|When the 49ers' running game is stopped, as it was Thursday in Baltimore, can Alex Smith carry the team?|
The Packers have the look of a team trying to prove something, as opposed to a team that just won the Super Bowl. They seem to play their best when the stage is big and people doubt their ability to keep winning. That is partly because the Packers don't rely on scheme to win; rather, they rely on talent, excellent coaching and a band of playmakers. If some coach or team wanted to copy the Packers' offense, they could run every play, but the results would be dramatically different. The Packers win with talent that fits their scheme perfectly -- which is the most deadly combination.
For the Packers to lose, an opponent is going to have to bring their "A" game and execute all day.
In the Thursday night game, the Ravens' defense dominated San Francisco's offense -- once again putting a spotlight on the biggest question for the 49ers: When the opponent shuts down their running game, can the 49ers throw the ball effectively enough to win?
The 49ers protection was horrible all game long, which caused quarterback Alex Smith to lower his eye level and not be decisive with the ball. The 49ers offensive line can run block, they can pass protect in play-action, but the questions will linger about their drop-back pass protection. They are big maulers up front, but when they are forced to move laterally and react, that's when problems begin.
Coach Jim Harbaugh has done a great job of masking the problems with the 49ers offense, but when it comes playoff time, they will need to beat teams without their run game. Running games are never going to win Super Bowls. When the 49ers can push weaker teams around, like they do to every team in their division, they don't have to rely on a sophisticated passing game. However, when they play a team that can match them physically, they will have to throw the ball much better -- which they need to improve over the next five weeks of the season.
For me, the highlight of the day was Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. I love the fact that he threw interceptions early on, but when the game was on the line, he made every throw, every play and won the game for the Cowboys. Too much is made of Romo's interceptions, especially early in the game. He is like the centerfielder in baseball that can get to almost every ball, which is why he has more errors than a player that can't cover as much ground. Romo is a risk-taker, so throwing interceptions won't affect his play; his confidence never wanes. Like a great golfer, Romo never lets a bogey affect his next hole.
Deep down, Romo knows that if he does not play well, the Cowboys cannot win. Having DeMarco Murray in the backfield helps, but without star receiver Miles Austin, the Cowboys must rely on tight end Jason Witten and whatever they can get from wideouts Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson. Bryant is incredibly talented but also incredibly inconsistent with his routes and his understanding of the offense, which often makes it look like Romo is making the mistakes.
For the last month, Romo has put the Cowboys on his back and carried them to victory. His ability to make plays with his feet as well as his accuracy have essentially won the last two games. He has been the difference. His play and his talent have allowed the Cowboys to get back into the NFC East race and claim first place. When the Cowboys get Austin back, integrate Felix Jones into their offense as the second back, they can be really explosive.
The first 15
1. What did the Chiefs have to lose by claiming Kyle Orton? Nothing at all. They get to examine him for six weeks; if they don't re-sign him, they could get a compensatory pick if Orton leaves for another team after the season. The Chiefs usually don't spend big money in free agency, therefore if Orton gets a big deal, then the Chiefs will get a pick. Orton might save their season and then pay the Chiefs back with a compensatory pick. Really nothing for the Chiefs to lose making this claim.
2. And if the Broncos are so supportive of Tim Tebow, then why do they always have to retract statements regarding his talents and the future? First, head coach Jon Fox, then team president John Elway. Tebow is fighting tough odds, on and off the field, in Denver. I expect the Broncos to take another quarterback in the upcoming draft. Not sure where, but they will.
3. I admit, I am a conspiracy theorist type of guy. You will never convince me that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or that the Broncos just waived Orton this week because they felt now was the right time. The Broncos had to know some team would claim him or risk being on the hook for his remaining salary. They just had to be convinced. And the actions of the Bears make me think the Broncos knew they would take them off the hook for the remainder of the contract. Yes the Chiefs claimed him, as did the Cowboys -- but why did the Bears have to claim him? The Bears were near bottom of the claiming order and no team below them would claim Orton. So had the Bears not claimed him, then Orton would have become a free agent and the Broncos would have been responsible for his remaining salary. The Bears then save over two-and-a-half million. It makes too much business sense not to claim Orton.
Now, some might say the Broncos knew the time was right because they knew the Chiefs, with Matt Cassel being on injured reserve and backup Tyler Palko playing badly, had to make the move. Some might say the same for the Texans, but that was not as realistic since they didn't have the cap room to assume Orton's contract.
But there just was no reason for the Bears to claim Orton
4. I think the Patriots need to switch Julian Edelman's number from a wide receiver's number to a defensive back's. Edelman looked really good playing slot corner last week. He had instincts, showed toughness and was active in coverage. He might have found a home at cornerback.
