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Tag:Drew Brees
Posted on: January 14, 2012 9:11 pm
Edited on: January 14, 2012 10:08 pm
 

Don't forget to give Niners defense credit

49ers defensive end Justin Smith was all over Brees Saturday. (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

The 49ers victory over New Orleans on Saturday might very well go down as one of the all-time great playoffs games. And Alex Smith is going to get a lot of credit for morphing into Joe Montana and leading the 49ers to a pair of lead-grabbing drives with less than 150 seconds on the clock. He deserves that credit, but let's not forget the effort that the Niners defense put forth against Drew Brees and the Saints for the majority of the game.

As we noted at halftime, San Francisco's physical play disrupted Brees, shut down any sort of rushing attack for the Saints and led to 13 points for a Niners offense that lost its identity for most of the game.

In fact, the Niners could've blown out the Saints if the offense had shown up for the first three quarters; even the Niners long scoring drive in the first quarter came off a Pierre Thomas fumble forced by Donte Whitner.

The secondary was resplendent with the exception of giving up two big plays to Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles, and Carlos Rogers so many big plays you could practically hear the general area of Washington D.C. groaning in collective misery.


Justin Smith showed precisely why many people believe he was the best defensive player in the NFL this year and through most of three quarters, the Niners played what might've been the best defensive football this season. And rookie Aldon Smith continued to flash big-time potential, forcing his way through blocks to pressure Brees.

The offense simply didn't come to play for the second and third quarters, and for much of the game, the playcalling was curious. That's not to knock Greg Roman because the plays he busted out in the final three minutes more than made up for it, but the Niners still only ran the ball 22 times. That makes zero sense, especially with a 17-0 lead early on.

Whatever, the offense came through when it needed to, but in the wake of handing Smith all the due credit he deserves, let's not forget to give props to the defense for not just keeping the Niners in the game early, but actually offering San Francisco a chance to run away with an upset victory that eventually came anyway.

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Posted on: January 14, 2012 6:23 pm
 

Physical 49ers jump out to lead, up 17-14 at half

San Francisco's offense was aggressive and impressive in the first half. (AP)
By Will Brinson

The 49ers had to get physical with the Saints to compete against New Orleans high-octane offense and they did just that early in the game Saturday, forcing three early turnovers to jump out to a 17-0 lead. But Drew Brees is kind of good and led two masterful second-quarter scoring drives to cut the lead to 17-14 at halftime in San Francisco.

It's a testament to just how explosive the Saints offense is that they're in the game; a pair of fumbles (one in the 49ers red zone, the other in the Saints red zone) and a pair of Brees picks in the first half should be nearly impossible to overcome.

Speaking of testaments, it's a testament to Alex Smith's career that his first career game with two touchdowns in the first quarter came on Saturday against the Saints. But we shouldn't knock Smith, considering how good he looked in the first half, 12 of 20 for 130 yards, two touchdowns and no picks.

It was the 49ers defense that deserves the most props for the first 30 minutes though. They were absolutely physical, hawked the mess out of the ball, flustered the Saints skill position guys and swarmed to the ballcarrier on plays that typically work well for the Saints, like screens to Darren Sproles.

Donte Whitner, in particular, was absolutely terrifying, forcing a fumble by Pierre Thomas (and knocking him out of the game) and generally wrecking shop/laying wood all over the field with big hits.

Whitner also provided a pretty good summary of the first half, in GIF form:

Whitner's absolutely laying wood against the Saints. (Mocksession.com)

With the 49ers holding just a three-point lead, it's anyone's game, obviously. And we'd be remiss to forget the second-half performance by the Saints last week at home against Detroit when assuming this will remain close.

But with the way the 49ers defense is playing, it would be shocking if the first Divisional Round game of the weekend didn't come down to the wire.

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Posted on: January 11, 2012 3:15 pm
Edited on: January 12, 2012 11:49 am
 

Film Room: 49ers vs. Saints divisional preview


Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

The league’s No. 2 scoring offense meets the No. 2 scoring defense at Candlestick on Saturday.

Neither side has faced this tall of an order this season. Here’s the breakdown.


1. Niners inside ‘backers on Saints stars
NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are the reason San Francisco had the league’s best all-around defense in 2011. Both are smart, supremely athletic and adept in traffic and space. Thus, both can play run or pass at the highest of levels, which is why neither comes off the field much.

All season long, defenses have tried to figure out not just how to stop Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles, but how to simply line up against them. Do you use safeties on Graham and linebackers on Sproles? Vice Versa? Do you go with cornerbacks for both and risk getting run on?

