NFL Nation: Steve Young

49ers' top plays: Catch II

July, 9, 2014
Jul 9
10:00
AM ET
Terrell Owens BRUCE GORDON/AFP/Getty Images
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in San Francisco 49ers history. Yesterday, we covered the throw from Joe Montana to John Taylor to win Super Bowl XXIII, and Monday we reviewed "The Catch." Please vote for your choice as the 49ers’ most memorable play.

Score: 49ers 30, Packers 27
Date: Jan. 3, 1999 Site: Candlestick Park

The Catch will always be The Catch.

SportsNation

Which is the most memorable play in 49ers' history?

  •  
    81%
  •  
    11%
  •  
    8%

Discuss (Total votes: 46,202)

Montana to Clark will forever be The Catch in the NFL for every fan, no matter who they root for.

However, for 49ers fans, there was another catch. Young to Owens. It instantly became The Catch II.

The play itself didn’t have the immediate or future impact as the original catch did. But in its own right, the Catch II remains an iconic moment in the 49ers’ rich history. Other than the 49ers’ five Super Bowl victories and The Catch, it is difficult to imagine a more emotional postseason moment in franchise history.

It involved two wildly different historic figures in team history. There was Steve Young, a beloved Hall of Fame quarterback. Then there was also Terrell Owens. Owens was regarded in San Francisco like he was regarded everywhere in his career -- talented but not worth the trouble.

Yet, the 49ers were happy to have him on this day. It wasn’t a perfect day for Owens, only a perfect ending. He started the day with four drops, including one in the end zone. But when Young needed Owens most, he was there.

The Packers took a 27-23 lead with 1:56 to go. The 49ers had to go 76 yards to win. The drive culminated on a 25-yard pass from Young to Owens. The play was unlikely. Owens was completely unreliable that day. Young went to him while he was tightly covered by two Green Bay defensive backs at the goal line -- with the season on the line.

Yet, Owens found a way to secure the ball, leaving the Packers standing in the end zone in disbelief.

Owens ran to his coach, Steve Mariucci, and collapsed into his arms, sobbing like a newborn. It’s a memory etched in the minds of 49ers fans everywhere -- just like Dwight Clark leaping into the heavens to bring down The Catch.
Tony DungyMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsCoach Tony Dungy and wide receiver Marvin Harrison combined for some very memorable Indianapolis Colts teams.

INDIANAPOLIS – The joke about Marvin Harrison during his 13-year career with the Indianapolis Colts is that he would be in plain sight but he was still hidden because he was so quiet. You didn’t know he was around unless he was embarrassing defenses while catching passes from quarterback Peyton Manning.

Harrison didn't worry about the extra thing. His focus was getting better on a daily basis and helping the Colts win games.

“He was very quiet away from the field,” former Colts general manager Bill Polian said. “Marvin wasn’t one of those guys that thrived to be the center of attention. When it was time to play -- practice time or games -- it didn’t matter, he was business 100 percent of time. He is one of the all-time best.”

Harrison, and former Colts coach Tony Dungy, could be thrust to the forefront Saturday if things go as planned for them.

The Colts receiver and coach are two of the 15 Hall-of-Fame finalist. A finalist must receive 80 percent of the votes.

The statistics scream first-ballot Hall of Famer for Harrison. He’s third in NFL history in receptions, fifth in touchdown receptions and seventh in receiving years to go with eight straight 1,000-yard seasons.

“Marvin Harrison had a tremendous impact on my career,” Manning said. “My very first football game in the preseason, on the third play of the game, I threw my first pass. I threw him about a 4-yard pass, and he ran 48 yards for a touchdown. I said, ‘Boy, this NFL is pretty easy. All you do is throw it to Marvin Harrison and he runs for touchdowns.’ That’s pretty much what he did throughout the time we played together. He is just an outstanding football player. A great teammate, and he truly helped me out a lot.”

Harrison was a perfectionist of his craft. His footwork had to be precise, he tried to catch anything thrown in his direction. He wanted the team’s best defensive backs defending him in practice, not a practice squad player who could be released at any moment.

“That was Marvin for you,” Polian said. “His unique ability at his size to get open and continue to play for as long as he played is witness to his phenominal athletic ability, great hands and work habit. He’s extremely, extremely gifted athlete. Far more than people realize because he’s made it look so easy. He was a clutch performer.”

Harrison’s career, which included going to the playoffs 10 times and winning a Super Bowl, ended in February 2009 when the Colts terminated the final three years of his contract because he didn’t want to take a pay cut.

"It was time," Harrison said told the Indianapolis Star in a recent interview. "I had the perfect owner (Jim Irsay), the perfect team, one team my whole career, Dungy leaving, I played my one year in the new stadium (Lucas Oil).''

Dungy wasn’t far behind Harrison in leaving the Colts. He stepped down as coach almost two months later.

Dungy, who coached in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, is in the top seven in wins amongst coaches with at least 100 victories. The Colts won at least 10 games in all seven seasons under Dungy. They won five division titles during that same time span, and Dungy is the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl.

“Everybody who makes the finals deserves to be in, but Tony is in a class by himself,” Polian said. “His record speaks for itself. He has replaced Wellington Mara as the public conscience of the NFL. “

Manning added, “Coach Dungy’s influence on me and our entire team was very strong…I’m indebted to him for his help for me in my career, and of course, our teams there in Indianapolis. I was very honored to play for him for a number of years.”
Candlestick Park StadiumHoberman Collection/UIG/Getty ImagesOn Monday night, San Francisco 49ers fans will empty out of Candlestick Park for likely the final time.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The odds are strong that Monday night will see the final game at Candlestick Park when the San Francisco 49ers host the Atlanta Falcons.

Barring a complete breakdown by first-place Seattle, the best the 49ers can do as a playoff seed is No. 5. In that scenario, the only way there could be another game at Candlestick – the 49ers move to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara in 2014 – is if they host the No. 6 seed in the NFC Championship Game.

