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NFC West Spin cycle: Rams fortify status as divisional heavyweights

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Dan Arkush

darkush@pfwmedia.com
Executive editor

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By Dan Arkush

With all due respect to the Seahawks, who might have had their most important win in the Pete Carroll regime Sunday in Chicago, the NFC West’s headliner this week is the Rams, who moved their record to an eye-popping 4-0-1 within the NFC West after shocking the division-leading 49ers in overtime in St. Louis.

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

CARDINALS

What we learned: The future in the desert for Ken Whisenhunt can’t help but be increasingly shaky following the Cardinals’ eighth consecutive loss — a 7-6 road defeat to a Jets team that appeared to be in equally dire straits. The latest in a string of unnerving calamities might have been the ugliest yet this season, which is really saying something considering the season-long ineptitude displayed by the team’s offense. Rookie QB Ryan Lindley had all kinds of problems in his second career start, completing only 10-of-31 passes for 72 yards and an interception, as the Cardinals managed a mere 137 total yards, including only six yards in the third quarter, and five first downs and failed to covert any of their 15 third-down opportunities. If the Cardinals’ higher-ups decide that they’ve had enough already from the current regime and pull the plug on Whisenhunt before the season is over, it’s unlikely too many inhabitants of Cardinals Nation would be sorry after watching the team go two months and counting without a win after a 4-0 start that couldn’t seem like a more distant memory.

What’s in store next: What’s next is probably more grief, with the Cardinals heading to Seattle to take on the Seahawks, who have to be as high as a kite after their huge victory over the Bears in Chicago Sunday. Whisenhunt said after the game that he had yet to decide who he would go with under center this weekend, with Lindley, John Skelton and Kevin Kolb all possibly figuring in the muddled mix. After previously demoting Skelton in favor of Lindley, it’s unlikely Whisenhunt will go back to Skelton, who most close observers consider to be as good as gone at this stage of the season. Kolb would probably get the call if his injured ribs are considered fully healed, but that is hardly a given. 

What the heck? Why not go back to Skelton? Granted, he was delivering a lot more minuses than pluses in a starting role this season, but, unlike Lindley, who just looks totally lost, Skelton at least has had some bona fide success in the past, winning six of the eight games in which he appeared last season in place of the injured Kolb, usually in a dramatic fashion. As for WR Larry Fitzgerald, who once again was missed on a wide-open pass that could have resulted in a score in the loss to the Jets, maybe putting him out of his misery and trading him for a bundle of high picks isn’t such a bad idea after all.

RAMS

What we learned: Don’t look now, but the Rams, undefeated within their division after a statement-making 16-13 overtime victory over the NFC West-leading 49ers, cannot be discounted as a potential playoff contender after their second gutty victory in a row. The team’s young blood did a commendable job soiling San Francisco’s record, especially rookie PK Greg Zuerlein — who blasted out of a recent slump with a 53-yard field goal to put the game into overtime and a 54-yard game-winner with only 26 seconds left in overtime — and hustling rookie CB Janoris Jenkins, who scored his third TD in the past two weeks on a key fumble recovery for a TD that turned the momentum in the Rams’ favor. The Rams’ front seven on defense came to play, putting steady pressure on Niners QB Colin Kaepernick and throttling the Niners’ normally potent ground game. On offense, yet another rookie, Chris Givens, picked up the slack created by Danny Amendola’s absence (foot) with 11 catches for 92 yards, and QB Sam Bradford contributed a pair of key scrambles to set up the FG that sent the game into overtime.

What’s in store next: The Rams travel to Buffalo to take on a Bills team that also kept its faint playoff hopes alive with a 34-18 rout of the Jaguars on Sunday. Buffalo’s offense came alive, as QB Ryan Fitzpatrick led the team on five consecutive scoring drives. Bills RBs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, one of the league’s strongest RB duos, will be facing a St. Louis defense spearheaded by MLB James Laurinaitis that had a strong game against the run Sunday. The Rams’ ends and outside linebackers will need to keep Spiller from bouncing outside, while the interior line featuring Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers will work to plug the middle. The Bills will aim to run the ball and use the screen play to keep Rams DEs Chris Long and Robert Quinn from pinning their ears back.

