Maiocco's NFL predictions: Good season ahead for Bay Area


Maiocco's NFL predictions: Good season ahead for Bay Area

In a move that's been telegraphed for several months now, my pick for the Super Bowl winner should not be a surprise.

Go ahead and call me a "homer." That's a lot better than what many of you were calling me after I made my prediction in January for the NFC Championship game. But, again, I call it as I see it.

Here are my NFL predictions for the 2012 season. And, please, hold your applause until the first Sunday in February:

AFC (playoff seed)
1) New England Patriots (2)
2) Buffalo Bills (5)
3) New York Jets
4) Miami Dolphins

1) Baltimore Ravens (4)
2) Cincinnati Bengals
3) Pittsburgh Steelers
4) Cleveland Browns

1) Houston Texans (1)
2) Indianapolis Colts
3) Tennessee Titans
4) Jacksonville Jaguars

1) Oakland Raiders (3)
2) San Diego Chargers (6)
3) Denver Broncos
4) Kansas City Chiefs

AFC Wildcard round
Raiders (3) over Bills (6), Ravens (4) over Chargers (5)

AFC Divisional round
Texans (1) over Ravens (4), Patriots (2) over Raiders (3)

AFC Championship Game
Texans (1) over Patriots (2)

1) Dallas Cowboys (3)
2) Philadelphia Eagles (5)
3) New York Giants
4) Washington

1) Detroit Lions (4)
2) Green Bay Packers (6)
3) Chicago Bears
4) Minnesota Vikings

1) Atlanta Falcons (2)
2) Carolina Panthers
3) New Orleans Saints
4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1) San Francisco 49ers (1)
2) Seattle Seahawks
3) St. Louis Rams
4) Arizona Cardinals

Wildcard round
Packers (6) over Cowboys (3), Lions (4) over Eagles (5)

Divisional round
Falcons (2) over Lions (4), 49ers (1) over Packers (6)

NFC Championship Game
49ers (1) over Falcons (2)

Super Bowl XLVII
49ers over Texans

MVP: Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
Stafford remained healthy for the first time in his career for a full 16 games, so it should come as no surprise he experienced his breakout season. With a very strong corps of receivers, led by Calvin Johnson, and the lack of a powerful run game, the Lions will pin all their hopes on Stafford. And he will deliver. His touchdowns will rise, his interceptions will fall, and the Lions will overtake the Packers to win the NFC North.

Offensive player of the year: Ravens running back Ray Rice
He is the do-everything Ravens offensive player who rarely comes off the field. The Ravens' defense will continue to do the heavy lifting, and the offense will not have to do too much. And Rice will be in the middle of just about everything on offense. Baltimore does not have a great offensive line, but Rice does not need much room. He will also be a favored target of quarterback Joe Flacco, who might not have much time to get the ball down the field.

Defensive player of the year: 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith
He should have won this award last year. He was the best defender in the league. It seems as if just now -- entering his 12th NFL season -- that he is beginning to get the kind of recognition he deserves. Smith is an absolute game-changer. He is stout against the run, and he is a selfless performer in the passing game, too. He probably will not exceed 10 sacks, but he'll enable outside pass-rusher Aldon Smith to excel, too.

Offensive rookie of the year: Colts quarterback Andrew Luck
Sorry. No points for originality here. Luck came to the Colts with the No. 1 overall pick, which is all the evidence you need to discover he does not have much of a supporting cast. But Luck is now a full-time football player. Instead of spending time attending classes at Stanford, he's spending that time in the film room. There will not be a better-prepared rookie. Yes, the Colts offensive line is bad, but Luck will know defenses so well that he will not take the hits you'd expect most rookies in his spot to absorb. That will keep him healthy. And that will keep the Colts' offense moving.

Defensive rookie of the year: Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus
Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans are gone. And Mercilus steps in to be one of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' key pieces of this 3-4 scheme. He had 16 sacks at Illinois last season, and that kind of pass-rush ability is something that can't be taught. Mercilus will step in and become a major reason the Texans are the best team in the AFC.

Comeback player of the year: Raiders running back Darren McFadden
Yeah, the comeback player will be from the AFC West, and it will not be the quarterback in Denver. McFadden will remain healthy. And that means he'll return to being his usual explosive, productive self -- for more than just seven games. McFadden will erase any doubt about how he fits into Greg Knapp's offense and the new blocking scheme to rank among the league leaders in rushing.

Coach of the year: Raiders coach Dennis Allen
There is not a whole lot of national buzz surrounding the Raiders, who have not experienced a winning season since 2002. Allen will make the biggest impact of any coach in the league because there's so much that needs fixing with this organization. The penalties will return to acceptable levels, the Raiders will win more than they lose, and the NFL Coach of the Year award will remain in the Bay Area after Jim Harbaugh was the clear winner a year ago. Allen, the youngest coach in the NFL at 39, will engineer the return of the Raiders.

