Top Games of the 2013 NFL Season

19 04 2013

 

Guest writer: Josh McSwain

 

15. Minnesota at Green Bay — Week 12
Good old fashioned rivalry game, but the reason it makes the list is because Greg Jennings will make his return to Lambeau Field. They booed Brett Favre when he returned in purple. Jennings will get booed for sure.

14. Carolina at San Francisco — Week 10
This game features two of the most dynamic dual threat QBs in the game. Cam Newton has been brilliant at times and not shaky at others through his first two years, he must become more consistent to get Carolina into the playoffs. Who better to see him against than a top defense? Colin Kaepernick is out to prove last year was no fluke and that he’s the man in San Francisco.

13. Kansas City at Philadelphia — Week 3
Pretty simple on this one. Andy Reid returns to Philadelphia after fourteen years and numerous playoff appearances. We also will get to see Chip Kelly‘s new offense.

12. Washington at Minnesota — Week 10
Simple star power here- RG3 will be healthy by this time (assuming he doesn’t get hurt again), and Adrian Peterson for Minnesota. Both of those guys have suffered recent ACL injuries. ACL bowl?

11. Denver at New York Giants — Week 2
Pretty simple here- Manning Bowl III.

10. Atlanta at San Francisco — Week 16
Rematch of the NFC title game, on Monday night in a game that could be crucial in determining playoff position.

9. Green Bay at Detroit — Week 13
How does Detroit get up here? Well, it is a Thanksgiving game, and the Lions have this guy, who’s kind of a big deal. I also think Detroit will be much better this coming season after having a down year in 2012.

8. Dallas at New York Giants — Week 12
This could be a pivotal game in the NFC east. Not to mention these two have developed a pretty intense rivalry in recent years, and the Romo-Eli comparisons will never end.

7. New Orleans at New England — Week 6
If you like passing offense, this one is for you. Two bad secondaries and two loaded passing attacks. Kicker here- Tom Brady could tie Drew Brees‘ record of 54 straight games with a TD pass if he throws one in this one (assuming he throws TDs in each game until this one).

6. Houston at Baltimore — Week 3
Ed Reed coming back to Baltimore will be the headline in this one. But these two teams are powers in the AFC and this game could have early playoff implications.

5. Atlanta at New Orleans — Week 1
The rivalry in the Deep South should be enough to get it on this list. But think about the rest this game has to offer. It’ll be Steven Jackson‘s first game in a Falcons uniform. It’ll be Sean Payton‘s first game back from suspension and Rob Ryan‘s first chance to trot out his reconstructed defense.

4. Denver at New England — Week 12
Peyton vs. Brady again, and now Wes Welker is going to be catching passes from the former instead of the latter. Not much needs to be said.

3. San Francisco at Seattle — Week 2
Forget the big markets on the East Coast, these two staged the signing war of the offseason. Seattle added Percy Harvin, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Antoine Winfield, among others. The 49ers countered with Anquan Boldin, Glenn Dorsey and Nnamdi Asomugha among others. The 49ers also likely remember the beatdown they took in Seattle late last season. Early chance for some revenge.

2. Baltimore at Denver — Week 1
I don’t care that the Ravens lost a ton of guys. This is the season opener, a rematch of one of the best playoff games ever, and a chance for the Ravens to show that they will still be a contender this season. This would be number one, except for…

1. Denver at Indianapolis — Week 7
The Sheriff goes back to the house that he built. I don’t think there will ever be a warmer reception than the one he will get on that day. For the first time Peyton will get to play against the guy who Indianapolis chose over him in the 2012 offseason.

 

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Top 10 Things to Take Away From Super Bowl XLVII

5 02 2013

 

 

 

 

 

Whether you were watching for the commercials, the halftime show or simply the football game, Super Bowl XLVII gave its viewers a night to remember.

The Baltimore Ravens didn’t allow the San Francisco 49ers to have a second straight double-digit second half come back as they claimed a riveting 34-31 victory at the Superdome to collect their second championship this millennium.

Now that the dust has settled and everyone has recovered from the dreaded day of work after, what are the top 10 things to take away from this sporting event?

 

1. Joe Flacco will have the quickest rise in terms of quarterback rankings

Bazooka Joe just shot himself up to elite status faster than Tony Romo moves in and out of this group. Prior to this season, NFL guru John Clayton listed Flacco as the 13th best starting quarterback in the league – one spot away from being ranked in the “Chad Pennington Division.” That’s bad. But Sunday night, in a game in which his defense gave up a whopping 468 total yards, Flacco completed 22 of his 33 passes while throwing for three touchdowns. To add to his newly found greatness, Flacco went through the entire postseason with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. Only Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana had that many touchdowns without any interceptions in the playoffs. It’s time to give credit where credit is due.

2. Super Bowl commercials are overhyped

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel as though the bar has been raised too high for Super Bowl commercials.  It has gotten to the point where there are now expectations that maybe one or two commercials are able to reach each year. The rest? Overhyped. It is as if companies try so hard to be the “clever” or “different” one that the audience reacts by scratching their head or thinking about a commercial they saw last week that should have been used for this event.

3. Colin Kaepernick is the new and improved RGIII

Just as RGIII captured the hearts of NFL fans across the nation at the beginning of the season, Kaepernick did the same, only on a bigger stage and during a playoff run to the Super Bowl. Oh yeah, and he’s better. Even though Flacco is the quarterback that has the rep of having a big arm, Kaepernick’s average of 10.8 yards per pass showed off his powerful arm and his powerful impact on this team. Even though Alex Smith did a efficient job at the QB position, Kaepernick brings electricity to the field. However, he’s not simply a showman; he’s a winner. And he has the resolve of a veteran leader, coming back time and time again from any deficit. This kid has “it” as ESPN likes to say and should now be considered the best of the plethora of young quarterbacks that are the future of this league.

4. Gardiner’s Furniture Store has a love-hate relationship with Jacoby Jones

This Baltimore-area furniture store probably has many members that were ecstatic to see their team win the Super Bowl. Yet, I believe it may be a bittersweet ecstatic. Because Jacoby Jones returned the opening of the second-half kickoff for a touchdown, the store’s manager will give away $600,000 worth of furniture due to a pre-game “promotion” if you can call it that. Now, anything that was sold from January 31 to February 3 is free. FREE. Even though everything being said from this company is related to how they’re so happy, I bet the customers from last week may be a little happier than the $600,000-less furniture store.

