet in that crucible he still completed 63% of his passes for 26 TDs and only 8 interceptions. Uh…excuse me those TD and interception numbers were the second best of his 9 year career. What do you think he’ll do as an encore now that he has a running game with the arrival of LeVeon Bell??

Brady will be pointing out more than protections and who is the "Mike" linebacker in 2013.

Brady will be pointing out more than protections and who is the “Mike” linebacker in 2013.

4. Tom Brady -New England Patriots: It’s hard to believe but Brady could have and should have fallen farther on this list. No time in NFL history has a high ranking offense (#1) returned with 91% of their starters gone. We’re in uncharted waters here. However the Patriots drafted him two dynamite receivers in Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. Yet it remains to be seen how they’ll develop. The same can be said of the prospects of Gronkowski returning from multiple surgeries. Will Danny Amendola live up to the $31 million contract as well?? Odds are 2 of the 4 will come through but that would mean a drop from an offense that has scored over 500 points in 3 straight years.

Could you imagine The Greatest Show on Turf going into a new season and Kurt Warner didn’t have Isaac Bruce, Tory Holt, Az Zahir Hakim, and Marshall Faulk?? That is the only equivalent to what Brady faces going into the 2013 season. Why?? This was the only other team that scored 500 points in 3 successive seasons. Brady has played well with other receivers but remember last year the offense went back to Wes Welker once the tight ends were in the infirmary. Welker is in Denver now…so we shall see.

3. Drew Brees- New Orleans Saints: The Saints are coming off a year where Brees had to overcome Head Coach Sean Payton enduring a season long suspension. Now he gets his confidante back yet loses his Pro Bowl LT Jermon Bushrod in free agency to the Chicago Bears. They did retain WR Marques Colston but they found themselves over the cap and couldn’t help their $100 million quarterback out much.

The Saints face what all Super Bowl champions wind up facing. You try so hard to field the team that won the Super Bowl in ensuing years, that you forget to make adjustments to all the moves opponents are making to knock you off. So while they kept WR Marques Colston, in comes CB Darrelle Revis and S Dashon Goldson to Tampa Bay.

This illustrates how Brees will stay down a notch in 2013 like he did last year. He threw for 19 interceptions as he tried to rally the Saints from deficits his defense gave away. With 5,177 yards and 43 touchdowns this should be the #1 quarterback. With the flux on the line, better defenses within the division, and porous defense, he’s going to throw more interceptions than he should and keep him 3rd on this list.

If Rodgers continues at this pace, his career statistics could be staggering.

If Rodgers continues at this pace, his career statistics could be staggering.

2. Aaron Rodgers -Green Bay Packers: You’re looking at the game’s statistical anomaly in Rodgers. Do you realize he’s only thrown 14 interceptions vs 84 touchdowns over the last two years?? Only Drew Brees has stayed on such an extended run of excellence. Last year Rodgers completed an astonishing 67.2% of his passes for 4,295 yards. So why just a number two ranking??

The first is Rodgers is a tremendous quarterback as long as the Green Bay Packers have a lead. When others get in front he doesn’t bring them from behind. The same can be said if a defense knocks he and the Packers offense off of their timing early, they stay a bit off pace the rest of the game. Take a look at their losses to the San Francisco 49ers to bookend the season. In week one, the Niners jumped on top 16-7 in Lambeau before halftime. It took until 6:00 to go in the game before the Packers saw the endzone in a 30-22 loss. In the playoff loss they fell behind 24-21 and couldn’t muster a touchdown for nearly the entire second half. By then the 49ers were on cruise control 45-24.

Sure it can be harsh using a comparison for Rodgers against the eventual NFC Champion 49ers, but Russell Wilson clobbered them 42-13 on Sunday Night Football. Eli Manning danced over them 26- 3 in Candlestick. You want to believe you are the best you need to prove you can beat the best and Rodgers’s Packers fell short of that in 2012.

