NFC West: New England Patriots
Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' 24-23 victory against the New England Patriots in Week 6:
What it means: The Seahawks improved to 4-2 with a comeback victory that should at least temporarily silence calls for the team to replace rookie quarterback Russell Wilson with backup Matt Flynn. Wilson connected on big plays early, then found Sidney Rice for the winning 46-yard touchdown pass with 1:18 remaining. This was exactly what Wilson and the Seahawks needed heading into a road game against the San Francisco 49ers.
What I liked: Wilson completed passes for 50 and 24 yards to Doug Baldwin, the latter for a touchdown, as Seattle jumped to an early lead. Wilson also scrambled for a 9-yard gain on third-and-4 to sustain that scoring drive. The decision to try a trick play in the second half, when the offense was struggling, worked out when Golden Tate drew a pass-interference call on a deep ball from Rice. The fourth-down scoring pass from Wilson to Tate was a big positive.
Seattle’s defense shut down the Patriots’ running game most of the time after New England had hurt opponents with a balanced attack. Richard Sherman put his size to use against Deion Branch in picking off a Tom Brady pass in the third quarter. Fellow cornerback Brandon Browner also made an impact with a huge hit on Patriots receiver Wes Welker. Sherman seemed to have a strong game. Sherman and free safety Earl Thomas picked off passes.
The Seahawks forced Brady into two grounding penalties at critical times. One prevented the Patriots from attempting a chip-shot field goal before halftime. Another forced the Patriots into third-and-20 with 4:47 left in the fourth quarter and the Patriots holding a 23-17 lead.
What I didn’t like: The Seahawks too frequently couldn’t stop Welker before or after the catch. That was a key variable heading into the game. Seattle figured Welker would get his catches, but coach Pete Carroll hoped the Seahawks could stop him from doing damage after the catch. Seattle had ranked third in fewest yards allowed after the catch (per reception).
Seattle’s run game had trouble getting traction. The Patriots were the first team this season able to control Marshawn Lynch from the beginning. That put additional pressure on the Seahawks in other areas, where the team hasn’t been as strong.
What’s next: The Seahawks visit the 49ers for a Thursday night game in Week 7.
Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the 49ers in 2012:
Dream scenario (14-2): The 49ers pick up where they left off last season. They continue to force turnovers and protect the football while dictating field position with their dominant special teams. This time, however, the offense has more firepower.
Receiver Michael Crabtree backs up coach Jim Harbaugh's comments suggesting Crabtree has all-time-great hands. A rejuvenated Randy Moss strikes fear into secondaries. Quarterback Alex Smith, armed with sufficient weapons, strikes for explosive plays more frequently. The offensive line, stabilized by Alex Boone's emergence as a top young guard, sustains drives on third downs and finishes them in the red zone.
Rookie receiver A.J. Jenkins hits stride in December as the 49ers clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs heading into Week 17. Colin Kaepernick throws for 350 yards and four touchdowns in the regular-season finale as San Francisco eliminates division-rival Arizona from playoff contention. Sufficiently rested, the 49ers score a dominating victory over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, delivering San Francisco its first Super Bowl title since the 1994 season.
Nightmare scenario (6-10): The odds catch up to Smith when the Detroit Lions' Ndamukong Suh delivers a controversial hit at the knees in Week 2. Kaepernick isn't ready, Moss loses interest and the offense can't score enough points. Meanwhile, Peyton Manning has the Denver Broncos looking like contenders.
The 49ers realize they were fortunate to have Smith start 18 games the previous season despite taking 51 sacks. They realize how risky it was going into the season without a proven right guard. How hard would it have been to pay one of the veteran options the team considered in free agency? That's a question reporters keep asking, even though none of them said much before the season. The question stings now that Smith is done for the season and Kaepernick is running for his life.
Tough defense and special teams keep the 49ers reasonably competitive. The coaching staff does its best to stabilize the situation. The 49ers compete and steal victories from other teams with quarterback issues. In the end, however, they become the latest team to suffer a hard fall after posting a glittering record the previous season. Rock bottom arrives when Sando notes, again, that the 13 teams finishing 13-3 from 2004 to 2010 averaged 8.3 victories the following season.
