The 49ers have been at or near the top of various power rankings (Massey Peabody, Football Outsiders) for much of 2012, but these past two weeks, with Colin Kaepernick under center, were the first time I saw them as legitimate contenders to hoist the Lombardi Trophy this year. In fact, right now, there's nobody I'd bet before SF.
If you believe a top-shelf quarterback is necessary to win the Super Bowl, and I do (going back to 1993, the only two teams that won it all without an elite QB were the 2000 Ravens and 2002 Bucs, each of whom had historically great defenses), it's going to be a brutal road for NFC teams in the foreseeable future. Kaepernick joins a large group of NFC quarterbacks who have won the Super Bowl - Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Eli Manning - or who seem capable of doing so - Robert Griffin III, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, Jay Cutler, Josh Freeman, Matthew Stafford and maybe Russell Wilson. The AFC, meanwhile, has an aging Peyton Manning, an aging Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, and just a couple others with plausible upside - Matt Schaub, a broken Philip Rivers, Andy Dalton, and maybe Joe Flacco. Yes, the NFC has teams that need a quarterback - Cardinals, Vikings, Eagles - but the AFC has several such teams - Jets, Bills, Chiefs, Jaguars, Raiders, and perhaps the Browns, Dolphins and Titans. The NFC has won the last three Super Bowls, and with this disparity at the quarterback position, I'd expect the NFC to win more than its share over the next few years.
For these same reasons, it's going to be a nightmare for NFC quarterbacks just to make the Pro Bowl. Matt Ryan has 3,425 yards, 21 touchdowns, a 96.1 QB rating, and is the leader of a 10-1 team, but he won't/shouldn't sniff the Pro Bowl this year (Aaron Rodgers, Robert Griffin III, and Drew Brees).
If the Falcons and Ravens somehow parlay first round byes into Super Bowl appearances, I'm going to feel as ill as I feel when I back the Chargers ATS. I've lamented the Falcons good fortune before, so I won't beat that dead horse. The Ravens, though? Geez. If they're not surviving a three-point win over the Chiefs, escaping the Roethlisberger-less Steelers by three, enjoying a referee-induced, one-point win over the Patriots, or lucking into a Jason Garrett special for a two point win, they're winning even when Joe Flacco dumps it off on fourth and 29. For me, that's part craziest part of that play - it was a horrible decision by Flacco to even throw that pass - any QB just *has* to throw the ball downfield there - yet he got away with it. Baltimore might be more of a fraud than Atlanta, and despite a three-game lead in the division with just five games to play, I could see the Ravens losing the division lead and falling to a wild card (Pitt, @Wash, Den, NYG, @Cinci). If I had to bet, though, I'd say the Ravens hold onto the division lead but fall short of a bye, beat an inferior team like the Colts at home in the Wild Card round, but get drilled by someone like the Texans in the divisional round.
When Jim Schwartz prevented the refs from reviewing a Texans touchdown because he threw the challenge flag even though the play was already being reviewed, everyone lamented the harshness of that rule. Our own Chris Liss, in his terrific "Observations," compared it to a beheading. However, the exact same thing happened the week prior (courtesy of Mike Smith), except nobody talked about it because it wasn't Thanksgiving or a nationally televised game. Mike Smith's Week 11 gaffe should have put all head coaches on notice of the rule, so shame on Schwartz for making the same mistake in Week 12. And really, shame on all NFL teams. With this rule in place, every team should hire a dispassionate person whose sole job it is to hold the challenge flag. This way, when the coach wants to throw the flag out of anger or frustration, this person will ensure the game situation did not already call for a replay by the booth.
Do you remember several weeks ago when Mike Tomlin went for it on fourth and 1 from his own 29 in a tie game? He was telling us as much about his defense at the time (allowing 34 points to the Raiders) as any stats could. If we're paying attention to what's going on in Green Bay, we're hearing similar things from Mike McCarthy. McCarthy has been calling running plays at a nearly 50% clip (drawing my ire last week in this column and similar disdain from others this past week), even when losing all game to the Giants. But watching the Packers play the Giants, I understand McCarthy's rationale. He knows, like you and I do, that the Packers can't run, but he's calling no-upside running plays because the alternative - passing every down - leaves the league MVP a sitting duck behind one of the NFL's worst offensive lines. In a conference with the 49ers, Bears, Giants, and perhaps even Seattle - all with top pass rushers - it's hard to see the Packers winning this year's Super Bowl with such a glaring inability to block. If they could do it again, I'm certain the Packers wouldn't have gone all defense in the 2012 draft and instead would have spent some picks investing in the offensive line.
