Has the balance of power shifted West?
After tonight, when the 1-0 Broncos and 1-0 Falcons meet, there will be a nice symmetrical breakdown in the NFL standings, barring a tie in the Georgia Dome:
Teams with 2-0 records: 6.
Teams with 1-1 records: 20.
Teams with 0-2 records: 6. There's only one 0-2 team in the NFC -- New Orleans.
The NFC West went 4-0 Sunday. The San Francisco win over Detroit was expected, but the other three outcomes -- Arizona 20, New England 18; St. Louis 31, Washington 28; Seattle 27, Dallas 7 -- were not. Add San Diego's 38-10 annihilation of Tennessee and the possible ascension of Denver with Peyton Manning, and you see how the rise of good teams in the two western divisions could turn out to be one of the story lines of the season.
For the record, there have been only two of 46 Super Bowls featuring both teams from the Mountain and Pacific time zones: San Francisco over Denver in 1990, San Francisco over San Diego in 1995.
If it's a California Super Bowl rematch from the Niners-Chargers of 18 years ago, I doubt it will be the same kind of game as it was then, when Steve Young set the Super Bowl record with six touchdown passes. San Francisco has the NFC's best defense, and San Diego has played great defense through the first two weeks. A quick look at the three teams in the West that have started 2-0:
Arizona. What a game the Cardinals' D played in Foxboro Sunday, in their upset of the Patriots that no one saw coming. Arizona now has a premier pass rusher, Calais Campbell (two sacks of Tom Brady), a great and versatile defensive tackle in Darnell Dockett, speedy linebackers in Sam Acho and Daryl Washington and an excellent secondary with strong safety play from Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes, and the man who personally stopped an important New England drive in the fourth quarter. Cornerback Patrick Peterson overpowered his blocker to stop Stevan Ridley for a four-yard loss, forcing the Patriots, down 11, to punt. He could have been an outside linebacker or safety on the play, watching him shed the block so easily.
"Well,'' he said by phone later, "I have the size for both of those positions. That was a huge, huge play.''
Playing 96 snaps -- all 82 on defense, 12 on special teams and two on offense -- Peterson and the Cardinals showed remarkable staying power, and obviously got lucky at the end when Stephen Gostkowski shanked what would have been the winning field goal. "Fifty-three men expected this,'' he said. "No one else. This is the kind of win we can use to build something solid here."
San Diego. The Chargers have held Darren McFadden and Chris Johnson, two threats to win the rushing title, to 49 yards in 23 carries. Rookie 3-4 defensive end Kendall Reyes has solidified a weak position, and the Chargers finally seem to have found some help for a defense that too long relied on underachieving high draft picks. Offensively, Philip Rivers is a 74-percent passer with a bunch of targets he's still getting used to, but the best news is he's not taking the kind of risks that got him in so much trouble last year, when he threw 20 interceptions. Through two games, he's thrown one.
San Francisco. The 49ers and Houston have distanced themselves from the pack in the first two weeks. They're the best teams in football. Sunday night against Detroit, Alex Smith continued to show he's more than just a complementary piece to the puzzle. He makes winning plays, winning throws, and he is the perfect pilot for Jim Harbaugh's methodical, exacting ways. In the second half Sunday, with Detroit hanging around, Smith engineered drives of 10, 10 and 13 plays in succession. The results: field goal, field goal, touchdown. Smith's 115.9 rating after two games is best in the league for quarterbacks who have played two games. And on Sunday night, Smith got cut on the bridge of his nose when he was hit while sliding. "He's as tough as a two-dollar steak,'' Harbaugh said. More valuable too.
Alfred Morris is following in some good footsteps.
|A tale of two backs|
|* Through two games|
Mike Shanahan, of course, likes the late-round, unknown running backs. He's always felt, with much justification, that you can find a back late in the draft who can help you win, and he's been doing it now for most of two decades in Denver and Washington. The latest: Florida Atlantic's Alfred Morris, who has taken over the starting job with the 'Skins and doesn't seem inclined to let it go anytime soon. To the right, charting Morris versus a former Bronco back who was one of Shanahan's best late-round finds.
Chris Johnson Abomination of the Week.
After two weeks, the would-be rushing champion is 71st in the league on the ground. His line: 19 attempts, 21 yards, 1.1 yards per carry, with a long gain of seven yards.
Don't forget one of the plays of the week, just because it's four days old.
The fake field goal attempt that was turned into a touchdown pass from Green Bay punter Tim Masthay to backup tight end Tom Crabtree Thursday night at Lambeau Field was remarkable for three reasons:
1. It was 4th-and-26. Green Bay was in field goal range. The chances of getting a touchdown on a 4th-and-26 fake field goal would be what? Ten percent? Five?
