NFL Nation: Final Word

Final Word: Super Bowl XLVII

February, 2, 2013
2/02/13
1:00
PM ET
Super Bowl XLVII Final Word: Ravens | 49ers

Five nuggets of knowledge about the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII:

Vernon Davis can be an unstoppable postseason force: The seventh-year tight end has averaged 27.6 yards per reception in four playoff games over the past two seasons. He has 16 catches for 442 yards and five touchdowns in those games. That includes a five-catch, 106-yard performance against Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.

Since Davis entered the NFL in 2006, no other tight end with even half as many postseason receptions has averaged better than 17.8 yards per catch on them. Davis' five postseason scoring catches are two more than any other tight end since 2006. He faces a Ravens defense that allowed two touchdowns, picked off five passes and ranked second in Total QBR allowed (39.9) when opposing quarterbacks targeted tight ends.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
AP Photo/Dave Martin49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has a passer rating of 101.2 over his first nine NFL starts.
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick: Through nine career starts, his production has put him in elite company. No quarterback making his first nine starts over the past five seasons ranks higher than Kaepernick in winning percentage (77.8), yards per pass attempt (8.6), passer rating (101.2), or Total QBR (84.0).

Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco are among the quarterbacks ranking lower than Kaepernick in those categories through nine career starts since 2008. Although Flacco has come on strong in the playoffs this season, he trails Kaepernick in those key statistical categories even over his nine most recent starts (55.6 win percentage, 7.7 YPA, 97.4 passer rating and 47.0 QBR).

Turnovers: Teams winning the turnover battle have a 7-1 record in the past 10 Super Bowls. The 2005 Seattle Seahawks were the only team in that span to lose a Super Bowl with a positive turnover margin in the game. Baltimore is plus-5 in turnover differential in the playoffs, best in the NFL. The 49ers are tied for second at plus-2. The Ravens are averaging eight points off turnovers per playoff game, best in this postseason. The 49ers are tied for second at seven points per game off turnovers.

The 49ers' pass defense could be vulnerable: Counting regular season and playoffs, Baltimore has completed 40 passes on throws traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. That is nine more than any other team has completed. The Ravens are averaging an NFL-best 2.1 such completions per game, a figure that has risen to 3.3 per game in the playoffs. The 49ers have allowed two in each of their two playoff games, giving them up to Julio Jones (twice), Greg Jennings and James Jones. They had allowed two or more in a game just six times in the regular season, never in back-to-back games. Ravens receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin each have four such receptions in the playoffs, most in the NFL. The 49ers' Davis ranks second with three.


The 49ers' option running game is in focus: San Francisco has averaged 8.4 yards per carry with four touchdowns on 29 option rushes in the playoffs. That is up from 5.4 yards per carry with three touchdowns on 26 option rushes in Kaepernick's seven regular-season starts. As the chart shows, Frank Gore already has more yards on option rushes in the playoffs than he had in the full regular season. Kaepernick gained 99 yards on option rushes against Green Bay in the divisional round. The Ravens faced 15 option runs this season, all against Washington in Week 14. The Redskins finished that game with 93 yards and a 6.2-yard average on those plays.

Prediction: 49ers 27-23: The 49ers have the advantage in weaponry without much question. And although Flacco has never been hotter, Kaepernick has been the tougher quarterback to defend. There's a good chance that will be the case again Sunday.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: 49ers at Falcons

January, 18, 2013
1/18/13
1:30
PM ET
NFC Championship: 49ers-Falcons AFC Championship: Ravens-Patriots

Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons:

[+] EnlargeTony Gonzalez
AP Photo/Perry KnottsWill the 49ers see Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez line up in the slot or as a tight end in the NFC title game?
Staying grounded: San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is not a good matchup for the Atlanta defense. Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards against the Packers in the divisional round. The Falcons had problems with mobile quarterbacks in the regular season and against Seattle’s Russell Wilson in the divisional round. Quarterbacks have averaged a league-high 8.9 yards per carry against the Falcons. Including the playoffs, the Falcons have faced 42 read-option plays (second highest in the league), according to ESPN Stats & information. On those plays, the Falcons have done a good job when the quarterback hands off. Running backs averaged 3.9 yards against Atlanta on the read option. But quarterbacks have averaged more than 20 yards per carry.

Been a long time: The Falcons and 49ers have met just once before in the postseason. That was in the 1998 season in a divisional playoff game, which was the first game back for Atlanta coach Dan Reeves after quadruple-bypass surgery. The Falcons won that game, 20-18, and went on to make the only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. The Falcons and 49ers were NFC West rivals until the NFC South was founded in 2002. Since then, the teams have had four regular-season meetings, and the Falcons have won all four.

Comeback kids: The Falcons got the ball with 31 seconds remaining and rallied for a win against Seattle. That marked the third time this season the Falcons started a game-winning drive in the final minute of the fourth quarter. The rest of the league combined for eight such drives. In the last 10 years, the only other teams with multiple game-winning drives that started in the last minute of regulation were the 2010 Jets and 2010 Jaguars, both with two.

Tight end or receiver? Technically, Tony Gonzalez is Atlanta’s tight end and Harry Douglas is the slot receiver. But that’s not always how they line up. Gonzalez has had 55 receptions when lined up in the slot, including three in the divisional playoff.

Red-hot Crabtree: Wide receiver Michael Crabtree has become much more of a factor since Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith as the starting quarterback. When Smith was starting, Crabtree averaged 4.9 receptions and 56.7 receiving yards per game and had four touchdowns. With Kaepernick, Crabtree has averaged 6.3 receptions and 89.3 yards per game and has caught seven touchdown passes.

