Five Things I Think About the Niners.
1. Michael Crabtree didn’t play the last time San Francisco visited Seattle (and got clobbered), and he’ll make a big difference. He’s the kind of physical receiver who can joust with Richard Sherman and know how to scrap without getting offensive pass interference called. (It’s an art. Ask Michael Irvin.) Colin Kaepernick has had Crabtree for two of his three starts against Seattle, and targeted him 17 times.
2. Jim Harbaugh may be the nuttiest professor in the league, but he sure can coach. Three years, three championship-game appearances (first time that’s happened in an NFL coach’s first three seasons since the 1970 merger), 41 wins already. Bill Belichick won 20 in his first three seasons at Cleveland, 28 his first three years at New England. Harbaugh makes the tough decisions and doesn’t blink. Good coach for today’s players, many of whom like the feisty guys who rebel against authority.
3. They are a good match against the Seahawks’ run game because of how well they plug the gaps. You saw it against Cam Newton Sunday, with Ahmad Brooks stuffing him, and with the two inside ’backers, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, not allowing the Carolina run game to get any traction. “Marshawn Lynch is not the kind of guy to wait for the gaps,” said Calais Campbell. “He’ll just hit in there.” Look for Bowman and Willis to be physical early against Lynch, and for tempers to flare.
4. Kaepernick will have some rough spots throwing it, but nerves won’t lose this game for him. “Totally respect Kaepernick in clutch situations,” said Campbell. “Against us, when he had to, he made some clutch throws, and he put them right where they had to be.” You saw it last year in Atlanta, and Sunday in Carolina. You don’t win three road games in the playoffs in your first 14 months on the job by being wary.
5. Like Crabtree, Anquan Boldin’s the type of physical receiver who will be a tough cover for Seattle. He warmed up with eight for 136 against Carolina, and this is his time of year. You saw how he played in January for Baltimore last year.
Check out photographer Simon Bruty’s fantastic work capturing Vernon Davis’ first-half touchdown.
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Much more coming later at The MMQB from Robert Klemko from Denver on Julius Thomas and the two third-down catches that clinched the game for the Broncos. But anyone’s who watched Manning for the last few frustrating playoff runs wanted to see how he’d respond when the game was on the line, late. Forget whose fault it would have been. Blowing a pair of 17-point leads would have been gasket-exploding, particularly when one was 24-7 with seven minutes left in the game. The specter of Rahim Moore may not have been in the heads of the Broncos as the clock wound down and Philip Rivers dissected the defense. But I bet it was.
Now it came down to 3rd-and-17, Denver 20, 3:06 to play, Manning knowing if he doesn’t convert, the Broncos punt. Rivers was ready to tie it. Thomas broke from the right slot and made for the right sideline, about 18 yards downfield. The Chargers were down two defensive backs, there was a mix-up in coverage communication, and no one went to the sideline with Thomas. Manning threw it on target. Gain of 21.
You could hear Denver exhale over the TV.
“Great play call by [offensive coordinator] Adam Gase,” Manning said. “Really big-time play call. He knew what the look would be, and then a good catch by Julius.”
Point was, Gase liked the matchup of the 6-5, 250-pound former college basketball player on either a linebacker or corner out wide, and when Thomas rubbed off the coverage in traffic from the slot, that was a bonus. It’s probably a throw Manning would have made anyway, because of Thomas’ height and ability to win a high ball in single coverage. The bonus was he was uncovered. Another 3rd-and-6 conversion followed three snaps later, and the Broncos could run out the clock.
This week’s going to be filled with the blunt-force trauma of great expectations, and another showdown with the Patriots. I can imagine Manning Saturday night in the hotel, watching New England, thinking, “Not them again.” He won’t admit that, but he’s had so many of these Belichick and Brady battles. Even an Andrew Luck rematch would have been preferable, I’m sure. But it is what it is. Hey, hasn’t that been said before? By some Manning nemesis?
“I don’t see anything different in Peyton this time of year,” Champ Bailey told me after the game. “He was the same all week as he is every week, and I assume he’ll be the same this week. With Peyton, everything’s important. All the details are important. That’s why he’s so good.”
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Some Saintly thoughts.
