Updated 12:20 p.m. ET, Tuesday, Nov. 20
While the Seahawks rested on their bye week, there was no rest for the weary Rams and Cardinals in Week 11. Arizona dropped its sixth consecutive game in Atlanta, despite a courageous effort from its defense, while the Rams were surprisingly easy pickings for the Jets in a very disappointing home loss. Then on Monday night, the 49ers rolled to an impressive home win behind backup QB Colin Kaepernick, possibly sparking a QB controversy.
What follows is our weekly team-by-team take on the state of the NFC West.
What we learned: The last thing the Cardinals need after their sixth consecutive loss is more uncertainty under center. But that’s exactly what they are stuck with after replacing an ineffective John Skelton with an equally ineffective Ryan Lindley in a 23-19 loss on the road to a Falcons team that seemed to go out of its way to try to hand the Cardinals a victory with six turnovers. Operating without one of its best players in DE Calais Campbell (calf), Arizona’s defense put forth a valiant effort that included five interceptions from five different defenders. But both Skelton, who was benched after his errant pass to a wide-open Larry Fitzgerald (only one catch for 11 yards) in the Falcons' endzone, and Lindley were unable to capitalize, as the Cardinals managed only 178 total yards (41 passing) and converted only 2-of-16 third-downs. Don’t look now, but Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt and GM Rod Graves are officially on the hot seat.
What’s in store next: The best guess is that Lindley will get the call over Skelton in the Cardinals’ second game this season against the Rams this Sunday at home. In the first game — a 17-3 win by the Rams — Fitzgerald caught eight passes for 92 yards and must post similar numbers, one would suspect, for the Cardinals to have a fighting chance. The probable return of RB Beanie Wells from a toe injury could help the Cardinals’ chances, as well as the hopeful return of Campbell (check status). It will be interesting to see if veteran S Adrian Wilson, who was removed from Sunday’s game in passing situations, continues to play a reduced role in Week 12.
What the heck? The Cardinals had only one turnover Sunday, but it was a real doozy. Lindley’s fumble on a sack that his teammates, to a man, believed was an incomplete pass was picked up by Falcons DT Jonathan Babineaux and returned 15 yards for a TD that got the Falcons within three points (13-10) with 8:37 remaining in the second quarter. Fitzgerald could only say that it was an “idiotic play.” No truer words were ever said.
What we learned: Falling to 0-4-1 in their last five games, the Rams took a very disappointing step backward Sunday in an ugly 27-13 home loss to the Jets. Nothing went right after the first of two TDs by WR Brandon Gibson gave St. Louis a 7-0 lead, as the Jets, a nondescript team if there ever was one, rattled off 27 consecutive points and convincingly took charge of the game on both sides of the ball. QB Sam Bradford had a bad game, registering two of the offense’s season-high three turnovers with an interception and a fumble, as former Jets coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s offense was disturbingly weak. Failing to come up with a single turnover for the fifth game in a row, the Rams’ defense was equally ineffective. Rookie CB Trumaine Johnson had a particularly tough afternoon, getting burned on the Jets’ first TD by WR Chaz Schillens, and the Rams’ run defense just kept allowing the Jets to methodically move the chains.
What’s in store next: The Rams will be meeting their match in the misery department, traveling to Arizona to take on a Cardinals squad that is currently in an even deeper funk than Jeff Fisher’s troops. In Week Five, the Rams reached what has to be considered the high point of their season, pummeling the Cardinals 17-3 in a Thursday-night game highlighted by nine Rams sacks. Three of those sacks came courtesy of DE Robert Quinn, who was a virtual nonfactor in Sunday’s loss.
What the heck? The biggest head scratcher is the extent to which Fisher, who was at his best only one week earlier in the Rams’ gritty tie with the Niners, was so thoroughly outcoached on Sunday by Rex Ryan. Put simply, the Jets just seemed to have an answer for everything the Rams were trying to do on both sides of the ball. Fisher’s decision to go for a two-point conversion instead of kicking an extra point, which would have made the score 27-14 Jets and enabled the Rams to win with a pair of TDs instead of merely tying the game, was just plain dumb. So was the holding penalty on rookie Rodney McLeod that wiped out a 98-yard kickoff return for a TD by Chris Givens that would have given the Rams a 14-13 lead at halftime instead of a 13-7 deficit.
What we learned: Say hello to an instant — and undeniably intriguing — QB controversy following Colin Kaepernick’s eye-popping coming-out party in his first pro start Monday evening in place of the concussed Alex Smith. Kaepernick couldn’t have looked any better on a national stage vs. the Bears, registering a 133.1 QB rating and completing throw after throw right on the mark (10.6 yards per attempt, two TDs and zero interceptions, six passes of at least 20 yards). TE Vernon Davis reemerged as a major force in the passing game (6-83-1), and the “Smith Brothers” spearheaded a dominant defensive effort featuring six sacks (5½ by OLB Aldon Smith, who now has a league-leading 15 sacks, one more than he had last season), a pair of interceptions and only 143 yards allowed. While Kaepernick kept making highlight-reel plays — his 57-yard connection to Kyle Williams that set up Davis’ TD was particularly picturesque — the play of the night might have been RB Frank Gore’s devastating blitz-pickup on a charging Lance Briggs on a Kaepernick-to-Michael Crabtree TD pass.
What’s in store next: Coming off a short work week, the Niners travel to New Orleans Sunday for a rematch of their 36-32 divisional-playoff victory over the Saints last season. That game, you might remember, was quickly dubbed a coming-out party for QB Alex Smith, who did his best to erase his previously inconsistent track record with a brilliant effort that featured three TDs, including two by Davis (7-180-2), and a 28-yard TD run. But it remains to be seen whether or not Smith will be back under center down by the bayou, which leads us to …
What the heck? As in … What the heck does Jim Harbaugh have up his sleeve regarding the NIners’ QB situation? Is it actually possible that a Bledsoe-Brady-type transformation could be in the works with Kaepernick picking up where he left off this Sunday against the Saints? Harbaugh said after the game that he likes to go with the hot hand. Right now, Kaepernick’s hand is sizzling. But lest we forget, all Alex Smith has done is complete 26 of his last 28 passes for 307 yards and four TDs. That’s pretty hot, too, don’t you think? Of course, it’s also possible that lingering effects from the concussion Smith suffered against the Rams could make the whole QB dilemma academic — at least for this Sunday. One last “what the heck” musing: What the heck was wrong with the Bears, who looked absolutely wretched on both sides of the ball? Granted, their history playing at Candlestick Park is littered with disaster. But, boy, they sucked Monday night!