NFC West: Sean Payton

METAIRIE, La. – Nick Toon’s first career fumble was a potential disaster.

The New Orleans Saints started their first offensive drive with great field position this past Monday night, thanks to a turnover. But on their second play, Toon lost a fumble at the Chicago Bears’ 4-yard line when he got popped by a helmet right on the ball.

Not only could it have derailed the Saints’ momentum in the game, but it also could have sabotaged the growing opportunity that Toon has finally received in his third NFL season.

True to form, however, Saints coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees went back to Toon quickly, completing a 10-yard pass to him later in the first quarter. He finished with four catches for 43 yards in New Orleans’ 31-15 victory.

“That’s huge,” Toon said of the Saints sticking with him. “Obviously [the fumble was] unfortunate, but that’s part of the game. And you’ve gotta have a next-play mentality -- watch the film, learn from it and not let it happen again.”

Brees said “no doubt, 100 percent” he has always put an emphasis on going back to guys soon after things such as fumbles or dropped passes to make sure they maintain their confidence – though he stressed that’s not something he worries about with Toon.

Payton agreed – though he didn’t exonerate Toon for his lack of ball security.

“I think he can be carrying it tighter than he was,” Payton said. “[But] I think Nick is someone that will work hard at correcting that and came back and gave us some good snaps the rest of the night.”

Toon has been the biggest beneficiary since Saints rookie Brandin Cooks went down with a season-ending thumb injury last month, as they play a similar position in the base offense.

After being inactive for most of the first 10 games, Toon has 13 catches for 147 yards and a touchdown in the past four games. He matched his career-high with four catches in each of the past two games.

So far, Toon has done a better job of taking advantage of his opportunity than he did last season, when he had two crucial drops in a loss to the New York Jets while getting a chance to play while starter Marques Colston was injured.

Toon, a fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin in 2012, spent his rookie season on injured reserve. He’s had strong performances every year in training camp, which has always earned him a spot on the 53-man roster. But he hasn’t been able to consistently crack the top-four rotation until now.

“We all want to be out there on the field contributing and being a part of what’s going on. It’s great to be out there helping out,” Toon said. “It definitely took a little bit of patience, but that’s just how things panned out. And I’m happy to be out there contributing and hope to keep improving every week and building off what I’ve done so far.”

How Toon performs this season could be critical for his future, especially with Colston’s future uncertain because of a high salary.
METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said he understood why the officials made the pass interference call against tight end Jimmy Graham that wiped away a potential Hail Mary touchdown Sunday -- whether it was definitely a push-off or just the “illusion” of a push-off because Graham’s arms were extended.

But Payton quickly stressed that there were so many other pivotal plays during the Saints’ 27-24 overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers that, “That was like the last thing on my mind when I got in here this morning was to look at that play.”

Graham wasn’t in the locker room Monday to discuss whether his opinion had changed. But he was adamant Sunday night that it wasn’t a push-off and that a flag shouldn’t have been thrown.

"It's interesting how guys grab me everywhere on the field, and I put literally two fingers on somebody and you make that kind of call," said Graham, who added, “That’s why I left basketball, so I could stop being penalized for hitting people.”

Saints cornerback Corey White, however, admitted that he thought it was “clearly pass interference” when asked his opinion from a defensive back’s perspective.

When told of Graham’s comments, White said, “Oh, he’s crazy. It was definitely pass interference. … As much as I like to defend my own teammates, I don’t want to lie either.”

White did acknowledge that cornerback Perrish Cox “did some acting, too. He sold it pretty well." But White said the fact Graham got his hands on Cox and extended his arms made it interference.

Payton was more noncommittal, agreeing that the arm extension is probably what made the officials throw the flag. And Payton said he thinks officials have started to look at contact on those plays more closely in recent years.

“Generally when you get down to those Hail Marys, there’s a lot of little pushing and shoving. And that one, the eyes were drawn specifically there. That one was a little bit clearer -- or the illusion of it was clearer -- for the officials to call,” Payton said. “Whether [Cox] went down on his own, it’s hard to say looking at it. I think the second hand out [with Graham], just the extension, can give that illusion. But they’re calling it tighter and, hey, we’ve gotta be able to adjust.”

Cox told Fox Sports on Sunday night that “it wasn’t a flop at all.”

ESPN’s Kevin Seifert analyzed just how rare such an offensive pass interference call is in those situations. According to ESPN Stats and Info, since the start of the 2001 season, there have been seven offensive pass interference calls in the final 10 seconds of either half when Hail Marys are likely to have occurred.

49ers vs. Saints preview

November, 6, 2014

The New Orleans Saints (4-4) and San Francisco 49ers (4-4) are meeting in the middle.

Both teams are .500, although they've been moving in opposite directions, with New Orleans winning two straight and San Francisco losing two straight en route to their showdown Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But the Saints will hardly take the 49ers lightly, since they've turned into one of their biggest nemeses in recent years.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez discuss this week's matchup:

Triplett: Paul, I was stunned to see the 49ers had given up 14 sacks over the past two weeks. I've always considered that offensive line as their strength. I know you've dissected it quite a bit already this week, but what's the sense going forward? Is that a bit of an anomaly, or is it a genuine weakness as they head into the Superdome?

Gutierrez: Look at it this way: The projected line of LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Daniel Kilgore, RG Alex Boone and RT Anthony Davis got to play together for all of one quarter this season. And now a rookie, Marcus Martin, is at center after Kilgore's season-ending broken left ankle suffered in Denver two games back. This is not an anomaly; this is a problem. Because while they have given up 14 sacks over the past two games, including a career-high eight of Colin Kaepernick to the Rams, the protection issues started well before Games 7 and 8.

Kaepernick has been sacked at least three times in five games. Only Jacksonville has taken at least three sacks more often, with six such games. And Niners quarterbacks have been sacked on 8.6 percent of their dropbacks this season, second only to those same Jaguars. That rate is the Niners' worst since 2008, when it was 9.3 percent. Staley raised eyebrows when he blamed "dumb schemes" along with "dumb blocks" and "dumb techniques" in the locker room following the loss to the Rams.

It seems like the Saints' offense is starting to show some semblance of its former high-powered self. Is this fool's gold, or have Drew Brees & Co. finally gotten their legs under themselves? If so, what's been the kick-starter there?

Triplett: It's legit. In fact, the Saints' offense was playing better than people realized when they started 2-4. They rank first in the NFL in yards per play and offensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Their biggest problem has been turnovers: Brees has thrown eight interceptions, and they've lost a whopping seven fumbles.

Other than that, Brees has been sharp. He leads the NFL in completion percentage, and he has finally started to hit on deep balls over the past three weeks. More importantly, the Saints are as balanced as they've ever been in the Brees-Sean Payton era, with the run game turning into a real strength. Mark Ingram ran for 172 yards two weeks ago against Green Bay and another 100 last week at Carolina. With other diverse weapons such as Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and rookie receiver Brandin Cooks, they're as "pick your poison" as ever. The "kick-starter" has probably been the improved play of the defense, which has been forcing more turnovers and giving the Saints' offense even more opportunities.

