Indianapolis Colts – Super Bowl Favorite In the AFC??

Most of the time you look at what a team projects to and you waffle with will the team play up to those expectations. In the case of the 2015 Indianapolis Colts, the maturation of the rebuilding process beginning with Peyton Manning’s release, should pay off this year.

Luck scores in last year's playoff win in Denver.

Luck scores in last year’s season opener in Denver.

Let’s face it the Colts struck gold in the selection and development of Andrew Luck. Every year he has elevated his game along with another playoff accomplishment. At the end of the 2013 season, he brought the Colts back in a 45-44 wildcard thriller before falling to Brady’s Patriots in the divisional round. Last year his Colts won a couple playoff games including a 24-13 win against Manning’s Broncos signaling a changing of the guard.

In that game he out-dueled Peyton and looked to be the more confident quarterback with more command of the field. Our eyes didn’t deceive us. Luck was sure of himself and his teammates fed off his energy. Along with his playmaking ability, you could see he was capable of carrying a franchise.

However once again Luck and the Colts were struck down by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game 45-7. What was different about the loss last year is we clearly saw he didn’t have the talent around him to beat New England. The year before they were just a step behind Brady’s boys where last year, a retooled Patriot secondary obliterated the league’s #1 passing attack.

It’s evident: To get to the Super Bowl the Colts need to get Luck some dogs to help lead the pack. Enter Frank Gore and Andre Johnson.

How many championship teams over the years have brought in grizzled veterans to lend experience and tone for a young team?? Remember when the ’81 49ers brought in “Hacksaw” Reynolds and Fred Dean?? How about the ’92 Cowboys bringing in Charles Haley and Thomas Everett?? What about the ’01 Patriots bringing in LB Bryan Cox?? The latter was just as impotant.. go back and see which “alpha dog” lead them onto the field for Super Bowl XXXVI. it was Cox…yet I digress

Gore set the tone in San Fran just like Lynch does in Seattle.

Gore set the tone in San Fran just like Lynch does in Seattle.

Frank Gore brings a punishing, tone setting style to an offense that can be described as finesse up to this point. Indy couldn’t knuckle up with two tight ends and impose their will on a defense. Gore brings that will and toughness to an offense relying too much on trickery. Knowing his time in the light is short, his hunger to get back to the Super Bowl will fuel the team’s urgency to win now.

The same can be said for fellow [[_]] alumnus Andre Johnson.  Year after year he’s had to watch the Colts foray into the NFL playoffs as his Houston Texans stumbled. They played in Super Bowls and AFC Championships. Now they have retooled on the run and came within a game of the big dance last year. How envious has he been watching this from up close in the same division?? So he’s staying within the division  (Calvin) and joining ranks with Gore to bring a veteran hunger to forge a tougher team mentality than the last few years.

Andre Johnson fightDid we say a tougher mentality?? Now I know you remember the fight between Johnson and former Titan Cortland Finnegan. Well this is a microcosm of the toughness he’ll bring to the offense converting 3rd and 7’s over the middle this season. A 7 time Pro Bowler will work the intermediate routes while TY Hilton will blow the top off opposing defenses.

With all the departures in New England this team should ascend to Super Bowl L. A third shot at New England with an even more mature Luck will come up rosy for Indy. Don’t forget LB Robert Mathis will return to join free agent DE Trent Cole to rush the passer. They join former Taylor Blitz Defensive Player of the Year D’Qwell Jackson to improve last year’s 11th best defense. If this team is playing with a lead they will be hard to beat.

All they need is a good draft to address a few needs and luck when it comes to injuries.

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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!!

2012 San Francisco 49ers Preview

Alex Smith celebrating with Vernon Davis after “The Catch III”

With all the excitement that Candlestick Park saw last season, it’s hard not to think of the contrast between the ending of their two playoff games. First the frenzied, raucous crowd who witnessed “The Catch III” as the Niners beat New Orleans in the final seconds. Then, the  fans that quietly filed out after Lawrence Tynes overtime field goal sent the Giants on to Super Bowl XLVI. It was a season where the ending was so abrupt, you could feel everyone in the stadium felt the 49ers let a golden opportunity slip away. Then have to watch with abject horror the Giants throttle the Patriots, and San Francisco had an even better defense… Yes, they let a possible sixth Super Bowl trophy vanish like a mirage in the desert. So will they come back baring emotional scars from the NFC Championship meltdown, or will they gain psychological momentum from a triumphant season culminating with the win over the Saints??

