Huddle Up Week Six: 49ers Improve to 5-1; Look Poised For Playoff Berth by Jason King

 In the first six weeks of the NFL season, there have been 31 fourth quarter comebacks, the most through six weeks in NFL history. The 49ers, Falcons, and Patriots all came back from fourth quarter deficits to win games on Sunday.  The Dream Team got off the ropes with a win against the division leading Washington Redskins.  All of that and more in this week’s Huddle Up.  

First, to the game everyone should be talking about.

 In the game of the week, the San Francisco 49ers traveled to Detroit to take on the Lions.  They escaped with a 25-19 win.  That was their third win in the last four weeks in the Eastern Time Zone.  The last team from the West coast, to win three games in four weeks in the East coast, was the 1996 San Francisco 49ers.

This was a humbling loss for the previously undefeated Lions.  They were up 19-15 in the fourth quarter and couldn’t close the game. The 49ers held the Lions to 310 total yards on 73 plays from scrimmage.  The Lions were only 2 of 15 on third down.  They punted a season-high eight times.  Matthew Stafford threw the ball 50 times.

Although he finished the game with seven catches for 113 yards, Calvin Johnson was bottled up for most of the game.  Linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and defensive end Justin Smith had stellar games.  Bowman led the team with 14 tackles.  He was all over the place.  Smith led the team with 1.5 sacks.  Willis had his typical game with 7 tackles and led the team with 3 passes defended.  The versatility of Wills and Bowman cannot be overstated.  They are two rare linebackers in today’s game that are on the field for nearly every play, including third down.  Their speed separates them from most linebackers, but it is still amazing that they have been on the field for 650 of a possible 666 defensive snaps this season.   That shows you the faith 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has in them.

The 49ers offense ran all over the Lions defense.  They rushed for 203 yards.  Frank Gore had 15 carries for 141 yards and a touchdown.  He has the difference maker in this game for the 49ers.  Alex Smith had two turnovers, (1 fumble, 1 INT) and his numbers weren’t great, (17 of 32, 125 yards, 1 TD) but he made the single biggest play of the game.  On fourth and goal from the Lions six yard line, Smith found TE Delanie Walker on a slant pattern for the game-winning touchdown.

The 49ers look like they are the real deal.  They are 5-1 and have a 2.5 game lead in the NFC West.  Keep in mind that the Seattle Seahawks won the West last year with a 7-9 record.  It looks like the 49ers are not only playoff locks, but contenders for a first round bye in the playoffs.  They have a favorable schedule with five games remaining against their division.  Even if they go 4-1 in those five games, and don’t win any other games, 9 wins should be enough to win the West.  The postgame “confrontation” took a great deal away from the game of the week.  I won’t waste space about that but will say this.  After watching both of these teams one thing is clear: they are both going to be huge factors in the NFC playoff race and could meet again somewhere down the line.

The Philadelphia Eagles got a much needed win on Sunday.  They played a good all around first half, but struggled offensively in the second half.  Although the credit has to go to the Eagles, the Redskins game plan was flawed.  They had only 13 called running plays against the 24th ranked rush defense in the league.  Strange game plan put in place by Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

The Eagles came out firing in the first half as they stormed out to a 20-3 halftime lead.  They didn’t score another point in the second half.  They got yards but no points.  A real positive that the Eagles can take away from this game is the way they ran the ball against a good defense.  The Eagles piled up 192 rushing yards.  LeSean McCoy put in a yeoman’s effort with 28 carries for 128 yards and a touchdown. He is the breakout star of this NFL season.  One way the Eagles can keep Vick healthy is getting McCoy more touches.  He is proving that he can touch the ball 25 times a game.  Michael Vick managed the game well on Sunday.  He took what the defense gave him and his one interception was off a tipped ball.

The Eagles defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo, has been much maligned in the last week.  He silenced his detractors for the time being with his defenses best showing of the season.  Philadelphia was prepared for what the Redskins were trying to do on offense.  They forced Rex Grossman to throw 4 interceptions.  While the offense didn’t score a point in the second half, the defense bailed them out constantly, even when they were backed up into precarious situations.

