EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 12 heavy on impressive road wins...
• It's a bit too early for anyone to claim vindication in San Francisco. But for now at least, you have to give Jim Harbaugh the nod. The 49ers">49ers head coach made the controversial move to switch from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick at quarterback last week, and on Sunday we saw justification for the faith he has in his young playmaker.
But in just his second career start, Kaepernick showed he was ready for his recent promotion, running for one touchdown, passing for another and playing with the poise and control of a much more experienced veteran. In short, Kaepernick is proving his head coach correct, and doing his part to ensure that San Francisco remains on the short list of NFC Super Bowl favorites.
At 8-2-1, the 49ers are now firmly in command in the NFC West. Second-place Seattle lost 24-21 at Miami and now trails San Francisco by 2½ games with five remaining. The Seahawks also face the double whammy of
Kaepernick wasn't his sensational self of Monday night's easy win over Chicago at Candlestick Park. But he was plenty good enough in the hostile environment that the Superdome presents a visiting quarterback, completing 16 of 25, for 231 yards, with one touchdown (a six-yarder to Frank Gore), one inconsequential interception, and a very solid 90.6 passer rating. Kaepernick also continues to challenge a defense with his running as well, opening the game's scoring with a seven-yard touchdown scramble and finishing with 27 yards on six carries.
Let's not write off the Alex Smith era for good just yet in San Francisco. Things can change quickly in the NFL, and who knows if Harbaugh will have to turn to the eighth-year veteran again at some point with his team's season on the line? But for now, Harbaugh looks like he knew his team far better than the critics who have voiced skepticism about the timing and wisdom of his quarterback change. So far, his gamble is paying off, and his 49ers are responding to the energy and strong arm that Kaepernick brings to the table.
As for the vanquished Saints, who saw their three-game winning streak snapped, let's not completely write them off either. True, they're back below .500 at 5-6, and in this year's deep NFC, they might have to run the table to reach the playoffs.
But three of the teams that New Orleans needed to lose in the wild-card race complied in Week 12, with Minnesota (6-5) falling at Chicago, Tampa Bay (6-5) dropping a nail-biter at home to Atlanta and Seattle (6-5) falling by a field goal in Miami. Washington (5-6) beating Dallas on Thanksgiving didn't hurt the Saints either, because now those NFC East clubs have the same record as New Orleans. Eight teams in the NFC still have a better record than the Saints, but they're just a game out of a wild-card slot, so there's still plenty to play for in New Orleans.
But time is also of the essence for these Saints, because they face two consecutive road games in Weeks 13-14, and they're doozies: a quick turnaround to play at Atlanta (10-1) on Thursday night, followed by a trip to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Giants after that. If the Saints are going to stay viable in the wild-card picture, they're going to have to earn it.
The 49ers have no such sense of desperation. With a defense that featured pick-6 touchdowns by linebacker Ahmad Brooks (50 yards) and safety Donte Whitner (42 yards), and another parade of sacks and pass pressures, they are in position to roll to a first-round bye and take the Super Bowl shot they fell short of last season. Alex Smith led that superb 49ers team, but his Week 10 concussion opened the door for Kaepernick to show his stuff, and the kid hasn't disappointed.
So far, so good in San Francisco. It's Kaepernick's time and Kaepernick's team. It's still early, but Harbaugh's call looked like the right one on Sunday.
• Thanks to a gritty 24-23 win by Atlanta at Tampa Bay, Falcons fans can breathe again after two rough weeks. But the challenges aren't over for Mike Smith's team, even if the Falcons did improve to 10-1 and essentially lock up the NFC South.
For starters, Atlanta's starting cornerback injury situation is suddenly dire, with Dunta Robinson leaving the game in Tampa Bay in the third quarter with a possible concussion, and Asante Samuel going in and out of the game with a painful shoulder injury. It's not the news the Falcons need with pass-happy New Orleans coming to the Georgia Dome for a game in four days.
The Falcons are also still trying to get running back Michael Turner on track. He had just 17 yards on 13 runs against the Bucs, and at this point Jacquizz Rodgers (49 yards rushing, 30 yards receiving) looks like the only playmaker among Atlanta's backs.
Lastly, Falcons kicker Matt Bryant had a shaky day in his return to Tampa Bay, making just 1 of 3 attempts. Bryant somehow blew a 22-yard attempt just before the half, and missed from 48 yards in the final seconds, which would have given the Falcons a four-point cushion and taken the game-winning field goal option off the board for the Bucs.
On the plus side, you have to love how Matt Ryan responded to the worst game of his five-year NFL career, that five-pick stinker of a win last week against reeling Arizona. Ryan was a razor sharp 26 of 32 for 353 yards against Tampa Bay, with one interception and an 80-yard scoring bomb to receiver Julio Jones (six catches for 147 yards). It may not have been enough to restore his MVP candidacy to its October form, but it was a case of Ryan coming up big in the clutch.
But even in victory, it wasn't an easy day for Atlanta to stomach. You could almost see Mike Smith's hair get a little bit whiter after that one.
