My updated Sweet Six after Monday night's 49er beatdown of the Steelers:
1. Green Bay (13-1). But a little vulnerable, now that the Giants and Chiefs have shown what a strong rush can do to a thin offensive line.
2. New Orleans (11-3). Tough call over the Niners. Just think Drew Brees can pass on anyone now, including the fine 49ers.
3. San Francisco (11-3). To play 14 games, 56 quarters, and not allow a rushing touchdown ... amazing.
4. New England (11-3). Mark Anderson (remember, Bear fans?) now becomes a keystone for the pass-rush after the loss of Andre Carter to a season-ending quad injury.
5. Baltimore (10-4). The way they've played on the road (3-4), you've got to look at Week 17 (at Cincinnati) in a much different light. The Ravens could still lose the division.
6. Pittsburgh (10-4). Not to be an I-told-you-so guy, and not to say Ben Roethlisberger playing lost that game Monday night, but are you telling me Dennis Dixon doesn't give the Steelers a better chance to win that game?
It's time to give credit to the Niners. Big credit. Now, I don't see them being able to win a game in the thirties in the playoffs; Alex Smith missed two wide-open receivers Monday night in the 20-3 victory over Pittsburgh, including Michael Crabtree for what would have been a first-half touchdown. But Smith has been good enough this year, and occasionally very good. And the 49ers do almost everything else very well. They're an amazing plus-25 in turnover ratio. They haven't allowed a rushing touchdown. Think of that -- 14 weeks without allowing a rushing touchdown. Think of the other top run defenses this year, and the touchdowns their defenses have allowed: Miami six, Pittsburgh seven, Baltimore nine. They rush the passer exceedingly well, particularly rookie Aldon Smith, with 13 sacks. When you watch the defense, you see a stream of pressure from all directions, from Ray McDonald and Justin Smith and Isaac Sopoaga and linebackers not named Patrick Willis who deserve more credit. (Willis does too; he's great. It's just that he has lots of help this year, and to hold Pittsburgh to three points in a game the Steelers were desperate to win shows what a good all-around linebacker corps the 49ers have.)
In the playoffs, San Francisco is going to be tough for any team to beat. But I think the 49ers would match up well against Green Bay, particularly if the Packers still have protection issues with Aaron Rodgers. Up front, the Niners bull-rush very well, and they can use Smith to get around the edge. I think it'll be vital for Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga to return in time for a potential January matchup. Rodgers is great, but no quarterback can be great if he's got the kind of pressure Rogers saw Sunday in Kansas City.
Now onto your email:
DIRECTV'S ROLE. "In regards to your section, "What the NFL's new TV deals mean", I was wondering if you could expound a little on the DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket package that the NFL has given solely to DirecTV? Are we consumers going to be forced to purchase DirecTV as long as we want the package, or will cable eventually get cut in on what seems to me to be a monopoly on content? It has always dumbfounded me why the NFL would seemingly limit its potential revenue from this package by only giving it to one provider. Any thoughts or knowledge you could provide would be welcome.''-- Garen, of Pittsburgh
But that provider is paying the NFL $1 billion a year for the rights to out-of-market games. If the NFL fragmented the package to different dish and cable operators, it wouldn't be exclusive, and wouldn't generate the interest in people around the country to get DirecTV. The NFL has figured out how to maximize TV revenue (I think) and that includes making you -- if you want to see all the out-of-market games -- buy DirecTV.
IT WAS JUST COMMON SENSE. "Do you think the fact that Kyle Orton had already played well against Green Bay (despite his Broncos losing) earlier this year helped Romeo Crennel select him to start on Sunday? Also, other than Kyle Orton, who was the last NFL QB to start two games in one year for two different teams against the same non-division team?''-- Paul Haering, of Woodbury, Minn.