How is Kaepernick playing specifically? Last week, the Saints defense was halfway successful against another dual-threat quarterback, Cam Newton. He broke off five long runs -- but he did zip as a passer, which allowed New Orleans to dominate in a 28-10 win.

Gutierrez: Up and down. Down and up. In a word, inconsistent. I would not say he's regressed, per se, but he has not progressed as much as many observers thought he would by now, or as much as the 49ers hoped he would, so to speak. He put on a show on "Monday Night Football" at St. Louis last month, but then seemed out of it against the same team despite the Niners coming out of their bye week.

Early on, it seemed as though the 49ers were trying to make him more of a pure pocket-passer and wanted him to eschew the run, even as that's what made him such a dual-threat quarterback. He can throw a fastball like no other, but he is still showing a lack of touch on certain passes, especially the corner fade to Michael Crabtree. Hey, if he connects with him on that throw, the Niners are probably two-time defending Super Bowl champs.

But as mentioned earlier, it's tough for him to progress when he's on the run so often, if not already on his back. A number of drops by normally sure-handed receivers has hurt, too.

Such is the lot for an NFL quarterback, though -- too much credit when things are going well, too much blame when they're not. I asked him after Sunday's loss how hard it was to do his job when under such duress, and he said, "That's why I'm here, to make plays regardless of the situation. I have to be better back there."

The Saints don't seem to have a particularly fearsome pass rush -- 17 sacks in eight games -- but the Rams had only six coming into last week before sacking Kaepernick eight times. Is New Orleans' pass rush especially dependent on the coverage skills of the secondary, or do the Saints have playmakers who can get to the quarterback without gimmicks or blitzes?

Triplett: The Saints' pass rush has been the most improved aspect of their team over the past month. Twelve of those sacks have come over the past 13 quarters. That's how it was supposed to be, since the strength of New Orleans' defense last year was Pro Bowl end Cameron Jordan, outside linebacker Junior Galette, end Akiem Hicks and their ability to generate pressure with just a four-man rush. They sacked Newton four times last week, including a game-changing sack-fumble by Galette in the second quarter.

Of course, it helps when the coverage is solid, but it was more of the opposite effect in the first month of the year, when the pass rush was giving quarterbacks too much time to pick apart a shaky secondary. The Saints have one outstanding corner in Keenan Lewis, while the other corners have steadily improved after a rough start.

What about the 49ers' defense? Their sack totals are down as well (only 13 all season). Has the defense overall taken a step back this year?

Gutierrez: If we're talking Q rating, then yes, the 49ers' defense is down. The unit is missing nose tackle Glenn Dorsey and three All-Pro linebackers in Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, whose suspension still has one game to go. As a result, the defense has not been as fearsome as in years past. But it has not been a dog, either. In fact, it's been more than admirable. The defense has not been the problem this season; the blame rests mainly with the offense. So even when the defense gets its three star linebackers back in the fold and another former starter on the line, that's not really going to help the offense.

Still, the thought of Smith and rookie Aaron Lynch, who could supplant Ahmad Brooks as a nickel rusher, teaming up could cause headaches for offensive coordinators. Maybe, just maybe, a fresh defense could be just what a conflicted Niners offense needs at this juncture.

Tough question, I know, but is the organization finally over the stigma of Bountygate, or is it a cross it loves to bear, so to speak, by using that whole "us against the world" mentality?

Triplett: That really feels like an afterthought, to be honest. I'm sure it will always exist on some level, but it's not the motivational tool that drives this team on a weekly basis anymore. Especially not this year, when the message after their 2-4 start was that they can't rely on any of their past successes, either.

In general, though, Payton's "maverick" mentality as a fiery motivator and aggressive offensive schemer will always shape this team's personality. So they will always be a team that plays with that edge, for a number of reasons.


SEATTLE -- Six weeks ago, the New Orleans Saints came to Seattle in a big Monday night showdown with the Seahawks to see which team would gain the upper hand in homefield advantage for the playoffs.

The Seahawks steamrolled past the Saints 34-7 that night. So here the Saints are again, back in Seattle with hopes of a different outcome in the playoffs. Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount take a detailed look at how these two teams match up for Saturday's NFC divisional round game at CenturyLink Field:

Blount: Mike, the Saints took it on the chin at Seattle six weeks ago. How much of a motivational factor do you think that is this week for the team?

Triplett: I'd say this game is about as big as it gets in the motivation department. That was really one of the two or three most humbling defeats in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. I might rank it No. 1 considering how high the expectations were going into that game. But more important than those emotions is the fact that this is the second round of the playoffs -- which is pretty good motivation for any team. The Saints haven't advanced past this point since their 2009 Super Bowl season. And a big win here would instantly erase all the little regrets from earlier this season.

I'll also say this: The Saints are a very confident bunch. I think they expected to get back in this situation at some point, and they relish the opportunity. They certainly respect the Seahawks, but I think they're fully expecting a much more competitive game. As am I.

On the flip side, Terry, do you see a repeat performance coming from the Seahawks? They were pretty lights-out that night, especially Russell Wilson.

Blount: I certainly don't see a repeat performance if you mean a 27-point Seattle victory. It's hard to beat any team twice in the same season, much less two blowouts. But I do see Wilson having another strong performance. He's coming off a good game in the season finale against St. Louis and he typically plays at a much higher level at home. Obviously, having Percy Harvin on the field would help, but Wilson is battle-tested with two tough playoff games last year when he really showed a lot of people what he can do.

Mike, Wilson had one of his best games of the season against the Saints with three TD passes and 310 yards passing. He burned the Saints a couple times on their blitzes. Do you think they will have a different approach this time?

Triplett: They'll definitely tweak the approach. But I think the execution is even more important. That night, it was pretty obvious that the Saints' top priority was containing Marshawn Lynch -- which they did a good job of. But they got burned too often by play-action fakes (big pass plays and big runs by Wilson). I've never seen them have so many undisciplined breakdowns, before or since. They've been much better playing in similar-style games against the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles since. They were outstanding against both LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson last week.

The Saints defense is much better than what people saw that night -- though they did lose talented safety Kenny Vaccaro to a season-ending ankle injury since then, which hurts against both the pass and run.

A two-part question for you: When defenses have had success against Seattle's offense this year, what have they done to cause problems? And how much do you think the Saints will have to worry about Harvin in this game?

Blount: In the late-season losses to the 49ers and the Cardinals, both teams did a great job of keeping Wilson in the pocket. If Wilson was going to run, they wanted to make him run up the middle, and it worked. They didn't blitz a lot, but they made sure to cut off Wilson's outside angles. Both teams also stacked the box and did a good job of stopping Lynch and limited the running game.

If Harvin is on the field, that changes a lot of things. Seattle free safety Earl Thomas told me last week that if he had to play against Harvin, he would need to account for him on every play because of Harvin's exceptional speed. So if Harvin's out there, even if he isn't 100 percent healthy, he changes the way a defense plays. You have to pick your poison. Load the box to stop Lynch and you risk Harvin beating someone one-on-one. Pay more attention to Harvin and Lynch might break a big run. Either way, it makes things better for Wilson.

