Looking ahead at three points that should be key factors in the last month of the NFL pennant race:
The loss of Willis for any length of time would be devastating to the Niners, obviously. Missing him for Sunday's game at Arizona, you'd think, would be something San Francisco could overcome -- though the Cards are playing terrific on defense right now and could give the Niners a very tough game. The following week, Pittsburgh comes to Candlestick for a Monday night game. Let's say Willis sits 14 days, then tries to play against the Steelers. Worth the risk?
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told me Willis told him he didn't think the strain was serious, but players are going to downplay injuries most of the time. A hamstring strain is nothing to be trifled with. That's going to be a big key for the Niners' playoff hopes, obviously. The good thing for San Francisco is that a 3-1 finish would assure them of no worse than the second seed in the NFC playoffs -- and a bye in the first round -- because the Saints (the only three-loss team in the conference) have three conference losses. San Francisco has one.
Credit new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, a slew of young impact defensive players like Brooks Reed and J.J. Watt, and cool third-string quarterback T.J. Yates. "It's been happening the entire year,'' running back Arian Foster told me. "There's something to be said about chemistry and positive energy, which we've had since day one this year.''
Just as Foster shredded opposing defenses last year to win the rushing title, the Texans will be looking to him and backup Ben Tate (also a threat to gain 1,000 yards) to shorten the game and take pressure off Yates. "This is what you sign up for in this league, this kind of pressure,'' said Foster. "I've never been on a team with this much depth, so we're all going to contribute.''
Now for your email:
Receivers are the touchiest position, the most mysterious and hardest to predict. I'd have thought Cris Carter would be in by now. He's not. Check out the eight players in history, retired or active, who have more than 950 catches and who are NOT in the Hall:
I believe the blocking will set Ward apart and make him a prime candidate, but that's me. I'm just one of 44 voters. I can't tell you how the others feel, or whether they will view Ward as a stronger contender than some of the others. We'll see.
CAM IN A LANDSLIDE, MATT SAYS.
I'd lean that way too. But you've got to give Dalton credit for taking a team that went 4-12 last year, with no offseason program this year, and as a rookie having them in playoff contention. We'll see how the last four weeks play out, but as of now, I'd give it to Newton.
JULIO BLEW IT.
I don't think so, but he certainly should have caught the Hail Mary. Jones has been an exemplary teammate and a hard-trying player so far. Tough to judge a trade after 12 games, though certainly they need to see more production out of him.
LUKE THINKS THE GIANTS GOT JOBBED.
Once the official in the end zone ruled it was a touchdown, referee Jeff Triplette would have had to see indisputable visual evidence to change it. Now, I've watched that replay 10 times. It's a shaky catch to me, and I wouldn't have been surprised if the officials ruled on the field that it wasn't a good catch -- forcing the Packers to call for the replay review if they so chose. I believe what Triplette found when he saw the replay was the ball not moving significantly in Jennings' odd grip, and Jennings running three steps with it.
MICHAEL THINKS VINCE YOUNG WAS TEBOW.
The Young story's a little different. He took over early in the season and lost his first two, won two, lost two ... and then went on the great five-game run, including the amazing 24-point fourth-quarter comeback against the Giants. But in two of those games he didn't trail in the fourth quarter. So it's comparable to Tebow, but not the same. Tebow didn't have that 2-4 start Young had. He walked in and has gone 6-1, with the interesting comebacks to boot.