Last year Rodgers and the Packers lost 5 times, each to a  team that made the playoffs, while going 1-2 against quarterbacks on this list. The lone win?? A 28-27 win over Brees and New Orleans. Now Donald Driver retires and Rodgers favorite target of the last four years, Greg Jennings, signs with the hated Vikings. There is some speculation the team may move Jermichael Finley as well. This will be a new year for him now with a few rookie linemen protecting him also. He’s number one on a lot of lists….just not at the Taylor Blitz Times for all we just pointed out to you.

Eli Manning's late game heroics make him the best in the NFL today.

Eli Manning’s late game heroics make him the best in the NFL today.

1.Eli Manning-New York Giants: Our CEO lobbied loudly for Eli to be the number one quarterback on this list. Yet like we offered up front, this isn’t a lifetime achievement award but we are talking about a two time Super Bowl MVP. What separates Eli from his contemporaries is how he’s at his best against the highest level of competition, and his performance at the end of games. So you forgot that Eli and the Giants routed future NFC Champion San Francisco 26-3, routed Drew Brees and his Saints 52-27, and head slapped the Packers 38-10 last year. That’s #2 and 3 on this list he beat head to head in 2012.

Last year’s Pro Bowl status was actually cemented in week 2, when he threw for 245 yards in the fourth quarter to bring the Giants back to win 41-34. He finished with 510 yards passing & came within 44 yards of Norm Van Brocklin’s 62 year old record of 554. One of the NFL’s oldest records.  The Giants scored 25 4th quarter points. Yikes!

In that game, the nerves of steel he flashed on two Super Bowl winning drives before, was on full display and has won over some critics. Five weeks later, Eli was behind late in his first high profile game against RGIII’s Redskins, and he struck again. Down 23-20 with 1:27 left, the Giants were pinned to their own 20 yard line. Where other quarterbacks are conservative with their throws trying to get into field goal range, Manning struck a thunderous blow by going 77 yards for the winning touchdown with a bomb to Victor Cruz. Ballgame!! He caught the safety cheating up and applied a sword to the heart. The New York Football Giants are never out of a game with Manning at the helm. They came from behind 3 times last year.

Others don’t realize how durable he is. He hasn’t missed a game in 8 years and now he has been to the last two Pro Bowls. His best receiver Victor Cruz just signed a $46 million contract keeping him in New York along with WR Hakeem Nicks. He’s a Hall of Fame quarterback in his prime and he will win a 3rd Super Bowl for the Giants within the next 3 years. Possibly this year in his own stadium. Do you realize he’s the only quarterback in the top 5 of this list who returns with his top receivers intact?? What will this list look like next year??

So that’s it… Our 2013 list…

Epilogue: Ron Jaworski picks Eli 8th in his selection going into 2013. Absolutely the dumbest analysis I have heard in nearly a decade. Just a year removed from his second Super Bowl ring I offered this in the Giants 2012 team preview — “Get used to it Giant fans, Manning is like a great “B” student. He will stumble on some assignments but he’s a great test taker and comes through in the end. Do you realize Manning is now 7-1 in postseason games away from the Meadowlands? He now has postseason wins over an 18-0 Patriot team in Super Bowl XLII, and an upset over a 15-1 Packers team in last year’s playoff.  He is the only quarterback in NFL history to defeat 5 postseason foes with records of 13-3 or better.  No one even comes close to that.”

Since he’s not the sexiest player in some sportswriters eyes, no one is talking about the fact he could possibly become the first quarterback in NFL history to play in the Super Bowl in his own home stadium. This isn’t the Cowboys and Tony Romo hoping against common sense two seasons ago when the big game was in Dallas. We’re talking about a two time Super Bowl MVP who could tie Joe Montana if he gets there and captures that award again. Recognize greatness when you see it…and don’t give him the ball for a final drive within striking distance either.

Next: Top ten running backs going into the 2013 season

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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

2013 San Francisco 49ers Preview – How Close Are They??

Frank Gore heads off the field after a Super Bowl XLVII defeat 34-31 to the Ravens.

Frank Gore heads off the field after a Super Bowl XLVII defeat 34-31 to the Ravens.

