NFC West: 2011 Week 10 coverage

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
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Catch us if you can.

That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.

It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.

By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.

It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.

So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?

The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.

First Down

The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?


Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.

Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.

Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.

Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.


Second Down

The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?


Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.

Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.

Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.


Third Down

Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?


Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.

Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.

Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.

Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.


Fourth Down

If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?


Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.

Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.

Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.

Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.

 

Wrap-up: Seahawks 22, Ravens 17

November, 13, 2011
11/13/11
7:26
PM ET
Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' 22-17 home victory against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 10:

What it means: The Seahawks beat a good team for the second time this season, improving to 3-6 heading into a favorable four-game stretch of the schedule. Win or lose, Seattle needed to build upon its recent success on the ground. That happened early in the game against a stout Ravens run defense, and again late in the game as Marshawn Lynch ground out 100-plus yards on the ground. The team lost rookie right guard John Moffitt to a knee injury, however, throwing off their plan for the line. The Seahawks also lost their most promising rookie, receiver Doug Baldwin, and their best receiver, Sidney Rice, to head injuries. But with the schedule lightening up, Seattle has a shot at threatening its seven-win total from last season.

What I liked: The Seahawks' defense took the game to Baltimore and prevented the Ravens from getting going on the ground or through the air. This was exactly the type of performance the Seahawks needed from their defense against a team that had scored at least 23 points in six of its eight games this season. Seattle scored its third-highest total of the season in part because the defense and special teams forced turnovers. Seattle built a 22-10 lead through three quarters thanks to four field-goal drives beginning at the Baltimore 19-, 42-, 18- and 4-yard lines. Lynch found running room early, helping the Seahawks jump to a 10-0 lead, gaining confidence. Lynch carried 32 times for 109 yards overall. David Hawthorne's interception was another big play for the Seahawks.

What I didn't like: The injuries were potentially costly. Strong safety Kam Chancellor, one of the best young players in the division, was also hurt. The Seahawks kept having to settle for field goals despite taking over in Ravens territory.

Divisional, uh, dominance: The NFC West went 4-0 during Week 10. That means no "silver linings" files for Monday.

What's next: The Seahawks visit the St. Louis Rams in Week 11.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 27, Giants 20

November, 13, 2011
11/13/11
7:21
PM ET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 27-20 victory over the New York Giants at Candlestick Park in Week 10:

What it means: The 49ers took another step in convincing skeptics they can defeat the top teams without a purportedly "elite" quarterback behind center. With Frank Gore contained early and sidelined by a knee injury for stretches, Alex Smith carried a larger share of the offense this week. He was up to the challenge, mixing in timely rushes to supplement his throwing while generally avoiding errors once again. The 49ers (8-1) maintained their five-game lead in the NFC West and looked like the second-best team in the league.

What I liked: Smith completed 19 of 30 pass attempts for 242 yards. He came through with the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. His lone interception wasn't his fault; the receiver dropped the ball and knocked it into the air. Inside linebacker Patrick Willis had a sack and multiple tackles for loss. Cornerback Carlos Rogers affirmed his status as one of the top free-agent additions this past offseason, collecting two interceptions. Justin Smith batted down the Giants' fourth-down attempt deep in 49ers territory to preserve the victory. The 49ers' offensive coaches did a good job freeing tight end Vernon Davis for a touchdown. They also showed creativity with a successful two-point conversion pass to Michael Crabtree, who lined up in the backfield on the play. This wasn't the best defensive performance by San Francisco from a statistical standpoint, but the defense made key plays in timely moments.

What I didn't like: Ted Ginn Jr.'s dropped pass before halftime led to an interception and robbed the 49ers of a needed scoring opportunity when the team was already in field goal range. Gore got nothing going when he was in the game and spent most of his afternoon on the sideline. The 49ers' Kendall Hunter did strike with an impressive 17-yard touchdown run at a key point in the game, but San Francisco's ground game was not consistent from play to play. Beyond Rogers, the 49ers' secondary had issues covering the Giants' receivers on deep routes, as feared. Eli Manning made a few perfect throws, but there were receivers open at critical times, including once when Mario Manningham couldn't quite catch up to what would have been the tying touchdown pass in the final minutes.

Versatility on offense: The 49ers put their tight ends' superior speed to good use. They lined up with two backs and two tight ends without sacrificing their ability to strike in the passing game. Delanie Walker caught six passes for 69 yards. Davis had three receptions for 40 yards and a touchdown. Walker's productivity had diminished in recent weeks with Braylon Edwards returning, but that changed in a big way Sunday. The 49ers completed only eight passes to wide receivers. The remaining 11 completed passes went to tight ends and backs.

