Other than the 49ers’ convincing upset victory over the Packers in an attractive matchup pitting the league’s best defense (San Francisco) against the league’s best offense (Green Bay), there weren’t too many Week One surprises in the NFC West. While the Rams under new head coach Jeff Fisher gave the Lions a serious run for their money, they still lost after winning only two games last season. While the Cardinals barely escaped with a victory over the division-rival Seahawks, both teams appear to have lots of concerns moving forward.
What follows is our weekly team-by-team take on the state for the NFC West:
What we learned: Intrigue and uncertainty remains the order of the day at the all-important QB position, as it appears Kevin Kolb, who has been under growing heat in the desert, is back in the driver’s seat under center. Kolb produced an excellent effort out of the bullpen in place of the injured John Skelton in Arizona’s tense 20-16 victory over the division-rival Seahawks in the Cardinals’ home opener. Turning boos into cheers, Kolb was masterful in directing an up-tempo attack, completing 6-of-8 passes for 66 yards in a game-winning drive culminated by a six-yard TD pass to WR Andre Roberts. With Skelton suffering an ankle sprain, Kolb now has an opportunity to secure the starting QB job for the long term. But considering how inconsistent Kolb has been since donning a Cardinals uniform, the QB situation remains extremely fluid. We also learned that the defense remains particularly stingy inside the opposition’s red zone, holding the Seahawks to only one TD in four possessions inside the Cardinals’ 20-yard line.
What’s in store next: The odds are very much against the Cardinals as they approach a Week Two visit to Foxborough to play the mighty Patriots. It’s no surprise Vegas tabbed the Cardinals as an early 13½-point underdog, considering the big problems they normally have getting their act together in Eastern time zones. While the Cardinals struggled right down to the wire in their win over Seattle, the Patriots convincingly defeated the Titans 34-13 in Week One with a balanced offensive attack directed by QB Tom Brady and a surprisingly strong defensive effort.
What the heck? In a season opener that seemingly went on forever, the replacement officials had a bad day at the office, especially when they improperly gave the Seahawks an additional timeout with the game winding down that came extremely close to changing the outcome. Another head scratcher was the continued uneven play by Skelton, who looked absolutely awful in the second half before getting hurt. Skelton’s interception on a supposed throwaway pass out of bounds was outrageously pathetic. One other question worth asking: Why did second-year pro Ryan Williams start over Beanie Wells at running back? Is Wells having knee issues again? Stay tuned.
What we learned: Don’t look now, but under the direction of new head coach Jeff Fisher, whose trademark is an edgy, tough-minded approach to the game, the Rams just might be a very tough out all season if their plucky Week One effort in a near-upset of the Lions is any indication. With their defensive coordinator-by-committee doing a dynamite job disguising looks that really flustered Lions QB Matthew Stafford (three first-half interceptions), and QB Sam Bradford doing a solid job behind a patchwork offensive line that became even patchier after C Scott Wells (fractured foot, placed on I.R. on Monday) and OLT Rodger Saffold (neck) left the game with injuries, the Rams scared the Lions to death in Detroit’s 27-23 victory that required a five-yard TD catch by Lions RB Kevin Smith with only 10 seconds remaining.
What’s in store next: The Rams can look forward to a very interesting matchup in their home opener this Sunday against the Redskins, who pulled off an eyebrow-raising 40-32 upset over the Saints behind electrifying rookie QB Robert Griffin III. It’s worth noting that the Redskins were able to draft RG3 after acquiring the second overall pick in the 2012 draft from the Rams in exchange for Washington’s first-round picks in 2012, ’13 and ’14, as well as the 'Skins’ No. 2 pick this year. Youth definitely will be served at the Edward Jones Dome Sunday. In addition to RG3's brilliant effort in New Orleans (139.9 passer rating), rookie RB Alfred Morris (96 yards rushing, two TDs) and first-year WR Aldrick Robinson (4-52-1) had big season-opening efforts for Washington. The Rams, meanwhile, have 17 rookies on their roster and only five players 30 years or older.