Final Word: 49ers at Falcons

January, 18, 2013
1/18/13
1:30
PM ET
NFC Championship: 49ers-Falcons AFC Championship: Ravens-Patriots

Five nuggets of knowledge about the NFC Championship Game matchup Sunday between the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome:

Quarterback equalizers: The 49ers went 5-2 this season when facing top-10 quarterbacks by regular-season Total QBR scores. They can make it 6-2 with a victory over Matt Ryan's Falcons. Colin Kaepernick was the 49ers' quarterback when the team defeated Tom Brady (Patriots), Aaron Rodgers (Packers) in the playoffs, and Drew Brees (Saints). Alex Smith was under center for the 49ers when the team defeated Rodgers in Week 1 and Russell Wilson (Seahawks) in Week 7. Kaepernick lost to Wilson in Week 16. Smith lost to Eli Manning (Giants).

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Josh D. Weiss/USA TODAY SportsThe Falcons have won 34 of their 40 home games with Matt Ryan as the starting quarterback.
Tough tasks on road: The 49ers are heading into an unfriendly NFL venue for the third time in 35 days. The Falcons are 34-6 at home during the regular season and playoffs when Ryan starts at quarterback. The 49ers won last month in Foxborough, Mass., where the Patriots are 86-15 when Brady starts. More recently, the 49ers lost at Seattle, where the Seahawks were 8-0 this season. The home win-loss records for Brady (.851) and Ryan (.850) rank first and second among quarterbacks entering the league during the Super Bowl era (minimum 20 home starts). Terry Bradshaw (75-14) and Joe Flacco (35-7) are next on the list. The 49ers also won on the road this season against Brees, who has gone 32-11 in the Superdome since 2008.

Mixing it up: The 49ers or Falcons will become the ninth franchise to represent the NFC in a Super Bowl over the past 10 years. New England, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis are the only AFC franchises to play in Super Bowls over the same period. This will change only if Baltimore defeats the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Carolina, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Arizona, New Orleans, Green Bay and the New York Giants (twice) have represented the NFC over the past nine years. On a side note, the Falcons defeated the 49ers in the 1998 postseason on their way to their lone Super Bowl appearance.

Tight ends should flourish: Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez has 99 receptions in 17 games this season and could be wrapping up a Hall of Fame career. His 49ers counterpart, Vernon Davis, finished the 2011 postseason with 10 receptions for 292 yards and four touchdowns. The numbers suggest one or both could make a significant impact on Sunday.

When opponents target tight ends, the Falcons' defense ranks last in the NFL in Total QBR allowed (96.8), last in yards allowed per drop-back (9.3) and 31st in yards allowed per completed pass (12.6). Those figures count the postseason.

Although the 49ers have allowed a league-low 8.78 yards per completion to tight ends through the divisional round, tight ends caught eight of the 19 touchdown passes San Francisco allowed during the regular season. That was the second-highest percentage in the NFL behind Denver. Only five teams allowed more scoring passes to tight ends.

Nice option to have: The Falcons allowed a league-high 8.9 yards per carry to opposing quarterbacks this season, ranking just worse than Buffalo (8.8) and Green Bay (8.5). Kaepernick set an NFL record for quarterbacks with 181 yards rushing against the Packers in the divisional round.

Atlanta has allowed a respectable 3.9 yards per carry on the 36 regular-season and postseason option rushes when quarterbacks handed off the ball. But opposing QBs gained 124 yards on six carries when quarterbacks kept the ball. Cam Newton accounted for nearly all that yardage thanks to option runs covering 72, 32 and 10 yards against the Falcons.

The 49ers often run the option from Pistol formations. The team gained 233 yards rushing and passing from the Pistol against Green Bay. That matched the 49ers' total from the formation beginning in Week 11 -- when Kaepernick became a starter -- through the end of the regular season.

Kaepernick is getting most of the attention, but wouldn't it be fitting if one of the 49ers' most respected and longest-tenured players, Frank Gore, wound up leading the team to the Super Bowl? Gore says he's getting more comfortable with the changes implemented when Kaepernick became the quarterback. His 119 yards and 5.2-yard average against the Packers marked season highs for Gore since Kaepernick became the starter.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: Texans at Patriots

January, 11, 2013
1/11/13
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Houston Texans' divisional playoff game against the New England Patriots on Sunday at Gillette Stadium:

[+] EnlargeArian Foster
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsArian Foster is 90 yards shy of Terrell Davis' rushing record of 515 yards for a player's first four postseason games.
Play-action influence: Per ESPN Stats & Information, when using play-action, Matt Schaub's yards per attempt average on passes deeper than 10 yards downfield (15.5) ranks fourth in the league. On those same throws without play-action fakes, Schaub’s yards per attempt (10.4) ranks 14th, and only four quarterbacks have a worse touchdown-interception differential than Schaub (minus-2). Everyone knows Arian Foster and the run game get this offense going. He has been great in three playoff games allowing play-action to work. His 425 rushing yards are the most ever by a player in his first three playoff games. He needs 91 in this game to surpass Terrell Davis' record for rushing yards in a back’s first four playoff games. Foster has averaged 2.7 yards per rush before first contact this season, but was unable to find space to run in most of the Texans' losses. He averaged 1.9 yards in those losses, including 1.6 against the Patriots, compared with 2.9 yards in wins.