Special-teams advantage: The 49ers' special teams continued to give San Francisco an edge. David Akers was automatic on field goal attempts. His surprise onside kick was also perfectly executed, and recovered by the 49ers.

What's next: The 49ers face the Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park in Week 11.

Wrap-up: Cardinals 21, Eagles 17

November, 13, 2011
11/13/11
4:25
PM ET

Thoughts on the Arizona Cardinals' 21-17 victory at Philadelphia in Week 10:

What it means: The Cardinals improved to 3-6 with their second harrowing victory in a row. They ended a streak of 11 consecutive road defeats. Backup quarterback John Skelton improved to 4-2 as the Cardinals' starter, fueling questions about whether he should remain in the lineup ahead of injured starter Kevin Kolb. Skelton was up-and-down in this game, throwing a pair of costly interceptions deep in Cardinals territory, one returned for a touchdown. But he made key plays in the clutch, throwing the tying fourth-quarter touchdown pass for the second week in a row. This time, Skelton also threw the winning touchdown pass. Kolb, meanwhile, has a 1-6 starting record. Kolb has to be the starter when healthy given what the Cardinals have invested in him, but with the team winning two in a row with Skelton, the pressure on Kolb is growing.

What I liked: The Cardinals' defensive plan appeared sound. Arizona pressured and shadowed Michael Vick without giving up too much in the secondary. The matchups became easier for Philadelphia once the Eagles made receiver DeSean Jackson a surprise inactive. Rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson fared well against Jeremy Maclin, who suffered a shoulder injury and left the game. The defensive stop Arizona made on an early fourth-and-2 gave the Cardinals momentum early. Adrian Wilson's interception in the end zone, though nullified by a penalty, was an impressive play. Calais Campbell's interception in the red zone continued a run of big plays from the defensive end and free agent-to-be. The offensive staff did a good job getting Andre Roberts involved, a trend since Skelton took over for Kolb. Roberts' gain on a rushing play set up Larry Fitzgerald's first touchdown reception of the game. The fourth-quarter scoring pass Fitzgerald caught came on a tipped pass, giving him 70 career touchdown receptions and moving him past Roy Green for the franchise career record. Skelton has now thrown the tying fourth-quarter touchdown pass in consecutive games. Skelton threw the winning touchdown pass to Early Doucet. Cornerback A.J. Jefferson clinched the victory with a late interception.

What I didn't like: Skelton's pick-six interception from deep in Cardinals territory was costly. Skelton appeared to telegraph his intentions on the play. This was a close, low-scoring game. Skelton's error and two missed field goals from Jay Feely forced the Cardinals to play catch-up unnecessarily. Their margin for error appears too slim to tolerate those types of issues -- most Sundays, anyway.

What's next: The Cardinals visit the San Francisco 49ers in Week 11.

Wrap-up: Rams 13, Browns 12

November, 13, 2011
11/13/11
4:02
PM ET

Thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 13-12 road victory over the Cleveland Browns in Week 10:

What it means: The Rams improved to 2-7 and made it impossible for the San Francisco 49ers to clinch the NFC West title with victories in Weeks 10 and 11. Their second victory of the season put them two games ahead of still-winless Indianapolis for those charting whether the Rams could finish with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft. The Rams' special teams earned some redemption after a rough game last week. The Browns' inability to execute a clean snap for the go-ahead field goal proved costly.

What I liked: Brandon Lloyd continued to provide the Rams with the top-shelf receiving threat they've been lacking in recent years. The one-handed grab he made along the sideline comes to mind. The Rams lead the NFL in dropped passes this season and haven't been able to make the spectacular play. Lloyd is changing those dynamics. His touchdown reception helped the Rams take a 10-9 lead into halftime. Steven Jackson continued running with authority, plowing over defenders and even teammates when necessary. He topped 100 yards rushing for the third game in a row. Newly signed linebacker David Nixon forced Josh Cribbs to fumble during a fourth-quarter punt return, setting up the Rams inside the Cleveland 30-yard line.

What I didn't like: Bradford struggled with tipped passes and had one of them picked off by Scott Fujita. With Jackson and Lloyd performing at a high level, Bradford should be more productive even at less than full strength. This was his 12th game in a row with fewer than two touchdown passes. Injuries were also a downer for the Rams in this game. Left tackle Rodger Saffold did not return after suffering a blow to the head. Bradford, playing with a bad left ankle, left the game for one play. Safety Darian Stewart, one of the team's top young defenders, suffered a neck injury in the second half and left the game. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui left with a knee injury.

What's next: The Rams are home against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 11.

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