The odds were slimmer than slim that the Seahawks could be outdone after their second consecutive dominant victory — a 50-17 dismantling of the Bills in Week 15. But the division-rival Niners did just that, in prime time no less, knocking off a Patriots team that hadn’t lost at home in the month of December since 2002 in what will go down as an instant classic. In other NFC West action, the Cardinals can breathe just a wee bit easier after snapping a nine-game losing streak with their 38-10 over Detroit, and the Rams got run over by Adrian Peterson and the Vikings in a disappointing 36-22 loss.
What follows is our weekly take on the NFC West:
What we learned: While it’s way too little, too late to keep the Cardinals from making wholesale changes once the season ends, the team’s first win since Sept. 30 figures to at least temporarily reduce the cries in the desert for Ken Whisenhunt’s scalp. As was the case way back in September, when the Cardinals surprised everybody with their 4-0 start, it was Ray Horton’s defense and the special teams that were primarily responsible for the team’s success against the Lions. It also should be noted that Lions QB Matthew Stafford helped the team out a great deal with a shaky three-interception performance. After being victimized by eight turnovers the previous week in a 58-0 loss to the Seahawks, the Cardinals turned the tables with four takeaways that led directly to scores, including pick-sixes by S Rashad Johnson and CB Greg Toler. One Cardinals defender who made a major difference was DE Calais Campbell. In his second game back after missing three games with a calf injury, Campbell was a beast with a sack and eight tackles, including four for loss.
What’s in store next: Playing before a hometown crowd this Sunday that figures to be overflowing with transplanted Chicagoans, the Cardinals have a great chance to keep a positive vibe going if they can knock off the beleaguered Bears. Mired in a terrible tailspin, the Bears are in dire need of a win to keep their fading playoff hopes alive after gaining only 190 yards and killing themselves with penalties in a 21-13 loss at home to the Packers. A key matchup to watch will be Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson, who had an interception in his fourth consecutive game Sunday, vs. WR Brandon Marshall, who has accounted for a major share of the Bears’ offense this season.
What the heck? The Cardinals’ offense continued to look offensive more often than not, a career-high three-TD outing by RB Beanie Wells notwithstanding. With rookie Ryan Lindley under center, the offense managed a mere 196 total yards, including only 97 passing yards, and converted only 2-of-12 third downs. It seemed like a Wells-led ground game was making its presence felt at one point, but that feeling changed when the coaching staff strangely shifted gears to more of a pass-oriented attack. In addition, the defense might have suffered a blow with an injury to OLB Quentin Groves, whose right foot was in a walking boot after the game. The LB corps has already been whittled down by the season-ending injury suffered by O’Brien Schofield.
What we learned: Forget the fact that the Rams are still somehow mathematically alive for a playoff berth. After a discouraging 36-22 loss to the Vikings on “Fan Appreciation Day” at Edward Jones Dome, this team is going nowhere but home in January. After all is said and done, it was a case of just too much Adrian Peterson, as the Vikings’ league MVP candidate had his way with a Rams defense that had been doing an excellent job defending the run in recent weeks. That was certainly not the case on Sunday, as Peterson romped for 212 yards on 24 carries, including an 82-yard TD run. Rams QB Sam Bradford posted impressive numbers, throwing for a career-high 377 yards and matching his career high with three TD passes. But the pick-six he threw to Vikings DE Everson Griffen that gave the Vikings a 24-7 lead with 8:25 left in the first half, was an early back-breaker.
What’s in store next: Hoping to avoid their ninth consecutive season without a winning record, the Rams travel to Florida to take on Tampa Bay. The Bucs unraveled in a 41-0 rout by the Saints Sunday, as their 32nd-ranked pass defense was shredded yet again, with Saints QB Drew Brees throwing for 307 yards, four TDs and no interceptions. On offense, Bucs QB Josh Freeman threw four interceptions after throwing only eight picks in the first 13 games of the season, and RB Doug Martin, who was red-hot not too long ago, ran for a career-low 16 yards. Look for Bradford to challenge a secondary that is susceptible to giving up yards in big chunks.
What the heck? One play after Rams WR Brian Quick tied the game at 7-7 with an acrobatic TD catch, Peterson completely caught the Rams’ defense off guard with his 82-yard TD explosion. For some reason, the Rams were expecting the Vikings to pass, even though Minnesota's lowly passing offense might have dictated another strategy. The Rams’ offensive line was also flat-out lousy. In addition to allowing four sacks and offering scant protection for Bradford, who was under big-time pressure the entire afternoon, C Scott Wells’ fumbled snap exchange with Bradford and a host of frustrating false-start penalties made for a real bummer of a performance.
