NFC West: 2012 Week 5 coverage

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 45, Bills 3

October, 7, 2012

Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 45-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills at Candlestick Park in Week 5:

What it means: The 49ers improved to 4-1 and moved into a first-place tie with Arizona in the NFC West. They won at home for the eighth time in a row during the regular season. Their deep passing game came alive for the first time this season. San Francisco set a single-game franchise record with 621 yards on offense. The 49ers finished this game with a 300-yard passer (Alex Smith), a 100-yard rusher (Frank Gore) and two 100-yard receivers (Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis). They appear primed for their Week 6 home game against the New York Giants, a rematch of the NFC Championship Game.

What I liked: Just about everything. The 49ers finished the game with 311 yards rushing and 310 yards passing. They have now outscored their last two opponents by a 79-3 margin.

The 49ers used play-action effectively to loosen up the Bills' defense in the early going. Not long after a holding penalty wiped out a play-action reception for Davis, the 49ers used the tactic to produce a 53-yard gain for the Pro Bowl tight end. Davis' reception was the longest for the 49ers this season. There was more to come. A 43-yard scoring pass to Kyle Williams and a 28-yarder to Crabtree helped Smith finish the first half with career highs for passing yards (237) and NFL passer rating (158.3, the highest possible). Smith's third-quarter deep strike to Davis up the right sideline could not have been thrown with any greater accuracy.

The 49ers' defense held the Bills to 204 yards. Its ability to force timely turnovers was important. Patrick Willis' forced fumble right before halftime set up Smith's 28-yard scoring pass to Crabtree. Chris Culliver's third-quarter interception killed a drive deep in 49ers territory. Those plays helped break out the game and prevent the Bills from rallying.

What I didn't like: Penalties against the 49ers, including one for what appeared to be a legitimate chop block call against Gore, wiped out big first-quarter gains for Davis and Crabtree. Other than that, the only thing I didn't like was the absence of a mercy rule. This one was ugly.

Smith tops 300: The 49ers quarterback owned two 300-yard passing games before Sunday. He had 303 yards in this game before giving way to Colin Kaepernick in the fourth quarter. Smith took a hard hit after passing while the 49ers were leading 31-3. He came through that hit OK, burned the Bills with a rushing play and then came out of the game.

Persistence on Kaepernick: The 49ers looked smart for using backup quarterback Kaepernick to great effect during a 34-0 victory over the New York Jets in Week 5. They didn't look so smart Sunday. Kaepernick lost a fumble in Bills territory on a run around the left side. San Francisco incurred a holding penalty against left tackle Joe Staley while Kaepernick was throwing deep and incomplete for Davis later in the game. The 49ers stuck with the overall idea, however, and Kaepernick came through with a 15-yard run to the Buffalo 1-yard line, setting up Gore's touchdown run.

Aldon Smith's chase: Second-year outside linebacker Aldon Smith needed 1.5 sacks to break Reggie White's sack-era record for fewest games needed to reach 20 career sacks. Smith got close at least twice, delivering a crunching hit on Ryan Fitzpatrick just after the quarterback threw. Smith later impressed with an open-field tackle on Bills receiver Stevie Johnson. Smith hasn't gotten many opportunities to prove himself as a base outside linebacker because so many opponents have used three or more wide receivers at a time.

What's next: The 49ers are home against the Giants in Week 6.

Wrap-up: Seahawks 16, Panthers 12

October, 7, 2012

Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' 16-12 road victory over the Carolina Panthers in Week 5:

What it means: The Seahawks showed they could win a road game with only sporadic offensive production as long as their defense is going to dominate the way it often has this season. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson completed 12 of his first 13 passes and finished strong after two third-quarter interceptions renewed questions about his suitability as the Seahawks' starter. Seattle improved to 3-2, giving the NFC West four teams with a winning record following Week 5. That's a first since the NFL realigned into eight divisions for the 2002 season. The way this game turned out put on hold questions about whether Wilson should remain the starter.

What I liked: Bruce Irvin's fumble-forcing sack in the final minute capped a dominant defensive performance as Seattle preserved the victory. The defense held Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to 3-of-15 passing in the first half. The Seahawks had been weak on third-and-long this season, but that changed when Irvin sacked Newton for a 13-yard loss on third-and-10, the Panthers' only play of third-and-8 or longer during the first half. Rookie middle linebacker Bobby Wagner also brought down Newton for a loss.

On offense, the Seahawks scored on their opening possession for the second week in a row and the third time in their past four games. They have one touchdown and three field goal attempts on opening drives this season. Wilson was much sharper early in this game, completing 12 of 13 passes for 123 yards in the first half. Wide receivers Sidney Rice, Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate made plays early. Seattle converted four times on its first eight third-down plays, a big improvement from the recent past. Baldwin's long-awaited emergence was particularly encouraging for Seattle.

Seattle's defense continued to dominate in the second half, giving the offense second chances. And when Wilson found Tate for a 13-yard scoring pass in the third quarter, the Seahawks were back in front despite all those turnovers. Marshawn Lynch's powerful 11-yard run in the fourth quarter helped the Seahawks protect their 16-10 lead heading toward the fourth quarter.

