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SCOUTING THE NFC
Ooh. Ooooh. Ooooooooooooooh, my. I don't believe I've ever fidgeted nervously this much in a single week. I had a hard time focusing on my schoolwork, my article for this week is late, and I got reprimanded at work. Twice. (Not that that's anything new, but I digress.) And now I sit here with my excitement nearing a fever pitch. Why is this, you may ask?
Because, loyal reader, I'm attending my first NFL game on Monday. Yes, yours truly, Trevor the Great of Trevor's Corner, will be taking the train from Portland to Seattle to see the San Francisco 49ers beat the Seahawks on Monday Night Football. And I'm nearly wetting my pants in anticipation.
Well wouldn't YOU be? Think about it. Monday Night Football. John Madden. Al Michaels. Melissa Stark(!). My favorite team. My first game. Gorgeous brand new stadium. A day off school. Everything is adding up to make this trip maybe the single most important event of my 20 year existence.
But I'm not gonna spend the whole article geeking out over the trip. I just wanted to let you all know the score. No no, next week will be my week for geeking out.
Now, onto the rest of the article!
SCOUTING THE NFC
Yes yes, it's a bit early to be talking playoffs, but the 49ers victory over the Rams next week really puts them in a good position to run away with the NFC West, a title that would guarantee them a playoff spot. Assuming then that the 49ers make the playoffs, it's pertinent to check up on their potential competitors now. So I'll go through and scout out the diviosion leaders and touch on any other teams I think will be competitive as we hit the home stretch.
The Eagles sit in a tie atop the NFC East with the New York Giants heading into Week 6, coming off a loss to the suddenly hot Jacksonville Jaguars. But don't let that fool you, Philly has been hot this year. Problem is, the entire team's fate lies in the hands of one Donovan McNabb. And while many would argue that that's the way it should be, football is a team game, and great as McNabb is, he still needs people around him who can alleviate the pressure on him. McNabb currently leads the Eagles in rushing with 241 yards and 3 TDs. He also has been sacked 19 times. Those numbers are bad. A running QB's best friend is a solid rushing attack, which takes pressure off him. If McNabb IS the rushing attack, it means he's taking too many hits, and you don't want your quarterback taking too many hits. It's a good bet the Eagles regret not signing Warrick Dunn, who has 4 TDs this year for Atlanta and could be tearing up defenses running behind Tra Thomas and the Eagles' line. Duce Staley has 229 yards rushing and 2 TDs.
Bottom Line: As McNabb goes, so go the Eagles.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The team that knocked the 49ers out of the playoffs last year has looked like a bit of an anomaly to date. The Packers' supposedly improved wideout corps has looked anemic at best this season, and Ahman Green has yet to really get going (416 rushing yards, 5th in NFL; 0 TDs). And the defense is banged up now too, having lost defensive end Joe Johnson for the year and seeing Vonnie Holliday suffering from a torn triceps. The Pack will need to regroup because it's too early in the season to give up. This will be another big test for coach Mike Sherman.
Bottom Line: Favre and Green can cure what ails the Pack. Now the D has to step up.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS:
The Saints look like the offensive machine I predicted they would be in the preseason. Deuce McAllister has logged 461 yards and 5 TDs on the ground this year, and Aaron Brooks has already thrown 10 TDs. The offense is multifaceted, with the three wideout set of Joe Horn, Donte Stallworth, and Jerome Pathon producting among the best in the league.
The Saints' defense, however, has suffered from lack of pass rush and lack of quality in the secondary. A team with a high-scoring offense needs those two things. As such, while New Orleans has talent on defense, teams trying to catch up with the Saints' scoring have been pretty succesful doing so. N'Awlins is geared to stop the run, and teams only wanna pass against them. This makes them a fun team to watch, but doesn't make for good solid fundamental football.
Bottom Line: The ability to stop the run will be big in the playoffs, where offenses are slowed down and every position is crucial. Until then, if you get the chance to see this team, watch them. They're like the '99 Rams.
NEW YORK GIANTS:
The Giants are a hard read at this point of the season. Kerry Collins has been piling up yardage (1358 yards passing after 5 games), but has only 4 TD passes. And the normally stoic rushing offense has been anything but, as the Giants average only 2.9 yards per rush, last in the league. Defensively though, the Giants rank 4th in the NFL in yardage, despite fielding a supposedly depleted unit from a year ago. They've been getting it done with good, solid, fundamental D. Nothing fancy here. Michael Strahan has only 2.0 sacks on the year, Will Peterson leads the 'Gints with 2 INTs, and Shaun Williams leads the D in tackles with 35.
Bottom Line: If NY ever finds some consistency on the offensive line, this team will be dangerous. An established defense, and an offense ready to break out could take Jim Fassel's team far.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS:
Another hard read. Despite Jon Gruden's arrival and the myriad personnel changes made on defense, these still look like the same old Bucs. The offense is ranked 23rd in the NFL right now, and Tampa Bay's defense has scored as many TDs (4) as have the Bucs' wideouts. But the Buccaneers' defense is back, to say the least. Where TB looked old and downtrodden last year, they look young and spry this year. The defense is ranked 2nd in the NFL this year, and Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks are looking like Pro Bowlers again.
