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Friday, September 12, 2008
Audibles: NFC West Week 2 preview

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

San Francisco 49ers (0-1) vs. Seattle Seahawks (0-1), 4:05 p.m. ET

The Seahawks' injury issues at receiver were a bigger problem in the opener than I had anticipated. Seattle, much like Philadelphia, has a veteran quarterback and a well-established offensive head coach. But the Seahawks and Eagles produced widely disparate results in their openers.

Seattle was on the road against a much tougher opponent, but the Seahawks' struggles went deeper. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck simply isn't comfortable breaking in new receivers. He must overcome that and his receivers must meet him halfway by catching balls thrown to them. How hard is that?

The 49ers can win this game if they establish Frank Gore in the running game and capitalize on the Seahawks' shaky special teams. Niners offensive coordinator Mike Martz is on the record saying he must make Gore the focal point of this offense. The 49ers can be a competitive team if Martz follows through.

Gore tore through the Seahawks' defense during a 2006 upset at Qwest Field.

The 49ers had a hard time protecting the ball against the Cardinals in their opener. They must be careful against Seattle. Joe Staley, making his second start at left tackle for the 49ers, had problems against the Cardinals' outside rushers. Seattle can challenge him in similar ways with Julian Peterson and others.

As Gore goes, so go the 49ers.

New York Giants (1-0) vs. St. Louis Rams (0-1), 1 p.m. ET

The Rams' attempts to improve and gain confidence are running into a brutal opening schedule. My NFC Super Bowl pick, Philadelphia, blew up the Rams' defense with big play after big play. The Giants come to St. Louis in Week 2 with a veteran offensive line, a workhorse running back and a nine-day break between games.

It's tough to see the Rams' defense holding up consistently. The secondary already had problems heading into the season. The team benched starting cornerback Tye Hill for poor play in the opener. A hamstring injury will force the Rams' best outside pass rusher, Leonard Little, to miss this game.

In other words, double-check those fantasy lineups to make sure the Giants' Plaxico Burress is starting.

The Rams' offense was the primary problem last season. The defense seemed to compete and improve. The roles might be reversed this season if the opener was any indication.

Steven Jackson ran the ball effectively during the early stages of the Rams' opening-week defeat. He never had a chance to develop a rhythm, however, because the Rams fell behind so quickly. The Eagles held a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.

The Rams lack the personnel to play from behind against a well-established defense. They need to stick with the running game this week even if they fall behind. It's their best option.

Miami Dolphins (0-1) vs. Arizona Cardinals (1-0), 4:15 p.m. ET

The Cardinals absolutely must win this game at home to validate early feelings about their status as a team on the rise. They were pleased to score a road victory against a 49ers team that beat them twice in 2007. Losing at home to the Dolphins might raise doubts heading into consecutive road games against the Redskins and Jets.

Arizona and Miami are both looking to establish identities under relatively new coaching staffs. The Cardinals have more talent and a one-year head start on the coaching front. They need to improve their run defense and become more efficient in the passing game.

The matchup itself is uninspiring. But with a chance to claim their first 2-0 start since 1991 -- yes, 1991 -- the Cardinals can't treat it that way.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt had the right answer when Miami reporters asked him about the challenge of changing the culture of an organization.

"When we win some games here and we've done that, I'll let you know," he said.