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Quick-Hit Observations from Super Bowl XLVII: Ravens 34, 49ers 31

In one of the more entertaining games in Super Bowl history, the Ravens held on to beat the 49ers, 34-31. Here are some quick-hit observations from Baltimore’s upset.

+ There’s no question that Jimmy Smith held Michael Crabtree in the end zone on that fourth-down play. We’ve all seen cornerbacks flagged for less and if there’s a penalty on the play, then throw the flag, period. (That statement is in reference to those suggesting that the refs were right by “letting the players play.”) But a game is never decided by one play. Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio’s defense gave up 34 points after surrendering the second-fewest points during the regular season, and the Niners saved one of their worst performances for the biggest game of the year. They have every reason to be upset with the non-call on Smith, but they were also in control of what happened for 58 minutes prior to that play and they simply didn’t do enough to win the game.

+ The power outage was a disaster for the NFL. Millions of people had to wait 30 minutes for someone at the Superdome to find the fuse box and this was after waiting for what felt like an hour for Beyonce to wrap up her halftime show. Considering the NFL has priced out its fans at local stadiums and doesn’t allow any business to utter the words “Super Bowl” without wanting a fee in return, the delay was embarrassing for Roger Goodell and Co. The situation was most likely unavoidable, but embarrassing nonetheless.

+ Of course, I don’t know which corporation should have been more embarrassed during the outage – the NFL or CBS. The network supplied 10 hours worth of pre-game coverage but all of a sudden it had nothing to say during a 30-minute delay. Steve Tasker played the role of Monty from the “Major League” movies, painfully giving TV viewers his best play-by-play of the scene. If this situation didn’t expose television sideline reporters for how useless they are, I don’t know what will. To be fair, it’s not as if CBS was planning on having a 30-minute show four minutes into the third quarter. But something tells me FOX would have handled the situation with more aplomb.

+ There was one good thing to come out of the power outage: Twitter. People’s tweets during the delay were 10-times funnier than any commercial that was aired during the game. And it isn’t even close.

+ It’s going to be debated ad nauseam whether or not the power outage allowed the 49ers to settle down and avoid what seemed to be a surefire blowout. And hey, maybe it did. If they go three-and-out following Jones’ kickoff return, maybe Baltimore wins the game running away. Instead, the delay stunted the Ravens’ momentum and allowed the 49ers to regain their composure. Then again, it’s not as if San Francisco hadn’t shown the ability to battle back from double-digit deficits before. Two weeks ago it looked like the Falcons were going to soar into the Super Bowl after building a 17-0 lead in the first quarter of the NFC title game. It’s hard to quantify how much the delay meant to the Niners, but they’re not a team that’s easily rattled. Outage or no outage, the 49ers weren’t going to waive the white flag after trailing by 22 points and an entire second half yet to be played.

+ By completing 73-of-126 passes for 1,140 yards with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions, Joe Flacco had one of the most impressive postseasons by a quarterback in NFL history. And now that he’s a Super Bowl MVP with a dazzling 9-4 postseason record, he’s worth every penny the Ravens will pay him this offseason.

+ Considering he’s never thrown for over 4,000 yards or 25 touchdown passes in a single season, there’s an argument to be made that he still doesn’t belong in the same category as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. But he holds tremendous value to a team like the Ravens, who evaluate talent as well as any franchise in the NFL and who contends on a yearly basis. Baltimore needs a quarterback that can win in the postseason, which Flacco has now done for five straight years. He may continue to battle with consistency throughout his career, but given his contributions in the postseason he’s proven that he’s a franchise player. And in this day and age, franchise quarterbacks with Super Bowl rings can command $17-plus million a year.

+ Imagine how much money the Ravens could have saved had they paid Flacco at the start of the season instead of waiting to see how the year panned out. Stupid hindsight.

+ What was most impressive about Flacco’s performance was his ability to extend plays. There were multiple times during the course of the game where you would have thought he was gearing up to throw the ball 20 yards into the stands and instead, he chucked it downfield for huge, drive-sustaining completions. For as much as the Niners’ secondary was exposed the past two games, it’s not fair to ask defensive backs to cover receivers for 20 seconds downfield. Flacco consistently put pressure on San Francisco’s defense throughout the game.

