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.
Impact: Defensive end was a position of turnover for Detroit this offseason, as the Lions replaced long-time starters Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril with fifth overall pick Ziggy Ansah and free-agent signee Jones. Jones spent portions of his first five seasons in the league at both defensive tackle and defensive end, where he was typically a much more valuable player against the run than while rushing the passer. His five sacks as a rookie were the most he’d ever collected in a season.
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.
If 15-year-old Bobby Wagner had gotten his way, he never would have played football. He never would have been a four-year starter at Utah State, or first-team All-WAC three times. He never would’ve been an NFL starter as a rookie for one of the league's best defenses. If it had been up to his younger self, Wagner would’ve grown nine inches by his 16th birthday and become a basketball star. It was only after he realized that growth spurt wasn't coming that Wagner decided basketball probably wasn’t his future. And with a new football staff of coaches in place at Colony High School in Ontario, California, he made peace with a life in the trenches on his way to the field for the first time as a junior.
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.
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.