Game of the week
The line: 49ers by 6½
The story: It's the 2011 NFC Championship Game all over again, only this time Kyle Williams won't be playing Santa Claus. This is the 49ers' chance to prove -- at least in their minds -- that they were the better team nine months ago when Williams' botched punt returns led to an overtime victory for Big Blue.
Only this is more than that. It's San Francisco's chance to prove that it is the best team out there, period.
I know I haven't seen anyone better. Granted, the 49ers lost at Minnesota. It happens. Sometimes you take one step back to go two steps forward, and all I know is that after that loss the 49ers outscored their next two opponents 79-3 and have the attention of Giants coach Tom Coughlin.
"Nobody gives us a chance to win," Coughlin said. "We'll see."
I give them a chance. I just don't give them much of one.
This game will be closer, a lot closer, than what San Francisco experienced the past two weeks -- especially if the Giants' pass rush wakes up. The pressure Alex Smith felt in the conference championship game hasn't been felt by much of anyone playing the Giants, with only five clubs having fewer sacks than New York (8). That's not the New York Giants, and if it is again this weekend they're doomed.
Not only is Smith accurate when he has the time (he's the league's top-rated passer); he has receivers he didn't the last time these two met. That's when Michael Crabtree was the only wideout with a catch, and he had one for three yards. Pathetic, huh? The 49ers agreed, so they went out and added Randy Moss and Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham and believe they plugged the holes that held them back a year ago.
I guess this is where we find out. The Giants are formidable, especially with Eli Manning playing as well as he has this season, but that's another thing I remember from the championship game: Manning got clobbered. Yeah, he survived. Yeah, he won. But he still got hammered.
The Giants' pass protection must be better. The Giants must be able to produce a rushing attack to keep defensive linemen honest. And, of course, they can't screw up. The 49ers don't make mistakes, seldom miss tackles and don't miss field goals -- a formula that has them at the top of their division and near the top of the league. Don't expect many points here, but do expect the better defense to determine the outcome.
And, for the moment, that defense is in San Francisco.
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The back story: The 49ers have scored on 49.1 percent of their offensive possessions, second only to ... who else? ... the Giants, at 51.8.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Ravens by 3½
The story: The last time we saw the Cowboys, Tony Romo was the Bears' best quarterback, Dez Bryant was a sieve, DeMarco Murray was a nonfactor and the entire Dallas team was getting the Matt Cassel treatment from its fans. But that was over a week ago, and the Cowboys have had plenty of time to think about turning what was wrong then into what can be right now. And they better ... because they're in for a grind, with four of the next five games on the road -- beginning with an opponent (Baltimore) they have never defeated.
Yep, they're 0-3 against the Ravens. That makes this more a measuring stick of the Cowboys than it does Baltimore, a chance to discover how resilient and tough and, yes, playoff worthy Dallas is.
First, of course, the Cowboys must address a number of shortcomings, including the offensive line, the running game, Bryant, Murray, Romo ... basically, anything involved with a first-team offense in such a funk that it has just three touchdowns the past three games.
People in Dallas want to see more of a commitment to the run, and maybe this is the chance. Jamaal Charles shredded Baltimore for 140 yards rushing last week, which means there must be holes in the Ravens' run defense that Dallas can exploit. So find them, take the heat off Romo and an underachieving pass attack and maybe, just maybe, you pull the upset.
I don't expect that to happen. Neither do most people and not just because of what the Cowboys do but because of what Baltimore doesn't -- lose at home. The Ravens are 30-5 there under John Harbaugh and are unbeaten (8-0) at home under Harbaugh vs. NFC opponents.
Nevertheless, I do expect Dallas to shake up an offense stuck in neutral. A year ago it was the defense that was the problem, particularly a pass defense that hemorrhaged too many points and yards, but now it's an offense that can't find the end zone with a compass. That better change, and fast.
The back story: Since Harbaugh took over the Ravens in 2008, opposing quarterbacks have a 63.8 passer rating in Baltimore and opposing teams are averaging 13.9 points per game there.
The line: Patriots by 3½
The story: Conventional wisdom says this shouldn't be close. There's no comparison between veteran Tom Brady and rookie Russell Wilson, there's no comparison between the two teams. The Patriots have won the AFC East eight of the past nine years. Seattle hasn't had a winning season since 2007. But conventional wisdom seldom applies when it comes to playing in Seattle.
