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.
In case you were busy spending your EA settlement money as quickly as possible, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday:
Led by running back Frank Gore, the San Francisco 49ers rebounded from two consecutive heavy defeats in style, beating the St. Louis Rams, 35-11. "We couldn't run the ball," said Rams coach Jeff Fisher after the loss. "And they could run the ball." Fisher, a longtime member of the league's competition committee, then added, "That's not fair. At some point it's like, let's at least swap some linemen so that it's a good game. What happened to sportsmanship?"
Mariano Rivera played his final game at Yankee Stadium, throwing 1⅓ perfect innings in New York's 4-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. Rivera, who has spent the season being given gifts on a de facto nationwide farewell tour, was approached by manager Joe Girardi after the game. "I bet you noticed we hadn't given you anything," Girardi told Rivera. "I had, but I don't mind; this organization has given me everything," Rivera said. Girardi smiled, and told his longtime closer, "I saved that third wish for a reason," before yelling, "I wish for Mariano to be free!" Suddenly, a swirl of blue light came from the ground, and the lamp that Rivera had quietly carried with him for his entire Yankees career shattered as if made out of glass. "Now run. No more saving us," Girardi whispered in Rivera's ear. "Now you can save yourself." Rivera then thanked Girardi before awkwardly reminding him that he was still contracted to play the final series of the season at Houston.
It’s that time of year — when snakes, auctions, ADPs, keepers, and sleepers start to rule our football hearts and minds. This season, last year’s Fantasy Island contest winner, Matt Borcas, will be providing some fantasy insight, starting with the tools you need for a league-winning draft.
1. I wasn’t able to catch Sunday’s Colts-Bills game live, regrettably. Family and friends were at my house for a birthday party, and only a monster would skip out on burgers and ice cream and cornhole for a PRESEASON MATINEE featuring world-beaters like Jeff Tuel and Chandler Harnish. So when I saw on Twitter that E.J. Manuel went 16-for-21 with a touchdown, I became super giddy and basically spent the next hour rubbing my hands together like Birdman. Of course, this was because I ranked Manuel 22nd among all quarterbacks three weeks ago — sky-high compared to most of my colleagues in the booming fantasy rankings industry — and thought I’d consequently be hailed as a prescient identifier of undervalued assets. Like a Warren Buffet for fantasy quarterbacks, sans all the money!
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.
"The running game in pro football has gotten so boring," former 49ers coach Bill Walsh remarked some years ago. "There's just four or five plays they can run. I think the whole thing is headed in the wrong direction, and it's really unfortunate." Even after his passing in 2007, Walsh’s observation had held true for some time. That is, until now. And fittingly, it's the 49ers leading the way.
The Pistol read option plays aside (we’ll get to those), the 49ers' multifarious running game uses many of the same blocking schemes Walsh taught for nearly four decades. Jim Harbaugh deserves much of the credit — the vision for these 49ers is certainly his — but the mastermind behind the 49ers' weekly game plans and the coach who deserves credit for taking Walsh’s criticism to heart is San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
In case you were busy watching a yule log DVD in a misguided attempt to stay warm, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
The Miami Heat stormed back from 15 points down against the Toronto Raptors, winning in overtime, 123-116. LeBron James, who got his 34th career triple-double in the win, said afterward, "I used to be completely terrified of dinosaurs, so this sort of comeback wouldn't have been possible even a couple of years ago. But for some reason spending a lot of time around my boy Ol' T-Rex Bosh made me pretty comfortable with the idea of dropping a big game on some scary looking lizards."
Kevin Greene walked through the tunnel, hands in pockets, eyes fixed on his feet. As some players jogged and some players sulked, the coach of the Packers’ outside linebackers — a group tormented by Colin Kaepernick all night — kicked at the ground in front of him. He was halfway to the locker room when he finally looked up, took a breath, and exhaled.
The thought when Kaepernick became San Francisco’s starting quarterback was that where Alex Smith’s Niners were a safe team reliant on defense and error-free football, Kaepernick’s version was capable of delivering such a 45-31 bludgeoning. As the Packers left the field Saturday night, they looked like a team that had seen the business end of Jim Harbaugh’s vindication.
Each week, the Fantasy Island contestants will submit a preview for each of that weekend's games. The best preview from each game will be selected and combined with the others into one comprehensive guide, and points are awarded based on how many individual previews from each writer are selected. Get it? OK. We sorta do, too.
Cardinals at Falcons
Player to Start: Larry Fitzgerald
If you have other options, you’ve probably thought about benching Larry Fitzgerald lately. Facing the Atlanta Falcons in Week 11, there’s a good chance you’ll have Fitzgerald on your bench until 12:55 EST, when you come to your senses and take T.Y. Hilton out of your lineup. Look, the Falcons have allowed the eighth-highest YPA of any team in the NFL, and the Cardinals are quietly one of the most pass-heavy teams in the league. Only the Raiders, Saints, and Jaguars have rushed less frequently than Arizona. Fitzgerald isn’t automatic like he once was, but that last-minute Fitzgerald-Hilton swap needs to be made. Just make sure you hit "Submit."
By almost any rational measure, the San Francisco 49ers significantly overachieved last season on offense. The Alex Smith–led attack finished in the bottom third of the NFL in yards, yards per play, and passing yards. Even the vaunted 49ers rushing attack was more a function of quantity over quality. San Francisco’s top-10 finish in rushing yards came on just 4.1 yards per rush, 19th best in the league. Under first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, this was a team that let their defense do the talking — as well as the winning.
While much of the news out of the San Francisco 49ers 25-19 win over the Detroit Lions centers around the Jim Harbaugh-Jim Schwartz handshake-of-doom, there is another storyline to consider: The 49ers' close win. The victory was another step in the resuscitation of 49ers quarterback Alex Smith's career, which is not a complete surprise given that his coach, Harbaugh, was once an NFL quarterback himself. Yet Harbaugh hasn't brought a quarterback-dependent throw-it-around-the-stadium type of offense to San Francisco. Instead, he's doing what he did to rejuvenate Stanford, which seems to be to channel his old college coach Bo Schembechler's tough, physical approach to the game. And against the Lions, Harbaugh's 49ers didn't get their yards by running outside or getting the ball in space. Instead, the game plan was simple: run the ball right at Detroit's vaunted defensive line, led by Ndamukong Suh.