Three storylines to watch as playoff race gets interesting; mail

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Looking ahead at three points that should be key factors in the last month of the NFL pennant race:

The health of Patrick Willis after his hamstring strain Sunday. I recorded a spot with Cris Collinsworth for my SI podcast Monday (which you can listen to below), and he surprised me when he said, "That guy is my defensive player of the year.''

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.

The Texans have pulled a Costanza in 2011: They're doing the total opposite of what they've always done. Houston's a clutch team winning with defense. Since becoming an explosive offensive team with the Matt Schaub-to-Andre Johnson connection, Houston always had to outscore foes. But now, with Schaub and backup Matt Leinart out for the year, and Johnson iffy for the next couple of weeks with a bum hamstring, the Texans are playing close, low-scoring games and loving it.

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.''

The Steelers ' depth will be a factor as they chase Baltimore. The Ravens and Steelers are 9-3, but to win the AFC North, Pittsburgh would have to finish one game ahead of Baltimore because the Ravens own the series sweep this year. Pittsburgh's schedule -- Cleveland Thursday, at San Francisco, St. Louis, at Cleveland -- looks favorable, certainly. With Antonio Brown becoming a force in the return game (his 60-yard punt return for touchdown was the fourth first-half touchdown in the rout of the Bengals), and with the re-emergence of Hines Ward in the pass game (a team-high six targets from Ben Roethlisberger), Pittsburgh's going to be tough to scout down the stretch. Double Mike Wallace at your own risk.

Now for your email:

HINES HALL. "Couldn't help but be surprised by you saying there will be an "interesting call in Canton" about Hines Ward: 12,000-plus yards, two rings, the best blocker at his position, countless clutch receptions ... Even if he somehow falls short of 1000 catches, is there an valid argument to not put Ward in the HoF? Thanks for your insight."-- Dickie, of New York City

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'm not sure I understand how there's even a debate between Cam Newton and Andy Dalton at this point. They're nearly identical as passers in terms of completion rate, with Dalton slightly ahead in the TD/INT category, but Newton winning YPA by about a yard, and also throwing quite a few more passes. Once you add in Newton's running, it's not even close. Dalton's still in contention because his team has a better record? Maybe that has something to do with the fact that his defense is giving up nearly one less TD per game. What's Newton supposed to do about that? Play linebacker, too?''-- Matt, of Bangor, Maine

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. "Why isn't anybody talking about Julio Jones dropping a last second Hail Mary that would've essentially tied the game in Houston? Jones was awful on Sunday, dropping passes, running wrong routes leading to a Matt Ryan interception, not hustling back to line of scrimmage when ball needed to be clocked, and not knowing the play, causing Ryan to burn a timeout earlier in the game. Is it time to seriously question Thomas Dimitroff's decision to give up so much to draft this kid?'' -- Pete Riendeau, of Attleboro, Mass.

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. "As a Giants fan, I am interested in your thoughts on Jennings touchdown in the back of the end zone. Given all of the overturned catches in the past year or so, this looked like a lock to be overturned. As I was yelling at my television, it didn't seem like anyone on the Giants sideline was that surprised it was upheld. Am I missing something?''-- Luke, of Rochester, N.Y.

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. " 'If there's been a story like Tim Tebow's in the 27 years I've covered the NFL, I'm having a hard time recalling it.' As a Tennessee Titans fan, I remember this exact story playing out with Vince Young when he was made the starter in 2006. The Titans started the season with five straight losses before making an improbable playoff push behind the heroics of Young despite ugly stat lines and split public opinion about whether he was a just "winner" or getting lucky and not being the long term answer. We know how this turned out in Tennessee. It's fun while it lasts but it doesn't last long in the NFL. Do you see a similar scenario playing out in Denver?'' -- Mike, of New York

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.