NFC West: 2011 Season Wrap

Seahawks regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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Final Power Ranking: 21
Preseason Power Ranking: 25

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhMarshawn Lynch carried Seattle's offense and rushed for 1,204 yards on 285 carries.
Biggest surprise: Seattle's ground game continued building momentum after the Seahawks lost three starting offensive linemen to season-ending injuries. Losing rookies James Carpenter and John Moffitt from the line's right side threatened depth and continuity. Losing left tackle Russell Okung for the final four games should have been disastrous heading into games against Julius Peppers, Justin Smith and Calais Campbell. Instead, Seattle charged forward with Paul McQuistan at left tackle. Marshawn Lynch led the NFL in rushing yards over the final nine weeks of the season. He was fourth over the final four weeks, when McQuistan was in the lineup. Lynch needed only 15 games to top 1,200 yards rushing even though Seattle never started the same offensive line more than three games in a row. Line coach Tom Cable proved his worth.

Biggest disappointment: The Seahawks invested millions in free-agent weapons Sidney Rice and Zach Miller without getting much receiving production from either. Miller was a mainstay as a blocker, but Seattle did not maximize his talent as a receiver. Both Rice and Miller missed games to injury. They combined for 57 receptions, 717 yards and two touchdowns. Miller had 60-685-5 by himself with Oakland in 2010. Seattle went all season without getting a touchdown reception from a tight end. Rice underwent shoulder surgery this week and expects to require 3-4 months rehabilitation.

Biggest need: Quarterback and pass-rusher head the list. Those are arguably the two most important positions on any team. The Seahawks have done an admirable job building up their roster with emerging young talent, but they appear unlikely to take a big step forward without addressing those two key areas. The draft will be pivotal; a coin flip with Kansas City will determine whether Seattle drafts 11th or 12th overall.

Team MVP: Lynch, in a landslide. The adage about running backs being relatively replaceable did not apply to Seattle in this case. No back in the league ran as violently as Lynch this season. He ran through and over opponents, breaking free from packs of defenders. The Seahawks expect to add another big back through the draft or free agency, but there is only one Lynch. Re-signing him is a top priority.

In with the new: A strong rookie class made immediate contributions while offering promise for the future. Carpenter, Moffitt, linebacker K.J. Wright, cornerback Richard Sherman, receiver Doug Baldwin and receiver Ricardo Lockette showed enough to factor next season. All but Lockette project as starters. Another rookie receiver, Kris Durham, is returning from injury and has the size to become a Mike Williams type. Carpenter's future could be at guard if the team decides to stick with Giacomini at right tackle.

Cardinals regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
PM ET
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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Final Power Ranking: 18
Preseason Power Ranking: 21

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesRookie Patrick Peterson's special teams play earned him a spot on the Pro Bowl roster.
Biggest surprise: The Cardinals recovered from a 1-6 start to finish 8-8 despite never getting consistently improved play from their quarterbacks. Arizona appeared dead after blowing a 24-6 halftime lead at Baltimore in the seventh game of the season. The Cardinals were trailing the 1-6 St. Louis Rams at home the next week after quarterback John Skelton took two safeties in the third quarter, absurdly producing the first four-point quarter in league history. This was how the Ken Whisenhunt era was going to unravel? No. Patrick Peterson's 99-yard punt return in overtime turned around the season. The Cardinals won at Philadelphia the next week and later put together a four-game winning streak -- the team's longest since 1999. Beating Seattle in Week 17 capped the season appropriately.

Biggest disappointment: Arizona's big play for quarterback Kevin Kolb failed to produce the desired results. Kolb missed seven-plus games to injury and struggled when he was in the lineup. Those blaming the Cardinals' offensive line for protection issues should not overlook Kolb's role in the negative plays. Kolb was nearly 30 percent more likely than Skelton to take sacks. He took more in nine starts (30) than Kurt Warner ever took during a full season with the team. Warner was not playing behind Pro Bowlers, either. Kolb was frequently quick to bail on plays, often with negative results. He completed 13 of 37 passes (35.1 percent) for 167 yards from outside the pocket, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Missing the final three games to a concussion amplified durability questions.

Biggest need: Offensive tackle has to be up there. Brandon Keith broke down physically at right tackle, ending the season on injured reserve. Levi Brown might have played his final game for the team at left tackle. His contract becomes untenable in 2012. The Cardinals could bring him back at a reduced rate. Upgrading the position might be a better option. Two teams, Arizona and Tennessee, have not selected an offensive lineman in the first three rounds of the last four drafts. The Cardinals will need better pass protection even if Kolb improves his pocket awareness.

Team MVP: Larry Fitzgerald. The perennial Pro Bowl choice dropped only one pass despite finishing the season with 150 targets, fourth-most in the league. The three players with more targets than Fitzgerald -- Roddy White, Wes Welker and Calvin Johnson -- combined for 22 drops (14 by White). Fitzgerald upped his yards per reception from 12.6 in 2010 to 17.6 this season. His play bordered on heroic against Seattle in Week 17. Fitzgerald played through a bruised lung, spitting up blood, and still dominated with the game on the line. His grace and sportsmanship also stood out. While other players jawed back and forth, occasionally scuffling, Fitzgerald helped up the men blanketing him in coverage. He joined Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison and Randy Moss as the only players with 1,400 yards in four seasons.

What could have been: Peterson's four touchdowns on punt returns and improved play at cornerback gave the Cardinals outstanding return on their first-round draft investment. Imagine if second-round choice Ryan Williams hadn't suffered a season-ending knee injury during preseason. Williams showed big-play ability during camp. Without him, the running game faltered some as starter Beanie Wells fought through a knee injury. Wells topped 1,000 yards, but he averaged 3.1 yards per attempt with a long run of nine yards over Arizona's final four games.