The Niners might be the first team that doesn’t have to worry about personnel packages against these two, as they may put one First Team All-Pro linebacker on Graham and the other First Team All-Pro linebacker on Sproles. Whether the Niners can win those matchups is another discussion, but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is extremely fortunate to be able to even consider it.

Instead of having his players focus on new strategies, he can have them focus on execution.

2. Handling the rest of New Orleans’ passing attack
The 49ers generally play zone out of their base defense and man when they go nickel or dime. Because Graham is like a third wide receiver, the Saints can stay predominantly in their base personnel if they’re more comfortable facing zone coverage. That should be the case Saturday, as San Fran’s cornerbacking trio of Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver outside and Carlos Rogers inside has been tremendous in man-to-man.

Those three are capable of matching up with Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Marques Colston – especially if safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are providing help as free roamers over the top.

Whitner is somewhat limited in coverage (his success tends to come when linebackers are blitzing, which defines the routes quickly and makes them easier to jump). Goldson, on the other hand, is very rangy.

Both players must be careful not to overreact to the subtle fakes and body language of Drew Brees. No quarterback manipulates deep safeties better than the new single season passing yards record holder.

Pressuring Brees is critical to stopping New Orleans. (Getty Images)

3. Pressuring Brees
San Francisco is willing to blitz but often doesn’t have to, thanks to the speed of edge-rushers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. Smith works extremely well with All-Pro defensive end/tackle Justin Smith on the left side when it comes to twists and stunts. That’s something the Saints left offensive line has struggled with over the years.

This season, however, athletic left tackle Jermon Bushrod has finally polished his pass-blocking mechanics and perennial Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks has ironed out the kinks he had in lateral pass-blocking movement. Nicks is also great at picking up Bushrod’s slack as a help-blocker.

The real key will be whether the right side of the Saints’ line can keep Brees clean. This Saints started clicking after their loss to the Rams, when Sean Payton tweaked the protections to give his tackles help with chip blocks from backs and tight ends. That’s the only way the Saints could survive the slow feet of right tackle Zach Strief.

If Ahmad Brooks draws even one true solo matchup against Strief on third-and-long, it means something has gone terribly wrong. (Or, it means the Niners will have gambled with an overload pass-rush on that side, which is plausible given that Bowman and Willis are both excellent blitzers.)

4. Niners run game against Saints D
The Niners make no bones about it: they’re going to win with Frank Gore, not Alex Smith. They’re a power-run offense – literally. Most of their offense derives from power plays, with left guard Mike Iupati pulling and fullback Bruce Miller or H-back Delanie Walker lead-blocking. The Saints have the personnel to stop this.

Former Niners tackle Aubrayo Franklin is a clogger inside and, when he shows up, veteran Shaun Rogers is a destroyer off the bench behind the generally incognito Sedrick Ellis. Also, defensive ends Will Smith and Cameron Jordan might not have dazzling sack numbers (Jordan, this year’s first round pick, recorded all of one), but both are superb at crashing inside or sliding down the line of scrimmage.

At the second level, Jonathan Vilma is regarded as the star (and rightfully so – he calls the signals and patrols sideline-to-sideline), but strong safety Roman Harper might be the deciding character on Saturday. Harper’s presence is what makes the Saints’ front seven so fast.

That will be especially important when backup running back Kendall Hunter, an underrated tempo-changer with better quickness and burst than Frank Gore, is in the game.

5. Niners big pass plays vs. Saints secondary
Jim Harbaugh is masterful at installing simple wrinkles in his offense each week that take advantage of the opponent’s greatest weakness. This week that means building a few downfield shot-plays into the passing game.

The Saints led the league in 40-plus-yard pass plays allowed during the regular season. The Niners know that if they keep extra blockers in for pass protection help (which their O-line needs, especially at tackle, where Joe Staley is very average on the left side and Anthony Davis, despite getting an embarrassingly nonsensical All-Pro vote, is very inconsistent on the right side), the Saints, with their green-dog heavy blitz packages, will bring the house:

In case you missed it, in last Saturday night’s broadcast, Cris Collinsworth did a great job explaining a green dog blitz. A green-dog blitz is when a defender in man coverage rushes the quarterback after he sees that his man has stayed in to block. Thanks to the speed and aggression of their linebackers, the Saints green-dog blitz as effectively as any team in football.

Thus, there are one-on-one matchups to be had downfield. Though San Francisco’s offense has been Gingrich-level conservative this season, downfield shots off play-action, particularly when the ball’s just inside midfield, have actually been a consistent element in their gameplans.

The Niners have to intentionally design their big plays because, other than maybe tight end Vernon Davis, they don’t have anyone who can conjure them naturally.