• The Falcons weren't the only Week 12 winner to come out worse for wear. Chicago stopped the bleeding of a two-game losing streak with a convincing 28-10 defeat of visiting Minnesota, but getting to 8-3 cost Bears coach Lovie Smith about a quarter of his roster. Or so it seemed.
Return man/receiver Devin Hester left early in the game with a concussion, running back Matt Forte exited in the second half with a gimpy ankle and cornerback Charles Tillman also injured an ankle. And that wasn't even the worst of it.
Louis was hurt on a blindside block by Vikings defensive end Jared Allen after a turnover. Allen wasn't flagged on the play, but
• Vikings super-back Adrian Peterson presumably missed the team bus and wound up taking a cab to Soldier Field on Sunday. That's kind of quirky, but after Peterson committed a key fumble in the opening quarter, leading to Chicago's first touchdown in a 28-10 Bears win, I'm more interested to know if he was allowed to ride the team bus to the airport?
• I don't think it's hyperbole to suggest the slumping Steelers may be playing to keep their playoff chances alive next week at Baltimore. That's why you can expect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to do everything in his power to make his return from a rib injury and play against the Ravens. Pittsburgh (6-5) isn't just trailing first-place Baltimore by three games, it now has the red-hot Bengals (6-5) to contend with in the wild-card race. Even if the Steelers can pull the upset in Baltimore, the Cincinnati at Pittsburgh game in Week 16 now looms as a potential showdown to decide the conference's second and final wild-card slot.
• I thought ancient Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch would do enough to cobble together an ugly victory at Cleveland,
So much for leaning on the Steelers running game. Pittsburgh rushed for a measly 49 yards on 20 carries, with Dwyer "leading'' the way with 19 yards on nine attempts. The Steelers had better hope Roethlisberger is ready to go next week in Baltimore.
• Leave it to the bumbling Chargers to come up with a new way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory -- by giving up a game-changing 4th-and-29 conversion late in regulation against Baltimore.
Yes, San Diego got hosed on the spot of the ball, even after referee Gene Steratore had the play reviewed and respotted the ball just inside the Chargers 34. That was still a half-yard or so away from where the ball looked to be in Ray Rice's arms when his knees touched the ground.
But 4th-and-29 and you legitimately give up at least 28½ yards? The Chargers almost deserved to lose for that alone, which they eventually did, 16-13 in overtime, on Justin Tucker's 38-yard field goal.
And with that, San Diego has its second three-game losing streak in its past seven games, a 4-7 record, and absolutely no hope of threatening first-place Denver (8-3) in the AFC West. At this point, I believe even Chargers head coach Norv Turner just wants the nightmare to end as soon as possible.
• Don't know the exact order of the coaching hot seat list in terms of temperature, but suffice to say San Diego's Turner, Buffalo's Chan Gailey, Kansas City's Romeo Crennel, Tennessee's Mike Munchak, Dallas' Jason Garrett and the Jets' Rex Ryan didn't do themselves any favors with Week 12 losses.
Cleveland's Pat Shurmur was able to notch his third win of the season and climb to 3-8 when the Browns knocked off the Steelers, but his club remains buried in last place in the AFC North. And on Monday night, a pair of embattled head coaches will square off in Philadelphia, when the good-as-gone Andy Reid goes up against Carolina's out-of-answers Ron Rivera.
• Really can't believe the Dolphins resorted to
• Hard to take the Seahawks seriously as a playoff-bound club with their pattern of close-but-no-cigar continuing on the road in Miami. Seattle has now lost five out of its six games away from CenturyLink Field this season, and those defeats have come by a combined total of just 24 points (a 4.8 average). At home, the Seahawks are a sterling 5-0.
And Seattle's bid for a playoff berth just got considerably more difficult if the reports of impending
But it was the defense that let the Seahawks down against Miami, giving up 17 points in the final nine minutes of the game -- no small feat for a Dolphins offense that has scored just 10 points in its past two games combined. Seattle lacks a dose of killer instinct on the road, and that's bad news given that Sunday started a stretch that will take it from Miami to Chicago to Toronto (against the Bills) in a span of just 22 days.
The Seahawks may earn a wild-card berth by just winning their final three home games and getting to a 9-7 record, but I don't think they can count on it. At least one more road win is probably necessary, and that's one more than Seattle looks capable of about now.
• That said, the pivotal roughing-the-quarterback call against Seahawks safety Earl Thomas -- which negated an end zone interception by Seattle rookie linebacker Bobby Wagner in the fourth quarter -- was beyond ticky-tacky. I know any contact with a quarterback above the shoulders draws a hankie these days, but Thomas was airborne before Miami's Ryan Tannehill released the ball, and didn't land anything but a glancing blow on the quarterback on his way down (making no helmet-to-helmet contact of any kind).
