NFC West: 2011 Week 17 coverage

Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals following their Week 17 game Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, a 23-20 victory for the Cardinals:

What it means: The Cardinals finished with an 8-8 record. The Seahawks finished 7-9. That means Arizona recovered from a 1-6 start to post a record of at least .500 for the fourth time in five seasons under coach Ken Whisenhunt. Seattle rallied back from a 2-6 start. Consecutive defeats to end the season improved their draft status. The Seahawks finished tied with Kansas City for the 11th-worst record in the NFL, and both teams had a .512 strength of schedule. That means a coin toss will decide which team picks 11th overall in the 2012 draft. The Chiefs will pick 13th. Had Seattle won, the Seahawks would have lost 4-6 spots in the draft. Arizona would have picked 11th.

What I liked: This was another intense, physical battle between NFC West teams late in the season. Penalties are not something I would generally list under the "what I liked" category, but personal fouls against Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman, Paris Lenon, Early Doucet and Levi Brown reflected the spirited nature of this game. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch continued to punish defenders with his aggressive running, breaking free from Calais Campbell and running over Daryl Washington on two early runs. He and Leon Washington gave the Seahawks another strong team outing on the ground (170-plus yards). Leon Washington's 48-yard rushing touchdown and 47-yard kickoff return in overtime were key plays. Arizona's LaRod Stephens-Howling made impact plays, as well. His 39-yard run was a career long. He also saved a touchdown by tackling Sherman following an interception in the fourth quarter. The Seahawks' big corners could not stop Larry Fitzgerald, but they were not dominated physically, a change from past seasons. Competition for the ball was often fierce. Fitzgerald played like an MVP anyway. Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, active despite a strained Achilles tendon, had a 42-yard punt return and also blocked a short field goal try. Seattle continued to develop young players, with undrafted rookie receiver Ricardo Lockette providing a 61-yard touchdown reception.

What I didn't like: Running back Beanie Wells was inactive for the Cardinals. He missed both games against Seattle this season. Wells' knee problems had limited him in recent weeks. His absence made it tougher for Arizona to match the physical tone Seattle set with Lynch breaking tackles and running over defenders. Both quarterbacks struggled at times. Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson twice threw too long for Ben Obomanu when the receiver might have scored touchdowns. He also missed Golden Tate open deep along the right sideline. Jackson threw what should have been an interception in the red zone when Seattle trailed 20-10, but the Cardinals' Washington dropped it. That was a bad play for both teams. Skelton's interception to Sherman came at a critical time. The Seahawks' absence of a pass-rusher beyond Chris Clemons showed up in the clutch once again, this time when Skelton had plenty of time to find Fitzgerald for a 26-yard gain over the middle in overtime.

What's next: The Seahawks and Cardinals missed the playoffs.

Wrap-up: 49ers 34, Rams 27

January, 1, 2012
Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams during their Week 17 game at the Edward Jones Dome, a 34-27 victory for San Francisco:

What it means: The 49ers played to win in securing the NFC's second seed in the playoffs and the first-round bye that goes along with it. Securing the bye was hugely important for the 49ers given their injury situation. Coach Jim Harbaugh showed how much this game meant to the team. He allowed Patrick Willis to play for the first time since suffering a hamstring injury. He approved a fake field goal when the 49ers led by 10 points late in the third quarter. The 49ers needed to play well because the Rams put together a furious comeback -- a potential last stand for coach Steve Spagnuolo. The Rams emerged with the No. 2 overall choice in the 2012 draft when Indianapolis also lost.

What I liked: Both teams played aggressively to win. Even the interception St. Louis threw on an ill-fated trick play showed Spagnuolo wasn't going to go quietly in what could have been his final game. The 49ers adjusted to their personnel issues by making Vernon Davis a bigger part of the passing game. Davis topped 100 yards. The fake field goal they executed was brilliant for the way it tricked the Rams into overlooking Michael Crabtree's presence on the field as a wide receiver. The Rams, meanwhile, put up a great fight in coming back from a 27-10 deficit even though they lost Steven Jackson to injury. Kicker Josh Brown provided a perfect onside kick that the Rams recovered. Third-string quarterback Kellen Clemens found Brandon Lloyd for the touchdown that pulled St. Louis within 34-27. And the 49ers, though reeling in the final minutes, came through with the defensive play they needed when NaVorro Bowman sacked Clemens and knocked him from the game with a leg injury at the 2:46 mark.

What I didn't like: Rams rookie tight end Lance Kendricks showed great promise in training camp, but his regular-season struggles continued in this game. The pass Kendricks dropped near the first-down marker with 6:15 left in the first half left the Rams in a third-and-10 situation. They fumbled the snap on their next play, setting up the 49ers to stretch their lead from 17-7 to 20-7. The 49ers gave up a rushing touchdown for the second week in a row. Willis, playing for the first time since suffering a hamstring injury Dec. 4, could not get around Rams tight end Stephen Spach when Jackson broke through the line for a 27-yard gain. The injury to Clemens was horribly unfortunate, but also an indication of the protection problems the Rams have had all season. The 49ers' defense, though facing the most limited offense in the NFL, blew a chance to set a franchise record for lowest points per game allowed. They needed to allow 15 or fewer points to break the 1976 team's NFL-era franchise record. They needed to allow 13 or fewer points to break the all-time franchise record, set in the AAFC era.

What's next: The 49ers have a week off before playing in the NFC divisional playoff round. That game will be at Candlestick Park. The Rams hold the second overall choice in the 2012 NFL draft.