1. Michael Vick to prison. Involvement in a dogfighting ring brought down one of the NFL's highest-profile, most dynamic quarterbacks in his prime. Vick was released and sent to prison, sending the Atlanta Falcons into turmoil. Vick owed nearly $20 million when he filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and the Falcons had to rebuild their franchise.
2. Saints bounties. Offering cash payments for injuries inflicted on opponents brought down the wrath from commissioner Roger Goodell: Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended for one year, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely, general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for eight regular-season games, and the team was fined $500,000 and lost two second-round draft picks (one each in 2012 and '13) for their participation in a bounty program.
4. Hornung/Karras gambling. The NFL suspended Paul Hornung and Alex Karras for the 1963 season after both admitted to betting on NFL games. Hornung and Karras were both Pro Bowl players and Hornung was one of the league's biggest stars playing for the NFL's most iconic team: the Green Bay Packers. Commissioner Pete Rozelle reinstated both players in 1964, and Hornung wound up in the Hall of Fame.
Art Schlichter's one-year ban two decades later also deserves mention among player gambling scandals, but his standing in the league wasn't as strong at the time.
5. Eddie DeBartolo Jr. suspended. The San Francisco 49ers' former owner remains a beloved figure in team lore. He was a finalist for the Hall of Fame this year. But his 1998 felony conviction for failing to report extortion relating to a Louisiana casino project produced a $1 million fine and a one-year NFL suspension. DeBartolo wound up selling the 49ers, precipitating a decade of futility for the organization.
Paul from the United Kingdom asks whether the 49ers might have come out better than expected in their 2007 draft-day trade with the Patriots. San Francisco sent its 2007 fourth-round choice [110th overall] and its 2008 first-round choice [seventh overall] to New England for the 28th overall choice in the 2007 draft, which the 49ers used for tackle Joe Staley.
Paul also notes that the 49ers acquired the Colts' 2008 first-round choice [29th overall, used for Kentwan Balmer] and a 2007 fourth-rounder [used for Dashon Goldson] from Indianapolis. Those moves gave the 49ers picks in the rounds of the choices they traded to New England.
"Using your value chart," Paul writes, "the trades cost the 49ers an equivalent of 708 points because the 1st rounder they gave up turned out to be so high. Adding that deficit to the value of the 28th pick used to select Staley, that would equate to a selection at 9 or 10. That would still seem like good value to me for an OT that has been a starter virtually since his selection and looks like he can be very productive for a number of years at either left or right tackle."
Mike Sando: I understand your math -- the 49ers sent the seventh choice (1,500 points) plus the 110th choice (74 points) to the Patriots for the 28th choice (660), and the difference would be 708 points -- but the trade chart doesn't come into play at face value in this situation. That is because current-year choices carry more value than future-year choices. In other words, a first-round pick this year is worth more than a first-rounder next year.
Staley started 16 games at offensive tackle for the 49ers before the Patriots were able to exercise the first-round choice they received in return. Those 16 starts represented immediate return on the 49ers' investment. That value offsets some of the 708-point imbalance.
The 49ers come out OK as long as Staley enjoys the long, productive career he seems likely to enjoy. But the Patriots came out even better. They used the 49ers' choices to help land linebacker Jerod Mayo and receiver Randy Moss. Not bad.
The difference between a winner and a loser rarely looks as blatant as it did Dec. 21 in Foxborough, Mass. The Arizona Cardinals had a better chance dodging the falling snow than they did disastrous plays against the New England Patriots.
The Cardinals certainly didn't look like a Super Bowl team that wintry afternoon. They looked like playoff frauds while the Patriots slapped them around 47-7.
With that, Arizona completed its enigmatic tour against the AFC East.
The NFC West and AFC East were cross-conference opponents this year, pitting one of the weakest divisions against one of the most competitive.