49ers regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
PM ET
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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Final Power Ranking: 3
Preseason Power Ranking: 26

Biggest surprise: Alex Smith threw only five interceptions while finishing the season with a 90.7 NFL passer rating, ninth-best in the league. In 2010, he threw twice as many picks in five fewer games. Smith also held up better physically than he had in past seasons. He made 16 starts without suffering much more than a mild concussion that forced him to miss no meaningful time. Smith, a participant in zero fourth-quarter comeback victories from 2008- 10, put his signature on five of them this season. That was tied for most in the league. Coach Jim Harbaugh pushed Smith for the Pro Bowl.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesIn 2011, San Francisco QB Alex Smith had his best season of his six-year pro career.
Biggest disappointment: Injuries to Josh Morgan, Ted Ginn Jr., Kyle Williams, Delanie Walker and the since-released Braylon Edwards have left the 49ers thin on pass catchers heading into the playoffs. The team will need more from Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree to compensate for what Morgan, Walker and Edwards would have provided at their best. Getting back Ginn and Williams also should help. Davis reemerged as a primary threat in recent weeks. He had 18 catches for 244 yards over the 49ers' final three regular-season games. That is the most productive three-game stretch of the season for Davis. Crabtree is also producing at a higher level lately. Still, this group could have been stronger.

Biggest need: Additional help in the secondary could make sense. The 49ers, despite ranking among the league leaders in most defensive categories, allowed 12 pass plays of at least 40 yards, tied for fifth-most in the league. Long pass plays were a factor in defeats to Dallas and Arizona. The 49ers will have to decide how much to pay cornerback Carlos Rogers and free safety Dashon Goldson. Both earned Pro Bowl honors. Neither has a contract for next season. It's unclear how aggressive the 49ers might be in retaining them. Chris Culliver, a third-round choice in 2011, had an interception and seven passes defensed as a rookie. He factors into the equation at corner.

Team MVP: Defensive end Justin Smith gets the call over inside linebacker Patrick Willis because Smith started every game and dominated. Smith can occupy two blockers and still get free to make a tackle. He's a threat to sack the quarterback. His presence was also a leading factor in setting up teammates. Rookie Aldon Smith had 14 sacks in part because Smith forced favorable matchups. A knee injury slowed Justin Smith during the final two games, but he fought through it and even sneaked back onto the field when the Rams were rallying in Week 17.

Special season: No team in the league could top the 49ers on special teams. San Francisco led the league in field position. Ginn averaged 27.6 yards per kickoff return and 12.3 yards per punt return, scoring two touchdowns in the opener. Kicker David Akers set a league record for made field goals. After the 49ers downed Andy Lee's 64-yard punt at the St. Louis 1-yard line in the fourth quarter Sunday, Lee emerged with the highest single-season net average (44.0) since at least 1976, according to Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information.

Rams regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
PM ET
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 31
Preseason Power Ranking: 17

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Jay Drowns/Getty ImagesSam Bradford could not build on a promising rookie campaign and struggled in his second season.
Biggest surprise: The Rams ranked eighth in sacks per pass attempt, one spot ahead of the 13-3 San Francisco 49ers, even though they rarely forced opponents into obvious passing situations. Chris Long broke out with a career-high 13 sacks. Long had been improving since moving to the left side. There were indications he might hit double digits for sacks if the Rams forced opponents into obvious passing situations frequently enough. Long came within a half-sack of matching his combined total for the 2009-10 seasons.

Biggest disappointment: Failing to build on Sam Bradford's promising rookie season. Bradford was the NFL's offensive rookie of the year after setting rookie records for completions (354) and pass attempts (590). Only Peyton Manning had thrown for more yards than Bradford as an NFL rookie. There were challenges this season with the lockout, a tough early schedule and all that goes with learning a new scheme. Bradford and first-year coordinator Josh McDaniels liked their chances, but the offense suffered huge setbacks when injuries sidelined Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola in the season opener. The Rams approached the season eager to see how Jackson, Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Mike Hoomanawanui and Lance Kendricks functioned together. That group never took a snap together. Bradford completed only 53.5 percent of his passes. He took 36 sacks in 10 starts and threw for only six touchdowns.

Biggest need: Offensive playmakers. Bradford completed only 1 of 16 attempts in goal-to-go situations. For perspective, consider that Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman, another young quarterback facing struggles in 2011, completed 14 of 20 passes with eight touchdowns in these situations. Picking up Brandon Lloyd by trade helped, but the veteran receiver might wind up being a one-year rental. Lloyd's contract expires in March. The man influential in bringing him to St. Louis, McDaniels, might not be back. The Rams need to draft a difference- maker at receiver. That could be tough to justify with so many needs elsewhere on the roster.

Team MVP: Jackson was an obvious choice. If only he hadn't strained a quadriceps while breaking a 47-yard touchdown run against Philadelphia on his first carry of the season. That injury limited Jackson to six carries over the first three games. Jackson still topped 1,100 yards for the season. He joined Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas, Curtis Martin, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson and LaDainian Tomlinson as the only players with seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He rushed for 159, 130 and 128 yards during a three-game stretch when the Rams went 2-1.

Starting over up front: The offensive line was supposed to be a strength for St. Louis after the team signed guard Harvey Dahl in free agency. Dahl held up his end, but the rest of the line fell apart. Rodger Saffold will be back at left tackle or somewhere along the line. Dahl will return. Right tackle Jason Smith, chosen second overall in 2009, will not return at his current salary. Center Jason Brown lost his starting job during the season. Left guard Jacob Bell took a pay reduction and a one-year deal right before the season. The team has not developed young depth on the line. How will the team protect Bradford?

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