Week 12 Judgements: Niners' QB swap risky, but defense leaves little to chance

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is here to stay, but I'll be honest: I'm not sure it makes a difference who quarterbacks the 49ers. Their defense won't let whoever starts at the position fail.

Yes, Kaepernick played well against a hot New Orleans team in a hostile environment, but he didn't beat the Saints; the 49ers' defense did. It not only stuffed Brees and the Saints on 11 of 14 possessions; it was responsible for nearly half the 49ers' points in San Francisco's first-even regular-season defeat of Brees. Moreover, it sacked Brees more (five times) than he'd been dumped the previous five starts, held him to a season-low 6.51 yards per attempt and returned two interceptions for touchdowns.

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I don't care what defense ranks first in yards allowed; there is no better unit anywhere than San Francisco's.

2: The more I see Aldon Smith the more I think he's the guy to beat for Defensive Player of the Year. With 30.5 sacks in 27 games, he hits 30 faster than anyone in NFL history since the league recognized the statistic in 1982.

3: Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good, and Kaepernick was fortunate he wasn't intercepted midway through the fourth quarter. And he would have been if Randy Moss hadn't pulled defensive back Malcolm Jenkins down. It was a blatant offensive pass-interference call, but officials ignored it. Jim Harbaugh must've known he caught a break because he played it safe afterward -- calling a run on the next snap, then taking a clinching field goal.

4: I'll say it again. I wouldn't have demoted Alex Smith, and I know that's not what San Francisco is calling it, but that's what this is. Smith is 20-6-1 (including the playoffs) over the last year-and-a-half; Kaepernick is 2-0. I know, when Harbaugh drafted Kaepernick in 2011 he envisioned him as his starter, but Smith got in the way by guiding the 49ers to the conference championship game. Sooner or later, Harbaugh was going to make the move, and by doing it now I thought he took an unnecessary gamble. After watching the 49ers shut down Brees, I'm not sure it's a gamble at all. It might be that Colin Firth could quarterback these guys to the playoffs.

5: I think Fox's Terry Bradshaw is on to something when he said Kaepernick's success could compel players to hide concussions.

6: After watching another San Diego collapse, all I can say is ... fork, please. All the Bolts had to do was defend a fourth-and-29, and they had an upset of Baltimore ... only they couldn't, and why is no one surprised? These guys set the bar lower each week. Granted Ray Rice deserves credit for turning the play into one of the year's most memorable -- and significant -- catch-and-runs, but the San Diego defense absolutely collapsed. I don't care that officials spotted the ball wrong. It was fourth-and-29, for crying out loud! With one play, Rice might have ended Norv Turner's tenure in San Diego at the same time he pulled the plug on Pittsburgh's chances to catch the Ravens in the AFC North.

7: The best block of the afternoon wasn't by an offensive lineman. It was by the Ravens' Anquan Boldin on San Diego safety Eric Weddle, a shot that helped spring Rice to that improbable fourth-down conversion.

8: Talk about the gift that keeps giving. With that defeat of Oakland, Cincinnati not only kept alive its playoff hopes, it just moved up in next year's draft. Let me explain. The Bengals traded Carson Palmer to Oakland last year for a first- and second-round draft pick, with the second-rounder in the 2013 draft. So the more Oakland loses, the higher the Bengals' pick becomes -- and talk about smart. Not only did Cincinnati cut ties with a quarterback who wouldn't play for the Bengals again, they acquired two high draft picks for him.

9: Seattle's loss tells me a lot about the Seahawks, and what it tells me is that if the Seahawks qualify for the playoffs they're going nowhere. First of all, they can't win on the road. Second, their defense couldn't hold two fourth-quarter leads ... against Miami, no less. In fact, it allowed the Dolphins to score 17 points on all three of their fourth-quarter series. Not good.

10: Worse, the Seahawks could lose Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner to four-game suspensions. Looks like they may need a 13th Man.