If you're out of contention in your fantasy league or just want some added fun, you should pick up on the game that Kevin Payne, Scott Pianowski and I have been doing - kind of a twist on the Thanksgiving Day tradition from Derek VanRiper that you've probably read about. This week, we did a one-week, three-owner fantasy draft by choosing players from three games - NO/SF, GB/NYG, and CAR/PHI. We each drafted two QBs, 1 RB, 1 WR, 1 TE, 5 flex, 2 K, and 2 D/ST and used standard scoring. One week, no benches, no transactions - just draft and watch the players from those three games play. Obsessive? Maybe. But it made the games more entertaining, for sure. This week, I like ATL/NO, NYG/Wash and Den/TB for this exercise, but there are no wrong answers here. Just find a couple of friends and play.
Sunday was a gorgeous day in Tampa - I live in the area, and I'm still wearing shorts and short sleeves - but the surging Bucs were blacked out on local television because they couldn't sell out a game with the first place Falcons. Really, Bucs fans? If the Bucs can't sell out that game, the Tampa Bay Rays aren't the only local team that risks relocation.
Norv Turner and Andy Reid are like victims in a horror movie who suffer horrible, painfully slow deaths via torture - kind of like the characters in the Saw movies. We're all watching them die, and it's sad on a human level, but we all derive a perverse level of enjoyment from it.
If you told me before the game that Seattle would score 21 points on Miami, would not commit a turnover, and that the Dolphins wouldn't have a return touchdown, I'd have bet anything the Seahawks would have won. Anything. After all, this was a Miami team that scored ten offensive points in the two prior weeks, combined, against two bottom five defenses - the Bills and Titans. Naturally, the Dolphins erupted for 24 points, moving the ball at will through the air (9.7 YPA) and the ground (6.6 YPC) against a top-five Seahawks defense. If Seattle misses the playoffs by a game - a real possibility with Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman both facing four-game suspensions - this is the game the Seahawks will look back at with regret.
The Raiders have allowed 168 points in their past four games, all losses, with a point differential of -90. The ongoing, prolonged stench is reminiscent of the 2011 Bucs, who just flat out quit on Raheem Morris down the stretch, getting blown out week after week and making it impossible for Vegas to set lines high enough to account for the suckitude. Perhaps the only saving grace for Oakland is that they get the Browns next week, the very Browns who escaped with a six point win despite being +7 in the turnover battle, at home, against a third-string, 37-year old quarterback most of us thought had retired at this time a week ago. If Oakland gets blown out by the Browns, then Roger Goodell should immediately contract the franchise. But hey, I suppose it's a good thing Oakland gave up a first-round pick PLUS more for Carson Palmer or this team might *really* be bad (insert tongue in cheek here).
I'm tired of hearing analysts express sympathy for Larry Fitzgerald because of the Cardinals quarterback play. The dude had a chance to go elsewhere, but he chose to stay in Arizona and took the money. He knew what he was getting. Shed no tears for Larry.
Good grief is Bryce Brown fast. In the first half alone, Brown eclipsed LeSean McCoy's season best rushing yardage total, and Brown matched McCoy's two rushing touchdowns for the season in just one game. I guess you can say Brown was the waiver guy to claim last week, not Ronnie Hillman. Sigh.
I don't care if the season stats say the Bills, Saints, and Redskins are worse - nobody is as bad on defense right now as the Eagles and Raiders. When your lineup choices are at all close, be it this week or the rest of the season, make sure you're exploiting these matchups whenever possible. Here are the remaining schedules for both teams - Eagles: @Dal, @TB, Cinci, Wash, @NYG - Raiders: Cle, Den, KC, @Car, @SD. Even the lowly Chiefs don't belong in this category, as though the offense is pathetic, the Chiefs defense at least resembles an NFL-caliber unit.
