The surging Seahawks grabbed center stage in Week 16 with a playoff-clinching 42-13 rout in prime time over the division-rival Niners. The Rams have a shot at their first winning record since 2003 after their defense spearheaded a 28-13 road win over Tampa Bay. The Bears’ opportunistic "D" was too much for the Cardinals to handle in a 28-13 loss in the desert.
What follows is our weekly take on the NFC West:
What we learned: Another game, another forgettable performance by a Cardinal quarterback, as ex-Patriot Brian Hoyer became the fourth different signalcaller to stink up the field this season in Arizona’s 28-13 loss to the Bears. Hoyer replaced an ineffective Ryan Lindley, who was mercifully banished to the sidelines after he was pick-sixed by Bears CB Charles Tillman in Arizona’s final home game of the season. While WR Larry Fitzgerald (8-111 in only his second 100-yard receiving game of the season), P Dave Zastudil (six punts inside the 20-yard line for an NFL record-setting 44) and the defense (only 297 yards allowed) all had their moments, the Cardinals’ continually woeful offense further increased the likelihood of sweeping changes in the not-too-distant future. It’s possible Hoyer (11-of-19 passing for 105 yards and an interception) will start the Cardinals’ regular-season finale next Sunday — not that it matters.
What’s in store next: The Cardinals close out a season that can’t end soon enough with a visit to San Francisco, where they will be taking on a Niners team that has yet to lose two games in a row under Jim Harbaugh. San Francisco got shellacked in Seattle 42-13 on Sunday night and has been very vulnerable on defense without DT Justin Smith, who has missed the last game and a half with an elbow injury. The Niners had no problem with the Cardinals in Week Eight, winning 24-3 as Alex Smith completed 18-of-19 passes and threw three TDs (two to WR Michael Crabtree). Fitzgerald, who had 5-52 receiving in that game, could have some success operating against a San Francisco secondary that could be missing RCB Tarell Brown (check status).
What the heck? It would hardly be a shock if the Cardinals decided to add RB Beanie Wells to their growing list of expendable players after his miserable performance against the Bears. Wells slipped and then fumbled a ball on his own one-yard line that was recovered in the endzone for a TD by Bears CB Zack Bowman, thus setting the stage for another 60 minutes of misery in the desert. He finished with three yards on four rushing attempts and was engaged in an animated discussion with head coach Ken Whisenhunt after his terribly timed mishap.
What we learned: Bouncing back from a disappointing homefield loss to the Vikings the previous week, the Rams righted their ship in Tampa Bay with a 28-13 victory — their third straight road win and fourth win in five games. Even though they were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs after the Vikings knocked off the Texans, the Rams had to be feeling very good about themselves after doing just enough to win — again. As has been the case in most of their victories, it wasn’t pretty, as the Rams were both outgained (429-285) and outpossessed (35:59-24:01) by wide margins. But a defense that registered five takeaways (three of which led to scores, including a pick-six by rookie CB Janoris Jenkins), sacked Bucs QB Josh Freeman five times and stopped the Buccaneers twice on downs inside the Rams’ 10-yard line spearheaded a victory that should improve Jeff Fisher’s chances for Coach of the Year honors.
What’s in store next: In order to finish the season with a winning record, the Rams will have to beat the hottest team in football in the Seahawks. Seattle has outscored its last three opponents 150-30 and shows no signs of slowing down. But the Rams are undefeated in the NFC West this season, including their 19-13 victory over Seattle in St. Louis in Week Four. The featured attraction in that game were the Rams rookie kickers, PK Greg Zuerlein, who kicked field goals of 58 and 60 yards, and P Johnny Hekker, who threw a TD pass to Danny Amendola on a fake-FG attempt. Rams RB Steven Jackson (19-81-1 vs. Tampa Bay) needs 10 yards to reach 1,000 yards for the eighth consecutive season.
