In an otherwise totally successful week for the NFC West, the focus on a national level is directed more on the increasingly pathetic Cardinals after their ninth consecutive loss. Arizona was embarrassed every which way but loose in a 58-0 loss to the suddenly surging Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. The worst loss in franchise history can’t help but put head coach Ken Whisenhunt’s job in further jeopardy.
What follows is our weekly team-by-team take on the state of the NFC West.
What we learned: With every loss getting uglier by the week, the only real subject worth talking about is whether the team gets rid of Ken Whisenhunt now or later. While there are some close to the team continuing to insist that the ouster of the Cardinals head coach is far from a slam dunk — considering his $5.75 million salary for the 2013 season that will remain on the books regardless of what happens to him — it seems like Whisenhunt is almost resigned to his fate, continually offering more gallows humor than anything close to serious solutions with the season winding downhill. A case in point was when he asked Arizona Republic and PFW Cardinals correspondent Kent Somers after his team’s latest embarrassment if Somers could play quarterback after a collective effort from John Skelton and Ryan Lindley that resulted in an abysmal 17.3 passer rating. More damning than anything, though, was the awful performance by the Cardinals’ defense, which had fought the good fight for most of the season until this game (493 yards allowed, including 284 on the ground). Clearly, it appears the Cardinals have fallen apart in every aspect of the game.
What’s in store next: The Cardinals could have a very hard time filling all the seats at University Phoenix Stadium next Sunday for their game against the Lions, another sad-sack loser currently soiling the NFL landscape. Looking like a steady contender in the making after advancing to the playoffs last season, Detroit has been a big-time 4-9 disappointment. Its latest loss to the division-rival Packers came after squandering an early 14-0 lead and totally dominating Green Bay in the first half on Sunday night. At least one player worth the price of admission will be Lions WR Calvin Johnson, who registered his sixth consecutive 100-yard receiving performance in the game (10-118).
What the heck? Instead of once again scratching our heads over the near-total ineffectiveness of Pro Bowl WR Larry Fitzgerald (would you believe only one catch for two yards on 11 targets?), let’s instead ponder the persistent problems Patrick Peterson has had as a returner this season after setting all kinds of records and looking like the league’s next All-World return specialist as a rookie last season. Peterson muffed a punt that was recovered for a Seahawks’ TD and fumbled away another on Sunday. He did better in his starting CB role, intercepting a Russell Wilson pass inside Seattle territory with about four minutes left in the first half. But alas, Skelton gave the Seahawks the ball right back with one of his four interceptions.
What we learned: It wasn’t pretty, but the Rams hung tough in typical fashion in a slugfest with the Bills in Buffalo and came through in flying colors in crunch time with a 13-yard TD catch by resilient WR Brandon Gibson (6-100-1, first 100-yard receiving game as a pro) with 48 seconds left and Chris Givens’ subsequent two-point conversion resulting in a 15-12 come-from-behind win. That it was the Rams’ second straight road win, as well as their second consecutive win without their top offensive performer (WR Danny Amendola), made their sixth victory of the season all the more impressive. After the offense sputtered badly in the first 30 minutes, coordinator Brian Schottenheimer made a nice adjustment in the Rams’ game plan at halftime, as the Rams gained 214 yards in the final two quarters. But the most impressive performance was provided by a defense that limited the Bills’ normally potent ground game to only 61 rushing yards.
What’s in store next: In a battle between teams harboring long-shot playoff hopes after upset victories in Week 14, the Rams entertain the Vikings, who burned the Bears 21-14 last week in great part because of Adrian Peterson’s 154-yard, two-TD performance. A Rams defense that has surrendered fewer than 300 total yards in two of the last four games (281 in Week 14) would appear to have what it takes to stop Minnesota’s hopelessly one-dimensional offense (Vikings QB Christian Ponder has thrown for 139 fewer yards than Peterson has rushed for in Minnesota’s last seven games). But Peterson alone is capable of making life miserable for any team when he gets on a roll. It’s worth noting that Minnesota beat the Bears Sunday despite being outgained 438-248.
