Updated Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 12:35 p.m. ET
How ‘bout 'dem Cardinals? Don’t look now, but Ken Whisenhunt’s 3-0 squad is the hottest team on the planet following a surprisingly thorough dismantiling of the Eagles. While Arizona was busy raising its playoff hopes in Week Three, the previously undefeated 49ers came crashing down to earth in an improbable upset at the hands of the supposedly lowly Vikings. And then there's the matter of that little Seahawks-Packers game on Monday night.
What follows is our weekly team-by-team take on the state for the NFC West:
What we learned: Make no mistake: Seattle’s 14-12 victory over the Packers Monday night is undeniably flawed, thanks (or should we say no thanks?) to the terrible call that ended an ugly flagfest of major proportions. But there’s also no denying that this is a team that is showing strong signs of being a force to reckon with, due mainly to a strong defense that punished the Packers with a passion. DEs Chris Clemons, who matched a team record shared by three other players with four sacks, and rookie Bruce Irvin, who had a breakout game with two sacks, spearheaded a potent pass rush. In addition, Seattle’s excellent secondary did a dynamite job holding Aaron Rodgers and Co. in check. As for the offense, rookie QB Russell Wilson strengthened his hold on the starting job with his seemingly magical ability to make something out of nothing. WR Golden Tate, whose statement-making block on Cowboys LB Sean Lee was a Week Two highlight, also continued to be a headline attraction, scoring both of the Seahawks’ TDs on the night.
What’s in store next: Forgive the Rams’ beleaguered offensive line for probably having tremendous trouble being able to sleep this week in advance of their confrontation this Sunday in St. Louis with a Seattle pass rush that was on fire Monday night. The six sacks allowed by St. Louis’ O-line last Sunday was a major reason behind the Bears’ 23-6 victory over the Rams, and things could very well go from bad to worse this Sunday with Clemons, among others, quite likely to wreak major havoc. Clemons, it should be noted, had a combined four sacks in Seattle’s two wins over the Rams in 2011.
What the heck? You can’t blame observers of last night’s officiating travesty for thinking a bold-faced asterisk should be placed next to the Seahawks in the league standings the remainder of the season. But while many of the numerous flags that were thrown on Monday night were extremely questionable, the Seahawks’ 14 penalties for 118 yards must be considered serious cause for concern for a team that has been sloppy to an extreme all season. That’s especially the case with an offensive line that appears to be turning false starts into an art form, particularly OLT Russell Okung.
What we learned: Straying from their customary “Cardiac” modus operandi, the Cardinals flat-out dominated the Eagles with a performance that established them as a legitimate heavyweight contender likely to give the 49ers a serious run for first place in the NFC West that nobody could have seen coming a mere two weeks ago. Delivering a sharp performance against his former team, Kevin Kolb appears to be firmly situated in the driver’s seat under center in an offense that was bolstered by the return to form of star WR Larry Fitzgerald. He had great success being moved around all over the field, catching all nine of the passes thrown to him for 114 yards and a TD. But the team’s obvious strength remains a fast, punishing defense that has allowed only one TD in the last eight quarters matched up against the likes of Tom Brady and Michael Vick.
What’s in store next: The Cardinals will try to keep their perfect record intact at home against a Dolphins team that dropped a mistake-filled game to the Jets in overtime, despite leading most of the contest. Don’t be surprised if Ray Horton’s revved-up defense (12 sacks, 26 QB hits and six takeaways) tries to rattle Dolphins rookie QB Ryan Tannehill, whose expected growing pains are already starting to take their toll (three interceptions and a lost fumble in a Week One loss to the Texans), with relentless pressure from every angle on the field. Look for Cardinals ILB Daryl Washington, who is off to a Patrick Willis-like start, to lead the charge.
What the heck? What’s with all the injuries all of the sudden? It was bad enough that star SS Adrian Wilson was a late scratch last Sunday because of a sprained ankle, and that TE Todd Heap (knee) was also out of the mix. The injury list was lengthened when both RB Beanie Wells (toe) and DE Darnell Dockett (hamstring) left the Eagles game in second half with ailments that are no doubt being monitored very closely early this week. Same goes for starting ORG Adam Snyder, who has an elbow problem that has been hindering him.
