The Niners and Seahawks enter the playoffs with plenty of momentum following victories to close out the regular season. The Cardinals and Rams, meanwhile, appear to be studies in contrast as they close up shop after season-ending losses. While Ken Whisenhunt’s days could be numbered in the desert, Jeff Fisher definitely has the arrow pointing up in St. Louis.
What follows is our weekly take on the NFC West:
What we learned: After jumping off to a quick 6-0 lead and outgaining the Niners 129-15 in the opening quarter, it wasn’t long before the Cardinals’ offense retreated into its season-long shutdown mode (262 total yards) in a 27-13 loss in San Francisco that might have been Ken Whisenhunt’s final game as the team’s head coach. The Niners just kept pounding away at the Cardinals’ normally decent pass defense, while Brian Hoyer, Arizona’s fourth different QB this season, was nothing special, although he did manage to throw the team’s first TD pass in seven games to rookie WR Michael Floyd (8-166-1).
What’s in store next: After finishing 5-11 for the second time in three years, the stage is set for what are expected to be sweeping changes. With team president Mike Bidwill wrestling with a multitude of issues, team insiders think a decision on Whisenhunt’s fate will probably not come right away, although Bidwill has previously axed both Dave McGinnis and Dennis Green the day after the regular season ended. It’s pretty much a given, though, that there will be a new personnel heavyweight in place before long to start sifting through candidates for the team’s seventh overall pick in the 2013 draft. In addition, defensive coordinator Ray Horton is expected to be a popular head-coaching candidate. It’s also very likely disgruntled familiar faces like RB Beanie Wells, who spent the final regular-season Sunday on the sidelines, will soon be saying their good-byes.
What the heck? Leave it to Niners WR Michael Crabtree to make Cardinals Nation more than a little crabby. After having his way with Patrick Peterson in an earlier Monday-night victory in Arizona, Crabtree torched Peterson again Sunday with an 8-172-2 performance. Making matters worse was the fact Peterson left the game with a hamstring injury. A season full of nagging injuries in the desert continued with ORG Pat McQuistan (ankle) and ILB Paris Lenon (hand) also going down for the count.
What we learned: The Rams put up a typical dogfight in Seattle, giving a Seahawks team that had outscored its previous three opponents 150-30 all it could handle in a 20-13 loss that kept the team from finishing undefeated in division play for the first time since 1999 and with a winning record for the first time since 2003. Highlights included six sacks (three by Chris Long) for 41 yards in losses, zero sacks allowed by the offensive line and veteran RB Steven Jackson (97 total yards) going over the 1,000-yard mark for the eighth straight season.
What’s in store next: While the focus in St. Louis switches to the arbitration that begins in two weeks to determine the team’s stadium issue, the Rams will soon begin a fruitful offseason buoyed by the extra first-round pick they will be receiving from the Redskins, in addition to their own 16th overall pick. In addition, the team will begin determining the futures of a host of key players, the most notable being Jackson, who said after Sunday’s game that he had no plans to retire and preferred to remain a Ram.
What the heck? While the defense raised eyebrows with its sacking prowess, it also gave up three pass plays of 30-plus yards and 153 rushing yards, with an ankle injury to DT Michael Brockers not helping matters. The team’s inability to come up with a loose ball after Jo-Lonn Dunbar separated Marshawn Lynch from the pigskin at the Seattle 18 with just over four minutes to play was a major bummer. So was rookie PK Greg Zuerlein’s missed FG from 51 yards out, which made his totals from 50 yards and beyond since Week Six a very lackluster 3-of-9.
What we learned: With a major assist from the Vikings, who knocked off the Packers in Minnesota, the Niners solidified a very welcome first-round bye with a 27-13 victory in Candlestick Park over the hapless Cardinals and have now won back-to-back division titles under head coach Jim Harbaugh. The undisputed star of Sunday’s show was WR Michael Crabtree, who picked apart Pro Bowl CB Patrick Peterson to the tune of 8-172-2 receiving on the way to becoming the Niners’ first wide receiver to post a 1,000-yard season since Terrell Owens in 2003. Operating without Pro Bowler Justin Smith, the defense rebounded from a shaky start with back-to-back sacks by Ricky Jean Francois and Ahmad Brooks, who almost tore Cardinals QB Brian Hoyer’s head off, setting a spirited second-half tone. A mop-up appearance by Alex Smith in relief of Colin Kaepernick further fired up the Candlestick crowd.
What’s in store next: The Niners will no doubt savor some badly needed time off before hosting a divisional playoff game a week from next Saturday (Jan. 12) at Candlestick. Their first-round bye will hopefully help Justin Smith, the defense’s heart and soul, recover enough from a partially torn triceps suffered in the victory over New England to be the same kind of dominant force he was in last season’s postseason.
What the heck? Niners fans’ nerves got a bit frayed early on when the offense failed to register a first down in the first quarter and went three-and-out on the game’s first three possessions. In addition, PK David Akers, God’s gift to placekicking last season, was once again God-awful with a pair of missed field goals from 40 and 44 yards. Finally, nobody misses Justin Smith more than ROLB Aldon Smith, who went without a sack for the third straight game and finished three shy of Michael Strahan’s single-season league sack record.
What we learned: Talk about being 100 percent satisfied. Despite coming way down to earth after totally manhandling their last three opponents, the Seahawks managed to outlast the upstart Rams 20-13, as rookie Russell Wilson finished the regular season with a franchise-record 100.0 passer rating and RB Marshawn Lynch pitched in with 100 yards on the nose on 18 carries, his 10th 100-yard game of the season. Wilson, who also tied Peyton Manning for the most TD passes by a rookie (26), scored the winning TD on a one-yard run with 1:39 remaining. It was the fourth time this season the brilliant rookie engineered a winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime. QB Sam Bradford drove the Rams to the Seattle 29 with 40 seconds remaining, but Seahawks CB Richard Sherman, fresh off a successful appeal of a four-game suspension, sealed the deal with his eighth interception of the season.
What’s in store next: Seattle travels to FedEx Stadium to play the NFC East champion Redskins, who earned a playoff berth with a 28-18 victory over the Cowboys on Sunday night in the final game of the 2012 regular-season campaign. The stage is now set for an intriguing duel between Wilson and fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Robert Griffin III, who ran for 63 yards and a TD in the regular-season finale and, like Wilson, has performed like a seasoned veteran all season. Seattle’s defense must pay special attention to rookie RB Alfred Morris, who steamrolled the Cowboys with 200 yards rushing and three TDs.
What the heck? After scoring at will the previous three games, Seattle had just three points at halftime and six midway through the third quarter on Sunday. In addition, an offensive line featuring a pair of Pro Bowl starters (OLT Russell Okung and C Max Unger) gave up a season-high six sacks, equaling the total it allowed in the previous four games combined.