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Friday, November 20, 2009
Final Word: NFC West

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

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

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11:

Alex Smith
After two lackluster performances, Alex Smith needs to raise his game against Green Bay.
Road sweet road for Arizona. The Cardinals play four of their next five games on the road, but no one is complaining. Arizona's 4-0 road record could realistically stretch to 7-1 or 8-0 within the next month. That would have seemed unfathomable entering the season even though Arizona won at Carolina in the most recent playoffs, but the Bengals and Saints are also unbeaten on the road this season, so perhaps anything is possible. The Cardinals visit the Rams this week and the Titans in Week 12. They have a score to settle with the 49ers at Candlestick Park in Week 14 before visiting the Lions a week later. The way I see it, Arizona will finish no worse than 6-2 on the road this season. The Cardinals, 2-3 at home so far, would then need to win two of three remaining home games -- against the Vikings, Rams and Packers -- to reach double-digit victories for the first time since 1976, when Don Coryell was coach.

Alex Smith needs to step up. The comparisons to Aaron Rodgers are as natural as they are unfair. Smith has had to overcome so much more just to get back on the field. That's all fine, but the time is coming for Smith to take the next step. The 49ers nearly beat the Colts at Indianapolis with Smith under center. Two subsequent performances have stunted the quarterback's momentum (scoring 10 points off five turnovers against the Bears provided no boost, even in victory). The matchup against Green Bay's secondary would be difficult for any quarterback. Smith is not any quarterback, though. He was the No. 1 overall choice in 2005. Time to show why.

Shades of 2002 for Seahawks? Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was relatively upbeat following the Seahawks' 31-20 defeat at Arizona because he sees signs of life from a previously disjointed offense. Seattle finished the Arizona game with 472 yards, a season high. Back in 2002, when Mike Holmgren was coaching for his job, Hasselbeck and an emerging offense showed enough late in the season for the organization to stay the course. That team averaged 296 yards per game over the first 10 and 476 yards per game over the final six. That team suffered a 31-9 defeat at 6-3 Denver in Week 11 before winning four of its final six. The current Seahawks are at 8-1 Minnesota in Week 11. An upset over the Vikings is probably too much to ask. A more realistic goal -- building some momentum -- seems achievable.

Keeping an eye on Bulger. A strong case can be made for the Rams identifying and drafting a franchise quarterback in 2010. If things go to plan, this could be the Rams' last chance in a while to draft near the very top of the round, where top quarterbacks tend to be found. But what a luxury it would be for this franchise if Marc Bulger played well enough late in the season for the Rams to use their most valuable draft capital elsewhere. Bulger has played quite well recently despite constantly changing personnel at wide receiver. The team will continue to run its offense through Steven Jackson. And if receiver Donnie Avery continues to improve, Bulger has a chance to make a strong closing argument.

Tightening up that 49ers defense. The 49ers moved Dashon Goldson into the lineup at free safety this season in part because they wanted more athleticism to defend against the deep pass play. Goldson seems to have played well, but the 49ers have allowed 17 pass plays of at least 30 yards this season, tied with the Titans, Dolphins and Chiefs for most in the league. The Packers' offense has 17 such plays itself this season, one behind the Vikings' league-leading mark. Can the 49ers get to Rodgers before the Packers' receivers get open in their secondary? It's one of the more intriguing battles involving an NFC West team this week.