NFC West: NFL
The San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams met just three weeks ago, with the Rams jumping out to a 14-0 lead before falling 31-17. A week later, the Rams upset the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, and the Niners were thumped by the Denver Broncos. Then, the Niners enjoyed their bye week.
The return game between these old NFC West rivals is scheduled for Sunday at Levi’s Stadium. ESPN NFL Nation reporters Paul Gutierrez and Nick Wagoner break down Sunday’s game.
Paul Gutierrez: How does the acquisition of safety Mark Barron improve the Rams defense, and has Janoris Jenkins recovered from his tough coverage night against Brandon Lloyd a few weeks ago?
Nick Wagoner: If nothing else, adding Barron gives the Rams another player with some upside to plug in a leaky secondary. But how much he can help will depend on how the Rams deploy him. He's considered best as a box safety but didn't get to do much of that in Tampa Bay. And the Rams already have T.J. McDonald in that role. They will probably find ways to use them in tandem, but I'm not sure how it's going to work to maximize Barron's talent. We'll have to wait and see on that since Sunday's game will be his first with the team. As for Jenkins, he actually suffered a knee injury against Seattle after the Monday night game and did not play against Kansas City last week. He could potentially return this week, but that's not certain.
The Niners seem to be on the brink of getting some key pieces back. Coming off their bye, do you see the Niners kicking it into a higher gear the rest of the way, and if so, what's their ceiling?
Gutierrez: No doubt. The bye was good not only for their psyche after getting pummeled by the Broncos 42-17 in the final pre-bye game, but they also got healthy. Only four players were on their initial injury report on Wednesday, and not a single player missed that practice. Plus, nose tackle Glenn Dorsey and running back Marcus Lattimore each had their 21-day clocks started this week to either have them activated or placed on season-ending IR. Then there’s linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who continues his rehab from the brutal knee injury he suffered in the NFC title game last January. And, oh yeah, linebacker Aldon Smith’s nine-game suspension is almost up, and reports continue to float that it could be reduced for good behavior. The schedule also eases up for the 49ers, so with the defense getting healthy and being rested, the Arizona Cardinals due to come back to earth soon and the Seahawks wobbly, I see the Niners about to embark on a prolific run. One that should go deep into January.
The Rams, though, seem to be going the opposite direction, with two players going on IR this week in left tackle Jake Long and leading receiver Brian Quick. With so many injuries and losses, how close are the Rams to shutting it down mentally?
Wagoner: I don't see that happening, honestly. For all the issues they have and have had in the past, there haven't been any signs of Jeff Fisher losing the locker room. This team plays hard in a general sense though last week's second half was a little alarming because it seemed much of the fight was gone. That being said, I still think Fisher will find a way to motivate his team and keep them playing hard, at least for the next little while. But the Rams play at San Francisco, at Arizona, home against Denver and at San Diego in the next four weeks. If they come out of that stretch at 2-9, it's fair to wonder if that motivation will evaporate. As we sit here right now, though, this is a team that's only a couple of weeks removed from beating the reigning world champions. They still think they can compete with any team in the league. Right or wrong, that's where they're at right now.
This is the Rams' first trip to Levi's Stadium after so many years at Candlestick Park. Candlestick was a dump, but it had its charm and was usually a pretty good home-field advantage. What can they expect in terms of the atmosphere in the new digs?
Gutierrez: Honestly, the 49ers are still trying to figure it out themselves. Look, it doesn’t take a cartographer to realize they are no longer the San Francisco 49ers; they are now the Santa Clara Niners. From the press box, you’re looking down upon San Jose, not San Francisco. And the fog horn blaring on a 90 degree Silicon Valley day seems, well, out of place. As far as a stadium, it’s immaculate -- even if they are already on their third different sod. Atmosphere-wise, fans have been known to disappear after halftime for a bit to escape the heat and enjoy the new yard’s numerous bells and whistles. It will be interesting to see if there is a 12th-man effect going forward, though.
Surely Austin Davis heard about his fellow Southern Miss guy Brett Favre say Davis could be the next Kurt Warner or Tom Brady. What was Davis’ reaction?
