For the 49ers, Colin Kaepernick’s hand remained hot enough to enable him to probably retain the starting QB job in a 31-21 win over the Saints. For the Rams, redemption was sweet for a defense that had been dormant in recent weeks, as the team took advantage of four takeaways in a 31-17 win over the skidding Cardinals. For the Seahawks, the road continued to be rife with potholes, as they dropped to 1-5 away from home following a late 24-21 meltdown in Miami.
What follows is our weekly team-by-team take on the state of the NFC West.
What we learned: It didn’t get any better for the Cardinals playing at home for the first time in nearly a month, increasing the odds that their next home game three weeks from now could be a non-sellout after their seventh consecutive loss — a 31-17 beating that completed a series sweep for the division-rival Rams. Rookie QB Ryan Lindley displayed some decent flashes before imploding with four costly interceptions, two of which were returned for scores, as errant passes continued to plague the Cardinals, especially those thrown somewhere in the vicinity of WR Larry Fitzgerald, who caught only three of the 12 passes in which he was targeted for 31 yards and had zero catches in the last three quarters. A defense playing without DE Calais Campbell for the second consecutive game was gashed both on the ground by Rams RB Steven Jackson and via the airways, as Rams QB Sam Bradford threw a pair of 37-yard TD passes.
What’s in store next: Next up for the Cardinals is a long road trip to take on the Jets, who also fell to 4-7 after getting mauled by the Patriots 49-19 on Thanksgiving night. The Jets gave up 35 second-quarter points and turned the ball over five times against New England. It’s possible — but far from being official — that Kevin Kolb could come back from his extended rib injury to take over the Cardinals’ QB duties. Keep a close eye on Cardinals RB Beanie Wells, who scored a pair of TDs in his first game since Week Three (toe) but gained only 48 yards on 17 carries, and TE Rob Housler, who had a breakout game against the Rams (8-82 receiving on 11 targets).
What the heck? Let’s get back to Fitzgerald, who you know has to be one frustrated dude, even though he continues to display Grade-A class. Has it really gotten so bad for the team’s star receiver that Arizona Republic columnist Dan Bickley would actually seriously suggest in print that the Cardinals put Fitzgerald out of his current misery and trade him to a team that has a QB who can get him the ball on a consistent basis? Regardless of what happens, Fitzgerald’s subpar numbers this season (he is gaining less than 60 yards receiving per game) are outright nauseating, especially if you drafted him to be your No. 1 fantasy wideout.
What we learned: Even though the Rams were matched up against an increasingly weak opponent in the faltering Cardinals, that they remained unbeaten in the vastly improved NFC West with a 3-0-1 record after their 31-17 victory in the desert is no small feat. The big story was an opportunistic defense that tried to make up for five consecutive games without registering a single turnover in one fell swoop with a four-takeaway performance, including a pair of pick-sixes by rookie CB Janoris Jenkins, who has had some ups and downs this season. Jenkins must share the hero’s wreath with featured back Steven Jackson, who rushed for a season-high 139 yards (14-98 in the second half) behind an offensive line that was opening plenty of holes with C Scott Wells starting for the first time since Week One. WR Chris Givens (5-115 receiving) and steadily improving TE Lance Kendricks continued to provide hope for the Rams’ offensive future, each latching on to a 37-yard TD pass from Sam Bradford.
What’s in store next: The Rams will be entertaining the 49ers in the Edward Jones Dome this Sunday with memories of their 24-24 tie vs. the NFC West front-runners in Week 10 still pretty fresh. The Rams figure to be facing QB Colin Kaepernick after the second-year pro’s second consecutive strong starting performance in the Niners’ 31-21 road victory over the Saints. But with 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh calling the shots, nothing is for certain under center. In the first game against the Niners, the Rams got strong efforts from Jackson (29-101-1) and WR Danny Amendola (11-102), who overcame a foot injury Sunday to make one very inspiring 38-yard catch against the Cardinals.
