NFC West: Victor Cruz

Bruce Irvin, Hakeem NicksAP PhotoBruce Irvin and the Seahawks are beatable on the road. Can Hakeem Nicks and the Giants win?

The 11-2 Seattle Seahawks have had their playoff spot wrapped up for a couple of weeks already and have their eyes on the top seed in the NFC. The 5-8 New York Giants were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday and openly admit that they're playing for pride from this point forward. These two teams meet Sunday at MetLife Stadium -- a place the Seahawks hope to return to in early February for the Super Bowl. Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and Giants reporter Dan Graziano break down the matchup between the league's best team and one of its most disappointing teams.

Graziano: Terry, let's start with Seattle's exciting young quarterback. The Giants this year have seen Terrelle Pryor, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, who are the only quarterbacks with more rushing yards than Russell Wilson has. From your standpoint, what sets Wilson apart from those other mobile quarterbacks?

Blount: Dan, there are so many intangibles about him that defy description. Some obvious ones are his character, his attention to every detail in his preparation and his underrated skills as a passer. But more than anything else, Wilson has the unusual ability to perform at his best when things appear to be at their worst. I've never seen him rattled, and he rarely makes a careless mistake. He has led the team to nine game-winning drives in his short career, and he almost did it again Sunday at San Francisco. As for his mobility, one thing that clearly sets him apart is his ability to make accurate throws downfield while he's running in either direction.

Speaking of quarterbacks, Eli Manning got off to a really rough start this season. What happened, and where is he now compared with seasons past when he was playing at a Pro Bowl level?

Graziano: Manning's biggest problem at the start of the season was his protection. The offensive line, never great to begin with, was hit with injuries to key starters and never got the kind of blocking help it received in past years from supplemental positions like running back and tight end. Manning has already taken more sacks (33) than he has ever taken in a full season, and there are three games to go. He also had no running game whatsoever for the first half of the season until Andre Brown got healthy. And top wide receiver Hakeem Nicks has had an awful season in the final year of his contract. Manning obviously could play better, and he'd admit he has missed his share of throws. But I think he's a quarterback who really needs to be comfortable with his surroundings, and this year that hasn't been possible for him.

The Seahawks are so dominant at home, but while they've been good on the road they are clearly not as good. We know about the home crowd and the advantage it gives them, but are there on-field things they don't do as well on the road?

Blount: One noticeable difference in the past three road games is that Wilson hasn't run much because defenses are trying to keep him in the pocket. Wilson had one carry for 2 yards last week at San Francisco, and only 38 yards on seven carries in the past three road games combined. They won two of those three games, however. Still, after Wilson ran for 102 yards at Indianapolis in Week 5 (ironically, one of Seattle's two road losses) teams have focused on not allowing him to beat them with his feet. He's running well at home (he rushed for 47 yards against New Orleans two weeks ago) but not so much on the road.

If the Giants pull off the upset Sunday, they'd send a message that despite a disappointing season, they still have the ability to get it done against the best of the best. Do you get the sense that they'll have a little added fire against a team that many people believe is Super Bowl-bound?

Graziano: I do. A few of the Giants have already talked about that in the wake of the loss Sunday that eliminated them from postseason contention. There's a lot of talk around East Rutherford about "playing for pride," and that's not hollow with this group. They held together after the 0-6 start and have been professional in their play and their preparation since. This isn't a team that has or will quit on its season. It's just a team that's not very good. I don't think they have the personnel to hang with the Seahawks on Sunday, but if they lose it won't be for a lack of effort.

They do have a tendency to seek and drum up external motivation, and Seattle's excellent record will provide some of that. Tom Coughlin said Monday that they looked forward to measuring themselves against a team like this. The only dissenter so far is wide receiver Victor Cruz, who said he'd be "even more disappointed" if the Giants won this game, since it would tell him they had the capability to play with top teams all year and just didn't.

San Francisco had a strong game on the ground Sunday, and the Giants' run game has been considerably better in the second half. Is it possible to run on the Seahawks, or was that a one-game fluke by Frank Gore?

Blount: Some Seattle fans might say it was a one-play fluke, the 51-yard run by Gore on the final drive that set up the game-wining field goal. Take that off the table and the Seahawks did OK against the 49ers' rushing game. However, one stat is a little scary. Of San Francisco's 163 yards on the ground, 137 were before contact, including Gore's big run. The Seahawks have been up and down on this all season. They held Adrian Peterson to 65 yards and allowed only 30 yards rushing at Arizona, but also had back-to-back games in which they allowed 200 yards rushing. Now they have to get it done without linebacker K.J. Wright, who had 80 tackles this season. He's out with a broken foot. It's hard to predict, but the Seahawks are so focused on the pass rush that they can get burned sometimes on the ground.