5. San Francisco is the new best sports town for a fan

Talk about #winning. The San Fransisco Giants won the World Series. The Stanford Cardinal won the Rose Bowl. The 49ers just went to the Super Bowl. And in the near future, the sprouting Golden State Warriors, who have extremely loyal fans, plan to move across the bay and play in none other than San Francisco. Watch out Boston, Los Angeles and New York, there’s a new place to bandwagon.

 

6. Beyoncé proved all her doubters wrong

Now, I know most of you are not reading this to get your daily dose of pop culture. But I would just like to say that Beyoncé finally put on a halftime show worth watching. For those that critiqued her for lip-synching at the Presidential Inauguration, Beyoncé’s heavy breathing that went along with her powerful singing and perfectly choreographed dancing showed her showmanship that few can replicate. She is truly an entertainer.

7. Michael Crabtree does not have the clutch gene he had at Texas Tech

Crabtree collected 109 receiving yards, but only 24 of them came in the 4th quarter and those came on a single catch. He was targeted on the 49ers final three possessions, catching none of those passes. On the last attempt on fourth down, if Crabtree had not initiated the contact with Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, he might have had a chance to go up and grab the game-winning touchdown.

8. We shouldn’t think this is the last Harbowl

In the next five years, we will see another Super Bowl matchup between the 49ers and Ravens. Why? Jim and John. These two Harbaugh brothers have shown that this league is different than the NBA and values coaches just as much as superstars. Neither of these teams would have been able to make it to the Super Bowl without their head coach. The Harbaughs have a gift to coach football at the highest level and perform at the highest level. They simply find a way to win. Jim is the third NFL coach since the 1970 merger to take his team to division titles in his first two seasons and the fifth to record two straight 10-win seasons after a losing record the previous season. John is the only coach to take his team to three straight conference games in his first five seasons and to win a playoff game in this same time period. I’d say these brothers may have to plan for a few more awkward dinners in the future.

9. We may never know why the bizarre power outage took place…

Even though Superdome officials were worried about a power outage before the game even started, it is still unknown what caused the 34-minute blackout at the stadium. Did San Francisco do this in order to shift the momentum of the game? Was there too much demand for power? Did Gregg Williams put a bounty on these lights? Was Beyoncé too electrifying?  Did Bane secretly sneak into New Orleans?

10. Ray Lewis will be remembered as an enigma

Now that his NFL career has come to a close, what will be Ray Lewis’ lasting image? To be honest, I have no idea. This man has had a life nothing short of bizarre. Some will never be able to forgive and forget about the fact that he may be a cold-blooded murderer that paid a family millions of dollars in order to keep himself out of prison. Some solely focus on his forceful play on the field and the fact that he provided the Ravens with some of the best leadership a sports team could ask for. Some will question whether or not he took illegal substances to cheat the system and become unnaturally bigger and stronger than his competition. Some look at the change he has made since his alleged double murder and how he has begun to follow Christ and give all the glory to him. Some see a champion. However you may look at him, there is no doubt a void will be left in the NFL once Ray Lewis leaves the sport he loves behind.

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Super Bowl XLVII Preview

27 01 2013

 

Co-writer: Josh McSwain

 

Why the Ravens will win:

They have the intangibles on their side – Ray Lewis’ emotional final season in Baltimore has lifted the performance of this whole team. This could be Ed Reed’s final year too. Joe Flacco will stay, still keeping them at high level, but these Hall of Fame defenders that are on their D have this game, and that’s it. Like Eminem said in Lose Yourself, “you only get one shot, do not miss your chance”. Furthermore, I think they already had that “mark of a champion” moment against Denver. Two special teams TDs given up, but they weathered the storm, and had a spectacular play at the end of regulation with Flacco’s mile high heave. They have more momentum than a boulder rolling down a hill. You know this team believes, and they know it’s now or never. This team looks a lot like the Giants and Packers during their title runs of the last two years. On the other hand, the 49ers may not have that same sence of urgency because they will be contending for championships for the next few years.

They are healthy – Getting the offensive line back in order with the return of Bryant McKinnie was paramount. Michael Oher is not a good left tackle since he is a natural right tackle and is much better at run blocking than pass blocking. This also allowed Kelechi Osemele to move back to guard, his natural position. Of course on defense, getting Ray Ray back has made a world of difference, as we all knew it would. This could be the advantage over the 49ers, who have both their Smiths banged up (Justin with his triceps and Aldon with his shoulder – but I can’t imagine either of them not playing).

Bazooka Joe is on fire right now – He has not thrown an interception this postseason, while tossing 8 TDs. If he continues to not turn the ball over in the Super Bowl, the Ravens will have a very good shot at winning.

They have a distinct advantage in the kicking game – Justin Tucker only missed three FGs all season. David Akers has missed fourteen, including one last week. If this game comes down to a kick, it clearly favors Baltimore.

 

Why the 49ers will win:

Taking after their head coach, this team is as composed as any team I have ever seen – opening drive pick six against Green Bay? No problem. Down 17-0 in the Georgia Dome to the best team in the NFC? No problem. Colin Kaepernick has shown an incredible amount of confidence all year and has played almost flawlessly in the playoffs.

They can impose their will on other team’s defenses – ordinarily teams would freak out and throw the ball every play down 17. Not this Harbaugh team. Their bread and butter is mashing their opponents up front, and they did just that and climbed back into the game. Frank Gore and LaMichael James are one of the best thunder-lightning combinations I’ve seen in a while, comparable with the Fred Taylor and MJD combo for the Jaguars back in 2007. After those two, you have to worry about Kaepernick. Mobile QBs have had some success against Baltimore. Andrew Luck had an 18 yard run against them in the Wild Card round and RG3 averaged almost five yards per carry against them in the regular season. Of course, the Ravens are much stingier up front than the Packers or Falcons. Winning at the point of attack is paramount for the 49ers because then they can use some of their creative offensive plays.