Michael Crabtree has great body control but “inexplosive” speed. Kyle Williams is quick out of the slot but not over the top. Ted Ginn has playmaking POTENTIAL but isn’t consistent enough to be considered an actual PLAYMAKER.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all the Divisional Round games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: January 7, 2012 11:43 pm
Edited on: January 8, 2012 12:01 am
 

Harbaugh prepared for Saints, gets them next week

Dallas' last loss caused one fan to take up arms. (Getty Images)

By Ryan Wilson

We joked on Friday's playoff preview podcast that maybe Jim Harbaugh was trying to stick it to archnenemy Jim Schwartz one last time by suggesting last week that the 49ers would focus most of their bye-week preparation on facing the Saints in the NFC Divisional round, even though there was a chance they could face the Falcons or Giants.


Harbaugh and Schwartz had trouble executing the post-game handshake back in October, when the 49ers went into Detroit and beat the then-undefeated Lions. (Turns out, the feud may have been brewing for months.) And we're guessing Schwartz relished the thought of going to San Francisco and beating Harbaugh in the 49ers' first playoff game since 2002.

First he and the Lions would have to get past the Saints in the Superdome.  Things starting well enough, but Drew Brees did what Drew Brees does and the final score wasn't close. Whether Harbaugh's Jedi mind trick backfired or if he really did spend most of the week planning for the Saints, New Orleans will take the field in San Francisco next Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET.

So do the 49ers have a chance? Absolutey.

No word yet on the Vegas line (we'll guess Saints -7) but slowing Brees (forget about stopping him) in 2011 has proven nearly impossible. He threw for 5,476 yards during the regular season, including seven consecutive games of more than 300 yards, including 25 touchdowns and three interceptions.

But the 49ers aren't helpless; they have one of the league's most physical defenses (they were No. 3 overall, first against the run and eighth against the pass). San Francisco also has the advantage of playing at home, although Brees this season was just as effective outdoors as he was in a dome (69.6 percent vs. 72.1 percent; 95.7 passer rating vs. 118.7). As part of the preparation, Harbaugh might look at two games that show that the Saints are fallible.


Record-shattering Drew Brees threw for 466 yards and three touchdowns, and the New Orleans Saints poured it on in the second half for a 45-28 NFC wild-card victory over the Detroit Lions on Saturday night. 

First: the Seahawks' wild-card win over the Saints during the 2010 playoffs. Marshawn Lynch rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown in that game and the Saints didn't have an answer for him. They also scored 41 points. The 49ers don't have a workhorse like Lynch in their backfield, at least one who's healthy. (And they also don't score a ton of points.) Their running game ranks 24th, and Frank Gore, who has been banged up for most of the year, is near the bottom of the league among all running backs in terms of total value and value per play, according to Football Outsiders.

Second: during Week 2 of the 2010 season, the 49ers played the Saints tough in San Francisco, back when Mike Singletary was still patrolling the sidelines and Alex Smith was perpetually a play away from getting benched.

New Orleans won 25-22 on a last-second field goal. Gore rushed for 112 yards on 20 carries (5.6 yards per carry) in the game, and Smith threw for 275 yards, completing 23 of 32 passes. Brees, meanwhile, managed just 254 yards in the air. (In the 30 regular-season games since, Brees has thrown for fewer yards once.)

But 20 months later and both teams are different. The Saints' offense is as finely tuned as any offense ever, and the 49ers have gone from eight years of losing to winning 13 games, the NFC West and the No. 2 seed in the conference. Harbaugh, who should be the unanimous choice for coach of the year, has his toughest job in front of him: convincing his team that they can hang with New Orleans.

It's not impossible -- San Francisco had their chance last year, Seattle capitalized on their opportunity, and the hapless Rams pulled if off this season -- just improbable.

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Posted on: January 4, 2012 4:15 pm
 

Film Room: Saints vs. Lions wild-card preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit


This wild card contest, featuring the NFL’s No. 1 and No. 5 offenses, might play out more like a college bowl game, with a back-and-forth barrage of points and yards. Unlike a bowl game, however, we can be sure that the barrage is a product of great quarterbacking and not mistakes from shaky underclassmen defenders.

Oh, also, unlike a bowl game, the outcome actually matters in the bigger picture, as the winner will still be in contention for a title.


1. Any hope of stopping the Saints’ offense?
Not really. The Lions gave up 31 points and 438 yards when these teams squared off in Week 13. They were without starting corner Chris Houston and starting free safety Louis Delmas that night, but attributing the loss to those players’ absence would be like attributing The Simpsons early-2000s popularity dip to the death of Maude Flanders.

