NFC West Spin cycle: 49ers head into bye sitting pretty

Posted Oct. 30, 2012 @ 12:40 p.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

Updated Tuesday, Oct. 30 at 12:40 p.m. ET

So far, not so good for the NFC West in Week Eight action. Start with the Rams, who suffered their worse loss of the season — a 45-7 shellacking by the Patriots “across the pond” that couldn’t have been more one-sided. The Seahawks, on the other hand, pretty much held their own in a see-saw battle with the Lions in Detroit before a one-yard TD pass with 20 seconds remaining from Matthew Stafford to Titus Young dropped them to .500 (1-4 on the road) and clouded their status as a legitimate playoff contender. Meanwhile, the 49ers pretty much dominated the Cardinals in front of a nationally televised audience on Monday night.

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

Arizona Cardinals

What we learned: Always awful on Monday night (1-8 since moving to Arizona), the Cardinals might have reached a new low on the “MNF” stage, looking pathetic from the get-go on both sides of the ball in a 24-3 loss to a far superior Niners team. It was Arizona’s fourth straight loss, and the arrow appears to be pointing straight down with the defense, which had been such a strong point the first month of the season, also starting to show some disturbing cracks. Niners QB Alex Smith carved up Arizona’s secondary like a master surgeon, especially the left corner occupied by Patrick Peterson, with 18-of-19 completions to nine different receivers. Burdened by an offensive line on pace to give up 78 sacks (4.9 per game), the Cardinals’ offense looked like it was stuck in quicksand most of the time against the Niners, gaining only 265 yards, including a mere seven yards rushing on nine carries.  

What’s in store next: The last time the Cardinals faced the Packers, their opponent next Sunday at Lambeau Field, they outlasted Green Bay 51-45 in overtime in a 2009 wild-card playoff game that was one of the wildest in league history. A similar scoreboard-lighter is unlikely, though, with the Cardinals’ offense struggling mightily much of the season, and the Packers’ offense not packing much of a punch at all (only 238 total yards) in Green Bay’s 24-15 victory in Week Eight over the lowly Jaguars. The Packers could get a big pick-me-up if WR Jordy Nelson, who missed last week’s game with a hamstring injury, is good to go (check status). It might be a good idea to keep an eye on both teams’ dangerous kick-return specialists — Patrick Peterson for the Cardinals and Randall Cobb, who is also an emerging force in the passing game, for the Packers.

What the heck? While the Cardinals’ sudden defensive deficiencies have to be at the top of Cardinal Nation’s list of major concerns entering the season’s second half, the continued relative ineffectiveness of star WR Larry Fitzgerald could be a close second. Clearly feeling the effects of extra coverage — getting checked for a concussion and poked in the eye at different points on a nightmarish night — Fitzgerald never stopped fighting in Week Eight, catching five of the 11 passes thrown in his direction for 52 yards. But he has only three TDs and one 100-yard receiving game at the season’s halfway point, and his struggle in vain to reach for the endzone after his final catch of the Cardinals’ final possession couldn’t be more emblematic of this team’s undeniable swoon in the making.

San Francisco 49ers

What we learned: So much for Alex Smith being bothered by a sore finger. Smith quieted his recent critics with an epic effort on a Monday-night stage in the Niners’ convincing 24-3 victory over the Cardinals, completing 18-of-19 passes for 232 yards and three TDs and registering a near-perfect 157.1 passer rating. The victory strengthened the Niners’ division lead and reinforced their candidacy as arguably the NFC’s most complete team. While Smith was the star of the show Monday night, the Best Supporting Actor goes to WR Randy Moss, who faked Cardinals CB Jamel Fleming out of his jockstrap after snaring a sideline pass and raced to the endzone for a 47-yard TD that thrilled his teammates to no end and perhaps signaled his emergence as an increasingly important offensive weapon moving forward. The defense, meanwhile, played lights-out, keeping its opponent from scoring a TD for the fourth time in five games.

What’s in store next: The Niners can sit back on their bye week and temporarily savor the major sports high they are giving Bay Area sports fans these days along with the World Series-winning Giants. They will resume playing Nov. 11 at home in their first of two games against the divisional-rival Rams in a four-week span. The Niners had a relatively healthy first half of the season, but the week off should still benefit everybody, particularly RB Frank Gore, whose ribs got banged up bad enough to send him to the sidelines in the Week Seven win in Seattle, as well as an overworked defensive line.