Tight ends: Texans strong safety Glover Quin was responsible for shutting down Cincinnati's Jermaine Gresham last week (though Gresham did have two critical drops). Tight ends have been targeted 124 times this season against the Texans, tied for fourth most in the league, but Houston has been successful defending them everywhere except the end zone. Opponents completed 58 percent of their passes to tight ends (second-best defensive percentage in the league), 6.3 yards per attempt (third) and got a first down 34 percent of the time. But tight ends caught 11 touchdowns against Houston, tied for 31st among defenses. On the other side of the ball, the Texans have used multiple tight ends on 72 percent of their plays this season (excluding spikes and kneel downs). It’s the first time since New England drafted Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski a team other than Patriots finished with the highest use of multiple-tight end formations. Even with Hernandez and Gronkowski both missing games this season, the Patriots used multiple tight ends on 49 percent of their plays (fifth highest).

No time: Tom Brady has had the quickest release in the NFL this season. ESPN Stats & Information says he held onto the ball on average for 3.03 seconds from the snap until either the pass, sack or scramble attempt. Brady was able to pass 25 times within 3.0 seconds of the snap in Week 14 against the Texans, completing 68 percent of those throws with three touchdowns. The Texans have to force him to hold it longer. If he has the ball for at least three seconds, his completion percentage drops from .720 to .410 and his yards per attempt drop from 8.1 to 6.4. Brady went 13-of-19 with three touchdowns against five or more pass-rushers in Week 14 against the Texans.

The Reed effect: Texans linebacker Brooks Reed missed the Week 14 blowout loss to the Patriots with a groin injury. Reed’s presence has provided a boost to the Texans’ defense this year. With him on the field, they’ve given up 4.8 yards per play, 6.2 yards per pass, 3.9 yards per rush and a rushing touchdown every 215 plays. Without him, it has been 5.5 yards per play, 7.3 yards per pass, 4.2 yards per rush and a rushing touchdown every 43.5 plays.

Also: The Texans, Patriots, Broncos and Ravens are the same final four in the AFC as last year. The Elias Sports Bureau says this is the first time ever the same four teams reached the divisional playoffs in a conference in consecutive seasons. … According to Elias, teams that lost by 28 or more in the regular season to a team that it then faced again in the postseason are 11-11 in the rematch. All six playoff losses the Patriots have suffered under Bill Belichick were rematches of regular-season games. … This is the fourth time the Patriots have been the No. 2 seed. They reached the Super Bowl each of the past three times and are 8-1 all time as the No. 2 seed. … Including the playoffs, Brady is 85-15 at home -- the best home record of any quarterback that began his career in the Super Bowl era.

Final Word: Seahawks at Falcons

January, 11, 2013
1/11/13
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Seattle Seahawks' divisional playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome:

Banking on Wilson: Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has 11 total touchdowns (eight passing, three rushing) against one interception in the Seahawks' past five road games, counting playoffs. He has the NFL's third-highest passer rating (104.7) and second-highest Total QBR score (87.1) in road games over that span (since Week 8).

The Falcons have allowed only six touchdown passes at home all season. They have picked off 12 passes in those games. Their QBR allowed at home (32.6) was second-best in the NFL this season (playing the NFL's easiest schedule surely helped).

Though Wilson outplayed the injured Robert Griffin III during Seattle's wild-card victory at Washington, his QBR score for that game (36.7) was his lowest since Week 7. It ranked 65th out of 95 QBR scores for playoff starters since the 2008 season. The quarterbacks responsible for the 30 lower postseason QBR scores -- Griffin among them -- went 3-27 in those games. Seattle probably needs more from Wilson to beat the Falcons.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports With another 100-yard effort Sunday, Marshawn Lynch can make team history, tying Shaun Alexander for the most games with at least 100 yards in a season.
Beast Mode: Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch has reached 100 yards rushing in five consecutive games and 11 times overall this season. He needs one more 100-yard game to tie the franchise record Shaun Alexander set during Seattle's 2005 Super Bowl season. Doug Martin (142), Cam Newton (116), LaRod Stephens-Howling (127), Alfred Morris (115) and Willis McGahee (113) reached 100 yards rushing against the Falcons this season. The Falcons went 3-2 in those games.

Irvin in focus: The Seahawks are counting on rookie first-round draft choice Bruce Irvin to take over for the injured Chris Clemons at the "Leo" position along the defensive line. The sack Irvin collected against Washington in the playoffs was his first since Week 14 and second in the Seahawks' past seven games. Irvin hasn't had a sack on the road since collecting two (plus a critical forced fumble) against Carolina in Week 5. Irvin has been building to this moment, however. He has played 57.3 percent of the defensive snaps since Week 14 after playing 39.5 percent of them previously this season.

Nice option to have: Increased use of option plays has helped unleash the Seahawks' ground game since a Week 13 victory at Chicago. The Seahawks are averaging 155.2 yards rushing before contact over that six-game span, up from 85 per game prior to that. The Panthers had 21 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown on option runs in a 30-28 defeat against Atlanta in Week 4. Newton then posted a season-high 97.0 QBR score against the Falcons during a 30-20 victory in Week 14. He had two touchdown passes and a 72-yard run against Atlanta in that game. Overall, the Falcons allowed 30 carries for 218 yards and two scores on plays ESPN charted as zone reads, options and option pitches.