+ For as well as Flacco played, there’s an argument to be made that Jacoby Jones deserved MVP. Had the power not gone off at the Superdome, his kickoff return to start the second half may have spurred a Baltimore blowout. Flacco’s longest touchdown pass was a pass that he under threw to Jones, who made a great adjustment and had the wherewithal to get up, make a move on Chris Culliver and sprint to the end zone for a touchdown. Considering that was the only catch Jones made, the MVP award probably wound up in the right hands. But Jones’ contributions cannot be understated.

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Super Bowl XLVII Preview: Five Storylines to Follow

Two months ago not many people envisioned the Baltimore Ravens making a run at the NFL title game. They were dysfunctional offensively, they lacked playmakers defensively, and they employed a quarterback that was costing himself offseason dollars with each poor performance. But as the Packers and Giants proved the previous two postseasons, sometimes all you have to do is catch fire.

Here are five storylines to follow for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, where the Ravens will host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

The defense of Kaepernick.
The Falcons may have won a key battle in their loss to the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game but they became so consumed by winning that battle that they wound up losing the war. After watching Colin Kaepernick rip off 181 yards on 16 rushes versus the Packers the week prior, the Falcons were dead set against allowing the quarterback to beat them with the option read. So they aligned linebacker Stephen Nicholas or defensive ends John Abraham and Kroy Biermann at the edge and sent them right at Kaepernick. On the first two series of the game, San Francisco was befuddled by the Atlanta’s game plan and it wound up punting on back-to-back three-and-outs. But the Falcons were so concerned about Kaepernick running at the edges that they lost sight of the fact that Frank Gore was gaining over four yards per carry up the middle. Abraham or Nicholas would fly up the edge and straight at Kaepernick, who repeatedly handed the ball off to Gore or LaMichael James and watched them run through the lane that Atlanta’s defenders had created. And when they weren’t running, Kaepernick exposed the one-on-one matchups that were available to him in the passing game (such as tight end Vernon Davis on safety Thomas DeCoud). In the AFC title game, the Ravens were physical with the Patriots’ receivers at the line of scrimmage and it disrupted Tom Brady’s rhythm in the passing game. But Green Bay got burned playing too much man versus Kaepernick, who often ran for long gains once the Packers’ defenders turned their backs to him. It’ll be interesting to see what approach the Ravens take on Sunday in terms of shutting down this prolific San Francisco offense. If they were smart they would take a page out of what the Rams and Seahawks did in the month of December when the 49ers lost twice in their final five games. Both St. Louis and Seattle won the battles on first and second down and thus put themselves in favorable third down situations. Both teams also got great play out of their linebackers, who not only stopped the run on early downs, but also generated pressure when their number was called for blitz assignments. But it all starts up front. If the Ravens can’t win their individual matchups versus the Niners’ outstanding offensive line, it’ll be a long night for Ray Lewis and Co.

The next step and the transformation of Flacco.
Two months ago Joe Flacco couldn’t win on the road and couldn’t play at a consistent level play to play nevertheless week to week. But thanks to the firing of Cam Cameron and the promoting of Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator, Flacco is now 60 minutes and one enormous victory away from joining very elite company. Cameron wanted Flacco to consistently beat teams vertically and outside the numbers, which is difficult to do on a weekly basis. And because Baltimore’s offensive line wasn’t playing at a consistent level either, Flacco turned in some rather ugly performances from Week 11 through Week 15. But while Caldwell has kept the same formations as Cameron (mostly the use of either a two-back, one tight end set, or a one-back, two-tight end set), he’s also simplified the offense. He has allowed Flacco to work the middle of the field more and spread the ball out to several different players. Not only is Torrey Smith heavily involved in the vertical game, but Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta are allowed to work the middle of the field and/or the seam of a defense. Caldwell has also brought more balance to the Baltimore offense. For whatever reason, Cameron would often get away from his running game, which is inexcusable when you have backs like Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. With the pressure of having to win games by throwing the ball versus defenses that knew what was coming, Flacco would often be frustrated in the middle of games. Now he’s playing his best ball of the season and most importantly, he’s comfortable and in command of the offense.

