Season Outlook: Which of the 49ers' remaining games will be the toughest?
AJ: Over the second half of the season, the 49ers will play the Rams, Bears, Dolphins and Cardinals at home, and the Saints, Rams, Patriots and Seahawks on the road.
The Bears are reputed to have a defense almost as good as the 49ers. The Seahawks are very difficult to defeat at home. The Superdome has been a house of horrors for the 49ers in recent years. So which game will be the toughest test for the 49ers?
Without a doubt, the 49ers toughest test will come on the road against the Patriots. The Pats are a season removed from a Super Bowl appearance and for the past 10 years, they have been the class of the NFL. As late season tests go, it doesn't get any bigger than this. Tom Brady is the most successful QB of his generation and as a result, the Patriots have set the bar for the rest of the NFL. If the 49ers can pull off a win against the Patriots on the road, they'll go from "the little team that could (almost, anyway)" to legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Diego: No offense to the Saints, Patriots, or Bears, but there is no doubt in my mind the toughest remaining game on the 49ers schedule comes week 16 when they travel north to visit the Seattle Seahawks. You probably disagree, but look at Seattle's remaining schedule - they may go into that game with a 9-5 or 8-6 record. San Francisco goes through a gauntlet as they reach week 16, and although you would like to believe better, a 9-5 record at that point is not out of the question. All of the sudden you're on the road, at arguably the toughest stadium in the NFL, playing a division game against a very confident team when they play at home, and a loss there suddenly puts you in a must-win situation in week 17 versus the Arizona Cardinals. The Seahawks will the host the St. Louis Rams in the season finale. Yes, the 49ers match up very well against the Cardinals, but no team in the NFL wants to go into the last week of the season with the added pressure of possibly missing the playoffs. A 9-7 record may not be good enough to earn a wild card berth this season.
The 49ers are 3-0 against the Seahawks under Jim Harbaugh, but Seattle always presents a difficult matchup for the 49ers, and prior to last season's win in Seattle the 49ers had lost three of the previous four games played at CenturyLink Field (formerly Qwest Field).
At the Season's End, Which Coordinator is Most Likely to be Offered a Head Coaching Position?
AJ: The 49ers have been good this season. Really good. That is a good thing but even too much of a good thing can be bad. The 49ers' Harbaugh Era resurgence is likely going to result in other teams attempting to lure away assistant coaches. For a team looking to build a reputation for consistent performance, losing key assistants can be the kiss of death.
As 49er assistants go, Vic Fangio has to be the most attractive head coaching candidate of the bunch. Last season's defense was epic and this season's defense currently leads the NFL in points allowed per game. Add to that the development of young defenders NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Chris Culliver on his watch, and you have a very tempting target for a team in search of a defensive identity. Losing him would be a devastating blow for the 49ers.
Diego: You know that saying "You never appreciate what you have until it's gone"? I invite you to enjoy everything Greg Roman, A.K.A. Evil Genius, gives the team this season, because come next season he may be acting as another team's head coach either in the NFL or back in college football. Say what you would like about the 49ers' offense conservative approach in the passing game ("Alex Smith sucks" comments in 3,2,1 ), but San Francisco's offense is widely admired around the NFL because of Roman's creative play-calling and variety of formations aimed at creating mismatches, and his offense has proven to be successful at this level without asking the quarterback to be a star. I can think of a handful of teams in the league that would welcome such luxury.
Nevertheless, Roman is a hotter name in the college game than in the pros, already having finished as a finalist in head-coaching searches by the University of Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt University in 2011, and most recently in January of this year once again being a finalist in Penn State's search for a replacement to Joe Patterno. Roman was an integral part of Stanford's success during Andrew Luck's time there, acting as an offensive assistant for David Shaw and Jim Harbaugh. You can tell from his interviews that he would not struggle as a recruiter, and as a matter of fact that was one of his roles during his time in Palo Alto, specifically doing a lot of recruiting on the east coast, south, and southwest. As of today, his name is being discussed by media and fan base at North Carolina, Boston College, and Kentucky among other schools.