Jim Harbaugh is one of the best at making in-game adjustments – They looked hopelessly lost in the first quarter against Matt Ryan and the dynamic passing attack of the Falcons. Harbaugh then made adjustments in the second half, got pressure on Matt Ryan and kept the receivers from making big plays like they did in the first half.

Smith, Boldin and Pitta are not the game breakers they faced last week – make no mistake, these guys are no slouches, but they aren’t Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. I think the 49ers secondary will play closer to the standard we have come to expect from them. But the DL also has to get pressure on Flacco, because Flacco can make the throws if he gets time. But last week, the Falcons receivers easily won their matchups almost every time in the first half. That will not happen again.

 

 

 

Guy who needs to have a big game:

Ray Rice Ray Rice #27 of the Baltimore Ravens runs the ball in the first half against Ryan Pickett #79 of the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on December 7, 2009 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.Ravens =  Ray Rice. He ran the ball very effectively against the Broncos, who are not as stout up front, for 131 yards on 30 carries. He also averaged 4.5 yards per carry in limited duty against the Colts due to fumbles. He needs to avoid putting the ball on the ground, be a productive runner and be a threat out of the backfield for the Ravens to pull out this victory. But running against the 49ers front line is tough sledding. Ask the Falcons, who ran very effectively against the Seahawks. Rice in the postseason has 4 catches for 69 yards in the postseason, with one of them being a 47 yarder against the Colts. However the Ravens plan to use him against the 49ers, he must be effective. Flacco can’t win this by himself.

49ers =  Dashon Goldson. I just have a feeling that he will make a play one way or another that will decide the outcome of this game. My guess is he will give a lot of help over the top on Torrey Smith to Carlos Rogers. He needs to avoid channelling his inner Rahim Moore and allowing either of the Ravens’ speedy receivers, Jones or Smith, to get open deep. Obviously Flacco can get them the ball with that rocket of an arm. On the flip side, he could have a crucial pass breakup or interception that swings momentum in favor of his 49ers. Goldson can be the one to turn Flacco’s tendency to chunk the ball downfield into the 49er’s favor.

 

 

 


Conclusion: I wish both teams could win. Both have had “statement” playoff wins thus far. Both deserve it. Maybe it’ll go into four overtimes and then Goodell will just say “enough” and pronounce them co-champions… not. Last season, I was 100 percent sure the Giants would win. Never wavered one bit. This year, not so much. I’m almost 50-50 on this game. Truly the smallest of factors will decide this game. I think at the forefront of those deciding factors is penalties. Ironically, these two teams are among the most heavily penalized in the league. I think the two week layoff favors the 49ers. The Ravens are jacked up right now, and I think they would be better served getting back on the football field this Sunday. But that is not the case. I think some of their momentum will be taken away. While Flacco has received praise for his playoff performance that he rightfully has deserved, he has not been incredibly accurate during the playoffs. He has completed just 51 of 93 passes, for a completion percentage under 55. He will have to string a lot of completions together on multiple drives to put his team in a position to win. Against arguably the best defense in the league, and one of the best since the 2000 Ravens, I’m not sure I see that happening.

Here is how I see the game playing out: very tight game for the first three quarters, great defense, might even be a little dull. Entering the 4th quarter, the 49ers will have a 17-16 lead, Joe Flacco
will lead them down the field for a field goal to give them a 19-17 lead with roughly ten minutes to 
go. But Colin Kaepernick shows once and for all why Harbaugh drafted him so highly, throwing a touchdown pass to Randy Moss (who will be the 49ers secret weapon in this game) to give the 49ers a 24-19 lead with just over four minutes remaining. Flacco has one last chance to lead the Ravens back, but the 49ers D puts them away, just as they have put teams away all season to preserve the gritty five-point win.

 

MVP: Colin Kaepernick

It should be noted: In 2010, I picked Green Bay over Philadelphia, then picked against them the rest of the playoffs. I picked Baltimore in the Wild Card round, picked against them the last two weeks. They say history repeats itself. We shall see if it does this time.

 

 

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NFL Preview 2012: NFC

5 09 2012

Co-writer: Josh McSwain

 

NFC east

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

Offense — (B+).       With a healthy Michael Vick, they clearly possess one of the most lethal and deep offenses in the league. The problem is this is an enigma of a request; he is hurt a lot of the time, missing several games in the last two seasons. He may be praised for his diverse skill set that always keeps defenses scrambling, but it always seems to hurt his team in the long-run with his absences. LeSean McCoy is one of the best running backs in the game – he is a scoring machine. Last season he led the league in touchdowns with 20, failing to score a touchdown in only three games. DeSean Jackson returns healthy and motivated – we think – this season to lead a deep receiving corps with Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Riley Cooper and tight end Brent Celek. The issue is, as it was last season, how will the offensive line perform, which is even more important now with the season ending injury to Jason Peters, their all pro left tackle.

Defense — (A).      Don’t let what the media said about this defense early last season fool you. This is one heck of a unit with multiple playmakers. Jason Babin and Trent Cole form the best 4-3 pass rushing duo in the league, and the DT position was fortified with the addition of Fletcher Cox from Mississippi State. Middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans gives them a legitimate rock in the middle of the defense, but he has had issues with injuries throughout his career as well. Outside Akeem Jordan, Brian Rolle and others will compete for the starting spots, solid players and depth will be there. That’s the key here that many others don’t have – depth. This could prove to be a huge advantage as they should be able to fight off any form of adversity. In the secondary, Asante Samuel is gone, but Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha form a very good duo of cornerbacks. These two should be put in more man coverage rather than zone, which they struggled with last season. Safety Kurt Coleman will be able to hold his own and Nate Allen is rapidly becoming one of the best safeties in the league. This secondary could become very opportunistic similar to the Saints defense from their championship run a few years ago.

Special teams — (B).      Chas Henry had a decent year in year one as he took over the punting duties, averaging 42.9 yards per punt. Alex Henery replaced David Akers about as well as anyone could, making 24 of 27 attempts last season. DeSean Jackson is always a threat to take it back while returning punts, but the kick returner spot is still up for grabs.