What the heck? QB Sam Bradford’s ill-advised throw in the second quarter that was picked off by ex-Ram Danny Gorrer was extremely ugly. So were the missed tackles by FS Craig Dahl and WLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar on Bucs WR Mike Williams’ 61-yard TD catch on a busted coverage that got Tampa Bay within 28-13. In addition, aside from his terrific block that helped spring TE Lance Kendricks on a key 80-yard TD pass on the Rams’ first play of the second half, WR Danny Amendola had a very forgettable afternoon with two catches for five yards, one of which he fumbled away.
What we learned: One week after moving to the top spot in PFW’s Power Rankings after a breathtaking 41-34 victory in prime time over AFC heavyweight New England, the Niners were powerless in a rainy 42-13 loss in prime time to Seattle that dropped them down to the No. 3 playoff seed behind Green Bay. Jim Harbaugh’s 49th birthday was a major bummer, as a slew of fresh injuries for a team already struggling mightily without defensive heart and soul Justin Smith compounded the Niners’ agony. The defense allowed the most points since Harbaugh took over the team, surrendered a season-high 176 rushing yards and managed only one sack. The offense sputtered under the direction of figety Colin Kaepernick, who was clearly outplayed by Seahawks rookie QB Russell Wilson.
What’s in store next: The Niners figure to be able to get their act back together against the lowly Cardinals and clinch an NFC West title, even if they are a bit undermanned. Early indications are that the team will again be without DT Justin Smith, whose string of 185 consecutive starts was snapped last Sunday due to an elbow injury. Check the statuses of TE Vernon Davis (concussion), WR Mario Manningham (knee) and RCB Tarell Brown (kneecap), who all went down for the count in Seattle. RB Frank Gore, who was limited to 6-28 rushing last week, will be trying to bounce back against an Arizona run defense that has given up at least 152 yards on the ground in five of the last seven games.
What the heck? You knew it wasn’t going to be the Niners’ day when PK David Akers’ 21-yard FG attempt was blocked by Red Bryant. The loose ball was picked up by Richard Sherman and returned 90 back-breaking yards for a 21-0 Seahawks lead. Only slightly less frustrating were the obvious problems Kaepernick had dealing with CenturyLink Field’s notorious crowd noise, as he was forced to call two timeouts with the 30-second clock ticking down and was also flagged for two delay-of-game penalties. Did we mention that Aldon Smith, the NFC’s leading sacker entering the game, was invisible, and that Ricky Jean Francois, Justin Smith’s replacement in the starting lineup, got run over by Marshawn Lynch on Lynch’s TD run that set Sunday’s rout in motion?
What we learned: If recent form holds with the league’s hottest team down the stretch winning the Super Bowl, then the Seahawks could very well be headed to New Orleans in early February. Rookie QB Russell Wilson continued his late charge for Rookie of the Year honors with a career-high four TD passes in the team’s fourth straight win, and Seattle’s offense once again proved near-unstoppable, converting 11-of-13 third-down opportunities. RB Marshawn Lynch (26-111) scored two first-quarter TDs, WR Doug Baldwin had a pair of TD catches and Seattle’s defense kept the Niners out of the endzone until the final two minutes in another virtuoso all-around performance.
What’s in store next: The Seahawks can’t afford to get too cocky going up against the Rams, who would like nothing more than to finish their season with an undefeated 5-0-1 record in the NFC West. A key matchup pits Rams TE Lance Kendricks, who has caught TDs in each of the last two games, including an 80-yard score last week, vs. Seahawks punishing SS Kam Chancellor, who sent Niners TE Vernon Davis to the sidelines with a concussion last Sunday. Wilson needs two TD passes to break the rookie single-season league record of 26 set by Petyon Manning.
What the heck? It sure seemed like Kam Chancellor’s devastating hit on Davis in the first quarter was a clean shot, but the referees thought otherwise, charging Chancellor with a personal foul for a hit on a defenseless receiver. The Seahawks’ TD on a 90-yard return by Richard Sherman of Red Bryant’s blocked field goal not long after the Chancellor penalty seemed like poetic justice. Wilson’s interception that deflected off rookie RB Robert Turbin — only his second pick at home this season — was another minor glitch on an otherwise perfect evening.