Late-game worries: The Seahawks are riding a three-game road winning streak, but their defense hasn't been reliable during the final minutes of closely contested games away from home. That's a concern against the Falcons, who went 7-2 in one-score games this season. Ryan had four touchdown passes, zero picks and an 83.4 QBR score in the final two minutes of halves this season. That was up from 14 touchdowns with 11 picks and a 59.3 QBR score in those situations previously. Seattle's road opponents posted an 88.4 QBR score in fourth quarters this season, the highest allowed by any team this season and well above the average (55.1).

Late-game drama could be additionally nerve-wracking for Seattle given that regular kicker Steven Hauschka was placed on injured reserve with a calf injury. Veteran Ryan Longwell, 38, will be kicking in a game for the first time since the 2011 season. The Seahawks suffered a 30-28 home defeat against Atlanta last season when coach Pete Carroll opted for a 61-yard field goal try on fourth-and-8 with 13 seconds remaining. Seattle would presumably go for it if faced with a similar situation this time.

Final Word: Seahawks at Falcons

January, 11, 2013
1/11/13
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday’s game between the Seahawks and Falcons:

No. 1 doesn’t matter: The Falcons earned the NFC’s No. 1 seed, but recent history says being No. 1 doesn’t carry the clout it once did. From 1990 through 2006, No. 1 seeds were 17-0 in the divisional round of the playoffs. But the No. 1 seed has lost in four of the past five seasons, including the Falcons in 2010.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
AP Photo/John AmisMatt Ryan and the Falcons will try to get their passing game cranking Sunday against Seattle.
The 200 Club: Here’s a stat that might help explain why Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has yet to win a playoff game: In his three playoff starts, Ryan has yet to have a 200-yard passing game. Now, more than ever, I’m convinced it’s crucial for Ryan to come out winging the ball on Sunday.

Beware of the option: With quarterback Russell Wilson, the Seahawks use the read option at times. That’s something the Falcons have seen a fair amount of. Only four defenses had more read-option rushes against them in the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But Atlanta’s experience, mostly against Carolina’s Cam Newton, isn’t necessarily a positive. The Falcons allowed an average of 7.3 yards per rush on read-option plays.

The Triplets: The Falcons need to keep receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez on the field as much as possible. On plays when all three were on the field at the same time in the regular season, Ryan threw an interception once in every 61.9 attempts. But Ryan was picked off once in every 20 attempts when all three weren’t on the field.

No rookie jitters: Logic would say the Falcons have a huge edge because Wilson, a rookie, is coming into a loud and hostile environment. But Wilson is no ordinary rookie. He did struggle in his first five road games, throwing four touchdowns and eight interceptions. But, in his past four games on the road, including a playoff win at Washington, Wilson has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions.

Final Word: 49ers vs. Packers

January, 11, 2013
1/11/13
12:45
PM ET
NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about the San Francisco 49ers' divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday at Candlestick Park:

Season of change: These are not your 2011 49ers. The three players most instrumental in San Francisco's divisional victory over New Orleans last season -- Justin Smith, Alex Smith and Vernon Davis -- enter this game on different terms. Justin Smith will try to play through a triceps injury that has sidelined him for three weeks and will require surgery in the offseason. Alex Smith gave way to Colin Kaepernick as the starting quarterback in Week 11. Davis, who caught 10 passes for 292 yards and four scores in the playoffs one year ago, has six catches in his last six games. Kicker David Akers, who set an NFL record for field goals last season, struggled enough recently for the team to sign Billy Cundiff. Who are these 49ers, anyway? Tune in Saturday to find out.

[+] EnlargeJustin Smith
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports The 49ers are welcoming back Justin Smith from injury this week. Will he be near full strength?
Just in time: Justin Smith appears to be critical to the 49ers' defense. The team allowed 4.5 yards per play with him on the field and 5.1 per play without him this season. Opponents took a sack once in every 14.8 drop-backs with Smith on the field compared with once every 26.8 drop-backs without him. The 49ers forced a turnover every 41.2 plays with Smith and every 57 plays without him. Without Smith contributing at a high level, the 49ers will have a tougher time pressuring QB Aaron Rodgers with four-man rushes.

Something has to give: Rodgers had 22 touchdown passes and only three interceptions on the road this season. The 49ers' defense has allowed seven touchdown passes while picking off six passes at home. San Francisco held Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees far below their usual Total QBR scores this season. In the divisional round last season, New Orleans' Brees completed 40 of 63 passes (63.5 percent) for 462 yards and four touchdowns, with two picks and three sacks against San Francisco. His NFL passer rating (93.5) and Total QBR score (63.1) were good, but the Saints still lost.

Not much of a rush: The 49ers are facing a Packers team that went all season without producing an individual 100-yard rusher. The 1981 49ers were the last team to win a Super Bowl without having a 100-yard rusher during the regular season. The 1970 Baltimore Colts and 1966 Packers also won Super Bowls without one. 49ers RB Frank Gore hasn't hit 100 yards rushing in a game since doing so against Seattle in Week 7. He has eight 100-yard games over the past two seasons, but none after Week 8. Gore averaged 5.6 yards per rush in the playoffs last season, but he got only 29 carries in two games.