What I didn't like: The Seahawks led only 6-3 at halftime despite controlling the game. The defense held Newton to 40 yards passing in the first half. But there were too many missed chances. Earl Thomas dropped a sure interception. Chris Clemons committed a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer.

On offense, a holding penalty against right tackle Breno Giacomini nullified a 56-yard pass from Wilson to Tate. Officials also flagged left tackle Russell Okung for holding during the first half. Leon Washington lost a fumble during the kickoff return to open the second half. Wilson had an interception returned for a touchdown a short time later. Those plays helped turn Seattle's 6-3 lead into a 10-6 deficit. Wilson suffered another turnover when a pass went off Lynch's hand to Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Taking the safety: The Seahawks took a safety while leading 16-10 and punting from deep in their own territory. The snap was high, creating the impression the safety wasn't planned. But the play made sense because it allowed Seattle to punt from a more favorable position on the field while still forcing the Panthers to score a touchdown.

What's next: The Seahawks return home to face the New England Patriots before playing two games on the road.

Rapid Reaction: Rams 17, Cardinals 3

October, 4, 2012
Thoughts on the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals following the Rams' 17-3 victory Thursday night in the Edward Jones Dome:

What it means: The Rams improved to 3-2, the first time they've had a winning record since the 2006 team was 4-3. They are 3-0 at home and 2-0 in the NFC West after going 4-26 against their division rivals from 2007 through last season. The Cardinals dropped to 4-1 while failing to reach 300 net yards for the fifth time this season. This game affirmed the NFC West's status as a hard-hitting division. Injury costs were high for both teams.

What I liked: Both teams started quickly on offense. Both teams played tenacious defense for most of the game. The Rams connected on two game-changing deep balls from Sam Bradford. Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb took a pounding, which was bad, but in the process he showed, again, that he's not brittle or lacking in toughness. He took eight sacks last week and nine in this one. Kolb kept battling and drove the Cardinals deep into Rams territory in the fourth quarter by completing 8 of 9 passes before his next completion gained only 3 yards on fourth-and-goal.

The Rams, despite problems on their offensive line, got Steven Jackson going for 76 yards on 18 carries. Rookie Daryl Richardson had nine carries for 35 yards. St. Louis hasn't gotten much push this season. The production from Jackson and Richardson was encouraging for the Rams.

What I didn't like: The injuries, the overmatched offensive lines, the dropped passes, the missed opportunities for pass connections well down the field, Jackson disappearing from the St. Louis offense for stretches, the Rams punting to Patrick Peterson from deep in their own territory while protecting a 14-point lead in the final minutes.

The Rams will not be the same offensively without top receiver Danny Amendola, who watched most of the game wearing a sling after suffering a shoulder injury while diving for a pass. It's not clear how much time Amendola might miss, but the Rams appeared lost without him until Bradford suddenly found rookie Chris Givens for a 51-yard touchdown to put away the game. The Cardinals lost running back Ryan Williams to a shoulder injury after the second-year back absorbed a brutal hit from Darian Stewart. Arizona was already without running backs Beanie Wells and LaRod Stephens-Howling.

Going after Peterson: In a big shock, the Rams attacked Cardinals cornerback Peterson and had success doing so, including when Bradford found Amendola for a 44-yard gain early. At times, the Rams' Janoris Jenkins looked like the best young corner on the field.

Quinn's big night: Rams defensive end Robert Quinn collected three sacks. Quinn has been quick off the edge this season, but power teams have exploited his weak run defense. The Cardinals posed no threat on the ground. That allowed Quinn to chase the quarterback without concern.

Legatron strikes: The Rams bucked convention when they cut veteran punter Donnie Jones and veteran kicker Josh Brown in favor of rookies. That move is paying off big.

Rams rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein connected from 53 yards. He has made all 13 attempts this season. Zuerlein connected from 58 and 60 yards last week.

Rookie punter Johnny Hekker also showed off a strong leg, posting a 56.9-yard gross average with three of his seven punts downed inside the 20. Peterson had a healthy 15.2-yard average on five punt returns, but he didn't find the end zone -- a welcome change for the Rams, who allowed two Peterson return scores last season.

What's next: The Cardinals are home against Buffalo in Week 6. The Rams visit Miami.
This is the new NFC West: bloody, low-scoring, dangerous to the health.

The St. Louis Rams hold a 10-3 halftime lead over the Arizona Cardinals in the Edward Jones Dome.

Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb has a bloody mouth after taking a helmet to the head from the Rams' Kendall Langford. The hit did not appear dirty. It did appear to hurt. Medical personnel checked out Kolb's jaw on the sideline following the drive.

The Rams have lost receiver Danny Amendola to a shoulder injury. Amendola landed hard on his shoulder while attempting to make a diving grab.

Losing Amendola severely weakens the Rams' offense. Amendola's one-handed grab of a deep ball against Patrick Peterson sent an early message the Rams were going to play aggressively -- not just on defense, but on offense, too.

Kolb rallied Arizona from a 13-0 halftime deficit a week ago after taking eight sacks. He's taken four so far.

The Cardinals beat the Rams by scores of 19-13 and 23-20 last season. This one appears likely to be close as well.