The last team to slow Sean Payton’s offensive juggernaut was – believe it or not – St. Louis. They did it with a feisty four-man rush, press-man coverage outside and zone coverage inside. But that was 10 weeks ago – before Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod found his groove in pass protection (the first-time Pro Bowler has improved tremendously after being a major pass-blocking liability his first 4 ½ years).

Of course, the Lions will still have an effective pass-rush even if Bushrod can contain the relentless Kyle Vanden Bosch. And they have linebackers and safeties who have the speed to be rangy in coverage. And their corners, while primarily off-coverage zone defenders, have actually been impressive at times in man-to-man on third down this season.

But in the end, this is still a vanilla Cover 2 defense that would be nothing more than a house of straw if it got away from its foundation against Drew Brees. Not that Brees and the Saints can’t exploit Cover 2:

Something the Saints do as well as any team in football is create favorable matchups for wide receivers by aligning them in tight splits. This is easy to do against a Cover 2 defense like Detroit’s. In this shot, Devery Henderson is aligned tight, and Marques Colston (New Orleans’ top slot weapon) is even tighter. Because Cover 2 defenses always keep their outside corners on opposite sides of the field, the nature of this offensive alignment dictates that either Colston or Henderson can run an inside route against a linebacker or safety. In this case, we show you the option for Colston.

2. A crazy idea…
The Lions should do what all Cover 2 teams essentially do: commit to bend-but-don’t-break defense. Only in this case, they actually can break – as long as they bend a lot first. The Saints thrive on fast tempo and big plays – especially at home. If they have the ball, they’re going to score.

The Lions should try to make those scores come after 10 or 12 plays, rather than four or five. Coaxing an offense into long drives may sound insane, but think about: The more plays the Saints run, the more chances there are for a freak turnover. Also, the more chances for a red zone stop. Most important, long drives eat clock and shorten the game. That could keep the contest artificially close down the stretch.

Of course, this extreme bend-but-don’t-break idea is based on Detroit’s offense being able to dominate New Orleans’ defense ... which didn’t happen in Week 13.

3. Recapping the last meeting
A lot of Matthew Stafford’s 408 yards passing in the last meeting were empty, as the Saints held the Lions to just 17 points. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams took an uncharacteristically cautious approach, often rushing only three or four and focusing on double-and triple-team tactics against Calvin Johnson.

Williams often had his best corner, Jabari Greer, shadow Megatron, with plenty of help over the top and inside. Because Johnson devours man coverage, the Saints stayed mostly in zone (though they did match up man-to-man a bit when Detroit went to base personnel).

This formula held Johnson to 69 yards on six catches, though the numbers would have been much different if Stafford hadn’t underthrown him on what would have been a 53-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The rest of the Lions receiving targets took advantage of their opportunities against the Johnson-intensive coverage.

TE Tony Scheffler had 41 yards receiving; RB Kevin Smith had 46; Nate Burleson posted 93 (though his performance was overshadowed by three offensive pass interference flags); second-round rookie Titus Young had 90 yards (though he too overshadowed his performance with mistakes – mainly a boneheaded personal foul after the whistle).

In the end, though, it was the lack of big plays from Johnson that stood out.

4. Forecasting this meeting
Gregg Williams may go conservative again. His defense aims to create turnovers and chaos through fervid six-man blitzes, but that aggression is part of the reason the Saints’ yielded a league-high 14 passes of 40-plus yards this season. Against a top-notch aerial attacks like Detroit’s, a high-risk/high-reward approach is unlikely to go in your favor.

But Williams also knows that when Detroit has struggled, it’s been due to Stafford’s waffling accuracy and decision-making. Those issues calmed down considerably over the season’s final month, but there’s no telling how the 23-year-old might respond under the pressure of dueling with Brees in Detroit’s first playoff game since 1999. Williams will want to find out.

Stafford isn’t the easiest quarterback to blitz, though. He has a strong arm, quick release and the willingness to make stick throws with defenders racing at him. The Lions don’t have elite pass-blockers, but because they operate almost exclusively out of the shotgun, Stafford can be tough for defenders to reach.

Williams might find a happy-medium by playing coverage but giving his back seven defenders extra freedom in moving around and disguising their looks before the snap. That would get Stafford’s mental gears grinding. The Lions don’t like motile defensive presnap looks – that’s why they rarely use presnap motion themselves.

5. The X-factors
Figure Williams is going to do all he can to make someone other than Calvin Johnson beat him. The guys who must step up are tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler.

They both give the Lions formation versatility from base personnel by lining up along the front line, in the slot or split out wide. This is often done to create mismatches for, but on Saturday it will create mismatches for THEM.