Don’t count on it. According to ESPN Stats & Information, since 1990, a No. 5 seed has never hosted the No. 6 seed in a title game. So prepare to say goodbye to Candlestick on Monday night.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some remembrances of the historic but uncomfortable hunk of cement by the bay, as compiled by ESPN:

[+] EnlargeChris Berman
ESPNChris Berman reported from the field after "The Catch" game in 1982 at Candlestick Park.
“It was not the greatest-played game, but you couldn't have had more exciting a game. … The ball looks like it’s going into the stands and Dwight Clark leapt like a basketball player, made the catch. But the game wasn’t over. There was still a minute to go almost. … It caught even the city by surprise. It was fresh and it was fun, and who knew what they were building at the time. The whole thing sends shivers down my spine, that I was fortunate enough to be there and see it. It’s an iconic game in pro football history, let alone Candlestick. That’s what Candlestick will be remembered for more than anything else: that play, that game, even though there were some unbelievably great games, all the playoff games the 49ers have had there.”

-- ESPN's Chris Berman, who covered “The Catch” from Joe Montana to Dwight Clark in the 1981 NFC Championship Game

“I have a plethora of memories, phenomenal memories of championship games won and lost, Monday night games, big games, December games, games that decided the home-field advantage almost every year it seemed like. The locker room dripping down from condensation. The high tide would come in and you’d get that smell on the field, really soggy when it started to rain. The infield, when the Giants were playing there, with crushed rock, you’d get skinned up all through September and early October. The wind, obviously, early in the season, was always a factor. The stadium needs to close. She’s gone as far as she can go, it needs to be done. But for me, obviously it’s hard to see her go, it’s hard to see it end, and I’ll always miss playing at Candlestick Park. I missed it the second I left the 49ers, and I still miss being in that park. It will be fun to be there Monday night and see the last game.”

-- ESPN NFL analyst and Hall of Fame 49ers quarterback Steve Young

“When the 49ers beat the Giants on 'Monday Night Football' at Candlestick in 1990, I had this old, beat-up car, a Delta ’88. I bought it for $500. It was the worst car you’ve ever seen. The players all made fun of me. They called me ‘Uncle Buck.’ This Giants game is huge, and before we leave for the stadium from the team hotel Charles Haley says to me, ‘I need to ride over with you in that car to the stadium. I’ve got to get in the right state of mind.’ I told him my car might not make it – it was that bad a car. He insisted on riding with me. So he didn’t take the team bus. It’s the biggest game in my life, and my car’s going to break down on the way to the stadium. I don’t have a parking pass or anything. So Haley is out the window yelling at security to let us in. I am a nervous wreck. I think Mike Holmgren and George Seifert are going to fire me – my coaching career is over. Even when we got to the stadium, I was scared to go in the locker room. Fortunately, we won 7-3 and Haley played his tail off.”

-- ESPN MNF analyst and Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden, who started his NFL coaching career as a 49ers assistant in 1990

[+] EnlargeSteve Young
George Rose/Getty Images"I'll always miss playing at Candlestick Park," Steve Young said. "I missed it the second I left the 49ers."
“My first NFL start was at Candlestick against Steve Young’s 1994 49ers team -- and I was pathetic. But it was going home to the Bay Area, close to where I grew up, buying 75 tickets for family and friends. At the time, you try not to get caught up in the nostalgia, the history and who you are playing because they were just awesome. Though I didn’t play well, it’s still a great memory that I was able to have my first NFL start there.”

-- ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer, a Northern California native and resident who played his first NFL game with Tampa Bay at Candlestick in 1994

“I remember going onto the field at Candlestick and warming up. I would go to every corner of the field and throw the football because the wind was different in every area of the stadium. You think it would go right, and it would go left. Some areas you think it would knock the ball down, it would take the ball up. You wanted to know what the wind was going to do to the football, and I always felt that was to the quarterback’s advantage, knowing the wind current in Candlestick Park.”

--ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski, who played at Candlestick as a member of the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles

“The Eagles played the 49ers the last game in the final week of the 1993 season on 'Monday Night Football.' So we play the game and it ends up tied. They played a full 15 minutes of overtime, and with four seconds left Philadelphia was going to try a field goal. The kicker hooks it. He’s going to miss the field goal but the defender came in and roughed the kicker. So the game is over, the overtime period is over, but with a foul on the last play of a period, you extend the period. The Eagles re-kicked and won the game 37-34. It was the longest regular-season game in NFL history -- a full game, a full overtime, plus one play.”

--MNF rules consultant and former NFL official Gerry Austin, who refereed the longest regular-season game in NFL history at Candlestick on Jan. 3, 1994

Can Freeman follow past Bucs' QBs?

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
8:00
AM ET
TAMPA, Fla. – Maybe losing his job as the starting quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the best thing that could happen to Josh Freeman.

Freeman
With Wednesday’s news that rookie Mike Glennon will take over as the starter, it’s fair to say Freeman’s tenure in Tampa Bay is just about over. He’ll either be traded this season or be allowed to walk away as a free agent afterward.

While those might not sound like great options, the history of the Buccaneers suggests otherwise.

Doug Williams, Steve Young and Trent Dilfer all went on to win Super Bowls after departing the Bucs. Vinny Testaverde went on to have a long and productive career. Can Freeman be as successful as those former Tampa Bay quarterbacks?

I think the talent is there. But Freeman is going to have to land in the right place. After what he has been through with Greg Schiano, Freeman needs a different style of coach. Freeman’s laid-back ways and Schiano’s militaristic style didn’t work well together.

There are plenty of people around the league who believe Freeman has what it takes to be a successful quarterback. Someone will give him a shot at a starting job.

Maybe Schiano ruined Freeman forever. Or maybe Freeman can do what Williams, Young and Dilfer did once they got a change of scenery.

RG III report: Protect thyself

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
12:15
PM ET
RGIIIJohn McDonnell/The Washington Post/Getty ImagesWill Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III pitch out more on read-option plays this season?
Robert Griffin III, and everyone else it seems, knows what he must do Monday night. Before trouble arrives, hit the ground. Or get out of bounds. Or throw the ball away. It’s the same conversation that was had before his knee injury late last season; the volume, though, has increased. A lot.

Griffin will not abandon the run, whether a designed call or a scramble. It’s too much a part of his game and to ask him to just become a pocket passer is ignoring reality: Griffin makes huge plays with his legs, whether by running for a 76-yard touchdown (as he did against Minnesota last season) or by extending a fourth-down play by nearly 10 seconds and eventually picking up a first down (as he did against the Giants).

Still, the great debate has been how to keep Griffin safe. He can help himself by trusting more of what he sees downfield. He can also keep the ball alive when he does scramble, pump-faking as he approaches the line or even crosses it, something other mobile quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger do well. It can cause enough hesitation to either create an opening or allow him to slide without still getting hit.