Mike, I thought a big factor in the victory at Philadelphia was New Orleans' success at running the ball with Mark Ingram. How confident are you they can repeat that performance against the Seahawks?

Triplett: The Saints are still a pass-first, pass-often team. But I think they've been even better this year than usual at staying patient and "taking what the defense gives them." Last week, the Eagles were practically begging the Saints to run the ball, so they did. They'll still take their shots down the field, but they're smart enough to attack the matchups they find most favorable in any given game. It's also a pick-your-poison offense with so many versatile weapons like Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Kenny Stills and a deep group of running backs.

Graham, however, said Seattle's defense causes a lot of problems because the defensive backs and linebackers are all so fast (not to mention physical). Are there any weaknesses the Saints might be able to exploit?

Blount: Honestly Mike, I just don't see it. The front seven held the Rams to 13 yards rushing in the season finale. The secondary is the best I've seen in 30 years. However, one man who had a big impact in the Monday night game six weeks ago was linebacker K.J. Wright, who did a superb job covering Saints tight Graham.

Wright is out for this game after undergoing foot surgery. Malcolm Smith has played lights out in his place, but Smith is only 6 feet tall. I can't see him covering the 6-7 Graham the way Wright (a lanky 6-4) was able to do. Strong safety Kam Chancellor likely will get those duties, but Graham might make some big plays he didn't make in the first meeting.

Payton/CarrollGetty ImagesSean Payton and Pete Carroll say their teams do not struggle on the road.
The road to the Super Bowl could run through Seattle or New Orleans. It's no secret that both the Seattle Seahawks and the New Orleans Saints have an edge when playing at home. Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break down what winning Monday night's matchup might mean for each team.

Seattle Seahawks, CenturyLink Field:

Considering that the Seahawks have an NFL best 13-game home winning streak, which also is a franchise record, home-field advantage in the playoffs couldn't be more important for Seattle.

At least that's how most people perceive it. But the Seahawks' reputation as a bad road team is ancient history. Well, maybe not ancient, but it hasn't been true since December.

Seattle is 8-2 on the road since a 23-17 victory at the Chicago Bears on Dec. 2, 2012. That includes a 24-14 playoff win at the Washington Redskins.

The Seahawks are 5-1 away from home this season, which already has tied a franchise record. A victory in either of the last two road games -- at the San Francisco 49ers on Dec. 8 or the New York Giants one week later -- would produce the most road wins in a season in team history.

“I think that’s a big accomplishment,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of the team’s 5-1 road record. “We were 2-3 on the road last year at this time. I think that’s a big improvement on a football team. I can totally feel it and see it in the way we approach it, the way we show up on game day and in the way we have played.

“It’s been a much more consistent mentality, and it’s given us a chance to win the games that have been very hard. We get stronger, we get smarter, and we have more resolve, I think, as we move forward.”

The only two road losses since December were a playoff game at the Atlanta Falcons, a 30-28 defeat on a Falcons field goal with 23 seconds to play, and a 34-28 defeat at the Indianapolis Colts this season when Seattle led 28-23 in the fourth quarter before Colts quarterback Andrew Luck engineered a late comeback.

The Seahawks have outscored their opponents 259-180 in those 10 road games. And there’s one other key point to bring up here. The road curse for the Seahawks over the years was games that started at 10 a.m. PT. Entering this season, Seattle was 19-34 in those games since 2001.

But the Seahawks are 3-1 in those games this season. Clearly, this is a different Seattle team on the road than the ones of the past. So having to play a playoff game on the road isn't a guaranteed season-ender that some people might think.

If the road to the Super Bowl goes through New Orleans, the Seahawks lost the last time they played there -- 34-19 in 2010.

Everyone knows the Saints are tough to beat at home, but no team has a home-field advantage like the Seahawks, something the Saints may find out the hard way Monday night. During the 13-game home winning streak, Seattle has outscored its opponents by an average of 30-13.

The Seahawks can win anywhere, but for this team, there’s no place like home.

-- Terry Blount

New Orleans Saints, Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

Saints coach Sean Payton bristles at the notion that his team struggles away from home.

"I think it's a typical stereotype with a dome team," said Payton, who knows the topic will come up often this week as the Saints prepare for a Monday night road game in chilly weather against the Seahawks. "Someone needs to do a little research on it so that we don't spend time answering dumb questions."

The research shows that Payton is partly right. The Saints actually have the best regular-season road record in the NFL since 2009, at 24-13.

But they're 0-3 on the road in the playoffs in the Payton-Drew Brees era. And they're 5-7 overall in outdoor games in December and January when their starters have played.

The Saints aren't a bad road team. They're just a lot more human.

Meanwhile, it's obvious that the Saints are an entirely different monster inside the Superdome, where they routinely rout opponents -- especially in prime-time games. The Saints have won 12 straight home night games, including the playoffs, by an average score of nearly 20 points per game.

Thanks to the volume and the passion of the Saints' rabid fan base, it might be the best home-field advantage going in the NFL today -- unless that honor belongs to Seattle. Which makes this race for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs doubly important for these two teams.

One of the Saints' three playoff losses infamously took place in Seattle three years ago, when the Seahawks sneaked into the postseason with a 7-9 record. The Saints weren't really done in by the weather or the crowd noise. Brees still threw for more than 400 yards. But New Orleans' defense broke down too many times in a 41-36 loss.

The Saints' other road playoff losses came at Chicago after the 2006 season and at San Francisco after the '11 season. The 49ers game was the same story as the Seattle game. The Saints still put up some monster numbers on offense, but they couldn't overcome early turnovers and late defensive breakdowns in a 36-32 loss.

The regular-season outdoor games have been a mixed bag: Since 2009, wins at Washington in '09, Cincinnati in '10 and Tennessee in '11; losses at Baltimore in '10 and at the New York Giants in '12.

Weather doesn't automatically shut down the Saints' precision passing attack. But clearly wind and rain can cause problems. (Some games at Tampa Bay come to mind, including a narrow 16-14 win earlier this year.) Especially frigid temperatures can also affect receivers' hands.

And although the Saints have been running the ball a lot more consistently over the past month, Seattle has been the better rushing team of the two this season.

I certainly think the Saints are capable of winning at Seattle -- either next week or in January, if needed. And I believe the confidence of guys like Payton and Brees, who insisted earlier this month, "It's not like we dread going on the road. Not one bit."

But it's pretty obvious why the degree of difficulty will skyrocket for either road team in this matchup.

-- Mike Triplett
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Whether San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid plays Sunday is out of his hands.

But there is no doubt Reid is looking forward to play at New Orleans. The LSU product calls playing against the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome “his dream.”

Reid will have to pass the NFL’s concussion test before playing though. He suffered his second concussion of the season against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. The rookie was symptom free Wednesday and practiced on a limited basis. It will crush Reid if he can’t play.

“This is my dream,” said the Baton Rouge native. “This is what I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”

Reid said his parents took him to a Saints game as a child and he followed the team growing up.