11: Maybe it was Jay Cutler's return, or maybe it was Mike Tice's lineup change. But the Bears' offensive line looked ... how do I say this? ... downright adequate. Cutler ran out of some sacks but the pressure that was there last Monday wasn't six days later. Still, that doesn't mean Chicago doesn't have issues there. It does, but it somehow it kept Jared Allen off its quarterback, and that's a start.

12: When Blaine Gabbert returns next season he should come back as Chad Henne's caddie. Not only are the Jags competitive with Henne, they're finally getting something from first-round pick Justin Blackmon. The star receiver has 298 yards and two touchdowns yards the past two weeks with Henne throwing to him. He had 250 yards and one TD the previous nine with Gabbert.

13: So Atlanta plays up or down to the competition. It still wins. There's only one unresolved question with these guys, and it's this: Can they win a playoff game with Matt Ryan? We find out in January.

14: People tell me the Broncos can't make it to the Super Bowl without a decent running game, but they're wrong. Peyton Manning took Indianapolis to Super Bowl XLIV with the league's 32nd-ranked rushing game and a defense (ranked 18th) that isn't as good as what he has now.

15: The more I watch how Oklahoma juggles quarterbacks Landry Jones and Blake Bell, the less I understand what the Jets are doing (or aren't doing) with Tim Tebow. The Sooners use Bell in short-yardage and goal-line situations, and the guy has 11 TDs -- including the tying TD with four seconds left in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game with Oklahoma State. So why aren't the Jets doing the same thing with Tebow? I thought that was the idea when they acquired him. That made sense. What doesn't is to keep him nailed to the bench.

16: Consider that a parting gift, Mike Holmgren, compliments of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

17: The longer Ben Roethlisberger sits on the sideline the more you understand why he was an MVP candidate. It's been nine quarters since Roethlisberger bowed out of a defeat of Kansas City, and the Steelers' offense has two touchdowns in the meantime.

18: I want to hear what Mark Davis thinks of his Raiders now.

19: Forget about Sanchez-Tebow. Who replaces Fireman Ed?

20. Just a hunch, but that should give Eli Manning a one-week break from his critics.

Five things I like

1. Andrew Luck's timing: Watch Luck's last pass of the first half. There was no way the Colts should've gotten off another snap. But they did, and they did because Luck hustled his teammates to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball with one second left. On the stat sheet, it looks like another incompletion. In reality, it was a brilliant play.

2. Eli Manning after byes: Not only has he won his past five, he has 13 touchdowns and one interception in those games. Manning entered Sunday's game with no touchdowns in his previous three starts. Then he lit up the Packers and broke Phil Simms' career touchdown record. Yeah, I'd say that makes him elite in post-bye games.

3. Colts' cheerleaders cutting their hair in support of ailing coach Chuck Pagano: The team's players have done it, so now it's the team's cheerleaders who get in line ... and let's hear it for solidarity.

4. Osi Uemnyiora at forcing fumbles: The guy's one of the best in the business, with an NFL-record 10 one season. So he forced another Sunday, a turnover that led to one of the Giants' four first-half touchdowns and ignited an unexpected rout.

5. Janoris Jenkins' returns: I guess he got the message when he got benched in San Francisco, then had to run stadium stairs afterward. Anyway, he returned two interceptions for touchdowns and helped give the Rams something they've missed for weeks -- a victory.

Five things I don't

1. Pittsburgh's hands: It's not the Towels that are Terrible in Pittsburgh; it's the Steelers' hands. They lost seven fumbles the past two weeks, including five Sunday, and are a minus-10 the past two games in the takeaway/turnover differential.

2. San Diego in the second half: When they write the epitaph for this year's Bolts, they'll talk about the team's inability to close out games. So San Diego blew another fourth-quarter advantage. It's been doing it all year. The Chargers did it against New Orleans and Denver earlier in the season, and they did it against Baltimore, saving the best for last when they allowed Ray Rice to convert a fourth-and-29 catch-and-run. Pathetic.

