The Seahawks are in record-breaking form
When Seattle crushed Arizona 58-0 in week 13, the common assumption was that this was first and foremost a reflection on the Cardinals' ineptitude. A week later we are not so sure. On Sunday Arizona ended their nine-game losing streak with a 38-10 win over the Detroit Lions. Meanwhile, Seattle became the first team since the 1950 to score 50 points in consecutive games.
If the opposition was modest – a Buffalo Bills team with a 5-8 record – then the performance was still commanding. Marshawn Lynch rushed for 113 yards on a mere 10 carries. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson had run in three touchdowns and thrown for another before the game even reached half-time. The Seahawks' defense picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick twice, with Earl Thomas taking one of those back to the house.
Even so, a half-century does not come easily in this league. Seattle would not have achieved that score without successfully converting a fake punt early in the fourth quarter. By that point they already led 47-17. Of all coaches to pull such a move, Seattle's Pete Carroll seemed an unlikely candidate. This was the man who had famously asked Jim Harbaugh "What's your deal?" after the then Stanford coach had attempted a two-point conversion while leading Carroll's USC team 48-27.
Carroll would, indeed, later apologise. "I feel bad about this," he said, before explaining that it had been triggered automatically for his players by the defensive alignment of the Bills. "That was part of our game plan. It was something I could have called off and I didn't. It was an automatic for us … That's my fault totally for not stopping it from happening."
But laments about running up the score will not linger in the memory nearly as long as the quality of Seattle's recent performances. It is not just the last two weeks in which they have impressed. The Seahawks have won five of their last six games, and in that time they have averaged a remarkable 35 points per game, and allowing just 14.2. Wilson has thrown for 11 touchdowns and just one interception during that stretch, as well as running in those three scores on Sunday. He has now firmly established his candidacy alongside those of Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck for the offensive rookie of the year award.
And Seattle have quietly positioned themselves as a team to keep an eye on as we hurtle towards the postseason. They have not yet technically sealed a playoff berth, but it would be a surprise at this stage if they failed to do so despite having tricky divisional games left to play against St Louis and San Francisco.
As a likely wildcard team, they would be required to win three straight road games, with a rookie quarterback under center, to reach Super Bowl XLVII. That is a tall order. But then so is scoring 108 points in two weeks of football. PB
Tom Brady doesn't know when he's beaten; but neither does Colin Kaepernick
Where to begin with Sunday night's game at Gillette Stadium? It ended with the San Francisco 49ers becoming the first team in a decade to beat the New England Patriots at their own home ground in the month of December, but to focus only on the outcome would be to overlook the brilliance of the most entertaining game of this season.
Through the first 35 minutes on Sunday, the 49ers played these Patriots about as well as is possible to do. The numbers were bewildering. "With 10:21 left in the third quarter, San Francisco led 31-3," notes Eric Branch in Monday's San Francisco Chronicle. "They had outgained the home team 308 yards to 162 and had limited Brady to 116 passing yards and a 29.2 passer rating."
Over the next 18 minutes, all that hard work would be undone. Brady led consecutive scoring drives of 73, 86, 66 and 92 yards – wiping out a 28-point deficit with time left to spare. Too much, as it turned out. Following a 62-yard kick-off return from LaMichael James, Colin Kapernick hooked up with Michael Crabtree for a 38-yard score on the first play of the next possession.
This was the straw that broke the camel's back. Brady would get the ball three more times, but lead his team only to a field goal – after the 49ers had added one more of their own. San Francisco – a team whose recent success has been built on suffocating defense had given up 34 points and 520 yards but still found a way to win.
That is a credit to Kaepernick, who not only posted more impressive numbers than Brady – with four touchdowns against just a single interception – but also showed impressive nerve to put his team back on top just when the tide seemed to be turning against them. Five games into his career as an NFL starter, it would be hard to ask for much more. PB
JJ Watt and Aldon Smith in pursuit of Michael Strahan
Michael Strahan (in)famously set the record for sacks in one season back in 2001, when he finished the regular season with 22.5 sacks. The Minnesota Vikings' Jared Allen came just one sack shy of breaking Strahan's record last season, while the Dallas Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware came close in 2008 when he finished the season with 20 sacks, but that is the closest anyone has come. Yet, entering Week 15 of this season at least one player was threatening to break the record, while another would join him with a big performance during the third last week of the regular season.