When the Super Bowl confetti was falling to the turf after Super Bowl XLVII, it rained purple and gold for the Baltimore Ravens. For the second year the 49ers were whisked off the field having lost to the NFL champions after just falling short in the NFC Championship the year before. With the ascension of Colin Kaepernick it looks like San Francisco should be a shoo-in for the NFC West and a return trip to the Super Bowl. Last week, they agreed in principle to trade Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs for a second round draft pick this year and a conditional pick next year. With a stacked roster and draft picks to end the 1st round and the 1st of the second, are they ready for a return trip to the Super Bowl??

Kaepernick's 4th quarter scramble for a touchdown to bring the 49ers within 2 points of the Ravens in the Super Bowl 31-29.

Kaepernick’s 4th quarter scramble for a touchdown to bring the 49ers within 2 points of the Ravens in the Super Bowl 31-29.

Quarterback: Now that Alex Smith has been dealt to the Kansas City Chiefs, Colin Kaepernick is fully entrenched as the starter for the 49ers. Right now they have teams in a vice defending the Pistol “read option” which has a lot of built in deception that is getting the best of NFL defenses right now. That split second of indecision allowed Kaepernick to completely scald the Packers for an NFL postseason record 181 yards rushing in the NFC Divisonal round.

It’s this burst of spontaneity that keeps this offense productive. Kaepernick’s ability to take a broken play for a 15 yard run along with the called runs has turned football back into an 11 on 11 game. The upside is the  illusion that the 49ers don’t have drives that bog down. In the playoffs alone Kaepernick was 49 of 80 for 798 yards 4TDs and 2 interceptions. He only completed passes at a 61% rate, yet when you factor in his 25 carries for 264 yards and 3 touchdowns he more than made up for the offense missed by the incomplete passes. Projecting his playoff stats over a full season would look like this: 245 of 400 for 3,990 yards 20TDs and 10 interceptions while rushing 125 times for 1,300 yards and 15TDs. Now of course the rushing total is distorted because of the monster game against Green Bay until you realize he had 63 carries for 415 yards and 5 TDs in the regular season. He only started 7 games…. you do the math.

Going into his 3rd year, it’s a given Kaepernick will improve on his passing. He also showed he can make all the throws whether it was drilling the late breaking in route in a zone or touch passes beyond the linebackers. We saw this in his late breaking development with TE Vernon Davis during the playoffs. What we saw during the 2012 playoffs was a dress rehearsal of things to come however there will be a sophomore slump this year. This is the NFL and the studying of tendencies will bring about new defensive tactics against him. To that he and the 49ers have to stay ahead of the bell curve with offensive wrinkles. Right now San Francisco is playoff calibur at the quarterback position.

Offensive Backfield: One huge beneficiary of the new Pistol offense is Frank Gore. There are still running plays where the 49ers line up in power formations but in large part Gore isn’t facing downhill charging linebackers. The Pistol forces teams into 4-2-5 or 3-3-5 nickel variations where the linebackers are a step behind on the front side of the read option. They are not attacking the run lanes like they do in a traditional sense and this will lesson the wear and tear on a running back entering his ninth year. For the first time in many years, Gore looked fresh the entire season. He started all 16 games while rushing for 1,214 yards 8 TDs while averaging 4.7 yards per rush.

Frank Gore running a sweep during Super Bowl XLVII. He will have to abide by the new rule that mandates thigh and knee pads this year.

Frank Gore running a sweep during Super Bowl XLVII. He will have to abide by the new rule that mandates thigh and knee pads this year.

The player that will make a move this year is LaMichael James. As the team opts for even more speed to line up next to Kaepernick on 3rd downs and spot duty as a change of pace back. We saw evidence of this in last year’s NFC Championship Game in Atlanta. The team needed a jump-start and James was the guy.  He’s a space running back and the Niners use him to get out on the edge and on short screens. He’ll see more playing time this year.