The real problem is on the offensive side of the ball, where Brad Johnson hasn't really looked all that improved from last year. I got a hunch that we'll be seeing Rob Johnson before too long. Gruden really liked Rob Johnson in the preseason, and while Brad Johnson has done an okay job of running the Bucs' offense, Rob Johnson has the talent to put this team on his back.
Bottom Line: The defense will win games for them, like it always has, but this team won't take the next step until quarterback play is improved.
The 49ers' remaining schedule is no cake walk, by any means. The team travels to New Orleans on October 20th and Oakland on November 3rd. Games against the Chargers and the Packers will also test the 49ers' mettle. But 12 wins is by no means out of the question, and San Francisco could do a lot better than that. Anything is possible. As it stands right now, Trevor's picks go as follows.
NFC Playoff Teams:
AFC Playoff Teams:
NFC Championship: San Francisco vs. New Orleans
AFC Championship: Miami vs. Oakland
Super Bowl: San Francisco over Oakland
But hey, it's Week 6. What do I know? I bet these picks will be very different by the end of the year. Oh well. It's fun to speculate.
LAST WEEK'S GAME
In what was probably the 49ers' most satisfying victory since 1998, San Francisco absolutely shellacked the St. Louis Rams, 37-13, in a game that was even more of a blowout than the final score would indicate.
The 49ers' defense was positively dominant in taking a Rams' team whose previous five defeats (including last year's Super Bowl) came by a single score. St. Louis barely got a sniff of the 49ers' end zone until the last couple minutes of the game, when the 49ers gave up a garbage-time touchdown.
Garrison Hearst went over 100 yards for the first time this season, with 116 on 13 attempts, including a gorgeous 40 yard romp off right tackle. I mentioned in last week's Grab Bag article that there's nothing more beautiful in the NFL than watching Jerry Rice turn a short completion into a long gain. Well as a 49ers' fan, there's nothing more heartwarming than watching Hearst, who has fought through so much adversity in his career, continue to play at a high level. He could play another few seasons at this rate if he wanted to, even though he's on the dark side of 30, and at an age where most RBs begin to slow down.
Terrell Owens didn't have a record-breaking day, but he did log 89 yards on seven receptions, which is actually his best production through the air this year. You know he's getting angry at himself for his lack of production, and he plays at his best when he's mad.
But I think the game's best performance came from Jeff Garcia, who slipped that blue-and-gold monkey off his back with his first career victory over the Rams. Garcia played in what was also his best game of the year, completing 18/26 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for a touchdown.
The offense played their first dominant game in a long time, and this should be used as a springboard for the rest of the year.
Defensively, though the 49ers are going without Trevor's Corner Mascot Jamie Winborn, they got good production from Jeff Ulbrich, who logged four tackles and a sack. San Francisco continues to show how much defensive muscle they have by taking injuries and continuing to insert quality players. That will be a boon as the season progresses.
All in all, this game should be taken for what it was: a complete victory over a team that has given up. Even if the Rams are much improved by the next time the 49ers face them in Week 17, San Francisco is in the driver's seat of this division, and no team has come from 0-5 to make the playoffs. Realistically, the Rams would have to win 11 straight, and with a team as depleted and morally beaten as they are, the chances of that happening are slim to none.
NEXT WEEK'S GAME
The Seattle Seahawks come into this Monday Night game at a crossroads. They sit at 3rd place in the NFC West at 1-3, but they had their way with the Minnesota Vikings in a Week 4 victory, 48-23. If Seattle can come anywhere near that sort of production they'll have a chance. But the problem is, the Vikings have the NFL's worst defense, and by a good margin, which pretty much renders the Hakw's explosion an aberration until proven otherwise. And the Hawk's defense is nothing to write home about at this point in the season. Unless this team matures very very quickly, Shaun Alexander, Mike Holmgren and co. will be going home with yet another losing record.
The Seahawks' best chance to win this game will be to feed the ball to Alexander until his legs fall off. Alexander loves playing at night (231 total yards, 5 TDs against the Vikings; 266 rushing yards, 3 TDs vs. Raiders last year), and he's the one Seahawk capable of beating the 49ers' D. A spy should be kept on him at all times.
Defensively, the Seahawks are hoping to regain the services of cornerback Shawn Springs, one of the NFL's top cover corners when he's healthy. Problem is, he's not been healthy very often of late. If he plays, San Francisco should attack him early and often to see just how healed up that injury is.
The 49ers need to pound the ball up the middle. Establish offensive rhythm with the ground game, and then take advantage of the mismatches that creates in the passing game. Terrell Owens is itching to break out, and this would be the game to do it, to serve notice the NFL and the country that he's still the NFL's best wide receiver. The offense finally got some continuity going last week and that will hopefully carry over.
As long as San Francisco plays with the same energy and efficiency they showed last week, this should be a solid victory and the first step in winning the division.
NOTE TO MY READERS: No Madden Sim this week. The time just wasn't there. But we'll resume it next week. Thanks for the patience.
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