The Giants have struggled to stop the run, and Marshawn Lynch is one of the best backs in the league. I'm guessing the Seahawks are going to give him the ball early and often, especially if the weather is bad. Will the Giants load the box to try to stop Lynch?

Graziano: Actually, stopping the run is one of the few things the Giants have done well. They've held down some top backs, such as Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Alfred Morris and Eddie Lacy. Until the Chargers got 144 yards on 40 carries against them Sunday, this had been a fairly consistent strength. So they'll be keyed on Lynch for sure.

Before the Packers game a few weeks ago, I asked Justin Tuck if Lacy reminded him of anyone. He said, "a bigger Marshawn Lynch," and then complained that they had to deal with Lynch again a few weeks later. They stacked the box against Lacy that day, but they weren't scared of Scott Tolzien's ability to beat them downfield even if they used single coverage on his receivers. Wilson is likely to make them think twice about committing as much to the run as they did that day, and they'll likely rely on the guys in their strong defensive-tackle rotation to get off of blocks better than they did in San Diego.

Bill from Kalispell, Mont., asked during the NFC West chat why the St. Louis Rams wouldn't sign New York Giants restricted free agent Victor Cruz to an offer sheet.

"If you think the Rams will use one of their first-round picks on a WR, why not sign Victor Cruz, a young known quantity, to a deal and give up the pick -- or force the Giants in to a bad cap place by keeping him," Bill wrote. "Either way you are hurting one of your competitors for a wild-card slot."

Sando: Salary is the No. 1 reason. The Rams hold the 16th and 23rd picks in the draft. The cap charges associated with those picks will fall far short of the cap charges associated with a long-term deal for a veteran receiver.

Now, if the Rams saw Cruz as a Percy Harvin-type talent, the price could be worth considering. But if they see Cruz as merely a good receiver, they should proceed with caution when considering the costs.

The chart illustrates the point by comparing annual salary-cap charges for Vincent Jackson, the receiver Tampa Bay signed in free agency last offseason, to the cap charges for Kendall Wright, the wide receiver Tennessee drafted with the 20th pick of the draft.

I'm not comparing Jackson to Wright as players. I'm not comparing either one of them to Cruz, either. The point is one of cost, and I make it under the assumption the Rams would be getting a very good receiver in the first round.

As noted in the chat, Wright's contract as the 20th pick is scheduled to count $8.2 million against the cap over four years. The contract Jackson signed counted nearly twice as much in 2012 alone. It is scheduled to consume $55 million in cap space over five seasons.

So if the Rams can find their version of Cruz in the first round, they will come out far ahead. The question, of course, is whether the Rams can find that kind of value, and whether the cost associated with Cruz is worthwhile.

Final Word: NFC West

October, 12, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 6:

All about third down. The San Francisco 49ers' offense took considerable criticism after converting just once on 13 third-down plays against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers' defense deserves some third-down scrutiny heading into the rematch at Candlestick Park. The 2011 49ers held the Giants to 4.6 yards per play with no touchdowns on first and second downs during the teams' regular-season game last season. Everything changed on third down. The Giants averaged 8.8 yards per third-down play against the 49ers. They gained 127 yards and scored two touchdowns on 10 third-down pass attempts against the 49ers' nickel defense, without taking a sack. The 49ers were much better getting third-down pressure in the playoff rematch, but the Giants still averaged 7.2 yards per pass attempt with seven first downs on third-down plays against the 49ers' nickel defense.

Letting Welker catch it. The Seahawks' matchup against Patriots receiver Wes Welker will be a difficult one. The key, coach Pete Carroll has said, will be for Seattle to limit the damage once Welker inevitably gets the ball in his hands. This probably is an underrated aspect of the Seahawks' league-leading defense. Seattle is allowing 4.09 yards after the catch per reception. That ranks second in the NFL behind Minnesota (3.9) and just ahead of Green Bay (4.12). The figure for Seattle was 4.9 last season and 5.8 in 2010. Welker averages 6.4 YAC/reception, a significant figure given how many passes he catches (NFL-high 30 over the past three games, with 6.5 YAC/reception on those catches). The Seahawks have allowed 3.6 YAC/reception against wide receivers lined up in the slot, where Welker lines up most of the time. That figure ranks 12th in the NFL (the range is 1.9 to 8.1, with 4.5 as average).