Are cracks starting to form in the Niners’ defensive foundation?
The Falcons didn’t average 26.0 points per game this year by accident. Matt Ryan is knocking on the door of playing in a Super Bowl himself and his receivers – Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez – are some of the best in the game. That said, you have to wonder if Dashon Goldson wasn’t exposed a bit in coverage last week. On Julio Jones’ 46-yard touchdown early in the first quarter, there was a communication breakdown between Goldson and cornerback Tarrell Brown. For whatever reason, Brown passed Jones off to Goldson and jumped on an out route by Tony Gonzalez, even though the tight end was clearly covered. Jones then got behind Goldson for an easy score, putting the Niners in a hole early. But even if Goldson and Brown could share the blame on that touchdown, Goldson was also victimized on a 16-yard reception by Roddy White, as well as another 40-yard pass play to Jones later in the game. Again, in White and Jones we’re talking about two of the better receivers in the NFL. But with how well Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith have played this postseason, it has to be a little concerning to Jim Harbaugh that his defense was shredded 477 yards in the NFC title game. Don’t forget that San Francisco also gave up 31 points in the second half versus New England in mid-December, and 42 points to the Seahawks in Seattle one week later. Granted, the Niners didn’t have Justin Smith for that Seattle game but you have to wonder whether or not the blueprint on how to beat San Francisco’s defense hasn’t been laid out over the past month and a half. The good news is that even though he’s not generating sacks, Aldon Smith is still putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and there has been no dip in the play of linebackers Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis. The Ravens still have their work cut out for them on Sunday.

Which offense can stay balanced?
For as much as fans and the media want to dissect how well a quarterback can orchestrate a dynamic passing attack, balance is still the key to any NFL offense. The Saints finished tied for seventh in terms of rushing attempts the year they won the Super Bowl and were sixth in total rushing yards that season. Yes, they won in large part because of Sean Payton’s playcalling and Drew Brees’ ability to orchestrate that offense. But they were extremely effective throwing the ball because they were also a threat to pound it between the tackles with Pierre Thomas or on the edges with Reggie Bush. Defenses were constantly playing back on their heels that season, which is one of the reasons why New Orleans hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year. For as much as everyone wants to talk about Flacco and Kaepernick when it comes to XLVII, the “matchup” between Ray Rice and Frank Gore might be more important. As previously stated, the Falcons did a great job of taking away Kaepernick’s ability to hit the edges on the ground in the NFC title game. But Gore killed them running between the tackles so if the Ravens want to focus on tying a lasso around Kaepernick’s legs too, then they better be ready to man up in the middle. That said, if Gore can’t gain traction on first and second down, the edge now swings in Baltimore’s favor because it’ll have Kaepernick in constant third and longs (which is what the Ravens want). On the other side, if Rice can’t get going against that stingy San Francisco front seven, then Flacco may become buried underneath the pressure of having to win the game on his own. Also, Baltimore can’t expect that San Francisco will be as poor tackling as New England was in the AFC title game. The Patriots missed a handful of tackles, which either kept drives alive for the Ravens or set up scores (like Rice’s 2-yard run in the second quarter when Jerod Mayo whiffed on a takedown). Rice will have to earn every yard he gets but if he’s effective, it’ll go a long way in setting up Flacco and the passing game.