Wagoner: Davis reacted exactly how I expected him to, which is to say he took it in stride and wasn't really affected by it one way or the other. Davis and Favre stay in touch, so I'm sure he already knew that Favre is in his corner. Davis did say that he's not trying to be the next anybody and that he just wants to be the "first Austin Davis." Two things about Davis: He doesn't get rattled, and he's extremely self-aware. Every week, Davis will stand up in the locker room and openly discuss the things he did wrong. The next week, you usually can see him actively trying to correct those things. His honesty and approach are refreshing. It's asking way too much for him to reach the level of a Warner or Brady, but he's at least done enough to keep earning a paycheck in this league moving forward. We can re-evaluate how big that check and what his role will be at the end of the season.
The Rams had the Niners on the ropes a bit in the Monday night meeting before Lloyd's big touchdown catch right before the half turned the game around. What did the Niners take away from that meeting, and what are some things you think they can exploit having played the Rams so recently?
Gutierrez: That was the Niners’ third straight win, and in all three games, they had to win in comeback fashion. From that game, I think the Niners took away the confidence they could get quick-strike scores against the Rams’ wispy pass defense, and they can go back to it again -- with aplomb. Especially going after Jenkins. Still, as you mentioned above, it’s no sure thing that Jenkins will even play this weekend. Yes, it’s a division game, and sure, the Rams did beat the Seahawks the week after the Niners essentially rolled them in the second half. But a quiet confidence that had been brewing since the season opener exploded in St. Louis and was, well, quelled a bit in Denver. The Rams should again provide that confidence boost for the Niners, especially if they can keep the pass rush going like they did last time with five sacks of Davis, while keeping Colin Kaepernick clean. That’s the big key -- controlling both lines of scrimmage.
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
Sidney Rice and Red Bryant are gone already, and free agency could strip them of Golden Tate, Breno Giacomini, Michael Bennett and other significant players. That would leave the door open for what direction Seattle goes at the very end of Round 1. They covet defensive linemen and could go that way, and should consider adding another cornerback rather high in this draft, especially if they are hit hard at that position in free agency.
A pass-catcher is certainly an option at 32, but to me, the best scenario would be Seattle selecting a big powerful right tackle/guard type, as their offensive line was the weakest area of their team in 2013.
Whom does McShay have the Seahawks drafting at No. 32? Let’s take a look:
The 49ers also should add an interior offensive line prospect at some point, and love collecting defensive linemen with upside. Donte Whitner probably will not be back, so adding a high-end safety prospect next to last year’s first round pick, Eric Reid, could be the move here.
But right now, cornerback is San Francisco’s top need, and the 30th overall pick could be a nice spot to land a new cornerback. Also, considering that this is a very talented team without too many huge holes to fill, they could move up for the guy they covet, as they did for Reid; San Franciso has more picks in this draft than any other team.
Whom does McShay have the 49ers drafting at No. 30? Let’s take a look :
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- As more details emerge about Larry Fitzgerald's freshly restructured contract, the better it looks for him and the better it looks for the Arizona Cardinals -- for now, at least.
What Fitzgerald signed on Tuesday was simply a short-term answer to a long-term issue. By restructuring his contract, Fitzgerald will still receive his $12.75 million base salary in 2014; this wasn't a renegotiation, he still will get his money. Actually, he received most of it in the form of an $11.75 million signing bonus, according to multiple reports. But by restructuring, Fitzgerald helped the Cardinals avoid his $18 million cap hit in 2014, which shrunk to $8.6 million, according to reports.
Since the majority of Fitzgerald's salary was turned into a “bonus,” the cap hit on the $11.75 million can now be prorated throughout the life of his contract -- which ends in 2018 -- to about $2.35 million per year, according to numbers from multiple reports. The same overall cap number for Fitzgerald's $120 million contract is intact, but the 2014 number is lower while the cap hit for 2015-18 increased.
And that's all the Cardinals needed heading into this offseason.
Faced with little cap room, Arizona needed to reduce Fitzgerald's massive number so the team can re-sign free agents like linebacker Karlos Dansby, who'll ask for more than the $2.25 million he earned in 2013. This will also allow the Cardinals to chase the right pieces during free agency.
Arizona was apparently already in talks with Fitzgerald's camp before the Super Bowl. But after Seattle won, the ante in the NFC West was upped significantly. And instead of giving up millions to play for a team with an easier shot at winning its division, Fitzgerald undoubtedly looked at the Seahawks' win as motivation and wanted to stay in Arizona even more.
