This weekend's conference championship games will provide numerous angles, but each of the teams has a top-10 tackler on special teams.
As Dana Carvey and his character, "The Church Lady," used to say, "Well, isn't that special?" It has been, special teams play that is, for the four teams in this week's championship games.
Because of the performances of kicker David Akers
and punter Andy Lee
, the San Francisco special teams have garnered plenty of attention. But one of the common denominators among the four clubs playing Sunday is their excellent overall special teams play.
Worth noting is that all four teams have at least one coverage player in the top 10 in special teams tackles, and the Giants have two. The players: linebacker Jacquian Williams
and safety Tyler Sash
(both from New York), safety C.J. Spillman (49ers), wide receiver Matthew Slater (Pats), and defensive end Albert McClellan
TAGS WAS CLOSE
The Pro Football Hall of Fame typically does a terrific job of keeping the results of its votes private – the balloting on the original list of 100-plus candidates to reduce the pool to 25 semifinalists (26 this year because of a tie), the reduction to the 15 modern-day finalists, and, of course, the vote on inductees – and this year certainly has been no different.
Word from a fairly reliable source, though, is that former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, a semifinalist since 2007, was 16th in the voting for a finalist berth this year, one slot short of qualifying for formal discussion by the 44 selectors.
"Tags" was a finalist three straight years, 2007-2009, but failed to receive the 80 percent vote required for induction. This marks the third straight year in which Tagliabue was among the pool of semifinalists, but did not advance to the finals. Selectors will convene in Indianapolis on Feb. 4, the day before Super Bowl XLVI, to elect the Class of 2012.
ON THE LINE
The emphasis when studying offensive lines generally is directed at the tackles, but this weekend's game will cast some focus on the interior blockers as well.
There are plenty of terrific inside defenders in the conference championship games – 49ers end/tackle Justin Smith
, Baltimore tackle Haloti Ngata
, New England's Vince Wilfork
, the New York ends when they sink them down inside against guards in their "NASCAR" pass-rush scheme – and the centers and guards of the offensive units will have to play well for their respective teams.
The Ravens plan to try to exploit the middle, to exert pressure inside against Tom Brady
, and the Patriots will have to be alert to that tactic. As much as in any week of the season, protection this weekend will have to be from the inside out.
Another common thread among the Final Four franchises is that all of them ranked in the top half of the league in fewest missed tackles. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers missed the fewest tackles in the league during the season (61), and New York and Baltimore also were in the top 10.
It's expected that Buffalo will continue to use multiple defensive fronts in 2012, even though new coordinator Dave Wannstedt is basically a 4-3 proponent.
The Dolphins, who expect Chad Henne to return from injury and feel that Matt Moore can be a capable backup, are not expected to try to move up in the first round for a quarterback prospect.
One team that might consider taking a quarterback earlier than expected in the 2012 draft is Dallas. The Cowboys have quietly shown interest in several quarterbacks and placed a claim for Kyle Orton when he was waived by the Broncos in November. With Jon Kitna retiring, the Cowboys are looking for a quarterback to compete with Stephen McGee to back up Tony Romo.
Former Buffalo starter Trent Edwards, who was out of the league in 2011 and who has started only 10 games since the end of the 2008 campaign, worked out this week for Philadelphia, and might be a candidate as a backup quarterback to Michael Vick. The Eagles' staff is high on two-year pro Mike Kafka, but might not be ready yet to declare him the No. 2 guy, and could be seeking a more experienced alternative.
There currently are two franchises, Washington and Buffalo, which have finished last in their respective divisions for four consecutive seasons. Since the ‘02 realignment, just two other clubs, Cleveland (2003-2006) and Oakland (2004-2007), had four straight divisional last-place finishes.
Both Eli Manning and Joe Flacco of the Ravens have compiled four postseason wins on the road in their careers, and could set a new league record with a victory on Sunday.
The Giants' Tom Coughlin has six playoff wins on the road, just one shy of Tom Landry's record.
Look for San Francisco offensive assistant Bobby Engram and Giants defensive quality control coach Al Holcomb to join the staff of new Pitt haed coach Paul Chryst when their respective teams have finished their seasons.
Somewhat overlooked in the comments this week by Rooney II was the nugget that his father, Dan Rooney, likely will step down from his post as ambassador to Ireland sometime this year and return to the Steelers, at least in an advisory capacity.
In his first two seasons in Washington, coach Mike Shanahan is just 11-21. Jim Zorn (2008-2009) and Steve Spurrier (2002-2003) both were fired despite each winning one more game in their two seasons with the Redskins.
The Giants are 4-0 in NFC championship games.
It appears that, had Mike Mularkey not landed the Jacksonville head coach job, he would have been dismissed as offensive coordinator in Atlanta. His successor, Dirk Koetter, should have more freedom than he had with the Jaguars, where his efforts at having a vertical passing game and even some of his weekly game plans were thwarted by then-boss Jack Del Rio. The Falcons may consider some outside candidates to replace deposed offensive line coach Paul Boundreau, but the front-runner for the job might be incumbent assistant line coach Paul Dunn.
Speaking of the Falcons, Koetter has pledged more emphasis on the screen pass, a play that was essentially non-existent under Mularkey, and that could mean Atlanta makes a big play for free agent guard Carl Nicks of New Orleans. The two-time Pro Bowl blocker is a road-grader in the running game, but very adept at getting downfield on screens as well, and quite accustomed to the chore having played for Sean Payton and the Saints, one of the top screen-pass teams in the league.
Of the 11 head coaches hired in 2009, only two, Jim Schwartz in Detroit and the Jets' Rex Ryan, still have their jobs.
The Steelers may be forced, for one of the few times in their history, and only the third time in about the past 20 years, to go outside the organization for an offensive coordinator after Bruce Arians "retired" amidst pressure from the top this week. Running backs coach Kirby Wilson, who might have moved up into the role, continues his long recovery from burns over 45 percent of his body, suffered in a recent home accident.
The last word: "This is not going to be a cute football game. It's not going to be for the meek and mild. This is going to be a bloodbath, that's what it's going to be." – New York Giants' defensive tackle Chris Canty, per multiple New York-area newspapers, on Sunday's NFC championship game against San Francisco