There was a chance Reid could have ended up in New Orleans. But the Saints took fellow safety Kenny Vaccaro -- the Texas product was the first safety taken -- with the No. 15 pick. Three picks later, the 49ers moved up 13 spots to draft Reid.

Reid admitted “he held his breath” when the Saints were on the clock, but said he is thrilled to be a 49er. New Orleans coach Sean Paton said the team considered Reid, who has been outstanding as a rookie.

“He’s been very impressive,” Payton said Wednesday. “You can see him getting better each week. I think he’s found his role within that defense and played it very, very well.”

Reid just hopes he gets to show Payton what he can do in person.
Andrew Luck, Russell WilsonGetty ImagesAndrew Luck and Russell Wilson, two of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL, face off in Week 5.
Two of the NFL's best young quarterbacks -- Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson -- will be center stage when the Indianapolis Colts (3-1) take on the Seattle Seahawks (4-0) in the most anticipated game of the weekend. The résumé for both players already includes the ability to pull off fourth-quarter comebacks.

But this game will likely come down to which defense can continue its strong play. The Seahawks are holding opponents to fewer than 12 points and have seven interceptions. The Colts aren't too far off. Their defensive unit is giving up fewer than 13 points a game, including a combined 10 points in the past two games.

Colts reporter Mike Wells and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount take a look at the Week 5 matchup.

Blount: Mike, I doubt anyone has to tell Luck how good Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is since they were teammates at Stanford. Whenever anyone has challenged Sherman, he's made them pay, like the pick-six that tied the game last week in the fourth quarter against Houston. Can Luck get the best of him or will he try to stay away from Sherman most of the game?

Wells: Luck will go at Sherman, especially if he’s matched up against Reggie Wayne. Wayne, a future Hall of Famer, enjoys going up against the top cornerbacks in the league. You can expect offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton to move Wayne around the field. He’ll line up out wide and in the slot, making sure Sherman has to work to try to slow him down. Wilson is averaging nearly 20 yards fewer a game through the air this season. Not that it’s a bad thing because the Seahawks are 4-0 and second in this week’s Power Rankings, but is there a reason behind the drop in yards?

Blount: Mike, the biggest reason is an offensive line that has played poorly in all four games, even when all the starters were healthy. It's truly amazing Wilson has found a way to get the job done and lead the team on crucial scoring drives when he's under constant pressure. His elusiveness in the pocket and ability to extend plays, then make a key throw on the run, or keep it for big yards, is remarkable. Mike, Luck and Wilson are obviously two of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL, but each is different physically, and different in how they play the position. In your opinion, what does Luck do better than Wilson?

Wells: Luck doesn't have any flaws. You want him to tuck the ball and run? He’ll take off like he’s a running back. You want him to throw an out pattern or a bomb downfield? He’s proven he can do that, too. And he’s already shown he knows how to win when he led the Colts to an 11-5 record and the playoffs last season. The biggest difference between Luck and Wilson is their size, and that Luck isn't a read-option quarterback. Terry, What is it about Pete Carroll that makes him a good coach? His transition from the college game to the NFL has gone pretty smoothly.

Blount: Mike, it's his positive reinforcement that resonates with his players. Carroll is not an old-school guy who yells at his players. That's not how he operates. He corrects players, but never publicly humiliates them in front of others. And he doesn't scream at them when they make a mistake. He makes it a teaching moment, as do all his assistants. Carroll is consistently upbeat, regardless of the situation. Consequently, these players would run through a brick wall for him. Speaking of running, Trent Richardson now has a couple of games under his belt in a Colts uniform. How much do you see him contributing and can he make a difference for Indianapolis?

Wells: Richardson and Luck are the future of the Colts. It’s not often that a team gets two of the top three picks from the same draft. But Richardson’s transition from Cleveland has gotten off to a slow start. He had 20 carries against Jacksonville last week, but he only managed to rush for 60 yards. Everybody’s waiting for Richardson to have that long run where he bulldozes over a couple of defenders and then uses his speed to outrun everybody else. He’ll continue to get better as the season progresses. Speaking of running backs, the Colts talk about Wilson being deadly with his feet, but shouldn't they be more worried about running back Marshawn Lynch?

Blount: That's sort of the point that makes it all work. As soon as Wilson has the defense keying on Lynch, he will bootleg off a fake handoff to Lynch and get free for a 20-yard gain on a scramble, or complete a 30-yard pass downfield to an open receiver. But you're right, everything the Seahawks do on offense revolves around getting Lynch going in the power running game. Mike, the issue for the Seahawks is their patchwork offensive line. Down three starters last weekend, it was a hot mess against the Texans' defense, allowing five sacks and never giving Wilson a chance to catch his breath. Seattle may get center Max Unger back Sunday, but still will start backups in both tackle spots. Do you see the Colts taking advantage of the situation?

Wells: Expect the Colts to be in attack mode with linebacker Robert Mathis leading the way. Mathis, who has 7.5 sacks this season, is one sack away from getting the 100th of his career. The Colts have 13 sacks as a team. They’re prepared to face a quarterback such as Wilson after already going against Oakland’s Terrelle Pryor and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick this season. The Seahawks are obviously undefeated on the road this year, but they struggled away from home last season. Why are they a completely different team away from home?

Blount: I think that's starting to become a bit of a misnomer. The Seahawks now have won five of their past six roads games, dating back to the end of last season and the playoffs. The only one they lost came on a field goal at the end of the Atlanta playoff game. Historically, they have struggled in games that start at 10 a.m. PT, but they are 2-0 in those games this year and have a chance to go 3-0 on Sunday. However, it's true that CenturyLink is a huge home-field advantage, so playing well enough on the road to earn home field in the playoffs is important to the players. I'm sure the Colts have a similar goal, Mike. I know it was emotional for the Colts last December when coach Chuck Pagano returned. How much has it meant this season to have him back healthy again and running the show there?

Wells: The Colts played last season for Pagano. Now he’s leading the way for them. Pagano is a very upbeat coach. We’re talking about a person who purchased mousetraps and had them placed in the players' lockers as a reminder for them to avoid falling into the trap against the Jaguars. There aren't many NFL coaches who would do that. Sounds like that's something Carroll would do, too. It appears to be to a two-team race in the NFC between the Seahawks and New Orleans. Who do you give the edge to in the conference?

Blount: What a difference it is for the Saints to have Sean Payton back as head coach. And Rob Ryan really has helped the defense. But I have to go with Seattle over New Orleans because the Seahawks' defense is miles ahead of the Saints'. It's an interesting matchup because Wilson idolizes Drew Brees and they've become friends. And the Saints play at Seattle in a Monday night game on Dec. 2.

Carson Palmer, Drew BreesGetty ImagesBig arms will be on display Sunday in the Big Easy, as Carson Palmer faces off with Drew Brees.

Both the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints are riding the winning wave into Sunday’s showdown in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

And both teams are starting fresh on the sidelines. The Saints welcomed back coach Sean Payton from a one-year suspension; the Cardinals are adjusting to life with first-year coach Bruce Arians. One thing both these men have in common is a love of yards.

