Ten Observations from Week 12 in the NFL

1. The 49ers are the team to beat in the NFC.
With all due respect to the 10-1 Atlanta Falcons, the 49ers are clearly the team to beat in their conference. All of their strengths were on display Sunday in New Orleans. Their physicality is unrivaled by any team in the league and they’re equipped defensively to beat all of the top offenses in the NFC, including the Saints, Packers and Falcons. Drew Brees couldn’t do anything yesterday. He was under constant pressure, was sacked five times, saw both of his interceptions returned for touchdowns and had to witness his receivers take a beating nearly every time they caught the ball. The Niners also somehow took Jimmy Graham out of the game, which isn’t easy to do considering the Saints were at home (where he thrives). I don’t care what Alex Smith’s competition percentage is – Colin Kaepernick also needs to be the starter. He outplayed Brees while completing 16-of-25 passes for 231 yards with one touchdown and one interception, and also added 27 yards and another score on six rushes. He was calm under pressure, displayed his playmaking ability on his lone touchdown run, and still managed to move the ball despite not having the same aggressive or creative approach that San Francisco’s coaching staff used Monday night versus Chicago. The Niners have suffered some bumps in the road this year, the latest coming in a 24-24 tie with the Rams three weeks ago. But with that defense, that running game, and that quarterback under center, I’d put the Niners up against any team in the NFL right now.

2 The Giants still own the NFC East.
Just when you thought the Giants were on the verge of crumbling, they have one of those games that leaves their detractors silent. Eli Manning and the pass defense was horrible in previous losses to the Steelers and Bengals, so naturally Manning throws for three touchdowns and New York’s defense holds Aaron Rodgers to 14-of-25 passing for 219 yards with one interception. This effort by the Giants wasn’t surprising to those that have paid attention to them under Tom Coughlin. They love to play down to their competition and take entire games off, but when they feel like their backs are against the wall and they have something to prove they always rise to the occasion. They ran the ball with authority last night, had receivers running free in Green bay’s secondary, and constantly harassed Rodgers while sacking him five times. Their message was clear: ‘We’re still the class of the NFC East.’

3. Jim Schwartz has nobody but himself to blame.
The NFL has to do away with the rule that allowed Justin Forsett’s 81-yard touchdown to stand in Houston’s 34-31 win over Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. It’s unrealistic to think that a head coach won’t throw his challenge flag in the heat of the moment, just as Jim Schwartz did after he saw that Forsett was clearly down. The point of replay is to ensure that the calls on the field are correct. Yet the correct call on Forsett’s run wasn’t made because Schwartz’s split second decision nullified the officials’ ability to review the play. What an arrogant rule by the NFL. ‘How dare you challenge a play when the league has ruled that all touchdowns are reviewed by the booth! You shall suffer the consequences!’ Sorry NFL, but we fans suffered in that moment. It’s a ridiculous rule and the league needs to get rid of it, which it will. That said, Schwartz throwing the challenge flag in that situation was inexcusable. First and foremost, this is the same guy who screamed at 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh last year to “know the rules” during the “Handshake Gate” game. How fitting that Schwartz was the one to forget the rules this time around. Also, Falcons head coach Mike Smith made the same exact mistake just four days prior to Thanksgiving. If we’re going to chastise players for not learning from their peers (such as we do when two athletes get arrested for the same infraction just days or weeks apart), then it’s only fair that we criticize head coaches that don’t learn from each other, too. And lastly, we’ve seen these kinds of actions before out of Schwartz, who constantly allows his emotions to affect his judgment. NFL coaches need to be clear-headed and rational when making decisions. Schwartz is neither and his often-reckless team is a reflection of that. His emotions cost the Lions a touchdown on Thursday, if not a win and whatever hopes they had of still making the playoffs.

4. The banged up Texans haven’t been exposed, but there’s still reason to be concerned.
Following near-losses to the Jaguars and Lions the past two weeks, one could make the argument that the Texans have been exposed. They’ve surrendered 68 points and a whopping 791 yards through the air over their past two games. (They’ve also given up at least one touchdown in seven of the past eight quarters in regulation.) But if you’re searching for answers as to why the Texans defense has been so bad lately, take a glance at their injury report. They’ve already lost Brian Cushing for the season and fellow linebacker Brooks Reed is expected to miss at least three-to-four weeks after suffering a groin injury in Thursday’s win over the Lions. The team thought cornerback Jonathan Joseph (hamstring) would play in Detroit but he didn’t even suit up. The Texans haven’t been exposed, they’re just merely beat up on the defensive side of the ball. And until they get some of their starters back, their offense may have to score 30-plus points a game, which they’re certainly capable of doing. That said, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson are both prone to injury and no running back has carried the ball more than Arian Foster this season. Can Houston’s offensive core hold up throughout the rest of the season and into the playoffs? While the Patriots, Broncos and Ravens are getting stronger as the year wears on, the Texans appear to be weakening.