Twice Arizona looked like an elite club. Twice it looked like a team that didn't belong in the playoffs, let alone capable of a Super Bowl run.
Week 2 vs. Miami Dolphins, 31-10 W
What it meant for the Cardinals: An impressive showing, the Cardinals handed the AFC East champs their worst regular-season loss.
After a so-so performance in the season opener, Kurt Warner gave the NFL the first glimpse of what the Cardinals' offense could do. He completed 19 of 24 passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin had six receptions apiece for 153 and 140 yards.
What it meant for the Dolphins: Such a thrashing and a 0-2 start had Dolfans dreading another year like their 1-15 campaign. But the loss jolted the Dolphins and, out of desperation for something to stunt a downward spiral, they introduced their Wildcat offense the next week at New England for a season-changing blowout victory.
Week 4 at New York Jets, 56-35 L
What it meant for the Cardinals: Although the final score made it look like the Cardinals' defense was abysmal, seven turnovers (three interceptions, four fumbles) set up the Jets like they were in a college-overtime format. The Jets recorded five sacks.
The only positive spin was their ability to battle back from a 34-0 halftime deficit to get within 13 points in the third quarter. The Cardinals slipped to 2-2 with the loss and, while Warner's 472-yard day was remarkable, looked nothing like NFC contenders.
A vicious hit by Jets safety Eric Smith broke Boldin's face and raised concerns of how the Cardinals' offense would cope without him. The Cardinals won twice without him to reinforce they were a team worth watching.
What it meant for the Jets: After a 1-2 start, the record-setting victory sent the Jets on a scalding stretch in which they won seven out of eight games to become a fashionable Super Bowl pick. Anybody wondering if Brett Favre had anything left to give had to be won over by his performance: 24-of-34 for 289 yards and a personal-best six touchdowns. Little did we know ...
Week 5 vs. Buffalo Bills, 41-17 W
What it meant for the Cardinals: They rebounded against a team that was gaining favor as an AFC contender. The Bills were 4-0, but the Cardinals smashed them apart to rise above .500 for good.
Warner continued to generate MVP buzz by completing 33 of 42 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Arizona's defense was brilliant with four takeaways and five sacks.
What it meant for the Bills: Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson crashed through the line and delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit that concussed Bills quarterback Trent Edwards. The collision might have altered Buffalo's course 180 degrees. After their bye, Edwards started the next game against the San Diego Chargers and was outstanding, but then he fell apart in a nauseating stretch of seven losses in eight games.
Week 16 at New England Patriots, 47-7 L
What it meant for the Cardinals: The defeat was meaningless in the sense Arizona already had locked up a first-round home playoff game, but the damage to their confidence was potentially ruinous. This was their low point of the season, and the playoffs were starting in two weeks. But it served as a wake-up call.
The Cardinals already had clinched the NFC West, and when they stepped off the bus at Gillette Stadium they saw miserable conditions -- a combination of cold, wind and freezing rain. Mentally, the Cardinals stayed on the bus.
Warner was 6-of-8 for 30 yards before giving way to Matt Leinart. The Cardinals rushed for 44 yards. They had the ball for a measly 21:25.
What it meant for the Patriots: Their fans still point at this game as an example of postseason injustice. The Patriots pulverized a playoff team but had to stay home in January. The Cardinals qualified with a 9-7 record because they won their division, while the Patriots became only the second 11-win team since the NFL-AFL merger not to get in.
Matt Cassel had another sensational game in his first career snow game. He completed 20 of 36 passes for 345 yards and three touchdowns.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
SEATTLE -- Deion Branch is enjoying his personal vindication party against the Patriots, sandwiching two touchdown catches around a 63-yard reception to help Seattle take a 21-13 lead over his former team.
Branch's former coach, Bill Belichick, challenged the ruling on the 63-yard reception, claiming Branch had stepped out of bounds. Referee Carl Cheffers upheld the call. Branch caught a 4-yard scoring pass two plays later.