While Fitzgerald's decision to restructure will help the Cardinals in 2014, it'll hinder the team in the future. The prorated cap hit on the bonus will be added to his already high cap numbers, putting Fitzgerald's cap hit at $23.6 million in 2015, $20.6 million in 2016, $17.35 million in 2017 and $17.35 million in 2018.
Fitzgerald could've helped Arizona as much as the Cardinals have helped him by renegotiating his future salaries and lowering the cap numbers. Fitzgerald, who is due an $8 million roster bonus in 2015, has earned $27 million since Week 1 of the 2013 season.
But if an $18 million cap hit was too high for the Cardinals this year, how will they afford the $23.6 million and $20.6 million cap hits the next two seasons? My guess is they won't.
I think 2014 will be the equivalent of a “contract year” for Fitzgerald. If he can still prove that he's a premier wide receiver at 31 years old, the Cardinals will find a way to accommodate that type of hit. If not, the same kind of speculation that flurried about in 2013 will start again, but most likely in avalanche form. And it probably won't end with another restructuring. With the improvements they made in 2013, the Cardinals won't want to be handcuffed by that large of a cap hit, which would prohibit them from improving even more in 2015.
Fitzgerald is the type of player who's hard to part with. He's productive. He's a Pro Bowler. He's still the face of the franchise.
But at what point does his contract bear too much weight on an organization?
Arizona didn't have a choice this go-round. It needed the cap space and the easiest way to do that was to put off the headache that comes with looking at Fitzgerald's contract, which was handled by the Cards' previous regime, until next season.
What happens then? The Cardinals don't want to make an annual call to Fitzgerald's agent, Eugene Parker, to discuss ways to help the team find more cap space.
But, like Fitzgerald's cap hit, Arizona can figure that out next year.
Those who have followed Harvin's bizarre NFL career can't be surprised by this dramatic turn. He proved an exasperating enigma during four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, prompting a 2013 trade to the Seattle Seahawks, and his residence in "PercyWorld" -- population of one -- is now visible on the largest sports stage in the nation.
Harvin's genius, intentional or otherwise, is to create enough doubt about the origin of his issues to ward off permanent damage to his career. The Seahawks thought enough of him to offer a six-year, $67 million deal last spring, and by all accounts they will play him heavily Sunday after a season derailed by a hip injury and concussion. Strange things happen around Percy Harvin, often during less-essential times of the NFL calendar. But like the child whose fluttering eyes convey innocence, it's never clear whether Harvin is actively at fault or simply the unfortunate victim in a string of unpredictable maladies.
The examples are endless, beginning days after the Vikings drafted him in April 2009. When he failed to show the following weekend for rookie minicamp, coach Brad Childress relayed a detailed story about Harvin's collapse in the Atlanta airport while making a connecting flight. Two months later, Harvin departed the NFL's rookie symposium with what was described as an illness, and as we found out during his rookie season with the Vikings, he was afflicted regularly and without warning by migraines.
Harvin missed 15 days of the Vikings' 2010 training camp because of his grandmother's death followed by what he told team officials was a migraine episode. In his first practice upon returning, a glance into the bright sky while fielding a punt triggered migraine symptoms. He soon collapsed, was briefly unresponsive, and was taken from the field in an ambulance.
He spent the night in the hospital, missed one practice and was back on the field two days later. Speaking to reporters a few weeks later, he blamed the collapse on medication he had since abandoned and said he believed his migraines were caused by sleep apnea.
The drama continued in Minnesota, from a practice altercation with Childress to a minicamp walkout to his departure from the team following the 2012 sprained ankle. Recently, he revealed he had an appendectomy in November 2012 and a tumor removed in the offseason. And then, before his career in Seattle really started, Harvin reported hip soreness that led to surgery and ultimately a lost season -- at least what would have been for most other players.
Taken individually, these episodes might qualify Harvin as merely injury prone or perhaps a typical NFL diva. Viewed collectively, they define a career of unrealized promise and either inexplicable fortune or devious maneuvering, depending upon your proclivity toward conspiracy theories.
There was a time when I wondered if Harvin viewed himself as the NFL's Allen Iverson, a big-timer who answered the bell for games but had little interest in the monotony of everyday life in football. By my count, he has missed two full training camps and part of a third. He has played in seven of a possible 20 preseason games, has sat out at least two offseason camps and more practices than anyone can accurately calculate.