3. Green Bay's defense: I know it doesn't have Charles Woodson or Clay Matthews, but that's no excuse for what happened Sunday night. In a word, the Packers' defense stunk. It couldn't stop the run. It couldn't stop the pass. It couldn't tackle. It couldn't do diddly poo. The past two times Green Bay faced the Giants it was outscored 51-17 in the first half, and, no, Clay Matthews, I don't consider that a fluke. I consider it a trend.

4. Arizona's quarterbacks: In their past five games, all losses, John Skelton and Ryan Lindley combined to throw two touchdown passes and seven interceptions for a passer rating of 63.5. I look at the rest of the schedule, and I'll be honest: I can find only one possible victory in there, and that's next weekend at the Jets. The key word there: Possible.

5. Buffalo's Stevie Johnson saying Ryan Fitzpatrick should call plays: Why, because he went to Harvard? Please.

Five guys who have some 'splaining to do

1. Referee Gene Steratore: It was his crew that was responsible for that horrible spot on Ray Rice's catch-and-run in the fourth quarter of the Chargers-Ravens game, putting the ball inside the San Diego 34 when replays showed Rice's knees down just after he crossed the 35. Norv Turner should be steamed. That play just guaranteed that he gets canned once the season is over.

2. Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel: You're 1-9 with nothing to lose except another ballgame. So when you have a fourth-and-1 at the Denver 31, and you're trailing 7-6 early in the third period you have one choice: You go for it. Only Crennel didn't. He took the field goal, and, sorry, but you don't play it safe when your season's down the drain. I don't care that Ryan Succop made a 49-yard field goal; I care that Crennel didn't have the guts to take a chance when his season is kaput.

3. Oakland coach Dennis Allen: He promised to make his Raiders more disciplined, but run the videotape of that Lamarr Houston hit on Andy Dalton after officials blew the play dead, and tell me where that discipline is. Two Raiders got tossed in the melee that followed, including one (Tommy Kelly) who came off the bench. Bad enough that the Raiders stink; they're out of control, too.

4. Anyone with Green Bay: What was that? The Packers are supposed to be a Super Bowl contender, but not if they don't deliver something more than what we saw Sunday night. Their offense couldn't move. Their defense never woke up. They committed stupid penalties. And they got walloped. Yeah, I know, it happens. But it's not supposed to happen to these guys.

5. San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano: His defense allowed Baltimore to convert five of its last meaningful seven third-down conversions (not including a field goal and kneeldown) and one huge fourth-and-29. Turn out the lights, people. The party's over.

Just asking, but ...

 Who's the first quarterback to go in next year's draft?

 Was that enough to make you believe in Chicago again?

 What the heck happened to field-goal kickers Sunday?

 How far does Colin Kaepernick take San Francisco?

 What chance do you give Washington next week against the Giants?

Numbers to remember

6-1 -- Jay Cutler vs. Minnesota
6-1 -- Miami at home vs. Seattle
11 -- Pittsburgh turnovers the last two weeks
17 -- Cleveland points off Steelers' turnovers
26 -- Victories this season by rookie quarterbacks
27 -- Consecutive Phil Dawson field goals
169-79 -- Combined score of Oakland's last four losses
408 -- Carries it took for BenJarvus Green-Ellis to have a run of 25 or more yards
1995 -- Last time San Francisco returned two interceptions for touchdowns

My top five

1. San Francisco
2. Atlanta
3. Baltimore
4. Houston
5. Denver

My bottom five

32. Kansas City
31. Jacksonville
30. Oakland
29. Carolina
28. Cleveland

Next weeks' best three games

Pittsburgh at Baltimore ... So the division's not at stake; it's always a close game.

Seattle at Chicago ... At some point, the Seahawks must prove they can win on the road.

Tampa Bay at Denver ... Sooner or later, they'll start talking about must-wins in Tampa ... and it might be sooner.

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