Player You Need to Watch This Weekend
Joe Staley, left tackle, San Francisco (No. 74). The Staley-Greg Hardy matchup is the best head-to-head match of the weekend. In the respected Pro Football Focus rankings, Staley’s the sixth-rated offensive tackle this season, with Hardy the third-best 4-3 end. Hardy’s on fire, too: seven sacks in his last two starts. Staley can play either way—athletically or physically. Remember how he got out on the flank in the playoff game against the Saints two years ago and led Alex Smith downfield on the long touchdown run? He can play that way or maul you. Hardy is a good speed rusher and can stunt inside too. This match, left tackle against right end, will be worth a FOX isolated camera Sunday afternoon.
Sound Bite of the Week
“It’s deafening. They do a great job. Their fans are educated. They understand when to be real loud and when to quiet down. The way the stadium is structured, the noise stays in. You just try to simulate it as best you can and turn those speakers up real loud and go about trying to communicate and making sure you are still getting off on the ball and all of those things.”
—Saints coach Sean Payton, on the difficulty of playing at Century Link Field, where the Saints got skunked 34-7 on Dec. 2.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. San Diego making it a game in Denver. I guess I’m not surprised that the Chargers are a heavy underdog this weekend in Denver, but I will be surprised if the Broncos rout them. As I’ve written this week, in their two meetings this season, Denver has outscored San Diego by a point, 48-47. San Diego has outrushed Denver, 308-102 in their games, Denver was held under 400 yards in both games against San Diego this year—and had more than 400 in every other game. San Diego has the strength of Manning’s 2012 offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, as its head coach now, and McCoy has the kind of institutional knowledge sure to have some bearing on this game.
2. The curse of the AFC top seed. I find this startling: Since the NFL went to the 12-team playoff in 1990, the top seed in the AFC is only 13-10 in the divisional round. The 14-2 Patriots fell to the Jets in 2010; the 13-3 Broncos got taken down in the second overtime by Baltimore last year. Thus, uneasy the Broncos will sleep Saturday night before their late game against the Chargers Sunday. For comparison’s sake, the NFC top seed is 19-4 in the divisional round.
3. The first pick versus 36th pick in the 2011 draft. Colin Kaepernick, the 36th, travels to face the first, Cam Newton of Carolina. “It’s not something I’ll forget,” Kaepernick said this week about falling into the second round in ’11. Newton beat the Niners in San Francisco in November. So this is Kaepernick’s chance at some road revenge.
4. Ken Whisenhunt and the Lions. Sure looks like he’s the leader in the clubhouse to begin to solve the Matthew Stafford riddle. President Tom Lewand and GM Martin Mayhew now have to wait until the Chargers lose before moving things along with Whisenhunt, according to NFL rules.
5. Some coach to take the lead in Minnesota, Cleveland, Tennessee. Though I don’t see what the rush is. Mike Zimmer, Ben McAdoo and Greg Roman, in order, are the most intriguing names in the three places.
6. The Jay Gruden aftermath, and the RG3 reaction. Don’t fall into the lazy category and say because the Bengals have been lousy on offense in the playoffs that Gruden is no Jon Gruden. I don’t buy it. If you want to question Jay Gruden as being too pass-happy and letting his run game go to seed, fine. That’s valid. He’ll succeed or fail on his ability to get Robert Griffin III to play great.
7. The Hall of Fame debate. My quibble: No Jimmy Johnson. He deserves to have his case heard in the room by the 46 selectors, and this year he won’t. No major surprises when the Hall of Fame announced the 15 finalists Thursday night. I see one near-lock: Walter Jones.
8. The coaching upset special. You’d be surprised to see Ben McAdoo get a job, wouldn’t you? I would too—but remember that McAdoo this year is what Andy Reid was in 1999 (the Green Bay quarterback coach) when Joe Banner and the Eagles hired him as head coach. Banner’s in Cleveland now, and his coach-whisperer was Mike Lombardi, now the Browns GM. All Reid did in 14 Eagle years was win 140 games. Conclude from that what you will.
9. The prospect of Brady-Manning XV. The AFC Championship Game in nine days will be the early game, meaning the biggest drama of the day could be a matinee—if the Pats and Broncos cooperate this weekend.
10. Greatness awaits. All-time postseason touchdown leaders: Joe Montana 45, Brett Favre 44, Tom Brady 42. A Brady-Andrew Luck shootout in Foxboro Saturday night, which I don’t think is likely, could leave Brady atop the list by midnight.