This will be a matchup of the long ball, as quarterbacks Drew Brees and Carson Palmer like putting up big numbers with a deep passing game. Which team will continue its winning ways?

Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break down Sunday’s matchup.

Josh Weinfuss: How much has Payton’s return to the Saints been felt so far this season?

Mike Triplett: Payton made a ton of changes in the offseason, from a dramatic overhaul of the defense to the team’s conditioning program to the run-blocking schemes. But so far during the Saints’ 2-0 start, I think the No. 1 area where his return has made an impact is in the team’s confidence. They’ve pulled out two gutty victories -- one which required a last-minute goal-line stand against the Atlanta Falcons and one which required an improbable game-winning field goal drive in the final seconds at Tampa Bay.

Neither performance was perfect, but the Saints were incredibly resilient in both games. Last season, they became unsure of themselves -- especially as the losses started to pile up during their 0-4 start -- something rarely evident in previous years. Now, you can see they’ve got some of that classic “swagger” back.

Of course, the Saints have a huge advantage in the confidence department because they’ve got a Hall of Fame quarterback in Brees leading the way. ... Have the Cardinals started to develop some new confidence of their own in their new signal-caller, Palmer?

Josh Weinfuss: They have, and it’s obvious. For the past few seasons, the Cardinals haven’t had consistency under center, and it’s showed with significant losing streaks. With the addition of Palmer, who’s not just an accomplished quarterback but a talented one at that, the Cardinals' offense feels it can make the plays it hasn't made in years. There have been a few examples already, such as a fade to Larry Fitzgerald for a touchdown in Week 1 or a 36-yard wheel route to Andre Ellington last Sunday. The receivers know they only have to worry about getting to where they’re supposed to be and Palmer will find them -- about a 180-degree change from last season, when Cardinals receivers would hope the ball would be close enough for them to make a play. And that confidence on offense carries over to the defense. Last year, the defense believed it had to score for the team to win. This year, it feels like all it has to do is get the ball back to the offense to win a game.

While we're talking defense, what kind of major changes did Rob Ryan make when he was hired as defensive coordinator, and how are the Saints responding?

Mike Triplett: Ryan has changed the defense significantly in everything from scheme to attitude. For starters, he’s a 3-4 guy, while Steve Spagnuolo was a 4-3 guy. But Ryan doesn’t really stick to one scheme or alignment -- and he’s had to get especially creative, because the Saints had so many injuries on the defensive line and at outside linebacker this summer. He’ll often use three or four safeties on the field together, moving them around from snap to snap. Sometimes he’ll have four down linemen. Sometimes he’ll have no down linemen, with all 11 guys standing up in an “amoeba” formation.

Ryan is very reminiscent of former New Orleans coordinator Gregg Williams in that sense. And the Saints players have clearly responded well to that approach under both coordinators. What they like best is they feel like Ryan tries to put them in positions and matchups that play to their strengths. And, sure, this much variety can lead to mental errors (a criticism that has dogged Ryan in past stops) -- but the players at least feel they’re being aggressive and attacking rather than sitting back in read-and-react mode. As I said, that seems to have brought out their confidence and their fire so far this season.

Speaking of a little “fire” on defense, what kind of early impact has New Orleans native Tyrann Mathieu made in Arizona? The Cardinals have done a pretty good job of plucking defensive players from down here at LSU.

Josh Weinfuss: Mathieu has been a pleasant surprise for everybody except the Cardinals. They expected him to come in and play at the very high level -- which is why they took the risk of drafting him in the third round in April while every other team all but ignored his presence. Palmer has compared Mathieu's closing speed to Troy Polamalu’s; Mathieu's football IQ draws locker-room raves. And his presence on the field is that of a veteran, not of a rookie ... and definitely not of someone who missed a full year of football. Mathieu made the jump to the second team early in organized team activities and minicamp, and he was a starter in the Cards’ nickel package by training camp. He’s proven himself in coverage, making the game-ending tackle against Detroit’s Nate Burleson last Sunday. And Mathieu has lived up to the Honey Badger persona, which he’s gracefully re-adopted this year. He tried to distance himself from it, but neither the fans nor his play allowed for that. That includes the play of the game in Week 1, when Mathieu tracked down Rams tight end Jared Cook to punch the ball out of his hands and prevent a touchdown. Big plays is what this kid does.

How long can Brees maintain his own high level of play, and are the Saints a legitimate 2-0 team?

Mike Triplett: I think Brees, at 34, is still very much in his prime, and I don’t really see him slowing down anytime soon. He had an uncharacteristically sluggish performance at Tampa Bay but rallied to lead a brilliant last-minute field goal drive. He’s the No. 1 reason the Saints always have a chance to win. And if the Saints can improve the defense and run game around him this season, I think he’ll be back in more of a comfort zone and not feel like he has to do everything himself as he did last season (5,177 passing yards, 43 touchdown passes, 19 interceptions).

As for the Saints overall, they’re very legitimate. They were obviously lucky to beat Tampa Bay after a sloppy offensive performance. But for the second week in a row, the improved D bailed them out. And we know the offense will get rolling sooner or later, making New Orleans a very dangerous team. The Saints need to fix their run game and their red zone offense. But we’ve already seen great flashes from go-to playmakers like Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston.

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be a tough environment for the Cardinals to come into on Sunday. Will they at least have their best weapon, Fitzgerald, at their disposal?

Josh Weinfuss: Short answer? Yes. But there’s a caveat. I think Fitzgerald will definitely play, but the question is how effective he will be. He's likely looking at a limited week in practice to ensure he doesn't re-aggravate that balky left hamstring, but the chances of Fitzgerald missing this game are slim. As he said last week, if he can’t be effective as a receiver, he can at least be a decoy. The Saints will have to plan for him, because the second they don’t pay attention to Fitzgerald, hurt or healthy, he’ll make sure he makes them pay.

NFL Power Rankings: How they voted

April, 30, 2013
Teams have added 254 players in the draft since ESPN's NFL Power Rankings last appeared six weeks ago. We've seen Carson Palmer join the Arizona Cardinals and Darrelle Revis join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, among other changes involving veteran players.

Our voters mostly shrugged when asked to update their ballots.

No team moved more than three spots higher (Cardinals) or three spots lower (Cleveland Browns) in the rankings when John Clayton, Dan Graziano, Jamison Hensley and Ashley Fox joined me in casting ballots.

Teams made larger moves up and down individual ballots.

Clayton and I moved up the Cardinals at least seven spots to reflect the change from Ryan Lindley and John Skelton to Palmer, plus continued improvements to the offensive line. The Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets fell several spots on some ballots.

Overall, however, there wasn't a great deal of movement. We did have our disagreements. None stood out more to me than a couple involving Graziano, our blogging brother from the NFC East. He had the Saints significantly lower and the Vikings significantly higher than our other voters ranked those teams.

Dan isn't exactly buying playoff tickets in New Orleans simply because Sean Payton is returning to the Saints' sideline.

"The Saints gave up the most yards in league history in 2012," he explained. "I just think it's a much longer way back for that defense than people give it credit for. Not sure how Payton's return turns them from one of the worst defenses in the history of the sport into a playoff-caliber one in one offseason."