This is shaping up as a memorable storyline for Branch in an otherwise forgettable season for the Seahawks. The Patriots, at 7-5 before this game, need a victory to stoke their playoff chances. If Branch winds up keeping them out, wow.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
SEATTLE -- Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren stayed on the field during part of halftime to argue his case following a potential Patriots fumble with 1 second remaining.
The Seahawks thought Patriots receiver Jabar Gaffney fumbled on the final play of the half. Officials ruled Gaffney down by contact. Had this been a fumble, Seahawks safety Brian Russell would have recovered somewhere near the New England 45.
I'm not sure if Holmgren was arguing the initial ruling or the fact that the replay official failed to challenge the play, or both. I do know this: Referee Carl Cheffers, reversed seven times in 12 coach-initiated replay challenges this season, has faced zero booth-initiated challenges in the final 2 minutes of halves. Three other referees have faced 10 such challenges this season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
NFL coaches script plays but they generally can't script outcomes. The Seahawks couldn't have come up with a better one against the Patriots.
Backup quarterback Seneca Wallace, playing behind a makeshift line without four opening-day starters, used a strong round game to lead the Seahawks on a 13-yard, 87-yard touchdown drive for a 7-0 lead.
The drive ended with Deion Branch, acquired from New England for a draft choice the Patriots used on safety Brandon Meriweather, beating Meriweather for a 14-yard touchdown reception. Earlier in the drive, Meriweather broke up a pass intended for Branch. He nearly had an interception on the play.
Seattle's offensive line pushed around the Patriots' defensive front during the opening drive, sealing edges on outside runs and creating running lanes up the middle, even when massive nose tackle Vince Wilfork was in the game for New England. Wallace's mobility was also key on the drive. His scrambling made the Patriots pay when New England got pressure. Injured starter Matt Hasselbeck can't offer that to the offense.
That was a shocking first drive for Seattle. The Patriots have much more at stake in this game, but the Seahawks have played with fire on both sides of the ball. Their defense hit Matt Cassel twice on the Patriots' opening drive. We'll see if Seattle can sustain this.
Note: A shoulder injury has forced Wilfork from the game. His return is questionable.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
New England inactives: Warren, receiver Kelley Washington, linebacker Vince Redd, linebacker Pierre Woods, tackle Wesley Britt, guard Billy Yates, tight end David Thomas. Matt Gutierrez is the third quarterback.
With Jones out, Seattle's offensive line looks like this, left to right: Sean Locklear, Floyd Womack, Steve Vallos, Mansfield Wrotto and Ray Willis. The projected starters this season, left to right: Jones, Mike Wahle, Chris Spencer, Rob Sims and Locklear. Mansfield is making his first NFL start. Veteran center Steve McKinney, signed during the week, is active.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The league has handed down numerous fines for players' actions in Week 8 games. Here are a few pertaining to games involving NFC West teams:
- $7,500 against Cardinals defensive lineman Antonio Smith for striking Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme in the knees;
- $5,000 against Cardinals safety Antrel Rolle for grabbing the Panthers' DeAngelo Williams by the facemask;
- $5,000 against 49ers tight end Vernon Davis for grabbing Seahawks safety Brian Russell by the facemask;
- $5,000 against 49ers running back Frank Gore for grabbing Seahawks cornerback Kelly Jennings by the facemask;
- $5,000 against the Patriots' BenJarvus Green-Ellis for striking Rams cornerback Fakhir Brown out of bounds.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
This matchup against the Panthers gives Arizona another chance to break through against a strong opponent on the road, but a defeat shouldn't alter our view of the Cardinals. Even good teams lose road games, particularly against opponents as strong as the Panthers.
It's important for the Cardinals to avoid a repeat of their Week 4 implosion against the Jets at the Meadowlands. Turnovers fueled that East Coast meltdown. Kurt Warner tends to have one game like that every season, but not two. I would expect better from him even though the Cardinals could have problems blocking Julius Peppers.