Watching for Woodson: The 49ers must watch for Packers safety Charles Woodson, who is returning from a broken collarbone. Green Bay has been about 50 percent more likely to blitz with a defensive back when Woodson is on the field. Kaepernick has completed 13 of 20 passes for 158 yards (7.9 per attempt) with no touchdowns or picks when opponents rush at least one defensive back. Former starter Alex Smith had a higher NFL passer rating (116.0 to 89.2) and QBR score (82.0 to 65.3) against DB pressure during the regular season. Smith led the NFL in completion percentage (73.0) against all forms of added pressure, completing 11 of 12 such attempts against Green Bay in Week 1. Kaepernick is at 57 percent completions against five or more pass-rushers.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: AFC South

January, 4, 2013
1/04/13
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North AFC: North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about wild-card weekend:

Rematch in Houston: This is the fourth time under the current playoff format that teams are meeting in the wild-card round in back-to-back seasons. In each of the previous three instances, the team that won the first game also won the second game. Houston won on Jan. 7, 2012, at Reliant Stadium 31-10. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990. Every other NFL franchise has won a playoff game since then. Cincinnati is 0-5 all-time on the road in the postseason, tied with the Saints (also 0-5) for the worst road record in NFL postseason history. If the Bengals lose, Marvin Lewis will become the first head coach to lose his first four playoff games since Wade Phillips (now the Texans' defensive coordinator) lost his first four before earning his postseason victory in 2009.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiColts QB Andrew Luck hasn't thrown an interception since Dec. 9 in a win against Tennessee.
Playing cleaner: Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck led the NFL with 23 turnovers in his first 13 games. But in the last three, he’s protected the ball well and not turned it over at all. Can he stay clean against the Ravens and ball hawking safety Ed Reed, or does he fall back into bad plays? Luck has thrown 10 interceptions on passes 15 or more yards downfield this season, tied with Mark Sanchez and Drew Brees for most in the league. Seven of Luck’s interceptions on such throws have come on the road, the most in the NFL.

Big plays from Andre: Andre Johnson has 10 receptions of 30 or more yards this season, tied for fourth most in the league. The Bengals' defense has allowed only 10 such passing plays all season, the fewest in the NFL. The Texans' ability to find such a play could be a gigantic factor in what I expect to be a defensive game. Matt Schaub has looked to Johnson too much in the Texans’ three recent losses. If the Texans are able to spread the ball around better, it can actually increase opportunities for the throws to Johnson to result in back-breaking, field-flipping plays.

Wayne in the end zone: As good as Reggie Wayne has been this season, less than 5 percent of his 105 catches and less than 3 percent of his 180 targets have been for touchdowns. ESPN Stats & Info says his one touchdown every 36 targets is Wayne’s lowest touchdown rate in the past five seasons, and the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL this season among receivers with at least three touchdowns. (The Colts' Donnie Avery has the fourth lowest with one touchdown every 38.7 targets.) Wayne needs 162 receiving yards to pass Cliff Branch for the third most in NFL postseason history and he needs one touchdown reception to tie Fred Biletnikoff, Antonio Freeman, Randy Moss and Hines Ward for third most touchdown receptions in NFL postseason history.

Also: A.J. Green has four touchdown catches this season on play-action passes, tied for third most in the league. Andy Dalton has not thrown a touchdown pass to any other receiver out of play-action this season. … The Ravens are trying to become the fourth team in NFL history to win a playoff game in five straight seasons. … Of the 16 teams he has faced more than once since 2008, Schaub’s Total QBR of 89.4 against the Bengals is his best against any team. … Arian Foster’s 285 rush yards are the most ever by a player in his first two career playoff games. … Joe Flacco’s not been pushing the ball downfield as much since Jim Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator.

Final Word: Seahawks at Redskins

January, 4, 2013
1/04/13
11:44
AM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North AFC: North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Seattle Seahawks' wild-card playoff game against the Washington Redskins on Sunday at FedEx Field:

Rookie showcase. Washington's Robert Griffin III (102.4) and Seattle's Russell Wilson (100.0) are the only qualifying quarterbacks in NFL history to finish their rookie seasons with NFL passer ratings in triple digits. They also are the first full-time rookie starting quarterbacks to face one another in an NFL playoff game. Houston's T.J. Yates was a replacement for Matt Schaub when he went against fellow rookie Andy Dalton in the playoffs last season.

Wilson and Griffin aren't alone among rookies playing prominent roles for their teams. The Redskins, led by Griffin and 1,600-yard rusher Alfred Morris, have a league-high 46 touchdowns passing, rushing or receiving from their rookies this season. The Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts are tied for second with 30 apiece.

Seattle also got 12 sacks from its rookies. Bruce Irvin had eight of them. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner finished his rookie season with 140 tackles, three interceptions and two sacks as an every-down player.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsSeattle quarterback Russell Wilson has shown steady improvement when facing heavy defensive pressure this season.
Picking their spots. Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said he counted nine all-out blitzes for Washington against Dallas in Week 17.

The Redskins collected a league-high 12 interceptions while blitzing during the regular season. Wilson, after struggling against pressure early in the season, has eight touchdown passes with no picks against five or more pass-rushers since Week 8. He has hit on six deep passes against five-plus rushers over that period, third most in the NFL. Deep passes are those traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage before the reception.

Wilson has eight overall touchdown passes on these deep throws, tied for second most in the NFL. He has thrown none of them on the road, however. His completion rate on these throws drops from 53.3 percent at home (16-of-30) to 28.6 percent on the road (8-of-28).

Pictures of health. The Seahawks enter the playoffs with zero starters on injured reserve unless you count guard James Carpenter as a player Seattle was counting on. Nickel pass-rusher Jason Jones and nickel cornerback Walter Thurmond are the most prominent Seahawks on IR. The Redskins' IR list features starters Adam Carriker, Brian Orakpo, Fred Davis, Jammal Brown and Brandon Meriweather. Also, nickel cornerback Cedric Griffin missed four games to a suspension and is returning.

