So much for the 49ers being a no-brainer playoff contender. After getting pummeled by Eli Manning and the Giants in a rematch of last year’s NFC title game, San Francisco all of the sudden looks like just another NFL team. Same goes for the Cardinals and Rams, who killed themselves with mistakes in Week Six losses to the Bills and Dolphins, respectively. Only the Seahawks soared in Week Six, coming from behind for a stirring win over Tom Brady and the Patriots.
What follows is our weekly team-by-team take on the state of the NFC West:
What we learned: Major question marks continue to confound the Cardinals’ sporadic offense in the wake of the rib/chest injury suffered by Kevin Kolb that appears to have resurrected the battle for the starting QB job between Kolb and John Skelton. The latter came up short out of the bullpen in a very frustrating 19-16 overtime loss at home to the Bills. The Cardinals have shown a knack for winning close games in the friendly confines of University of Phoenix Stadium, as evidenced by the team’s eight-game win streak at home entering Week Six, including five wins in overtime. But one missed opportunity after another — the most glaring being Jay Feely’s missed 38-yard FG attempt at the end of regulation a little over a minute after making a career-long 61-yarder — proved to be deadly for a team suddenly saddled with a troubling two-game losing streak.
What’s in store next: While it’s not a given, early indications are that Skelton will get the call next Sunday in Minnesota against a Vikings team that fell out of first place in the NFC North following a sloppy 38-26 defeat in Washington. The Cardinals’ suspect ground game actually showed some life against the Bills, with no-name William Powell spearheading a season-high 182-yard rushing attack. It will have to keep it up to halt a Vikings pass rush led by Jared Allen (a sack in four consecutive games) from pinning its collective ears back and steadily bombarding Arizona’s porous O-line, which gave up five more sacks in Week Six, including a first-quarter safety of Kolb.
What the heck? Head coach Ken Whisenhunt was livid after FB Reagan Maui’a was hit with a delay-of-game penalty after spiking the ball to celebrate a seven-yard catch that proved to be the beginning of the end of a promising fourth-quarter possession. A false-start flag and a sack by the Bills compounded the agony. Of course, nothing was more agonizing than Feely’s missed FG attempt at the end of regulation — hot on the heels of a 61-yarder that led to unfortunately short-lived delirium in the desert.
What we learned: The solid execution and strong special-teams play that has been most responsible for the Rams’ surprisingly strong start under new head coach Jeff Fisher was nowhere to be found in a perplexing Week Six loss in Miami. The Rams came out on the losing end in Florida despite outgaining Miami 462-192 and limiting the Dolphins to only 19 rushing yards on 18 carries. The Rams’ rushing attack was a force to be reckoned with, as Steven Jackson and rookie Daryl Richardson (44-yard run, 26-yard catch) combined for 128 yards on 23 carries (5.6 ypc). Sam Bradford also had a solid outing (315 yards passing). But numerous mistakes, particularly on special teams, left a very sour taste.
What’s in store next: Don’t look now, but here comes Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, living large after beating the previously undefeated Texans to a pulp on a national stage Sunday evening. The Rams, undefeated at home, could be hard-pressed to maintain a spotless record at the Edward Jones Dome against a Packers team that came through with flying colors on both sides of the ball against the Texans. A compelling matchup shapes up between the Packers’ loaded WR corps and the Rams’ markedly improved CB corps led by feisty free-agent addition Cortland Finnegan and talented rookie Janoris Jenkins.
What the heck? The special teams were far from special. Rookie PK Greg Zuerlein proved to be a mere mortal after all, failing to connect on his last three FG attempts, including what would have been a record-breaking 66-yarder, after setting a league record for a rookie with 15 consecutive made three-pointers to start his pro career. In addition, special-teams captain Brit Miller fumbled an ill-advised kickoff return, Jenkins had two punt-return fumbles that both fortunately rolled out of bounds, Miami KR Marcus Thigpen had a 44-yard return to open the second half and the Dolphins pulled off a successful fake punt. When you add 12 penalties for 94 yards to the mix, you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster if there ever was one.
What we learned: Talk about a mind-boggling turn of events. After looking like a dynasty while destroying its previous two opponents by a 79-3 margin, the Niners’ 26-3 loss at home to the defending Super Bowl Giants was undeniably the worst defeat in the Jim Harbaugh era. Put simply, the Niners stunk up the field at every level. Entering the game with a league-best passer rating of 108.7, QB Alex Smith threw three interceptions and registered a season-worst 43.1 passer rating. The defense proved to be equally demoralizing, failing to register a sack in a game for the second time this season (only one sack in the past two games) an allowing a very uncharacteristic 149 yards on the ground. It was an across-the-board catastrophe that can’t help but be major cause for concern, especially with OLT Joe Staley likely to be out for a while after suffering a concussion.
What’s in store next: The Niners have only four days to get their act back together before tangling in a Thursday-night affair at home against the division-rival Seahawks, who are coming off a most inspiring victory over the Patriots. A victory over the Niners could pull Pete Carroll’s Seahawks into a first-place in the NFC West, which few could have imagined a few short weeks ago. Keep an eye on Niners WR Randy Moss, whose 55-yard reception was arguably the highlight of an afternoon that was otherwise a major-league nightmare.
What the heck? Let’s start with the Niners’ play-calling. One week after earning high marks for its far-reaching creativity, Greg Roman’s decisions raised eyebrows more often than not. A case in point was the sack for an 11-yard loss of backup QB Colin Kaepernick one play after the aforementioned completion to Moss. Special teams also continued to be especially shaky. In addition to allowing a 66-yard kickoff return to start the second half, PK David Akers, who was exceptional last season, missed two more three-pointers on Sunday and is 6-of-11 on FG attempts in his last four games.
What we learned: It’s hard to imagine another NFL team with as big a flair for the dramatic as the Seahawks, who pulled off another heart-stopping win on rookie Russell Wilson’s wide-open 46-yard TD pass to Sidney Rice with 1:18 remaining in regulation. It’s also hard to imagine the Seahawks not remaining in the playoff mix following a win over the highly regarded Patriots that gives them a shot at moving into an unlikely first place position in the NFC West, provided Seattle can sneak by San Francisco this Thursday evening. While Wilson continues to prove his worth week by week, the undeniable strength of this team continues to be a stellar defense that allowed the Patriots only six second-half points and limited them to three FGs and a TD in six red-zone opportunities.
What’s in store next: With the Seahawks getting swept by the Niners last season, Pete Carroll will be looking for his first NFL victory over former Pac-12 rival Jim Harbaugh this Thursday night in San Francisco. Both teams could be a bit worn out coming off extremely short work weeks. The Niners figure to be in a very nasty mood after getting their lunch handed to them in a disappointing 26-3 loss to the Giants in Week Six. Don’t be surprised if Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch, who had only 41 yards on 15 carries vs. the Pats, is a major figure in this game. Lynch rushed for 107 yards and a TD in his last game vs. the Niners in Week 16 last season.
What the heck? While the defense did finish extremely strong against the Patriots, the 475 yards it allowed were the most since November 2010. Patriots WR Wes Welker proved to be particularly pesky out of the slot with a 10-138-1 receiving performance. Although he had a pivotal interception, FS Earl Thomas dropped a sure interception that he probably would have returned for a score for the second week in a row. In addition, P Jon Ryan dropped a snap late in the second quarter and was tackled at the Seattle 24-yard line. But Ryan’s bobble turned to be inconsequential thanks to the game’s biggest “What the heck?” moment — Brady’s subsequent ill-advised intentional-grounding penalty on a pass from the Seahawks’ three-yard line that forced a 10-second run-off to end the first half.