Leinart1. Matt Leinart, Cardinals quarterback. Football is a team sport and Leinart wasn't solely to blame for the Cardinals' second-half struggles against the Rams. Anthony Becht's fumble and Beanie Wells' failure to turn around in time on a pass route made it tougher for Leinart to settle into a rhythm. That was the word from coach Ken Whisenhunt, who seemed to be protecting Leinart better than any offensive tackle reasonably could. It's tough getting around the fact that opponents have outscored the Cardinals 24-0 when Leinart has been in the game for Arizona this season. I'm sure Leinart would benefit from taking more reps in practice and playing full games, but this is Leinart's fourth season in the league and third season in the offense. He should be able to generate points with an improved running game and an all-world receiving crew.
2. Tim Ruskell, Seahawks GM. The Seahawks are officially Ruskell's team now that Mike Holmgren has moved on from the organization. That makes Ruskell the focal point for criticism as the Seahawks continue to struggle. Not having a contract beyond this season only fuels perceptions. No one could have expected Seattle to compete seriously with the Vikings in Week 12, and that is the problem. This team was supposed to become more competitive after getting a few key players back from injuries. It hasn't really happened. The Vikings and Cardinals have outscored Seattle by a 66-15 count since Seattle took a 14-0 lead at Arizona. The Seahawks are 3-7 this season and 7-19 since the 2008 opener. Someone must be accountable and it's not going to be the first-year head coach.
3. Jed York, 49ers president. "I told the team this is the last time our season ends in December," York said upon announcing Mike Singletary's hiring as head coach after last season. The enthusiasm was welcome and York was technically correct because the current regular season ends Jan. 3, 2010. But we all know he was talking about the playoffs. The 49ers have lost five of their last six games and they are still figuring out what they have at quarterback, the most important position. Even the defense has been inconsistent. York pointed to intensity as the key ingredient Singletary would bring to the 49ers. Blocking, tackling and quarterbacking win games, however, and the 49ers aren't doing those things consistently well enough to fulfill York's playoff pledge.
Hightower1. Tim Hightower, Cardinals running back. The second-year running back has already surpassed his rookie total for rushing yards on 41 fewer carries. His 50-yard run against the Rams was the Cardinals' longest rushing play since 2004. Against the Rams, Hightower set single-game highs for rushing yards (110) and yards per carry (7.9). He has 47 receptions and has fumbled just once since a two-fumble game against the Colts in Week 3. The Cardinals have gone away from their four-receiver offense some in recent weeks. Hightower and rookie running back Beanie Wells are validating the thinking. Arizona is averaging 162 yards rushing over its last three games after averaging 65 yards rushing in its first seven.
2. Kurt Warner, Cardinals quarterback. Leinart's second-half struggles drove home Warner's value to the Cardinals. Warner has put together three consecutive games with a passer rating in triple digits, the first time he has done that since the 2001 season. The Cardinals haven't had a quarterback accomplish the feat since Neil Lomax in 1983. Warner also reached 20 touchdown passes for the season with his two-score game against the Rams. That made Warner the first quarterback in franchise history to post three consecutive seasons with at least 20 touchdown passes. Warner also gets high marks for his handling of the possible concussion he suffered late in the second quarter Sunday. He didn't fight the decision to sit out the rest of the game. His perspective was refreshing.
3. Chris Long, Rams defensive end. Long will always fight the battle of expectations as the second overall choice in the 2008 draft. Sometimes the pressure seems to have affected him. Long is playing better recently. He has one sack in each of the Rams' last three games after going without any for a 16-game stretch dating to last season. Long needs one sack to match his 2008 season total of four. Coach Steve Spagnuolo said he thought Long might be getting more comfortable after adjusting to a new defensive system. Whatever the explanation, the Rams badly need Long's increased production. They lack pure pass-rushers beyond aging veteran Leonard Little. Finishing the season strong would give Long needed confidence as well.