Quarterback: Back in 2009, the Packer insider had an article comparing the paths that Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith had taken since they hailed from the NFL ’05 draft. http://packersinsider.com/2009/11/class-of-2005-alex-smith-vs-aaron-rodgers/ Of course it was written because Rodgers, having the better path of the two, was going to face Smith in a regular season game. That was nearly our match up in last year’s NFC Championship. Yet unlike Rodgers, who laid an egg in an upset playoff loss to the Giants, we saw Smith come of age in his first playoff game. Sure Smith still has his detractors, however they were nowhere to be found in the midst of the noisy celebration in the comeback win.

Coach Harbaugh will have his work cut out for him to do better than his 13-3 inaugural season with the club.

Last year Head Coach Jim Harbaugh “Trent Dilfer-ized” the offense. By asking Smith to acquiesce throwing high risk passes downfield, the offense played to it’s strengths. The running game and the defense carried this team through the early part of the season yet he started to mature into his role and started to take shots downfield with TE Vernon Davis. The Chancellor believes Smith has turned a corner. First off he comes into the 2012 season having gone his last 8 games without an interception which includes two playoff games.  You have to go back to the November 24th game with the Ravens when he last threw a pick. If you look at his 7 games going into the NFC Championship, he had gone 111 of 189 for 1,327 yards and 7 TDs. Even in the championship against the Giants he threw 12 completions in 26 attempts for 196 yards and 2 more TDs. He didn’t force the ball downfield into coverage and the 49ers have given him weapons this year. Has the emotional fallout completely healed from Niners brass courting Peyton Manning and letting Smith dangle in free agency?? We’ll have to wait for a rough patch during the season to see if it has… Until then, we have to give the quarterback position a playoff caliber grade.

Frank Gore is a workhorse running back.

Offensive Backfield: Now who can remember all the “I want to be traded” talk from Frank Gore (The [[_]]) as the team came back from the lockout?? Funny how winning cures all that negative talk in the locker room huh?? Not a peep out of Gore as the team stormed to a 9-1 start. Gore bludgeoned his way to 1,211 yards, 8TDs and had an average of 4.3 yards per carry. His 2011 yardage was second highest for his career, and  was his fifth 1,000 yard rushing season in the last six seasons. He is the last of a dying breed…. The big running back that can control the game and the clock.

Kendall Hunter was a good change of pace running back that had a combined 668 yards from scrimmage, 473 of which rushing.  Yet the 49ers drafted speedy LaMichael James out of Oregon. James brings an explosive element to an offense that desperately needs it. We know he’ll play on 3rd downs, passing situations and special teams at least. With his falling to them in the draft, we believe the odd man out will be free agent Brandon Jacobs. His lack of versatility will make him expendable as we reach September. With Hunter and James to take some of the load off, it should keep Gore fresh for the stretch run. Running back is above average or as we say around here, playoff quality.

Receivers: Here is the position that let the team down last year and could be the difference between the 49ers playing in Super Bowl XLVII, or watching it. TE Vernon Davis is one of the emotional leaders of this football team. Last year Davis had 67 receptions for 792 yards and 6 scores. He has been the target most teams try to take away first in the Niners passing game and he still manages to get the football. Davis should return to the Pro Bowl now that he will receive some help on the outside. With the signing of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, and the drafting of A.J. Jenkins in the first round, the Michael Crabtree / Ted Ginn Jr experiment is over. Ginn should be cut this summer. These two can’t get open on a consistent basis and neither has been able to get deep. If Randy Moss can provide that element as he did for the 2007 Patriots, this could swing the offense wide open. Three receiver sets may become more prominent which could even open space for James coming out of the backfield. Moss as a veteran, could be a locker room presence since most of these players grew up watching his exploits. If he can still get deep, this is a playoff quality group yet will have to go through some growing pains to start the season and find everyone their role.

Offensive Line: Last year this line was good enough to rank a respectable 8th rushing the football and 10th in rushing first downs with 101. However protecting the passer they were 25th in allowing 44 sacks and ranked 24th in QB hits allowed with 82. Let’s face it,  on some of those plays Smith held the ball too long, yet at times against top defenses this line couldn’t hold up. When rushing the football in obvious power situations, they converted 44% to the strong side and 67% up the gut. Those need to improve on the strong side for a heavy rushing team. They spent two draft picks in G Joe Looney of Wake Forest and they took C Jason Slowey from Western Oregon with the 199th selection. Looney should be able to contribute immediately. Slowey could push journeyman center Jonathon Goodwin who is entering his 10th season. This line will be asked to protect better or they may be relegated to another “Trent Dilfer-ized” season as an offense. They want a vertical passing game with Moss and Manningham which calls for 5 and 7 step drops. They have to get better.  Until we see them improve in the pre-season we have to give them a below average grade.