That's because there's the 12th man ... or 13th man if you're Green Bay ... and it causes a riot of trouble for visiting teams. Dallas lost here this season. So did Green Bay. The Giants once had 11 false-start penalties. Yeah, the Seahawks' record the past few years at home hasn't been all that great, but that's because the Seahawks haven't been all that great.
They're better now because their defense is superb. They rush the passer. They defend the run. Their defensive backs are tall, physical and rangy. In short, they're tough to solve. People tell me Brady and Co. will figure these guys out with their no-huddle, and maybe they're right. But it's never easy here, and don't say you weren't warned, Brady. Seattle and San Francisco are the only two places he hasn't played in his pro career, and he'll learn soon that noise is a factor.
To solve it, you take the crowd out of the game, and there's no better solution than jumping on top early, then padding a lead. The problem with New England is that it sometimes doesn't protect those leads, and that can happen when you have the NFL's 30th-ranked pass defense. Only look how Seattle wins: It's not with the pass; its with its defense and Marshawn Lynch. So maybe the Patriots have just what it takes to silence this crowd.
The back story: Since 2003 the Patriots are an NFL-best 33-6 in October, including a 14-5 record on the road.
The line: Texans by 4½
The story: The Texans just lost linebacker and leading tackler Brian Cushing for the season, and while that's a blow, it's not one they can't overcome. Remember, this is a team that overcame the losses of Matt Schaub and Mario Williams last season and played through the absences of Andre Johnson and Arian Foster. So they've been through this before, and they not only survived; they flourished, reaching the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
I guess what I'm saying is that the Texans know how to overcome adversity. I just wonder if they know how to overcome the Green Bay Packers.
Houston is one of two undefeated teams, but the Texans' 5-0 record is built on losing opponents, and you can look it up. Not one of their five wins have come vs. a club with a winning record, and that's not a complaint. They don't have to apologize for the schedule; they just have to take advantage of it ... and they have.
But while Green Bay is another opponent without a winning record, I have a feeling the Packers are a more difficult puzzle to solve basically because they're beginning to get the feeling that the season is slipping away. So there's an urgency here there might not have been with other opponents.
Green Bay hasn't been right all season, with its offense struggling, Greg Jennings in and out of the lineup and its defense blowing a 21-3 lead last weekend. So something has to give, and give quickly. That's why this is a dangerous game for a Houston team coming off a short week of practice and a desultory performance in its last outing.
I expect the Texans to pound Foster into the middle of the league's 17th-ranked run defense, and I expect them to succeed. But it's the passing game that concerns me. I'm not sold on Schaub, even though the guy has won his last nine starts. For that matter, I'm not particularly sold on Aaron Rodgers this year, either, but I know how good Rodgers can be because I've seen it. I don't know how good Schaub can be, and we may have to see it here.
Houston is ripe for the upset. Green Bay is overdue for a big game. This has all the makings of a trap waiting to happen.
The back story: The Texans have trailed opponents for only 18 minutes, 52 seconds this season. They've also led for 242:36 out of possible 300 minutes.
Monday night lights
The line: Chargers by 2½
|Peyton Manning has a history of struggling vs. the Chargers, his Week 6 foe. (Getty Images)|
San Diego is the only club with a winning record, but the Bolts' three wins have come against opponents with a combined record of 4-11. So the question becomes: Does anybody out there want to win the West?
We're about to find out.
Peyton Manning has been hot lately, with eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in his past three games, and that's great. But the Broncos lost two of those games, and that's not. Denver has won two of its past three in San Diego, before Manning arrived ... and he's supposed to be the guy who puts the Broncos over the top.
Maybe he does, except remember this: When he was in Indianapolis, there was one team that had his number ... and you're looking at it. San Diego beat him five of the past six times the two met, including twice in the playoffs. If Denver is going to win the division, this is the team it must beat.
And if San Diego is going to prevail, this is a team it must hold off in the fourth quarter. A week ago, the Bolts blew a 10-point lead to New Orleans in a game they should've won ... but didn't. Now they're facing an opponent that not only features a future Hall of Fame quarterback but that, like New Orleans, is never out of game. In fact, Denver's plus-52-point fourth-quarter differential is the best in the league.