For all of his ailments, Harvin missed only three games in his first three seasons before the Vikings faced the Seahawks on Nov. 4, 2012. The team was in the midst of a 2-5 stretch and Harvin let loose with a verbal sideline tirade against coach Leslie Frazier. His left ankle sprain, suffered a few minutes later, was his final play in a Vikings uniform.
It was never entirely clear why a sprained ankle sidelined Harvin for more than two months, but then again nothing is ever clear -- to anyone else -- in PercyWorld. Regardless, it's quite possible that Harvin will play more Sunday than he has in the 15 months since that injury (33 snaps). Which makes perfect sense, as long as you're talking about Percy Harvin.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- How quickly we forget, right? The San Francisco 49ers were one goal-line stand away from winning the Super Bowl last season, and somehow we lost track of them as a handful of competitors stole our attention in 2013. So after watching one of the most impressive performances of the NFL season on Sunday, a 23-20 victory over a tough Green Bay Packers team in frigid conditions, let's establish a few truths as I see it:
The 49ers are the best team in football, and if they continue to play the way they did Sunday, they will win Super Bowl XLVIII next month.
Their offense is poised to outscore the Carolina Panthers next weekend in the NFC divisional round. Their defense is a good matchup for the Seattle Seahawks, their likely opponent in the NFC Championship Game. They're tougher than the Denver Broncos and more versatile than the New England Patriots.
I don't regard this prediction as particularly bold, at least not to an audience that has paid attention to the NFL over the past two months. Sunday marked the 49ers' seventh consecutive victory and their 12th in the past 14 games. Their two losses during that period came against two playoff teams (the Panthers and Saints) by a total of four points.
Sunday's game produced two championship-caliber answers in the fourth quarter, after the Packers took a 17-13 lead and later tied the game at 20, and I was left wondering if there is anything the 49ers aren't equipped to overcome.
"We're very confident," left tackle Joe Staley said, "and we've always been confident. That's not an issue with this football team. We are just going to keep working, respect the process for what brought us here and never take anything for granted in the playoffs, especially on the road."
I realize that a 20-point victory Sunday might have filled the 49ers bandwagon more quickly, but to me a championship-caliber team is measured best when it faces adverse conditions. No one cruises to the Super Bowl title. At some point, you must overcome circumstances that would otherwise sink you.
If Sunday's conditions at Lambeau Field -- 5 degrees, minus-10 wind chill -- impacted the 49ers, I didn't notice it. Coach Jim Harbaugh refused to wear a parka in the first half, comically stuffing his standard game-day attire with multiple layers, but I thought his stubbornness was an appropriate symbol as the 49ers refused to be dictated to by the Wisconsin winter.
(His quarterback one-upped him; Colin Kaepernick wouldn't wear sleeves of any kind. "I've played in cold weather before," Kaepernick said with a shrug.)
The 49ers committed just one turnover, were called for two penalties, converted 50 percent of their third downs and limited the Packers to three third-down conversions in 11 tries. They were as sharp as could have been expected, and yes, I'm aware that Packers cornerback Micah Hyde dropped what could have been a go-ahead interception with 4:14 remaining.
But please, let's not pretend the 49ers were one dropped interception away from a loss Sunday. At worst, Hyde would given the Packers a 27-20 lead. The 49ers would have had plenty of time to regain possession, drive the field and force overtime. Based on what we saw Sunday, can you doubt it?
"As the game went on," Staley said, "we were cool, calm and collected. We made some big plays. The confidence that everyone showed on that drive was awesome. Everyone was like, it's kind of fun to win on the last drive of the game. Let's go do it."
In championship fashion, the 49ers ran the final 5:06 off the clock while getting Phil Dawson in position for a 33-yard field goal on the final play. Kaepernick converted third-and-10 with a 17-yard pass to Michael Crabtree and third-and-8 with an 11-yard run. And to ensure the Packers couldn't get the ball back, tailback Frank Gore gained 3 yards on third-and-3 with 56 seconds left.
All told, it was a 14-play drive that restated the 49ers' championship chops with authority.
"To be able to put together a drive like that, under any conditions, that's big-time," Dawson said, "but especially with all the factors working against us."