 

2. New York Giants (9-7)

Offense — (B).      Eli Manning has finally cemented his status as one of the top QBs in the game, and he has a bevy of weapons at his disposal with Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, rookie Rueben Randle and his tight ends. Finding a running game will be the challenge. They were the worst in the league at running the ball last season – but obviously found a way to win when it mattered most… to the extreme. Ahmad Bradshaw will return to carry the load, with David Wilson, the first rounder out of Virginia Tech, contributing as well. The aging line is another concern that could hold these Giants back from respectfully defending their title.

Defense — (B-).      Their defense was among the worst in the league during the regular season last year. Outside of their pass rush, most of the unit was pretty dreadful. Getting CB Terrell Thomas back from an injury that kept him out all of last season will help, and the continued development of Prince Amukamara could give them not just a duo but a good trio of corners. They will need that to be successful in a division with three talented quarterbacks. The safeties are still subpar, and the LBs are patchwork with Mathias Kiwinuka, Michael Boley and perhaps Keith Rivers starting.

Special teams — (A).      Lawrence Tynes is one of the more efficient kickers in the game, and Steve Weatherford is one of the most unhearlded punters. With Domenik Hixon and Jerrel Jernigan as options at returner, they will be fine there.

 

3. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

Offense — (B+).      If they stay healthy and all get on the same page, they could be a dangerous team. However, that has been the case since Romo began his time in Dallas, and that has only produced one playoff win. DeMarco Murray showed that he can be great when he is healthy and be the opposite of Marion Barber by picking up substantial yards per carry. Durability has always been his achillies heel, dating back to college. Tony Romo is a fine QB with bad luck. Last year, he had the fourth best passer rating (102.5), third best passing percentage (66.3) and a joke of a reputation. While he has come up small in some games, they don’t compare to all the games in which he plays well. His luck is already turning against him this year, with Miles Austin and Jason Witten having injuries and Dez Bryant having embarrassing off the field issues. Losing Laurent Robinson will hurt as well. He was Romo’s go to guy last year, so it is unknown who will be getting the majority of the throws early on this season. But over all of this, the most glaring problem is the front line. Will they finally protect Romo and give him the time any elite quarterback needs? We will soon find out.

Defense — (B-).      Not sure exactly where to rank this D. If they play up to their potential with a defensive coordinator like Rob Ryan, they could be one of the better units in the conference – maybe even league. I have a feeling a lot of this will depend on Morris Claiborne. They traded up to get the former LSU shutdown corner, and brought in Brandon Carr from Kansas City to be their No. 2 cornerback. What might have been a weakness last year now may be a strength, and since Ryan does his magic best with quality cornerbacks, it could be a huge strength. But who will play at safety alongside Gerald Sensabaugh is still a question. Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher and Marcus Spears are a relatively good line, and DeMarcus Ware has clearly established himself as a force at rushing the passer year in and year out. Getting Anthony Spencer to play up to his potential is key. This team has been waiting for that to happen. Sean Lee looks as if he will be taking on more of the leadership this year and will be solid on the inside.

Special teams — (C-).      Dan Bailey had a good year last year, but when was the last time any Dallas kicker had any sustained success? The fact that the Cowboys practically let long-time Cowboys punter Mat McBriar simply walk over to the Eagles is foolish. Just because the punter doesn’t get much attention doesn’t mean he can’t play an integral role in the team’s success. Now, the team has Chris Jones – an unproven punter. Who will take care of the returns? Felix Jones? Dez? They need to find a guy they can rely on. Soon.

 

4. Washington Redskins (7-9)

Offense — (C).      RG3 is a name. While he already seems like a professional, it will take some time for him to get used to the pro game just as is the case with almost every college quarterback. But the guy has all the talent in the world. Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan, Santana Moss, Leonard Hankerson and TE Fred Davis give him a lot of options. Unfortunately Davis is suspended for 4 games, as is OT Trent Williams. Their line is weak. RG3 better be ready to run.

Defense — (C+).      I feel like they could be better than this, but for now I just don’t see it. Not until they prove everybody and their perception wrong. Barry Cofield is a solid NT in their 3-4 defense, and Stephen Bowen will be a force. DE Adam Carikker has been a bust at the pro level which isn’t looking like it will change anytime soon. They better hope Jarvis Jenkins grows quickly and can replace him. Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are as good as they come with 3-4 outside rushers, but they need to be utilized more often. Their secondary remains an issue with DeAngelo Hall still giving up as many big plays as he makes, and Brandon Merriweather making as many dumb penalties as big hits. Josh Wilson should be respectable and Reed Doughty and Madieu Williams, whomever wins the job at the other safety spot, is just a stopgap.

Special teams — (B).      Their kicker situation is a nightmare. Graham Gano needed to be replaced, but Neil Rackers wasn’t good enough, so they settled for Ravens castoff Billy Cundiff. Somehow I don’t see that ending well. Saverio Rocca is a serviceable punter. Finding return guys will be their biggest concern, something that shouldn’t simply be ignored.

 

 

NFC west

1. San Francisco 49ers (10-6)

Offense — (B).      All the pieces are in place. Alex Smith must show he can deliver. He doesn’t have to be a superstar quarterback; he just needs to fit into Harbaugh’s system. They have an SEC like stable of running backs with Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Brandon Jacobs and Anthony Dixon. Wow. At WR, Randy Moss, Michael Crabtree, and first rounder A.J. Jenkins will give Smith his best group of wideouts yet. On top of all of them, they have the best TE in the league in Vernon Davis. This guy has the power and speed that any QB would want in his TE. He is simply a monster when he gets the ball in his hands.

Defense — (A).      What a unit. Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga and others lead a DL that shuts down the run and still can apply pressure on the QB. Aldon Smith was a terror his rookie season, and Parys Harrelson complements him very well. Inside Patrick Willis is second to none, and Navarro Bowman is a wrecking ball. Their secondary was the only chink in the armor last season, with Tarell Brown being exposed at times. Carlos Rogers was a pro bowler at the other corner, though. At safety, DaShon Golston and Donte Whitner form a very good duo. There is no reason this defense that didn’t allow a rushing touchdown in the first 14 games last season shouldn’t be commanding once again.