5. The Packers’ issues have resurfaced.
The Packers came into Sunday night riding a five-game winning streak but before the clock read double-zeros, Graham Harrell had already replaced Aaron Rodgers in the Giants’ 38-10 blowout. Green Bay’s offensive line can’t protect Rodgers, who doesn’t have enough time to get the ball to playmakers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Other defensive coordinators around the league are going to copy Perry Fewell’s game plan and use it against the Packers the rest of the year. Granted, most D-coordinators don’t have Fewell’s pass rushers but they’ll employ a similar two-deep shell that the Giants used in efforts to thwart Green Bay’s passing game. Injuries have also killed the Packers’ rushing attack and pass rush, which was non-existent versus Eli Manning last night. Just when you thought the Pack’s issues were in the rearview mirror, they came screeching back on primetime television. They’re still going to be a hell of an out if/when they make the playoffs, but you have to wonder if their makeshift O-line and injuries will derail the Packers in the end.

6. The Falcons have an X-factor that they’re not using.
The Falcons have owned one of the worst rushing attacks in the NFL this season but give offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter credit for running right at the Bucs’ top-ranked run defense in Atlanta’s 24-23 win on Sunday. The key was Jacquizz Rodgers, who rushed 10 times for 49 yards and one touchdown. He’s become the X-factor that Koetter isn’t using, or at least isn’t using merely enough. When Michael Turner has been the featured back, Atlanta’s running game grinds to a halt and he often puts Matt Ryan and the passing game in long down-and-distance situations. The cemented-footed Turner lacks the vision, acceleration and burst of Rodgers, who does a nice job of gaining yards even when he’s bottled up. Thanks to Ryan and the assortment of weapons that he has at his disposal (Julio Jones was once again dominant despite being slowed by an ankle injury), the Falcons’ passing attack remains dangerous. But unless they figure out a way to run the ball then they’re going to be too one-dimensional to beat tough defenses like the ones in San Francisco and Chicago. If Koetter and head coach Mike Smith were paying attention yesterday, they realize they have a true sparkplug in Rodgers.

7. The Cowboys’ problems on offense have become glaring.
Tony Romo is on pace to attempt a career-high 663 passes for a career-high 4,883 yards. While the yards would be impressive, the number of attempts tells the story of what has gone wrong in Dallas this season. The Cowboys have become too one-dimensional on offense and while the injury to DeMarco Murray has played a factor in the team’s play calling, Jason Garrett deserves blame for not creating more balance. Of course, Garrett doesn’t deserve blame for his running game averaging just 2.3 yards per carry. So while it’s easy to criticize Dallas for becoming too one-dimensional, what is Garrett supposed to do when his rushing attack can’t even gain three yards per attempt? Just as was the case on Thanksgiving when they fell behind 28-3 to the Redskins, the Cowboys are also starting games too slow. They were fortunate to erase a 13-0 deficit versus Cleveland two weeks ago, but the hole they put themselves in against Washington turned out to be insurmountable. With injuries now ravaging the defense and the Giants proving on Sunday night that they’re still the class of the division, it’s time for drastic measures. Romo and the offense have been efficient in the hurry up this season. But putting Romo in the hurry up more would mean Garrett sacrificing the play-calling duties during those drives. Most play callers can’t put aside their egos in order to allow their quarterback to call the plays and if Garrett falls into that category then the Cowboys will miss the playoffs for the third straight year. Simply put, Dallas can’t keep doing what its been doing offensively because it clearly doesn’t work.