You might note that Sunday's weather conditions actually were warmer than predicted. (Trust me. There is a difference between 5 degrees and minus-5, and minus-10 wind chill and minus-50.) As well, you might not be impressed with a three-point victory over an 8-7-1 team, but the Packers were at their 2013 best Sunday. If nothing else, the ascendance of tailback Eddie Lacy made them a tougher and more powerful opponent than the one the 49ers knocked out of the 2012 playoffs.
"They played a great game," Gore said. "It's just that we played better."
And that's what these 49ers are. They're the team that has played better than anyone else for the past two months. Harbaugh has made a spectacle of asking who has it better than the 49ers. Here's what I care about: Who is better than the 49ers? My answer: Nooooobody!
Ahmad Brooks did just about everything the NFL can expect from a modern pass-rusher Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. On one of the game's most important plays, Brooks approached Drew Brees with the combination of ferocity and caution that should have allowed him to navigate the league's extensive rules to protect quarterbacks.
Brooks, the San Francisco 49ers linebacker, blew past New Orleans Saints right tackle Zach Strief and aligned his head behind Brees. To initiate contact, Brooks slammed his right shoulder into Brees' right shoulder, and to wrap up, he extended his right arm across Brees' chest.
Brees' upper body snapped back, including his head in a whip-like fashion. In the process, Brooks' arm slid slightly in the direction of Brees' neck.
The ruling from referee Tony Corrente: Personal foul against Brooks, whose slight slip of the arm had violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(c) -- which was amended last spring to specify that a penalty for a hit to the neck of a passer could be called even if the initial contact began below it. The penalty reversed a turnover and gave the Saints 15 yards on the way to a game-tying field goal. Brooks had hit neither Brees' head nor his knees, but he and the 49ers still feel victim to a technicality within the NFL rule labyrinth.
Did the play signify a turning point in the league's efforts to protect quarterbacks? Has it gone too far with its rules in the pocket? Is it unfairly penalizing hits like Brooks' when most quarterback injuries this season have resulted from scrambles or designed runs?
Speaking to reporters later, Brooks said he "basically bear-hugged" Brees and added: "That's just how football is played."
The NFL confirmed that sentiment, fining Brooks $15,575 for the play.
Brees, meanwhile, implied the penalty was justified because it was violent and left him with a bloody mouth.
"I don't think what Ahmad Brooks did was intentional at all," Brees told reporters. "I think he's a heck of a football player and a clean football player. A hard-nosed, clean football player. But you look at the result of that … and again in real-time … You can slow it down all you want and watch it and say, 'Look where the [arm is].' But I can tell you how I felt when I got hit. It felt like I got my head ripped off. And I get up and I've got a mouth full of blood. So there was no doubt in my mind that, 'Hey, it's gonna be a penalty.'"
Brees' reaction enraged earlier generations of NFL players, who saw nothing but a standard football play. ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said on ESPN Radio that the penalty was an example of how "the NFL product sucks" and suggested that "roughhousing" is now illegal in the NFL.
Dilfer called Brees a "dear friend" but added: "You're not preventing Drew Brees from getting a concussion by making that call. You're preventing him from getting a bloody lip.
"I was insulted when he came into the presser and said, 'I expected to get the flag thrown.' I can't tell you how many retired quarterbacks texted me … We played a game where we had to stay in the pocket and get hit in the face. We're not saying we're as good as Drew Brees. We're not saying he's soft. We're not saying the guys he is playing with are soft. But part of the badge of honor of playing quarterback in the NFL was standing in there and taking shots in the face and throwing a 20-yard dig route. That's what separated you from the other guys. Now that's just not part of the game."
Has the NFL gone too far? Has it substantively changed the game even as quarterbacks find new ways to get injured? ESPN's NFL Nation asked quarterbacks and defensive players to address the topic.
-- Detroit Lions DT Ndamukong Suh, as told to ESPN.com Lions reporter Michael Rothstein
-- New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees, as told to ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett
-- Indianapolis Colts LB Robert Mathis, as told to ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells
-- New York Giants QB Eli Manning, as told to ESPN.com Giants reporter Dan Graziano
-- Kansas City Chiefs QB Alex Smith, as told to ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher
-- New York Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul, as told to ESPN.com Giants reporter Dan Graziano
-- Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake as told to ESPN.com Dolphins reporter James Walker
Most of the players probably will not play leading roles for their new teams. Some could develop over time.
