NFC West: Baltimore Ravens
After a shaky first half, Colin Kaepernick was spectacular as he rallied the 49ers back into the game. Kaepernick led them to 17 points in a span of 4:10 in the third quarter. Kaepernick also scrambled for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Michael Crabtree finished with five catches for 109 yards and one touchdown. Kaepernick's second-half play was brilliant. But he did throw the first Super Bowl interception in franchise history. Joe Montana never threw one. Steve Young never threw one. Montana and Young have Super Bowl titles. Kaepernick doesn't.
Frank Gore wasn't much of a factor early on as the 49ers fell way behind. But Gore had a few key runs, including a 6-yard touchdown in the third quarter and two big runs in the fourth quarter. Kaepernick didn't have any explosive plays off the read option, but his scrambling ability caused major problems for Baltimore's defense. Backup running back LaMichael James lost a second-quarter fumble that helped the Ravens take a 14-3 lead.
Joe Flacco completed 13 of 20 passes for 192 yards and three touchdowns in the first half as San Francisco's secondary struggled and the pass rush was quiet. But, just like everything else, the pass defense improved in the second half. Still, it wasn't good enough.
This wasn't a big problem for the 49ers because the Ravens came out throwing in the first half. But the 49ers held Ray Rice in check when he did run.
Jim Harbaugh did a nice job of getting his team back into the game after the power outage early in the second half. But Harbaugh's team, particularly Kaepernick, seemed uptight in the first half. Harbaugh is known for being extremely intense. I can't help but wonder if his high-pressure style might be why his team started so poorly. Harbaugh's play-calling at the end of game, when the 49ers failed to score on four plays from within seven yards of the end zone, also leaves him open for plenty of criticism.
NEW ORLEANS -- Thanks to Jamison Hensley and Prim Siripipat for carrying the Super Bowl preview video we shot with producer Steve Hodolitz earlier Friday.
It's probably my last contribution on this Friday night before the big game.
Have a great night.
When the NFC West looks down, it sees not only the AFC South, but also the once-mighty NFC East. The view is more pleasing than at any point since divisional realignment in 2002.
Consider it a historic shift, a watershed moment, the week when light finally shined upon the no-longer-worst division in football -- except, of course, when power outages at Candlestick Park temporarily left San Francisco and Pittsburgh in the dark.
The 49ers' 20-3 victory over the Steelers on "Monday Night Football" capped a 3-1 week for the NFC West, one that moved up three teams from the division in ESPN's NFL Power Rankings heading into Week 16.
The 49ers moved up two spots to No. 3, passing Baltimore and New England. The Seahawks improved a league-high five spots to No. 15 after blowing out the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Cardinals climbed two spots to No. 17 after beating Cleveland.
The St. Louis Rams remained 31st and ahead of Indianapolis even though I moved them down to No. 32 on my ballot. The other voters are forgiven. They likely had better things to do than watch every snap of St. Louis' 20-6 home defeat to an utterly unimpressive Cincinnati Bengals team.
Despite the Rams' low standing, NFC West teams ranked 16.8 on average, better than teams from the NFC East (17.5) and AFC South (21.6). NFC West teams ranked just below teams from the AFC East (16.5) and AFC West (16.4).
And now, a closer look at the rankings heading into Week 16:
Falling (11): Tennessee Titans (-7), Buffalo Bills (-4), Chicago Bears (-4), New York Giants (-4), Baltimore Ravens (-3), Oakland Raiders (-3), Denver Broncos (-2), New York Jets (-2), Pittsburgh Steelers (-2), Jacksonville Jaguars (-2), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-1).
Rising (12): Seattle Seahawks (+5), Dallas Cowboys (+4), San Diego Chargers (+4), Kansas City Chiefs (+3), San Francisco 49ers (+3), Arizona Cardinals (+2), Cincinnati Bengals (+2), Detroit Lions (+2), Washington Redskins (+2), Cleveland Browns (+1), New England Patriots (+1), New Orleans Saints (+1).
Unchanged (8): Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams.
Deadlocked: We broke one tie this week. The Seahawks prevailed over the New York Giants at No. 15 based on the first tiebreaker, head-to-head results.
Like minds: All five voters ranked the Packers first, the Saints second and the Vikings 30th.
Agree to disagree: Walker continues to see the Eagles and Chargers as strong teams finally living up to their potential. Others continue to mark them down for overall struggles this season. That helps explain why Philly, more than any other team, invited polarizing views.
"I gave a lot of credence to how both teams are playing down the stretch in these important games," Walker said. "The Eagles and Chargers are two very dangerous teams right now. If either gets into the playoffs, look out."
Walker also kept New England ahead of the 49ers.
"The Patriots have won six straight games," he said. "The 49ers are 2-2 in their last four. San Francisco also lost the head-to-head with Baltimore. So I kept the Ravens ahead of the 49ers, too, despite an impressive win."
A look at the Eagles and the six other teams generating high-low disparities of at least six spots in the rankings:
- Eagles (8): Walker ranked them 13th, higher than any other voter ranked them. Sando, Clayton and Fox ranked them 21st, lower than any other voters ranked them.
- Cardinals (7): Sando 13th, Kuharsky 20th.
- Raiders (7): Clayton 15th, Kuharsky 22nd.
- Titans (7): Kuharsky 16th, Walker 23rd.
- Bengals (6): Fox 10th, Sando 16th.
- Chiefs (6): Sando 18th, Kuharsky 24th.
- Seahawks (6): Sando 12th, Walker 18th.
Ranking the divisions: Teams from the AFC North (13.0 average) maintained the highest ranking on average, well ahead of teams from the NFC North (15.1). The AFC South was the lowest-rated division.
A voter-by-voter look at changes of at least five spots since last week:
- Sando: Titans (-9), Giants (-6), Cardinals (+5), Seahawks (+5), Chargers (+6), Chiefs (+9).
- Clayton: Bills (-5), Raiders (-5).
- Kuharsky: Seahawks (+5).
- Walker: Titans (-9), Chiefs (+6), Eagles (+6).
- Fox: Giants (-5).
The file includes a "powerflaws" sheet pointing out potential flaws in voters' thinking by showing how many higher-ranked opponents each team defeated this season.
A quick primer on the "powerflaws" sheet:
- Column Y features team rankings.
- Column Z shows how many times a team has defeated higher-ranked teams.
- Change the rankings in Column Y as you see fit.
- Re-sort Column Y in ascending order (1 to 32) using the standard Excel pull-down menu atop the column.
- The information in Column Z, which reflects potential ranking errors, will change (with the adjusted total highlighted in yellow atop the column).
- The lower the figure in that yellow box, the fewer conflicts.