Ray McDonald making his presence felt in last year’s NFC Championship Game.

Defensive Line: Aside from Patrick Willis on the defense, has there been a steadier performer than Justin Smith?? He’s a complete motor guy who gets by on hard work who plays the run as well as the pass. He just came off his 3rd straight Pro Bowl berth with his best season. With 65 tackles, 7.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles he paces a defensive line that was stout against the run. Pass rush specialist Aldon Smith teamed with Smith to form a formidable rush and he tallied 14 sacks. As a team they produced 42 sacks which was 7th best in football.  Keep your eye on Ray McDonald #91. This could be his breakout year. He recorded 43 tackles along with 5.5 sacks, all produced from the lines interior. He was all over the place in the NFC Championship game sacking Eli Manning 2.5 times. He should be in Hawai’i in about 7 months. Mark it down.

The three man line even more so than a four man line is there to keep blockers off the linebackers. This unit didn’t allow a rushing touchdown for the first ten games of the season. Every team in NFL history that was able to do that made it to the conference championship game. Smith (Justin) is going into his 12th season and they may want to sub for him a little more to keep him fresh by seasons end. He did record sacks in each playoff game last year but there is a lot of mileage on his spedometer. Defensive line is Super Bowl quality by the Bay.

Linebackers: Did we say something about the defensive line keeping blockers off of the linebackers?? How about to the tune of 305 tackles by the top three guys… Navarro Bowman with 150, Patrick Willis with 105 although he missed a game, and Ahmad Brooks with 50. Yikes!! That is a lot of scraping into the hole and meeting runners before they can get started. How Bowman was named 1st team All Pro (along with Justin Smith & Patrick Willis) and NOT the Pro Bowl is beyond me. This group is active and instinctive and plays extremely fast. Willis forced 4 of the team’s 20 forced fumbles on the years. In addition, Bowman and Willis produced 2 sacks each during the regular season. This is a Super Bowl quality group who should actually get better given their relative youth.

Rogers has found a home after leaving the Washington Redskins

Secondary: Retaining CB Carlos Rogers was essential in keeping this defense playing at a high level. Last year he went to the Pro Bowl with a 55 tackle, 6 interception season. He can man up against the fastest receivers and turn and run with them. He should make it to Hawai’i again. The quiet secret to this defense is the safety play of safeties Dashon Goldson and Dontae Whitner. At first glance SS Whitner’s 65 tackles don’t impress you until you realize how many were gobbled up by the linebackers. He did intercept two passes and was rarely out of position. Folks, like our CEO still wish he were in Buffalo. Goldson covers serious ground and did make the Pro Bowl thanks to a 69 tackle, 6 interception season. Whitner and Goldson are 26 & 27 respectively and should be stout for another 3 seasons. A veteran secondary that is Super Bowl quality as well.

Overall: This team is returning all of the starters from the 4th best defense in football. One that held opponents to 35% conversion rate on 3rd down (76 of 216) and should have another outstanding season. It’s imperative that they do since they start the 2012 campaign in Green Bay, then host the Lions on Sept 16th. They could be 0-2 to start the season. Hopefully they can keep the same hunger as they did last year. They were 6-2 on the road yet this year bring not only the aforementioned trip to Lambeau, add a trip to New England, and another against the revenge minded Saints. They also host the tough Chicago Bears and the Super Bowl champion Giants, so anticipate a tougher year. They should still win the west but their record will slip to to 11-5. They face some potent offenses from the AFC East which are better than the AFC North offenses of a year ago. In the Chancellor’s crystal ball, the 49ers should return to the NFC Championship Game barring injuries. Games one and two against the Packers & Lions could well decide which team will host it.

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Next up: Green Bay Packers

Week 15 Monday Night Football: Pittsburgh Steelers @ San Francisco 49ers

"Did you hear?? Baltimore lost to San Diego last night!"

Well doesn’t this have a good ring to it?? These teams are coming in with a ton of NFL playoff implications tied to this football game. The first is the San Francisco 49ers are trying to catch the Green Bay Packers, for homefield advantage on the NFC side of the ledger. Although they have won their division, they have been caught by the New Orleans Saints who are 1/2 a game up on the 49ers for the #2 seed. In other words, the 49ers need this game in more ways than one. They need it for playoff positioning and also to prove they can stand up to the best AFC teams. They were handled in Balitmore Thanksgiving Night 16-6, and being new to the league’s elite they need to prove to themselves they can beat an established team. The Niners come into this game 10-3 and face the 10-3 Steelers.