What the heck? There really isn’t much to complain about after what really was a dominating performance in Week Eight. Ill-timed penalties were a problem very early in the game. And the offensive line did allow the Cardinals four sacks. In addition, ROLB Aldon Smith remains a work in progress in coverage, as evidenced by his breakdown on a 27-yard catch-and-rumble by TE Jeff King that was the Cardinals’ longest completion of the game.

RAMS

What we learned: The word out on the streets is that the Rams shape up as one of the most likely teams to be active at the trade deadline because they have acknowledged the likelihood that they will not be a viable playoff contender this season. After getting manhandled in every aspect — offense, defense and special teams — in their 45-7 loss to the Patriots, it would appear that acknowledgment is spot-on. After getting off to an impressive start thanks to WR Chris Givens' 50-yard TD catch five plays into the game (record-setting fifth consecutive game for a rookie with a 50-yard catch), the Rams suffered a “Wicked Witch of the West”-type meltdown, as the Patriots scored TDs on their first five possessions and never looked back. While the Rams’ defense allowed a season-high 473 yards (second game in a row allowing more than 400 yards) and failed to register a sack, the offense never got going in the team’s third straight loss.

What’s in store next: A lot of wound-licking, one suspects, as the team takes the week off after an excursion to England that ended up being rather embarrassing. As far as Rams trade rumors are concerned, the name of veteran RB Steven Jackson, who had only nine touches against the Patriots, continues to be mentioned more than a little with the trade deadline fast approaching. One development that should help the Rams when they resume action Nov. 11 at San Francisco is the likely return to action of WR Danny Amendola, who missed the past three games with a separated SC joint.

What the heck? It’s bad enough that Rams rookie CB Janoris Jenkins continues to have his share of breakdowns mixed in with his occasional very positive plays. It’s worse when those breakdowns occur when facing ex-Rams WR Brandon Lloyd, who burned Jenkins for a pair of TD catches. Looking for more bad news? How about a poor effort by an offensive line that had overachieved in recent weeks, three pass-interference calls on CB Bradley Fletcher (all of which came on third down during Patriots TD drives) and P Johnny Hekker’s bobbled snap that kept Rams rookie PK Greg Zuerlein from attempting a 53-yard bomb that might have offered some consolation had it been converted on a very forgettable day on foreign soil.

SEAHAWKS

What we learned: With four wins and four losses (all on the road) after their 28-24 loss to the Lions in the closing seconds Sunday — Seattle is the league’s only 4-4 team entering Monday-night action — the Seahawks just might be the league’s hardest team to figure at the moment. Offsetting an improved passing game from the offense highlighted by TE Zach Miller’s highlight-reel TD catch was an uncharacteristically subpar performance from a Seahawks defense that allowed the Lions four TDs — two more than in any single game the first seven weeks — and a disturbing 12-of-16 conversions on third down, including the Lions’ winning score. Suffering a second straight defeat for the first time this season, the Seahawks need to get their acts together at the same time on both sides of the ball on a consistent basis moving forward, or suffer the consequences.

What’s in store next: In the first of five remaining home games, Seattle takes on a Vikings team this Sunday coming off its worst game of the season — an unexpected 36-17 loss at home to the upstart Buccaneers. That the Vikings have nine days to rest up for this game is worth noting, with star RB Adrian Peterson, who had the 30th 100-yard rushing game of his career vs. the Bucs (15-123 with a 64-yard TD run), likely to benefit in what could be a scintillating showdown with Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch. Seattle’s passing game could continue to show improvement against a Vikings secondary operating without CB Chris Cook, who broke his right arm vs. the Bucs.

What the heck? Pete Carroll’s game-management skills continued raising eyebrows when the Seahawks managed to blow a FG opportunity just before halftime with a 1st-and-10 at the Lions’ 41-yard line with 12 seconds and a timeout remaining. A two-yard run for a loss by Robert Turbin set the stage for a failed 61-yard FG attempt that never had a prayer. Other sore points included a second consecutive game in which neither Chris Clemons nor Bruce Irvin had a sack and Lynch’s 11-28 rushing on his other carries aside from his career-long 77-yard TD run.