If the Saints blitz, the tight ends are logical quick-strike outlets. If the Saints play coverage, one of the tight ends will draw a favorable matchup against strong safety Roman Harper (who got destroyed in coverage at Seattle in last year’s wild card).

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all wild-card games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: January 4, 2012 10:23 am
Edited on: January 4, 2012 1:47 pm
 

2012 NFL Postseason Awards

Brees and Rodgers could square off three times this year, if you count awards. (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

We won't bore you by listing our preseason predictions (you can read those here), but suffice to say, all of mine were correct. Take a peak at the midseason hardware if you want too, but right now we're interested in dishing out the awards for the full season.


Speaking of which, I've already ranted on Drew Brees vs. Aaron Rodgers for the MVP, but I find it fascinating that at midseason, no one even picked Brees for Offensive Player of the Year, much less MVP. I'm not here to knock Brees, I'm just saying the award's for an entire season's worth of work.

Anyway, below are our full season picks. (You can also read Pete's full season picks here and Clark's full season picks here.)

Most are obvious but "BFA" is "Best Free Agent Addition," "WFA" is "Worst Free Agent Addition," and "DOH!" is "Pick I'd Like to Have Back." (Haha, yes I did pick the guy who eventually iced his own kicker to win "Coach of the Year." At least I was driving the Camwagon though.)

Dive in below and leave your gripes and complaints in the comments.

Award Brinson
Wilson
Katzowitz
Prisco
Judge
MVP
Aaron Rodgers Aaron Rodgers Aaron Rodgers Aaron Rodgers Aaron Rodgers
OPOY
Drew Brees Aaron Rodgers Aaron Rodgers Drew Brees Drew Brees
DPOY
Jared Allen Terrell Suggs Jared Allen Jason Pierre-Paul Jared Allen
OROY
Cam Newton Cam Newton Cam Newton Cam Newton Cam Newton
DROY
Von Miller Aldon Smith Aldon Smith Von Miller Von Miller
COY
Marvin Lewis Jim Harbaugh Jim Harbaugh Jim Harbaugh Jim Harbaugh
ASST
Rob Chudzinski Rob Chudzinski Wade Phillips Wade Phillips Wade Phillips
BFA
Darren Sproles Darren Sproles Darren Sproles Darren Sproles Darren Sproles
WFA
Sidney Rice Braylon Edwards Santonio Holmes Ray Edwards Ray Edwards
Comeback
Steve Smith D'Qwell Jackson Aaron Maybin Matthew Stafford Matthew Stafford
Most Improved
Matthew Stafford Antonio Brown Victor Cruz Rob Gronkowski Rob Gronkowski
Surprise
Bengals Broncos Broncos Bengals 49ers
Disappoint
Eagles Jets Eagles Eagles Eagles
Executive
Rick Smith Rick Smith Rick Smith Martin Mayhew Mike Brown
DOH!
Garrett for COY Rivers for MVP Rivers for MVP Fins in/Lions out Rams in NFCW

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, Like Us on Facebook, subscribe to our NFL newsletter, and while you're add it, add our RSS Feed.
Posted on: January 1, 2012 11:39 pm
Edited on: January 2, 2012 8:53 pm
 

Sorting the Sunday Pile, Week 17: Brees for MVP?

Posted by Will Brinson


Sorting the Sunday Pile takes all of Sunday's NFL action, figures out the winners and losers and asks the big questions. Send your complaints, questions and comments to Will Brinson on Twitter. Listen to the Pick-Six Podcast Week 17 recap below and don't forget to
subscribe via iTunes
.

Drew Brees for MVP?

Over the next month, until the MVP is announced before the Super Bowl, there's going to be an intense debate about whether or not Drew Brees' incredible hot streak to close out the season vaulted him past Aaron Rodgers for the MVP award.

Four weeks ago, this wasn't a debate. Even with Brees having a monster year, the Packers were undefeated and Rodgers was eviscerating defenses on a weekly basis.

Their numbers were close enough to tell anyone suggesting a debate to kindly close their piehole.

Now? Well it's a lot closer than it was. The numbers (below) make that much obvious even though the actual premises behind the argument are just frustrating from the sense of measuring a season by its full extent.

Player
Comp % Pass Yards
Pass TDs INT
W-L
Aaron Rodgers
68.3 4,643 45 6 14-1
Drew Brees
71.2 5,476 46 14 13-3

The bigger problem for Rodgers may be a confluence of events around 4:00pm ET Sunday afternoon: as Brees was throwing his fifth touchdown pass (hey, just one more than Rodgers!), Packers backup Matt Flynn was going absolutely bananas against the Lions, slicing up Detroit's secondary for six touchdowns and 480 yards, a Packers franchise record.