I don't know the answer to the second question. But as for the first, I think Crennel and most of the other coaches on the staff had seen enough of Tyler Palko, and so when Todd Haley got fired, it was pretty clear Crennel would choose Orton or Ricky Stanzi to start the game against Green Bay.
CLARIFICATION ON THE $2 MILLION PER PLAYER FIGURE. "Question about the TV contracts: In your MMQB, you said: 'That's about $2 million per year per player over the nine years of the new TV deal ... from TV alone.' Is that money spread out evenly? so even players making the league minimum get that $2 million a year? That's a pretty nice bonus. Any word that the union will use some of that $$ for injured, retired players? Will the $2 million a year affect how player contracts are structured?''-- Steve Ferguson, of Atlanta
I should have been clearer in the column Monday. This money from television revenue is not extra money paid to players. It is a part of the revenue each team earns that it has to pass on to players as part of the salary cap. So when players are paid, I'm saying an average of about $2 million per player over the new TV deal -- from 2014 through 2022 -- will come from the money Big TV pays the NFL. It is not some bonus, or extra money in addition to a player's regular salary. Sorry for the confusion about that.
I THINK YOU SHOULD GIVE HIM A CHANCE. "As always love your column and look forward to it with my second cup of coffee every Monday. As a Jaguars fan from the beginning I just don't trust Shah Khan at the end of the day. I think the penalty for moving the team is pocket change to him and his comments regarding the Jaguars having an international flavor last week just leads me to believe he will take the team from Jacksonville and I can very well see it as the first NFL team in London. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this?''-- Wayne Mancil, of Saint Augustine, Fla.
I asked Khan Monday when I recorded my podcast with him. He wouldn't say, "I'm never moving the team, so help me God,'' and neither would I, because it's a dumb comment to make. How do you know what the future holds? What if the season tickets go down to 20,000 and there's no hope there? Having said that, I find his enthusiasm for being an NFL owner genuine, and I don't believe he's in this to build up the team and either sell it or move it. The podcast is available to listen to above, or you can check it out on iTunes, and I think it'll be worth your while.
A LITTLE SKEPTICAL ON JOHN HARBAUGH. "I was wondering your thoughts on John Harbaugh and the Ravens. A lot of folks here in Baltimore share the feeling that the coaching staff has wasted a tremendously talented team for the last few years and that the talent wins in spite of the coaching staff. Especially the head coach who seems to fumble the ball on game days. I know his record is solid, but it often seems like they go into games with one plan, and if the game doesn't flow as expected, they are just simply befuddled and overmatched. Seems there is no ability to make in game adjustments and half time adjustments. I can't think of the last time I thought this coaching staff out-coached an elite opposing team and coach. Is there any perception you hear from league insiders along those lines? This team has more talent than most teams in the league and they just can't seem to get over the hump under Harbaugh.''-- Drew, of Baltimore
I understand your frustration at the huge road failures this year. But I would think the overriding feeling in Baltimore about Harbaugh should be positive. He's 42-20 in the regular season, the Ravens swept Pittsburgh this year, and they're on track to play a home playoff game for the first time in his coaching tenure. I think he's done a very good job.
THE FITZPATRICK CONTRACT. "You mentioned the Bills thudding back to reality with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm. I want to know if it's realistic that the Bills can do something about his contract extension? I have heard, but not been able to confirm, that Buffalo has three days into the new league year to cut him and save $49M. Is that true and if so, is it a realistic possibility?''-- Lawrence Foster, of Roswell, N.M.
Good question. Mike Florio, my NBC partner, had a good note about the contract: The Bills have until the seventh day of the next league year, March 19, 2012, to exercise a clause in the contract that will activate the rest of the deal. To activate, the Bills pay him $5 million. If they don't pay, the contract is voided and the Bills owe him nothing ... but he's a free agent then. So after paying him his salary this year plus a $10 million bonus, the Bills would be able to move on. Not sure they're even thinking of that yet, but the way he and the team have played in the last two months, you have to think it'll be an offseason consideration.