The Steelers come into this game without their enforcer in linebacker James Harrison who is serving a one game suspension. However this team had to deal with his missing four games from an orbital bone fracture earlier in the year. With Lawrence Timmons & Larry Foote, the Steelers are able to rotate linebackers to continue playing the same defense and rush the passer along with stopping the run. This year’s edition hasn’t forced the turnovers of previous editions yet comes in with the #1 defense. Thanks to early injuries to this defense, which is one of the eldest in all of football, they are healthy on defense at the right time and they’re rested.

Unsung versatile linebacker Larry Foote

They also have to rally around an injured Ben Roethlisberger who has a high ankle sprain but this is the type of rock ’em sock ’em game the  Steelers thrive in. It may be hard for Roethlisberger to move around and make plays but he plays with grit and has to will his offense down the field. For the season he’s completed 64.5% of his passes for 3,526 yards 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He’s on pace for another 4,000 yard season and people have to get over the illusion that the Steelers are a running team. Sure they are a running team first, but Ben is what makes this offense go. They say it’s a game time decision but Big Ben, sitting out this game?? Stop, he’ll be under center tonight bank on it. Especially with Baltimore stumbling last night in San Diego, now the Steelers are in control of the AFC North, the second seed in the AFC playoffs or possibly home field throughout.

Yet coming in with the league’s #4 defense is the San Francisco 49ers. Did you know they haven’t given up a rushing touchdown all year?? They are trying to become the first team in league history not to give up a rushing touchdown for the season. Now that is a record. Furthermore did you know that in the Super Bowl era, for every team that didn’t give up a rushing touchdown in the first 10 games, all of which made it to at least the conference championship?? So take a guess who is #1 against the run in the NFL?? Getting the picture??

Underappreciated as the #1 rushing defense in football. Folks will learn of Justin Smith and the rest of the defense. It's more than Patrick Willis.

Frank Gore and Rashard Mendenhall better have on their big boy pads tonight.  Frank Gore “Didn’t he ask to be traded?? Oh that was pre-season!” has 1,054 yards and 6 touchdowns and has to be at his best for San Francisco to win. He currently ranks 6th but should end tonight as the league’s #3 rusher.  Suprisingly Rashard Mendenhall is 24th in the league in rushing with 710 yards yet he has 8 touchdowns. Can Mendenhall and company break the rushing touchdown drought of the Niners?? Well they better get their pad lower than they did on the goal line at home versus Cleveland.

In the end, Big Ben is going to win this game with a few plays out of the pocket. Alex Smith is enjoying a good season but will see ghosts of that Thanksgiving Game as Lamarr Woodley will come off the corner as Terrell Suggs did in that one. The difference is going to be the quarterback… Big Ben will win it where Alex Smith will try to manage it.  You don’t manage against Blitzburgh. Yet the 49ers aren’t battle tested enough to knock off Pittsburgh.

OUR PICK: STEELERS 20-13 OVER 49ERS

NFL Week 4 NFC West: Welcome To Bizarro World

Coach Jim Harbaugh and the much beleaguered Alex Smith have enjoyed a good first quarter of the 2011 season.

What else would you expect from the NFC West?? After all this is the division that had a worst to first scenario in sending the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl. They had the worst record ever to qualify for that game and came within 3 minutes of winning it. Then you had the worst to first 2010 division champion Seattle Seahaws. They became the first team in NFL history with a losing record and make the playoffs. What did they do for an encore?? Promptly upset the Super Bowl champion Saints in a wild wild card game 41-36. Why are we bringing it up?? This wacky division is at it again.

Enter the San Francisco 49ers. A team that struggled to find itself under Coach Singletary is suddenly, the scrourge of the division under new commander Jim Harbaugh.  A division where many pundits pointed to St Louis as the best the NFC West had to offer are having to reevaluate. At 3-1 this team has shown flash in being able to move the football.  Alex Smith…who?? Alex Smith has completed 67.7% of his passes for 795 yards  4TDs and only 1 interception. Serious get off the floor those are his real stats. In Harbaugh he got what he desperately needed, a quarterback coach.

The cavalcade of Alex Smith detractors have fallen silent. Of course the season is still young however this team is moving in a direction and a purpose not seen by the bay since Steve Marriucci.