Watch that play fake. The Seahawks have increasingly used play-action to great effect from the shotgun formation. Wilson has completed 14 of 15 such passes over the past five games. Both defenses must be wary. Griffin's average target depth jumps by a league-high 5 yards on play-action throws. His Total QBR score is a 13th-ranked 58.4 without play-action. It jumps to 86.8, fourth best in the league, when using the tactic. Seattle's defense ranks 24th in QBR allowed (74.4) against play-action. Washington's defense ranks third (46.9) by this measure.

Cornerback playmaking. Griffin, Wilson, Morris and Marshawn Lynch will command most of our attention as the most productive offensive players for each team.

There should be some outstanding battles in the secondaries as well. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is one of four players over the past 10 seasons with at least eight interceptions and three forced fumbles in one season (Charles Woodson and Ed Reed are two others to do it).

Sherman and fellow corner Brandon Browner tick off opposing receivers with their aggressive, sometimes against-the-rules tactics. The Redskins haven't gotten many calls along those lines. They made only seven first downs this season via penalties for illegal contact, defensive pass interference or defensive holding this season. That is half the NFL average and second fewest in the NFL behind Cleveland (six).

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: NFC West

December, 28, 2012
12/28/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

Three of a kind. Not since 1991 have three NFC West teams finished a season with winning records. It could happen in 2012 if the St. Louis Rams upset the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. The Rams would finish 8-7-1 with a victory. Seattle and San Francisco already have 10 victories apiece. The 1991 NFC West race finished with New Orleans (11-5), Atlanta (10-6) and San Francisco (10-6) ahead of the Los Angeles Rams (3-13). Also with a victory, the Rams would become the second team since the merger to post an undefeated division record without qualifying for postseason.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY Sports Steven Jackson is nearing another milestone. closing in on his eighth consecutive 1,000-yard season.
Making history. The Seahawks have never finished a season ranked first in fewest points allowed. Seattle enters Week 17 having allowed 232 points, fewest in the NFL by 21 points. Chicago has allowed 253. The 49ers have allowed 260. Seattle has allowed 17 or fewer points in its past four games, the Seahawks' longest streak since 2003 and 2004.

Milestone weekend. Steven Jackson, Russell Wilson and Aldon Smith are chasing milestones as the regular season wraps up.

The Rams' Jackson needs 10 yards rushing for his eighth consecutive 1,000-yard season, which would tie LaDainian Tomlinson and Thurman Thomas for fourth behind Emmitt Smith (11), Curtis Martin (10) and Barry Sanders (10).

Seattle's Wilson has 25 touchdown passes, within one of Peyton Manning's rookie record. Wilson, with a 98.0 NFL passer rating, also has a shot at breaking Matt Hasselbeck's single-season franchise record (98.2).

Smith, with 19.5 sacks, needs three to break Michael Strahan's single-season record for sacks. Houston's J.J. Watt (20.5) is nearer the record, however.

Stopping the bleeding. The 49ers have been outscored by 50 points and allowed more than 700 yards over their past five-plus quarters. That is nearly as much yardage as the 49ers allowed over a 12-quarter stretch of games against Chicago, New Orleans and St. Louis. The trend is about to end. The 49ers' Week 17 opponent, Arizona, has 735 yards in its past four games. The Cardinals' Brian Hoyer is making his first NFL start at quarterback.

Crabtree's time. The NFC West is in danger of finishing without a 1,000-yard receiver for the first time since the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions in 2002. The 49ers' Michael Crabtree needs 67 yards against Arizona to become the team's first 1,000-yard receiver since Terrell Owens in 2003. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald needs 215 yards to reach 1,000 for the sixth consecutive season. Seattle's Sidney Rice needs 252 yards for 1,000. Crabtree is averaging 91.5 yards per game since Week 13, sixth-most in the NFL.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: AFC South

December, 28, 2012
12/28/12
1:30
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

Playing at Indianapolis: The Houston Texans have never won in Indianapolis. They are 0-10 all-time on the road against the Indianapolis Colts. That’s tied for the most road losses against an opponent without a win in NFL history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. (The Minnesota Vikings are 0-10 at the Colts and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 0-7 at the Tennessee Titans/Houston Oilers.) But the Texans are a good road team this season. Houston is 6-1 away from home, the best road record in the NFL. Their lone road loss came in Week 14 at New England. Houston has won two straight road divisional games and is 4-1 in its last five divisional road games. Working against them: It’s going to be an incredibly emotional day for the Colts. They are locked in as the No. 5 seed in the playoffs while the Texans have home-field advantage and even a first-round bye at stake. But it’s Chuck Pagano’s first game back as coach since completing his treatment for leukemia.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesAndrew Luck has struggled recently -- completing fewer than 50 percent of his passes over the past four games.
Especially inaccurate: Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck has thrown for an NFL rookie record 4,183 yards this season. He ranks seventh in the NFL in passing yards. But he’s been especially inaccurate the last month, often missing his targets high. Luck has completed less than half of his passes in four consecutive games. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Luck and the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez, who did it earlier this season, are the only players in the last 10 seasons to complete less than half their passes in four straight games with at least 20 attempts in each game. Luck and the Colts have managed a 3-1 record in those games despite his struggles. Sanchez and the Jets went 1-3. Luck has had more of his passes defended (77) than any other quarterback in the league, 17 of which have been batted at the line of scrimmage. Houston has batted down 27 passes this year, more than any defense in the last four seasons.

