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.
Raise your hand if before the season you’d penciled in Panthers-49ers as the best, most significant game of Week 10. Now, everyone with his or her hand raised, take a long look in the mirror and ask what about your childhood was so terrible that you turned into a compulsive liar.
Really, though, this is where we are. This is real life, and the Panthers are traveling to San Francisco in early November for a game with massive playoff implications that should provide a real measure for where each team stands entering the stretch run.
So, this is happening. It doesn’t get much better than the NFL’s best defensive lineman against the NFL’s best offensive line. I’m putting this game right up there with Gravity in terms of making me think about the vastness of the universe and mankind’s place within it.
The Niners’ line played its best game of the season last week against St. Louis as San Francisco seemed intent on committing to its running game. Frank Gore’s were the most he’s had in a game since Week 14 of the 2009 season, and his 7.65 yards per carry was the 10th best mark of his career.
Watt will spend most of the day dealing with guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone, both of whom were Pro Bowl–level players a year ago (Iupati went; Boone did not). Boone was one of the better run blockers in the entire league last season. He’s a massive 6-foot-8 mauler, but he occasionally struggles in pass protection. Watt doesn't struggle with anything.
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.
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 Trenchie's, click here.
The John Hannah Award for General Road Grading
The San Francisco 49ers’ interior offensive line
There’s a thought among football people (I’m not sure who those “people” are, but my understanding is that they exist) that teams are built from the line outward. This notion has probably become less important in a world where Marshall Newhouse starts for a championship-caliber team, but because I like to think there’s some point to me doing this every week, I believe that philosophy has some credence. And for those of us clinging to that method, the best place to point is San Francisco.
Through seven weeks, the Niners’ offensive line has been the best in football, and it can easily be argued that of San Francisco’s five best offensive players, four of them are linemen. The connection between the team’s success and the importance of investing resources into that unit seems evident: Football’s best offensive line is the one that includes three first-round picks. The only thing wrong with that line of thinking is that what’s set the Niners apart in their 5-2 start hasn’t been the play of its big-money trio, but of the other two men up front.
There are those defining moments in life that are so memorable that we can’t help but recall where we were when they happened — my first kiss (Michelle Poirier, back of the bus, fifth grade), my first viewing of There Will Be Blood (Cineplex in Harrow, England), my first Cheesy Gordita Crunch (Lake Zurich, Illinois, Taco Bell). The news about the NFL releasing its all-22 and end-zone film was one of those moments.
The release of the end zone film has made watching the intricacies of offensive- and defensive-line play easier than ever. To celebrate, we decided to bring you a weekly set of awards for the big boys. So without further delay, we present the inaugural Trenchies.