Fair enough. But what about that No. 8 ranking for the Christian Ponder-led Vikings? Everyone else ranked them 17th.

"I don't understand the rush to drop a 2012 playoff team that replaced Percy Harvin with Greg Jennings and just crushed the draft," Graziano said. "Why won't they be good again?"

Harvin would be the more dynamic receiver of the two, in my view. The Vikings arguably gave up too much for the 29th pick in the draft, acquired from New England. And it's debatable, at least in my mind, whether Adrian Peterson can carry the team every week the way he did down the stretch last season.

All things to discuss as the offseason continues. First, we take a closer look at the rankings with May fast approaching:

Falling (10): Cleveland Browns (-3), Buffalo Bills (-2), Chicago Bears (-2), Dallas Cowboys (-2), Detroit Lions (-2), New Orleans Saints (-2), Carolina Panthers (-1), Indianapolis Colts (-1), New England Patriots (-1), New York Jets (-1).

Rising (11): Arizona Cardinals (+3), Kansas City Chiefs (+2), New York Giants (+2), Tampa Bay Bucs (+2), Washington Redskins (+2), Cincinnati Bengals (+1), Green Bay Packers (+1), Jacksonville Jaguars (+1), Miami Dolphins (+1), Oakland Raiders (+1), Philadelphia Eagles (+1).

Unchanged (11): Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, Minnesota Vikings, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans.

Deadlocked: We broke one tie. The Bears prevailed over the Saints at No. 13 based on previous ranking.

Like minds: One spot separated the highest and lowest votes for the Texans. Two votes separated highest and lowest votes for the Seahawks, 49ers, Packers, Patriots, Titans, Browns and Jets.

Agree to disagree: Ten spots separated highest and lowest votes for the Saints, the largest gap for any team. At least seven spots separated highest and lowest votes for five other teams. A look at the teams generating the largest high-low disparities:
  • Saints (10): Fox ranked the Saints 10th, higher than any other voter ranked them. Graziano ranked them 20th, lower than any other voter ranked them.
  • Cardinals (9): Sando and Clayton 20th, Fox 29th.
  • Vikings (9): Graziano eighth, every other voter 17th.
  • Steelers (8): Clayton 10th, Fox 18th.
  • Panthers (7): Hensley 18th, Clayton 25th.
  • Cowboys 7: Graziano 17th, Hensley 24th.
Power Rankings histories: These colorful layered graphs show where each NFL team has ranked every week since the 2002 season.

Ranking the divisions: The NFC West remained the highest-ranked division with an 11.0 average ranking for its teams, up from 12.3 last time. Teams from the NFC North were second at 14.2, followed by the NFC South (14.6), AFC North (15.3), NFC East (17.8), AFC South (18.7), AFC West (19.4) and AFC East (21.3).

A voter-by-voter look at changes of at least five spots since last season:
  • Sando: Panthers (-6), Cowboys (-6), Browns (-6), Cardinals (+8).
  • Clayton: Browns (-6), Cowboys (-6), Chiefs (+5), Cardinals (+7).
  • Graziano: Bills (-9), Panthers (-6), Jets (-6), Eagles (+6), Chiefs (+8).
  • Hensley: Vikings (+5), Ravens (+6).
  • Fox: Jets (-5).

Gregg Williams and beyond: Week 4 notes

September, 30, 2012
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Good morning from University of Phoenix Stadium. I've settled in to watch the early games involving NFC West teams.

A few thoughts on developments Sunday morning:
  • Gregg Williams in the house: Gregg Williams' indefinite banishment from the NFL continues, but the St. Louis Rams' would-be defensive coordinator can attend games as a fan, ESPN's Adam Schefter reports. Might this be an early step toward reinstatement for Williams? Not necessarily. Schefter notes that the NFL banned Williams from the game, making him unemployable until further notice. He says Williams is out of the league, whereas New Orleans' Sean Payton is merely suspended. That makes Williams banned, not suspended. Interesting distinction.
  • RB Steven Jackson active: The Rams will have Jackson against Seattle despite a groin injury. The team has named rookie second-round choice Isaiah Pead inactive behind Jackson, however. Daryl Richardson, another rookie, remains ahead of Pead. But now Pead has fallen behind even Terrance Ganaway, a rookie sixth-round choice of the New York Jets. The graduation schedule at the University of Cincinnati, where Pead attended, prevented the rookie from joining his teammates until June 7, later than most rookies. Did that set him back?
  • Quick's opportunity: Rams rookie second-round receiver Brian Quick is active against the Seahawks. Veteran receiver Steve Smith is not. Perhaps the Rams wanted Quick's size against Seattle's big, aggressive cornerbacks.
  • 49ers will have Ginn: Return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. is active for the San Francisco 49ers against the New York Jets. Running back Brandon Jacobs remains at least another week away from returning. Rookie first-round pick A.J. Jenkins is inactive. He hasn't been a factor to this point in the season. That isn't a big surprise given improved depth at the position and the 49ers' frequent reliance on personnel grouping with two tight ends and/or two running backs.
  • Sopoaga out, as expected: The 49ers' base defense took a hit with news that nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga will miss the Jets game with a knee injury. Ricky Jean-Francois will get more snaps. The 49ers' base defense figures to see more snaps for a second week in a row after the team opened against Green Bay and Detroit, teams San Francisco defended primarily with its sub packages.
  • Sweezy in the lineup: Right guard John Moffitt is inactive for Seattle, as expected. Rookie J.R. Sweezy gets the start, but the team does have options at guard. James Carpenter is active for the first time since suffering a knee injury last season. He projects at left guard eventually and figures to get work in that spot against the Rams. That could avail Paul McQuistan, the current left guard, to play right guard if needed.

HOF12: Payton's ties go beyond Roaf

August, 4, 2012
CANTON, Ohio -- The NFL has allowed suspended New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton to attend the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement now under way.

I saw Payton and his son at the Gold Jacket Dinner on Friday night. They sat briefly at the table next to ours, but Payton did not stay long. He was seen back at the McKinley Grand Hotel while the dinner proceedings were ongoing. The NFL obviously wants Payton to keep a low profile during his bounty-related absence.

Payton's connections to the program extend beyond the enshrinement of former New Orleans (and Kansas City) tackle Willie Roaf.

Another enshrinee, Cortez Kennedy, has worked for the Saints in an advisory role. Kennedy remains particularly close to Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, who was a Seattle Seahawks executive when Kennedy played for that team. Kennedy won a Super Bowl ring with the Saints. He has two NFL families, in other words, and Payton leads one of them when he's not suspended.
The New Orleans Saints' Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis and Joe Vitt won the potential for financial relief after appealing their bounty-related punishments to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The bulk of their appeals failed, however, affirming Gregg Williams' strategy as the right one for his situation.

