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Friday, December 21, 2012
Final Word: NFC West

By Mike Sando

NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

Mandatory viewing, optional running. The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks will be showcasing throw-first quarterbacks with the ability to beat defenses with their legs as well. The 49ers' Colin Kaepernick has two 50-yard runs in fourth quarters of recent games. The Seahawks' Russell Wilson had 92 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns last week, but his decisions from the option attack are what have given defenses the most trouble. Wilson has averaged 8.1 yards per carry on option runs over the past three games. Marshawn Lynch has averaged 13.0 yards on these plays over the same span. The 49ers have faced one zone-read play all season. They allowed 35 yards to the Buffalo Bills' Brad Smith on a Wildcat play in Week 5.

Ahmad Brooks, Russell Wilson
The 49ers limited Russell Wilson to 122 yards passing and 10 yards on the ground in Seattle's Week 7 loss to San Francisco.
Blowouts nice while they last. The Seahawks are the fourth team over the past 12 seasons to win back-to-back games by at least 33 points apiece. Their Week 16 opponent, San Francisco, accomplished the feat against Buffalo and the New York Jets earlier this season. Before that, only the 2005 Seahawks (Weeks 13-14) and 2002 Kansas City Chiefs (Weeks 13-14) had posted back-to-back blowouts of that magnitude since at least 2001. Nine total points have separated the Seahawks and 49ers in their two most recent matchups. A blowout appears unlikely for either team, in other words.

Containing a hot QB. Wilson leads the NFL in Total QBR over the past 10 weeks. The improvement he has shown against five or more pass-rushers -- 82.2 QBR score with six touchdowns and no interceptions since Week 8, compared with 23.3 QBR with no touchdowns and two interceptions previously -- might not apply Sunday.

San Francisco rarely rushes more than four defenders. The 49ers are the only team to hold Wilson below 50 percent completions when rushing four or fewer. Wilson completed 6 of 15 passes (40 percent) for 85 yards and a season-low 27.2 QBR score on those plays during Seattle's 13-6 defeat at San Francisco in Week 7. He has completed 68.1 percent with 15 touchdowns and an 85.2 QBR score on these plays against everyone else.

Give the 49ers some credit, but also note that Lynch, Evan Moore and Robert Turbin dropped passes -- two of them more than 20 yards downfield -- on three of those 15 attempts against standard pressure.

Putting clamps on Cutler. The Arizona Cardinals have regularly forced opposing quarterbacks into poor performances. Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan combined for one touchdown pass, nine interceptions, seven sacks and a 20.7 QBR score when facing Arizona this season. They have 73 touchdowns, 26 interceptions and a 74.8 QBR score against everyone else.

Chicago's Jay Cutler is on the Cardinals' menu in Week 16. Cutler ranks 36th out of 37 qualifying quarterbacks in QBR against five-plus pass-rushers. The Cardinals send five-plus rushers 41.5 percent of the time, the second-highest rate in the league. Opponents have 10 touchdowns, nine picks, 22 sacks and a 23.8 QBR against Arizona's added pressure.

Return games in focus. Patrick Peterson, Devin Hester, Leon Washington and Ted Ginn Jr. have combined for 35 career touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns. All four are in play during Week 16 games featuring NFC West teams. Niners rookie LaMichael James provided a pivotal 62-yard kickoff return last week, so let's include him in this discussion as well.

Among the more established returners listed above, Washington is the only one to find the end zone on a return this season. The others are struggling. Hester's Bears rank last in kickoff return average. Ginn has muffed or nearly muffed punts recently. I'll be watching to see whether one of these returners makes a game-changing play Sunday. The 49ers rank 31st in kick coverage, so perhaps Washington will have the best shot.

As a final word to this Final Word, note that the St. Louis Rams head to Tampa Bay ranked 30th in field-position margin at minus-5.8 yards. The Rams have not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2005. They have one punt return for a touchdown over the past five seasons (Nick Miller in 2011). The Buccaneers rank among the NFL's top 10 in starting field position on both sides of the ball, and in average field-position margin.