Mailbag: First quarter can set winning tone

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Diving into the mailbag one more time before heading over to University of Phoenix Stadium for the NFC Championship Game.

Ant from San Francisco writes: Sando, As you prepare your thoughts on the NFC title game, I think the first quarter tells the theme for the day. If one team jumps out to a two score lead (10-0 or 14-3) in the first half it is very likely that the trailing team will over-rely on the passing game which leads to sacks and turnovers.

Philly has always done that under Reid and it's still Arizona's personality and area of comfort. For all the analysis that shows how many more running plays the Cards have called during the playoffs, the easy item to forget is that they only trailed for seventy seconds in the Atlanta game and never trailed versus Carolina after mid first quarter. That makes it very easy to be patient with your own running game.

It also says that Carolina's lack of success in running the ball was more about the score and less about the Cardinals defense (they averaged 5 yards per carry). I also believe that Arizona jumping out to a lead allows them to ride the crowd as they are a front running team but the large number of blowout losses shows they have trouble slowing an opponent's momentum. If Philly jumps out big it will start to remind players (and fans) of the Thanksgiving game. Enjoy the Arizona burbs.

Mike Sando: I did think the Cardinals tightened their run defense after allowing that 31-yarder early. The Panthers also got away from the run, which played into that. Arizona certainly stopped the run effectively against the Falcons, even when the game was close.

Brian Westbrook is a different type of runner, more elusive. We should pay closer attention to his total yardage than his rushing yardage, given what he can do as a receiver out of the backfield. I expect the Cardinals' defense to play at a high level.

I do think play callers can revert to their comfort zones under pressure. That is one reason some of them try to script early plays.

As for first quarters, yes, they are important. But the Cardinals have been hugely effective in third quarters this season. The Eagles have dominated fourth quarters recently.

Ian from San Francisco writes: Hey Sando, I have to say, I'm not too happy about the rumors regarding 49ers offering Linehan a contract. The more the 49ers delve into foreign systems that don't fit our players, the more muddled on offense we get. I'm a strong advocate of the WCO; mainly, because Bill Walsh created it to fit his players. When he got here, there were no downfield threats like Jerry Rice.

Likewise, I think he WCO fits our players very well. Shaun Hill is a classic WCO qb, our receivers are excellent at the short passing game. Case in point: for the second half of the 08 season, Mike Martz (with heavy pressure from Singletary) was essentially running a forced version of the WCO. Our offense flourished under that. Not only that, but as an added benefit, our time of possession went up dramatically.

I'm positive Singletary knows it fits our players better because he even mentioned wanting the WCO when he fired Martz. I'm wondering if Mike Singletary would force Scott Linehan to run a similar type of offense instead of the more vertical passing game that he likes.

Mike Sando: The 49ers presumably would not hire someone without first feeling comfortable about the direction of the offense. The organization will have failed miserably if Singletary finds himself "forcing" the new offensive coordinator to play another style of offense. I also think the West Coast system isn't the only one that might suit the 49ers' personnel.

Dugan from parts unknown writes: Hi Mike, I just spent nearly an hour trying to find the terms and condintions for qualifeing to host a super bowl, and had no luck. Figured you'd know, so, what's it take to host a super bowl? Does Seattle have a chance to ever do so? And, if so, what could I do to get that going? Thanks.

Mike Sando: The Seahawks probably kissed away their best chance at hosting a Super Bowl when they built a stadium without a roof. In deciding Super Bowl venues, the league looks at matters of logistics. These would include stadium size, likely weather conditions (and how those conditions might affect a game, if the stadium has no roof), number of hotel rooms, etc. I do not know of a specific checklist.

Dadp from Philadelphia writes: I thought I heard Mike Barcan from Comcast sports say that in the NFC playoffs a team that beats the previous years superbowl champions is 0-11 in their next game. Can you confirm if I heard correctly? Thanks.

Mike Sando: I have not looked it up myself, but someone else apparently did provide some elaboration.

Jason from Yakima writes: Hi Mike, with college back in session, I miss most of your chats and mailbags, but do read them when I get home. I just wanted your opinion on the NFC Championship game. Everyone seems to forget that the Cardinals face my Seahawks twice a year. Don't you think that facing Holmgren's west coast offense will have prepared them a little bit more to face Andy Reid's Eagles than perhaps some other teams? I'm on Mora's side and want to see the Cardinals win the SB; although, if they beat the Steelers in the SB I don't think I could get out of bed for a few days. Thanks for all the info. you provide us fans.

Mike Sando: Can you imagine the bragging rights a Super Bowl title would deliver to the Cardinals and their fans? The rest of the division might never recover.

As to your question, I think the Cardinals' game against the Eagles in Week 13 would make them more familiar with the Eagles than having faced a related offense in divisional games against Seattle.

Steven from Illinois writes: Mike, quick question regarding sacks; is that particular stat overrated? I was thinking about the Niners pass rush, or lack thereof, and wondered if the sacks stat is a bit too glorified. I understand obviously the ramifications of having your QB sacked, and also the effectiveness of not even tackling the QB, but just applying pressure, but are all these "sack machines" in the league really deserving of all the hype?

Mike Sando: Sacks are overrated if we overrate them. But a player with lots of sacks is generally going to be a very good player, even if some players without lots of sacks are as good or better. Pay attention to what happens on drives when offenses allow sacks. That can help you determine their value. Sacking a mobile quarterback can prevent that quarterback from moving out of the pocket and making a play by ground or air.

Patrick from Yuma, Ariz., writes: Sando, Great blog, great job. Being an Arizona Cardinals fan, I see so many questions from Seahawks fans who are excited about drafting so high. Under the current salary cap, drafting high is a very risky business. Most years, the teams who have high draft picks are looking to move down, except there are no takers. I know the Seahawks are not used to drafting so high, but what are your thoughts about the perils of a high draft pick flop, especially if there are no real franchise players in the draft. I personally am glad the Cardinals drafted in the mid first round last year and late first
round this year.

Mike Sando: Thanks, Patrick. I looked into this subject last year. The cap ramifications haven't been that great because the cap has increased so much. But missing on a player drafted that early is certainly painful.