8. The Rams get back to basics in win over Cards.
Entering the season Jeff Fisher knew that his young team would have to run the ball, limit mistakes, and play good defense in order to stay competitive throughout the year. That very general philosophy got lost in the midst of the Rams’ five-game winless streak, which ended on Sunday when they defeated the Cardinals 31-17. It’s no secret how Fisher and Co. beat Arizona. Steven Jackson was finally allowed to carry the running game and he responded by churning out 139 yards and a 5.8 YPC average. And while Ryan Lindley did throw for over 300 yards against that Charmin extra soft zone that the Rams like to use on a weekly basis, St. Louis took advantage of his rookie mistakes (four of them to be exact). Quite frankly, this was the type of effort that we expected out of the Rams all year. This isn’t a playoff caliber team – not yet, anyway. Fisher and Les Snead will need at least another year to acquire playmakers on both sides of the ball, which includes addressing holes along the offensive line, at wideout, and at safety. But for the next five weeks it would be nice to see the Rams do exactly what they did yesterday: Limit the mistakes, take advantage of the opportunities that their opponents give them, and control the tempo of the game with Jackson. At some point the Rams will need to be concerned with the fact that Sam Bradford only completed 8 passes or a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start somehow racked up 300 yards. passing But for now, building confidence is the key and you do that by winning, which remains the ultimate cure-all.

9. The Seahawks are finished.
That is, if Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are suspended. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Seattle’s starting cornerback duo is facing a four-game punishment for violating the NFL’s policy against PEDs. The substance for which they took remains unclear but their agents claim it was Adderall, which landed Cleveland’s Joe Haden a four-game suspension earlier this season. Outside of Chicago’s Charles Tillman and Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield, nobody has played better in coverage this season than Sherman. And after making the Pro Bowl last season, Browner is a borderline top-10 corner as well, so losing both would kill the Seahawks’ hopes of making the playoffs. If you think that’s harsh, consider that Seattle’s identity defensively is its secondary. Safety Earl Thomas isn’t having the season he did a year ago and to a much lesser extent, neither is his partner Kam Chancellor. The Hawks can ill-afford to lose either Browner or Sherman, the latter of which has been Seattle’s best defender in 2012. After blowing leads of 14-7 and 21-14 in an eventual 24-21 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday, the Seahawks didn’t need this news.

10. Quick-Hits.
I’ve seen the reply of Ndamukong Suh’s groin-kick to Matt Schaub and I still can’t definitively say that it was intentional. But I do know this: he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt given his history…Ray Rice’s 4th-and-29 catch-and-run was the play of the year. The effort that both he and Anquan Boldin (who laid out Eric Weddle on a vicious block to allow Rice to gain the last six yards) gave was incredible…After yesterday, can anyone dispute that Jay Cutler isn’t the difference maker in Chicago? Behind the same brutal offensive line that nearly decapitated Jason Campbell on Monday night, Cutler completed 23-of-31 and only threw two incompletions in 17 attempts before halftime. The Bears’ Super Bowl hopes firmly rest on Cutler’s shoulders…Thanks to Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne (who racked up another eight catches for 102 yards in a win over Buffalo on Sunday), the Colts will be fun to watch in the playoffs…One of the most underrated performances in Week 12 came in Miami, compliments of rookie Ryan Tannehill. His numbers (18-of-26, 253 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) don’t tell the whole story. He orchestrated two 80-yard touchdown drives and then with the game hanging in the balance, put together a 65-yard drive that led to Dan Carpenter’s 43-yard game-winning field goal. For the moment, it would appear as though Miami finally has its quarterback…I said it last week and I’ll say it again: The Bengals are far from dead. They’ve now won their last three games by a combined score of 93-29 and their defense hasn’t allowed more than 13 points over that span. The real test won’t come until Weeks 16 and 17 when they travel to Pittsburgh and host Baltimore, but Cincinnati has put itself in position to challenge for a postseason spot for the second year in a row…The Steelers can kiss the AFC North crown goodbye and unless Ben Roethlisberger has the ability to heel himself at a rapid pace, then this team isn’t making the playoffs either. That was an ugly, ugly performance from Charlie Batch yesterday in Cleveland…The gap in the NFC South is miniscule. Give the Falcons credit for shutting down Doug Martin and the Tampa Bay running game, but the Bucs went toe-to-toe with their division rivals on Sunday and nearly won. Once the Bucs address their porous secondary, that division is going to be a three-headed monster with Tampa, Atlanta and New Orleans battling for supremacy every year.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

NFL Quick Hits: Ray Rice, Troy Polamalu, Santonio Holmes & more

Every Sunday our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter provides his quick-hits from the week that was in the NFL.