Watt on the verge: Over the last three years, no NFL defender has had a more disruptive season than Houston defensive end J.J. Watt is having. Watt has disrupted a league-high 35.5 dropbacks this season. (A sack, a pick or a pass defended is considered a dropback disrupted.) Minnesota’s Jared Allen had the second-best season in the category in that time span with just 26 in 2011. Watt is 2.5 sacks away from a new single-season record and had three against the Colts in Week 15 in Houston. It’s a great matchup for Watt because Luck has had 135 of his dropbacks disrupted, 26 more than the next closest quarterback.

All-time worst: The Jacksonville Jaguars franchise is about to complete its worst season in history. If the Jaguars lose and the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Denver Broncos, Jacksonville will draft first. Otherwise the Jaguars can do no worse than second. They drafted second in 1996 (linebacker Kevin Hardy) and 1995 (left tackle Tony Boselli). Jacksonville has won just twice this season, but one was a 24-19 win over the Titans at EverBank Field on Nov. 25. The Jags have won three of their last four against the Titans. A win would leave them with a 3-3 AFC South record, and the Titans would finish 0-6 in the AFC South.

Big numbers: Titans running back Chris Johnson needs 168 rushing yards in Week 17 to reach 7,000 career rushing yards. He would become the fourth player in NFL history to reach 7,000 career rushing yards in his first five seasons. Johnson enters the game against the Jaguars with the seventh-most rush yards ever by a player in his first five seasons, trailing only Eric Dickerson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Emmitt Smith, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton and Eddie George.

Final Word: NFC South

December, 28, 2012
12/28/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Week 17 games:

The record book. Although his play has been dismal recently, Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman can make a lasting impression if he throws one touchdown pass against Atlanta. He needs just one scoring strike to set a new franchise record for career touchdown passes, which tells you a lot about the history of this franchise and its quarterbacks. Freeman currently is tied with Vinny Testaverde with 77 touchdown passes. A touchdown pass would also give Freeman the franchise record for touchdown passes in a season. He currently is tied with Brad Johnson, who set the team record (26) in 2003.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
AP Photo/John BazemoreMatt Ryan has put together a stellar record in the Georgia Dome, going 33-4 there in his career.
At home in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons haven’t lost at home this season. In fact, they’ve won 11 straight home games dating back to last year. That’s the longest streak in franchise history and the longest active winning home streak in the NFL. Quarterback Matt Ryan is 33-4 at home in his career. Since 2008, the Falcons are 23-1 at home against teams that did not finish with a winning record.

Touchdown machine. In his last five games, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has been responsible for 14 touchdowns (passing and rushing). That’s the most of any player in the league in that span. Newton also has a shot at Peyton Manning’s record for most passing yards in the first two seasons of a career. Manning threw for 7,874 yards in his first two seasons. Newton has thrown for 7,672 yards.

A (bad) place in history. We’ve talked a lot all season about New Orleans’ struggles on defense. There were a few minutes later in the season when it looked like things were starting to improve slightly. But this defense has a chance to set an NFL record for most yards allowed in a season. If the Panthers can manage 282 yards, the Saints will break the record (6,793 yards) set by the Colts in 1981.

The 5,000 club. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees currently has 4,781 passing yards on the season. If Brees reaches 5,000 yards, he’ll be the first player in history to hit that mark three times. Brees went over 5,000 yards in 2008 and last season.

Final Word: AFC South

December, 21, 2012
12/21/12
1:39
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

[+] EnlargeBrooks Reed
Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports Houston linebacker Brooks Reed returns from a groin injury to face Adrian Peterson and the Vikings.
Stop AD: Adrian “All Day” Peterson leads the NFL with 1,812 rushing yards and needs 294 yards to break Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards in 1984. Peterson needs 188 yards to become the seventh player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. According to ESPN Stats and Info, more than half his yards have come after contact. Peterson has rushed for 1,313 yards in his past eight games, the most by any player over an eight-game span in league history. He’s rushed for at least 150 yards in three games in a row. Houston is allowing 93.2 ground yards a game and gets one key defender, outside linebacker Brooks Reed, back from a groin injury.

To blitz or not to blitz: Aaron Rodgers has been sacked or put under duress on 31.1 percent of his dropbacks since the Packers’ Week 10 bye, second-highest in the NFL. Rodgers has been able to handle the pressure though; he has an 84.3 Total QBR when under duress this season, best in the NFL (league average: 24.9). The Titans' pass rush has really picked up in recent weeks, but it’s been against quarterbacks of far less stature than Rodgers. Will defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, whose job security is in question, continue to blitz or back off? Rodgers has completed 79.4 percent of his passes to Randall Cobb this season. That’s the highest rate for any quarterback-wide receiver combination with at least 50 attempts.

Beating bad teams: I never fault any team for its schedule, which it doesn't control. But let’s note each of the past seven Colts’ wins have come against teams currently under .500. Indianapolis has not beaten a team that currently has a winning record since the Packers in Week 5. Andrew Luck needs 74 passing yards to break Cam Newton’s record for most passing yards by a rookie quarterback (4,051 last season). Luck needs six touchdown passes over his final two games to tie Peyton Manning’s record for most touchdown passes by a rookie (26). Luck has thrown 18 interceptions this season, tied for the league lead with Drew Brees. However, per Stats and Info, Luck has also had seven potential interceptions dropped by defenders this season, most in the NFL.

