NFC West: 2012 Week 10 coverage
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 Rams proved they'll be a tough out for every team in the NFC West, not just for Arizona and Seattle. They'll be tough on quarterbacks now that Jeff Fisher is their head coach. And with Sam Bradford at quarterback, they can challenge a quality defense on the road with strong fourth-quarter play. But they were a mess when it mattered, committing penalties and making questionable use of timeouts.
Meanwhile, the 49ers suddenly appear vulnerable heading into a highly anticipated "Monday Night Football" matchup against the Chicago Bears. They have injury questions after quarterback Alex Smith suffered a first-half concussion and did not return.
What I liked: This was another rough-and-tumble game in the NFC West. It was looking for a few weeks as though the Rams might not have enough to sustain the early fight they showed this season. Those concerns went away quickly Sunday. The Rams took the game to San Francisco by winning at the line of scrimmage in shocking fashion. They also took the initiative with aggressive plays, symbolized by the fake punt they converted from their own end zone while holding a 14-7 lead late in the first half.
Niners linebacker Patrick Willis and Rams running back Steven Jackson staged a memorable battle over the first-down marker on a third-and-long play. Both were the best players on bad teams in the past. They've become symbols for excellence no matter the circumstances. Jackson fought forward for the first down and got help from teammates, it appeared. His helmet popped off, allowing for a clear shot at just how much he was straining for extra yardage. For Jackson, losing the helmet carried practical value, too. It ended the play, pre-empting what might otherwise have been ruled as a fumble.
The 49ers' special teams haven't been as good overall this season, but they came through at least once when needed Sunday. Tramaine Brock's forced fumble during a Rams kick return set up Frank Gore's 20-yard touchdown run as the 49ers took a 21-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Gore ran with great effort.
The Rams succeeded on two fake punts, including one to prevent a three-and-out while trailing 21-17. Bradford, one of the better fourth-quarter quarterbacks this season, found Danny Amendola over the middle on third down to keep the same drive moving. Jackson did a great job picking up the blitz to allow Bradford's 2-yard scoring pass to Austin Pettis as the Rams took a 24-21 lead with 1:09 remaining.
What I didn't like: Roughing up the opposing quarterback is always the goal, but it's never good when anyone suffers a concussion. Smith suffered his second in as many seasons. He had completed 7 of 8 passes with a touchdown before departing in the first half. A hard hit from Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar might have been the culprit.
Smith joined Arizona's Kevin Kolb (sacked nine times by Rams) and Seattle's Russell Wilson (picked off three times by them) as quarterbacks suffering through rough games against St. Louis. His replacement, Colin Kaepernick, struggled with accuracy, missing Vernon Davis and Kyle Williams when they were open. But his scrambling ability was critical for the 49ers as they clawed their way back into the game.
The Rams, meanwhile, played without receiver Chris Givens and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Both were inactive for violating team rules. Givens and Jenkins let down their teammates heading into a critical game as the Rams were looking to bounce back from a couple of tough defeats.
Question for the coach: Fisher deserves scrutiny for calling timeout before the Rams scored their go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. That left the 49ers with additional time to move down the field for the tying field goal. San Francisco did just that. The Rams' defense couldn't hold a fourth-quarter lead at Detroit in Week 1, and the same was true in this game.
Penalty problems: The Rams had completed what they thought was an 80-yard pass to Amendola early in overtime. They would have had possession in position to score the winning touchdown with a first-and-goal.
But officials flagged that left tackle Rodger Saffold did not report as an eligible receiver. These types of penalties often result from the wide receiver failing to line up properly. Receiver Brandon Gibson apparently wasn't on the line of scrimmage at the snap. That was a horrible error in a critical situation.
The Rams later had two players in motion while trying to move into position for an attempt at the winning field goal in overtime. They were also flagged for delay of game while Greg Zuerlein's attempt at the winning kick in overtime sailed through from 52 yards. That was the 12th penalty assessed against the Rams. The team still had a timeout to use, so there was no reason to take the delay.
What's next: The 49ers face the Bears at home on Monday night. The Rams are home against the New York Jets.
What it means: The Seahawks improved to 6-4, keeping themselves in good position to push for a playoff spot. The San Francisco 49ers' struggles against St. Louis down the West Coast opened the door for questions about the Seahawks pushing not just for a wild-card berth, but possibly for a division title. The Seahawks take a two-game winning streak into their bye week and need just one more victory to match their season totals for 2010 and 2011.
What I liked: The Seahawks started quickly. Their defense stuffed the Jets on back-to-back short-yardage plays. Quarterback Russell Wilson followed up quickly with a 38-yard scoring strike to receiver Golden Tate. The leaping grab showcased Tate's ability to make plays on the ball high in the air.
Seattle controlled the Jets' offense overall. Bruce Irvin had two sacks. Cornerback Richard Sherman turned in a dominant performance with a sack, forced fumble, two passes defensed and an interception. Wilson's 31-yard scoring pass to Sidney Rice in the fourth quarter broke open what was mostly a defensive struggle.
Marshawn Lynch also got going late, topping 100 yards rushing for a fourth consecutive game. The coaching staff gets some credit for calling a receiver pass. Tate gets credit for completing the pass for a 23-yard touchdown to Rice.
For the second week in a row, the Seahawks closed out an opponent by controlling the ball with a long drive to end the game.
What I didn't like: Wilson struggled to a degree he had not reached in the recent past. He took sacks on back-to-back plays, losing a fumble on the second one. The Jets returned it for a touchdown. Wilson was also inaccurate on a few throws. He had Rice deep on a flea-flicker, but the ball was a bit underthrown. Wilson also didn't seem to see Jets cornerback Ellis Lankster on a blitz. The Jets' defense, known for its complexity, has done well against rookie quarterbacks this season. It also fared well against Lynch and against Seattle's receivers. Wilson too often didn't seem to have receivers open against man coverage.
Milestone: Lynch topped 1,000 yards rushing for the season. This was his second consecutive 1,000-yard season.
What's next: The Seahawks have a bye in Week 11 before road trips to Miami and Chicago.