Former 49ers quarterback takes over under center for Cardinals


Former 49ers quarterback takes over under center for Cardinals

TEMPE, Ariz. — Blaine Gabbert will get his first start for the Arizona Cardinals when they play the Texans in Houston on Sunday.

Coach Bruce Arians announced the decision after Friday's practice.

Drew Stanton, the starter the last two games, bruised his knee early in the Thursday night loss to Seattle last week. He stayed in the game but has been limited in practice all week.

Arians said it will be a game-time decision as to whether Stanton or recently signed Matt Barkley would be Gabbert's backup.

Gabbert will be making his 41st NFL start. He has a 9-31 record. He signed with Arizona last offseason and was the third quarterback until Carson Palmer broke his arm against the Los Angeles Rams in London and was lost for the season.

49ers Mailbag: Should Shanahan give up play-calling?


49ers Mailbag: Should Shanahan give up play-calling?

Believe it or not, the 49ers’ offense is improved from last season.

The 49ers ranked 31st in the NFL in 2016, averaging 308.1 yards per game. Although the offense is producing just a little better (325.9 yards per game), their ranking this season has shot up to 21st in the league.

The 49ers have had a different head coach and different person running the offense in each of the past four seasons, so their continuity has been severely lacking.

Next season, the 49ers should finally have carryover from one season to the next.

The direction of the offense is one of the topics addressed on this edition of 49ers Mailbag (questions were submitted via Facebook):

Now that we have Jimmy G do you see 49ers getting an offensive coordinator or will it still be Kyle calling the plays? (Julio Orozco)
I'm not sure why the arrival of Jimmy Garoppolo would have any impact on the 49ers’ offensive structure, but in any event, the answer is a resounding, “No.”

Kyle Shanahan has been hailed as one of the best offensive coordinators in the NFL. The reason he was hired as 49ers head coach was, in large part, because of the success he achieved while designing offenses and calling plays.

Why would he give that up? It makes no sense.

Rob Demovsky of ESPN this week identified the 32 primary play-callers. There are 18 NFL head coaches with offensive backgrounds. Twelve of those coaches call their own plays.

Shanahan has a staff of assistant coaches on whom he leans. Passing game specialist Mike LaFleur and quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello are closely involved in working with Shanahan on the passing game, while running game specialist Mike McDaniel, offensive line coach John Benton and running backs coach Bobby Turner spearhead the involvement in the ground game.

But, make no mistake, it is Shanahan who calls the shots. And that's the way it should be. If Shanahan stepped aside as his own offensive coordinator, he would be diminishing his biggest strength as a coach.

What do you see happing with the Hyde situation? We drafted Joe Williams and Breida seems to be a bright spot. There’s a lot of talk about Barkley from Penn State with that high 1st rounder. (Manny Hinojos)
There does not seem to be any movement toward a long-term extension for Hyde. It is getting to the point in the season where it makes a lot more sense for Hyde to play out his contract and hit the open market.

There is no question in my mind the 49ers like Hyde a lot. He has scored some major points with the organization for his performance on the field and how he has responded off the field.

GM John Lynch loved it when Hyde came to the defense of quarterback C.J. Beathard, tussled with Arizona lineman Frostee Rucker and got ejected from the game.

That said, the 49ers are not going to break the bank for Hyde. A multi-year agreement has to come at the right price. My personal feeling is that running backs are luxury pieces when the remainder of a team’s roster -- especially the offensive line -- is set.

Shanahan and his father, Mike Shanahan, and Turner (the assistant coach who served on both of their staffs) have achieved a lot of success without investing heavily in running backs. That’s why I think the 49ers would be best-served by investing elsewhere and using another mid-round draft pick on a running back.

With Joshua Garnett coming back next season how aggressive will Lynch and Shanahan be in trying to get guards this offseason? (David Hartless)
Garnett is not a particularly good fit for this offensive scheme. The presence of Garnett can help increase the competition next offseason, but I do not believe he is being penciled in as a starter.

The 49ers will certainly be aggressive in an attempt to upgrade the guard positions. Currently, Laken Tomlinson and Brandon Fusco are the starters. Neither will be assured a starting job when the offseason begins.

The 49ers did not see enough from Garnett to determine he has a future with the organization, but he will be given the opportunity to come back healthy and prove himself.

Is Eric Reid in long-term plans? (Grant Rasmussen)
I do not believe so. I think the 49ers would like their starting safeties next season to be Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt – with Adrian Colbert as the front-runner for the No. 3 job.

The 49ers can also be expected to add a player or two in free agency, as well as the draft, to provide a competitive environment in the offseason. The 49ers seemed to telegraph their intention with Reid when they moved him to linebacker with Ward and Tartt remaining as the starting safeties.

That position change lasted about a week, as Ward’s injury prompted the team to move Reid back to safety. Reid is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. It's entirely possible there will not be a big market for him, but I do not believe the 49ers are going to be ultra-competitive in retaining him on the open market.