The intangibles.
Ray Lewis has racked up a ton of tackles this postseason but he’s also looked slow in coverage and he’s obviously not the same impactful player he was earlier in his career. That said, it’s apparent that his teammates want to win for him (as well as fellow veteran Ed Reed). He’s the heartbeat in that Baltimore locker room and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of an effect he’ll have from an emotional standpoint. Turnovers have also been a key to deciding wins and losses in the postseason, as no team has won a playoff game this year while losing the turnover battle. San Francisco and Baltimore came into the postseason plus-nine in turnovers, which is the lowest margin of the 10 playoff teams, so which team will avoid costly mistakes (and/or produce them in a positive way)? Special teams will undoubtedly play a factor in the outcome as well. David Akers missed a makeable field goal in a controlled environment in Atlanta and his body language following the miss would have you believe he’s a kicker with zero confidence right now. And don’t forget that Baltimore allowed a kick and punt return for touchdown in its win over Denver in the Divisional Round. Finally, how will the “Har-Bowl” factor play into the game? Considering there are only 32 head coaching positions in the NFL and so few siblings in sports (at least ones that coach against each other), it’s truly remarkable that Jim and John Harbaugh will square off in the Super Bowl. While Jim arguably has the better team, John has more postseason experience and more postseason wins. Which Harbaugh will get the leg up on the other before the clock reads double-zero on Sunday?

PREDICTION: The 49ers are the better team, at least on paper. They have the more complete offense, the better defense, and they have the ability to win in the trenches on both sides of the ball. But the Ravens have saved their best football for the end of the year, which is exactly what the Packers did in 2011 and what the Giants did in 2012.

Since Baltimore fired Cam Cameron and promoted Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator, Joe Flacco has been a different quarterback. Cameron wanted Flacco to consistently beat teams by throwing outside the numbers and refused to stay balanced with his playcalling. But while Caldwell is running the same formations as Cameron (i.e. 12, 21 and 22 groupings), he’s also simplified things. Flacco is now instructed to use the entire field to beat defenses, including up the seam with tight end Dennis Pitta, in the short-to-intermediate game with Anquan Boldin, and yes, down field to Torrey Smith. Caldwell hasn’t forgotten about Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce either, as he’s gotten both running backs in the mix while staying balanced.

Matt Ryan and the Falcons exposed the 49ers’ safety position in the NFC title game, specifically Dashon Goldson. Where they screwed up is becoming too focused on Colin Kaepernick’s running ability. While constantly sending defensive ends and linebackers straight at Kaepernick, Atlanta created huge rushing lanes for LaMichael James and Frank Gore, who killed the Falcons up the middle. Look for the Ravens to take their shots downfield against Goldson and to stay balanced offensively. Defensively, Baltimore needs to win the battle on first and second down and force Kaepernick to make mistakes on third down. Call it a hunch, but I believe Kaepernick’s inexperience will show through at a critical moment on Sunday.

Ravens 24, 49ers 20.

NFL Playoffs: Quick-Hits from the Divisional Round

+ Everyone thought the Ravens’ game plan on Saturday would be to take the pressure off Joe Flacco’s shoulders by making Ray Rice the focal point of the offense. Instead, John Harbaugh and Jim Caldwell put the game in their quarterback’s hands and Flacco repaid them out dueling Peyton Manning. Outside of two errant deep passes to Torrey Smith, Flacco was perfect. He relentlessly challenged Denver’s secondary downfield (his 9.7 YPA average was eye popping) and he used the entire field to orchestrate Baltimore’s offense. In the past two weeks we’ve seen one coaching blunder after another. But Harbaugh and Caldwell went against conventional wisdom and thanks to the play of their embattled signal caller, they’ll be heading to Foxboro next weekend. It’s good to see an aggressive game plan rewarded.

+ One other note on Flacco: His best throw didn’t come on a scoring play, nor did it lead to a score. On the second possession of overtime and his team backed up on a 3rd and 13, Flacco threw a frozen rope to tight end Dennis Pitta for a 24-yard gain while standing in his own end zone. Credit Pitta for making a spectacular adjustment on the catch, but Flacco put the ball where only his tight end could come down with the pass. Granted, four plays later the Ravens punted but if Flacco doesn’t convert on that third down maybe Denver uses marches up a short field for the game-winning score.