[+] EnlargeLaRod Stephens-Howling
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireLaRod Stephens-Howling may now get more carries in Arizona with Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams injured.
Behold 'The Hyphen.' LaRod Stephens-Howling's return from a hip injury comes at the right time for Arizona. Fellow running backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams are out. Stephens-Howling has been a utility player for Arizona, not an every-down back, because he lacks the size needed to run on early downs, week after week. Desperate times call for desperate measures, however, and that could mean leaning on Stephens-Howling a little more regularly. The 5-foot-7, 180-pounder set career highs with 21 carries and 92 yards during a victory over Seattle in Week 17 last season. Four of his longest runs that day -- 39, 8, 8 and 7 yards -- came on first down with no more than two wide receivers on the field. Can Stephens-Howling, William Powell and Alfonso Smith help the NFL's worst rushing offense (2.7 yards per carry) exploit Buffalo's league-worst rushing defense (5.7 yards per carry allowed)?

First-and-Long. The Miami Dolphins made left tackle Jake Long the first player chosen in the 2008 NFL draft. The St. Louis Rams took defensive end Chris Long with the second pick. Both players will be on the field at the same time when the Rams visit the Dolphins, but they'll be matching up against younger players. Jake Long faces 2011 Rams first-rounder Robert Quinn, who is coming off a three-sack game and has already exceeded his total for last season. Chris Long faces Dolphins right tackle Jonathan Martin, a second-round choice this year. Both Longs should like their chances in these matchups. If Quinn's speed can factor in the pass rush, perhaps St. Louis can force Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill into mistakes.

Readying the stat sheet. Last week, the 49ers had a 300-yard passer, a 100-yard rusher and two 100-yard receivers for the first time since 1961. Meanwhile, the Giants became the first NFL team since 1960 to have one player rush for at least 200 yards (Ahmad Bradshaw) while another player caught three touchdown passes (Victor Cruz). There is more. The 49ers have won each of their past two games by 30-plus points, the first time since 1961 they've accomplished the feat (they have never done it three games in a row). The Giants have set a franchise record for any four-game stretch with 1,877 yards against Tampa Bay, Carolina, Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this entry.

680 KNBR audio: NFC West bests

June, 26, 2012
Steven Jackson, Justin Smith, Larry Fitzgerald and CenturyLink Field came to mind when discussing NFC West "bests" with Dave Benz on 680 KNBR in San Francisco on Monday.

They've made available the audio.

I didn't have a firm answer when asked to identify the second-best wide receiver in the NFC West, after Fitzgerald. A healthy Sidney Rice would enter into the conversation. What about Michael Crabtree?

The coming season will provide welcome evidence.

In the meantime, I've put together a chart showing 2011 third-down conversion rates for NFC West wide receivers and tight ends, with columns showing how much distance was needed for a first down. Seattle's Doug Baldwin made 23 first downs on 42 targets for a 54.8 percent conversion rate. Each of those figures led the division.

NFC West teams ranked 24th (Seattle), 29th (Arizona), 31st (San Francisco) and 32nd (St. Louis) in overall third-down conversion rate.

Note that Vernon Davis is the only tight end listed, and that his percentage suffered from zero conversions in eight targets on third-and-10 or longer. The 49ers added Mario Manningham from the New York Giants, but he wasn't much of a factor on third down last season (eight first downs in 20 targets). Manningham's Giants teammate, Victor Cruz, converted 22 first downs in 36 third-down targets.

There's little sense in taking the bait when San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh tells a radio program Michael Crabtree "has the best hands I've ever seen on a wide receiver."

Anyone with a strong grasp of NFL history would place Cris Carter, Raymond Berry and Steve Largent on a short list for receivers with the surest hands.

Hall of Famer Ken Houston, speaking for a 2008 piece on all-time great wideouts, stood up for AFL stars Otis Taylor and Lionel Taylor.

"Lionel Taylor, I mean, he would catch a BB," Houston said.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, speaking for the same piece, said Randy Moss, then with New England, had the best hands in the NFL at that time (2008).

"A lot of guys can catch," Thompson said then. "He can catch on any platform, as we say in scouting. He can adjust and catch it over the top of somebody's head, catch it falling down, and it doesn't matter if he is covered."

With Moss now on the 49ers, it is possible Crabtree does not possess the best hands among wide receivers on his own team.

Oops. I wasn't going to take the bait on this one, but now it's too late. Time to regroup.

Bottom line, I suspect Crabtree has impressed Harbaugh this offseason, and Harbaugh would like that to continue for as long as possible. By offering such strong public praise for Crabtree, Harbaugh is setting a standard for Crabtree to meet this season. He realizes Crabtree has the ability to meet that standard, or else he wouldn't make the statement.

We should all recall Harbaugh's calling quarterback Alex Smith "elite" and promoting him for the Pro Bowl last season. Then as now, Harbaugh was standing up for his guy. Smith enjoyed the finest season of his career and even outplayed the truly elite Drew Brees at times during the 49ers' playoff victory over New Orleans. The way Harbaugh backed Smith played a role in that performance, in my view.