+ The Ravens had no choice but to sign Ray Rice to a long-term contract, and the deal wound up being fair for both sides. Rice will receive $8 million per year, which is more than fair for his production level. The Bears were also wise to sign Matt Forte but had Chicago rolled the dice and Forte wound up holding out, at least the Bears still have Michael Bush to fall back on, as well as an improved passing game that features Brandon Marshall. Had the Ravens not signed Rice and he held out into the season, Baltimore would have relied on the backfield duo of Joe Flacco and Anthony Allen. Yikes.

+ Troy Polamalu gave the media and fans a very honest, very realistic look into the world of the NFL by telling Dan Patrick earlier this week that he’s lied to trainers about injuries so that he could stay in games. Nobody should be under any grand illusions that Polamalu is the only player that has lied about whether or not he was hurt so that he could re-enter a game and in some respects, he should be lauded for providing reality into the situation. The problem, of course, is that there’s a list of former players that filed a suit against the NFL trying to prove that the league is responsible for not telling them about the dangers of concussions. It’s going to be hard for these players to prove to a judge that the NFL has been negligent about anything when current players are lying about their injuries to get back into games. That said, the game has changed, especially when it comes to the treatment of concussions (which were once viewed as a joke by teams and players). Still, the players on these concussion suit can’t exactly be thrilled by Polamalu’s comments, no matter how honest he was being.

+ Who knew Santonio Holmes was such a comedian? During a recent podcast for NFL.com, Holmes essentially scolded the New York media for being too negative when it comes to reporting on the team and then told them that if they wanted to feel important, they should only report on the positive aspect of the Jets. First off, I didn’t realize that the New York Jets cut the paychecks for the staff at the New York Post. I also didn’t realize that the Post was supposed to be a group comprised of cheerleaders that provided unwavering support for the Jets. Holmes’ comments are laughable and he’s one to talk considering back in October of last year he called out his entire offensive line for not giving Mark Sanchez enough time to throw. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black – if Holmes wants the media to be positive he should start by being positive himself.

+ Another week, another slew of arrests for the NFL. Marshawn Lynch was booked for driving under the influence after weaving lane to lane with two near collisions. What’s interesting is that the mistake could wind up costing Lynch $17 million in guaranteed money because as an NFL exectuvie tells Sirius XM Radio’s Ross Tucker, a suspension for conduct detrimental or substance abuse defaults the guaranteed money in Lynch’s four-year, $31 million contract. Now, there’s a good chance that the Seahawks won’t touch Lynch’s money but if they did, not calling a cab will have cost the running back $17 million. Ouch.

+ Of course, Lynch wasn’t the only player arrested recently. Elvis Dumervil, Dez Bryant, Robert Quinn, Kenny Britt and Aaron Berry all ran afoul from the law from everything from driving drunk to assault with a firearm to smacking their mother around (in the case of Bryant). Granted, it’s not as if NFL players are the only ones committing crimes. We just hear about them because of their celebrity status. But it’s almost unfathomable that these players refuse to learn from their peers and in the specific case of Britt, how one player can be arrested so many times since coming into the league. This is a guy that has been booked four times in the last two offseasons; it’s unbelievable. These players are essentially co-workers that continue to ignore the endless supply of warning signs that are around them. Front offices must be praying nightly that they don’t receive phone calls at two in the morning from now until training camp opens.

+ If Norv Turner had one foot out the door last year then he’s got about three fingertips on the door frame heading into this season. It was surprising that the Chargers didn’t fire him last year considering the Chargers couldn’t take advantage of the hot mess that was the AFC West. Regardless, he absolutely has to win this season and not just one playoff game – he better be knocking on the door of the Super Bowl. That said, why should Turner get whacked and A.J. Smith be saved? When was the last time A.J. Smith hit a home run in the draft? And because he plays hardball with free agents his talent is evaporating on both sides of the ball. So if Turner gets axed then he and Smith should be sharing a cab out of San Diego.

+ It was pretty smart of the Jets to include a “poison pill” in Darrelle Revis contract. Rex Ryan and Mike Tannebaum were clearly annoyed with Revis’ holdout situation a couple of years ago and were hell-bent that a repeat wasn’t in the works. Revis announced earlier this week that he’ll report to camp on time this year, although it may not have been on his own accord. According to a report earlier this week by ESPN.com’s James Walker, if Revis skips camp his current deal would be automatically extended by three years. Considering Revis wants to get to free agency as quickly as possible, that would not have been a very favorable situation for him.