The Panthers should win this game, but the Cardinals are good enough to pull an upset if they play well. Keep an eye on Warner and pay particular attention to how quickly and decisively he delivers the football.
This is a matchup of weakness on weakness:
- The 49ers' secondary is struggling and injury depleted. The Seahawks' passing game is as bad as it's been under Mike Holmgren.
- The 49ers' offense is bleeding turnovers with J.T. O'Sullivan at quarterback. Seattle has picked off only one pass all season.
Seattle's ability to run the football wasn't enough for the Seahawks when the 49ers won at Qwest Field in Week 2. At some point, the Seahawks need to improve throwing the football. They're worse now in that regard than they were against the 49ers last time. That's why it's tough to envision Seattle scoring enough points to win.
The Patriots have won 12 consecutive regular-season games against NFC teams dating to 2005. Of course, Tom Brady was a big part of that. Brady's absence makes the Patriots potentially vulnerable every week.
The Rams are playing loose and with increasing confidence. Coach Jim Haslett has found ways to break the tension and free up players to perform at their best. I'm just not sure if the Rams' offensive line can hold up well enough to run the ball and protect Marc Bulger.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The facts: The 49ers suffered breakdowns on both sides of the ball during a 30-21 defeat to New England at Candlestick Park in Week 5.
The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
- Quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan provided leadership and competitiveness even though some of his decisions proved costly. A less mobile and less competitive quarterback might have taken multiple sacks given how much the Patriots pressured him.
- Isaac Bruce scored two more touchdowns. He's on pace to finish the season with 45 receptions for 880 yards and 13 touchdowns. No 49ers receiver has caught that many touchdown passes in a season since Terrell Owens finished with 13 in 2002.
- Linebacker Takeo Spikes continued to make important plays on defense. He had 14 tackles and an interception.
- Linebacker Patrick Willis was fun to watch. He finished with 18 tackles and one sack. Fourteen of the tackles were unassisted.
- Justin Smith had another sack. He has three in four games. Smith had two sacks in 16 games for Cincinnati last season.
- Punter Andy Lee had a 46.2-yard net average with a long punt of 82 yards. The 49ers also got substantial returns from Nate Clements (13-yard punt return) and Allen Rossum (34-yard kickoff return).
- Steve Young provided an error-free performance while having his jersey returned, making him the best quarterback on the field, as usual.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
SAN FRANCISCO -- Offensive coordinator Mike Martz has made the San Francisco 49ers' offense exciting again.
Too exciting for its own good, sometimes.
Martz, as creative and dynamic as any offensive coach in the game, won battles without winning the broader war during a 30-21 defeat to the New England Patriots at Candlestick Park in Week 5.
|AP Photo/Jeff Chiu|
|J.T. O'Sullivan threw three touchdown passes Sunday, but the 49ers' quarterback also tossed three costly interceptions.|
The game turned against the 49ers for good after San Francisco emptied the backfield and went with four receivers on a second-and-2 play midway through the third quarter. The high-risk gambit absolved the Patriots from worrying about their No. 1 priority on defense: stopping Frank Gore on the ground.
Safety Rodney Harrison pounced at the rare opportunity, picking off 49ers quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan at the San Francisco 24. The Patriots converted the gift into a touchdown. A tenuous three-point lead became a 10-point cushion, 24-14.
The 49ers hadn't run a play with four wide receivers on the field all game to that point, let alone a play with four receivers and nobody behind O'Sullivan to keep the defense honest.
"I probably tried to squeeze it in there, but that's still a throw I make a lot," O'Sullivan said.
The 49ers ran five offensive plays in the third quarter and none was a called running play. O'Sullivan scrambled twice, completed two passes totaling minus-5 yards, threw incomplete once and offered up the interception.
The Patriots' third-quarter offense featured eight pass attempts, 12 runs, three third-down conversions and more than 12 minutes of possession time. It wasn't pretty -- New England averaged only 2.9 yards per carry in the quarter -- but the result was all that mattered.
The Patriots played keep-away. The 49ers played giveaway.
Also worth noting: