With Monday night’s shellacking in the books, we now have a rough sketch of the NFC playoff picture. The Seahawks need something biblical to derail them from home-field advantage, Detroit’s win over Green Bay (and the Bears’ loss to the Vikings) gives the Lions a clear path to the NFC North title, and Philadelphia’s win over Arizona gave the Eagles a leg up in the NFC East and the Cardinals a knock down the wild-card ladder. New Orleans and Carolina still play each other twice, and with the Panthers refusing to slow down, that division is still very much in question. But for the most part, we have a pretty defined idea of what our six or seven playoff teams/seeds will look like:
2. Carolina/New Orleans
5. New Orleans/Carolina
6. San Francisco
Of all those teams, San Francisco seems to be the one no one’s excited about. Detroit has Calvin Johnson; Philadelphia has Nick Foles. The Niners are just a team that a year ago seemed poised to annually challenge the Seahawks for NFC supremacy but instead have taken up residency among the conference’s also-rans. With Arizona dropping a game in Philadelphia, even a loss to Seattle would leave the Niners as the likely final team into the playoffs. But for a team one play from the Lombardi Trophy, that finish is nothing less than a disappointment.
This is our reward. For everyone who kept the faith through weeks of Titans-Rams and Ravens-Browns, the days of meaningful, excellent football are finally here. Along with the underappreciated marquee game of the week, we have a pair of hugely important, season-defining matchups to boot. Carolina–New England, San Francisco–New Orleans, and Kansas City–Denver would probably have been the best game from any of the past four weeks. Some might say it’s too much all at once. I disagree. To get you fully prepared, we decided to break down the (possibly) deciding matchup from the weekend’s three best games. Enjoy, everybody. We deserve this.
On any given Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday), your NFL Run & Shootaround crew will be gathered around multiple televisions, making inappropriate jokes and generally regressing to the mean. Catch up on all the NFL action right here.
Andrew Sharp: The Bengals and Packers spent three hours Sunday reminding everyone that football works best when it's a complete mess. There were eight turnovers between both teams Sunday. Two separate fumbles went for defensive touchdowns. After injuries to their top three running backs, the Packers were finishing the game playing a wide receiver in the backfield. The Bengals rode the Andy Dalton roller coaster — they looked awesome at the start, then disappeared for three quarters, and then by the end they were awesome again. It all ended with a Packers fumble that was then fumbled by the Bengals and finally recovered by Terence Newman for the game-winning touchdown.
Some might call this sloppy, but I'm pretty sure it's the perfect regular-season game. If you're not invested in one team or the other, we should all be rooting for wild momentum swings and games exactly like Sunday's, when nothing makes sense. Watching Green Bay and Cincy go back and forth all second half was kind of like its own little RedZone channel. Could there be any higher compliment in 2013?
Robert Mays and Bill Barnwell break down four games from Week 1, answer reader questions, and recap the winners of their weekly bets.
Mays is then joined by former Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman to discuss his thoughts on Week 1 in the NFL and the origins of his "Lights Out" nickname and sack celebration. Video of that conversation can be seen below.
I want to hate Aaron Rodgers. I really do. As a Bears fan, it’s actually my duty, but for whatever reason, I can never muster the requisite anger. Even when I get a chance, like when Greg Jennings was busy filling his Rodgers burn book this summer, I somehow always side with Rodgers. It’s problematic, and quotes like this one don’t help:
“It was never about revenge. It was about reckoning,” Rodgers said. “That’s a Tombstone line right there, people. It was never about revenge.”
That’s Rodgers from Wednesday, talking about whether the 49ers — who passed on Rodgers with the no. 1 overall pick in 2005 — was still a “revenge” game. I’m all for bringing up Tombstone whenever possible, mostly for the peak Kurt Russell mustachery and peak Val Kilmer everything. But here, Rodgers’s words are particularly apt — not only for his situation but for Week 1 across the NFL.
What's that? You were wondering exactly how many days until the start of the NFL season? Well, you're in luck! We here at the Triangle are set to spend the next two months providing a daily reason to get excited about pro football's return.
Earlier this morning, I wrote about how Cameron Wake remains the league’s most underappreciated great pass rusher. Because I’ve got great sack artistry on the mind, I decided that today would be the perfect time to get excited about the rest of the league’s best rushers.
The All-22 All-Star Team is an attempt to provide some insight on the NFL’s 22 most underappreciated players. Some will be All-Pros who haven’t fully gotten their due; some will be names few casual fans have ever heard. All will, for one reason or another, have been overlooked.
After just two seasons, the 2011 defensive draft class already looks historic. Some are already sending Aldon Smith, Von Miller, and J.J. Watt to Canton, and somehow, it doesn’t feel all that ridiculous. That trio leads the group, but it’s rounded out by players who are, if not era-defining mega-talents, at least stars in their own right. The Lions' Nick Fairley figures to ride a strong finish to last season into a monster 2013, the Redskins' Ryan Kerrigan deservedly went to the Pro Bowl a season ago, and the Cardinals' Patrick Peterson has already been to two. None of them, though, deserves to have his name mentioned as the best player of that second tier. That’s a distinction that belongs to Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson. Taken 30th overall two years ago, the Temple product has gone largely unnoticed playing a position devoid of stats on a bad team. The most impressive of Wilkerson’s numbers is probably nine. That’s the amount of alignments, on either side of the ball, Wilkerson is asked to play in the Jets' defense. Success in the NFL can often be as simple as being very good at one thing. Wilkerson is very good at about a dozen, and it could soon make him one of the league’s most indispensable defenders. He isn’t there yet. But after this season, Wilkerson’s name may belong right alongside Miller, Smith, and Watt.
What's that? You were wondering exactly how many days until the start of the NFL season? Well, you're in luck! We here at the Triangle are set to spend the next three months providing a daily reason to get excited about pro football's return.
Before the 49ers were the most talented, best-built team in pro football, they were the team with Patrick Willis and Justin Smith. Willis was a star from the start, with six Pro Bowl trips in his first six seasons, and it’s hard to imagine him being anything but a 49er for a very long time. Smith came to San Francisco in Willis’s second season, via a massive free-agent deal after his time in Cincinnati. Justin Smith is the rare player who’s so good at the things that normally go overlooked that it becomes impossible to overlook them.
In 12 NFL seasons, Smith has just 75.5 sacks, but the consensus is that he’s been one of the best defensive players in the league for most of his time in it. The phrase “country strong” was invented because of Justin Smith, and the Jefferson City native (mid-Missouri, represent; additional note: Smith has an Anheuser-Busch tattoo on his left arm) has used his immovable body and incredible hand strength to become an absolute nightmare for entire offenses. If there are any questions about what Justin Smith means to the 49ers, all anyone needs to do is look at Aldon Smith’s sack total after Justin Smith tore his triceps against New England in Week 14. It was exactly zero. I wrote before the Super Bowl last season that Smith was the most important player for either team, and while watching the game knowing that Smith was burdened by both his injury and a bulky brace, my assessment didn’t change. For the past few seasons, Justin Smith has made the 49ers go.
I had just taken my seat on my flight from Atlanta to New Orleans, one of the few Niners fans on a plane where anyone wearing Ravens gear had been given a complimentary drink ticket, when a man wearing a red leather jacket and a different shade of red jeans sauntered up the aisle. He was carrying a red duffel bag. A meaningful percentage of his zippers were gold. He stopped at the row in front of me, looked up at his ticket, and sighed. It was Ma$e. He had been assigned a middle seat.
When I decided to count down the 22 most important players in Sunday’s Super Bowl, I didn’t imagine it was going to be all that hard. I mean, there are 44 total starters; picking half of them should be doable. Then I actually started.