"He can’t run as much," running back Alfred Morris said. "He has to be a smarter runner. A lot of times on options I’m like, 'Give me the ball.' Not because I want the stats, but give me the ball to let me take the hit. I can take this hit. I’m built for this. So just not as many hits and being smarter sliding instead of making something big happen."

Morris brought up a good point, too: Griffin can trust his weapons. With a highly productive back in Morris and healthy receiving targets in Fred Davis, Pierre Garcon and even third-down back Roy Helu, Griffin does not need to go it alone.

"No one person will win this game," Morris said. "It’s a team sport. You don’t have to make the big play every play. You won’t hit a home run every play. I know he’ll use that sideline a lot more and I know he’ll slide a lot more.

"If he tries to hit a home run every time out there, you’re living in la-la land. That’s unrealistic so you have to nickel and dime, nickel and dime and know that you have to be patient and that big plays are going to come."

Michael Vick understands the dilemma Griffin faces, trying to remain dangerous while running less. Vick has run the ball 791 times in his career, with two seasons of at least 120 carries, the same number Griffin had a year ago.

"Well, it's one of Robert’s strengths," Vick said. "It’s something that he does well and it's made him the type of quarterback that he is today -- and a successful one and a good one. But what I’ve learned is that you have to be cautious because these guys in this league they hit so hard and we only weigh about 210 pounds, 215 pounds and these guys taking all types of angles on us and we don’t even see them sometimes. So it's important for us to protect ourselves and be conscious of where we are on the field and most importantly understand how much we mean to our football team."

Vick's career has been marked by big plays and big hits, leading to concussions or other injuries. He has played in all 16 games in a season once in his career and hasn’t topped 13 in the past three. Vick said he's only now running smarter.

"It happens in time. It happens over time, and I can honestly tell you right now I didn’t learn it until this year," Vick said. "This preseason was the most I’ve gotten down and slid and ran with a sense of getting down and not trying to score all the time. I think once you tell yourself that's what you’re going to do, then you kind of ingrain it in your mind."

It's not as if Griffin ran with abandon last season. He got hurt trying to extend plays against Atlanta (a concussion on a third-down play in the red zone); and Baltimore (a second-and-19 scramble late in the game trailing by eight); and Seattle (rolling to his right in the red zone; he wasn’t hit). And he was better at running out of bounds after his Week 5 concussion.

Still, he said he'll have it down Monday night.

"I mean, you guys have been talking to me about it for eight months. I think it’s ingrained in my head now. I'll be getting down on Monday night," Griffin said.

Two other mobile quarterbacks in recent decades, Steve Young and John Elway, ran much less than Griffin. The most Elway ever ran was 66 times in 1987, his fourth full season as the starter. In 1997, he ran the ball 50 times. Young ran it more often (4.2 times per game) and in his last full season as the starter he ran the ball 70 times, the second-highest total of his career.

"If they can stay healthy, they can have dominant careers," ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden said of the read-option quarterbacks. "Now, the style in which they play concerns me because I'm not accustomed to seeing quarterbacks take the kind of hits and as many hits as these men take.

"I'm concerned with any quarterback that runs the ball and plays the position recklessly because as far as I know, the quarterback is the only guy that can't play on Sunday if he has a sore passing shoulder. That's my only concern. I love watching them play. I love the style of offense that they play. The combination of dropback passing and option football is just downright nasty to a defense to defend, but can they sustain that style of play deep into their careers and eventually become $100 million quarterbacks as well?"

The Redskins say they don’t have a number on how many times Griffin should run. It’s hard to do something like that anyway. But Griffin's size -- he’s listed as 6-foot-2, 217 pounds -- means that questions about durability will be in play, whether he's a pocket passer or scrambler. The fewer hits he takes, the better. They won't abandon the zone-read -- it provides big plays, both in the run and pass game, and they have a strong belief it protects him better.

"It is what it is, whatever that number ends up being," Griffin said. "I just want to make sure I go out there and play tough, play hard, play fearless, and at the same time, play smart."
SAN DIEGO -- I understand why the San Diego Chargers are trying to protect Manti Te’o from the media onslaught as the polarizing rookie begins his NFL career.

However, after watching the kid handle the spotlight on Tuesday, I don’t believe the organization has anything to worry about. The kid is a polished pro at dealing with the media.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsIt's safe to say that observers at the Chargers' Tuesday workout came away impressed with rookie linebacker Manti Te'o.
It’s stunning that any 22-year-old can handle himself publicly this well let alone one who had to deal with the pressure Te’o has had.

We all know the back story by now. The middle linebacker from Notre Dame was involved in an Internet hoax involving a fake dead girlfriend. It was the first negative publicity Te’o has ever had to deal with. It likely had a part in his tumble from a top-five prospect to being the No. 38 overall NFL draft pick.

Part of the Chargers’ plan for Te’o was to shield him from overexposure with the media. In the past several team workouts, Te’o has been off limits to the media. He was basically the only player in the NFL who was off limits to the media this spring, and the team caught a lot of national heat for it.

The Te’o sequester ended Tuesday as the Chargers made him available in a news conference setting only. There were about 60-70 reporters there for the end of the media boycott as it were.

Te'o handled it seamlessly -- just like he has with every media session since the hoax story broke.

Te’o patiently answered every question he was asked in a session that lasted about 20 minutes. He gave well-thought out answers. Nothing was off limits. However, there was no new ground broken nor did Te’o supply any headlines.

He did say that he was appreciative that the team made its media plan because it allowed him to focus on football. It is clear he is completely focused on the playbook and by all accounts Te’o is doing everything the team wants him to do on the field. He is pegged as a three-down player in San Diego’s 3-4 system.

Here are some of the more interesting tidbits from the Te’o session:

  • He said he did allow himself to watch the tape of Notre Dame’s blowout loss to Alabama in the national title game once. Te’o had perhaps his worst college performance in that game.
  • Asked why he went to a recent Maxim Magazine function that poked fun at his hoax Te’o said like, most 22-year-olds, he wanted to “check out” the party. Good answer.
  • He said several NFL luminaries have offered their support including Troy Polamalu, Ray Lewis and Steve Young.
  • We will further delve into Te’o’s transition to the NFL on Wednesday. But rest assured San Diego, there is little to worry about at this point -- on and off the field. The kid is impressive.