What we learned: As hard as they tried, it came down to a case of the Rams being simply overpowered by the Bears in a 23-6 loss at Soldier Field. That was especially the case up front on the offensive line, where a patchwork unit that had managed to hold its own the first two weeks caved in to the tune of six sacks. While the Rams’ defense did a decent job limiting the Bears’ offense, the Rams’ offense rekindled ugly memories of last year’s sorry unit, gaining only 160 yards one week after exploding for 452 yards in a 31-28 victory over the Redskins. After looking brilliant in Week Two registering a career-high 117.6 passer rating, QB Sam Bradford regressed significantly, managing only a 39.2 passer rating against a Bears defense that was in his face all day. Despite all that, the Rams did manage to make a game out of it into the fourth quarter.
What’s in store next: The Rams could make amends in a hurry by measuring up this Sunday at home to a Seahawks team that dominated them in a series sweep last season. Seattle, coming off a Monday-nighter vs. the Packers, will no doubt try to overpower the Rams’ defense with a heavy dose of featured back Marshawn Lynch, who had a combined 50-203-2 in the Seahawks’ two convincing wins over the Rams last season. The Rams must concentrate on gang-tackling Lynch, who is a supreme challenge for only one tackler to bring down. In addition, the team’s injury-riddled O-line will have to do a much better job against Seahawks DRE Chris Clemons than it did last season. Clemons had four sacks vs. the Rams in 2011.
What the heck? So much for second-round rookie Brian Quick being a quick fix at wide receiver. For reasons Rams Nation is having a hard time comprehending, Quick remains a relative nonfactor after failing to dress for Sunday’s game. Participating in only six snaps up to now, Quick has yet to catch a pass and has been targeted only once. Meanwhile, the Rams’ receiving corps had a serious case of butterfingers against the Bears, with Brandon Gibson having particular problems holding on to passes. It might have helped had the Rams opted to use their ground game more. But for whatever the reason, they abandoned the run much sooner than they should have and became disturbingly one-dimensional in a very forgettable performance.
What we learned: After looking like the league’s most complete team following impressive wins over the Packers and Lions to start the season, the Niners looked far from perfect in their worst performance of the Jim Harbaugh era up to now. Falling victim to an inspired effort by Vikings second-year QB Christian Ponder, they fell way behind early and were unable to come back after failing miserably on their five final possessions, which included three turnovers. Two of the turnovers were by QB Alex Smith (fumble, interception), whose mistake-free play the first two games earned him rave reviews. The Niners’ vaunted defense, meanwhile, was surprisingly ordinary. Not only did it fail to register a single sack, it allowed the Vikes to rumble for 146 yards on the ground, including a nifty 23-yard scamper up the gut for a touchdown by Ponder.
What’s in store next: The Niners are continuing a 10-day trek on the road that will include a stay in Youngstown, Ohio, in advance of their game this Sunday at MetLife Stadium against the Jets. Last season, the team thrived under similar circumstances, using the layover in Youngstown to strengthen a tight bond that carried it to unforeseen heights in its first season under Harbaugh. The Jets moved to 2-1 with a sloppy overtime victory over the Dolphins Sunday but lost Darrelle Revis, arguably the league’s top cornerback, for the season with a torn ACL.
What the heck? It would be easy to expound in this space on the head-scratching officiating that lowlighted a bad day that the Niners would just as soon forget as soon as possible. The refs’ inability to correctly handle challenging procedures was a particular embarrassment. But a bad day at the office by the replacement refs was not the reason the Niners came down to earth. Uncharacteristic mistakes in every way imaginable took their toll, whether it was ill-timed turnovers, an inability to close out drives on offense and make big plays on defense (most notably Donte Whitner’s dropped interception), leaky run defense or shoddy special-teams play (David Akers’ blocked field goal).