Take a look at the list of the guys who've thrown for six teeters in a game since the merger. Spoiler alert: it's short, and full of awesome quarterbacks.

Flynn's on the list now and as a result, he's blatantly going to cost Rodgers a ton of "Well if the backup can do that" votes, while Brees staying in much longer than needed against the Panthers netted him a significant boost in the eyes of "What have you done for me lately?" voters.

But let's get one thing out of the way first: Aaron Rodgers is not a "system quarterback." Yeah, there's actually a debate raging as to whether he is or not. And if you believe that Rodgers is only successful because of the Packers "system" then you're as foolish as anyone who thought Tom Brady was a system quarterback when Matt Cassel had a big year filling in for the Patriots.

Every team has a "system" on offense and some -- the Packers and Patriots stand out -- are better than others. But Flynn's a good quarterback who's succeeded before (he nearly beat the Patriots in prime time last year), has a great pedigree (BCS title anyone?) and has spent multiple years working behind Rodgers. That's not going to make him worse. There's a reason the Packers, winners of 21 of 22 games since LAST Christmas, have him on the roster. And it's not because he makes a mean gumbo.

Look, less than two weeks ago, Rodgers carved up a very (very) good Bears defense on Christmas night. All season long he commanded the Packers offense like a conductor, made ridiculous throws that no one else in the NFL can make and generally let the world pencil his name in for MVP. 

His season's been so magnificent that it's somehow getting railroaded by the Packers losing to the Chiefs late (but don't forget, the Saints lost to the Rams and, uh, the Packers), sitting out Week 17 (a smart move with homefield clinched) and Sean Payton and Brees running up the score in order to break records (which is fine, but let's call it what it is).

There's no question that Drew Brees is a viable MVP candidate. He's had an all-time season in 2011. But judging the MVP race based on a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitude is shortsighted, and it diminishes the incredible season Rodgers had in Green Bay.

Winners

Tom Coughlin: Coughlin won the NFC East, despite sitting on the hot seat most of the season, and the Giants suddenly have a look of a team that could absolutely be a playoff sleeper. They can rush the passer mercilessly when they get hot, Victor Cruz is turning into a salsa-dancing monster and Eli Manning's smoking hot right now. Given the success wild-card teams have had in recent years -- hello, 2007 Giants! -- it would be foolish to count them out.

Maurice Jones-Drew:
"Mojo" ripped off a season-high 169 rushing yards on Sunday against Indy. That not only gave him the NFL rushing title for 2011, but also gave him the Jaguars single-season record for rushing yards, as he broke Fred Taylor's previous high of 1,572 in 2003. In a very dismal season for Jacksonville's offense, MJD's been an absolute workhorse. He's up there with Tony Boselli, Fred Taylor and Jimmy Smith in terms of all-time greats for the Jaguars.

Jason Taylor
: The only way Taylor's exit -- as a Dolphin, on the shoulders of his teammates after taking down the Jets -- could have been better is if the fumble he returned for a touchdown wasn't overturned. Taylor's a classy dude, a gamer, a hell of a dancer and at sixth all-time on the sack-leader list (not to mention a media favorite!), he'll find his way into Canton. Awesome career.

Matt Flynn: As noted above, Flynn had a decent day on Sunday. That's going to translate well when he becomes an unrestricted free agent and potentially becomes the most desirable quarterback on the market. There are lots of teams that need a quarterback and Flynn will be on everyone's radar just as much as Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck. If someone falls in love with him, he might get Kevin Kolb money.

Cincinnati Bengals: Nothing like losing and still ending up in the winner's column, huh? The Bengals played the Ravens well on Sunday but Ray Rice was too much for them. Fortunately, KC beat Denver (or, if you prefer, San Diego beat Oakland) and the Bengals backed their way into a playoff matchup against a Texans team that will either start T.J. Yates or Jake Delhomme.

Sanchez is no lock for the Big Apple in 2012. (AP)

Losers

Mark Sanchez: The Jets never even got a shot at backdooring their way into the playoffs, as Sanchez picked apart his own offense and gave the Dolphins nine points off of three interceptions, two of which were to defensive lineman Randy Starks. It wouldn't ultimately matter, because the Titans won and eliminated Rex Ryan's crew, but anyone who justified Sanchez' performance with the old "He just wins!" argument has packed up their shanty and moved to Denver to make that argument. He didn't play like a $14 million quarterback this year -- even though he got paid like one -- and it would almost be surprising if the Jets didn't make a swap at the position.

