Friday, December 18, 2009
Final Word: NFC West
By Mike Sando ESPN.com
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesSan Francisco's Alex Smith is hoping to fare better than most quarterbacks have in Philly this season.
Alex Smith in perspective. The 49ers' quarterback has a much higher rating on the road (93.3) than at home (73.8) this season, but he is facing an Eagles defense that makes life rough on quarterbacks. Quarterbacks have 21 touchdowns, 20 interceptions and a 77.3 rating against the Eagles this season. Those numbers could be helpful when analyzing how Smith performs in this game. It's a bigger deal if Smith plays well and leads the 49ers to victory than if he struggles some and the 49ers lose the game. The progress Smith is making should be measured over the second half of the season -- not one game, even with the 49ers' playoff chances potentially at stake.
Wakeup call in Philadelphia. Upsetting the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field would keep alive the 49ers' playoff hopes no matter what division-leading Arizona does against the Lions. Few teams have found themselves in the 49ers' current predicament. San Francisco is only the third West Coast team to visit the Eagles for an early kickoff since the beginning of the 2005 season. The Seahawks won a close game there in 2007. The Chargers lost a close game there in 2005. The 49ers also lost there in 2005, 42-3, but Smith was behind Tim Rattay on the 49ers' depth chart back then. Only two current 49ers starters -- center Eric Heitmann (then at right guard) and cornerback Shawntae Spencer -- were in the lineup for that 2005 game at Philly. While much has changed, including the stakes, the 49ers are 0-4 this season and 2-21 since 2005 in games kicking off at 1 p.m. ET.
Shuffling along the lines. All four NFC West teams could have new starting combinations on their offensive lines this week. The Seahawks are moving right guard Max Unger to center. The Rams will have two new starting guards after releasing Richie Incognito and placing Jacob Bell on injured reserve. The 49ers could get left tackle Joe Staley back from injury. The Cardinals could move Jeremy Bridges into the lineup at left tackle while Mike Gandy continues to battle an injured pelvis. The changes appear most problematic for the Rams, who are already a mess offensively. They haven't scored more than 23 points in a game this season (the Texans, who visit St. Louis in Week 14, scored 24 points in the first 18 minutes of their game against Seattle last week).
Wells, Hightower in focus. The Cardinals can probably beat the Lions over ground or through air. This might be a good week for the team to restore confidence in running backs Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower after both lost critical fumbles last week. Arizona faces a Lions team that allowed 308 yards rushing to the Ravens last week. Wells ranks second in rushing yards to Denver's Knowshon Moreno among rookie running backs. He has appeared due for a 100-yard game for some time. Despite the fumble against San Francisco, Wells carried 15 times for 79 yards, an impressive showing against a strong run defense. Wells runs hard and seems to relish contact. If he's going to have a breakout game during the regular season, this would seem like a good time.
Seahawks have been here before. For the second time this season, Seattle coach Jim Mora has challenged his team following a blowout defeat in Texas. Just like last time, the Seahawks are facing one of the NFL's worst teams the following week. Last time, Mora suggested jobs were on the line following a 38-17 defeat to the Cowboys. The Seahawks failed to respond, falling behind 14-0 at home against the Lions before finally rallying to win the game. This time, Mora shook up his offensive line following a 34-7 defeat to the Texans. The Seahawks face the 1-12 Bucs at home this week. Tampa Bay has failed to exceed seven points in three of its past four games. For the Seahawks, falling behind 14-0 cannot be an option. Can it?