Special teams — (A-).      David Akers and Andy Lee are the two best at their position in the NFC. Kyle Williams likely won’t be back returning punts again. Hopefully for them, Ginn stays healthy and they can have a very good returner for punts and kicks, as he does both.

 

2. Arizona Cardinals (7-9)

Offense — (C+).      They have all the pieces to be a very good offense except the most important one – QB. While I have believed for a long time that John Skelton (5-0 at home last season) was better than Kevin Kolb, particularly in the leadership department, and will start, it looks like the coaching staff is finally starting to see it. He will have the luxury of throwing to Larry Fitzgerald. He is the best in the league at making any QB look better than he is. With Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams in the back field, they will have a very good run game that they can rely on. Finding a LT is crucial, particularly with Levi Brown potentially out for the season with injury.

Defense — (B+).      They were one of the pleasant surprises of the second half of the season. Darnell Dockett is still an excellent player, and Dan Williams from Tennessee will come back from injury this season, and Calais Campbell is 6’8″ of hell. O’Brien Schofield and other LBs really were what drove the sudden improvement. The secondary is fine with Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes, Patrick Peterson and Greg Toler starting.

Special teams — (B+).      Jay Feely had a down year, kicking under 80% last season. Dave Zastudil has a huge leg and should be just fine at punter. Patrick Peterson is always a threat to take it all the way back, and Larod Stephens-Howling has made his share of highlight returns.

 

3. Seattle Seahawks (6-10)

Offense — (C).      Marshawn Lynch is a great back who has really taken off since coming over from Buffalo. They will need to lean on him big time again this season because they are running a who’s who of WRs, with Sidney Rice, Braylon Edwards, Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate and others competing for time with an inexperienced quarterback in Russell Wilson. The offensive line will need some time to gel. Unger, Okung, Moffitt, Carpenter and J.R. Sweezy are all young and talented, but need to develop chemistry and an understanding of each others strengths.

Defense — (A-).      One of the most underrated units in the league – no doubt.  Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman and others lead a no-name secondary that rivals the best in the league. Earl Thomas will be great – the next great safety after Ed Reed is gone. Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant, Alan Branch, Chris Clemons and first round pick Bruce Irvin lead a deep and formidable D-line.

Special teams — (B).      Leon Washington is a premiere return man. He doesn’t get quite as much attention as some of the other guys like Peterson, Hester or Cribbs, but is still always a threat. Steven Hauschka is a serviceable kicker but nothing special. Jon Ryan is a good punter, averaging almost 47 ypp last season.

 

4. St. Louis Rams (6-10)

Offense — (C).      They could have a really good offense if Sam Bradford can stay upright. Danny Amendola comes back from injury, and Steven Jackson is still Steven Jackson. The problem remains with the offensive line. Roger Saffold needs to step up at LT and protect Bradford’s blind side. With this type of protection, Bradford has the change of leading this team have a more respectable season. Jason Smith was a bust on the right side, so they sent him away for a guy who looked just as bad in Wayne Hunter; he will battle Barry Richardson for the job. The interior of the line is decent with journeyman Quinn Ojinakka, ex-Packer Scott Wells and the road blocking Harvey Dahl.

Defense — (C+).      Chris Long is a great, young talent. When put beside Robert Quinn, those two form a good pass rushing duo. However, the interior of their line is weak and teams gauged them with the run last season as they ranked second to last in rushing yards given up (2433). They will need to hope Michael Brockers and free agent acquisition Kendall Langford can fix that. James Laurinitis is a serviceable linebacker, but they need to improve around him. Rocky McIntosh could do just that. Adding Cortland Finnigan will help the secondary, but around him the rest of the secondary is uncertain. Quintin Mikell is not what he was in Philadelphia, Darian Stewart and Janoris Jenkins are young guys they are hoping do well. This team had the chance to add some quality defensive pieces in the NFL draft, but kept trading down and missed many opportunities.

Special teams — (C).      Greg Zuerlin comes from Missouri Western University all the way to the big stage. Johnny Hekker is a rookie from Oregon State who takes over the punter spot. Danny Amendola returns from injury and Isaiah Pead is an explosive rookie who can help out the return game.

 

 

NFC north

1. Green Bay Packers (13-3)

Offense — (A).      Aaron Rodgers is the best player in the league (along with the fantasy league), and has excellent WRs at his disposal. Jennings, Nelson, Finley, Cobb, James Jones… I think I’ve made my point. Donald Driver has most likely reached the end. Adding Cedric Benson could be one of the more underrated pickups of the offseason if he runs anything like he did in Cincinnati. He gives them a tough runner that can get them 1,000 yards. After an embarrassing loss at home in last year’s playoffs, this offense and team will be ready to establish themselves as the best team in the league once again.

Defense — (C+).      They upgraded their unit with a defense heavy draft, getting Nick Perry to upgrade the pass rush, Jerel Worthy to upgrade the line (a steal in the second round) and Casey Heyward to upgrade the secondary. Charles Woodson will shift to safety, but either way, they need to upgrade a secondary that was historically bad last season, being dead last in passing yards given up (4796). Getting another pass rusher to go alongside Clay Matthews (hopefully Perry can provide that) will certainly help. If they want to get back to the Super Bowl, some solid defense will need to come along with them.

Special teams — (A).      Mason Crosby has a very strong leg, and Tim Masthay has gotten better ever since he started for the Packers two seasons ago. Randall Cobb is another guy who can take one the other way at any given moment.

 

2. Chicago Bears (12-4)

Offense — (A-).      With Brandon Marshall finally giving them a true #1 receiver, they will be good. Considering Marshall has previous experience with Jay Cutler in Denver, they already have the experience that will make them lethal early on. That would be enough to carry some teams to the top of their division. But then opposing defenses have to deal with Matt Forte, one of the best multi-purpose running backs in the league. It will undoubtedly be a handful. As long as the offensive line holds up, they could be one of the best offenses in the league and make some noise once the playoffs roll around.