+ Manning’s crucial interception in overtime may have been a result of the Hall of Famer trying to do too much. You never see Peyton throw across his body while on the move, but he got impatient while attempting to make a play. That said, blame can be spread throughout the entire Denver locker room…

+…Manning’s interception directly led to Baltimore’s game-winning field goal but Denver was undone by its secondary long before Corey Graham accepted Peyton’s gracious gift. There’s simply no excuse for how safety Rahim Moore played Jacoby Jones’ 70-yard touchdown reception at the end of regulation. It wasn’t as if the Ravens caught the Broncos in a coverage breakdown – Moore just screwed up. If he’s two yards deeper, there’s a good chance he intercepts that pass and then nobody’s talking about Manning’s interception because it wouldn’t have existed.

+ … Moore isn’t the only member of Denver’s secondary that deserves a scolding, either. Champ Bailey had yet another solid season but he was torched for both of Torrey Smith’s touchdowns and also allowed 128 receiving yards in what was easily his worst game of the year. Jack Del Rio and John Fox have left Bailey on an island throughout the year and the results have been positive. But while hindsight is always 20/20, one would have thought that following Smith’s 59-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter that Denver’s coaching staff would have given Bailey more help. They didn’t, and they paid the price.

+…Then there’s Fox himself. Some are criticizing him for taking the ball out of Manning’s hands on that 3rd-and-7 play with just over a minute left in the game. But at least his rationale was just: Run the ball and force the Ravens to march 70-plus yards for a touchdown with a minute and no timeouts. Nobody could foresee Baltimore throwing a 70-yard touchdown pass three plays later, so it’s hard to eat Fox’s lunch for that decision. That said, his choice not to give Manning a chance to march the Broncos into field goal range with 37 seconds remaining in regulation and two timeouts was incomprehensible. This was proven less than 24 hours later when Matt Ryan drove the Falcons to a game-winning field goal with two timeouts and 31 seconds on the clock. The two situations weren’t exactly the same, but if Ryan could accomplish the feat in two plays, Fox should be embarrassed for not giving his living legend of a quarterback even an opportunity to pull off the same heroics.

+ Not that it matters now, but without Trindon Holliday’s record-setting day, is the game in Denver even that close? Take away his two touchdowns and the Ravens might not even need an improbable Jacoby Jones touchdown or a Justin Tucker 47-yard field goal to win.

+ Two underlying storylines in Baltimore’s upset victory: The Ravens’ run defense and their offensive line. After surrendering 152 rushing yards last week to the Colts, the Broncos running game was a big failure on Sunday (they rushed for 125 yards but at 3.0 yards per clip). Also, thanks to Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, Denver has one of the best pass rushes in the game. But for all intents and purposes, the duo had a quiet day against Baltimore’s revamped offensive line (which has now played well in back-to-back weeks).

+ Even if the 49ers were to lose to the Falcons in the NFC Championship, nobody will question Jim Harbaugh’s decision to replace Alex Smith after the show Colin Kaepernick put on versus Green Bay. It showed some resiliency on Kaepernick’s part to throw for 263 yards, rush for a NFL-record 183 yards, and record four total touchdowns after throwing that early pick-six to Sam Shields. Instead of allowing his emotions to get the best of him, he settled in and let his instincts take over…

+ …Not to take anything away from Kaepernick but where were the Packers’ adjustments? One would have thought Capers would have changed something at halftime in efforts to slow Kaepernick down and instead, the quarterback was still running free well into the fourth quarter. Granted, coordinators can only put their guys in position to make plays. It’s up to the players to execute the game plan and for the likes of Erik Walden, B.J. Raji and Charles Woodson, they didn’t. I’m just not sure what the game plan was to begin with.

+ Lost in Kaepernick’s big night was how well Vic Fangio’s defense played. When the Niners went with press man on the outsides, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers did a nice job of not allowing the Packers’ receivers to get a free release. And when Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith brought pressure, it completely took Aaron Rodgers out of his game. It wasn’t as if Rodgers played poorly – San Francisco just never allowed him to get into a rhythm.

+ Aside from Kaepernick turning Candlestick Park into his own personal jungle gym, the key to San Francisco’s victory was its dominance up front on both sides of the ball. Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis were unstoppable forces in the running game and immovable options in pass protection. There was plenty of great offensive line play this weekend but the best work may have been done on Saturday night by those two players.