This will be a measure of both clubs, but it's more of a measure of San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano's defense. The Chargers haven't been able to make big stops in big games the past couple of years, and this qualifies as a big game.
The back story: Denver linebacker Von Miller leads the league with 12 tackles for loss, five fewer than he put up all of last season when he was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Crummy game of the week
The line: Bucs by 3½
The story: I really don't know what to say about this game. One team has a quarterback its fans don't like. The other has a head coach opposing quarterbacks don't like. Both clubs don't know how to win.
With Cassel sidelined by a concussion he suffered last week, Brady Quinn will start at quarterback for the Chiefs, and while Chiefs fans may think that's a step forward they might want to review Quinn's history. There's a reason he didn't stick with Cleveland and Denver.
Kansas City isn't that bad on defense. Neither is Tampa Bay. But both teams are -- how shall we put this -- QB-challenged, with Josh Freeman the star of this group with a ranking of 26th among quarterbacks in 2012. The Chiefs, meanwhile, wheel out Quinn and a league-high 19 turnovers, and you want to know why Tampa Bay can't sell out games? Offense sells tickets, and you'll have to look hard for one here.
New coach Greg Schiano may have Tom Coughlin hot and bothered with his approach to the game, but he hasn't moved the needle here ... and let's be honest: What would you rather be doing Sunday -- hitting the beaches in Clearwater or spending three hours at this game?
I thought so.
The back story: Bad news, Kansas City: Not only does Tampa Bay rank fourth vs. the run; it has allowed only one 100-yard rusher this season.
Upset of the week
The story: At some point, the Packers have to wake up -- on offense and defense -- and I say that point is now. There's just too much talent on this team for it to flounder, starting with Rodgers. He needs to play better, and so does virtually everyone on offense. A year ago the Packers produced points in prodigious numbers, but now they are averaging 22.2 points a game. While that's not bad it's not the Green Bay Packers.
I know the Packers won't have running back Cedric Benson for eight weeks. OK, fine. He wasn't doing a lot for them anyway. They still have Rodgers, and it's time he starts acting like the MVP he was a year ago instead of the league's eighth-ranked passer.
There's another reason I like the Packers, and it has nothing to do with panic buttons. Nope, it has more to do with Houston, which stumbled through its latest victory over the Jets. Granted, a win is a win is a win, and a win on the road when you play mediocre football is the mark of a good team.
So I'm not arguing these guys aren't solid. Heck, they're one of two unbeaten teams left in the league and should be the first to clinch a division this season. But I don't know if Schaub can take you to the next level, I wonder why Johnson disappeared against the Jets and I worry about the loss of Cushing.
The Texans will win a lot of games this year, but they're ripe for a loss sooner or later. I say it's sooner because Green Bay needs this game more ... a lot more ... than a Texans did that hasn't really been tested and that just lost one of its key players.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. Atlanta DE John Abraham: In four games vs. Oakland, he has seven sacks, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery -- including three sacks the last time he played them.
2. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco: He's 8-0 vs. the NFC at home, with 13 touchdown passes, three interceptions and a passer rating of 98.7. He's also 30-5 overall as a starter at M&T Stadium.
3. Arizona QB Kevin Kolb: The Cardinals have won their past five at home when he played.
4. Seattle RB Marshawn Lynch: Over his past nine home games, he has produced either 95 or more yards rushing or scored a rushing TD. He has also averaged 115.7 yards per game in his past seven starts at home, with six touchdowns.
5. San Diego RB Ryan Mathews: He has rushed for at least 120 yards in each of three career games vs. Denver (120, 125, 137), including one in Week 17 of 2010 where he scored three times.
Five best matchups
1. Houston DE J.J. Watt vs. Green Bay LB Clay Matthews: OK, let's get something straight: I know they're not lining up against each other. Now, the reason I'm intrigued by the matchup is that Matthews leads the league in sacks with eight and Watt (7½) is second. Watt is the runaway front-runner for Defensive MVP, but I would never count out Matthews. Here's a chance to get your vote in early.
2. San Francisco WR Mario Manningham vs. his former team: Manningham was a hero in Super Bowl XLVI for the Giants, but they showed little interest in re-signing him when he became a free agent. "Do I have a grudge?" said Manningham. "No. Am I motivated? Yeah."