We have recently considered whether having a high number of released players awarded to other teams via waivers might reflect well on a team's roster strength. The thinking is that stronger teams release better players overall, and weaker teams find more of those players appealing. This sounds logical and appears true in some cases even though the overall numbers suggest this isn't necessarily the case.
In any event, the chart below ranks teams by the number of released players awarded to other teams via waivers immediately following the reduction to 53 players. A league-high five players released by the Green Bay Packers immediately found homes elsewhere via waivers. The Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles were next with four apiece.
On the flip side, Kansas City and Jacksonville each received a league-high seven players off waivers from other teams. Cleveland was next with six, followed by New England (four), the New York Jets (three) and four teams with two apiece: Oakland, San Diego, Tampa Bay and Arizona.
The total number of claims submitted exceeds the number of players awarded because some players were claimed more than once. I do not yet have the total number of claims submitted. The numbers I've referenced here pertain only to players awarded via waivers.
Note that Seattle's strength in the secondary shines through. The Seahawks were the only team to have two of the defensive backs they released awarded to other teams via waivers. Ron Parker went to Kansas City. Winston Guy went to Jacksonville. Another former Seahawks defensive back, Will Blackmon, was not eligible for waivers when Seattle terminated his contract. The Jaguars signed him as well. Yet another Seattle defensive back, Antoine Winfield, was expected to retire following his release from the Seahawks.
Connections came into play with those waiver claims. The Chiefs' general manager, John Dorsey, worked with Seahawks GM John Schneider in Green Bay. They could be looking for similar players in some cases. Guy and Blackmon join a Jaguars team featuring former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley as head coach.
Sixty-three voters helped rank 100 top players on each side of the ball. NFC West teams accounted for 20 players on defense and 16 on offense. The 36-player total works out to 18 percent representation for the NFC West, above the 12.5 percent expectation for any division.
The chart shows where NFC West players ranked on each list. I shaded offensive players in gray to better distinguish the rankings.
The 49ers' Patrick Willis and the Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald have long been perceived as the best players in the division. They've got additional competition, but those two ranked higher than anyone else in the NFC West.
There were sure to be oversights in a project of this scope. Defensive end Calais Campbell of the Cardinals stands out to me as the most glaring one. I might have placed him between Patrick Peterson and Chris Long in defensive rankings as they stood for this project.
Three Seahawks cornerbacks earned spots on the list even though one of them, Antoine Winfield, reportedly could be released by the team Saturday in the reduction to 53 players Saturday.
A quick look at ranked players by team:
San Francisco 49ers: Patrick Willis (3), Aldon Smith (10), Justin Smith (11), Vernon Davis (18), NaVorro Bowman (18), Joe Staley (25), Mike Iupati (32), Frank Gore (37), Colin Kaepernick (42), Ahmad Brooks (56), Anthony Davis (60), Donte Whitner (64), Michael Crabtree (78), Anquan Boldin (83) and Jonathan Goodwin (92).
Seattle Seahawks: Richard Sherman (8), Earl Thomas (17), Percy Harvin (26), Marshawn Lynch (27), Brandon Browner (46), Russell Wilson (47), Russell Okung (49), Kam Chancellor (49), Max Unger (57), Bobby Wagner (67), Winfield (70), Cliff Avril (74) and Chris Clemons (85).
St. Louis Rams: Long (40), James Laurinaitis (57), Jake Long (61), Cortland Finnegan (63).
Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald (7), Patrick Peterson (19), Daryl Washington (59) and Darnell Dockett (79).
The chart shows week-by-week snap counts for quarterbacks I singled out as projected starters heading into preseason. NFC West alums Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn might not start after all, but I've left them in the chart for context.
St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has generally played starters in the final preseason game. He did not this time.
"Typically I have, but I guess in the new world that we’re in, it’s hard to," Fisher told reporters after the Rams' game against Baltimore. "What that implies is that I'm pleased with where they are right now, those guys that sat. They worked hard. We got a great workout and it allowed them to fast-forward their minds to Arizona."
Fisher could have been alluding to the run of higher-profile injuries around the league this summer. Last year, the Rams lost rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers to a high-ankle sprain in the final preseason game.
The Rams emerged from this preseason healthier than their division rivals. That did not stop the 49ers from playing their offensive starters or the Seahawks from playing starters on both sides of the ball Thursday night. The Arizona Cardinals rested most of their starters, though Michael Floyd was one notable exception.