Let me first explain what this list is actually supposed to represent. These aren’t the 22 best players in the Super Bowl or the 22 players I expect to make the biggest impact. This is my best attempt at figuring out which 22 players matter most, and that proved to be more difficult than I’d planned.
Even with some cheating (a few guys at similar positions are listed together, so actually there are 27 players. I'm not sorry), there are some notable omissions that I don’t feel great about. Jonathan Goodwin has been one of the best centers in football this year, but for the purposes of this list, he’s out. Not a single Ravens cornerback is listed, which isn’t to say that Corey Graham and Cary Williams won’t play a part; it’s to say that how San Francisco uses Michael Crabtree doesn’t make one side or area of the field more important than another. Dennis Pitta has been invaluable for the Ravens’ offense since Jim Caldwell took over, but I still think he’s been Joe Flacco’s third most important receiver in the playoffs. With all that in mind, here are the guys who actually did make the final cut.
Grantland's Rembert Browne is in New Orleans for Super Bowl week, and he has some very specific goals in mind: (1) to chronicle everything seen, heard, tasted, smelled, and felt — emotionally, (2) to wake up first and fall asleep last, (3) to make his way into events he has no business attending, and (4) to somehow talk to Beyoncé. We don't exactly know where he'll be at any given time, but we've asked for at least two dispatches a day, if for no other reason than to know he's still alive.
Tuesday, January 29. 3:15 p.m. CST. Approximately 124 hours until Beyoncé.
The Scene: Super Bowl Media Day. Immediate Reaction: A zoo, but between the media and the athletes in attendance, it was unclear who were the spectators and who were the animals.
The Rules: Each team enters the arena for about an hour, with the more prominent players and coaches having personalized booths set up to sit and field questions, with the rest of the lot roaming the grounds, doing whatever they please, until someone stops them and asks to talk.
In celebration of the NFL's release of the all-22 and end zone film for the 2012 season, each week we'll be bringing you the best in offensive- and defensive-line play. For the winners of last week's Trenchies, click here.
The Deacon Jones Award for Excellence in Pass Rushing Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins, and Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers
There were more important games this past Sunday, and there were better ones, but for the guy who writes this post every week, it doesn’t get much better than Dolphins-49ers. Miami’s defensive front seven is one of the best in football. The 49ers’ offensive line is the best. And each defense can claim one of the best four pass rushers in the league, each with a style uniquely his own. It was those two guys who defined Sunday afternoon, and they did it in the way they always do.
The conversation about Defensive Player of the Year, and about the league’s best pass rushers, has mostly been limited to three players: Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt, and Von Miller. Mostly, this is a product of sack totals, where those three, in that order, lead the league. Coming off a three-sack game against San Francisco, Cameron Wake is fourth on that list with 14.0 on the season, but understanding just how good he’s been requires more than that total. According to Football Outsiders, only Clay Matthews had more quarterback hits than Wake in 2011, only Tamba Hali had more hurries, and no player drew more holding penalties.
This season, Wake is the league’s most productive pass rusher when it matters most. According to Pro Football Focus, on third and fourth down, no player has more total or per-rush pressures than Wake, who barely edged out Von Miller for the top spot. In situations where he can pin those ears back, no one has been better, and that’s because in a lot of ways, Wake is the classic pass rusher.
This week's podcast started with mixed emotions. For as much joy as I had for Ephraim attending his good friend Chester Pitts's wedding, it just wasn't the same without him in the studio. Colors just seemed less bright, ya know?
We powered through though, and after asking what the vibe was like in Houston following Monday's loss, we talked some J.J. Watt, Vince Wilfork, the uniquely developed games of the league's young pass rushers, and the dearly departed Cam Cameron. But mostly, we talked about the Dirty Bird. Inspired by this week's great touchdown celebrations, I asked Ephraim about his all-time favorites, totally forgetting his time with the famed 1998 Falcons. You'll hear the heartbreak in my voice when I learn he never Dirty Bird–ed — mostly because that means there's no video.