+ Regardless of how fortunate the Falcons are to be advancing to the NFC Championship Game, it’s hard not to feel elated for Tony Gonzalez. Assuming he stays true to his word and retires at the end of the season, that man was 31 seconds away from never tasting postseason victory. Thankfully he doesn’t have to worry about what that would have felt like.

+ It’s easy to get swept up in the emotions of the game but Mike Smith blew it by calling his last timeout with 13 seconds remaining in regulation. Chances are the Seahawks would have still burned a timeout anyway but shame on Smith for not putting Pete Carroll in that position.

+ Matt Bosher either had a vacation to Cabo lined up next weekend because he nearly handed the Seahawks a victory by shanking two punts and then dribbling an impromptu onsides kick at the end of the game. For a second I swore the kid had Seattle on the money line.

+ Nobody should ignore the fact that Matt Ryan helped the Falcons blow a 20-point fourth-quarter lead on Sunday. The interception to Earl Thomas was brutal and his sudden inability to move the ball in the fourth quarter should come into question as well. But it is remarkable what he can do with less than two minutes remaining in a game that his team is trailing. He’s unflappable in those situations and nine times out of 10, he’s going to put the Falcons in position to win. Jacquizz Rodgers’ kick return was key in setting up that game-winning drive, but it took Ryan only two plays to erase everything the Seahawks accomplished in the fourth quarter. If nothing else, Ryan remains one of the most clutch performers in the game.

+ Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter did a great job not over thinking the game plan for Sunday. He wanted to take advantage of undersized rookie Bruce Irvin and that’s what he did, constantly running Rodgers and Michael Turner at the edge of Seattle’s defense. The Falcons haven’t run the ball effectively all season and Turner has looked like a back running with cement blocks for feet. But neither was the case on Sunday.

+ The Falcons actually might be the most predictable team in the NFL, you just have to understand their recipe for success: Dominant for two quarters, take two quarters off, give Matt Ryan the ball with at least 30 seconds left on the clock and make sure Matt Bryant is properly stretched out. Amazement, heartburn, jubilation, repeat.

+ Russell Wilson is special. After a shaky first half he was brilliant in the final quarters, including going 10-for-10 for 185 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Seahawks back from a 20-0 deficit. Granted, he had six days to find receivers that were generally covered by Atlanta defenders, but he also once again did a great job eluding pass rushers and buying himself more time. Both he and the Seahawks have a bright future.

+ Wilson and Kaepernick are quarterbacks first – not mobile players that happen to play the quarterback position. I watched both of those players force the defense to unveil where the blitz was coming from this weekend by making pre-snap adjustments. They’re intelligent players with big arms that just so happen to be blessed with mobility and speed. It’s not as if they’re beating teams because of their athleticism alone, like Michael Vick used to do. They’re beating you well before they take the snap.

+ The outcome in Atlanta was yet another example of why coaches shouldn’t waste time attempting to freeze a kicker. Why give a veteran like Matt Bryant an extra 20 seconds to compose himself when he’s already feeling the burden of an entire season on his shoulders? Carroll’s charade following Bryant’s missed practice attempt was silly and he deserved to watch the next kick sail through the uprights.

+ If anyone is looking for Zach Miller he can be found running free in Atlanta’s secondary. He’ll be there for the rest of the day.

+ Tom Brady loses Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead so he throws for 344 yards and three touchdowns…including two to his backup running back. The guy is incredible.

+ This is how good New England’s offense is: The Pats didn’t score until 1:28 left in the first quarter and still wound up with 41 points.

+ On a weekend when both the Broncos and Falcons blew late leads, the Patriots were still scoring with less than two minutes remaining and up by 10. Bill Belichick never takes his foot off the gas and his players revel in his philosophy.

+ Matt Schaub threw for 343 yards but both of his touchdowns came after the Patriots went up 38-13 and he also threw a brutal interception to kill a drive in the second half. Over the past month the Texans had trouble scoring inside the red zone and Schaub was a big reason for it. Only when it was too late did he respond with scores, and it’s reasonable to wonder whether he’s the right man to lead a talented team to the Super Bowl.