What we learned: If the Niners’ thrilling 41-34 Sunday-night victory over the Patriots was indeed a Super Bowl preview — a matchup that numerous so-called experts predicted before the season started — then we can expect a potential game for the ages. Two major story lines emerged. For starters, second-year QB Colin Kaepernick more than held his own matched up against the great Tom Brady, hurling four TD passes (two to red-hot WR Michael Crabtree) and registering a 107.7 passer rating (compared to Brady’s 68.9 rating) in his fifth consecutive start. Secondly, in a game that was hyped as a matchup between the league’s best defense (Niners) vs. the league’s best offense (Patriots), San Francisco’s defense ultimately prevailed, despite the fact it allowed 520 yards and allowed 30 points for the first time in 32 regular-season games. Even though Brady brilliantly sliced and diced the defense to bits in a sterling second-half comeback effort, the Niners’ defense registered four turnovers, two of which set up TDs in a 17-second span at the start of the second half, and got its mojo back in the game’s final stages, holding off the Pats on their final two possessions.
What’s in store next: Featured in prime time for the second week in a row, the Niners travel to Seattle next Sunday night to take on the red-hot Seahawks, who have won five of their last six games but need to keep winning to assure themselves of a playoff berth. The marquee attraction no doubt will be the intriguing QB duel between Kaepernick and Seahawks rookie QB Russell Wilson, as both QBs are capable of inflicting major damage with both their arms and legs. In the first game this season between San Francisco and Seattle in Week Seven, the Niners overcame the Seahawks at home in a Thursday-night 13-6 slugfest. The star of the show that night was Niners RB Frank Gore, who registered 184 total yards (season-high 131 yards rushing) and benefited immensely from the stellar blocking of San Francisco’s interior line.
What the heck? Even though it was Tom Brady at the helm for the Patriots, you can’t help but be a bit concerned about the way the Niners’ "D" unraveled in the second half, allowing 407 yards and 26 first downs in the game’s final 30 minutes. We also could mention Kaepernick’s four fumbles in slippery weather conditions, but those mishaps were offset by his four TD passes, as well as the Niners’ four takeaways, plus the fact none of Kaepernick's fumbles were lost. In addition, the way Ted Ginn Jr. handled punt returns, you might have thought he chugged a couple of gin and tonics before kickoff. But the biggest “what the heck” by far is reserved for Niners DT Justin Smith — if the elbow injury that forced him to leave the game for good in the third quarter proves to be serious, it would be a loss the Niners can ill afford.
What we learned: What can you say after the Seahawks became the third team in league history to score 50 or more points in consecutive games following their 50-17 assault on the Bills in Toronto? While the Cardinals and Bills, Seattle's victims the past two weeks, can hardly be considered anything close to world beaters, a strong case can be made for the Seahawks currently being the hottest team in the NFL at just the right time of the season. Rookie QB Russell Wilson continued his late charge for Rookie of the Year honors with 205 passing yards and a season-high 92 yards on nine carries, including three first-half TD runs. In addition, Seattle’s defense continued to show no mercy, with FS Earl Thomas (57-yard pick-six) and DE Chris Clemons (2½ sacks and a forced fumble) spearheading another strong effort one week after the unit’s eight-takeaway performance against Arizona.
What’s in store next: Could another rain-slicked Sunday-night masterpiece similar to the Niners-Patriots instant classic be in the offing? With the Niners coming to Seattle fresh off their statement-making win over mighty New England, that just might be the case. Considering the way both team’s offenses have come alive in recent weeks under the direction of Wilson and the Niners’ Colin Kaepernick, a far different game than the first matchup between San Francisco and Seattle in Week Seven (a 13-6 Niners win) could materialize. In addition to a great QB duel, it also should be fun watching RBs Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch trying to outdo one another.
What the heck? After not rushing for a TD in any of Seattle’s first 13 games, Wilson had two TD runs in first 10 minutes Sunday. But a bigger “what the heck?” goes to Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who did the absolute right thing when he offered an apology for his decision to call a direct snap to S Chris Maragos on a fake punt with his team leading by 30 points in the second half on a 4th-and-4 play at the Buffalo 43-yard line. Maragos handed the ball off to Seahawks FB Michael Robinson on a play that gained 29 yards and led to a short field goal and had to make Carroll’s apology seem extremely hollow in the mind of Bills head coach Chan Gailey, whose curt “no comment” after the game spoke volumes.