The San Francisco 49ers' Aldon Smith and Houston Texans' JJ Watt sit on 19.5 sacks after 14 games of this season. Both Smith and Watt have a realistic chance of establishing a new record, as they need just 3.5 sacks from their remaining two games to surpass Strahan. Smith didn't have a sack against the New England Patriots, although he came very close when he knocked the ball out of Brady's hands for an incompletion and later caught an interception in the 49ers' big victory. Watt on the other hand vaulted himself into contention with a huge performance against the Indianapolis Colts. Watt sacked Colts' quarterback Andrew Luck three times as part of his 10 tackles on the day.
Smith and Watt are both only 23 years of age, the youngest players to ever reach such lofty sack numbers in a single season. Since both are also only in their second seasons, having been taken in the top 11 picks of last year's draft, this likely won't be their only opportunity to crack history, but it might be their best.
In 14 games, Smith has only been kept from getting to the quarterback completely four times, against the Patriots, New York Giants, Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings. Before being kept away from Tom Brady this past Sunday, he had 15 sacks over the course of seven games. During that stretch Smith wasn't once prevented from getting to the quarterback, while he also had a career-high 5.5 sacks against the Chicago Bears. Most importantly however, that streak started out with three sacks against the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals, the two teams the 49ers will play over the final two weeks of the season. If Smith replicates those two performances over the final two weeks, he will tie Strahan's record.
There are reasons to be optimistic for the young linebacker/defensive end and reasons to be pessimistic. Even though the Seahawks rank 10th in the NFL in sacks allowed - with just 26 for the season - they have given up 11 in the past five games as they put the ball in quarterback Russell Wilson's hands more. Should Smith be shut out next week, he will still get to go against the worst pass protecting offensive line in the league the following week. The Cardinals have given up 52 sacks so far this season, which is seven more than the second worst team in the league. Smith had two sacks against them in Arizona in Week 8 and will know how many sacks he needs when they visit San Francisco in Week 17.
Many of Aldon's sacks have come from the outstanding work of his teammate, and namesake, Justin Smith's work at defensive end. The two Smiths line up to the right side of the 49ers' defense together to create the most disruptive defensive line and linebacker pairing in the whole league. When Justin was injured against the Patriots on Sunday, the 49ers' pass rush all but disappeared and it is unclear whether he will be healthy for the remainder of the regular season. That appears to be his biggest obstacle.
Watt on the other hand has been more consistent than Smith. In 14 games he has been shut out completely just three times, against the Patriots, Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears. Watt has eight sacks over his past four games, despite being shut out by the Patriots during that span, and will get to play against the Indianapolis Colts again in Week 17, the same team he had three sacks against this week. Watt will also face off against the Minnesota Vikings who rank 15th in the league in sacks allowed. CF
Packers and Texans repeat as Division Champions
With victories over their closest competitors within their respective divisions, the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts, the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans became the fourth and fifth division champions of the 2012 season. The Packers and Texans followed the Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots and Denver Broncos who all wrapped up their division titles with victories last weekend.
For the Houston Texans, this year's division crown should feel much sweeter than the 2011 version. Even though last season's AFC South win was the franchise's first ever, it was somewhat stained by the lack of quality opposition after Peyton Manning was injured and was won with a cast of replacements as the Texans were missing Andre Johnson, Matt Schaub and others by the time the season came to a close. By beating Andrew Luck's seemingly playoff-bound Indianapolis Colts to clinch the division, nobody can claim that the Texans didn't earn it this year, while their spot in the playoffs will be met with much more excitement this year as all of their key players, except Brian Cushing, are healthy.
The Texans beat the Colts with the formula that has carried them through the season. Defensively they smothered the Colts to limit them to just 17 points, although they won't be happy with the big plays that were allowed, while big days from Arian Foster and Andre Johnson, two things that are typical this year that weren't last, allowed them to score 29 points of their own. Foster ran for 165 yards and Johnson caught 10 passes for 151 receiving yards. According to Foster that is their recipe for success: "You want an offense that can win in the air and on the ground. I think that's what (coach Gary) Kubiak envisioned when he put this team together. When you're firing on all cylinders like that, (you're) tough to beat. The players are making plays and the coaches are putting us in position to make plays. I think it's a tribute to the organization's eye for talent."