Back to Crabtree. He has the ability to rank among the most sure-handed receivers in the game. He has not yet earned that status, but now he has little choice, right?

As the chart shows, Crabtree finished the 2011 season with 12.2 receptions per drop, which ranked 28th in the NFL among players targeted at least 100 times. Larry Fitzgerald led the NFL with 80 receptions and only one drop. Those numbers are according to ESPN Stats & Information, which defines drops as "incomplete passes where the receiver should have caught the pass with ordinary effort."

Crabtree suffered six drops last season by that standard, a few too many for the player with the best hands his head coach has ever seen on a wide receiver.
There will be no alleged "Madden 13" cover jinx for the NFC West.

Patrick Willis, the final representative from the division, fell to Cam Newton by a 53-47 percentage margin in the semifinals.

The fact that Calvin Johnson obliterated Aaron Rodgers in the other bracket (63-37 margin) might suggest Green Bay Packers fans were eager to keep their team's most important player off the cover. Some of them presumably voted for Johnson.

In any event, any associated drama for Willis and the NFC West has passed.

Willis had prevailed against Matt Forte, Maurice Jones-Drew and Victor Cruz.
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis routinely cuts down running backs in the open field.

Willis has likewise taken out two top backs in the "Madden 13" cover competition, joining fellow NFC West icon Larry Fitzgerald in the final eight despite Willis' status as a No. 11 seed.

This is no time for complacency, NFC West voters.

Now that Willis has taken out Matt Forte and Maurice Jones-Drew, we cannot in good conscience allow New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz, possessor of seven regular-season starts and one notable season, to knock out the baddest linebacker in the land.

Fitzgerald, meanwhile, faces No. 1 seed Cam Newton. The Willis-Cruz and Fitzgerald-Newton winners will face off in the next round. Aaron Rodgers-Ray Rice and Calvin Johnson-Rob Gronkowski round out the other bracket.

Vote away.

Fitzgerald won his first-round matchup with Troy Polamalu by a 72-28 margin. He then beat LeSean McCoy by a 54-46 margin. Willis won comfortably over Forte (62-38) and Jones-Drew (58-42).
Greg from Seattle thought Victor Cruz's first-quarter non-fumble in the Super Bowl, rendered irrelevant by a penalty for 12 men on the field, resembled the forward-progress call involving Ahmad Bradshaw that hurt San Francisco during the 49ers' game against the Giants two weeks ago.

"The only discernible difference I saw was that there were two men involved on Bradshaw's fumble two weeks ago," Greg wrote. "If this week's play had been ruled a fumble while the Niners were not permitted even to challenge, I would have been outraged. Curious to hear your perspective."

Mike Sando: I had the exact same thought, but it was a fleeting one because of the penalty. The 49ers weren't necessarily victimized by a horrible call, in my view. It seemed like one of those unlucky ones, along the lines of the chop-block call against Frank Gore in Baltimore. I disagreed with the call against Gore and thought the 49ers caught a bad break on the Bradshaw ruling. The Cruz play looked similar when watching the game live. (Update: Gore chop block was obviously at Baltimore; I mistakenly wrote Philadelphia originally).

Former NFL officiating boss Mike Pereira, now a Fox analyst, offered this take: "Without this penalty, fans would have been left wondering why the play in San Francisco was ruled forward progress and this one wasn’t. In my opinion, both plays should have been ruled forward progress and not fumbles."

I dislike the forward-progress ruling when it's close. Rules require players making receptions to hold onto the ball through the conclusion of the play. Why not enforce the same standard for players running with the ball? If officials think forward progress has been stopped, then they should blow the whistle. Had the whistle blown when Bradshaw lost the ball? How about when Cruz lost the ball? If not, the play was live, right?

I'm open-minded on this, but that's how it looks from this angle.

Bruce from Port Angeles, Wash., was among several writing to express satisfaction after seeing Cortez Kennedy become the second longtime Seattle Seahawks player enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He appreciated whatever work was done in presenting Kennedy's credentials to the selectors.

Mike Sando: The Mount Rushmore of Seahawks history would include Steve Largent, Kenny Easley, Kennedy and Walter Jones, in my view. Shaun Alexander deserves consideration as well, but I think those other guys were the elite of the elite in the pure ability to dominate their opponents.

Easley, Kennedy and Jones played extremely physical positions, too, so their dominance was a cut above simply by the nature of their jobs. I tend to favor candidates who flat-out dominated even when two or three opponents at a time matched up against them. Kennedy fit that criteria.

Kennedy's candidacy suffered some from the Seahawks' struggles during the 1990s. The team kept hiring offensive-minded head coaches in an effort to fix that side of the ball, going from Chuck Knox to Tom Flores to Dennis Erickson to Mike Holmgren during Kennedy's tenure.