3. Philadelphia QB Michael Vick vs. ball security: Maybe we should just make this a weekly item because in all but one game Vick has had a turnover. His total for the season is 11. Entering this week, that exceeded all but six teams. That, in turn, has cut down on the Eagles' production, with the club having fewer points (80) than anyone but Jacksonville (65) among teams with five starts. This weekend's game with Detroit is Philadelphia's last before a bye so it's Vick's chance to get on track. "There's nobody more competitive than this guy," said Andy Reid, "and he knows that he can't fumble."
4. Dallas FB Lawrence Vickers vs. Baltimore LB Ray Lewis: Lewis suggested the Cowboys might want to reconsider when it comes to improving their running game this weekend; Vickers suggested he doesn't care what Ray Lewis thinks. "Names don't scare me," he said. "Teams don't scare me. He is Ray Lewis, that's all I know."
5. New England coach Bill Belichick vs. Seattle's Pete Carroll: Before there was Belichick in New England, there was Carroll in New England ... and the Patriots went to the playoffs. Twice. But they didn't go to the Super Bowl. In fact, they were nowhere close, with Carroll fired after the 1999 season. Carroll went away quietly, but getting fired always hurts. He proved how good he can be as a head coach at Southern California, then won a division title in his first season with the Seahawks. Granted, it was with a 7-9 record, but give him this: He beat the defending Super Bowl champions in the playoffs. This, of course, is something different because this can be ... well, personal, though Carroll would never let on. He's having too much fun at his job, a stark contrast to the dour and brooding Belichick. "The differences?" said wide receiver Deion Branch, who has played for both. "They're different." I would say that about sums it up.
Five things that may interest only me
1. Since the start of the 2011, Philadelphia has scored 13 touchdowns and 106 points in the final two minutes of either half, the most in the league. The Giants are second with 11 touchdowns and 103 points.
2. The Bears are the first team in league history to return five interceptions for touchdowns through the first five weeks of the season.
3. Dating back to 2010, the 49ers have at least one interception in each of their past 12 home games.
4. Since the current playoff format was adopted in 1990, 13 teams that were at least three games under .500 after five weeks rebounded to make the playoffs -- with two of them, the 1996 Jaguars and 2002 Titans, reaching the conference championship game.
5. Reggie Jackson, move over. The Giants' Manning has become the NFL's Mr. October with a 24-5 record this month that is the best among quarterbacks who began their careers in the Super Bowl-era. His .828 percentage puts him ahead of Kordell Stewart (.800) and Daryle Lamonica (.771).
Numbers to remember
3: Points allowed by San Francisco off turnovers, best in the league
9-5: Dallas on the road following a bye
11-4: Peyton Manning's Monday night record
13-0: Baltimore's record at home in its past 13 games
13-5: Philip Rivers' record at home vs. AFC West
14-1: Chicago's record since 2005 when the Bears return an interception for a touchdown
20½: Aldon Smith sacks in 20 NFL games
30: Offensive plays of 30 or more yards for Baltimore, best in the NFL
52.9: Percentage of completions by opposing quarterbacks vs. Houston
• Atlanta: Dome
• Baltimore: Partly cloudy, high of 72
• Cleveland: Thunderstorms, high of 67
• Miami: Isolated thunderstorms, high of 84
• East Rutherford, N.J.: Partly cloudy, high of 68
• Philadelphia: Partly cloudy, high of 69
• Tampa, Fla.: Partly cloudy, high of 87
• Glendale, Ariz.: Sunny, high of 92 (retractable roof)
• Seattle: Rain, high of 60
• San Francisco: Mostly sunny, high of 71
• Landover, Md.: Partly cloudy, high of 73
• Houston: Partly cloudy, high of 84 (retractable roof)
Where we will be
• I'll be at Candlestick Park, waiting for the Beatles to return, then fly to San Diego on Monday to treat Laz, Eddie and Darren Bennett to lunch at the Encinitas Cafe.
• Pete Prisco will be in Houston to join Aaron Rodgers for pizza.
• Mike Freeman will be in Baltimore to give Detroit coach Jim Schwartz the Mt. St. Joe's handshake.