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh offered no explanation for playing his starting offense one series. Kaepernick hadn't gotten many snaps through the first three games, however. Getting additional reps for Kaepernick and the team's group of emerging receivers made some sense on the surface.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll went into the final preseason game saying he wanted starters to play because the team values this games as competitive opportunities.
This becomes a good time to check out how many snaps each projected starting quarterback has played. The players listed in the chart below entered preseason as the quarterbacks I considered most likely to start season openers. We might have to make adjustments in some cases.
Teams have different priorities based on a range of factors. This snapshot does provide some context.
A few notes regarding the NFC West info:
- Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer appeared sharper in the preseason opener than he did subsequently. Pass protection was one problem against San Diego on Saturday night. Palmer still got 37 snaps, his highest total of the preseason. But with the team losing key players Rob Housler and Jonathan Cooper to injuries, snap counts for Palmer were not a leading storyline.
- St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford has played 25 snaps in each of the last two preseason games. He is averaging 10.2 yards per pass attempt in the preseason and has a 114.1 NFL passer rating to this point (he finished the 2012 preseason with five touchdown passes, no picks and a 116.3 rating). The team's most recent preseason game, at Denver, provided Bradford a good opportunity to connect with Jared Cook, the tight end St. Louis lured away from Tennessee in free agency with $19 million in guarantees. Cook caught four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown.
- San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick has played fewer snaps than any projected starter other than the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III, who has not yet played in a game since suffering knee injuries in the playoffs last season. Kaepernick finished strong against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night, completing his final six passes, including one for a touchdown.
- Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson took three sacks and threw two interceptions while playing 38 snaps against Green Bay in the most recent preseason game. The Packers, meanwhile, pulled Aaron Rodgers after 10 snaps. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the Packers came after Seattle with scheme-related wrinkles an offense would address in the regular season, but not preseason.
Here’s the breakdown on how much the seven-man rookie class played and how it fared in those opportunities along with a look at a few undrafted rookies who have made an impression.
WR Tavon Austin, first round, No. 8 overall: The Rams and Austin have waited patiently for him to get an opportunity to do something in the return game but they didn’t wait long Saturday night. Austin took his first punt return of the evening back 81 yards to setup the team’s first score. He played 18 snaps on offense and just two on special teams but both punt returns combined to go for 104 yards. He also made a catch for 12 yards.
LB Alec Ogletree, first round, No. 30 overall: It was a big night for Ogletree, who answered many of the early questions that have been asked of him. He played 53 snaps on defense and four more on special teams on his way to the type of performance that showed why the Rams coveted him in April’s NFL draft. He finished with a line of six tackles, two for loss, an interception, two passes defended, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a touchdown. And he did it against Peyton Manning and one of the best offenses around. It hasn’t been an easy transition for Ogletree to the NFL game and he’s by no means a finished product but Saturday provided some definitive progress.
S T.J. McDonald, third round, No. 71 overall: Playing against Denver’s uptempo offense, McDonald also played every defensive snap in the first half with 53. He also fared a bit better against the Broncos, making three tackles and not missing any obvious tackle opportunities. He also played six snaps on special teams, one of which went for a blocked field goal.
WR Stedman Bailey, third round, No. 92 overall: Bailey played 28 snaps on offense, where he was targeted three times and came up with one catch for 13 yards. He also chipped in on special teams with seven plays there. Bailey continues to work exclusively with the backups.
OL Barrett Jones, fourth round, No. 113 overall: Jones played 27 snaps with the backup offensive line and three on special teams. The backup offensive line has continued to struggle in the preseason and Jones has had his share of that. He’s still working his way back into shape and he’s had some decent moments but it’s going to take some time to get him fully up to speed.
CB Brandon McGee, fifth round, No. 149 overall: No word on if something is wrong with McGee in terms of health but he did not play on defense and played a lone snap on special teams. Second-year corner Quinton Pointer didn’t play either, leading one to believe the Rams simply wanted to get a long look at the cornerbacks lower on the depth chart before cuts. Either way, McGee had been coming on strong and earning more playing time going in to Saturday night.
RB Zac Stacy, fifth round, No. 160 overall: Seemingly healthy for the first time in a few weeks, Stacy played 12 snaps with the offense and crammed a lot of work into such a short outing. He carried five times for 8 yards with two catches for 19 yards. The Rams are still sorting through the backups behind Daryl Richardson but have struggled to get any semblance of a run game going the past two weeks.
