It turned out to be a great week for every team in the NFC West except the Cardinals, who went down for the count for the first time this season in a loss to the upstart Rams. The Niners and Seahawks hit paydirt at home and on the road, respectively, as the division continued to improve its status leaguewide.
What follows is our weekly team-by-team take on the state of the NFC West.
What we learned: More than anything, we learned that Kevin Kolb is going to get killed if the Cardinals’ offensive line doesn’t dramatically clean up its act effective immediately (17 sacks allowed the last two weeks). Kolb, who deserves to remain under center even though John Skelton should be healthy enough to start the next game, got beaten up something awful by the Rams’ rabid pass rushers in the Cardinals’ first loss of the season. Kolb hung tough, though, which he’s done every week. But in addition to better protection (rookie ORT Bobby Massie has been a particularly weak link the last two games), an Arizona offense that has yet to gain 300 yards in any game needs a lot more out of its ground game (only 17-45 last week), which might be further handicapped by a shoulder injury to Ryan Williams (check status), and its receivers, who have dropped too many catchable passes.
What’s in store next: The Cardinals could catch a break this Sunday at home going up against a Bills team that got absolutely pummeled by the Niners in Week Five. Buffalo’s defense, which has allowed more than 550 total yards in each of the last two games, has been a big disappointment. But Arizona’s offensive line might just provide a badly needed pick-me-up for Mario Williams & Co.
What the heck? Memo to Cardinals assistant head coach/offensive line Russ Grimm: Consider yourself officially on the hot seat. The grim truth is that there do not appear to be any viable reinforcements available for an offensive line that was across-the-board pathetic in Week Five. It’s also worth noting that, even if Williams is able to make it back for the Bills game with the benefit of a 10-day layoff, he needs to really improve his footwork and do a better job picking up running lanes.
St. Louis Rams
What we learned: Jeff Fisher has wasted precious little time making the Rams relevant again, orchestrating a pair of huge divisional wins in a five-day span. Don’t look now, but the Rams are above .500 for the first time since Nov. 4, 2006, after a 17-3 dismantling of the previously unbeaten Cardinals on a national stage. Major credit goes to a relentless defense that exploded with nine sacks from seven different pass rushers (DE Robert Quinn had three) and has allowed an average of 291.7 yards in the last three games. But a Rams offense that was outgained 282-242 by Arizona must figure out how it’s going to get by without WR Danny Amendola. The unit’s most effective weapon is expected to miss 4-6 weeks with a separated shoulder joint.
What’s in store next: After a nice 10-day rest, the Rams will be looking to pick up in Miami where they left off in the first game of Week Five. The Dolphins, coming off a 17-13 road win in Cincinnati, are hardly a pushover. A defense led by pass rusher Cameron Wake (sack and two QB hits vs. Bengals) could prove to be challenging for the Rams’ undermanned offense, and second-year QB Ryan Tannehill has had his moments this season.
What the heck? Despite the Rams being 3-0 at home for first time since 2003, there were plenty of empty seats at the Edward Jones Dome for the Cardinals game, even though the Rams continued to pull strings to avoid a home blackout. In addition, for the Rams to have any real hope of being a legitimate playoff contender, they are going to need significantly better play from QB Sam Bradford, who threw an interception in the endzone and was only 7-of-21 for 141 yards vs. Arizona, including a very ugly 0-for-12 stretch at one point.
San Francisco 49ers
What we learned: Even though there are teams with better records five weeks into the season, a strong case can be made for the Niners belonging back at the top of the NFL power rankings after their second straight dominant performance. With QB Alex Smith never looking better (career-best 156.2 passer rating), and the Niners’ "D" limiting a normally decent Bills offense to its lowest point total and fewest yards (204) since the 2010 season, the Niners blasted Buffalo 45-3 and made history to boot, gaining a franchise-record 621 yards and becoming the first team in league history to gain over 300 yards on the ground and in the air in the same game. After getting upset in Minnesota, the Niners have outscored their opponents 79-3 in the last two games. The numbers don’t lie.
What’s in store next: Start spreading the news to the Giants, the third New York team the Niners will be facing in three weeks: The Niners are red-hot. But the defending Super Bowl champions, who knocked off the Niners in last year’s NFC title game, are pretty hot themselves, gaining 502 yards and averaging 7.1 yards per offensive play in their 41-27 anihilation of the Browns in Week Six. In addition to Giants QB Eli Manning, Vic Fangio’s defense must pay close to attention to RB Ahmad Bradshaw, who rushed for a career-high 200 yards vs. Cleveland, and WR Victor Cruz, who did his salsa dance in the endzone a career-high three times in the same game.
What the heck? What’s this? A fumble by Niners backup QB Colin Kaepernick at the end of the first half? Hey, nobody’s perfect. Shoddy kickoff coverage might also be considered cause for concern, as the Niners had all kinds of problems stopping Buffalo’s Leodis McKelvin (59-yard kickoff return and an 80-yard punt return that was erased by a penalty). It would appear the Niners are not the same impregnable force on coverage with Blake Costanzo and Colin Jones no longer on the team.
What we learned: First the good news: Seattle’s defense, which has allowed a mere two touchdowns in the last four games, was on top of its game again in the Seahawks’ first road win of the year. Gus Bradley’s gung-ho unit held Panthers QB Cam Newton in check and came up with big plays when they counted most, especially on a great goal-line stand with under four minutes remaining. Now the bad news: Seattle’s offense scored only one TD in its 16-12 win in Carolina — a TD pass from Russell Wilson to Golden Tate courtesy of CB Brandon Browner, who set up the score with a brilliant forced fumble and recovery on an option run. With the offense sputtering under Wilson, who continues to look tentative in the red zone more often than not, the Seahawks have the slimmest of margins for error, with four of their first five games coming down to one final possession.
What’s in store next: We’ll find out just how serious a playoff contender the Seahawks might be when they entertain Tom Brady and the high-powered Patriots at CenturyLink Field next Sunday. As good as Seattle’s defense has been up to now, it still figures to have its hands full with a Patriots offense that gained 444 yards (251 rushing) in a 31-21 victory over Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Week Five. It will be fun to see Seattle’s sterling secondary try to hold down Patriots WR Wes Welker, who had 13 catches (15 targets) for 104 yards and a TD vs. Denver.
What the heck? Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. That’s exactly what the Seahawks did in the first six minutes of the second half in Carolina when Leon Washington fumbled away the opening kickoff and Wilson later threw an ill-advised pick. In addition, penalties continued to be problematic, particularly the two first-quarter flags on OT Breno Giacomini that accounted for a swing of 81 offensive yards, including a nullified 56-yard catch by Tate.