And not just because the editor of this column, Tom Mantzouranis, is the biggest Saints booster this side of Steve Gleason:
• For as good a play-caller as Sean Payton is, and as valuable a player as Marques Colston is, and as smart a quarterback as Drew Brees is, the Saints’ prayer of a last drive was stupid, and it had the fingerprints of each man on it. No timeouts left, ball on the Saints’ 41, and 24 seconds to play. First play: a short curl to tight end Jimmy Graham in the middle of the field. Graham had been held without a catch for the first 59-and-a-half minutes Saturday, and this terrible play-call smacked of stat-padding. (Or stat-something.) Graham caught the ball at :22 and went down, and the Saints rushed to the line … :19, :18, :17, :16, spike at :15. Just a foolish waste of time. You can’t throw an out there? Second play: Brees to Colston on an out to the right, gain of 13, Colston looks like he’ll go out of bounds … and he, incredibly, pauses with eight seconds left and throws a forward pass—it wasn’t even close to a lateral—all the way across the field. So, instead of having seven or eight seconds left at the Seahawks’ 36, with a chance for one quick completion to the sideline and then a shot into the end zone, Colston throws an illegal forward pass and the game is over because the ensuing penalty calls for a 10-second runoff. It was clear in the locker room after the game that no one had any idea why Colston threw that pass. Let’s recap: With 24 seconds left and trailing 23-15 with 59 yards to gain against a very good defense, your chances are not good. But you should have four plays if you’re smart. Maybe five. New Orleans got three off, and one was a spike. I’m still shaking my head over the mismanagement, a day and a half later.
• Brees turns 35 Wednesday. The window’s closing. It’s not closed. But if I were GM Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton, I’d be thinking about drafting a quarterback, and not just a seventh-rounder for third-string purposes. Denver and New England don’t know if Brock Osweiler and Ryan Mallett will ever play significant snaps for them, but those teams know that when old quarterbacks are nearing the end, the position’s too important to wait until stars are gone to worry about a succession plan. Brees was still very good this season, a top-five quarterback, and he could give the Saints three or four more very good years. Look at Peyton Manning at 37 and Tom Brady at 36. But LAD—Life After Drew—is coming, and if an Aaron Murray is there late in the second round as he rehabs from knee surgery, Loomis has to think about it.
• Dying to know how, in the last six quarters of the postseason (second half at Philly, all game at Seattle), Jimmy Graham, who was only the overwhelming first-team All-Pro tight end this season, could have this receiving line:
Receiving yards: 8.
The Saints’ best offensive weapon in the passing game accounted for eight token yards in the last six quarters of the postseason. That is unacceptable. That’s like a healthy Adrian Peterson touching the ball nine times in 1.5 playoff games. When I watched Graham Saturday, I saw a clear-out receiver. I didn’t see a fighter. He wasn’t loafing, but often in the second half he’d round off his routes and not fight Richard Sherman or Earl Thomas for position; he looked content to open space for Colston often. I tried to envision Tony Gonzalez in this case—the same kind of athletic space player Graham is. And I think Gonzalez would have been battling to get open more, to present his quarterback with another go-to option.
• Snaps missed by Graham in the two playoff games: 46. I understand different players playing different packages, but when your best weapon is sitting 30 percent of the time, it’s a mistake.
• Watched a lot of rookie left tackle Terron Armstead in the game. That wasn’t just a good decision Payton made in benching Charles Brown with two games left in the regular season and replacing him with the third-rounder from Arkansas-Pine Bluff—it was a great decision. Armstead is quick to seal the edge, strong and not intimidated. He has some chippiness to him. The Saints have a keeper at left tackle, for good value.
• Plugging in Armstead, however, wasn’t the best move Payton made in this return-to-football year. Hiring Rob Ryan was. He installed a more aggressive defensive philosophy and instilled the kind of junkyard-dog attitude the Saints haven’t had since Gregg Williams’ way was working four years ago. The defense got run on by Seattle on Saturday, but Russell Wilson struggled all day—some because of the wind and some because the New Orleans front didn’t let him breathe. Cameron Jordan is a star, and he’s going to be a bigger one next year. The secondary needs healthy corners and the return of safety Kenny Vaccaro, but it’s headed in the right direction with Keenan Lewis an invaluable addition. Oh, and do not think of moving on from David Hawthorne. One of the underrated inside ’backers in football. There is great hope for 2014 because of this defense—and because Brees won’t have to get in a scoring contest every week to win.