By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
If anyone had the San Francisco 49ers at 5-1 through their first six games and firmly in control of the NFC West, I’d like to ask if you’ll join me at the Mega Millions counter or at least for a couple games of Keno.
The Niners have won four straight, are a miraculous Tony Romo overtime pass from being 6-0 and are doing it on both sides of the ball. They allow just 16 points per game, second in the league, and are letting opponents run for just under 75 yards per contest, also good for a No. 2 ranking. Offensively, even though they’re 28th in total yards per game (302.5), they’re seventh in scoring with just under 28 points a week and are running the ball at a more than solid 131.5 yard clip every Sunday.
Quarterback Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, has lost and regained his starting job numerous times over the course of his time in the Bay Area but finally seems locked in. He’s completing a career-high 63 percent of his passes and has eight TD passes against just two picks and has looked sharp and confident in doing so. And the Niners still have star running back Frank Gore, who has been an absolute beast of late. Gore has 393 yards on just 50 carries in his last three games, good for just under eight yards per attempt. Obviously, having Gore healthy and running like this makes things infinitely easier for Smith.
Balance on both sides of the ball is nice, of course, but if you want to find the biggest reason for the Niners remarkable turnaround (zero winning seasons since 2002, the year of their last playoff appearance), look to the sideline and first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh. A former QB and head coach up the road at Stanford, Harbaugh has instilled a culture in San Francisco that has every one of his players right on down the line looking like they’d run through five walls for him. The Niners upper management, which has been as clueless as it gets since firing the very successful Steve Mariucci after that last playoff season, finally got it right with Harbaugh. Gone is glorified motivational speaker Mike Singletary, who never should have gotten the top job in the first place, and in his place is an actual coach. Harbaugh comes from a line of coaches in his family (his brother John is in Baltimore and has been to the playoffs each of the last three seasons) and clearly has a handle on how to get his players in the best possible position to be successful. It’s been a long time since anyone could say that about a Niners coach and keep a straight face. And, if you saw the postgame meeting between Harbaugh and Detroit coach Jim Schwartz, Harbaugh isn’t afraid to shake his opposite number’s hand a little bit hard.
The Niners are on a bye this week and upon perusing their schedule going forward, they don’t have another really tough looking game until Thanksgiving night when the Harbaugh brothers will meet up in Baltimore. The Niners could be 9-1 headed into that game, hearkening back to the most glorious of glory days in San Francisco. Who knew?
This Week’s Five Best Teams
1. Green Bay: The Packers toyed with the hapless Rams last week at Lambeau, putting up three second quarter TDs on the board to run away before halftime. It’s still relatively early but right now, there’s not too many other people in the MVP conversation besides Aaron Rodgers.
2. New England: Seeing the Pats finally win a game ugly against the Cowboys, with defense and late-game, clutch offense, brought to mind the glory days of 2003-2004. Hallelujah.
3. Baltimore: The Ravens are looking fairly vintage these days as well. In their 29-14 win over the typically fading Houston Texans, they held their guests scoreless for the final quarter and a half, kept star running back Arian Foster under 50 yards rushing and managed to get out allowing fewer than 300 total yards.
4. New Orleans: The Saints did lose last week, dropping a hotly contested affair with the resurgent Bucs, 26-20. But that was after losing head coach Sean Payton to a gruesome knee and leg injury early in the game. But Drew Brees still threw for 350+ yards and young tight end Jimmy Graham had another huge afternoon (seven catches, 124 yards), making New Orleans still look good enough to withstand a bad week on the road and still be right there in the end.
5. San Francisco: See above. Truly one of the best stories of the year thus far.
This Week’s Five Worst Teams
1. Miami: It’s really a toss-up who’s the worst of the three remaining winless teams. But I’ll cast my lot with the Dolphins, who had the ball inside the Jets 10 the first four times they were on offense Monday night, scored six points, gave up a 100-yard INT return for a TD and rolled over for the rest of the night. When they lose at home to the almost as bad Broncos and Tim Tebow this week, that should finally, mercifully be it for coach Tony Sparano.
2. Indianapolis: Now that they’re 0-6 (soon to be 0-7 with New Orleans on this week’s docket), do the Colts really think about getting the No. 1 overall pick and taking Stanford star QB Andrew Luck? And if so, where do they trade Peyton Manning?