Defense — (B+).      They are getting older, but they might have one last run in them. Urlacher and Briggs can still hold their own, and Peppers can still rush the passer with the best of them. They might not be in their prime, but they certainly know this system and how to turn this into one of the top defenses. The key will be how well the DTs, led by Stephen Paea, Henry Melton and others, play. The secondary, led by veteran corner Charles Tillman, will need to play better than 28th best if they are going to try to slow down Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford. Tim Jennings, Major Wright and Chris Conte will be under the microscope this season.

Special teams — (A).      Hester is still great, and can flip field position at any time. Robbie Gould, who made all six of his field goal attempts from 50+ yards last season, has been one of the most underrated kickers in the NFL for years. Adam Podlesh is a solid kicker, averaging 44 ypp over each of the last 2 seasons. The fact that this team has a solidified special teams could be the difference in how far this team can go – which is far.

 

3. Detroit Lions (7-9)

Offense — (A-).      Matthew Stafford was great last season, but he needs to prove that he can stay healthy over the long haul. This has stunted many young quarterback’s growth early on and could be the case with Stafford.  They still need a running back. Jahvid Best has not stayed healthy, Kevin Smith is nothing special and Mikel LeShore needs to find a way to lay off the drugs. Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew are two of the best at their position in the league. But can Johnson avoid the Madden Curse? Can the line hold up? Questions still linger for this unit as they could very easily head in the wrong direction this season.

Defense — (C).      Ndamukong Suh had a sophomore slump last season (at least by his standards), and an embarrassing moment where he couldn’t seem to control his emotions on the field. He needs to be sure that he can get back to the level at which he played during his rookie season. They have a great defensive line with Suh, Corey Williams, KVB, Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson and last year’s first rounder Nick Fairley. Their back seven are somewhat of a concern. The linebackers are serviceable with Tulloch, DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant, but they are going to need a makeover in the secondary to compete in this pass happy division. Louis Delmas will need to stay healthy for that to have any chance of happening.

Special teams — (B).      Jason Hanson isn’t what he used to be, but he is still a solid kicker. The Aussie Ben Graham is a solid punter, averaging over 44 ypp. Stefan Logan and Titus Young will split the return duties, and both are explosive.

 

4. Minnesota Vikings (3-13)

Offense — (D+).      Christian Ponder looked very average last season, though, with all due respect, he didn’t have anyone to throw to besides Percy Harvin. Kyle Rudolph is a young TE who has potential to grow, and John Carlson will be an upgrade. Adrian Peterson will have to get back, but in the meantime Toby Gerhart will carry the load. He is a solid runner. Matt Kalil will improve the line, and the line needs to improve if Ponder is to have any chance of not becoming the next David Carr. This team might be fighting for the top pick of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Defense — (C-).      They long had one of the premiere D-Lines in the NFL, but without Pat Williams and Ray Edwards, those days are over. They did lead the NFL in sacks, with Jared Allen being the sole owner of 22 of them. Nearly half. Nobody else had more than eight. Jasper Brinkley has now taken over for E.J. Henderson, and Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson on the outside form a solid trio. But the secondary remains an issue, as it has been for years. Winfield is continuing to get older, and with Chris Cook gone, things only figure to get worse. Raymond and Sanford need to get really good quickly to give them any chance.

Special teams — (B-).      Rookie Blair Walsh takes over for the departed Ryan Longwell. Chris Kluwe has long been a solid punter, averaging almost 46 ypp. Harvin is another one of the guys in the NFL that could take any kickoff back the other way.

 

 

NFC south

1. Atlanta Falcons (12-4)

Offense — (A).      All around, this is one of the most explosive units in the league. Matt Ryan has always been a solid QB, and now there are no more excuses for him not to win a playoff game. The weapons are there. He has deep threat Julio Jones, good all around receiver Roddy White, one of the best TEs of all time in Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner in the backfield. The line is still a work in progress (as seems to be the case with many elite teams), but it should hold up well enough for Matt Ryan to take that long awaited next step and win a postseason game.

Defense — (B).      I think they are better than most people give them credit for. Jonathan Babineaux is one of the most underrated DTs in the league. But they need for Ray Edwards to become the complementary rusher they need alongside John Abraham. Kroy Biermann is a good third end, and they better hope is doesn’t have to start by default. Sean Weatherspoon is a rapidly improving LB, and Stephen Nicolas and Akeem Dent are serviceable starters. They have a very good trio of CBs with Grimes, Robinson and Samuel. William Moore and Thomas DeCoud are good safeties and veteran Chris Hope will provide leadership as well.

Special teams — (B).      Matt Bryant is one of the best kickers in the league, missing only two FGs last season, but Matt Bosher struggled in his rookie season, averaging less than 43 ypp. Losing Eric Weems may hurt their return game, but Jacquizz Rogers and Harry Douglas have what it takes to make up the difference.

 

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)

Offense — (B-).      Josh Freeman looked like he had arrived in 2010, as did Mike Williams. But they both regressed in 2011. Freeman should be better this season, and with Dallas Clark in the fold it helps Freeman that much more. Vincent Jackson gives them the necessary deep threat they have lacked for so long. Now they can take advantage of Freeman’s big arm. Picking up Doug Martin in the draft to push LeGarrette Blount for playing time. Losing Davin Joseph along the offensive line will certainly hurt. But they should be a much improved unit.

Defense — (C-).      These aren’t your dad’s bucs. Ten years ago they were led by Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, John Lynch, Derrick Brooks, and others. Among those others is the only player still on the team from the Super Bowl 37 team, Ronde Barber. But they have used a lot of early draft picks on defense over the last three seasons, with Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn, Da’Quan Bowers (if he ever plays), Mark Barron and Lavonte David. Those guys need to stay healthy, and come of age quickly. If they do and the offense performs up to their potential, they could be yet another NFC south worst to first.

Special teams — (B-).      Connor Barth is a fine kicker. He made 26 of 28 FGs last season, almost 93%. Michael Koenen was an expensive free agent acquisition at punter before the 2011 season, but he averaged 45 ypp. Preston Parker averaged almost 10 yards per punt return and 22 yards per kick return. Those numbers need to be better.

 

3. New Orleans Saints (7-9)

Offense — (A-).      Drew Brees. One of the best QBs of this generation. But without the play calling of Sean Payton, how will Brees be affected? Will there be a major difference? Little difference? No difference? I think it will be at least somewhat of a factor that Payton isn’t there. I do imagine Brees having a very good season though- mainly because they will be behind a lot and have to throw a lot. He has very good weapons with Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, etc. Remarkably, they do have a running game, even without a #1 RB. But they get it done.