Holmgren's arrival in 1999 led to an 8-2 start and playoff appearance that season. Kennedy had 6.5 sacks and two interceptions that year, with three of those sacks during Holmgren's return to Green Bay on the Monday night stage. Overall, Kennedy appeared in prime time only five times during his career. For that reason, many of the selectors rarely saw him play.

One key to Kennedy's enshrinement was making sure the selectors had the relevant facts and testimonials before them. Presenting Kennedy was straightforward. His credentials made it so.

Ted from San Carlos thought Wes Welker was taking far too much criticism for the pass he failed to catch with four minutes remaining in Super Bowl XLVI. He questioned whether I had even watched the game. "How could you blame Welker for that 'drop' when the pass was terrible? Brady had a wide-open Welker and made a bad pass. It would have been a GREAT catch had he caught it. This is on Brady."

Mike Sando: Welker blamed Welker. He is a credible source on the subject. The ball hit both of his hands.

Suzy from Dallas says Welker "manned up" and took the blame for missing what would have been a "miracle" catch. "When you review the tape," she wrote, "please retract your entire story (like a man)."

Mike Sando: David Tyree made a miracle catch in Super Bowl XLII. Welker has a clear opportunity to make this catch. He is one of the best receivers in the NFL. Many sources, including the Boston Globe, have described this pass for what it was, a bit behind Welker, but catchable. If Welker had made that catch, people would not be talking about it in the vein they discuss Tyree's catch. Not even close.

Andy from Syracuse was among several fans asking whether the 49ers' move to Santa Clara on game days will result in a name change.

Mike Sando: They will still be the San Francisco 49ers. Their headquarters have been in Santa Clara for years. The team's history and heritage is very important to team persident Jed York. Santa Clara is not that far away.

Darren from Vacaville, Calif., did not like reading in our recent Super Bowl losers story the word "outclassed" to describe the Los Angeles Rams during their Super Bowl defeat to Pittsburgh following the 1979 season. "This team had the feared Steelers on the ropes," he wrote.

Mike Sando: I'm going to grant you this one. I actually did not write that part of the item. Jamison Hensley and I worked on that together. He wrote the part on the Rams. I saw it and did not disagree strongly enough to talk to him about adjusting it. It was a reasonable take given the Rams' status that season as a 9-7 team without its starting quarterback, Pat Haden.

Sorry, no Arizona Cardinals questions this time. There weren't any fresh ones atop the mailbag. My flight is making its way across the country. Figured I'd better file this while the laptop battery was strong, the wireless was working, etc.

NFC West can attest to Cruz in clutch

February, 2, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS -- Back in Week 5, the New York Giants trailed the Seattle Seahawks in the fourth quarter when Victor Cruz reached out with one hand to snag a deflected pass for a 68-yard touchdown.

The go-ahead scoring play came under circumstances familiar to Cruz: on third down, and with his team trailing on the scoreboard.

The Giants frequently played from behind this season. Cruz was their dominant threat on third down. The chart, from ESPN Stats & Information, ranks NFL players by third-down receiving yardage when their teams were trailing during the regular season. Such a chart would favor players from losing teams, but the Giants finished 9-7 and won their division.

Cruz's 36-yard reception on third-and-6 against San Francisco sustained an early scoring drive after the Giants fell behind in the NFC Championship Game.

Cruz had a 36-yarder on third-and-7 against the 49ers in Week 10, sustaining a go-ahead scoring drive in the third quarter.

Eli Manning completed 17 of 20 attempts for 455 yards when targeting Cruz on third down when the Giants were trailing during the regular season. We might anticipate more of the same if the Giants fall behind New England in the Super Bowl on Sunday.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Yes, it's cold here in central Indiana. But not NFL scouting combine cold.

The weather for Super Bowl week is exactly freezing at present, with moderate winds adding bite to the winter air, but I've felt a much colder chill while spending roughly two months of my life covering various combines over the years. And the forecast calls for unseasonably warm weather -- no snowstorms.

It's still strange being here for a Super Bowl instead of the NFL's signature predraft event. The combine will return in a few weeks, as usual.

The Monday before the Super Bowl is arrival day, even for teams getting into the host city a bit earlier. It's the day when players and coaches start to feel a gathering media storm unlike anything NFL players experience in any other setting. It's the day when they know they've arrived on sports' biggest stage.

The schedule calls for the AFC champion New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and various players, including NFC West alum Deion Branch, to appear beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET.

The NFC champion New York Giants are on the schedule an hour later. Seeing their various names listed on the schedule -- Tom Coughlin, Victor Cruz, Mathias Kiwanuka, Eli Manning, Antrel Rolle, Chris Snee and Justin Tuck are up Monday -- recalled in my mind the Giants' 20-17 victory against the San Francisco 49ers eight days ago.