Detroit Lions: They haven't won at Lambeau since 1991 now, dropping a mind-blowing 20 consecutive games at the Packers homefield. Of course, that's not why they're on this list, although it doesn't help. They're on this list because they just gave up 480 passing yards to the Packers backup and losing in Green Bay (coupled with Atlanta rumbling over the Bucs) means Detroit's next game will be in New Orleans. Against Drew Brees. You should go ahead and put your mortgage on the over.

Raheem Morris: I'm hesitant to include Morris because I'm pretty sure he'll have already been fired by time I hit publish. I mean, if there was ever a time not to let your opponent get out to a 42-0 lead it's definitely the final game of the season when you're riding a nine-game losing streak and barely clinging to your job.

Rob Ryan: Dallas looked absolutely flat early on Sunday night and somehow managed to storm back on the Giants, only to have the secondary shredded by Eli Manning when they cut the lead to seven points. Ryan's defense hasn't backed up his mouth all season long and even though you want your coach to make better late-game decisions and you don't want your quarterback turning the ball over late, there

John Elway: Kyle Orton didn't do anything crazy like throw for 500 yards to beat the Broncos on Sunday, but they win that game against Tyler Palko. Not that it mattered, because the Broncos made the playoffs anyway when the Chargers topped the Raiders. But Elway put himself in the position to miss the postseason by releasing Orton and even if it helped the team's chemistry they're barely hanging on right now and look like a lock for a first-round exit.

The Big Questions

 
The Broncos didn't exactly storm into the playoffs. (AP)

1. Is the Tim Tebow magic finally gone?
It just might be. The Broncos still made the playoffs, of course, and anything can happen once you get to the postseason. But Denver limped their way there, backing into a title at 8-8 on a three-game skid. Teams seem to have figured out that playing press-man coverage against Tebow severely limits what he can do on offense (he's much better at picking apart zones and makes fewer mistakes) and Denver proved that if they can't generate turnovers, they're in trouble. It's hard to imagine them beating the Steelers, even at home.

2. Who's the AFC favorite going forward?
The Ravens are my pick. They get homefield up to the AFC Championship and only lose it then if they have to play the Patriots. They've beaten the Bengals twice and they've beaten the Steelers twice. They've beaten New England in New England in the playoffs before, and the Pats have no defense. And the Ravens are nightmare matchups in Baltimore for Houston and Denver, neither of whom can keep pace if the Ravens start scoring.

3. How about the NFC?
Say what you want about how hot the Saints are -- and they are white hot -- but the Packers are still the favorites. They've got homefield throughout, they have two weeks to rest their starters and they can score on anyone. One bad week against the Chiefs does not a 15-1 team unseat. Their defense isn't great, but few teams do have a good defense and if they matchup against New Orleans in the NFC Championship Game, it's going down at Lambeau Field.

4. Who're the most dangerous non-playoff teams in 2012?
Eagles, Panthers and Chargers for me. The Snooze Buttons finished 8-8 and if they'd had a full offseason, they might have won the NFC East. Their dominant defense down the stretch is reason for optimism if you're an Eagles fan. Carolina needs defense, but they suffered an insane amount of injury-related attrition in 2011 and if they draft all defense and get healthy, they can contend in the NFC South. Plus: Cam Newton. And the Bolts showed this year they could be as good as playoff teams but just made stupid mistakes. A new coach could clear those problems up.

5. Any chance Jerry Jones changes his mind on Jason Garrett?
Jones has been incredibly supportive of Garrett so probably not. But someone's taking the fall for the Cowboys not making the playoffs and the best guess here is that it's Rob Ryan. He runs his mouth constantly and his defense doesn't back up all the talk -- their secondary got absolutely shredded by Eli Manning right after they got back into the game Sunday night.

6. What is Stevie Johnson thinking with his celebrations?

He's not thinking, actually. Johnson's scheduled to be a free agent in what's a really, really deep wide receiver class in 2012 and reportedly wants $7.5 million. The only problem is he's now developed a stigma for dropping really important catches and oftentimes costing his teams 15 yards with penalties like he did on Sunday. Wishing everyone "Happy New Years!" is a cool thing to do ... when it's not bad for your job and you're looking for a raise. Johnson's one of the most fun and interesting guys in the NFL but he has to be smarter than that.

7. How smart do the Steelers look for that Santonio Holmes trade now?
You don't even know the half of it. Not only did the dump a guy who's clearly a locker room distraction (Holmes) and not LaDainian Tomlinson-approved as a captain, but Pittsburgh allowed Mike Wallace to emerge as one of the best wideouts in the game and let someone else (the Jets) pick up the tab for Holmes' long-term deal. Oh, and in case you didn't know, they used the pick they got from the Jets to draft 2011 breakout wide receiver Antonio Brown

8. Should my team draft a running back early this year?
Negative, ghostrider, the pattern is full. Full of guys who weren't drafted in the first round leading the league in rushing anyway.