+ I thought Wade Phillips’ defense would respond to giving up 42 points in that Week 14 loss to New England in the regular season. Well, they did – by allowing 41 more points. The linebackers and defensive line couldn’t stop the run, there was virtually no pressure on Brady, who promptly dissected their secondary (again). This was all after Gronkowski and Woodhead left the game in the first half.

+ After that crap-fest of a wild card weekend, the Divisional Round was glorious. Upsets, comebacks, points galore, record-setting moments – how could you have not loved every second of this weekend? Championship Sunday? Can’t wait, Bart Scott.

+ Clearly oddsmakers weren’t phased by the Ravens’ upset of the Broncos because Baltimore has opened as a 9.5-point underdog versus the Patriots for the AFC title game. That’s with Gronkowski likely being sidelined for New England.

+ As for the NFC title game, the Niners opened as 3.5-point favorites versus the Falcons. What’s funny is that if Atlanta continued to dominant Seattle, the Falcons likely would have only been 1-point dogs on Championship Sunday. Perception is everything, isn’t it?

NFL News & Notes: Phil Taylor, Rueben Randle & Kendall Wright

The Browns’ run defense just got much worse.
The Browns were brutal against the run last season and that was with 6-foot-3, 334-pound Phil Taylor plugging the middle of their line. With Taylor on the shelf for the next 4-6 months (if not the entire season) with a torn pectoral, Cleveland’s run defense figures to get worse. The Browns drafted Cincinnati DT John Hughes and Boise State’s Billy Winn last month, but neither is suited to be a starter. (Winn is the better bet to make an immediate impact, but his work ethic was questioned coming into the draft.) Opposing running backs should find plenty of open running lanes when playing the Browns again next season.

Randle already impressing.
Second-round pick Rueben Randle is already reportedly impressing the Giants. He went up high to catch a pass along the sideline during Friday’s mini-camp and then burned third-round selection Jayron Hosley on a go pattern later in the day. I said it immediately following the draft and I’ll say it again: Randle is the perfect replacement for Mario Manningham in the Giants’ offense because of his deep threat ability. He’ll work the seam just like Manningham did the past two seasons in New York.

Wright never had a playbook at Baylor.
File away as interesting: Receiver Kendall Wright never had a playbook in college. Baylor coach Art Briles used practices, film study and meetings to teach Wright over 300 plays. The Titans’ playbook will be the first-rounders first ever.

No need to worry about 49er rookies being out of shape.
One of the first things out of head coach Jim Harbaugh’s mouth on Friday was that the 49ers’ rookies looked out of shape, specifically first-round pick A.J. Jenkins. But one thing to keep in mind is that all rookies are out of shape at this point. It’s up to the coaching staffs to bring the players along slowly and show them what NFL speed looks like so that when training camp rolls around, they can be in stride with the veterans. Plus, it’s important for these youngsters not to get hurt tweaking a hamstring that could potentially affect them all year.

Burfict the perfect low-risk player for Bengals.
Former Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict says he has a chip on his shoulder after being undrafted last April. That should be music to the ears of the Bengals, who signed Burfict as a free agent following the draft. Burfict doesn’t lack talent, he just bombed pre-draft workouts and was an undisciplined player in college. If he winds up making the roster (and don’t be surprised if he does), then it’s a perfect low-risk, high-reward situation for Cincinnati. Maybe all he needed was a wake up call and some motivation.

Young to eventually be Bills’ starter?
Vince Young was brutal as Michael Vick’s backup last year in Philadelphia and seeing as how he just signed a seven-year, $62 million contract in October last year, Ryan Fitzpatrick will remain Buffalo’s starter. That said, Chan Gailey has always loved mobile quarterbacks so if Fitzpatrick struggles early in 2012, don’t be surprised if Young finds himself in a starting role again.