This could have been the 49ers' stage.

The Super Bowl could have been welcoming Jim Harbaugh instead of Coughlin, Vernon Davis instead of Cruz, Patrick Willis instead of Kiwanuka, Alex Smith in stead of Manning, Carlos Rogers instead of Rolle, Joe Staley instead of Snee, Justin Smith instead of Tuck. The 49ers surely would have found a spot for Frank Gore in there, too.

Watching this week from afar will presumably magnify in the 49ers' minds just how close they came.

Not that the NFL has any reason to complain. A Giants-Patriots rematch of the Super Bowl four years ago carries obvious appeal.

I'll be heading to both teams' media sessions later Monday, with a few NFC West angles in mind.

The media workroom here at the J.W. Marriott hotel was empty when I arrived early Monday. That is beginning to change, but it's still early. Momentum will begin to build late this afternoon.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Notes and observations from San Francisco 49ers headquarters one day after the season ended with a 20-17 overtime defeat to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game:

  • That was Jim Harbaugh, not the 16th century privateer Sir Andrew Barton, assessing the state of his team this way: "Hurt but not slain, I'll lay down and bleed a while, then rise and fight again." Battle language appeals to Harbaugh. He also said the "football gods" had a different ending in mind than the one his 49ers envisioned.
  • [+] EnlargeVernon Davis
    Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesJim Harbaugh disagreed with the penalty called following Vernon Davis' touchdown celebration in the first quarter of Sunday's game.
  • Looks like Harbaugh and the Ed Hochuli-led all-star officiating crew for the NFC title game have some issues relating to the fumble that was not. Officials ruled that the New York Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw was down -- specifically, that his forward progress had stopped -- before NaVorro Bowman forced out the ball. Harbaugh: "In my opinion, that was a fumble. The play was continuing. There was still struggling by Bradshaw."
  • Harbaugh, who spent the 2002-03 seasons with Oakland, said the forward-progress ruling was "analogous to the tuck rule" against the Raiders in the AFC title game. Harbaugh also referenced a forward-progress ruling from the Giants-49ers game in Week 10. The 49ers thought they forced a Victor Cruz fumble, but Tony Corrente and crew ruled forward progress was stopped. Harbaugh tried to challenge that call, but the play was not open to review.
  • Harbaugh also took issue with the penalty against tight end Vernon Davis for using a prop during a touchdown celebration. Davis climbed a camera stand to celebrate his 73-yard touchdown. Harbaugh, perhaps unaware or overlooking special allowances the NFL makes for the Lambeau Leap, compared Davis' act with the one that is a signature celebration in Green Bay. He also said Davis was using a structure, not a prop. The rulebook makes only one mention of a prop, under rules for taunting: "Possession or use of foreign or extraneous object(s) that are not part of the uniform during the game on the field or the sideline, or using the ball as a prop."
  • Strong safety Donte Whitner said the Giants' receivers smartly got to the ground before contact to avoid risking turnovers in sloppy conditions. The approach prevented the 49ers' hard-hitting secondary from putting a physical stamp on the game, as it had against New Orleans a week earlier. Two of the bigger collisions involved 49ers safety Dashon Goldson colliding with teammates as they tried to pick off passes. One of those collisions knocked out cornerback Tarell Brown for the remainder of the game. Brown said he did not suffer a concussion, but team doctors prohibited him from returning to the game as a precaution.
  • The shoulder injury Kyle Williams suffered before his late fumble did not include a separation, according to Harbaugh. But Williams was very sore Monday.
  • Alex Smith joined Harbaugh in putting off talk regarding a new contract. There should be very little drama associated with re-signing Smith. Both parties want to get a deal done. Harbaugh seemed bored by obligatory questions about a new contract for his quarterback.
  • Frank Gore said he did not know if he would play in the Pro Bowl. He planned to meet with team doctors first. Gore said he felt good Sunday, brushing off suggestions that he was playing hurt late in the season. Harbaugh said one 49ers player told him about plans to skip the Pro Bowl. Harbaugh would not say which one it was. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch would be next in line as an alternate if Gore withdrew from the game.
  • The 49ers punted three times on possessions after deciding not to go for it on fourth-and-1. I was thinking of the one in overtime when I asked Harbaugh about his thought process. He answered in reference to the two previous ones, noting that pinning a team inside its own 10 is generally worth about three points. The 49ers wound up getting no points from any of their fourth-and-1 punts (one came after a delay penalty set up fourth-and-6). The Giants were the next team to score after all three of them. That doesn't necessarily mean San Francisco made poor decisions. They can be interesting to debate.
  • Two Pro Bowl players in the secondary area are heading toward free agency. Cornerback Carlos Rogers said he'll make re-signing with the 49ers his top priority over seeking paydays elsewhere. Rogers: "From the owner to the general manager to everyone in this organization, I like everything about this organization, all the players, the trainers. This ain't about me coming and saying now I'm free, let's get the check. I'm thinking about this team. This is where I want to be, first of all." Goldson can also become a free agent. I did not speak with him.
  • Harbaugh joked his way out of answering a question about how he spent Sunday evening following the game. He called it a California thing when people want to know how he feels, what he was doing at a certain time, etc. He cited his status as a Midwesterner in declining to provide specifics. He did confirm where he planned to watch the Super Bowl: "On TV."