3. St. Louis: At least people expected the Dolphins and Colts to suck. The Rams were supposed to win the NFC West. Now, they’ll be lucky to win three games. They get the Cowboys this week and everyone knows, all you need to do against Dallas is show up and there’s as good a chance as any it’ll beat itself. Don’t be afraid to take St. Louis this week.
4. Jacksonville: The Jags played the Steelers really tough, falling 17-13 on the road. And rookie QB Blaine Gabbert looked semi-competent for the first time this year. But they’re still 1-5, the have to play at Baltimore on Monday Night Football this week and Jack Del Rio is still the coach. What a lousy combo.
5. Minnesota: Finally, after six whole games and a humiliating loss to the Bears on Sunday night, the Vikings publicly admitted what pretty much everyone else has known for three years now and that’s that Donovan McNabb is completely washed up and can’t play anymore. Now, they turn to rookie Christian Ponder, who can’t be much worse that McNabb. I wonder if Adrian Peterson wishes he’d waited one more year to sign that huge contract extension?
- Michael Turner, Falcons: The Falcons have been waiting for Turner, their workhorse, to get rolling all year and in a 31-17 win over the Panthers, he finally did, piling up 139 yards on 27 carries (5.1 YPA) and two TDs. If Atlanta can get Turner going, maybe struggling QB Matt Ryan and the rest of the offense can get untracked too.
- LeSean McCoy, Eagles: Seemingly the only consistent positive throughout Philly’s nightmare start, McCoy led the way in the Eagles 20-13 win over Washington, its first since Week 1, gaining 126 yards on 28 carries. Look at his stats through his career and you’ll find when knucklehead coach Andy Reid remembers to give him the ball more than 20 times a game, the Eagles usually win. Which is one reason why when he carried it 20 times combined in Philly’s previous two games, they lost both times.
- Fred Jackson, Bills: A running back heavy dose of what’s trendy concludes with the outstanding Jackson, who rolled to 121 yards on just 16 carries, including an 80-yard TD run, against the Giants. Jackson, who’s been platooned in Buffalo for the past several years, finally got the job to himself this year and responded by being second in the NFL in rushing (601 yards), just nine yards behind league leader Darren McFadden.
- Rex Grossman, Redskins: I feel like I may have written in this very space just a few weeks ago that the Redskins are for real and Grossman is an important reason why. Then he completed just nine of 22 passes for 143 yards and four picks against the Eagles and was benched. Grossman has 11 turnovers in five games and I take back everything I said about his that was even slightly good.
- The Browns: Cleveland is 2-3 but after jettisoning Eric Mangini and bringing in Mike Holmgren protegé Pat Shurmer to fix the offense, the Browns probably expected to be better than 28th overall on that side of the ball. A home loss to Seattle this week and it may be time for Browns fans to throw in the towel on yet another year.
- Jason Garrett, Cowboys: Garrett can’t win. When he does well, his domineering boss Jerry Jones takes all the credit. When he looks bad, Jones can hardly wait to tell anyone who will listen just how bad that is (see about five minutes after last week’s brutal loss to the Pats). But the main point is that as long as Jones is in charge, telling the media about all his team’s injuries, strategies, game plans, attendance figures, concession sales and whatever else pops into his head, Garrett instantly has no authority. Jones is the coach of that team and the players all know it. Why do you think the Cowboys are routinely one of the least disciplined, most penalized teams in the league every year? Because why should they listen to anyone who has the title of head coach? They know it’s not real. If Jones isn’t going to sell the Cowboys anytime soon (note: he’s not), he may as well just officially name himself head coach.
The Detroit Lions lost a game last week, the first time that’s happened all season. They’re still 5-1 and even though they’re in the same division as the seemingly unstoppable Packers, their prospects for the rest of the season look pretty good, like maybe 11-5 or better kind of good. The key for them is to not get too wrapped up in the fact that they’re not only good for the first time in years, they’re relevant for the first time in years. In 2007, Detroit was 6-2 and seemed to have gotten over the threshold of sucking that had enveloped the franchise since the late ’90s, the last time it made the postseason. Bearing that in mind, the Lions then lost seven out of their next eight games, finished the season 7-9 and out of the playoffs again and followed it up by becoming the first team in history to go 0-for-the season in ’08, ending up 0-16. The point is, the Lions haven’t done anything yet except win five games. If they want to win many more and truly break their cycle of suck, they’d better remember just that.