+ You have to appreciate Michael Vick’s confidence in the Eagles. Said Vick earlier this week, “When I look at our football team and what we have on paper, I think about when I was growing up and the great San Francisco 49er teams, the great Green Bay Packer teams, and the great Dallas Cowboy teams, how they just positioned themselves to compete and be one of the best teams out there I think we have a chance to be that. I think we have a chance to develop a dynasty.” Obvious Vick’s comments shouldn’t be overexposed because he was really just trying to convey his optimism in his current team. But dynasty? Try winning one Super Bowl before you claim you’re on the path of winning multiple Super Bowls.

+ How about Terrell Owens? Dude claimed he was broke a couple of months ago but faced with the prospect of going to prison, all of a sudden he had enough money to pay back the child support that he owed. Funny how that works.

Ravens, Rice in a tough spot when it comes to contract talks

Ten years ago you didn’t think twice about paying a versatile player like Ray Rice top market value. Given his age, his production, and his contribution in an offense, a team wouldn’t balk at his price tag.

But times are a changing.

Rice is believed to be seeking $10 million a year from the Baltimore Ravens, who are reportedly unwilling to pay their top offensive piece Adrian Peterson-type money. AP just signed a seven-year, $96 million extension with the Vikings last September and the deal includes $36 million in guaranteed money. In that same month, Chris Johnson signed a six-year, $55.26 million deal with the Titans that also included $30 million in guarantees.
Seeing as how Peterson tore his ACL and Johnson produced his worst season as a pro, you can understand why the Ravens are hesitant to pay Rice what he wants. The other issue is that running backs aren’t worth what they were 10, or even seven years ago. Nowadays, most teams believe that investing big money in a running back is unnecessary given how you can find a productive back in the middle rounds of the draft. Plus, by the time backs are 30 their production dips dramatically and they prove they’re not worth the investment.

That said, Rice shouldn’t be criticized for trying to cash in during his prime. As previously noted, he’s been an extremely productive back and for all intents and purposes, has been the entire Baltimore offense at times. NFL players have a very small window in which to be productive and get that long-term contract before the game pushes them out. Rice is merely protecting his biggest investment (himself) and in no way is that intended to make him sound selfish.

But unfortunately for Rice, he also plays running back in a passing era. No team, not even the Ravens after having a front row seat to his splendor over the last four years, is going to pay a running back $10 million a year. That’s just the way it is.

So what’s the solution? Rice should take a long, hard look at the contract LeSean McCoy just signed with the Eagles. “Shady” received a six-year, $45.615 million contract that also includes $20.765 million in guaranteed money. While McCoy is “only” making $7.5 million a year, the guaranteed portion of the contract is what really matters. No, Rice wouldn’t receive $30-plus million in guaranteed money like Peterson or Johnson, but $20 million for a running back in this era wouldn’t be chump change either.

If you’re Rice, you would hate to feel like your compromising but he and his agent must realize that he’s not going to get a deal worth $10 million a year, which also includes with $30 million in guarantees. All things being considered, McCoy’s contract should be what Rice his ultimately shooting for.

NFL teams starting to use their franchise tag

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson celebrates after completing a 13-yard gain which set up the Eagles first touchdown during first quarter Philadelphia Eagles-New York Giants game action in Philadelphia at Lincoln Financial Field November 21, 2010. UPI/John Anderson

On Thursday night it was DeSean Jackson and Tyvon Branch. On Friday morning it was Brent Grimes. By Monday, it could be Ray Rice, Matt Forte and Cliff Avril.

NFL teams are starting to use their franchise tag, including the Eagles (Jackson), Raiders (Branch) and Falcons (Grimes). Teams can apply the tag to a player scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, which binds that player to that team for one year. If it’s not the exclusive version of the tag, a player can sign offer sheets with other teams and if the team that tagged the player doesn’t match that offer, they will be compensated with two first round picks.

Jackson released a statement on Thursday indicating that he’s “honored” that the Eagles perceive him as a franchise player. But if a report by CBSSports.com’s Mike Freeman is accurate, Jackson won’t appreciate how the Eagles view him.

Per Freeman, there’s a debate within the Eagles’ front office about whether the team can trust Jackson with a long-term deal. The 25-year-old receiver often disappeared on the field last season as he complained about his contract situation off it. Jackson has been viewed as an immature player dating back to his days at Cal, so it’s hardly surprising that the Eagles aren’t exactly jumping at the chance to sign him long-term. Freeman also notes that the team remains open to trading Jackson if the right deal were to come along.