The biggest play of the game came in the third quarter.  The Eagles first possession of the second half ended with an OJ Atogwe interception of a Michael Vick tipped pass.  The Eagles then forced Washington to punt and got the ball back.  Vick scrambled for a first down (called back due to offensive holding) but appeared to hit his head on the ground as he was hit.  He came out of the game with what looked like a second concussion of the season.  Vince Young came in the game and his third and long his pass was intercepted by DeAngelo Hall.  The Redskins had great field position and all the momentum.  This was the Eagles biggest defensive series of the season.  On second and long, Rex Grossman had a pass intercepted for the third time in the game.  Kurt Coleman made the biggest of his three interceptions on this play.  Even if the drive stalled, Washington would have had the opportunity to at least attempt a field goal.  Coleman robbed them of that chance, and his pick on the Redskins next drive ended Grossman’s day.

John Beck came in for the Redskins in the fourth quarter.  The Eagles defense played stellar all day.  They forced four turnovers and held the Redskins to 1 for 3 in red zone opportunities.  The Redskins were held to a season low 42 yards rushing.  This was the Eagles best defensive effort of the season.  They have a bye week before facing the Dallas Cowboys on October 30.  That is a Sunday night home game. The Eagles sit at 2-4, 2 games behind the division leading New York Giants.  The Eagles have some tough games left on the schedule but this win keeps hope alive and sends them into the bye week with something positive to build on.

Huddle Up

1. Can the Bengals stay afloat in the AFC North?  I think that they can and the reason is simple; They play solid defense. They have the league’s number one ranked defense statistically.  They have the most depth of any team on their defensive line. Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer has his defense playing as well as any defense in football.  The next four games after the bye will tell us a lot about this Bengals team.  They play: at Seattle , at Tennessee ball 35 times compared to 25 rushes Sunday at Atlanta .  That number needs to be reversed in order for the Panthers to start winning more games.

 2.      Interesting assessment by Mike Tomlin about his team.  Tomlin, after the game against the Jaguars had the following assessment of his team, “The jury is still out on us.”  Very rarely are coaches honest with the media but in this case Tomlin is accurate.  I think his main concerns are: injuries, the offensive line, and the defense.  The defense has been inconsistent through the first six weeks of the season.  They are ranked 1st against the pass, but 15th against the run.  Their calling card over the last few years has been stopping the run and this season they are having trouble against the run.  Opponents total rushing yards against the Steelers this season: Baltimore-170, Seattle-31,

Indianapolis-97, Houston-180, Tennessee-66, Jacksonville-133.  The offensive line has played better over the last two weeks with the addition

of LT Max Starks.  The Steelers are beat up and can only hope to get healthy after their bye week.  Tomlin’s biggest concern is and should be an aging defense that could be without two former defensive players of the year Sunday in Arizona .

3.      Dallas can’t close games.  The Cowboys are 2-3.  In all three of their losses they had fourth quarter leads.  They had well documented collapses (many people blame on Tony Romo) against the Jets and Lions.  This loss was because of conservative play calling down the stretch.  The Cowboys defense handed the Patriots only their 8th three and out of the season.  The Cowboys got the ball at their own 28 yard line with 3:36 remaining in the game and a 16-13 lead.  On first down they ran the ball out of the shotgun formation and lost two yards.  On second down they ran the ball again and lost another yard.  On third and long they ran out of the shotgun again and got eight yards.  Still they were short of the first down.  The Patriots got the ball with2:31 on the clock and scored the game winning touchdown on a Tom Brady 8 yard pass to Aaron Hernandez.  Jason Garrett, having seen his quarterback literally throw two games away already this season, didn’t give him the chance to do it a third time. He trusted his defense to get one last stop.  A main ingredient in a championship contender is being able to close tightly contested games.  The Cowboys have proved that they can’t, while Brady and Belichick proved for the 116th time that they can.