5. I was so excited to see offensive tackle Marcus Cannon of the Patriots make his way back to the field. Cannon was diagnosed with cancer before the draft, dropping his stock from the bottom of the first (the Bears were set to pick him before the medical news) to the fifth round, where the Patriots took a gamble on him. Cannon went through all his chemotherapy and has been given a clean bill of health, which then allowed him to return to practice just three weeks ago. Cannon was fun to watch last week against the Chiefs, getting in the game late and showing good foot quickness along with a nasty side. Welcome back to football, Marcus.
6. After the Browns game, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio was asked about the play calls during the final drive. Here is what he had to say: "That was never an issue that he was questioning the call," Del Rio said. "I just said if you want to get into specifics, you know I let my guys call the game. Talk to them. I think that kind of got played up a little more than it deserved Sunday. I was being honest." I still have a problem with what Del Rio said in this regard: As the head coach, he should know everything that is going on every play -- in fact, there is a period for this exact situation for most teams at Friday practices. It is called the "gotta have it" period, when the offense has to score, or convert a two-point play. There should be no debate about what is being run in those situations. Even though Del Rio does not call plays, he should control the situations as well as know the calls in every situation. There should be no reason to talk to any other coach after the game.
7. I liked Blaine Gabbert coming out of college, knowing he was going to have to grow into a pro offense with the emphasis of being under center. That has been a struggle, but more troubling than that has been his inability to hold the ball until the last second knowing he is going to take a hit. Gabbert is not willing to make the throw and take the hit, which really bothers me when I am watching him. He seems to be a little gun shy, and he won't be effective if this does not change. Do you think Gabbert would stand in there as long as Romo did Thursday? He has not shown that side yet.
8. Now that running back Fred Jackson is on injured reserve, the Bills -- who have been outscored 106-26 in the last three games -- will really struggle. C.J. Spiller will get his chance as a runner, but Spiller was working more at wide receiver than running back in recent weeks. Bills opponents have a handle on their short passing game, and now the Bills are an offense that can be defended easily. And without Jackson, even easier.
9. Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth is playing so well that I am going to have to put him on my All-Pro team at the end of the season. I went with Miami's Jake Long at midseason, but after watching more of Whitworth, he looks like he might be the best right now.
10. The Giants offensive line has not played well all season, especially in the run game. Right tackle Kareen McKenzie has struggled and now, without left tackle William Beatty, the Giants will become a makeshift line. In the Giants' glory days, their line was dominating and always seemed to stay healthy. Almost every lineman this season, with the exception of David Diehl and McKenzie, has missed time. Diehl now moves back to left tackle with Stacy Andrews or Kevin Boothe going into left guard. With a makeshift line and no Ahmad Bradshaw, the Giants run game will continue to suffer. Brandon Jacobs should be a short-yardage, closer back, not a full-time back.
11. Why would the Cowboys claim Orton? Because they are really worried about the back injury to Jon Kitna and they cannot risk their playoff chances with Stephen McGee. It really was a smart move on their part, as they were planning ahead.
12. Everyone is critical of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and rightly so, but the hardest question to answer is not whether he will ever be the franchise quarterback, but rather: What will happen in two years when his contract expires? Do the Jets extend him? And if they do, at what price? The hardest contract to do is that of a player who is good, but expects to be paid like a top player. Jets fans might say, "Let Sanchez walk, he is not good enough." But who is going to replace him? And the more coach Rex Ryan praises Sanchez, the harder it will be to sign him to a good extension. Trust me, Sanchez's representatives are saving all the great quotes from Ryan to be used against the Jets at the right time.
13. I went back and watched Matt Leinart in the preseason, and he was still the king of the checkdown, refusing to drive the ball down the field. His completion percentage was over 60 percent, but his average per attempt was just above 6.0 yards -- two yards less than Matt Schaub's. The Texans are good enough to get into the playoffs with their defense and a running game, but -- like Alex Smith and the 49ers -- Leinart will have to really improve his passing skills the next six games.
14. I would expect the commissioner to react severely to what Ndamukong Suh did Thursday. There is no place for that behavior in any game. His behavior only hurts his team, no one else. Whether or not the commissioner sits him down next week, if I were involved with the Lions, he would not play. No one is bigger than the team.
15. One thing Matt Moore has proved in his stint as the starter in Miami is that he can be a decent backup. The Fins are under no illusions that he can be their starter next season. They will still need to draft a quarterback, but at least with Moore they now know they have a quality backup.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.