Funny how once you start drinking a winning elixir everyone starts to fly right. Haven’t heard a peep out of Frank Gore about being traded now have we??  He’s rushed for 275 yards so far but his 3.7 yard average needs to improve. They just upset the “Dream Team’ Eagles, who were desperate for a win, 24-23 last Sunday, to move to a 3-1 record. Many folks scoffed that they didn’t play anyone after a week 3 13-8 win in Cincinnati. Until you realize that the number 1 defense in the NFL belongs to those Bengals. Yet what is important is San Fran has been packing a defense also. Right now they are in the middle of the pack at #17, and this team is scrappy and not beating itself. They take on an aspiring heavyweight contender when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week. Two 3-1 teams putting the recent past behind them…who ya’ got??  OK, reserve giving your answer for the end of the week. As for the standings…

NFC WEST W L T PCT HOME ROAD DIV CONF PF PA DIFF STRK
San Francisco 3 1 0 .750 1-1-0 2-0-0 1-0-0 2-1-0 94 75 +19 Won 2
Seattle 1 3 0 .250 1-1-0 0-2-0 1-1-0 1-2-0 58 97 -39 Lost 1
Arizona 1 3 0 .250 1-1-0 0-2-0 0-1-0 1-3-0 86 87 -1 Lost 3
St. Louis 0 4 0 .000 0-3-0 0-1-0 0-0-0 0-3-0 46 113 -67 Lost 4

Cardinal signal caller has had a moderate start, yet 3/4ths of the season left, he could get hot.

Now why was this division article entitled bizarro world?? Well most of us so called experts had the complete inverse of these standings as our final predictions. Kolb in Arizona was going to bring the long ball back to the desert. He and Larry Fitzgerald were going to bring the offense the glory left behind in the 2008  & 2009 seasons. Now if only Beanie Wells could stay healthy…uh see what we mean?? Right now Chris “Beanie” Wells has rushed for 321 yards and 5 TDs and is averaging a robust 5.4 yards per carry. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/crd/2011.htm Its not that Kolb has underwhelmed, teams are covering his only legitimate threat in Fitzgerald. He’s had to check down or throw the ball away. His stats look just like those that got him “Wally Pipp-ed” by Vick in Philadelphia. That withstanding he is still over 200 yards per game with 1,049 yet he’s thrown 5TDs and 4 ints.

Right now this team is suffering from glaring losses in Steve Breaston and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Breaston to help stretch the field and Cromartie to help out their 24th against the pass rating. Asking rookie CB Patrick Peterson to come in and be a Deion clone was foolish without a mentor. Right now he has 1 int, only 3 passes defensed yet leads the team in tackles with 18. What does that mean?? He’s getting burnt as a rookie yet makes sure to tackle the receiver once the ball is caught. Right now they aren’t forcing any turnovers out of their opponents and are a -6 in the turnover ratio or they might be 3-1 or 2-2. With their upcoming game with the Minnesota Vikings, this could be just what the doctor ordered for a tired pass defense. Funny that’s what Minnesota is saying about Arizona’s pass defense for the betterment of their team’s offensive psyche. If they can get to their bye week at 2-3 they can get back in the race.

The St Louis Rams have been sabotaged by injuries with Stephen Jackson missing several games and thrusting all the pressure on Sam Bradford. With the threat of the run, defenses underestimated Bradford last year and he lit them up. This year he’s been under fire with Cadillac Williams unable to sustain a consistent ground game. Williams is the type of back who’ll gain 0, -1, 1, then a 10 yard burst. So the average looks good but 3 drives like that and they don’t score yet it seems like he’s effective stat wise. However with Jackson back, they fell behind 17-0 to the Redskins and tried to play catch up with an an undermanned receiving corp. The Rams defense isn’t getting any rest during games and they’re getting pushed around. Last week they got shoved off the ball from the get go as the Redskins amassed 196 yards rushing. Not the recipe when you have a big back and downhill runner in Jackson. They need this bye week as they take on the champion Packers upon they’re return. Their season could teeter on that one football game. An upset there to build their confidence could fuel a resurgence. They haven’t played any of their division rivals yet either. We know they are 0-4, yet we remember when an 0-3 Buffalo Bills team in ’98 made the playoffs that same year. The ’92 Chargers started out 0-4 and won a division title back when there was a 5 team division. So it can be done. Can they summon up the strength for that game against Aaron Rodgers & company with two weeks rest??

See what we mean?? If the Rams can turn the tide and get back in the NFC West race, it’s Bizarro World all over again measuring against the first quarter of the season.

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