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NFC West spin cycle: Unlikely tie tightens up division

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Dan Arkush

darkush@pfwmedia.com
Executive editor

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By Dan Arkush

It was a unique week in the NFC West, with a 24-24 tie between the Rams and Niners — the NFL’s first tie game since the Eagles and Bengals played to a 13-13 tie in 2008 — tightening up the division as the season surpasses the halfway point. While St. Louis and San Francisco engaged in a spirited deadlock with all kinds of twists and turns, the surging Seahawks wiped up on the hapless Jets 28-7 and continued to excel at home. 

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

CARDINALS

On bye.

RAMS

What we learned: Here’s why a tie is akin to kissing your sister. On the one hand, the Rams, double-digit underdogs entering the Niners game, did an impressive 180-degree turn from their abysmal shellacking by the Patriots in their last game, jumping off to a 14-0 lead that showed emphatically that they meant business. Overcoming the absences of rookies Chris Givens and Janoris Jenkins because of violations of unspecified team rules, Jeff Fisher’s troops more than held their own, especially on offense, with WR Danny Amendola (11-102 receiving), RB Steven Jackson (101 rushing yards and a TD) and QB Sam Bradford (275 passing yards and two TDs) coming through with strong efforts. On the other hand, a whopping 13 penalties (43 in the past four games) can’t help but be cause for concern at this stage of the season, the team’s considerable youth notwithstanding. The delay-of-game call in overtime that negated what would have been a game-winning 53-yard field goal by rookie PK Greg Zuerlein was flat-out inexcusable. 

What’s in store next: While the Rams are obviously frustrated after coming so close to pulling off what would have been a statement-making upset, they are much better off than the Jets, their next opponent this Sunday at home. Losers of five of their last six games, the Jets looked pathetic in their 28-7 loss to the Seahawks Sunday, gaining only 185 yards while committing three turnovers. Clearly, Rex Ryan’s squad is flailing after losing its best defensive player (CB Darrelle Revis) and best offensive player (WR Santonio Holmes) to season-ending injuries.    

What the heck? Let’s start with rookie P Johnny Hekker, who couldn’t be more appropriately named for this category. Offsetting his nifty pass completions on a pair of fake punts, Hekker took the blame for the aforementioned delay-of-game call — claiming he did not signal for the ball from LS Jake McQuaide quickly enough — and also shanked a 13-yard punt. There were also the devastating flags that deprived Amendola of 137 additional yards — an illegal block on the back by Justin Cole turned Amendola’s 62-yard punt return into a five-yarder, and an illegal-formation penalty (when WR Brandon Gibson lined up incorrectly) wiped out Amendola’s 80-yard catch on the first play of overtime.

49ERS

What we learned: As was the case in losses to the Vikings and Giants earlier this season, the Niners looked mystifyingly lifeless, as the upstart Rams jumped out to a 14-0 lead on their first two possessions. The San Francisco defense looked less than ordinary, allowing the Rams 458 yards, including 159 on the ground. To their credit, the Niners did fight back to make a game out of their eventual 24-24 tie — an occurence that some of their players amazingly didn’t even realize was possible in the NFL. But, in the process, they lost QB Alex Smith with a concussion, his second in two years, forcing second-year backup Colin Kaepernick to come out of the bullpen. While Kaepernick performed admirably in relief, the preferred choice to start under center against the visiting Bears next Monday night no doubt is Smith, who was playing well before going down for the count.

What’s in store next: Misery loves company. While the Niners await the completion of diagnostic tests to determine whether or not Smith will be able to return to the lineup next Monday night, the Bears are doing the same thing in the case of QB Jay Cutler, who also suffered a concussion in Chicago’s 13-6 Sunday-night loss to the Texans. While the primary focus this week will likely be on a possible matchup between second-stringers Kaepernick and Bears QB Jason Campbell, just as much attention should probably be directed to the uncharacteristic problems both teams had stopping the run on Sunday.       

What the heck? We’ve already mentioned the defensive breakdown against a Rams team that came into Sunday’s game ranked 28th in total yards. But that isn’t any less annoying than two major special-teams gaffes — a 41-yard missed field goal in overtime by PK David Akers, who continues to struggle mightily after being God’s gift to placekicking last season, and two successful fake punts by the Rams, one of which kept alive the Rams’ critical fourth-quarter drive that ended with Austin Pettis’ two-yard TD catch, giving St. Louis a 24-21 lead with 1:09 remaining. Want more? Let’s throw in the shoddy job CB Carlos Rogers did all day defending Danny Amendola for good measure.

SEAHAWKS

What we learned: Home cooking continued to work wonders for the Seahawks. Moving to 5-0 at CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks pummeled the Jets every which way but loose in a dominant 28-7 victory. While the offense sputtered on occasion, as it has been known to do this season, the defense was the featured attraction, as the Jets failed to score an offensive TD (the second time the Seahawks have accomplished that feat this season) and were able to drive inside the Seattle 30-yard line only once the entire afternoon. DT Brandon Mebane (six tackles) and rookie DE Bruce Irvin (two sacks) spearheaded a superlative effort by a unit missing one of its leading tacklers, SLB K.J. Wright (concussion). On offense, RB Marshawn Lynch rumbled for more than 100 yards for the fourth consecutive game, and WR Golden Tate was a one-man highlight reel with a beautiful 38-yard TD catch, a left-handed 23-yard TD toss to Sidney Rice (two TDs) and an eye-popping hurdle on a 13-yard gain after catching a short bubble screen from QB Russell Wilson. 

What’s in store next: The Seahawks can sit back and relax this week on their bye before resuming play Nov. 25 with what figures to be a challenging two-game road trip to Miami and Chicago. Both of those teams have to be feeling particularly angry at the moment after losses to the Titans and Texans, respectively, and the Seahawks have to do a much better job on the road in order to secure a playoff berth. The good news is that they have divisional home games coming up with all three of their rivals in the NFC West. 

What the heck? Pete Carroll would no doubt love to figure out what causes his offense’s tendency to go into hiding, as was the case for long stretches in both the second and third quarters Sunday. In the first half, Seattle’s ground game looked like it was running in quicksand, gaining only 52 yards on 19 carries. Another offensive concern is the four sacks allowed by the O-line after allowing only one sack in the previous two games.

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