Pat Summerall never developed a signature call during four decades broadcasting NFL games for CBS and Fox. "Unbelievable" might have been as close as he came.

That probably wasn't by accident.

For Summerall, who died Tuesday at age 82, the broadcasts always seemed to be more about the games than what he had to say about them. That could also explain why I couldn't immediately think of a memorable call Summerall made during the 25 or so years I watched him on TV.

The San Francisco 49ers were the dominant NFL team through the 1980s, when Summerall began his memorable run with John Madden in the booth. The 49ers remained one of the best through most of the 1990s as well. But as things turned out, Summerall wasn't on the call for some of the 49ers most memorable moments.

Vin Scully and Hank Stram had the call for CBS on "The Catch" back in early 1982.

Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen were behind the microphones for NBC when Joe Montana drove the San Francisco 49ers downfield to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.

Summerall and Madden did have the call for Steve Young's winning touchdown pass to Terrell Owens against the Green Bay Packers following the 1998 season.

"Three-man rush and Young stumbles on the way back and fires up the middle," Summerall said as the play unfolded. "Pass is caught by Owens. Owens made the catch."

Eleven seconds passed before Summerall or Madden said anything.

"This is amazing," Madden said.

Another 15 seconds passed while 49ers players celebrated and the Candlestick Park crowd roared.

"Three seconds left," Summerall finally said.

A few more seconds went by.

"Terrell Owens was having a rotten day," Madden said, "but on one play here, does he make up for it."

Madden then described the coverage on the play before Summerall spoke up.

"Perfect pass," Summerall said, his first words in 18 seconds.

"Holy moley!" Madden said.

"Three seconds left as they line up for the extra point," Summerall said just as the kick sailed through, "and it's 30-27, San Francisco."

"And the 49ers are getting the monkey off their back today," Madden said.

"Unbelievable," Summerall said.

On Dennis Dixon and the Eagles

February, 14, 2013
2/14/13
5:16
PM ET

You never do know what a given day will bring. If you'd asked me this morning, "Dan, do you think you'll do posts today on Philadelphia Eagles backup quarterbacks?", I'd probably have said, "No, I doubt that very much." And yet here we are.

The Eagles have signed quarterback Dennis Dixon to a two-year contract. Dixon is a five-year NFL veteran who played his college football at the University of Oregon. His senior year there was 2007, which was also the first year Chip Kelly spent at Oregon as offensive coordinator. Kelly is now the head coach of the Eagles. All fits together, right?

Now, people are going to talk about how much sense this all makes because Dixon is a running quarterback and oh my goodness how could Kelly ever possibly call a single offensive play in the NFL without a super-fast running quarterback taking the snap. And I'm already getting questions on Twitter about whether he'll compete with Michael Vick and Nick Foles for the starting job or whether this means they're trading Foles. And so I figured a post was in order. Here is the basic point I would like to make:

It is Feb. 14.

Elaborate? Sure, I'll elaborate. It is Feb. 14. The Eagles' first game of the season will be on Sept. 8. That's enough time for Kelly to design and build a convincing cyborg quarterback and make it the starter if that's what he wants to do. (Seriously, Phil Knight has to be working on that anyway, right?) Stocking the roster with quarterbacks in mid-February is an indicator of absolutely nothing other than the fact that coaches know they need to make sure they have one. Most NFL teams go three-deep at quarterback all through the season. Three is actually kind of a small number for February.

And Dixon, dear reader, is a backup quarterback. He has played in a total of four NFL games and thrown a total of 59 NFL passes in his five years since he and Kelly teamed up at Oregon. Is he a useful backup? Sure. He's got two Super Bowl rings, including one he just won after playing Colin Kaepernick on the Ravens' scout team in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. He's got certain specific athletic abilities that are quite useful in practice. Maybe he can play Robert Griffin III in the weeks before the Eagles play the Redskins next year. Maybe his experience with Kelly, however brief, makes him useful as a guy who can help teammates who are unfamiliar with the new coach's style and terminology. These are important tasks for a backup quarterback, and Dixon may be well suited to them. But I sincerely doubt they signed him today with the expectation that he will play a significant number of regular-season snaps in their offense.

Hey, I've been wrong before. Maybe Vick gets hurt and Foles stinks it up and Dixon goes in there and becomes the next Steve Young. Maybe Kelly has some kind of crazy package he wants to run a couple of times a game and Dixon will be perfect for it. None of us can see the future. I just wanted, in light of the news and the response to it, to come here and make the point that not every player an NFL team signs is expected to compete for a starting role. Not even quarterbacks. And especially not on Feb. 14.

Grading the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII

February, 3, 2013
2/03/13
11:12
PM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- The San Francisco 49ers' tremendous second-half rally came up short. This is how the Baltimore Ravens graded out, while below is a look at how things played out in Super Bowl XLVII for the 49ers:

PASSING OFFENSE

After a shaky first half, Colin Kaepernick was spectacular as he rallied the 49ers back into the game. Kaepernick led them to 17 points in a span of 4:10 in the third quarter. Kaepernick also scrambled for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Michael Crabtree finished with five catches for 109 yards and one touchdown. Kaepernick's second-half play was brilliant. But he did throw the first Super Bowl interception in franchise history. Joe Montana never threw one. Steve Young never threw one. Montana and Young have Super Bowl titles. Kaepernick doesn't.

RUSHING OFFENSE

Frank Gore wasn't much of a factor early on as the 49ers fell way behind. But Gore had a few key runs, including a 6-yard touchdown in the third quarter and two big runs in the fourth quarter. Kaepernick didn't have any explosive plays off the read option, but his scrambling ability caused major problems for Baltimore's defense. Backup running back LaMichael James lost a second-quarter fumble that helped the Ravens take a 14-3 lead.

PASSING DEFENSE

Joe Flacco completed 13 of 20 passes for 192 yards and three touchdowns in the first half as San Francisco's secondary struggled and the pass rush was quiet. But, just like everything else, the pass defense improved in the second half. Still, it wasn't good enough.

RUSHING DEFENSE

This wasn't a big problem for the 49ers because the Ravens came out throwing in the first half. But the 49ers held Ray Rice in check when he did run.

SPECIAL TEAMS

San Francisco allowed Baltimore's Jacoby Jones to return the second-half kickoff 108 yards to take a 28-6 lead. But the 49ers did stop a fake field goal attempt in the second quarter and David Akers made three field goals.