2. Dave Toub coaches the Chicago special teams and is far and away one of the smartest and most opportunistic special teams coaches in the league. His special teams have blocked more kicks and punts (22) in the nine years since he's been in Chicago than any other team in the league. If you're a good fan, you know Dave Toub. But before Thursday night, when the NFL Network's Mike Mayock and Brad Nessler started talking up Shawn (son of R.C.) Slocum, be honest: You had no idea who the Packers special teams coordinator was. You do now. That was one well-coached play.
3. It required such good coordination on the offensive line, and if any of six Packers up front had made an error, the play would have failed. No doubt about it.
I've watched the play now maybe 30 times, on the TV and all-22 video the NFL has made available this season. And I've spoken with the touchdown man, Crabtree. Here's how it happened.
The play was installed early in training camp this year, though as Mike McCarthy said Friday, the Packers had a similar play in the kicking game playbook for the last couple of years. The play has a chance to work when the defense overloads one side, as Chicago did on this play with seven men to the Packers' left. But here's what's amazing to me: Green Bay has to rely on three linemen blocking five Bears. If those Packer linemen don't do the job right, the play collapses. And if Slocum hadn't changed kicker Mason Crosby's assignment a couple of weeks ago, I say the play would have failed also.
Everything had to go right for the Packers, struggling on offense for the first 28 minutes, to score here. And just barely, it did.
The Green Bay line had Crabtree on the left flank and right tackle Bryan Bulaga on the right flank. The long-snapper, Brett Goode, had three men between him and Crabtree, and two were playing their second NFL games. To Goode's immediate left were the seventh and last offensive lineman on the roster, Don Barclay (an undrafted rookie free agent from West Virginia), regular left tackle Marshall Newhouse and rookie defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.
Across from the left side of the Green Bay line were five Bears -- three on the line, including Julius Peppers, and two behind them to act as pushers (linebackers Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach). "That is very standard when you're going for a field goal block,'' one veteran NFL special teams coach told me Saturday. "But what was different -- first time I've ever seen it, actually -- is the Packers putting a guard in motion to act as a lead blocker.''
That, the coach said, is amazing because of the pure mass of man the Packers were going to have to block to make the play work. Five men were charging or pushing through three Packers -- Goode, Barclay and Newhouse (Worthy was to the left of the scrum) -- and the Packers were willing to take a huge risk and send Barclay pulling right at the snap of the ball to clear the hole for the pitch-receiver, Crabtree, to run through. Blocking five with two. How does that make sense?
Goode and Newhouse, combined, weigh 574 pounds. The five Bears trying to knock the door down across from them (Urlacher and Roach pushing, with Julius Peppers, Henry Melton and Corey Wootton), combined, weigh 1,347. What a risk to think Goode and Newhouse could road-block five men for the time it would take Crabtree to go into motion, catch the pitch and turn upfield to try to score.
But at the snap of the ball, they did. Goode snapped, then leaned to the left to block, and right guard Josh Sitton came over to help, through the hole before it got filled by Crabtree. Newhouse did the best job; he blocked down to his right, and his big body created something like a huge log rolled into a pile. If you were going to get over it or through it, you have to be either very strong or jump very high. At the snap, Barclay sprinted into the hole, and Crabtree was a few steps behind him, taking the pitch-pass and turning the corner. Just as he turned, Peppers got a big hand on him, barely. "Never felt it,'' Crabtree told me. "Must have been the adrenaline."
Now for the role of Crosby. "That's where a little bit of luck comes into play,'' Crabtree said. "Mason rolls left, and holds their wing guy [Charles Tillman] from coming after me, and coach Slocum just put that in a couple of weeks ago.'' At the snap, Crosby took a step forward, as if he were going to kick it, then immediately wheeled to run very wide around left end. That froze Tillman. If Crosby doesn't run left, Tillman could have chased his man, Crabtree, and easily caught him from behind. "That,'' said Crabtree, "is a wrinkle that really paid off. We needed it.''
Sitton sealing the left side, and Bulaga cutting off the other wing man, Eric Weems, on the right, really helped, as did Evan Dietrich-Smith cutting off safety Chris Conte. When Barclay entered the hole, he helped eliminate Conte, but the real impressive thing was how quickly the 305-pound Barclay got out of the scrum, turned, and ran upfield. Really, he was the insurance agent here -- if any Bear clogged the lane, it was Barclay's job to eliminate him.
The next thing Green Bay knew, Crabtree was leaping into the south stands at Lambeau with the touchdown that kick-started the Packer offense -- and eliminated the play from being called for at least the rest of this season. Now, every special teams coach in the league will be wary of it. No more pulling 305-pound guards, no more shock-the-world 4th-and-26 calls, for a long time.
"That play's pretty much dead for a while,'' Crabtree said, laughing. "But I'd say the one time we ran it was worth it."
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