The Texans are in pole position to get a first-round bye and should be able to secure a number one seed for home-field advantage through the AFC side of the playoffs. That is presuming that they can win their final two games against the Minnesota Vikings and the Colts in Indianapolis.
After last season's 15-1 record, the Packers were made to work much harder for the NFC North crown in 2012. A hard-fought victory over the Chicago Bears in Chicago this weekend gave the Packers a two game lead on both the Bears and the Minnesota Vikings. With just two games left, the Packers hold the tiebreaker over the Bears based on their two victories over them this season, while the Vikings have an insurmountable gap to overcome in division record so they also cannot catch the Packers.
Despite winning the division, the Packers won't want to slow down for the rest of the season. They were somewhat caught on their heals by the New York Giants in the playoffs last year, as the Giants finished the season hot while the Packers, assured of a first-round bye, rested key players. After Week 15, the Packers are assured of a playoff spot, but currently sit third in seeding and would be forced to play a wild-card game at home against the Minnesota Vikings. Mike McCarthy's side are within touching distance of the San Francisco 49ers, who have the second first-round bye, so it is imperative that they continue to push for victories. It's also very important for the Packers to play out the remaining games because key players such as Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings and Charles Woodson have either missed a lot of time recently through injury or will be coming back to the field in the near future. Those players will need competitive playing time in the regular season if they are to be ready for the playoffs.
The Packers were the top team who lost out to the hot team in last year's playoffs, this year they are looking to be the hot team upsetting the top teams in the playoffs. CF
• There were moments of silence held around the league on Sunday in honour of those who lost their lives in last week's shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but Victor Cruz paid an additional personal tribute to one victim, six-year-old Jack Pinto, by writing special messages on his boots. Pinto was such a huge fan of the player that his family were reportedly planning to bury him in a replica Cruz jersey.
• After putting up 52 points against the New Orleans Saints last week, this week the Cruz's New York Giants were shut out in a 34-0 defeat to the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints themselves, meanwhile, followed up by shutting out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On any given Sunday …
• Things could not be much more finely poised in the NFC East following that New York defeat. All three of the Giants, Cowboys and Redskins now boast identical 8-6 records, but it is the Cowboys and Redskins who control their own destiny. Each holds the tie-breaker over New York, and they will face each other on the final weekend of the season.
• Speaking of the Redskins, perhaps it is time to start spreading around the credit for this team's performances after they beat the Cleveland Browns without RG3, who was unable to recover from his knee sprain in time. His rookie back-up Kirk Cousins threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns, while running back Alfred Morris added a further two scores on the ground in a 38-21 win.
• Baltimore secured their playoff berth in singularly unimpressive style, falling to a third consecutive defeat but backing into the postseason at 9-5 courtesy of Pittsburgh's overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The division title is not yet safe, however. Cincinnati, at 8-6, still have a shot after dominating Philadelphia on Thursday night. The Bengals would need to win their remaining games against the Steelers and Ravens, and hope that Baltimore lose to the Giants next week.
• Of course, Baltimore were not beaten by just anybody this weekend but rather a Denver team who are looking pretty ominous. The Broncos have won nine games straight and following New England's defeat now hold the second seed in the AFC. With games against Cleveland and Kansas City left to play, there is no reason to believe they will relinquish it. Oh, and if a 34-17 margin of victory on the road was not impressive enough for you, then here's running back Knowshon Moreno leaping straight over Ed Reed's head.
• Adrian Peterson took some more big strides towards Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record during Minnesota's 36-22 win over the Rams. This was a day on which he truly lived up to his "All Day" nickname, refusing to be disheartened after getting repeatedly stuffed for no gain in the early going. After breaking off an 82-yard touchdown run in the second-quarter, he would go on to post a season-best 212 yards on 24 carries. He needs 294 more yards from Minnesota's last two games to break the record. PB
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