COACHING

Jim Harbaugh did a nice job of getting his team back into the game after the power outage early in the second half. But Harbaugh's team, particularly Kaepernick, seemed uptight in the first half. Harbaugh is known for being extremely intense. I can't help but wonder if his high-pressure style might be why his team started so poorly. Harbaugh's play-calling at the end of game, when the 49ers failed to score on four plays from within seven yards of the end zone, also leaves him open for plenty of criticism.



Video: Kaepernick, Young one-on-one

February, 3, 2013
2/03/13
1:45
PM ET

Colin Kaepernick sits down with Steve Young to discuss his 2012 season.
NFC West colleague Mike Sando is handling our coverage of Randy Moss' continued assertions that he is the best receiver in NFL history. Based on Twitter, at least, it seems clear that NFC North blog readers remain interested in Moss' comments as well as the larger issues they spawn.

[+] EnlargeRandy Moss
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey49ers receiver Randy Moss has scored 10 or more touchdowns in a season nine times.
During Super Bowl XLVII media access periods on Tuesday and Wednesday, Moss has struggled to explain why he believes he has been a superior player to Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice. There are no statistics to back his claim; Rice played longer, caught more passes for more yards and more touchdowns, and also won three Super Bowl titles.

To me, there is at least one subjective argument Moss could make -- one I think he was implying with his quotes in Sando's latest post on the topic.

In short, Moss might well have changed the game to a greater degree than Rice did. To be clear, the West Coast scheme Rice helped popularize forced fundamental transformations from NFL defenses. But Moss has never been part of a revolutionary scheme. The changes he effected resulted from his unique individual skills. As Moss once joked during his time in Minnesota, the offenses he played in were best called "Moss, Go Deep."

As we discussed in 2011, when he announced a retirement that became a one-year hiatus, Moss forced opponents to develop and enhance new coverages to cover him. At the time, brackets, clouds and regular safeties over the top were exotic defenses rarely seen in the NFL. Moss forced them on a weekly basis.

Moreover, at least one team -- the Green Bay Packers -- changed their draft philosophy in response to Moss' arrival in 1998. The following year, the Packers drafted three cornerbacks. Two of them, Mike McKenzie and Antuan Edwards, were at least six feet tall, a size range the Packers deemed better suited to defend Moss.

Here's how Moss put it Wednesday, via Sando: "… Do you understand what a Cover 2, two-man, 3 Cloud, Tampa 2 is?"

Moss suggested that those defenses made it tougher to put up the kind of numbers that Rice did.

"Well, I think over the course of my career," he said, "it's not very smart for an offense to design a whole offense [around me] knowing that I'm going to be taking two and three and four guys here and there, on each and every play. It's hard for me to be able to put up numbers knowing that I have multiple guys guarding me on plays. But what I've been able to do, I'm happy with it."

I don't think that element alone elevates Moss above Rice, nor does the fact that Rice played most of his career with Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young. (Moss said Wednesday, via ESPN's Rick Reilly, that: "Jerry Rice had two hall of fame QBs his whole career. Give me that and see where my numbers are." But this argument isn't as much of a landslide toward Rice as many would suggest.
ATLANTA -- The San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons were division rivals for more than three decades until the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions in 2002. Their matchup Sunday in the NFC Championship Game marks the fifth game between the teams since the Falcons joined the NFC South.

Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats & Information reached into the vault to pull out three memorable games between the teams. The Falcons won two of them, including one on Steve Bartkowski's last-play pass to Billy "White Shoes" Johnson in 1983. I remember living in Northern California at the time and listening to the ending of that game -- or perhaps highlights of the ending, I'm not sure -- on the radio in my dad's old Ford pickup truck.

NFL.com has video from that final play, featuring a prescient announcer's call: "You've got to go to Billy 'White Shoes' and let him do a little dance with the ball and go to the end zone."

The two other games Hawkins singled out included the 49ers' 45-35 victory over the Falcons in 1990. Joe Montana set a career high with six touchdown passes. Jerry Rice caught five of them. Rice finished the game with 13 receptions for 225 yards.

More recently, in the divisional playoffs following the 1998 season, the Falcons scored a 20-18 victory over the 49ers in Dan Reeves' first game back from quadruple-bypass surgery. The Falcons went to the Super Bowl that year, losing to Denver.

The 49ers and Falcons faced one another for the first time in 1966 before becoming division rivals the following year. The 49ers hold a 44-30-1 lead in the all-time series, counting playoffs. That includes 43-26-1 as division rivals. The Falcons have won all four meetings since realignment.

The teams played to a 10-10 tie in 1986 when the 49ers played without Montana, who had undergone back surgery following a Week 1 injury that was considered career-threatening. David Archer's fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Sylvester Stamps tied the game for Atlanta. Archer completed 16-of-35 passes for 176 yards and three interceptions. Jeff Kemp completed 13-of-29 passes for 146 yards and two picks for the 49ers.

Relief performances such as that one from Kemp contributed to the 49ers' decision to acquire Steve Young from Tampa Bay in 1987.
ATLANTA -- ESPN recently made available analyst Trent Dilfer for a media session focusing on the AFC and NFC championship games.

I've made available below some of Dilfer's comments relating to the San Francisco 49ers-Atlanta Falcons matchup Sunday.

I was not on the call, which took place Thursday.

Colin Kaepernick's fame has taken off since the Packers game, and I was wondering with the magazine covers and Kaepernick on Twitter, why has he captured football's attention this way, and do you think he's an example of evolution at the quarterback position?

Trent Dilfer: Why do I think he's so popular so early? I think he's everything you kind of want wrapped up in one. He's big. He's good-looking. He's athletic. He can throw. Very articulate. And at the same time he's a little different. He doesn't necessarily look the part. And I think that's kind of cool and cutting-edge. And he's performing. I think at the end of the day you get famous in the NFL when you light it up. And he lit it up on a huge stage. He's had a couple of big stages where he's played excellent football this year. So the math kind of adds up. But between the performance, his persona, his giftedness, and the edge that he carries, too, that makes  I guess there's intrigue about him that people are curious about and excited about.

Is he revolutionizing it? I was thinking about the statements, it's funny in today's football if you try to be wise and discerning and think about things before you say them and not knee-jerk react, you're abnormal  why aren't you reacting that he's the greatest thing ever? I think I'm fortunate that I get to work with these quarterbacks at a very young age. So, for a few years I've been kind of seeing this coming: that the biggest baddest dude is now playing quarterback. And that was not the case for a long time.