What the heck? Rams QB Sam Bradford got his act together when it mattered most, but he really was bad in the first half in Buffalo. His interception off a deflection that was returned for a TD by the Bills’ Stephon Gilmore (the return was called back for holding but the interception stood) was particularly ugly. It also was not a good day at all for Rams RBs Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson, Jackson’s one-yard TD run notwithstanding. Jackson gained only 64 yards on 19 carries, and Richardson gained just four yards on three carries and did nothing as a receiver. An offensive line that did not provide the best run-blocking in the world might have to overcome a back injury to OLT Rodger Saffold (check status), who had been playing well since returning from the knee and neck injuries that forced him to miss six games.
What we learned: Already arguably possessing the league’s most innovative, multifaceted offense, the Niners introduced a new intriguing wrinkle Sunday in their 27-13 victory over the Dolphins courtesy of rookie LaMichael James. The second-round rookie gained 10 yards on his first carry as Frank Gore’s primary backup and finished the day with 8-30 rushing with a long gain of 13 along with 79 yards on three kickoff returns. Niners QB Colin Kaepernick made amends for the ill-fated pitchout that killed the Niners the previous week in their loss to the Rams with a game-sealing 50-yard jaunt, going untouched after taking a shotgun snap from the pistol formation and faking a handoff to Frank Gore, with less than three minutes remaining. While the defense limited Miami to 227 yards, the victory hardly came easy, as the Dolphins showed a lot of fight and kept the game perilously close until Kaepernick’s fifth TD run of the season sealed the deal.
What’s in store next: A Sunday-night show stopper could be in the offing with the Niners traveling to Foxborough to take on the mighty Tom Brady-led Patriots, who will be coming off a short work week after tangling with the Texans on Monday evening. The game has a lot to offer on a number of levels, with the combatants having been picked by many so-called experts to possibly meet in the Super Bowl. Jim Harbaugh’s Niners have done extremely well for the most part in the Eastern time zone. The confrontation between Kaepernick and Brady, who also replaced an established starting QB (Drew Bledsoe) and never looked back, could not be any more enticing.
What the heck? As good as the Niners’ defense was on Sunday, its inability to keep the Dolphins from cranking out a 75-yard fourth-quarter TD drive to get within seven created supersized sweat beads in Niners Nation. Offering more cause for concern were the three sacks by Miami’s Cameron Wake that triggered a rude awakening for Niners ORT Anthony Davis, only 2-of-10 third-down conversions and the weird decision to use all three of team’s timeouts in the first 16 minutes of the second half.
What we learned: After the most lopsided win in franchise history, the Seahawks, assured of avoiding a fifth consecutive season with a losing record, are moving up the NFC playoff ladder, advancing to the fifth rung in the seeding process with a rare laugher in a season full of squeakers. Truth be told, though, it was a case of the Cardinals really being awful as much as the Seahawks being dominant on Sunday, as the game wasted no time turning into a hopelessly one-sided affair. On offense, star RB Marshawn Lynch exploded for 128 yards and three TDs, with backup Robert Turbin, a Lynch clone, doubling the Seahawks’ rushing pleasure with 108 yards of his own. Scores were also provided by the defense (CB Richard Sherman’s 19-yard interception return for a TD) and special teams (Malcolm Smith’s recovery of a muffed punt in the endzone).
What’s in store next: The Seahawks must travel to Toronto take on the Bills in their final road game of the regular season. After suffering a back-breaking 15-12 loss to the Rams, the Bills will need to find a way to establish the run vs. a stout Seahawks front. Home-run threat C.J. Spiller, who was limited to 37 yards rushing on seven carries last week, likes to bounce outside, where he can use his speed to get to the sideline. Seahawks OLBs K.J. Wright and Leroy Hill will need to contain the edges. If Seattle bottles up Spiller, it could be a long day for the Bills, who will be without Fred Jackson (leg).
What the heck? Observers who have been watching him every day have good reason to wonder why second-round MLB Bobby Wagner isn’t considered a more serious contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Wagner, who came up with a pivotal fourth-down stop the previous week in the victory over the Bears, had a team-leading eight tackles, two interceptions and two pass deflections vs. Arizona. Also worthy of heckling was the cheap cold-cock Arizona S Rashad Jonson administered to WR Sidney Rice late in the game on a pass over the middle that led to a well-deserved penalty.