What the heck? While the Rams’ defense pitched a second-half shutout, it actually got carved up pretty good in the first half by Cardinals rookie QB Ryan Lindley, who completed 17-of-24 passes while directing Arizona to a 17-14 halftime lead. In addition, penalties proved to be plenty annoying. A flag on OLT Rodger Saffold wiped out a seven-yard Jackson run that came up just short of the goal line, one of two penalties called on DE Robert Quinn helped the Cardinals to take a 7-0 lead on their opening drive and Josh Hull and Bradley Fletcher were called for holding penalties on the same punt return. Finally, Rams PK Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein looked like he was kicking with a peg leg on a 35-yard FG attempt that he badly missed.
What we learned: It’s pretty hard not to focus on the 49ers’ red-hot QB debate, but while Colin Kaepernick came through with flying colors for the second week in a row in a starting role, throwing for one TD and rushing for another, he was overshadowed by the Niners’ smothering defense. With relatively unsung OLB Ahmad Brooks leading the way (50-yard interception return for a TD, five tackles, 1½ sacks, two QB hits and a tackle for loss), the Niners registered five sacks matched up against a solid Saints offensive line and scored two defensive TDs (SS Donte Whitner joined Brooks with a 42-yard pick-six). Following impressive back-to-back wins over the Bears and Saints with Kaepernick adding an impressive vertical dimension to the offense, the Niners have never looked more like a worthy NFC title contender.
What’s in store next: The Niners were looking equally strong coming off a 24-3 thumping of the Cardinals (and a bye week) before tangling with the Rams in Week 10 and coming down to earth in a mystifying 24-24 tie. Three weeks later they are taking on the Rams again on the road, and it’s hard to imagine the Niners getting caught off guard again with things suddenly going so well on both sides of the ball. All signs would seem to point toward Kaepernick remaining the starter over Alex Smith, who has been fully cleared to resume action after suffering a concussion in the Week 10 game. The Niners’ run defense will be tested by Steven Jackson, who is back to being the Rams’ undisputed workhorse. But the Rams figure to have just as many problems with Niners RB Frank Gore.
What the heck? After seeming to improve the last couple of weeks, the Niners’ special teams aren’t looking very special again. PK David Akers, who has been erratic all season, missed a potential game-clinching 50-yard field goal and had another 33-yard attempt blocked. Meanwhile, injuries could be taking their toll on the team’s kick-return corps, with Ted Ginn Jr. battling a wrist injury that might or might not have caused a muffed second-quarter punt return, and backup KR Kyle Williams, who also has had his moments as a receiver, suffered a season-ending torn ACL Sunday. Might second-round rookie LaMichael James be the latest young player to burst out of the woodwork for the Niners as a potential energizer on kick returns? Stay tuned.
What we learned: The Seahawks appear determined to make a potential trip to the playoffs the most challenging of tasks after losing for the fifth time in six road games, 23-20 in Miami. A charitable defense that was done in by too many busted coverages blew a pair of fourth-quarter leads, allowing the Dolphins to score 17 points in the last nine minutes and gain 228 yards in the fourth quarter. Making matters worse was the sobering news after the game that star CBs Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner could be facing four-game suspensions for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. For most of the game, rookie QB Russell Wilson was on the money, completing 16 straight passes in one stretch and throwing a pair of TDs and zero interceptions. But RB Marshawn Lynch, who had run for more than 100 yards in each of the previous four games, had an off game gaining only 2.4 yards per carry (19-46). Meanwhile, Seattle’s normally strong run defense was torched for 189 yards.
What’s in store next: The Seahawks will try to put an end to their road miseries with a win in Chicago over the Bears, who bounced back Sunday from an ugly two-game losing streak to heavyweight opponents Houston and San Francisco with a convincing 28-10 victory over the Vikings. Bears QB Jay Cutler looked sharp against the Vikings after sitting out Week 11 with a concussion. It’s worth noting that the Seahawks ripped the Bears to shreds on the road last season in Week 15, when four sacks and a pair of pick-sixes triggered a lopsided 38-14 victory.
What the heck? Suffice it say, the loss of Sherman and Browner down the stretch could be a killer 1-2 gut-punch. It appears the duo will be able to play this Sunday in Chicago, but after that, the situation could get pretty scary indeed. While both veteran Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond are certainly serviceable potential replacements for Sherman and Browner, the downgrade is monumental. Put simply, the “Legion of Boom” could become a region of considerable gloom in the Seahawks’ disturbingly uneven defense.