Player
2011 Rush Yards
2011 Rush YPG
2011 Rush TDs
2011 YPC
Year/Round/Pick
Maurice Jones-Drew
1,606 100.4 8 4.7 2006/2/60th
LeSean McCoy
1,309 87.3 17 4.8 2009/2/53rd
Arian Foster
1,224 94.2 10 4.4 2009/None/UFA
Frank Gore
1,211 75.7 8 4.3 2008/2/55
Ray Rice
1,173 78.2 10 4.4 2005/3/65

This doesn't mean teams should avoid drafting someone who's a special talent in college (see: Adrian Peterson) but there's a real sweet spot developing in the draft for undersized, pass-catching running backs (go ahead and add in Jamaal Charles too) who turn out to be a lot better than where they were drafted.

9. How's that Carson Palmer trade working out now?
Not so good. The Raiders could have arguably won the trade if they made the playoffs. All they had to do was beat a downtrodden Chargers team at home and they couldn't, so they miss the postseason and give up a first-round pick and a second-round pick to the Bengals (who made the playoffs, naturally). With Palmer, the Raiders were 6-4 and he threw 13 touchdowns and 16 picks. Whoops. Add in the fact that Hue Jackson just coached the most-penalized team in NFL history and he has some explaining to do.

10. Is Romeo Crennel the Chiefs next head coach?
Hard to imagine he's not. KC finished 6-9 on the season and two of those wins were with Crennel in charge; they also nearly beat Oakland in Week 16 too. Surely Scott Pioli thinks that with Crennel in charge this season and better injury luck the Chiefs would've won the division. He might be right, actually, and that's why Crennel will get the gig.

11. How many records did the Saints break on Sunday?
Eleventy billion or thereabouts. Brees and Sean Payton were basically rubber-stamping their signatures all over the NFL's offensive record books. They set the record for points scored in a season, most points scored at home in a season, most passing yards in a season (Brees' own record), best completion percentage in a season (again, Brees'), most completions in a season, most all-purpose yards in a single season (Darren Sproles owns it) and most receiving yards by a tight end in a season (only Rob Gronkowski broke that one a little while later). I can't confirm it, but I'm pretty sure the Saints broke the record for most broken records as well.

GIF O' THE WEEK

Bryan Braman is going to get fined for a helmet-to-helmet hit that he made ... without a helmet.

Worth 1,000 Words


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Posted on: January 1, 2012 2:37 pm
Edited on: January 1, 2012 2:41 pm
 

Panthers, Saints shatter records in shootout

Brees just keeps on breaking records Sunday. (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

New Orleans is up 24-17 on Carolina at halftime of a game that's largely meaningless -- a victory by the 49ers means the Saints are the No. 3 seed regardless of what they do.

But that doesn't mean these two division rivals can't have a little fun shattering some NFL records.

For the Saints, they broke the St. Louis Rams "Greatest Show on Turf" record for most yards in a single season. The Rams record of 7,075, which they set in 2000, should be distanced pretty handily by the end of the game. (The Saints had 7,081 before a 42-yard touchdown bomb to Marques Colston at the end of the first half.)

The Saints now have more than 300 points scored in a season at home, which surpasses the 2000 Rams record of 292.

Drew Brees also set another record, as he surpassed Peyton Manning's record of 450 completions in a single season. Again, Brees is cruising past it. (And don't forget, he's actually breaking his own record with each passing yard he accumulates.)

And Marques Colston, an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, is closing in on Joe Horn's Saints record of 50 career touchdowns, as his last-second catch gave him 48 in a New Orleans uniform.

He's not the only wideout setting marks: Steve Smith broke Mushin Muhammad's record for catches by a Panthers wide receiver; he tied Moose's record of 696 early in the first quarter and now has four catches for 63 yards and a touchdown.

In an indication of how valuable he's been to Cam Newton in 2011, Jonathan Stewart also set a Panthers single-season record for catches by a running back, with 46.

It's a shootout in the Bayou and it doesn't look like it's not going to slow down in the second half.

Follow all the Week 17 action live: Inactives | Scoreboard

1 p.m. ET games:
DET-GB | TEN-HOU | IND-JAC | NYJ-MIA | CHI-MIN | BUF-NE | CAR-NO | WAS-PHI | SF-STL

4 p.m. ET games:
TB-ATL | BAL-CIN | PIT-CLE | SEA-ARI | KC-DEN | SD-OAK


 
 
 
 
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