As for Grimes, tagging him was a must for a Falcons team that is trying to win a playoff game under the regime of Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff. They’re 0-3 in the playoffs over the past four years and losing Grimes would have made it even more difficult for them to beat pass-happy opponents like the Saints, Packers and Giants. Grimes is easily Atlanta’s best defensive back and is also one of the more underrated cornerbacks in the league.

Jackson, Grimes, and the aforementioned Branch won’t be the last players to receive the franchise tag before March 5. An estimated 25 tags will be applied before Monday’s deadline, so don’t be surprised if/when Rice (Ravens), Forte (Bears) and Avril (Lions) are franchised as well. There’s always a possibility that the Texans could apply the tag on free agent defensive end Mario Williams, which would deplete this year’s free agent pool even more than it already is.

2012 NFL Conference Championships Primer

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco comes to the line during the third quarter against the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland on January 15, 2012. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

Ravens @ Patriots, 3:00PM ET, Sunday
Call me old fashioned but I think this game will come down to the play of the quarterbacks. Joe Flacco usually doesn’t have to throw for many yards because Baltimore’s defense limits the production of the opposing offense. But what if Tom Brady and Co. is firing on all cylinders this Sunday? What if the Patriots do the unthinkable and draw the Ravens into a shootout? Can Flacco beat Brady in a wildfire?

If the Patriots were smart, they’d use the Chargers’ 34-14 Week 15 beat down of the Ravens as a blueprint to beat Baltimore. In that game, Philip Rivers got the ball out of his hand quickly, attacked Baltimore down field and thus, never allowed the Ravens’ fierce pass rush to get into a rhythm. If Baltimore, which led the league in sacks this season, can’t get to the quarterback then its defense can become ordinary. In their 12 wins this season, the Ravens sacked the quarterback 43 times. In their four losses, they got to the opposing signal caller just five times. Considering New England has one of the better offensive lines in the game, it’s not unfathomable that the Ravens will have trouble defensively this weekend.

Which leads me back to Flacco. Can he be the quarterback that threw for 300 yards and led the Ravens to that great fourth-quarter comeback in Pittsburgh this season? Or will he succumb to the pressure of trying to go toe-to-toe with Brady? Nobody will confuse New England’s defense with San Francisco’s but the Patriots did harass Tim Tebow last weekend. If they’re able to take away Ray Rice and Torrey Smith like Houston did last week, will Flacco step up?

Baltimore has often been a match up problem for New England. But the Patriots seem hell bent on getting back to the Super Bowl so it’s probably safe to say that the Ravens will get New England’s best effort this weekend.

New York Giants QB Eli Manning (10) cranks back to throw a long pass against the San Francisco 49ers in the second half at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on November 13, 2011. The 49ers defeated the Giants 27-20. UPI/Terry Schmitt

Giants @ 49ers, 6:30PM ET, Sunday
With all due respect to the other contenders still left in the playoff field, the Giants are probably the most complete team remaining. The Patriots have the better offense and the 49ers have the better defense, but the Giants aren’t far off in either category. They also have a better quarterback in Eli Manning than the Ravens have in Joe Flacco, the latter of which has been highly inconsistent this season.

But the question is whether or not the Giants have started to read their own press clippings. As I’ve written before on this site, the G-Men are the perfect underdog. When their backs are pressed firmly against the wall and they believe that it’s them against the world, they beat teams like the Packers and Patriots (multiple times, in fact). When they’re well aware that they’re the favorite, they’re liable to lose to inferior opponents like Washington, Seattle or a Michael Vick-less Philadelphia team. The Giants are just weird that way.

That said, New York has very few weaknesses. They finished dead last in rushing during the regular season but the duo of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs looks much more potent now that at any time this year. When he protects the football, Eli is tough to beat and he has a trio of wide receivers in Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham that can win individual matchups in coverage. If the defense has a weakness, it’s in the secondary but the pass rush is so good that it masks the holes in the backfield. Yes, the Giants are a complete team.

But let’s pay a little respect to the 49ers, who knocked off a team in the Saints that many people believed was unstoppable. Led by Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Carlos Rogers and rookie Aldon Smith, the Niners don’t have many weaknesses defensively (if any). And while they don’t have as many weapons offensively as the Giants do, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis have proven that they can take over games this season.

The Niners also have home field advantage and have already beaten the Giants once this season (27-20 in Week 10). So again, if the Giants think they’re going to breeze in and out of San Francisco on its way to Indianapolis, they better pause to re-focus. They’ll have to earn what they get this weekend.

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