Fourth-and-29 will go down in Ravens history. I've watched the play that saved the game for the Ravens 15 times now, and what I marvel at is what I asked Rice about last night: "Did you know exactly how far you had to go for the first down?'' Because it looked like Rice knew exactly how far he had to go to save the game for the Ravens. The situation: Chargers up 13-10, 1:59 to play, fourth quarter. Baltimore ball, 4th-and-29 at the Ravens' 37. Rice slipped out after staying in for a second to help protect Joe Flacco. "I was the check-down guy,'' Rice said. "I didn't expect Joe to come to me.'' But Flacco did, dumping it to Rice one yard past the line of scrimmage. That's some pressure right there, asking Rice to elude eight Chargers in coverage and somehow make 28 yards on his own through the San Diego gauntlet.
Again: Did Rice know where to aim for -- namely the San Diego 34? "I saw the yard marker,'' Rice told me, "so I knew how far it was. I just knew somehow I had to get there. And when I took off, I saw them overpursuing me, so I cut to the left. I think I must have found another gear. And then I got that great block from Anquan [Boldin].'' Which looked like a classic crackback block that should have been penalized; Boldin blindsided Eric Weddle, who had to be removed from the game, just as Rice dove for the Chargers 34. He made it ... Or did he?
"There was a lot being said out there, but I didn't pay attention,'' said Rice, while the spot of the play was examined and re-examined and replayed. The more I looked, the more I thought Rice's knee didn't come down until the ball was at approximately the 34-yard line. If Gene Steratore and his officiating crew erred in the spot, it wasn't by more than a foot. No outrage to me. The play kept the game-tying drive alive, and the Ravens won 14 minutes into overtime. When I've been around the Ravens in the last couple of years, I've always gotten the impression that Ray Lewis was preparing to pass the mantel of team leadership to Rice. Lewis loves Rice, and this play shows why he does. A play that had no business getting made got made by Rice, and it could be the play that makes the difference between a first-round bye and a veteran team having to play a wild-card game. How incredible would it be for that extra week of rest allowing another week of healing for Lewis -- and enabling him to come back from his arm injury to take the field in mid-January, maybe for the final time?
Kaepernick was the right man at the right time, apparently. Colin Kaepernick didn't have the wild success Sunday in New Orleans that he had last Monday against Chicago at Candlestick Park; it would have misguided to think he could. But the second-year man from Nevada, Jim Harbaugh's hand-picked quarterback of the future, played like Harbaugh would want him to play. "Just go out and be yourself,'' Harbaugh told him before the game.
Two things that impressed me: Kaepernick turned it over once, and led the Niners into scoring position five times (two touchdowns, three field goal chances) in 10 San Francisco possessions ... and he did all of that while running the offense in a silent snap count for all 56 offensive snaps. "It was difficult our first few drives because of the noise and the energy here, but then it was just football,'' Kaepernick told me after the game.
Impressive thing No. 2: Alex Smith was an ally, not a disgruntled employee, throughout the game. "It's got to be tough,'' said Kaepernick, "but Alex is so good to me. Our relationship is still the same as it's been. Every time I came off the field, he'd say to me, 'Did you see this?' Or, 'Did you see that?' Alex is a great guy.'' Apparently.
The hidden advantage in the choice Harbaugh made is that now he knows he can win with two quarterbacks. One more mobile with a stronger downfield arm, weapons Harbaugh had on display in the Dome; Kaepernick completed throws of 26, 40 and 45 yards. The other is as efficient and smart a player as a coach could hope for, in Smith. I mean, who has a backup quarterback leading the league in completion percentage, with a rating over 100? All over a deep roster, Harbaugh has almost an embarrassment of riches -- just two seasons after the 49ers were an embarrassment.
The low-block business. I reported Friday night on NBC Sports Network that the NFL Competition Committee will consider a move the league very much wants to see happen -- the banning of all blocks below the waist for the first time in the NFL's 93-year history.
Reaction was swift. Two coaches with an offensive leaning told me they thought it'd be the death knell for running games as we know them, because so many teams teach pulling guards and backs to chop down defenders by diving and rolling at their feet; they also said smaller backs who have to blitz-protect would be at a disadvantage -- the diminutive Darren Sproles is a good blitz man, and chops down rushers much bigger than he -- against defensive ends and outside linebackers. But the defenders? They love it. "That'd be great,'' said Houston linebacker Connor Barwin. "It'd be the first thing this league has done to protect defensive players in years.''
Last season, Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson dove at Kansas City safety Eric Berry's knees, causing torn ligaments and Berry to be out for the year. On Sunday, Johnson told me: "That's cool. I'd be in favor of them making that rule. I stopped doing it anyway, because I didn't want to knock guys out for the year. That's not the kind of player I am, and this is a brotherhood. We don't want to be hurting each other.'' I don't think the league will get the votes to ban all blocks below the waist in 2013, but I do think downfield blocks away from the play, such as Johnson's on Berry, have a good chance to be banned.