Rounding out one of the best backfields in the NFL is Kendall Hunter. This is Frank Gore’s heir apparent and should split time again this season. One of the reasons James was able to see the field was due to Hunter getting injured in week 12. He led all San Francisco running backs with 5.2 yards per carry average last year rushing for 371 yards and 2 scores on 72 carries. He’s only entering his 3rd season and we have to see how effective he is coming back from injury. If everything is a go, he and Gore will share the duties on 70% of the time while sprinkling in James every now and again. By mid-season we’ll here the corporate speak of playing all backs to keep them healthy for the playoffs. Which is true but they will phase Gore out after 2013 because of salary. Stating the workload doesn’t match the compensatory structure of his contract. That is just over the horizon but for now San Francisco is Super Bowl quality at the running back position.

Receivers: Michael Crabtree finally emerged from the shadow cast by TE Vernon Davis in 2012. His play was the only consistent at receiver for the full season as the team changed quarterbacks. With 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and 9 touchdowns he became the go to guy. Going into his fifth season and third under Coach Harbaugh, he’s in his prime and should catch even more passes thanks to Kaepernick. When he scrambles to keep the play alive, Crabtree can work to get open even if he was initially covered. He could have a 100 catch season.

Crabtree emerged as the big play receiver team execs envisioned when they drafted him out of Texas Tech.

Crabtree emerged as the big play receiver team execs envisioned when they drafted him out of Texas Tech.

Our thoughts on the Randy Moss experiment in San Francisco are mixed. On one hand he helped some young players as a good locker room presence, and that veteran leadership may be most evident in Crabtree’s improvement. On the other hand it slowed the growth of last year’s major free agent acquisition in Mario Manningham. He never looked 100% last year and then was put on IR for the playoffs. Manningham in his second year in Harbaugh’s system should be thinking less and playing better. He and Crabtree could be twin 1,000 yard receivers depending upon Kaepernick’s continued development with TE Vernon Davis.

It was Davis’ play that was most affected by the quarterback change from Alex Smith. In Smith you had the 3 to 5 step drop of a traditional passer and the tight end was the first outlet. Once Kaepernick and the Pistol became the team’s new staple, Davis was no longer that first option. Opposing linebackers don’t bite so fast on a fake hand-off from the Pistol and that made Davis need another step to get past them. If Kaepernick didn’t throw on time, Davis would then be covered by a safety. Evidence?? He only had 6 receptions in the final 6 games of the regular season. You can see the team worked hard on getting him back into the offense in the playoffs. He had 12 receptions in the postseason. A sign of good coaching. He should have a Pro Bowl year in 2013 and helps the 49ers receiving corps achieve a playoff grade.

Offensive Line: This is a good offensive line and a look at their play down the stretch shows you how good they are. They can block in the phone booth of power running formations and out in space. The product of three #1 draft picks in LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, who were both Pro Bowl players, and young RT Anthony Davis to go with C Jonathon Goodwin and RG Alex Boone, this team is ready as a line. Aside from Goodwin the average age is 25.5 years of age yet they are improving. Understand they powered the way to 2,491 yards as a team as 5 players topped a 4.0 average and the team a 5.1 avg. That’s getting some push.

With the removal of QB Smith they won’t give up 41 sacks again. Sometimes Smith held the ball from a pocket position and had to take the sack. With Kaepernick, there is a moving pocket with the Pistol offense and the running plays are designed to get the line in position to make initial blocks while the defense tries to figure out if the ball has been handed off to Gore, if Kaepernick kept the ball, or if it was a play-fake to pass the football.

Pro Bowl Tackle Joe Staley should be around the 49er facility for a long time.

Pro Bowl Tackle Joe Staley should be around the 49er facility for a long time.

Expect to see the 41 sacks and 68 quarterback hits of a year ago to be diminished in 2013. Only 8 of those came during Kaepernick’s 7 regular season starts. Maybe Coach Harbaugh knew what he was doing. In 2012 in power rushing play scenarios up the middle or to the strong-side, they powered for the first down or touchdown 78% of the time and 64% on the weak-side. They can run it in either direction and if you noticed during the Super Bowl, most of their 2nd half rushing yards came from running toward the weak-side. Including Kaepernick’s touchdown to narrow the score to 31-29 in the Super Bowl. This line will be Super Bowl calibur with the improved sack totals in regards to the quarterback evading sacks.