Bad news for the Jaguars: Over the past 10 seasons, Tom Brady is 22-4 in games following a loss. Brady had 53 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in those games. That's bad news for Jacksonville, hosting the Patriots after their Sunday night loss to San Francisco. Jacksonville has been outscored 189-78 at home this season. It has the worst home scoring margin (-111) in the NFL. One more loss for the Jaguars and they will be assured of the worst season in franchise history. The team was 4-12 in 1995, their first season in the NFL.

On the verge: Chris Johnson needs 196 rushing yards over his final two games to reach 7,000 career rushing yards. He’d be the fourth player in NFL history to reach 7,000 career rushing yards in his first five seasons. Currently, he has the seventh-most rushing yards ever by a player in his first five seasons. With 71 yards, he’ll surpass Eddie George on that list. The Titans can take heart that they’ve got a young receiver to go with Johnson moving forward. Kendall Wright's total of 62 receptions leads NFL rookies by a wide margin. Justin Blackmon is next with 51. Wright needs 11 over the final two weeks to set the franchise rookie record for most receptions in a single season. Bill Groman had 72 catches in 1960.

Final Word: NFC South

December, 21, 2012
12/21/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Week 16 games:

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
AP Photo/John AmisQuick starts have been the norm over the years for Matt Ryan and the Falcons.
It’s how you start: Starting fast, like they did with an interception and a quick touchdown last week against the Giants, has become a trademark of the Atlanta Falcons. Since coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan arrived in 2008, the Falcons have scored more points (224) on their opening drive than any other team in the league.

Nickel and dime: Look for the Falcons to keep extra defensive backs on the field for almost the entire game with Detroit. The Lions have called for a designed pass on 67.2 percent of their offensive plays, which is the highest total in the NFL. Reserve defensive backs Robert McClain, Christopher Owens and Dominique Franks all could see increased playing time.

Padding the resume: New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees probably already has done enough to make himself a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But he can add another impressive line to his bio against the Dallas Cowboys. Brees needs 165 passing yards to reach 4,500. If he gets there, Brees will become the first player in NFL history with three consecutive seasons with at least 4,500 passing yards.

On a roll: Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has been hot in recent weeks. In the last four games, Newton has been responsible for 12 touchdowns (passing and rushing). That’s the highest total of any player in the same span. Newton also has accounted for 1,309 yards of offense in those four games, the third-highest total in the league.

Closing in on history: The Bucs are leading the league by allowing an average of 310.6 passing yards per game. That puts them on pace to finish the season with 4,970 passing yards allowed. That would shatter the NFL record (4,796 yards, set by Green Bay last season).

Final Word: AFC West

December, 21, 2012
12/21/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

No Luck in 2013 draft: The Kansas City Chiefs will get an up-close look at what it means to be able to get a star quarterback with the No. 1 pick in the draft. The Chiefs host the Indianapolis Colts and rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. Luck, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, has led the Colts to the cusp of the playoffs. The 2-13 Chiefs are on pace for the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, and quarterback is their greatest need. But there are no Lucks in the 2013 class, so the Chiefs will have to either take a chance on someone like West Virginia’s Geno Smith or acquire a veteran and take the best player available. Seeing Luck on Sunday won’t make reality easier to take.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesThe Broncos got their top QB choice in the offseason by acquiring Peyton Manning, but Brandon Weeden was on their radar.
Denver Broncos will get close look at Weeden: Brandon Weeden will be quarterbacking the Cleveland Browns in Denver on Sunday. It could have been different. Weeden could have been Denver’s quarterback. Had Peyton Manning not opted to sign with the Broncos, they very well could have tried to move up a few spots from No. 25 to take Weeden. But, of course, Manning signed with Denver in March and the Browns took Weeden at No. 22. The Broncos were scouting Weeden when they sent their jet to fetch Manning for an early-March meeting that set the signing into motion. It is clear the Broncos wanted to move away from Tim Tebow, and the strong-armed, pocket-passing Weeden impressed Denver’s brass. But in the end, Denver got its ultimate quarterback choice and did not have to draft its fallback choice.

Raiders trying to salvage NFC South slate: The Oakland Raiders’ game at the Carolina Panthers completes the AFC West-NFC South series this season. It has not gone well for Oakland or the AFC West as a whole. The Raiders are 0-3 against the NFC South and the AFC West is 5-10. Denver has three wins and both of Kansas City’s wins have come against the NFC South. Considering Oakland coach Dennis Allen’s roots are with the Falcons and the Saints, I’m sure he’d like to end this series on a high note. By the way, the AFC West plays the NFC East next season.

Could Chargers take another look at Ryan? The San Diego Chargers are ending the Norv Turner era and the Rex Ryan era could be coming to a close as well. Sunday’s game between the Chargers and the host New York Jets may mark the end of two tenures. If Ryan is fired by the Jets, could he be a possible replacement for Turner? The team interviewed Ryan and he was a top candidate before Turner was hired in 2007. If ownership likes Ryan, perhaps he will be on the list again. I’m not sure he would be the right choice. Ryan is a defensive coach and the Chargers need to get their offense and quarterback Philip Rivers right. We’ve seen Ryan’s New York offense flounder. The Chargers can’t risk that again.

Manning owns the Browns: Last week, Manning beat the Baltimore Ravens for the ninth straight time. It was the Broncos' first win at Baltimore. Denver’s opponent this Sunday is Cleveland. Manning owns the Browns, too. He is 5-0 against them. He also has been stellar at home this season. He has thrown 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions in Denver this season.

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