Dot dot dot things. Until I saw Rice's incredible fourth-down conversion, I thought the play of the day was Stevie Johnson's strip and recovery late in the fourth quarter on Colts safety Tom Zbikowski after Zbikowski picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick. Smart play for Johnson, who had to aim for the strip and make the strip, all while being stiff-armed by an amateur boxer, which Zbikowski has been. "At the time, we're driving, and it's pretty much the season on the line,'' Johnson said. "So I did what you'd do in the backyard -- you just try any way possible to knock the ball away. I'm like, 'Where's that football at?' And it bounced right up to me. That never happens." ... If Hines Ward were still a Steeler, he'd make running backs Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Rainey, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman (six fumbles at Cleveland Sunday, four recovered by the Browns) walk around the facility lugging a football tight to their chests. An eight-TO day? Inexcusable ...
Mike Holmgren told Kevin Harlan of FOX this weekend that Sunday was his last day with the Browns, an odd way to end one's club presidency. Sounds very much like Holmgren will return to his big digs in Seattle and hope he gets an offer to coach again. He's 64, two years younger than Tom Coughlin, and may want to erase the way things ended for him in Seattle, and in Cleveland. In Holmgren's last three coaching seasons in Seattle, he was 23-25. In his three seasons as Browns president, the team was 12-31 ... Six starters hurt for the Bears. A month ago, I thought the NFC North was the best division, top to bottom, in football. Now it's the War of Attrition Division ... Any doubt about the wisdom of Mike Brown playing hardball with Carson Palmer in 2011 got erased Sunday. The Bengals have the better quarterback for the long-term, to be sure, in Andy Dalton and building-block cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (from the first-round pick acquired from Oakland in 2012), not to mention a pick that appears to be around 35 or 37 in the upcoming draft, also from Oakland. "Hopefully everyone believes the Bengals did the right thing,'' Dalton told me after the Bengals' 34-10 rout of Oakland and Palmer. "I think they do. I think my teammates do. We went to the playoffs last year, and now we're playing complete games and should have a good chance to go back this year." More importantly: Palmer didn't want to be in Cincinnati. Dalton craved it, because it was a place that would give him a starting job from day one.
Each week, thanks to play-by-play game dissection by ProFootballFocus.com, I'll look at one important matchup or individual performance metric from one of the Sunday games.
If the last six weeks of the 2012 season play out similarly to the first 10, the defensive story of the season could well be two sophomore defensive players: Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Broncos linebacker Von Miller. Their play has been so outstanding that the question might not be which deserves the Defensive Player of the Year award, but are either worthy of the MVP? I asked Neil Hornsby of ProFootballFocus.com to break down their play to try to answer those questions:
Playing Time: Watt has played 89 percent of Houston's defensive snaps and Miller 90 percent for Denver. Watt has been so dominant that teams have had to start game-planning just to stop him. So the Texans have moved him from his favored position on the left. In 2011 he was on the left 85 percent of his snaps, but it's 74 percent this year, as the Texans have shifted Watt around to counter blocking schemes. Miller has actually spent more time on his preferred left side (72 percent, up from 67 percent last year) because his position and style of play means he is far harder to scheme against. EDGE: Even.
Run Defense: Watt plays the run better than anyone else at his position (including defensive tackles). His 35 defensive stops in run defense (tackles which are defeats for the offense) are four more than anyone in football. In productivity terms that gives Watt a stop on 18 percent of running downs; the next best is Justin Smith at 12 percent. Miller can't match those pure numbers (he's 12th in the same stat against outside linebackers) but that's not his game. His position on the field distorts those figures. It's much fairer to say when he makes a play in run defense, it's usually a big one; the average gain on his 24 tackles in run defense? Minus-1 yard. EDGE: Watt.
Pass Rush: Miller is the most devastating pass rusher at any position in the NFL. There is no one on offense who can consistently match up to him; offensive linemen are not quick enough to counter his acceleration. The 49ers' brilliant outside 'backer, Aldon Smith, has 43 quarterback disruptions this year on 292 pass rushes. Miller has 61 on 297, 41 percent more on nearly the same number of attempts. Watt's base numbers are excellent too (49 quarterback disruptions from 402 rushes). They come a close second in productivity terms to the Bengals' Geno Atkins, who has 40 QB disruptions on 300 pass rush snaps. EDGE: Miller
Coverage: Well, Watt doesn't cover, so this is an odd stat for him (he's dropped in coverage only 14 times), but there has to be a way to count his passes swatted away. He has tipped 13 passes at the line of scrimmage, more than twice as many as the next player. Since 2008, the most we'd had in a full season before this was in 2009, when Johnny Jolly batted down 10. Watt is probably redefining the way in which linemen will be taught to play. Pass coverage is currently seen as a weakness in Miller's game. He's average in that regard, but compared to the other facets of his game it's clearly not as well developed. Having said that, he's only dropped in coverage on 92 plays so far. EDGE: Watt.
In Summary: Many players on defense are having great years, but no one is as far ahead of the competition as J.J. Watt and Von Miller. Just as Darrelle Revis did in the early part of 2011, they are redefining what's achievable at their positions. Who's better? Flip a coin. Good thing there are five games left for each, so one can win the award they both now deserve.
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