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Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Around the NFC West: On Cards' reversal

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

The Arizona Cardinals lost three consecutive games by a total of eight points earlier this season. They have now won four in a row by a combined 14 points, with two of the most lopsided outcomes stemming from 19-13 and 20-17 victories in overtime.

The search for meaning behind the Cardinals rise to a 7-7 record following a 1-6 start could lead to a basic conclusion. Yes, the defense has improved and quarterback John Skelton has shown a knack for stepping up his game in fourth quarters and overtime, but perhaps things are simply evening out.

Whatever the case, Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says coach Ken Whisenhunt and the team in general are much better off getting hot now than, say, falling to 7-7 after a 6-1 start. Whisenhunt: "It builds equity. When you go through the pain of losing those games with all these young guys, and they understand now what they have to do in order to get out of it, that makes you stronger as a team. You have this group of young players who understand, 'This is what we have to do. This is the standard that we have to set in practice and in meetings and what we have to do in games.' Now, when you have a group of free agents come in here, you have a group of guys who won't accept anything but this standard."

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic checks in with Cardinals guard Daryn Colledge on several subjects. Colledge on the team's turnaround: "We were 1-6, and we weren't doing what we wanted to do, but we knew we still had the guys in the room to get it done. We told everybody to stick with us, that we were losing close games but we would find a way to get it going, and we have. We stuck to our guns, we didn't break apart, we got stronger, and no matter what happens at the end of the season -- whether we make the playoffs or not -- I believe this team takes this momentum and uses it through the off-season and we become a real threat next year."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com runs through basic parameters for the Cardinals to earn a playoff berth.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says the team again needs the versatile Ben Obomanu to fill in for injured wide receivers. Starters Sidney Rice and Mike Williams are out for the season. Farnsworth: "Obomanu and Golden Tate showed what they can combine to do on the opening drive of the second half against the Bears, as Tarvaris Jackson went to Tate for a 33-yard pass play on third-and-9 and then found Obomanu for a 43-yard gain on a drive that ended with Marshawn Lynch scoring on a 3-yard run. Because Obomanu already has started at split end (three games for Williams) and flanker (two games for Rice), his flexibility and experience will help the passing game compensate for its latest loss."

Also from Farnsworth: a look at the Seahawks' young safeties, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks are looking forward to getting another shot at the 49ers. O'Neil: "The 49ers held Seattle to 39 yards of offense in the first half of the season opener. The Seahawks trailed by 16 at halftime, cut the deficit to two points in the fourth quarter and then allowed Ted Ginn to score twice, first on a kickoff return and then a punt return. There are plenty of ways to measure how far the Seahawks have come since that loss. You can count up the 1,390 rushing yards in their past 13 games, including five 100-yard rushing performances by Marshawn Lynch. Or you can point to the five wins Seattle has in its past six games. Or better yet, you can line the Seahawks up against that same 49ers team they faced more than three months ago and see how the second meeting turns out."

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune sees the Seahawks-49ers rivalry only getting better. Boling: "Don’t let anybody kid you, this has turned into a rivalry between two young teams on the rise, coached by a pair of very competitive men. This is not just another game."

Brian Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams are set at quarterback and shouldn't hope to finish with the No. 1 overall draft choice for the purposes of selecting Andrew Luck. Burwell: "It's a bad idea to write off Bradford based on the impossible circumstances of this wretched season. One of the smartest football wise guys I know, legendary former Dallas Cowboys personnel guru Gil Brandt, is a huge Bradford fan. We have talked a lot about Bradford over the past few years, and he was one of the first people who convinced me before the 2010 draft that the Rams had to go with Bradford over defensive tackle Ndamakong Suh. He was right then, and he's right now when he says to keep believing in Bradford."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provides historical context for the Rams' weak offense. Thomas: "The Rams have scored only 15 TDs this season, and if that number doesn't change against Pittsburgh and San Francisco, it will be the second-lowest total in franchise history -- trailing only the 10 TDs scored by the Cleveland Rams in 1937. And if the Rams don't score at least 34 points over their final two games, they will become just the 15th team in the NFL since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978 to score fewer than 200 points."

Jeff Bennett, Gregg Found and Jason Starrett of ESPN Stats & Information take a closer look at the 49ers' run defense, offering this: "The 49ers have been able to keep opposing runners out of the end zone by limiting goal line opportunities and stuffing the run unlike any other team inside the five-yard line. All season, only seven times have opponents tried to run the ball within the 49ers' 5-yard line. And those rushing attempts are getting stuffed every time. Opponents actually are averaging negative yardage on those attempts. In seven tries, they've combined for negative-two yards. ... Since 2001, only two teams have allowed negative opponents' yards per rush inside the five over the course of an entire season. That claim belongs to the 2007 Packers (-0.7 yards per rush) and the 2005 Jaguars (-0.2)."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says performance, not injury, was the reason behind Braylon Edwards being named inactive Monday night. Noted: Alex Smith's yards per attempt lag when targeting Edwards.

Also from Maiocco: Aldon Smith strikes opposing quarterbacks quickly.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh answered in the affirmative when asked whether he saw Alex Smith as the team's quarterback of the future. Noted: That is a tough question for a head coach to answer candidly during any season, let alone such a successful one. Saying no wasn't a viable option.

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat challenges Harbaugh's claim that Smith is worthy of the Pro Bowl. Cohn: "We all can admire Harbaugh for defending his guy -- for putting his player forward. This may help Smith's confidence, and Harbaugh loves to see himself (and his alter ego, Smith) as an underdog no one respects. So, this is a perfect fight for Harbaugh to start. It plays into exactly who Harbaugh is and needs to be. But he is way ahead of himself claiming Pro Bowl status for this quarterback with such limited accomplishments and, if you'll forgive me, such limited athletic gifts."