There are plenty of teams in both the NFL and NCAA experiencing struggles on the offensive side of the ball, so an excelling offensive coordinator such as Roman will always gather attention as those teams look for new leadership.
Who has been the Most Surprising player in the NFL this Season?
AJ: This one was too easy for me. For all the bickering that 49er fans have done about Alex Smith, at least they can take solace in the fact that he isn't Michael Vick.
When this season started, the Eagles were the popular pick to unseat the Giants in the NFC East. Needless to say, things haven't really panned out for Philly this season. A HUGE part of their let down this season is a direct result of the deterioration of Michael Vick. Thus far, he's posted a ho hum 77.7 QB rating, completed less than 60% of his passes and is averaging 6.8 yards per attempt, and has been anything but effective in the clutch. For a guy that many picked to lead his team to the Super Bowl, his performance has been surprising to say the least.
Diego: The most surprising player in the NFL for me this season, the most outstanding, is Adrian Peterson. Andrew Luck is a close second as he continues to meet and exceed all the high expectations placed on him coming into the NFL, but Peterson's story is just too special.
On December 26, 2011, Peterson tore the ACL and MCL on his left knee after Washington Redskins' safety DeJon Gomes unfortunately hit Peterson's knee with his helmet while tackling him. The expected recovery time for such injury ranges anywhere from 8 to 12 months, and this particular injury is tough on running backs such as Peterson, whose tough running style relies on a lot of aggressive cuts. Soon after this gruesome injury, many NFL experts doubted Peterson would be able to come back at the same elite level he had displayed since his high school days.
Not only did Peterson get back on the field just 8 1/2 months after the injury, but he's been back at the same elite level. As of today he is the best running back in the NFL, averaging 7 more yards per game (106.3) than the second best runner in the league (Doug Martin). His 5.7 yards per carry are second only to the Bills' C.J. Spiller, who has broken plenty of long runs but whose performance is no where even near the level of Peterson's. He is doing all of this on less than 19 carries per game, and although he's only scored 6 touchdowns he's more than made up for it in leadership. He is only getting better too, racking up at least 123 rushing yards in each of his last 3 games, including a season high 182 yards and 2 touchdowns on only 17 carries on the road against the Seahawks, who were only allowing 73.3 rushing yards per game at CenturyLink Field this season. You could maybe make the case for Luck, or even Peyton Manning, but you cannot say Peterson hasn't arguably been the most outstanding player in the NFL this season.
Week 10 Picks
In Week 9, AJ went a ridiculous 12 for 14 (.857) which means that dunking his magic 8-ball in holy water last week worked! While he won't be changing his name to Nostradamus he has very likely extended his pending stay in the Purgatory. Diego once again wasn't too far behind going 11 for 14, edging AJ in the Steelers-Giants prediction, but losing out on the Dolphins-Colts and Buccaneers-Raiders picks. Let's see how the UFR crew fares this week:
Colts at Jags:
AJ: The Colts have shown flashes of dominant play that could make them a playoff contender. The Jags haven't. Colts.
Diego: Did I just say Andrew Luck has been nearly the most outstanding player in the league so far this season? I over-thought my analysis last week and picked against him, but not this week, not against the Jaguars, not even if it's on the road on a short week. Colts.
Broncos at Panthers:
AJ: Cam Newton finally got over himself enough to lead his team to a win. Too bad Peyton Manning will make it impossible for him to win two in a row. Broncos.
Diego: Peyton Manning? See Luck, Andrew. Broncos.
Falcons at Saints:
AJ: The Falcons have been absolutely lights out this season. The Saints have not. That stated, the Saints match up well with the Falcons and Drew Brees is heating up and that will be enough to give the Saints an upset win at home. Saints.
Diego: First team to get to 40 will win. It's hard to pick against the Falcons here, especially with the Saints struggles in the secondary, but I'll go with the home team in a must-have divisional game. Saints.
