NFC West more balanced than Cards

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Not much beyond perceptions changed Sunday in the NFC West.

The Arizona Cardinals affirmed their serial inconsistency by building a 21-point lead against the Houston Texans at University of Phoenix Stadium, only to need a defensive touchdown and goal-line stand to prevail, 28-21. Same new Cardinals, in other words. Trust them at your peril, resist judgment after any single performance and do not count them out.

"People jumped the gun a little too soon with us starting off 1-2," Cardinals receiver Steve Breaston said.

The teams with the most decorated quarterbacks won every game involving NFC West teams Sunday.

The Seattle Seahawks were significantly better with a high-functioning Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback. Also predictable, though not to this extent. No one knew if Hasselbeck would be healthy enough to produce the way he did during a 41-0 undressing of Jacksonville, but nearly anything is possible against the Jaguars' pass defense. Hasselbeck and the Cardinals' Kurt Warner have completed 42 of 56 passes for 484 yards, six touchdowns and a 136.3 rating against it this season.

"One thing about Seattle," Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said, looking ahead to a Week 6 visit to Qwest Field, "when they've got Matt Hasselbeck, they are a dangerous team."

The affirmations do not end there.

Suspicions about the San Francisco 49ers' one-dimensional offense appeared justified during a 45-10 home loss to the Atlanta Falcons. The 49ers found out what it's like to be on the other end of the turnover lottery. It's not much fun for a team that grudgingly throws the ball. The 49ers are much better than they showed Sunday, but not nearly as good as their 35-0 victory over St. Louis one week ago might have led some to think.

Week 5 stands as a helpful reminder on that front.

San Francisco can win the division. It's just going to be tougher if Warner and Hasselbeck get hot. The 49ers will need to become more 21st century on offense.

Even with the 49ers' one-week swing from 35-point victors to 35-point losers, the Cardinals remained the most enigmatic team in the division. No team in the division can look better, but the consistency still isn't there.

"I'm a little bit frustrated that the game turned out like it did," Warner said. "Guys stepped up and made plays at the end, but it shouldn't have been that close."

The Cardinals assumed their winning 2008 postseason identity against the Texans when they ran five times during an eight-play touchdown drive to open the game. They used two or fewer wide receivers five times in those eight plays, including pass completions covering 20 and 12 yards. But after two first-half touchdown passes to Larry Fitzgerald helped Arizona take a 21-0 lead into halftime, the Cardinals opened the second half with nine consecutive passes. They used three or more receivers seven times in those nine plays.

What gives?

Warner changed run plays to pass plays when the Texans brought an eighth defender near the line of scrimmage.

"We feel like if they are going to try and do that to take away the run, our strength is throwing the football and we can operate doing that," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

The Cardinals did come close to capitalizing against the Texans' run-stuffing tactics, but they couldn't finish plays. Fullback Dan Kreider dropped a pass. Tight end Anthony Becht committed pass interference, turning a 24-yard gain on third-and-1 into a 10-yard penalty and, eventually, a sack on third-and-11.

Hitting on a couple of those plays would have changed everything for Arizona in the second half. We all know Arizona can make those plays. But if the Cardinals are serious about balancing out their offense with first-round choice Beanie Wells, an obvious big-play threat, they're going to have to give him the ball -- even when defenses know he's coming.

"So many of our runs were in a three-wide receiver set because that gives us the option to throw the ball," Whisenhunt said. "We did try some in our regular package (two backs, one tight end) and they had the extra guys in the box.

"I know when we look at the tape tomorrow we're going to see a tremendous amount of those plays where we had the opportunities to really get us going, put the game away, and we didn't make those plays."

The challenge becomes playing to the Cardinals' strengths without becoming one-dimensional.

I keep flashing back to the playoffs last season.

Warner to Fitzgerald for 62 yards and a touchdown against Philadelphia. One wide receiver on the field.

Warner to Anquan Boldin for 45 yards against Pittsburgh. Two wide receivers on the field.

Warner to Fitzgerald for 42 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta. Two wide receivers on the field.

Warner to Fitzgerald for 41 yards against Carolina. Two wide receivers on the field.

Sometimes the Cardinals forget how dynamic their passing game can be without using three-plus wide receivers every time. Four of their six longest plays in the 2008 postseason featured two or fewer wideouts. Those four plays averaged 47.5 yards. Arizona has had three or more wideouts on the field for all six of its longest plays this season. Those plays averaged 27 yards.

Wells carried only seven times Sunday, once in the second half. That isn't enough, even if he still has much to learn about pass protection and a pro-style offense.

The Cardinals came out OK anyway. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's 49-yard interception return for a touchdown with 2:20 remaining bailed out Arizona. A goal-line stand prevented overtime.

Turnovers and goal-line stands make for flighty friends.

Give the Cardinals a running game and they'll win the division.