San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker and league sack leader Aldon Smith's penchant for playing great on the national stage couldn't be more important than this Sunday night in New England.
As Smith and the 49ers get set to play the New England Patriots with each team trying to hold on to the No. 2 seed in their conferences, one of the most important questions for San Francisco is whether it can get pressure on Tom Brady.
The 49ers are built to do that, starting with a front that can push the pocket into Brady's face, something that makes him particularly skittish because Brady is not mobile. And if he hits the ground enough, the Patriots are much more beatable.
Brady has been sacked 20 times this season. In the six games the Patriots have won by more than 10 points, Brady has been sacked only three times. In the other seven games, the Patriots are 4-3 and Brady has been sacked 17 times.
"If you want to beat the Patriots, you have to get to Tom," New York Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck said this offseason. "You have to get him off his mark. If he stands in there and just delivers, he's going to kill you. If you get him to move or get to him, you have a chance. He starts to look around and he starts to get anxious, yelling a lot."
Enter Smith, who comes into this game with 19½ sacks and needs three during the final three games to match Michael Strahan's record of 22 ½ in 2001. As impressive as Smith has been in only his second season, here's something truly scary to consider: If Smith played all his games in prime time, he might have 40 in a season.
In six career games played in prime time when the rest of the league was watching, Smith has 12 ½ sacks, including 5 ½ earlier this season against the Chicago Bears. The only primetime game he didn't have a sack in was his first, when San Francisco played Baltimore last season on Thanksgiving.
"The linebackers they've got are all good, they sack the quarterback and that guy Aldon Smith is on an incredible pace and what a start to a career," Brady said.
As for Smith, he said this week that he expects the 49ers will be able to keep the Patriots under control. Moreover, he's looking forward to facing Patriots offensive tackle Nate Solder. The two faced off in college when Smith was at Missouri and Solder was at Colorado. The result was three sacks for Smith.
The San Francisco-New England game is important in another regard if you believe in trends. Based on how things are playing out this season, it looks like the NFC is going to win its fourth straight Super Bowl.
The four division leaders from each conference have thus far combined to play 13 interconference games. Led by Atlanta (4-0 against the AFC West) and San Francisco (3-0 vs. the AFC East), the four NFC division leaders are a combined 10-3 against the AFC.
By contrast, the four AFC division leaders are a combined 7-6 against the NFC and each of the four (Denver, Baltimore, New England and Houston) has each lost at least one game. In fact, if not for Houston's controversial overtime win over Detroit on Thanksgiving, all but Denver (3-1) would have a losing record against their NFC opponents.
1. San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1) – As long as they don't have to face St. Louis (or the Giants), they should be fine.
2. Green Bay Packers (9-4) – Starting to get healthy at just right time. If Pack can fix OL, then another title is in offing.
3. New York Giants (8-5) – As good as they want to be, when they want to be. A blessing and a curse.
4. New England Patriots (10-3) – Likely need to win out to avoid going to Denver in the second round of the playoffs.
5. Denver Broncos (10-3) – Yeah, Peyton Manning is amazing, but have you really checked out Von Miller? Wow.
28. Tennessee Titans (4-9) – This team really knows how to lose games it should win, which is not a good trait (duh).
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11) – Not good that backup QB Chad Henne has a rating (76.2) nearly matching Blaine Gabbert's (77.4).
30. Oakland Raiders (3-10) – Of six consecutive losses, only one is by fewer than 10 points … against Cleveland.
31. Kansas City Chiefs (2-11) – Geno Smith is nearly a lock to be the Chiefs' starting quarterback by next season.
32. Arizona Cardinals (4-9) – Nine straight losses and nine straight games with fewer than 20 points scored. Ugly.
THIS AND THAT
• This is a pet peeve of mine, and it annoys me every time I see it. On Monday night, Houston was down 21-0 by the second quarter and was looking to get back in the game any way it could. The Texans faced a third-and-12 from the New England 40-yard line. They then completed a 7-yard pass before calling a timeout. Why call the timeout? Houston knew it couldn't play for a field goal (which would have been a 51-yard attempt into the open end of Gillette Stadium) with the Patriots' offense rolling. Basically, you should know what the next call is, particularly at a time when you need to preserve as much time as possible if you hope to get back in the game.
• A minor footnote to the bounty scandal: Over the years that Roger Goodell has been commissioner, one of the constant things that people who work with him have said is that if you lie to him, he will be harsh with his punishment. While that has some emotional validity if you're a parent, it's not realistic as a mechanism for managing people, particularly ones protected by a union. In short, Goodell needs to understand that people will lie when pushed into a corner. He needs to take the lie out of the equation and simply account for the act.
• In another bit of good news for people who hope Los Angeles will get a team, two league sources said recently that the NFL may install an adjustable relocation fee for any team that moves there. In the past, the general feeling is that any team moving to L.A. would automatically be charged somewhere in the area of $250 million for the right to move. That money would be paid to the league and go to the other owners because of the vast increase in value any team would presumably get from moving there. However, the view among many in the league is that a high transfer fee might inhibit teams from going to L.A. because of the risks of not making money right away. "I think the league understands that a high fee would be a real burden, so the idea would be for a team to pay a smaller fee and then pay more if the team starts to make money," one source said. For example, whichever team moves there might pay only $30 million or $40 million initially, but could pay upwards of $250 million or $300 million over the years if the team is financially successful.
• Then there's this tidbit about the relocation fee as it applies to the Rams possibly moving back: One source said recently that St. Louis owner Stan Kroenke would likely argue to his fellow owners that he doesn't have to pay a relocation fee because his team already paid one when it left Los Angeles for St. Louis. Likewise, Oakland owner Mark Davis would argue that the Raiders already paid a relocation fee once to move to Los Angeles, even though the team subsequently returned to Oakland.
• While New England sufficiently buried Houston enough to remove doubt that any one play might have changed the game, one key moment in the game was a pass interference call against Danieal Manning in the second quarter which was, plain and simple, an awful call. Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker did a great job of selling the call by running into Manning. Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips shook his head when asked about the play. "Danieal looked back, saw the ball was overthrown and then [Welker] runs into him. How is that pass interference?" Phillips asked rhetorically. Manning was more succinct. "I don't know what pass interference is. I really don't," Manning said. It's worth noting that such calls are ones you rarely see get called in the playoffs. "When you get in the playoffs, the refs want to see the players on the field decide it, and that's how it should go," Phillips said.
• For anyone who doubts the influence of Texas' seven-on-seven high school football leagues on the NFL, consider this: Nine of the 32 starting quarterbacks in the league during last week's slate of games were from Texas high schools. That's a huge change from 20 years ago, when only two passers from Texas were regular starters. The nine are: Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Andy Dalton, Christian Ponder, John Skelton and rookies Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill and Nick Foles. Only Brees played his prep ball before Texas started seven-on-seven leagues in the late 1990s.
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