Defense — (D+).      They are really going to struggle this season. The negative stigmas hanging over the team will affect them, and losing the QB of the defense, Jonathan Vilma, for the year, will do them no favors. Steve Spagnuolo will take over this unit, but I don’t know if he will have the talent up front to duplicate the success he had with the Giants, particularly with Will Smith out for four games.

Special teams — (B).      Garrett Hartley is an average kicker. He only made 80% of his attempts last season. Thomas Morestead though, is one of the finest punters in the league. Darren Sproles is one of the most consistent returners in the league, not as explosive as guys like Hester, but very consistent and versatile.

 

4. Carolina Panthers (7-9)

Offense — (B).      Cam Newton had an excellent rookie season, but will he be able to avoid the sophomore slump? That remains to be seen. With him, Stewart, Williams and Tolbert, they have four productive runners. Unfortunately, they only have one ball. Also, will Steve Smith have the same production this year? Newton will struggle throwing if he doesn’t. For an again WR with his injury history, I wouldn’t bank on it.

Defense — (C+).      Getting Jon Beason back from injury will be a tremendous boost. Adding Luke Keuchly in the draft to hold down the middle so Beason can play outside will also help the unit as a whole. But questions still remain if the linemen can play at a high level. Charles Johnson needs to play better to live up to his contract, and they need to find a solid second starter, whether than be incumbent Greg Hardy or someone else. The secondary is led by Chris Gamble, and they need to play better themselves to make the team championship level.

Special teams — (C).      They are not looking good in this area. Justin Medlock failed in KC after being drafted relatively high for a kicker, and Brad Nortman is their new punter. Will they have beginners luck or become a liability for the team?

 

 

 

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A Kick to Rule Them All

24 01 2012

In both the NFC and AFC Conference Championship games, a field goal attempt determined which teams needed to pack their bags for Indianapolis. One made. One missed. A Kyle Williams fumble on a punt return has also inundated the media world. Even though all of these situations provide an easy way to focus on just a few minutes of each game, it can’t be forgotten that NFL football lasts for 60 minutes. Here are some key plays and factors from each game that haven’t been given their rightful attention.

 

AFC Championship

  • Stephen Gostkowski made three field goals where Billy Cundiff couldn’t. He connected on 29, 35, and 24 yard field goal, missing none of his attempts. Even though these didn’t come in crunch time, without these 9 points, the game would have been in an entirely different place by the end of the game.
  • The Patriots defensive line came to play this past Sunday. That line and the rest of the Patriots’ defense held Ray Rice to 78 total yards – only 12 yards short of his season low. This forced Flacco to throw the ball much more than he is used to, translating to some poor throws in the fourth quarter.
  • Instead of wrapping the ball up tight, Lee Evans began to turn around after catching a potential touchdown pass from Flacco. As he began to rotate, the ball was easily knocked out of his hands by Sterling Moore, setting up the missed field goal from Cundiff two plays later. Why turn? I understand momentum plays a factor, but once you have clearly crossed the goal-line, gather yourself, and hold on to that football.
  • After Baltimore just recently had a playoff game without a single penalty, the Patriots decided to take a page from the Ravens’ book by playing an efficient football game. Other than an illegal contact penalty early on in the second quarter, the Patriots successfully had a penalty-free afternoon.
    • Even though the Ravens only had 6 penalties for a total of 33 yards, one of them had a major impact on the game. Facing a 2nd and 6 at the Baltimore 16, BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for one yard, potentially putting the Patriots in a tough third-down situation with the score still tied. However, Dannell Ellerbe had an obvious face mask, leading to an automatic first down. A touchdown was scored on the very next play.
  • No team led by more than a touchdown throughout the entire game. By the time the fourth quarter came around, only 4 points separated the two teams. This closeness helped Tom Brady, who finds ways to get the job done when the game is on the line. His fourth quarter touchdown drive made up the only points of the quarter.

 

NFC Championship

  • Alex Smith’s fourth quarter and overtime inefficiency made it difficult for the 49ers to establish any sort of offensive rhythm. Discounting the last play of the fourth quarter where the Patriots backed off to avoid the hail mary and gave up about a 20-yard play, here is Smith’s final five drives.

    C/ATT YDS
    4th 2/3 8
    0/1 0
    0/3 0
    1/1 3
    OT 1/2 11

    The 7-year Niner connected with receivers not named Vernon Davis one time the entire game. He has been playing wonderful football this year, but his play in crunch time of the AFC Championship reminded me of the Alex Smith I’ve seen from the previous six years.

  • *Eli Manning did it again, elevating his gameplay to another level during a playoff game. Manning completed 32 of 58 passes – franchise post-season records for both attempts and completions – for 316 yards and two touchdowns, proving his toughness. Just as basketball coaches tell their shooters to keep shooting no matter their percentage for a particular game, I felt as though Manning had a similar mentality. He kept slinging that ball around the field and didn’t care how many came up incomplete.
  • With all the attention on Vernon Davis, it can’t go unnoticed that ex-Raider Michael Crabtree all but disappeared in the biggest game of his life. One catch. Three yards. That is the makeup of Crabtree’s line for the NFC Championship game. It seemed on some plays that Crabtree didn’t even have a desire to have the ball thrown his way. When was the last time Crabtree could only muster up one catch for an entire football game? November 13th against the New York Giants.
  • The Giants effectively kept the 49ers and their offense off the field. Eli finished off plays by connecting on 17 third down conversions through the air. This also frustrates the opposing defense since they work so hard for two straight plays only to be beat on the third time. Ending up with 11 more minutes of possession and not turning the ball over, New York handled the ball very well and avoided any game-changing interceptions or fumbles.

 

*Even though Eli Manning has proven his greatness yet again this year, I think much more will need to be done on his part before he should be proclaimed better than his brother. If entire career’s are compared at this point in time, Peyton has to be the better quarterback.