Now they take the 6-foot-6, 250-pound great athlete -– the biggest, baddest dude on the block -– and they make him a quarterback and he gets this great training growing up and because of that, they're bigger, they're faster, they're stronger. They still have the passing skills. They're going to be more durable. It's a natural progression that the quarterback run-driven game is going to enter the NFL. And the NFL purists are going to continue to say, 'Well, they'll write a book on it, figure it out," and that's not true. They've never had to deal with the Colin Kaepernick, the RG III, the next generation of quarterback coming up that are pass-first guys but also have this physicality and this expertise in the quarterback run-driven game. They've never had to deal with it before. So Colin is one of many coming up that are the biggest, baddest dude that are pass-first guys that are highly athletic and gifted in the run-driven, quarterback run-driven game.

[+] EnlargeMichael Crabtree, Colin Kaepernick
Harry How/Getty ImagesBoth Colin Kaepernick, left, and Michael Crabtree can dominate any given game, Trent Dilfer said.
Obviously you think that the quarterback running game is here to stay, but to what extent? You still have to keep the guy healthy. Colin has only played eight games this year. Almost like a convergence of events that he was able to be so healthy as to be able to run like that. If he played 16, maybe not so much. Is there still a concern about keeping the quarterback healthy? Or Chip Kelly is going to be in the NFL now. Do you see a quarterback, you know, 12 to 15 running plays a game or will it be less than that?

TD: No. I think you'll see games where it's that many carries. But, no. Once again, big question -- I'll tell you the simplest -- Steve Young and I just spent 45 minutes talking about the same thing before I got on this call. The answer, believe it or not, for defenses, because there's a numbers advantage -- so the run-driven game, you have to first look at it conceptually. The quarterback run-driven game, you're always going to have a numbers advantage on offense when the quarterback's the runner, if you formation it right. Unless the defense plays what we call Cover 0 where there's no safety.

Nobody does that in the NFL because they're NFL receivers, beat the corner, quick touchdown. Setting that aside, everybody thinks the most dangerous part of the zone read or all the wrinkles off the quarterback running, when in reality what you want to do is the defense gets the quarterback to run. For the same reasons that all the purists are saying because eventually the quarterback running too much, getting hit too often is not going to survive. All that is true.

The issue, though, is it's going to be situational. You may not see him run for three and a half quarters. Still show run, and read and defense is taking it away, yada yada, looks like a normal offensive day and then on the third-and-6, in the fourth quarter, out to the fourth quarter, they're going to get you in a pass-first defense where they're defending the pass and they can run these quarterback runs, zone read or whatever it is, and they have not just a one-man advantage. Many times there's a two-man advantage, depending on formation and how the defense is set up.

I know this is a long-winded answer, but this is what people need to understand. It's not going  it's never going away if the quarterback is athletic enough and skilled enough to read it, because there always will be a situation in the game where it's an advantage for the offense to run it. And it really comes down to discretion of the playcaller not to abuse it. Because what happens in football is when something's working, we live in a snap-by-snap world. There's so much pressure on these coaches. There's so much urgency to -- we're not just winning a game but to win the snap, but now because of fantasy football, it's not just winning the game it's how you win. So, it puts a lot of pressure on the playcaller to not go to the well too many times, so to speak. You have to be very judicious in when you call these runs, because you know you can save them for late in the game and certain packages and they're going to knife the defense.

So, I know it's a long-winded answer, but I wanted everybody to understand. I’ve been talking for three years now to high school coaches, college coaches that have run this and gone to the zone read and studied it ad nauseum and it's not going away; you're just not going to see where the quarterback's running 10 to 12 times a game because he'll never last.

But, if you save it and you're judicious about it, now Colin Kaepernick, [against the] Miami Dolphins didn't have much success running the ball, but 4-minute drill, third-and-8, he goes 50 to seal the game, goes 30 the other night against the Packers. Russell Wilson with Seattle, they would save it for the red zone against Buffalo, long touchdown runs on it. I can go on and on. When the playcaller is judicious about it, there's some huge plays to be made.

I wanted to ask about wide receiver Michael Crabtree. What are your impressions of his development and how important that has been to this San Francisco offense kind of going to the next level?

TD: It's not surprising for those of us that have been around him. It's been, what, four years now in the league? It's surprising that he's starting to emerge [only] now. I have a chance to work out with Crab a lot, just after I retired, I was in town. He needed a guy to throw to him. I threw to him. And I remember saying this is  of all the players I picked, I never played with a stable of great receivers. But in my 14-year career he was the most electric guy I've ever worked out with, outside of the four walls. And I knew it was just a matter of time before he got in the system that kind of enhanced the skill set.

He was also banged up for a while. When you have a foot injury like he had for a couple of years, it's really limiting. There's also rumors about him not being a team guy and all that. I understand why he's just starting to surface. But he's always been this guy. I think the best thing that staff has done, especially the offensive coordinator, they've really  because they're a run-driven offense and they can create so many defined looks, like they know where the ball's going to go in the passing game a lot of times because they kind of dictate the looks, they put him in a position, they moved him around to where he's most of the time the primary read. So he's going to get involved in the game early. And every good player I've ever played with and guys I've talked to, you can talk to Key(shawn Johnson) about this or Cris (Carter) about that. If they get involved early and they know they're a focal point of the offense, they're naturally going to play with greater energy, more momentum. They're going to be more dominant.

And I think the Niners have done an incredible job, every game you study, those first few passes that they're designing for specific purposes, you know, emphasize Crab. And they get him going early. And then as the game wears on, he just naturally becomes the dominating force throughout it. He obviously is a very good run after the catch. He was that way at Texas Tech. I think the best thing he does which doesn't get talked about a lot is his conflict catches, when he's getting hit and catching the ball. That's the hardest thing for receivers, tight ends, when they're in conflict, tight cover -- still catching the ball. He's got some huge conflict catches this year that have moved the chains and led to points for the Niners.

The question I have is with Colin Kaepernick and the Falcons' defense. They struggled with all their running quarterbacks, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson last week. Watching film of how he picked apart Green Bay, what do you see Mike Nolan is doing to kind of improve their chances this week?

Now they take the 6-foot-6, 250-pound great athlete - the biggest, baddest dude on the block - and they make him a quarterback and he gets this great training growing up and because of that, they're bigger, they're faster, they're stronger.