That's a wrap from 49ers headquarters. I'll be boarding a plane and heading home Monday night.

Rapid Reaction: Giants 20, 49ers 17 OT

January, 22, 2012

Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 20-17 defeat to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park:

What it means: The 49ers missed a chance to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVI thanks largely to two critical miscues in the return game, both by second-year backup punt returner Kyle Williams. Their defense played heroically at times but was unable to capitalize on several opportunities to force turnovers. With the offense struggling on third down, the 49ers simply couldn't persevere. This game will haunt the 49ers for years. How many times will San Francisco get to play a 9-7 team at home for a berth in the Super Bowl?

What I liked: Vernon Davis got open early for a 73-yard touchdown reception even though the Giants knew he was the one player most likely to beat them deep. Davis came through again in the third quarter with a go-ahead 28-yard scoring reception after a slick outside-in move to find a hole in the coverage. …

Frank Gore found running room. The 49ers’ coaching staff supplemented the ground game effectively with designed runs for Alex Smith. And the misdirection run to spring Kendall Hunter for a 14-yard gain was beautifully conceived. …

San Francisco’s pass rush improved in the second half, playing a big role in the team’s ability to take the lead and hold it heading into the fourth quarter. Aldon Smith and Justin Smith started getting to Eli Manning, allowing the 49ers to stay in the game even though their offense wasn’t sustaining drives. …

Williams’ 40-yard kickoff return midway through the fourth quarter gave the 49ers good field position and gave the 49ers a needed jolt. Smith followed with a 17-yard scramble. Delanie Walker's block on Kenny Phillips to help spring Hunter to the 5-yard line was reminiscent of the block Joe Staley threw for Smith last week. ...

The 49ers' defense stepped up repeatedly late in the game, especially when Smith sacked Manning.

What I didn’t like: The 49ers were miserable on third down, asking too many favors from their defense. They did not succeed on a third-down conversion until the final play of regulation. ...

Williams’ indecision on a punt return cost the 49ers when the ball bounced off his knee with San Francisco holding a 14-10 lead and 11:06 remaining in the fourth quarter. Williams, subbing for injured veteran Ted Ginn Jr., couldn’t get out of the way after deciding at the last moment to bail on the return. The Giants took over at the San Francisco 28-yard line, then scored the go-ahead touchdown on third-and-15 from the 17. …

Then, after the 49ers' defense held in overtime, Williams fumbled during a punt return. The Giants recovered and kicked the winning 31-yard field goal.

Early in the game, the 49ers couldn’t get pressure on third down, giving Manning ample time to find open receivers and sustain drives. Manning completed eight passes for 125 yards to Victor Cruz in the first half. …

San Francisco played conservatively on offense shortly before halftime, letting the clock run down and settling for predictable runs. The Giants got the ball back and scored a field goal to take a 10-7 lead heading into halftime. …

The 49ers had no third-down conversions in the first three quarters. Their wide receivers were generally poor to invisible. …

The 49ers’ usually hard-hitting secondary struggled to get clear shots on the Giants’ receivers. That made it tougher for San Francisco to force turnovers. When the pass-rush improved in the second half, the 49ers missed an opportunity to pick off a pass when defenders collided, injuring cornerback Tarell Brown.

“X” factor a no-show: Those figuring the 49ers might need receiver Michael Crabtree to step up kept waiting and waiting, without results. Giants cornerback Corey Webster shut down Crabtree. The 49ers have been thin at wide receiver without Josh Morgan (injured reserve), Braylon Edwards (released) or Ginn (inactive due to injury). Crabtree, an occasional force for the 49ers late in the regular season, did not make an impact in the passing game.

Controversial call: Referee Ed Hochuli and crew ruled that Ahmad Bradshaw's forward progress was stopped before the 49ers forced him to fumble and recovered deep in Giants territory. That play could not be reviewed. A 49ers recovery in that situation -- tie game, a little more than two minutes remaining -- would have been huge. The head linesman threw his bean bag and made the ruling decisively. The question was whether the ruling was made hastily.