Undrafted Rookie Roundup: Another game, another big play or two for linebacker Ray Ray Armstrong. He played 21 defensive snaps and 17 on special teams, finishing with two tackles, a sack and a quarterback hit. … Cornerback Darren Woodard played 32 snaps on defense and came up with an interception to kill a Denver drive in the second half. … Defensive tackle Al Lapuaho is a roster long shot anyway but didn’t do anything to help his cause with a 15-yard taunting penalty in the fourth quarter. … Backup kicker/punter Brett Baer finally got an opportunity to do some of each but it didn’t go as he’d hoped. He missed a 43-yard field goal attempt and had a punt blocked. He did later drop a perfect 52-yard punt out of bounds at Denver’s 5, though.
ESPN's Ron Jaworski ranked San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick No. 11 when ranking the 32 projected NFL starting quarterbacks for 2013.
Jaworski now says he thinks Kaepernick can become an all-time great. Jaworski, speaking in the video atop this item, pointed to Kaepernick's arm strength, accuracy and mobility. He also pointed to the coaching Kaepernick is receiving from Jim Harbaugh and staff.
Early returns are indeed promising. Kaepernick ranked second to Peyton Manning in Total QBR as a starter for the regular season and playoffs. Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Eli Manning rounded out the top 10.
Smith's presence on that list stands out, because he hadn't produced at that level previously. I do think the offense in San Francisco forces teams to account for the run, setting up quarterbacks for success on early downs. That is when Smith in particular flourished. As Jaworski points out, there is no denying the physical ability Kaepernick brings to the position. Put him in the 49ers' system and the potential is there, no doubt.
Now that we've begun work on that Hall of Fame bust, let's revisit what Jaworski said when ranking Kaepernick 11th among starters earlier this offseason:
"Normally 10 NFL starts is not enough for me to evaluate a player so highly, but this kid has special talent, is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback with a power arm and outstanding athleticism.
"Remember this? It was a signature play of the 2012 season. It was Kaepernick’s first touchdown run against Green Bay that really caught my attention. You see the press man coverage with two deep safeties. It turned out the Packers doubled Michael Crabtree. But the point is the same. This is what mobile, athletic quarterbacks can do versus man-to-man coverage, especially on third down. It forces defenses to rethink their concepts, it limits their tactical options.
"I remember Kaepernick’s first start against the Bears. It was immediately evident that he gave the 49ers every dimension in the passing game. And I love the way Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman set up Kaepernick with defined reads through the use of shifts and formations.
"Watch what happened here from the coaching tape. All that pre-snap movement was designed to get Vernon Davis matched on linebacker Lance Briggs. As favorable as the matchup was, that was still not an easy throw.
"That’s why Kaepernick has a chance to be very special. He has a complete throwing skill-set with a powerful arm that I absolutely put at gun level. His ball comes out with a lot of energy and velocity. And Kaepernick can drive the ball down the field, on the move, with accuracy.
"Kaepernick is one of the four or five most physically talented quarterbacks in the entire NFL. It will be fascinating to see how he adjusts to the loss of Michael Crabtree, but the elite skill-set is still there."
Reigning MVP Adrian Peterson is a longer shot than San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in award handicapping for the upcoming season.
Those curious to know where Kaepernick's NFC West rival, Russell Wilson, ranks in oddsmakers' eyes, can check out the chart.
Peyton Manning leads the way at 5-1 odds to win NFL MVP honors, followed by Aaron Rodgers (13-2), Kaepernick (10-1) and Drew Brees (10-1).
Wilson is tied for eighth at 18-1.
Bovada.lv, among the companies providing NFL odds to ESPN.com, distributed its MVP odds Tuesday.
Sam Bradford (75-1) was the only St. Louis Rams player listed. There were no Arizona Cardinals listed. NFC West alums Steven Jackson (66-1) and Alex Smith (75-1) were among the notables. Marshawn Lynch was at 50-1.
Kaepernick is a viable choice based on projected stats. His pace through 10 starts last season (three in the playoffs) would project to better than 3,800 yards passing and 800 yards rushing over a 16-game schedule. Becoming the first player with 4,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing would certainly put Kaepernick in the discussion.