Defensive Line: Contrary to popular belief this is where the 49ers need to make a move to upgrade. Last year we challenged they need to get more defensive line help to take the pressure and wear and tear off of DE Justin Smith. You saw him hampered by that huge elbow brace toward the end of the year despite his missing two games. Ray McDonald was solid with 38 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks but he needs help. They have to get Justin Smith some help since he’ll turn 34 this year despite the 65 tackles and 3 sacks. He’s at the point where he can get old on the 49ers in a hurry. The 49ers should spend a bulk of their draft on young defensive linemen. At least two selections. Right now the defensive line is average.

Aldon Smith is more than a pass rusher...

Aldon Smith is more than a pass rusher…

Linebackers: This is where the defense gets it’s fangs from. It’s not even an argument the 49ers field the best set of linebackers in all of pro football. Starting with the reigning Taylor Blitz Times Defensive Player of the Year in Navorro Bowman. https://taylorblitztimes.com/2013/02/02/taylor-blitz-times-defensive-player-of-the-year-navorro-bowman/ He led the Niners in tackles for a second straight year with 144 tackles while posting 2 sacks, 1 interception, and defensed 6 passes. He was all over the place as was Patrick Willis (120 tackles / 2ints /1/2 a sack). Whether you think Willis is better than Bowman is irrelevant they are both young, in their primes and deadly.

By the time we add Ahmad Brooks (47 tackles /6.5 sacks) and Aldon Smith (55 tackles /19.5 sacks) and you have the most active linebackers in football. Funny thing is everyone treats Smith as a pass rusher only, yet he was fourth on the team in tackles. Between Smith and Brooks they also contributed with an interception each and five forced fumbles. This is the best 3-4 set of linebackers  since the mid 1990’s Blitzburgh unit. Definitely Super Bowl quality.

They had better sign Dashon or they could have a glaring hole in the secondary if he signs elsewhere.

They had better sign Dashon or they could have a glaring hole in the secondary if he signs elsewhere.

Secondary: Now that Dashon Goldson hasn’t been franchised both sides are hoping to work out a long term deal. The problem is free agency is about to start and you don’t want him talking to anyone. If someone blows him away with an offer a Pro Bowl safety tandem could be broken up.  Goldson is among the best safeties in football. He defensed 10 passes, intercepted 3 and made 67 tackles. Many of which were of the bell-ringing variety.

Donte Whitner is a prototypical SS who comes up to support the run and mug tight ends. He had 82 tackles, forced 2 fumbles and took his only interception back for a touchdown. It was on the corner where this team could improve. For a team that finished 4th overall allowing 294.4 yards per game, it’s now allowing 406 to go with the 35.6 points given up in those final 3 games before the finale. Now there is talk of bringing in Darelle Revis.

We’ll see how that plays out but Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, and Chris Culliver had 5 interceptions between the 3 of them. Culliver was victimized in the Super Bowl and had a costly penalty to boot. A draft pick could be used here even if they get Revis. The corner situation drops this group down to average. This is the defense’s Achille’s heal.

Overall: This team has to prepare to stay ahead of the curve of what they think defenses will throw at Kaepernick. The dark cloud that looms is the Seattle team up north that throttled them 43-12 late last season. There was a collective sigh of relief when Atlanta beat them in the divisional round. This team will face  the most adversity within their division, which has become the toughest in football. Don’t forget the Rams were 1-0-1 against them last year.

This team is very close but the emotional highs and lows of the season will see them have some tough division losses. Everyone is gunning for the Niners as though they are champions having been among the league’s elite for the last few years. Again there will be a sophomore slump for Kaepernick with Ram Coach Jeff Fisher and Seahawk Coach Pete Carroll studying how to play him this season. The Niners were 1-2-1 against these two in a year they went to the Super Bowl. The Chancellor sees a slide to 10-6 and a wild card this time around. They won’t make it back to the NFC Championship Game in 2013. They’ll lose in the NFC Divisional round. Teams are gunning for them and the weight will take it’s toll…

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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!