NFC West: 2012 Week 1 Wrap-ups
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.
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.
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.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
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.
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.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
What it means: The 49ers affirmed their status as an NFC power, outplaying the Packers in a manner counter to suggestions some of their 2011 success was unsustainable. The game affirmed the progress quarterback Alex Smith showed last season, including when he led the 49ers past Drew Brees and New Orleans in the playoffs. Oh, and while David Akers was tying an NFL record with a 63-yard field goal, the 49ers' defense was exceeding even its own dominant standards. Any questions?
What I liked: Each season takes on its own identity. Success does not necessarily carry over. What I saw, however, was a 49ers team comfortable on the big stage after reaching the NFC Championship Game last season. The difference this time, however, was at wide receiver, a position the 49ers had to address after running low on players at the position when it mattered most last season.
Randy Moss' first-half touchdown reception over the middle showed the 49ers could get immediate contributions from their big-name offensive addition. Moss already had a 20-yard reception at that point in the game. He was more than a threat on reputation. He was a threat for how he could play. That was important for the 49ers.
Michael Crabtree, held to one catch for three yards against the New York Giants with a Super Bowl berth on the line, benefited from better talent around him. It helped, too, that the 49ers often had good pass protection early, including from left tackle Joe Staley against the Packers' Clay Matthews. Matthews did get to Smith with increasing frequency as the game progressed.
Frank Gore topped 100 yards rushing, putting away the game with an authoritative touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter. Gore made his play after NaVorro Bowman's interception off Aaron Rodgers returned the momentum in the 49ers' favor following a disputed punt return for a Packers touchdown.
Akers' 63-yard field goal as the first half ended tied an NFL record while giving the 49ers a welcome boost and a 16-7 lead. The 49ers too frequently settled for field goals last season. Akers set an NFL record with 44 successful field goals last season. The 63-yarder was a kick the team could celebrate, and they did. Coach Jim Harbaugh jumped along the sideline.
The 49ers' defense made timely plays and effectively used a reconfigured sub package featuring Perrish Cox, even when it meant taking Patrick Willis off the field.
What I didn't like: The 49ers caught a tough break early when officials flagged Aldon Smith for removing his helmet. Smith's helmet was already coming off while he sacked Rodgers. Smith did not help his cause by grabbing his helmet and removing it fully as it was coming off.
Later, officials appeared to miss a clear block in the back during Randall Cobb's 75-yard punt-return touchdown to pull Green Bay within eight points in the fourth quarter. The return hurt even more when officials picked up the flag they had thrown during the return.
The officiating frustration continued when officials ruled Gore short of the first-down marker, then upheld the call on a challenge from coach Jim Harbaugh. That left San Francisco with no challenges remaining.
Enough nit-picking on the officiating. There was too much for the 49ers to like in this game.
What's next: The 49ers are home against Detroit in Week 2. They kick off at 8:20 p.m. ET from Candlestick Park.
What it means: The Rams are instantly more competitive under new coach Jeff Fisher than they were at just about any time last season. They looked like a team that could go from 2-14 last season into the .500 range this season. Performing so well under difficult circumstances provides instant validation for a new head coach. Fisher didn't need the validation. Rams players have bought in. But this performance can provide a springboard, even in defeat.
What I liked: The aggressive defensive style Fisher promoted all offseason paid off quickly with three first-half interceptions off Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Rams weren't sitting back and waiting for the football to come their way. They were jumping routes. They were the aggressors. We knew that would be the approach, but we didn't know whether the Rams could execute it against a quality opponent on the road. The Rams also sought to run the ball even when the defense knew it was coming. They did that well early when Steven Jackson converted a third-and-short from a power formation.
The pass protection was superb late in the game even though the Rams had lost center Scott Wells (foot) and left tackle Rodger Saffold (neck) to injuries. They were down to only five available offensive linemen. Wayne Hunter was at left tackle, Rokevious Watkins at left guard, Robert Turner at center, Harvey Dahl at right guard and Barry Richardson at right tackle. The running game bogged down late, but quarterback Sam Bradford somehow had time to throw.
Bradford moved the Rams down the field for rookie Greg Zuerlein's go-ahead field goal. He completed 6 of 8 passes for 84 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter. That was important for him. But the Rams couldn't stop Stafford in the end.
What I didn't like: The Rams settled for two early field goals after suffering breakdowns. A 15-yard penalty against receiver Brandon Gibson killed one drive. A sack Bradford took on third-and-5 killed another. Bradford took sacks after having ample time to unload the football. That was a little troubling. One of those sacks cost the team precious field position early in the second half, setting up the Lions for a shorter drive to the tying field goal. Another missed chance on third-and-3, this one when Bradford and his receivers appeared out of sync, also stood out.
Defensively, the Rams did yield a couple of quick scoring drives, including the final one with the game on the line. They needed their outside pass-rushers to win their battles in those situations.
Line scrambles: The Rams lost veteran center Scott Wells to a foot injury. Robert Turner moved from left guard to center at that point. Rookie Rokevious Watkins, who had been a candidate to start at left guard, moved into the lineup for Turner.
Wells was the Rams' key free-agent addition on offense. Knee surgery sidelined him for much of the offseason. Losing him to a foot injury in Week 1 tested the Rams' line depth, which was already a concern.
Medical personnel transported Saffold off the field on a stretcher board. Saffold had feeling in his extremities, the Rams told FOX's broadcast team. There were no additional details immediately.
What's next: The Rams are home against Washington in Week 2. They kick off at 4:05 p.m. ET Sunday from the Edward Jones Dome.