Williams, now with the St. Louis Rams, decided against appealing, and for good reason:
  • The contrition factor: Williams was the brashest and most flagrant violator of NFL rules. His eventual reinstatement depends upon the sincerity of his contrition. Appealing the commissioner's decision would have sent the wrong message on that front.
  • Suspension length: The league handed down well-defined suspensions to Payton, Loomis and Vitt. Williams was suspended indefinitely. It would be tougher to appeal "indefinitely" than to appeal a set amount of games. The commissioner had already said he would review Williams' case following the 2012 season. Shortening that time frame would have been unrealistic. If and when Williams does return, he'll do so most effectively between seasons.

The best strategy for Williams will be to keep a low profile in the short term, cooperate fully with any future investigations and, eventually, to publicly explain the error of his ways.

Williams, though widely scorned at this point, will have opportunities to redefine himself through outreach programs and charitable works. Sports figures routinely draw from their own mistakes in advising others to take different paths.

This will be a tough transition for Williams, with no guarantees for success. His decision against appealing marked a small step in the right direction.
The NFL took a break from dominating the sports news cycle over the weekend.

The silence will not last long.

Bounty-related punishments for current and former New Orleans Saints players await. The NFL will address recent bounty-related appeals from Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis. Teams will continue filling out their rosters with second-tier free agents. The league will also release its 2012 regular-season schedule in the next week or so.

In the meantime, we take a quick look around the division on a Monday morning.

Peter Delevett of the San Jose Mercury News says San Francisco 49ers players spent part of their weekend participating in the search for missing Bay Area teenager Sierra LaMar. Delevett: "The search effort is being aided by thousands of volunteers; by the families of other Bay Area youngsters who have been kidnapped and killed, including those of Polly Klaas and Xiana Fairchild; and by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. On Saturday, Smith and teammates Joe Staley, Delanie Walker and Scott Tolzien were among about 500 people combing southern Santa Clara County for signs of Sierra. The NFL stars made it clear they did not welcome the media attention, but Sierra's sister, Danielle, was grateful for the celebrity support. 'When those kinds of people get involved, it gives us a whole new audience,' she said."

Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times checks in with former Seattle Seahawks players Joe Tafoya and Kerry Carter, who have joined forces with other former teammates to operate a mobile apps company. Kelley: "Two years ago, Tafoya, now 33 and a computer-science major from Arizona, bought an 11-year-old Redmond mobile apps distributor. Now he's joined forces with like-minded former Seahawks Carter, Chike Okeafor and Omare Lowe to form Jump It Media. ... They're building profile applications for athletes to help them increase their brands through online channels. Among their subjects are Chicago Bears defensive end Lance Briggs and Dallas Mavericks guard Jason Terry."

Brock Huard and Mike Salk of 710ESPN Seattle discuss whether the Seahawks would be wise to move back from the 12th overall spot in the 2012 draft.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic reports on the wine company Cardinals guard Daryn Colledge founded with two former teammates. The label -- "Three Fat Guys" -- reflects their good humor and significant girth as offensive linemen. Somers: "It started small in 2008 and has stayed that way. The initial objective was to produce enough wine to stock the three fat guys' homes and for them to give away as presents. Only 126 or so cases are produced each year, so it's more than a novelty but less than a full-time business. ... Their greatest fear now is not that the operation will go under, but that it will grow too fast and consume too much time. The players see the humor in that, because they weren't long out of college when the idea of becoming winemakers was hatched."

Darren Urban of offers thoughts on Deuce Lutui's departure from the Cardinals to the Seahawks as an unrestricted free agent. Urban: "The door hadn’t been closed on Lutui in Arizona, but I didn’t see him starting again here. He may not in Seattle, but he reunites with his college coach, Pete Carroll, and the Cards will get a chance to see him again."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Trevor Laws, a free agent from the Philadelphia Eagles, visited the St. Louis Rams recently. Thomas: "A second-round pick out of Notre Dame in 2008, Laws has been a rotation player for the Eagles, used specifically as an interior pass rusher in the nickel package. He has started only twice in 56 regular-season games, but registered a career-high 40 tackles last season, including a sack and 16 quarterback pressures. He had four sacks in 2010. Laws, 6-1, 304, is at least the fifth free agent to visit Rams Park this week, joining quarterback Dennis Dixon (Pittsburgh), defensive end William Hayes (Tennessee), and wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery (Pittsburgh) and Jerome Simpson (Cincinnati). All told, the Rams have had nearly two dozen free agents in for visits, signing eight to contracts."
Gregg Williams isn't getting much sympathy these days.

That isn't going to change following the release of an audio tape featuring the former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator imploring his players to injure specific San Francisco 49ers -- with cash from Williams as the reward in at least one instance.

Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provides balance to the criticism by challenging the Saints' suggestion that Williams, now defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams, acted as a "rogue" coach during his days with New Orleans. Burwell: "How can this tape be the thing that forces Roger Goodell to heap a lifetime ban on Williams? Unless I'm missing something, didn't the tape simply confirm every crime that Goodell already said he already knew Williams had perpetrated? The tape adds no new revelations, only additional confirmation. The only thing the tape does is conveniently provide the Saints coaches and general manager with an excuse to throw Williams under the bus as they attempt to receive some leniency from Goodell in their appeals hearing." Noted: The audio tape provides emphatic confirmation. It amplifies and corroborates in a manner that further damages/cements Williams' reputation. Also, the NFL's bounty announcement referred to other games and other opponents, but not this game against the 49ers. It also demonstrated that the Saints continued the bounty program shortly after learning that the NFL had reopened its investigation.

Ray Ratto of says the NFL never would have punished the Saints to this degree had New Orleans defeated San Francisco and won the Super Bowl. Ratto: "Sean Payton would have skated again, because the league would never tolerate a two-time Super Bowl winner and supergenius being publicly rebuked for something they were trying to keep on the down-low. In short, the 49ers did the league a huge favor. Alex Smith is owed a huge solid, and here’s hoping now that he’s been given the back of the business’ hand in his latest contract that someone sees fit to take care of him. Those two late scores took out New Orleans, freeing Roger Goodell to muster enough owner support to drop a bag of hammers on Tom Benson and his perpetually defiant football staff."

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News thinks Williams is finished as an NFL coach, but he offers this: "I understand the public outrage over this tape, but folks, did you think Williams (or any intense defensive coordinator) regularly tells his players to be nice out there? No, this is an incredibly violent sport. And usually the more violent team, if it stays within the rules, is the one that wins. By the way, the 49ers were the more violent team on the field in the playoff game. THEY WON THE GAME."

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News passes along comments from 49ers safety Donte Whitner describing Williams' pregame directives as "really disgusting."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers' next draft class faces an uphill fight in some cases.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says James Sanders' signing to a one-year contract gives the Cardinals depth at safety behind starters Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes. Somers: "Sean Considine left for the Ravens, and Hamza Abdullah is not under contract. Rashad Johnson, a restricted free agent, has not yet signed his tender offer of $1.26 million."

Darren Urban of has this to say about Sanders: "This is a veteran who should serve well in the locker room. A scouting report from someone who covered Sanders acknowledged his age -- he doesn’t run as well as he used to -- but that the veteran is a good person, good with teammates and is intelligent, the kind of player who makes sure everyone is on the same page defensively. In some ways, it sure sounds a lot like Richard Marshall (and like Marshall, Stewart is from Fresno State. He’s actually a one-time college teammate of Marshall’s.)"