4. Brady/Belichick best coach/quarterback duo ever?  They won their 116th game together on Sunday tying Dan Marino and Don Shula’s record.  They have three Super Bowls victories in four appearances.  History will judge these two future hall of famers when their careers are done.  Let’s just enjoy watching two of the best to ever play/coach in the NFL.

5.  Big game for the Texans Sunday in Tennessee .  The Texans were everybody’s pick to win the AFC South.  They go into Tennessee as underdogs, playing back to back road games, and losers of two straight.  I don’t want to call it a must win, but this is a game the Texans need to win if they are serious contenders.  The Titans are coming off a bye week and will be prepared for the Texans.  Mike Munchak’s group will look to rebound from a subpar performance against the Steelers.  It’s not a coincidence that the Texans are 0-2 without Andre Johnson this season.  They could be without him again on Sunday.  If they are the challenge will be tough.  The Texans better be up to it if they want to be respected as a legitimate contender.

6. Fred Jackson for MVP!  Jackson has 601 yards and six touchdowns on the season.  Through the first six weeks of the season my MVP ballot would be Aaron Rodgers and then Fred Jackson.  Jackson had another superb game against the Giants.  He broke off an 80 yard touchdown run in the first half.  He finished the game with 168 yards from scrimmage on 21 touches.  That is 8 yards per touch.  When this guy gets the ball good things happen for the Bills.  If Jackson keeps playing like this he will not only stay in the MVP discussion, but the Bills will stay in the playoff race.

7.  It’s time for the Vikings to see what they have in Christian Ponder.  This has nothing to do with Donovan McNabb (okay maybe a little bit).  The Vikings are 1-5 and four games out of first place in the NFC North.  Their season is basically over.  They are already 0-2 in the division and probably will be 0-3 after they play the Packers on Sunday.  They need to see what Ponder looks like.  At this point there is nothing Ponder can learn from watching McNabb but bad habits.  Let Ponder start and run the ball 35 times a game.

8.  The NFL needs to clearly define what a catch is.  There seems to be a lot of grey area with this issue.  It seems to me watching the first six weeks of the season that a catch is defined differently by different officials.  In the Lions/49ers game a Nate Burelson pass was ruled on the field incomplete but after a review the call was reversed and official Mike Carey said Burelson did catch the ball.  It seemed to me that he caught the ball, but fell to the ground and lost control.  I didn’t think it was enough to overturn the call but Carey did.  In Monday night’s game Brandon Marshall and Darelle Revis both seemed to have hands on the ball.  In a tie I thought the ball went to the receiver.  That was the call on the field and referee Tony Corrente reversed it saying that there was “indisputable visual evidence” that Marshall didn’t catch the ball.  Judge these plays for yourselves but I think both were reversed wrongly.  The Rules Committee needs to define a catch more clearly.

9.  Great trade for the Bengals.  Didn’t expect the Bengals to get two spots here but they did by trading disgruntled QBCarson Palmer to the Raiders for a 2012 first round draft pick and a 2013 conditional draft pick that can turn into a first rounder depending on incentives.  Nobody else in the NFL would have given up two first round draft picks for Carson Palmer except the Raiders.  Jason Campbell is expected to miss anywhere between 4 and 10 weeks due to a broken collarbone (some reports have him out for the season).  The Raiders, sitting at 4-2 knew that they couldn’t depend on Kyle Boller to take them to the playoffs. So they paid a King’s Ransom for Palmer.  My thoughts are that Palmer is a declining player who I wouldn’t even trade a second round pick for.  His last solid year was in 2005.  He will be reunited with Hue Jackson (Bengals receivers coach from 2004-2006) so maybe this will revive his career.  The Raiders hope he can be the final piece to the puzzle and get them back in the playoffs this season.  Mike Brown did the right thing.  He put his pride aside and made a brilliant football move.  The Bengals will be better in the long term because of it.        

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