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NFL Nutshell: Week 15

19 12 2011

 

Green Bay 14, Kansas City 19

As the season is winding down, many pundits have been wondering if the Packers were going to go 16-0. An injury-plagued Chiefs team that just fired their head coach didn’t seem like much of a challenge, and this probably was not picked as the upset of the week by very many experts. But the Packers came out flat, and Aaron Rogers and company suffered their first loss of the year. Green Bay is still the NFC favorite, but some might begin to wonder if this team can maintain such a high level of play all the way through the Super Bowl.

 

Tennessee 13, Indianapolis 27

On the heels of the last undefeated team going down, the league’s last winless team finally found the “W” column on Sunday. Obviously the loss of Peyton Manning has devastated the Colts, but many have begun questioning the team’s heart due to some of the nature of their losses. This win showed that they do have some pride left, and they manage to avoid becoming only the second team to go 0-16. Ironically, the quarterback that led Indianapolis to victory was Dan Orlavsky who helmed the Detroit Lions in 2008 when they became the only team to achieve that dubious 0-16 record.

 

Washington 23, NY Giants 10

The Giants had a thrilling victory over their hated rivals last week and took command of the NFC East behind the arm of Eli Manning. Then just like that, the Cowboys won on Saturday night, and the Giants laid an egg back in New York with Manning throwing 3 interceptions. Washington looked like the playoff team with their defense preventing the Giants from scoring a touchdown until about 30 seconds left in the game. Next week the two New York teams square off against each other, and if the Jets come out on top, the Giants playoff dreams might be over.

 

New England 41, Denver 23

The most hyped game of the week ended up being a pretty strong statement game for Tom Brady and company. The Patriots went into the mile-high city and came out with a win and the AFC East division crown with the Jets simultaneously falling to the Eagles. New England actually came out flat and was outgained on the ground 167 yards to 4, but they seized momentum in the second quarter and didn’t look back. The Broncos lost for only the second time since Tim Tebow became a starter, although the QB sensation had a pretty good day throwing for 194 yards and rushing for 2 touchdowns. Denver still leads their division, but both Oakland and San Diego are only 1 game back waiting to seize the lead should the Broncos slip over the next two weeks.

 

Monday Night Football:

Pittsburgh vs. San Francisco – 7:30 p.m. CT

Finally – today will provide NFL fans with a Monday Night Football game that has some significance behind it. Both of these AFC teams sit at 10-3, but are coming from different places. The Pittsburgh Steelers stand as one of the four teams – the Colts, Patriots, and Raiders being the others – from the AFC to win their conference championship in the past ten years. Furthermore, the Steelers have won two of their three appearances in the Super Bowl, both with Roethlisberger at the helm. They have established themselves as consistent winners and the league respects this franchise because of it. This year, specifically, has been nothing short of the usual as Big Ben has done exactly what the team needs him to do while the top passing defense in the league carries the rest (most) of the load. The 49ers used to have the Steelers current reputability in the mid-90s, but haven’t had anything close since then. The last time they matched their current 10 wins and won the division was 2002 when they lost to the future Super Bowl champions – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – in the second round. But it’s looking like things are changing in California. Jim Harbaugh has formed this team into a defensive beast. They lead the league in points given up (14.0) and have one of the best red zone defenses I’ve seen in a while. Harbaugh also has provided 7-year 49er Alex Smith with the perfect role on the offensive side of the field as Frank Gore gives him help on the ground. So who wins this defensive struggle? With a game that has so much on the line and two teams that obviously are in serious pursuit of a high playoff seed, I have to go with the more experienced team. The Steelers have been in more of these types of situations than these 49ers, who aren’t used to this kind of pressure. San Francisco will have their first multi-game losing streak, and the Steelers will be knocking on the Patriots doorstep for the top seed in the AFC. Pick: Steelers

 

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Don’t Take it Easy

14 12 2011

Jim Harbaugh and Alex Smith have worked well together so far. Can it last going into the playoffs?

From a quarterback that has suddenly begun to play well after seven years with the team to a coach that almost got in a fist fight with another coach, San Francisco has had one of the most interesting and unexpectedly successful NFL seasons. Let’s just hope a good regular season isn’t the only goal for this team.

The 49ers currently sit at 10-3 with three games left before the playoffs. Quarterback Alex Smith, running back Frank Gore, and wide receiver Michael Crabtree have been the offensive force helping provide points. More significant to their current record, though, has to be the defense. New head coach Jim Harbaugh has instilled a gritty attitude in these men that lead the league in points given up per game (14.0) and opponent rushing yards per game (70.5). Breakout years from cornerback Carlos Rogers and linebacker NaVorro Bowman have also helped solidify this defense. After a 26-0 shutdown of the St. Louis Rams in Week 13, the 49ers locked up a division title and a playoff spot.

Even though grabbing a playoff spot early in the season can provide some comfort and stress-relief, based off this past Sunday, the 49ers need to be careful not to put it in cruise control. If the 49ers want to make some noise this year in the playoffs, a 21-19 loss to a subpar Cardinals team that lost their starting quarterback early on in the game is unacceptable. 

One of the hardest tasks as a head coach in any sport has to be finding the balance between resting players and pushing them forward when regular season games no longer impact whether the team will make the playoffs or not. Watching both the Mavericks and Cowboys crumble in the playoffs after taking it easy to finish the regular season brings me to believe Harbaugh needs to continue to push his players, especially since winning double-digit games is new territory for his young team.

Monday Night will be gut check time for the 49ers as the 10-3 Steelers come into town, who need as many wins as they can get since the Ravens have already beaten them twice and also sit at 10-3. This is why Harbaugh needs to make sure his men stay focused. Other than a Week 6 victory over the Detroit Lions, the NFC West Champions have had a relatively soft schedule, partly because the other three teams in their division – the Seahawks, Cardinals, and Rams – all have losing records. Not only does this squad need a quality win before the season is over so they can get another taste of victory over a team with a winning record, but having two losses in a row at this point would be highly detrimental to the team’s psyche. I believe Harbaugh realizes the importance of Monday’s game and will make sure his players are ready to go. In a season filled with many lackluster Monday Night Football match-ups, this 49ers-Steelers game will surely provide some solid football entertainment.

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