-- Trent Dilfer, on Colin Kaepernick and the new generation of quarterbacks
TD: I think all the defensive coordinators are starting to learn from other coordinators' failures defending the quarterback run-driven game. And I spent all day yesterday trying to put on my defensive-coordinator hat and studying Kaepernick and Russell Wilson and RG III and the similarities of these zone-read games and all the wrinkles off of it. And what all coordinators do is what I did yesterday is they go through hours and hours of film and they kind of see what fronts and coverages and spacing is working most often. You don't want to get knifed as a defense.

You don't mind if you get the little incisions every once in a while. You're not overly concerned if  make them march the ball we don't want to give away the big play. Mike Nolan, he's doing the same thing, trying to develop a plan that increases his odds of not giving up the big play, the big knifing play.

The similarities have been defensive fronts have moved around at the line of scrimmage before the snap, kind of confusing the blocking schemes. Linebackers with their eyes very much on their gap, not necessarily the mesh between the running back and the quarterback. And then in the passing game, you know, really eyeballs on the quarterback. And that's all the big plays that these running quarterbacks are making, whether they're scrambles or quarterback-driven runs, the eyes of the secondary players and the linebackers are getting caught up either focusing on receivers or focusing at the line of scrimmage. The teams that have slowed it down have really good eye discipline.

So, he's going to build a bunch of fronts. So front-seven spacing, easiest way to say it. That's going to confuse the blocking schemes of the 49ers, and where all the eyeballs of those defenders are very keyed in to the quarterback, especially in the pass drops. When that's happening, you're forcing these quarterbacks to be passers like everybody else. They're really getting in trouble when they're diving in the line of scrimmage or chasing receivers around the field, that's when a lot of these big plays are happening.

Do you think that will help them from having the experience from those other guys, just everything they did wrong to help them get it right this week?

TD: I think so. I'm not saying he's going to come up with the genie-in-the-bottle plan, but I think every coordinator learns from other coordinators' mistakes. One of the best ways I've seen coaches coach, they get in the film room with the team and say here's 15 plays, this is where the teams playing this guy have gotten in trouble so let's avoid these situations. So we built a plan to keep you guys away from these situations.

So, I think you're going to see a lot of people on the line of scrimmage and zone-based schemes. That's the easiest way to say it. It's seven, eight guys around the line of scrimmage, kind of moving around, and then as they  if it's a pass, as they pass-drop, really standard zone pass-drops where all their eyeballs are on Colin Kaepernick. And in the run game you try to create as many people around the line of scrimmage as possible. You don't always have the numbers advantage. But if you've confused the blocking schemes you can get off blocks easier and get in the gaps quicker.

Continuing with the Falcons. They got the monkey off their back, so to speak, with the playoff win last week but seems like they're not getting a lot of respect at least for a No. 1 seed. Underdogs at home. Experts are picking the 49ers to win. Does it surprise you? Is it warranted that Atlanta still has some doubters now?

TD: I kind of see both sides of it. We're so -- as analysts, as writers, as a football-consuming audience, we love the quantifiable. We love being able to say, hey, they're this because here's a number to support it. And we don't dive into the psychology of it and the intangible qualities teams have. So from the quantifiable, it's very understandable why people don't believe in the Falcons. They don't do anything outside their passing game that just jumps out at you and says wow they're really good at A, they're really good at B. They also play a lot of tight games against opponents that are, quote/unquote, not top-tier teams. For all those reasons, I understand it. And at times I find myself getting caught up in that, too.

[+] EnlargeJayron Hosley
AP Photo/John AmisJulio Jones "is really the fear-factor guy" for the Atlanta Falcons, Dilfer said.
I just know that sometimes the most powerful thing in football is confidence, which you can't quantify. It's momentum that you can't quantify. It's will, competitive will, to make big plays in big moments. There's no number to support. When I look at the Falcons in that light, I see a lot of that stuff. I see a lot of the unquantifiable stuff that goes, that I go, wow, this team's really good. Seven fourth-quarter comebacks. Some of their comebacks are 30 seconds on the clock and getting the ball where they get it. Stops in games where they've been gashed on defense. But a big third-and-3, they come up with a big stop. They force a turnover. They don't flinch. So for all those reasons I really like the Falcons. But from a personnel, quantifiable matchup, they don't match up against the 49ers. So to me the game comes down to kind of the hidden intangible qualities of each team and which one is going to surface the most. I hope I answered your question. Trying to give you both sides of it.

Could you give a quick scouting report of what makes the Falcons wide receivers so tough and how you think the 49ers' secondary matches up against (Julio) Jones and (Roddy) White?

TD: And a great question. I've studied them a lot especially last week, I studied both of them a ton. I'll start with Julio, because I really believe -- I'm not taking anything away from Roddy. But I think Julio is really the fear-factor guy. When you're a dynamic passing game, you have a skill-position guy that creates fear in the defense. Like how they line up changes because that guy's on the field and that's Julio. He creates a lot of attention. And I don't like to just use the word double-covered, because we've ruined that whole term. A lot of eyeballs, a lot of attention on where Julio lines up. They know on the defensive side if they make the slightest mistake with how they line up, what their personnel shift is, what the personnel grouping is, their spacing, that they're one play away from just getting gashed. So why he's very good at the line of scrimmage, for a big man, he has very sudden feet.

It's not just quick. It's quick and explosive. That's why I use the term "sudden." He's very hard to jam. He's very competitive at the moment of truth catching the ball in contested coverage. He runs very good routes. And he's diverse. This year he's very diverse as a route-runner. Last year there were four or five things he did well. Everything else is kind of not quite sure if he would be in the right spot at the right time. Now they move him around. He's very precise in his route-running. He's explosive after the catch. He catches the ball in all three levels of the defense. The first level, second level, third level. Creates a lot of fear for the defense.

Roddy, the best auxiliary receiver in the league because he really could be a 1. But in this offense, he serves as a 2. And he gets the benefit of a lot of that attention that Julio gets from the defense. They run a lot of stuff where Julio will take the top off the coverage, for lack of a better term, or generate a lot of interest by the defense and Roddy's explosive enough and crafty enough to find those spots. And then you add (Tony) Gonzalez on there, obviously there's middle-of-the-field attention. So Roddy is more of a space guy, he works well in the space for the defense. Julio is more of a guy that creates space in the defense.