What the heck? The offense might have done just enough to win, but it was far from impressive, especially on the ground, where both Steven Jackson (21-48) and Daryl Richardson (3-6) had long days running behind a line that came up short in the run-blocking department. In addition, dropped passes by a host of players (Steve Smith, Brian Quick, Austin Pettis, Lance Kendricks) were worthy of fans’ heckling, as well as the considerable cushion by the Rams’ secondary that enabled Niners receivers (particularly Michael Crabtree) to make plays consistently in space. The secondary’s loose coverage was brought up throughout the game by the national TV commentators. Let’s throw in rookie P Johnny Hekker’s 14-yard shank in overtime for good measure, even though Niners PK David Akers’ subsequent missed field goal turned it into a relatively harmless gaffe.

49ERS

What we learned: Dare we bring up the possibility of Jim Harbaugh turning the QB reins back over to Alex Smith after second-year QB Colin Kaepernick’s ill-advised errant pitch to Ted Ginn Jr. was the key factor in the Niners’ 16-13 overtime loss to the upstart Rams? You betcha, with Smith appearing fully ready to try to right the Niners’ suddenly shaky ship if called upon. After the Niners took a 7-0 lead on Frank Gore’s TD run, the Rams’ defense stopped the Niners’ offense cold for the most part, as San Francisco’s ground game proved negligible save for Kaepernick’s 9-84 rushing, including an eye-popping 50-yard run that set up a go-ahead field goal by David Akers with 1:34 remaining in regulation. The defense, meanwhile, was stingy as usual, but it was unable to register a single takeaway. Mixed signals on the QB situation moving forward this week are a good bet, possibly right down to the wire before this Sunday’s game at home against the desperate Dophins.

What’s in store next: The Dolphins’ fading playoff hopes were further diminished following a 23-16 loss Sunday to the Patriots in which the offense was limited to 277 yards. Eight penalties for 92 yards also proved costly for Miami. Making their loss all the more painful was the likely season-ending torn triceps suffered by Pro Bowl OLT Jake Long, which could signal a big day for the Niners’ pass rush spearheaded by ROLB Aldon Smith, who surpassed Reggie White with the most sacks by a player in his first two seasons with his sack against the Rams Sunday (he now has 31½). It’s worth noting that the Niners have yet to lose two games in a row under Jim Harbaugh. 

What the heck? Obviously, Kaepernick’s costly blunder sticks out, but the heat continues to increase on Akers, who failed for the second time this season against the Rams to win the game with a field goal in overtime when his 51-yarder sailed wide right. A season-high 11 penalties for 97 yards is also very much worth mentioning, since Harbaugh had stressed the need to cut down on flags leading up to the game. In addition, the Rams' third-quarter safety was certainly open to interpretation, but Harbaugh could not challenge the officials’ intentional grounding ruling on Kaepernick in the endzone because it was a scoring play.

SEAHAWKS

What we learned: Finally, a win on the road! A really big win, in fact, as it improved Seattle’s hopes for a playoff spot with three of the last four games at home, where the Seahawks have been picture-perfect this season. Rookie QB Russell Wilson adroitly choreographed a perfect ending, directing a 12-play, 80-yard game winning drive in overtime culminated by Sidney Rice’s TD catch in a 23-17 victory over the Bears. Wilson completed 10 of his final 13 passes (including his last eight) and has now posted 100-plus passer ratings with zero interceptions in the past four games. He got big assists from Rice and fellow WR Golden Tate, who each had TD catches and more than 95 receiving yards. But let’s not forget the major contribution on the other side of the ball from rookie MLB Bobby Wagner, who came up with a pivotal stop of Bears RB Michael Bush on 4th-and-1 with the Bears leading 7-0 and seemingly driving toward another score deep in Seattle territory.

What’s in store next: Here come the Cardinals, caught up in a nasty eight-game skid with no end in sight. It’s worth remembering, though, that Arizona, which still has an excellent defense, defeated Seattle in Week One when Wilson’s last-ditch comeback effort fell just short in a 20-16 victory by the Cardinals. Beyond that, as good as the Seahawks have been at home, they have yet to win a single game this season against a fellow NFC West opponent. Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch and Wilson could cause problems for a struggling Cardinals run defense after combining for 158 yards rushing and a TD against the Bears.

What the heck? Three plays deserve mention in this catgetory: (1) A lost fumble on the first possession of the game; (2) An apparent TD catch by Braylon Edwards in the first half that was nullified when the refs, much to Pete Carroll’s chagrin, ruled that the ball had hit the ground before Edwards controlled it; and (3) The jaw-dropping 56-yard reception by Bears WR Brandon Marshall in a traffic jam tighter than Chicago’s main highway during rush hour that enabled the Bears to get the game into overtime. 

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