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NFC West Spin cycle: Cardinals continue to stumble

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Dan Arkush

darkush@pfwmedia.com
Executive editor

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By Dan Arkush

Even though every team in the NFC West lost in Week Seven except the Niners, the division still shapes up as arguably the league’s strongest division seven weeks into the 2012 season. But storm clouds are hovering over the Cardinals, who dropped their third game in a row and showed no signs of turning things around anytime soon in an ugly road loss to the Vikings.

What follows is our weekly team-by-team take on the state of the NFC West:

CARDINALS

What we learned: When you look at the numbers in Arizona’s third consecutive loss — an undeniably depressing 21-14 defeat in Minnesota that dropped them to 4-3 with their schedule about to get a lot tougher — the Cardinals' offense (356 total yards; QB John Skelton’s completing just under 70 percent of his passes; 20-104-1 rushing by LaRod Stephens-Howling) doesn’t look all that bad. But when you look a little closer at the steady stream of missed opportunities and mistakes at the worst possible time, you understand why there are some critics in the desert proposing that the Cardinals give Vince Young a shot at the starting QB job. Skelton, who seems like he’s moving in quicksand much of the time, was easy to pick on after Vikings rookie S Harrison Smith’s pick-six (31 yards) that proved to be the margin of victory Sunday. Seven more sacks, five in the second half and 29 in the last four games, certainly didn’t help matters. That the defense limited to Minnesota to only two first downs and 58 total yards in the second half Sunday is small consolation.  

What’s in store next: Just what the Cardinals don’t need right now: a game against a rejuvenated 49ers team coming off a 10-day rest after an impressive Thursday-night win over the division-rival Seahawks. With back-to-back road games on the docket against the Packers and Falcons (with a bye week sandwiched in between) following this Monday-nighter in the desert, Ken Whisenhunt’s troops clearly have their work cut out for them. Niners RB Frank Gore (182 total yards vs. Seattle) could prove to be particularly challenging for an Arizona run defense that all of the sudden has allowed 331 yards on the ground the past two games.

What the heck? The Cardinals’ play-calling was as big a problem in the loss to Minnesota as any. That was especially the case when the team decided to try to convert a 4th-and-2 situation from Minnesota’s 18-yard line midway through the third quarter, apparently having lost at least temporary confidence in PK Jay Feely after his second straight botched FG attempt over the past two games. On the play, the lumbering Skelton faked a handoff and rumbled to the right with an option to run or pass. Predictably, Vikings CB Antoine Winflield stopped Skelton cold for no gain.

RAMS

What we learned: After all was said and done in their 30-20 loss to the Packers Sunday that dropped them a game under .500, the Rams were done in by too much Aaron Rodgers, who just kept getting better and better in a MVP-caliber performance. To their credit, Jeff Fisher’s troops made a game out of it, being involved in a one-possession game in the fourth quarter as they have in all seven games this season. But the Packers just had too many weapons, pummeling a defense that allowed 402 yards and has forced just one turnover in the last three games, a fumble in Week Five against Arizona. One bright spot on offense was the continued effectiveness of a dual-threat ground game featuring veteran Steven Jackson (12-57-1) and rookie Daryl Richardson (79 total yards).

What’s in store next: Literally, the whole world could be watching the Rams take on the Patriots as the designated “home” team in their game this Sunday "across the pond" at London’s Wembley Stadium. The Pats survived a scare from the Jets, winning 29-26 in overtime in Week Seven, though they allowed Jets QB Mark Sanchez to throw for a season-high 328 yards. Rams DEs Chris Long and Robert Quinn could cause problems for Patriots OTs Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. Also, keep an eye on the matchup between feisty Rams CB Cortland Finnegan and Patriots WR Brandon Lloyd, though the physical Finnegan could spend some time on slot WR Wes Welker. Lloyd, you might remember, was the Rams’ best receiver last season after Danny Amendola went down in Week One.

What the heck? The Rams’ defense can’t be happy about the “free” plays they allowed Rodgers on a 52-yard completion to Jordy Nelson that set up a subsequent Nelson TD and a 39-yard TD pass to Randall Cobb that broke the Rams’ backs in the fourth quarter. In addition, the Rams' secondary gave up more cushion underneath on Sunday than an industrial-sized pillow factory, allowing Rodgers to just dink and dunk to his heart’s content.

49ERS

What we learned: Probably depending on the passing game more than they should have, the Niners went back to what they do best, ultimately overpowering a worthy opponent in Seattle with a fierce second-half ground game featuring the best of Frank Gore (182 total yards) in a 13-6 Thursday-night victory. The Niners, who have yet to lose back-to-back games under Jim Harbaugh, also got strong bounce-back efforts from their defense, which limited Seattle to only four first downs and 74 yards in the final two quarters, and special teams, which had fallen into a pretty disturbing rut entering the game.   

What’s in store next: After their extremely physical dogfight with the Seahawks, the Niners will no doubt benefit from a 10-day breather before performing under the Monday-night lights in Arizona — their second consecutive prime-time game, as well as the second of three consecutive games against division opponents (with a Week Nine bye also thrown into the mix). While the Niners look like they could be back in business as a strong playoff contender, the Cardinals are hurting big-time following their third loss in a row. But on any given Sunday (or should we say Monday), an Arizona defense that has yet to allow an opponent more than 21 points this season — the only NFL team to accomplish that feat — can be dominating.

What the heck? That’s what gamblers from coast to coast who bet on the Niners were screaming at the top of their lungs after head coach Jim Harbaugh took a safety off the board at the end of the game that would have allowed his team to win 16-6 and cover the team’s minus-7½-point spread in most sports-betting venues. TE Vernon Davis’ fantasy owners are also saying the same thing after Davis was held without a catch vs. Seattle and wasn't even targeted. The previous week, Davis was a relative nonfactor with only 3-37 receiving.

SEAHAWKS

What we learned: It won’t matter that the Seahawks have a playoff-caliber defense and arguably the league’s best running back in Marshawn Lynch if they continue stumbling in games vs. divisional opponents. After falling 13-6 to the Niners, Seattle is 0-3 vs. the NFC West, already creating a very tenuous tiebreaker situation should the need arise. It also won’t matter if the offense continues to put on disappearing acts similar to the one it manufactured in the second half against the Niners, when rookie QB Russell Wilson completed only three passes, and the team managed to pick up only 136 yards in its final eight possessions. There was one encouraging factoid: The penalty-prone Seahawks were flagged only three times, tied for the second fewest in a game since Pete Carroll became head coach. 

What’s in store next: The Seahawks will hope to continue their great success against quarterbacks who threw for 4,000 yards last season when they go up next Sunday against Matthew Stafford and the Lions, who will be coming off a Monday-nighter in Soldier Field against the Bears. In their four wins, the Seahawks’ defense has done a stellar job holding (in order) 4,000-yard passers Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Tom Brady in check for the most part. Lions star WR Calvin Johnson will be fun to watch against the Seahawks’ last line of defense, FS Earl Thomas.

What the heck? What was up with all those dropped passes against the Niners? Specifically, there were five of them, starting with rookie RB Robert Turbin’s drop of a pass near the Niners’ goal line on the game’s first possession that couldn’t have been thrown any more perfectly by Wilson. WR Golden Tate had two ill-timed drops, which led to him being temporarily replaced by Braylon Edwards. One other question worth asking: Why was Sidney Rice, who is supposed to be Seattle’s No. 1 WR, targeted only once in the first three quarters?

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