Most of us have a tendency to lump Kaepernick in the group with RG III and Russell Wilson and some of the quarterbacks of that style. And that's probably true to some extent. I'm wondering is he unique in his own way compared to some of those guys?

TD: It's a great question. I'm a big believer in what separates the better players in the league is a unique trait. You just go any position in the NFL. You say, OK, what separates person A from person B. It's usually one dominant unique trait that he has, another guy doesn't have. You know, Colin, RG3, Russell Wilson, one thing they're all very similar in -- this is what I'm trying to keep hammering home to people -- is between the ears. They're very smart kids. They're very poised individuals. They're highly, highly competitive. Their competitive temperament is built for the position.

And that is more important than the physical skill sets. But I think what maybe makes Colin unique to the other two is he's got the thickness, kind of the strength of Russell Wilson in a 6-foot-6 frame with the foot speed of RG III. You don't see many athletes like that. Like people keep talking about Colin is going to get hurt like RG III got hurt. I've been next to Colin. I'm 6-4, 238, and he makes me look tiny. I mean, he is 6-5. He's huge. I mean, he has big, thick joints in his upper body. Big wrist. Big neck, big shoulders. Wide hips. I know he's got skinny legs, but he's a thick dude. Works very hard in the weight room. He's going to be durable.

That's what makes him unique physically is that he's not only a great foot athlete, but he's got the stature of a tight end that can take, that can absorb some punishment. So I'm blown away -- even when I studied him coming out of the draft, I was like he's different. I didn't want to say better. He was just different than anybody else you studied because of his physical makeup. And he had the mind to fit it as well.

Above all else, the Chicago Bears' coaching search was focused on finding a candidate whose intellect and ideas would provide quarterback Jay Cutler the environment to raise his game to elite status.

Tuesday, we noted Cutler must be a willing recipient to a new level of coaching. Wednesday, as I discussed in this week's Blogger Blitz video, the Bears decided that Marc Trestman was best suited for the role.

Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, now an ESPN analyst, spoke eloquently this week on ESPN 1000 about the "platform" Trestman will provide and how Cutler will come to view himself as escaping "quarterback purgatory" if he buys into the program. Young played for Trestman in the mid-1990s when both were with the San Francisco 49ers.

"He can be as good as anybody if he wants to be," Young said. "But you need the platform to find out how good you are. I was in a platform in Tampa Bay [early in his career] where you are not going to find out. Then I got to San Francisco, and now I'm going to find out. I might find out that I still stink. I might suck at it, but I'm going to find out. ...

"You realize, 'I've been in purgatory, quarterback purgatory. I've been in a lot of places in the league where the quarterback is in purgatory.' You get discouraged, especially when you see others doing things and you think, 'That would be a platform I would love to have.' … I've got to believe that when Jay sees it, he'll see it as the greatest opportunity of [his] life."

For his part, Cutler told the Bears' website that Trestman is a "great hire." He said he has spoken with people who know Trestman and done other research as well.

"He understands quarterbacks," Cutler said. "He understands their thought process and the minds of quarterbacks and what we have to go through. It's going to be a quarterback-friendly system and I can't wait to get started with him."
Time for a quick quiz. Can you guess the pass-happiest game in the five-year history of the Aaron Rodgers Era?

Tick, tock.

Tick, tock.

Brrring.

It came in Week 1 of this season, the Green Bay Packers' 30-22 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. As the chart shows, Rodgers dropped back on 85 percent of the Packers' plays in that game (52 of 61). More than half of those plays (31 of 61) came without a running back on the field. The approach has come to symbolize the worst of the Packers' occasionally imbalanced offense under Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy, and it's an appropriate starting point for extending the conversation on how the team has changed over the ensuing 17 weeks.

To spur that discussion, I've circled back on two posts from the early part of the season. One documented the Packers' failure rate whenever they push past a dropback rate of 70 percent. The other illustrated the decline of their downfield passing success.

With the help of John McTigue from ESPN Stats & Information, I can tell you a couple things:
  1. The Packers dropped back at a significantly lower rate over the final two-thirds of their season.
  2. Over roughly the same time period, their downfield success improved, even if it didn't approach the heights of their record-setting 2011 season.

On the first point, the Packers averaged 44.6 dropbacks over their first five games, which was the third-highest in the NFL at the time. It was part of the reason they were 2-3 at the time, and it left them 2-8 in games they've dropped back at least 70 percent of the time in the Rodgers Era.

Thereafter, the Packers had only one 70-percent dropback rate: Their Week 17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Even with that game, the Packers' dropback average dropped to 38 per game over their final 11.

With a less imbalanced offense since then, as the second chart shows, Rodgers has had more success as a downfield passer. His QBR on throws that traveled at least 15 yards in the air has been 98.5 (on a scale of 0 to 100).

The Packers' offense still fell short of its explosive 2011 season. Its 40-yard completions dropped by 44 percent (from 16 to 9) and its 20-yard completions dropped by 21 percent (70 to 55) over the course of 16 games. Rodgers averaged 7.83 air yards per throw, ranking No. 27 in the NFL, after averaging the league's 10th-highest mark (8.97) in 2011.

What's more important, however, is the Packers made a steady climb since hitting that early road block. Why has that happened? Conventional wisdom suggests their balance has helped. But in in a conference call this week, ESPN analyst Steve Young discounted that theory and suggested Rodgers simply raised his performance level amid an incompletely formed offense.

"Defenses are predatory," Young said. "They smell trouble and then they go after it. And throughout this year, I think defenses smelled that there was really no threat from the [Packers'] run. You can talk about it. You can even have some success. You know the truth. [But] it creates a lot of problems for quarterbacks.

"And that's why I think Aaron had one of the great years ever, because he pulled this team along without all the weapons, without his full arsenal. You give him a running game and the ability to put the ball in the belly of running back and pull it back out, and have reaction from safeties and linebackers … you won’t stop him.

"I don't believe there's enough of a threat to change the predatory nature of how defenses look at the Packers. They haven't been straightened up to that fact. … I don't think they’ve done enough to change the perception from the kind of defense he’s going to be facing."

We'll leave it to people with deeper football knowledge than me to understand why this shift has occurred. Was it more balanced play-calling? Simply a yeoman effort from Rodgers? That debate can continue. What we can conclude is that there has been a notable shift. The Packers are a more balanced and more explosive offense than they were in Week 1, and it sure won't hurt them in Saturday night's rematch.

SPONSORED HEADLINES