Lions at Vikings:
AJ: The Lions are bad but Christian Ponder has thrown for a combined 5 yards over the last two weeks. Lions.
Diego: Obviously I can't write all of that on Peterson and then pick against him. Not against the Lions, not at home where he's scored 4 of his touchdowns and is averaging 106.8 yards/game. Vikings.
Titans at Dolphins:
AJ: Bud Adams actually thought that his team would be competing for a playoff spot with Jake Locker at QB and a new Head Coach. Seriously. In other news, the Dolphins have flashed the ability to play football on occasion. Dolphins.
Diego: I owe you an apology Mr. Tannehill, you were ready to play at the pro level from the get-go. You should have a good game at home against a horrid Titans' secondary. Dolphins.
Cowboys at Eagles:
AJ: The burning question in this NFC Least showdown: Which QB will throw the most interceptions? When it comes to failure in the clutch, never bet against Tony Romo he makes failure look like performance art. Eagles.
Diego: Last week I finally managed to stop placing bland faith on the Eagles breaking out of their slump, and I was rewarded with making a righteous pick. In comes Romo and the Cowboys forcing my hand the other way. Eagles.
Texans at Bears:
AJ: The Texans have Arian Foster and unless the mighty Bears defense is starting a player named "Kryptonite", he's going to go off. Texans.
Diego: DA Bears are thriving by averaging 3.5 takeaways per game, but Houston has only turned the ball over 6 times in 8 games. On the other hand, the Texans are averaging nearly 2 takeaways per game and they are facing Jay Cutler, who has thrown 94 interceptions in 86 career games. Memo to the NFL: Houston's defense is also elite. Texans.
Bills at Patriots:
AJ: Ever watch a football game where you can't help but feel sorry for the underdog? Patriots.
Diego: The Bills cannot fix their defensive problems and have been struggling on offense as well. If it wasn't for a scrappy OT win against the Cardinals they would be riding a five-game losing streak. A game against the Patriots is not the medicine they're looking for. Patriots.
Chargers at Buccaneers:
AJ: Phillip Rivers is a veritable cornucopia of awful. The Chargers defense is worse. Bucs.
Diego: Bucs made a believer out of me last week, thanks in big part to Mr. Muscle Hamster. Were you impressed by the Chargers win last week against the Chiefs? Me neither. Bucs.
Giants at Bengals:
AJ: The Giants were humbled at home last week. They should be steamed enough to pull out a win against a vastly inferior team even on the road. Giants.
Diego: It's that time of the year when the Giants suffer a letdown and allow the rest of that awful, overrated division to catch up to them. Bengals.
Raiders at Ravens:
AJ: Ray Rice, meet the worst run defense in the history of forever. Ravens.
Diego: I'm still not over the fact I picked the Raiders to win last week. Who will be their running back this week? And AJ's statement isn't too far off. Ravens.
Jets at Seahawks:
AJ: In hopes of making the AFC East more competitive, the Jets will be spotted 14 points in the remainder of their games. It probably won't help. Seahawks.
Diego: Mark Sanchez's self-confidence may reach historically low levels after Seattle's defense bats him around. Oh, and skittles. Lots of skittles. Seahawks.
Chiefs at Steelers:
AJ: This game should play out like Rocky except for the part where the underdog makes it a fight. Steelers.
Diego: The only good news I can think of for Chiefs' fans is that they will be one step closer to the number one overall pick in next year's draft after this game. That's as good as it gets for them this season. Yes, it is sad. Steelers.
Rams at 49ers:
AJ: The Rams have a great coach, a talented QB, an good running back, and a surprisingly tough defense none of which will save them from a serious beat down at Candlestick. 49ers.
Diego: As promising as the Rams have been this season, they are not at the 49ers' level. Fully healthy off a bye week and playing in front of their home crowd, San Francisco should not struggle exerting their dominance in the division. 49ers.
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