Jets latest to turn down “Hard Knocks?”
The AP reports that the Jets have turned down a “Hard Knocks” sequel because the team wants to limit distractions during training camp. The Falcons essentially gave the network the same reason as to why they didn’t want to appear on the show, and it’s saying something that HBO can’t even get Rex Ryan to say yes to attention. That said, hopefully the network can find a suitor because the show is great for fans.

A retractable roof for Minnesota? What would the “Purple People Eaters say?”
Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf have hinted that the team’s new stadium will have a retractable roof because they want to make the stadium as attractive to fans as possible. But I say get your ass out in the cold, Minnesotans, and enjoy the game how it’s meant to be viewed: Out in the elements.

2011 NFL Week 12 Primer

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) leads his team on the field before their game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field on November 14, 2011 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. UPI/Brian Kersey

Packers @ Lions, 12:30PM ET, Thursday
I truly believe that it’s Green Bay and then everyone else when it comes to the power structure of the NFL. But don’t think for a second that the Lions can’t beat the Packers on Thanksgiving Day. They’ve been waiting a long time to be strong enough to finally punch the bully back and they’ll have their opportunity tomorrow. The key for Detroit is its front four. If they can rush Aaron Rodgers with only Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril, Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch, then they’re going to be fine. And with how suspect Green Bay’s defense has been this year, if its still a game in the fourth quarter then the Lions have a shot to pull off the upset.

Dolphins @ Cowboys, 4:15PM ET, Thursday
This is definitely the weakest of the Thanksgiving matchups but this game still offers plenty of intrigue. The Cowboys are now tied with the Giants for first place in the NFC East but they’ve turned in inconsistent performances all season. And during Miami’s three-game winning streak, the Dolphins haven’t allowed a touchdown in 12 quarters. This is going to be a bigger challenge for Tony Romo and Co. than people think.

49ers @ Ravens, 8:20PM ET, Thursday
Forget the Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh stuff – this is a great matchup between two physical teams that will fight for four quarters. The Ravens have been playing up and down to their competition all season and their offense has sputtered at times. On the other side, San Francisco’s defense has been a rock for nine straight weeks but Baltimore’s run defense is outstanding so it’ll be interesting to see how the Niners fare when they have to lean on Alex Smith and the passing game. There doesn’t figure to be much scoring in this game but if you like hard-nosed football, then it doesn’t get better than this.

Vikings @ Falcons, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
This isn’t a very exciting matchup with Adrian Peterson out with an ankle injury but it’ll be interesting to see if the Falcons stay with their no-huddle attack on offense. They ran the no-huddle exclusively in their 23-17 win over the Titans last Sunday and had great success with it (outside of settling for field goals when they reached the red zone, that is). Matt Ryan looks most comfortable running that offense but will OC Mike Mularkey make it Atlanta’s identity on offense? He’s been hesitant to ditch his “smashmouth” approach but at some point the Falcons need to develop more consistency on offense. Maybe running the no-huddle full-time is the answer.

Texans @ Jaguars, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
It’s time to see if Matt Leinart has matured as a quarterback. He failed in Arizona because he wasn’t ready to lead a young team with potential (unlike Kurt Warner, who prospered in the situation). Now Leinart is at the controls of a veteran club that has an outstanding running game and a sound defense. Can he manage games and make plays when his number is called or will he crumble under the pressure? In Jacksonville’s defense, he’ll face a stiff test right out of the gates.

Buccaneers @ Titans, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
One of these teams will keep its playoff hopes alive on Sunday while the other could be looking at a long offseason. The Titans remain two games behind the Texans in the AFC South but with Matt Schaub out for the season, Tennessee has a golden opportunity to get back into the divisional race if it can string some wins together. On the other side, the Bucs continue to fall further behind the Saints and Falcons in the NFC South. In some respects, this might as well be an elimination game for these two teams (although more so for the Bucs).

Cardinals @ Rams, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
Steve Spagnuolo and Billy Devaney’s jobs seem safe for now in St. Louis. But any more displays like last Sunday and the Rams could be searching for a new head coach and/or general manager this offseason. Sam Bradford and Co. were pitiful on offense in their 24-7 loss to Seattle last weekend.

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