• That Carson Palmer trade is the gift that just keeps giving in Cincinnati. The ex-Bengals quarterback didn't exactly rub Mike Brown's nose in it on Sunday, did he? Palmer came back to Paul Brown Stadium with the Raiders and made a pretty good case for why dumping him was the best thing the Bengals ever did. Palmer's line in the 34-10 blowout loss to Cincinnati? One touchdown pass, one interception, one fumble lost, four sacks and just 146 yards on 19 of 34 passing.
Palmer's replacement in tiger stripes did considerably better. Second-year Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton helped Cincinnati to a 24-0 first-half lead and finished with three touchdown passes and 210 yards without an interception.
• The Bengals could really give opposing defenses some trouble down the stretch if they
Sanu's two-yard touchdown catch was a ridiculous one-handed grab in the back corner of the end zone, giving the Bengals a 14-0 first-quarter lead and the eventual game-winning points.
• The Rams and Cardinals squared off in Arizona, and that thankfully meant someone had to finally win (or tie, again). St. Louis was 0-4-1 since beating Arizona in Week 5, and the Cardinals entered with a six-game losing streak after their last meeting with the Rams.
Make that seven defeats in a row for an Arizona team that threatens to set back NFL quarterbacking by several decades. The Cardinals gave rookie Ryan Lindley his first start against St. Louis, and it did not make anyone in the desert forget Kurt Warner. Lindley completed 31 passes to his own team, and four to St. Louis, with Rams rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins taking two of those picks to the house, for touchdown returns of 36 and 39 yards.
As for the winning quarterback, the Rams' Sam Bradford didn't exactly put on a tour de force performance, completing just 8 of 17 passes, but for 205 yards, a pair of touchdowns and one ugly interception. St. Louis might just have its own quarterback issue to grapple with in 2013.
• At least with Chad Henne at quarterback, the Jaguars look like a decent NFL offense. You couldn't say that for most of the season with Blaine Gabbert under center. Henne led the Jaguars to their first home win of the season, a 24-19 conquest of Tennessee, overcoming a slow start to complete 17 of 26 passes for 261 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Jacksonville hadn't just been beaten at home in its first five games of the season, it had been outclassed, losing each game by at least 17 points. The Jaguars might have cost themselves next year's No. 1 overall draft choice with the win, but maybe the need for a new starting quarterback option looks a little less pressing with Henne's emergence the past two weeks.
• Week 12 had a lot of memorable moments, but how do you beat that Ed Hochuli gem Sunday? By way of explaining that Colts rookie receiver/return man T.Y. Hilton did not fumble on a punt return, the NFL's most well-known referee opened his mic and informed the masses that Hilton was down by contact before he dropped the ball, because his "buttocks'' were on the ground.
And I thought Ben Dreith's "he's giving him the business down there'' penalty explanation from that 1986 Bills-Jets game was my personal favorite in this particular genre. Now there's competition in my mind.
• I guess Jim Schwartz didn't read what I wrote about Atlanta head coach Mike Smith in
Not that it will matter for long, with the league's embarrassed competition committee expected to quickly change a rule that shows no sense of perspective in terms of the punishment fitting the crime, and also manages to wipe out the underlying reason the NFL adopted instant replay in the first place -- to correct an obviously blown call.
How this rule ever got so complicated coming out of the competition committee in the first place is mind-boggling. Challenging a play that's already covered under another part of the replay system should be a five-yard delay of game penalty, not a damaging 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct call. The delay of game issue was the original problem being addressed, so dock the offending coach five yards and move on to the replay review. If coaches continue to abuse their red-flag-throwing privileges, start taking away challenges or up the yardage to the penalty. What's so tricky about this one?
Not really. I'm starting to think New England, warts and all, is again the team to beat in the AFC, and a very good bet to wind up in New Orleans, where its Super Bowl glory era began almost 11 years ago. And I say that knowing it's possible the Patriots will only have their playoff opener at home, in the first round.
New England's three touchdowns in that 53-second span of the second quarter against the Jets were fluky, but the rest of the Patriots' 49-19 dismantling of New York was legit. New England plays fast-break football, and it does it better than anyone else in the NFL.
The Patriots have scored 108 points in their past two games (played in a span of five days), and 190 in their past four. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that's the third-biggest four-game offensive explosion in NFL history, trailing only the 1950 Los Angeles Rams (208 points) and the 1948 Chicago Cardinals (195).
• When I first watched Ndamukong Suh's latest Thanksgiving day work, I thought his kick to the groin of Texans quarterback Matt Schaub was accidental. But the more I watched the replays, the more I began to see the possibility of intent. Am I just viewing it through the prism of Suh's rather violent on-field history? Maybe.
But that's the problem with Suh's past actions. He gets no benefit of the doubt or presumption of innocence. And he's put himself in that spot, both because of his dubious decision-making and his lack of candor or willingness to admit his mistakes. The league's in a tough position when it comes to disciplining Suh for his kick of Schaub. It has to judge his intent, all the while knowing it can't be 100 percent sure if he meant to inflict pain on the Texans quarterback.
• I think we all know who the real heroes were in the NFL in Week 12: Those