Here are my waiver suggestions as we enter Week 13, with a distinctly Jacksonville flavor:
Colin Kaepernick, QB, 49ers: How is this guy owned in just 36% of Yahoo! leagues and 27% of ESPN leagues? Kaepernick is undoubtedly a top ten fantasy QB for the rest of the season. If you own Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Robert Griffin III or Drew Brees, then put Kaepernick on your bench to prevent an opponent from claiming him. If you own Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Carson Palmer, Josh Freeman, or just about anyone else, cut him for Kaepernick.
Chad Henne, QB, Jaguars: It was easy to write off Henne's Week 11 explosion against the Texans as a fluke... a "Henne Given Sunday" sort of thing (h/t Scott Pianowski). A second consecutive solid performance is harder to ignore. Henne probably isn't relevant in his own right except in two-QB leagues, but Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon are now usable as a WR2 and WR3, respectively, and they have Henne to thank.
Knowshown Moreno, RB, Broncos: Everyone thought Ronnie Hillman was the Broncos tailback to claim last week except for John Fox, who obviously preferred Moreno's pass-blocking over Hillman's explosive running. When Peyton Manning is your quarterback, I suppose it's not surprising that Fox deemed pass protection the biggest factor in deciding who to start with Willis McGahee out. The surprising part was that Fox pegged Moreno as that guy when he's barely played all season. Anyway, Moreno should be owned in most formats for the same reasons I liked Hillman last week. Cut Hillman, go get Moreno.
Michael Bush, RB, Bears: Matt Forte is hurt again, making Bush a sure-fire fantasy starter for so long as Forte remains sidelined. Before last week, I would have been a bit concerned about a matchup with the Seahawks, but if the Dolphins can run on Seattle, so can Chicago.
Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, Falcons: Michael Turner looks about as done as Norv Turner. Rodgers seems a better fit for the offense anyway, and it would hardly be surprising to see Rodgers continue to receive more work going forward. This week's opponent, the Saints, are a giveaway on defense, so Rodgers has a fine chance to score another touchdown.
Jalen Parmele and Rashad Jennings, RB, Jaguars: Parmele emerged from nowhere two weeks ago, only to suffer an injury after many fantasy owners hopped aboard. Given another chance, Jennings was mediocre yet again (16-43), and though he scored a goal line touchdown, no fantasy owners were starting him anyway. I'm profiling both Parmele and Jennings this week because the Jaguars play the Bills, so whoever starts gets a nice matchup against the NFL's 32nd-ranked run defense.
Pierre Garcon, WR, Redskins: I'm no doctor, but it sure seemed like the Garcon we saw on Thanksigiving was the same guy we saw in Week 1. If he's past the foot injury with which he's struggled, Garcon can easily be a WR2 going forward and a top target of Robert Griffin III for years to come. I prefer Garçon over Blackmon.
Justin Blackmon, WR, Jaguars: Oddly, Cecil Shorts is the big play guy in the Jaguars passing game, whereas Blackmon, the highly-touted, rookie first-rounder, is more of a possession receiver. However, Sunday was Blackmon's second straight good game with Henne under center, and that's far more than we could say for his first nine games. Consider Blackmon a WR3 for the rest of the season, particularly with a favorable schedule (@Buff, NYJ, @Mia, NE, @Tenn).
Ryan Broyles, WR, Lions: Titus Young is suspended, and the Lions throw as much as anyone, so Broyles' six catches for 126 yards on 12 targets last week weren't a fluke. I'd rather have Broyles at this point than James Jones (zero targets on Sunday), Sidney Rice, or Malcom Floyd.
Julian Edelman, WR, Patriots: A few subscribers asked about Edelman last week in the comments, so I suppose I'm a week late to this party. Edelman suffered a head injury on Sunday, so his status needs to be checked, but if he's healthy, he continues to gain ground on Brandon Lloyd in the Patriots hierarchy. I prefer the receivers listed above Edelman in this article, but if you have to take a flyer, it's always best to do so on a guy who plays on a juggernaut offense like the Patriots.
Cowboys D/ST: The Cowboys defense exploded on the Eagles a few weeks ago, posting two sacks, two turnovers, and three return touchdowns. With the Eagles in shambles, particularly on the offensive line, an encore in Week 13 is a solid bet.
Jets D/ST: The Jets were embarassed on Thanksgiving, but as bad as they are right now, the Cardinals offense is worse. Between a putrid offensive line and a rookie quarterback who shouldn't be starting in the NFL right now, you have to like the Jets chances of striking fantasy gold in Week 13.
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