Clare Farnsworth of says the team held its annual workout for locally produced college talent. Farnsworth: "At best, the Seahawks can find a player or two from the group -- as was the case last year with Jesse Hoffman, a defensive back from Eastern Washington University and Shorecrest High School; and Dorson Boyce, a fullback from the University of Washington. Each was invited to training camp and Hoffman was signed to a future contract for this year in January. Last year’s group also included two players who were drafted by other teams –- UW quarterback Jake Locker, the eighth pick overall by the Titans; and Shiloh Keo, a defensive back from the University of Idaho and Woodinville High School who went to the Texans in the fifth round."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune passes along Evan Silva's contention that John Carlson, formerly of the Seahawks, was the most overpaid player in free agency this offseason.

Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle dismisses the notion of Kam Chancellor moving to outside linebacker for the Seahawks.

NFL Power Rankings: How they voted

March, 23, 2012

Crushing bounty-related penalties levied against the New Orleans Saints forced a re-vote in's first NFL Power Rankings looking ahead to the 2012 season.

We planned to run the rankings after Peyton Manning signed with Denver, figuring that would be a good time to reassess the NFL landscape. Voters cast ballots by Tuesday. But when the Saints' punishment came down Wednesday, complete with a one-year suspension for coach Sean Payton, one of the highest-ranked teams was suddenly reeling.

Every panelist downgraded the Saints. John Clayton pointed to the Payton suspension as the single greatest blow. He saw New Orleans dropping from 12 to nine victories.

"Payton's mind, play-calling ability and leadership will be impossible to replace," Clayton wrote. "Payton took a Super Bowl ring away from Peyton Manning with his decision-making. His call for an onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV is a classic example of how a coach can win a game. Plus, his creative game plans and bold gambles will be missed."

The Saints and Oakland Raiders each dropped nine spots from our most recent rankings, which ran after the regular season. The Broncos climbed six spots to No. 8 after adding Manning as voters hedged somewhat over Manning's health. The Chicago Bears jumped a league-high 10 spots as voters anticipated Jay Cutler's return to the lineup.

The New York Giants were a near-unanimous No. 1 after winning the Super Bowl. Clayton ranked them fifth while other voters figured the defending champs should start at the top. "Unless they suffer giant losses, the Super Bowl champs deserve to be No. 1 in any preseason poll," voter Paul Kuharsky said. "That is my default setting."

And now, a closer look at the ranking, beginning with a look at how teams changed (or did not change) in the rankings from Week 18 last season:

Falling (15): New Orleans Saints (-9), Oakland Raiders (-9), Cincinnati Bengals (-8), Atlanta Falcons (-5), Miami Dolphins (-4), Tennessee Titans (-4), Pittsburgh Steelers (-3), Arizona Cardinals (-3), Green Bay Packers (-2), Cleveland Browns (-2), Dallas Cowboys (-1), San Francisco 49ers (-1), Minnesota Vikings (-1), Seattle Seahawks (-1), New York Jets (-1).

Rising (14): Chicago Bears (+10), New York Giants (+8), Denver Broncos (+6), Carolina Panthers (+5), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+5), Kansas City Chiefs (+5), Houston Texans (+4), Philadelphia Eagles (+3), Buffalo Bills (+2), St. Louis Rams (+2), New England Patriots (+2), Detroit Lions (+1), San Diego Chargers (+1), Washington Redskins (+1).

Unchanged (3): Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars.

Deadlocked: We broke four ties. Denver prevailed over Pittsburgh at No. 8 based on the first tiebreaker, head-to-head results. New Orleans edged Philadelphia at No. 11 based on the second tiebreaker, overall record. Arizona edged Seattle at No. 21, also on overall record. St. Louis beat out Cleveland at No. 29 based on head-to-head results.

Like minds: Only one spot separated high and low votes for the Packers, 49ers and Cowboys. Two spots separated high and low votes for the Patriots, Saints, Chiefs and Vikings.

Agree to disagree: Ten spots separated high and low votes for the Cardinals. Panelist James Walker ranked them only 27th, 10 spots lower than Paul Kuharsky and Ashley Fox ranked them.

"I think the Cardinals are stuck in the mud with Kevin Kolb," Walker said. "He's not a franchise quarterback, and the Cardinals can only go as far as Kolb takes them. Arizona has to live with that mistake for at least another year or two."

Walker, who covers the AFC East, was much higher on Buffalo. He ranked the Bills at No. 16. Everyone else had them between 22nd and 25th.

"The Bills have done everything right this offseason," Walker said. "I expect them to take the next step to at least the middle of the pack in 2012 -- if not more. It's not just the Mario Williams signing. Buffalo also gets back a healthy Fred Jackson and Kyle Williams."

A look at the teams generating high-low disparities of at least seven spots in the rankings:
  • Cardinals (10): Kuharsky and Fox ranked them 17th, higher than any other voter ranked them. Walker ranked them 27th, lower than any other voter ranked them.
  • Bills (9): Walker 16th, Sando 25th.
  • Panthers (8): Kuharsky and Fox 16th, Clayton 24th.
  • Bengals (8): Walker 14th, Kuharsky and Fox 22nd.
  • Jets (8): Clayton 15th, Sando 22nd.
  • Seahawks (8): Sando 17th, Kuharsky 25th.
  • Buccaneers (8): Clayton 19th, Kuharsky 27th.
  • Titans (7): Sando 16th, Walker 23rd.
Power Rankings histories: These colorful layered graphs show where each NFL team has ranked every week since the 2002 season.

Ranking the divisions: Teams from the NFC East ranked 12.8 on average, highest for any division. That was a change from Week 18 last season, when the AFC North and NFC North were 1-2 in highest overall ranking average.

A voter-by-voter look at changes of at least five spots since Week 18:
  • Sando: Bengals (-9), Saints (-8), Dolphins (-5), Raiders (-5), Titans (-5), Broncos (+6), Buccaneers (+7), Giants (+8), Bears (+12).
  • Clayton: Raiders (-13), Saints (-9), Bengals (-8), Giants (+6), Eagles (+8), Buccaneers (+9), Bears (+10).
  • Kuharsky: Bengals (-11), Saints (-9), Titans (-7), Raiders (-6), Dolphins (-6), Panthers (+5), Broncos (+5), Chiefs (+6), Redskins (+7), Giants (+9), Bears (+9).
  • Walker: Saints (-9), Titans (-9), Dolphins (-9), Raiders (-6), Falcons (-6), Steelers (-6), Cardinals (-6), Texans (+6), Giants (+7), Bills (+8), Broncos (+8), Buccaneers (+9), Bears (+9).
  • Fox: Bengals (-12), Saints (-10), Raiders (-7), Titans (-6), Falcons (-6), Jets (-5), Texans (+5), Redskins (+6), Panthers (+7), Giants (+8), Bears (+10).
Note: No Excel file this time. The file sheds light on potential voting inconsistencies during the season, when on-field results can be used as a reference.