What the heck? As plucky as the Rams’ defense was in Detroit, it came up short at the end when it counted most after deciding to consistently rush only three players in the final quarter and drop way off, which allowed Stafford to exploit the open spaces on the field and rather easily drive down the field in crunch time. The defense registered only one sack and, as was the case last season, it was porous against the run, allowing the Lions to gain 4.6 yards per carry. While the Rams’ three first-half picks were undeniably impressive, they could have had a couple more if CB Bradley Fletcher and S Craig Dahl had not dropped easy interceptions. On offense, a lot more was expected out of workhorse RB Steven Jackson, who gained only 53 yards on 21 carries.
What we learned: After rather convincingly bringing down the Packers 30-22 in the unfriendly confines of Lambeau Field in their regular-season opener, the Niners look like they just might be the NFC’s classiest act. Picking up where he left off last season, QB Alex Smith clearly outplayed reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers, directing a beautifully balanced attack (191 passing yards, 186 rushing yards) that included at least three completions to four different receivers. The Niners’ defense and special teams, meanwhile, continued to perform masterfully. With ILB NaVorro Bowman spearheading a ferocious front seven, the normally explosive Packers were held mostly in check. Special mention goes out to PK David Akers, who rocketed a league record-tying 63-yard field goal that bounced over the crossbar among his three FGs. Also, keep an eye moving forward on backup QB Colin Kaepernick, who could pose a dangerous threat in spot situations. Kaepernick’s 17-yard run up the middle set up Akers’ 63-yard three-pointer.
What’s in store next: It’s highly unlikely Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh and Lions head coach Jim Schwartz will kiss and make up before their Sunday-evening rematch of a Week Six clash last season won by the Niners that featured a testy postgame exchange between the two head coaches. Look for the Niners to employ a strategy against the Lions similar to the one they used so effectively against the equally high-powered Packers — rushing four defenders while using the other seven defenders in coverage in an effort to take away the big play. Detroit barely escaped with a 27-23 victory over the Rams in Week One.
What the heck? It seemed strange to many observers of the Niners-Packers game that star ILB Patrick Willis spent an inordinate amount of time on the sideline, but it turns out Willis’ absence was by design. Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio opted for mostly a dime defense vs. the Pack featuring six DBs, with the sixth DB (Perrish Cox) often replacing Willis, who was more than willing to let Bowman hog the spotlight with a key interception and a team-leading 11 tackles. Another strange occurrence that turned Harbaugh a fiery shade of red was a blocking-in-the-back penalty on Packers KR Randall Cobb’s 75-yard punt return for a TD that was ultimately picked up. Both Harbaugh and fellow head coach Mike McCarthy were deservedly upset by the game’s subpar officiating.
What we learned: While the Seahawks came up just short of a thrilling victory in a 20-16 road loss in Arizona, their new starting QB got a passing grade. Third-round rookie Russell Wilson, who beat out free-agent addition Matt Flynn for the starting job after looking too good to be true since arriving at the Seahawks’ rookie minicamp, completed a so-so 18-of-34 passes for 153 yards with a TD and an interception and was sacked three times. But he continued to display tremendous poise in his attempt to rally his troops on the final possession and showed more than enough to hold on to the No. 1 job, despite the fact his final seven passes were incomplete. It also looks like the fourth-quarter failures that haunted Seattle last season — six of their nine losses in 2011 were decided in the fourth quarter — continue to be a disturbing problem. After allowing only 10 points in the first half and holding the Cardinals without a first down in their first six possessions of the second half, the Seahawks allowed the Cardinals to drive 80 yards for the winning score behind backup Kevin Kolb.
What’s in store next: The Seahawks will be attempting to right the ship in their home opener against a well-rested Cowboys team that did a 24-17 number on the defending Super Bowl-champion Giants in this year’s NFL opener. Keep a close eye on the status of Seahawks OLT Russell Okung, who left the season opener with a late knee injury. Even with Okung on the field most of the time, Wilson was sacked three times and hit seven times.
What the heck? Is it possible that TE Kellen Winslow, who had caught at least 75 passes in four of the past six seasons, might have been able to catch one of those final seven incompletions by Wilson in Week One had Winslow still been on the team? The Seahawks cut Winslow after he refused to take a pay cut from the $3.3 million he was scheduled to earn, but you really have to wonder how different the outcome of the season opener might have been with his accomplished presence on the field. One more nagging question: Are the Seahawks ever going to cut down on their tendency for yellow flags (a whopping 13 penalties vs. Arizona)?