Interesting decision: The 49ers opted to punt on fourth-and-inches from the Giants’ 47-yard line while holding a 14-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. They were running the ball well, but their defense was also gaining the upper hand at that point in the game. Punting and playing for field position showed the 49ers thought their punting and defense could hold. The decision paid off for the 49ers when Aldon Smith’s sack helped limit the Giants to a three-and-out. But the defensive stop also precipitated Williams’ muffed punt.

Injuries of note: The 49ers lost left guard Mike Iupati to an ankle injury early in the game. Iupati returned, but was limping around at times. A knee injury kept Ginn from playing. Brown was down on the field for an extended period after colliding with safety Dashon Goldson. Medical personnel brought out a stretcher board, but Brown walked off slowly, with assistance. Brown suffered thigh and head injuries, according to the 49ers. Walker played for the first time since suffering a broken jaw at Seattle in Week 16.

What’s next: The 49ers head toward the draft needing help at wide receiver in particular.
SAN FRANCISCO -- A few quick thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers as they head to halftime trailing the New York Giants 10-7 in the NFC Championship Game:
  • The 49ers' pass rush is the key to the second half. San Francisco isn't getting enough pressure. Eli Manning has too much time to throw, particularly on third down. That is making it tougher for the 49ers to force turnovers.
  • Victor Cruz's eight-catch, 125-yard first half for the Giants jumps off the stat sheet. Cruz is winning his matchup with Carlos Rogers. The 49ers' ineffective pass rush is the key variable, however.
  • Frank Gore is running the ball well for the 49ers, but the team hasn't sustained drives well enough. Gore appears close to breaking a long run, in my view. But the 49ers will need to show more of a passing threat to create opportunities for Gore.
  • Alex Smith's 73-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis got the 49ers going early, but that was a rare highlight in the passing game. Smith missed one chance when he threw too long for Kyle Williams, who was running open deep in the Giants' secondary.
  • The rainy weather appears to be hurting the 49ers more than it is hurting the Giants. Manning is commanding the ball better than Smith is commanding it. Is the weather to blame for the 49ers' weak pass rush, though? I'm not so sure. The team didn't get enough consistent pressure in the Week 10 meeting between the teams, either.

That's it for now. Enjoy the second half.
SAN FRANCISCO -- The New York Giants' Eli Manning led the NFL this season with 18 pass completions covering at least 40 yards.

The San Francisco 49ers' defense, though among the very best in most key statistical categories, gave up 12 of these plays, tied for fifth-most in the league.
Therein lies one of the more pivotal matchups in the Giants-49ers NFC Championship Game on Sunday.

The 49ers were cruising toward apparent victory against New Orleans in the divisional playoff round last week until Saints quarterback Drew Brees connected on touchdown passes covering 44 and 66 yards late in the game. The last time San Francisco lost at home, Dallas' Tony Romo struck for a 77-yard touchdown pass in overtime. The Cowboys also connected for a 53-yard gain.

As the chart shows, San Francisco has done a better job collecting interceptions this season. Carlos Rogers had two picks against Manning in Week 10, but the Giants also connected for 36- and 32-yard gains in the second half, the shorter one for a touchdown. Manning narrowly missed another long scoring pass for Mario Manningham.

Manning has completed half his 40-plus passes to receiver Victor Cruz, who lines up frequently in the slot. Cruz led the Giants with six receptions for 84 yards against the 49ers in Week 10, including that 36-yarder.

Rogers and Cruz figure to match up extensively Sunday. Which one will prevail?
The leaping grab Hakeem Nicks made in the end zone for the New York Giants stood as a pivotal moment in their postseason victory over the 15-1 Green Bay Packers last week.

Vernon Davis was the one making impressive catches for the San Francisco 49ers during their playoff victory over the 14-3 New Orleans Saints.

Rain could make holding onto the football tougher for both teams in the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park on Sunday.

With that in mind, I've put together a chart showing regular-season catch-to-drop ratios for 49ers and Giants players with at least 10 receptions. The numbers come courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, which defines drops as "incomplete passes where the offending player should have caught the pass with ordinary effort, and only when the receiver is 100 percent at fault."

According to this standard, "Passes thrown just outside the receiver's reach or those falling incomplete when pass interference should have been called do not meet the standard."

These are blatant drops, in other words.

Wide receiver is one position where the Giants have an obvious talent advantage over the 49ers. San Francisco needs improved play from Michael Crabtree in particular. He failed to catch contested balls against New Orleans. Kyle Williams is another 49ers receiver to watch.

49ers running back Frank Gore tops the list of Giants and 49ers players with the fewest receptions per drop. He caught the ball well against the Saints, however.