NFC West: 2013 NFL Week 16 Double Coverage

Andre Ellington and Richard Sherman AP PhotoAndre Ellington's Cardinals are after a playoff spot; Richard Sherman's Seahawks want the top seed.

Playoff standing is on the line for both the Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.

The Seahawks (12-2) would clinch the NFC West title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they get their 15th consecutive home victory. The Cardinals (9-5) see this as a must-win game to keep their postseason hopes alive.

ESPN.com Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount look at how these two division rivals match up:

Blount: Josh, the Cardinals didn’t look good in a 34-22 loss to Seattle in October, but since that time, the team has gone on an amazing roll, winning six of seven. Do you see that October game as having been a bit of a wake-up call for Arizona and motivation to turn things around?

Weinfuss: I think it was a breaking point of sorts. They were a deflated group after going to San Francisco and losing a tough game there, and then four days later, they had to play Seattle, which had put a nice beating on them the last time they played. After that game, the Cardinals had nine days to rest and absorb everything that just happened during the first seven weeks. The result was a clear understanding of the offense, and it’s showed with how well the offense has been playing.

Terry, have teams figured out how to slow down Russell Wilson’s running game like they have with Colin Kaepernick? If so, how has Seattle rewritten the script? If not, why is it so hard to stop?

Blount: That’s a fair question. Teams are trying to keep Wilson in the pocket, using an outside linebacker and/or defensive end to stay home and spy any Wilson attempt to run outside. The 49ers did a great job of that in their 19-17 victory over the Seahawks two weeks ago. But when a defense takes one thing away from Wilson, he burns it somewhere else. One of the things that makes him so successful is his ability to find the weak spot in any defense. Having said that, he did rush for 50 yards Sunday against the Giants.

No doubt the Cardinals remember what happened at Seattle last season in the Seahawks' 58-0 victory. Josh, how different is this Arizona team from that one a season ago?

Weinfuss: It’s like night and day. Everything about them is different, with the exception of the defense, which is still a good unit. Last season in Seattle was Arizona’s worst defensive showing and, as if they timed it perfectly, the Cardinals got this season’s anomaly out of the way last Sunday in Tennessee. Everything about this team is clicking at a better rate than it was in October. The defense is playing faster than it was then, but the secondary will still be finding its rhythm after a new rotation was implemented to replace Tyrann Mathieu. There’s no question that the offense is 180 degrees from where it was last season in Seattle, namely because of the quarterback. By this point last season, Arizona had started three different quarterbacks. This season, that position is thriving under Carson Palmer.

Terry, what’s the latest with Percy Harvin? Will his return help this team, which has been on an incredible roll this season, or will it disrupt the chemistry? Should he come back?

Blount: The entire Harvin saga has become a bit clandestine at this point, and I honestly think the whole situation is more of an annoyance than anything else. Look, Harvin is a once-in-a-generation talent, and his explosiveness could benefit the Seahawks in the playoffs, but you bring up an excellent point. If he does return now, is it more of a disruption than an asset? He certainly could help the team on kickoff returns, but I believe the Seattle receiving corps is the most underrated in the league. This team is 12-2 without Harvin. Waiting until 2014 to unleash him might not be a bad idea.

Josh, no team in the league has a tougher final two games than the Cardinals, with Seattle and San Francisco. Most people would say the odds are against Arizona to win them and make the playoffs, but what is your sense of the confidence level among the players about these last two games?

Weinfuss: Bruce Arians has his men believing they can go to the playoffs, but at the same time, I think they understand it’s a difficult task. A lot has to happen -- namely a combination of San Francisco having to lose one or both of its final two games with the Carolina Panthers doing essentially the same -- but I won’t bore you with all those details. They’ve been treating every game like a playoff game for about a month and a half now, so mentally, they understand what’s at stake, but they’re also realists.

Terry, has Pete Carroll put any thought into resting his starters against Arizona, or since home-field advantage is still in play, will they be on full tilt?

Blount: It’s absolutely all-out for this one, Josh. The Seahawks say over and over that the goal is to go 1-0 each week and each game is a championship opportunity. It might be a cliché, but it’s real this time. Seattle wants to get this over with, clinch home-field advantage and be able to use next week’s season finale against St. Louis as a glorified practice session.

Matt Ryan and Patrick WillisUSA TODAY SportsPatrick Willis and the 49ers' pass rush could make Monday night miserable for Atlanta's Matt Ryan.
The NFL schedule-makers tried to get this right.

They planned for the final game played at Candlestick Park to be special. They set a 2012 NFC Championship Game rematch between the 49ers and the Falcons. However, the Falcons have not held up their end of the bargain. They are 4-10 as they try getting revenge against the 49ers for their road win in the title game in January.

The 49ers have done their part, as they are 10-4 and can clinch a playoff berth with either an Arizona loss at Seattle or by beating the Falcons. The 49ers are focused on sending out Candlestick the right way.

Coach Jim Harbaugh said this week the 49ers are the group that “doesn’t want to screw up" the Candlestick finale.

ESPN.com Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson discuss the game:

McClure: Bill, the 49ers and Vernon Davis had their way in the passing game against the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. And the Falcons have had trouble covering tight ends again this season. Do you think Davis will expose their poor coverage once again?

Williamson: The 49ers' passing game is really coming together. The return of Michael Crabtree has sparked it. Crabtree has played the past three games and he is getting better each week. It opens up possibilities for Davis and Anquan Boldin. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Davis have a nice chemistry. Davis is a mismatch for nearly every defense and he's particularly good against defenses that struggle against the tight end. He had eight catches for 180 yards against Arizona in October. Vaughn, do you see any way the Falcons can slow down the 49ers’ receiving weapons?

McClure: Not really. The Falcons started three rookies in the secondary last Sunday against the Redskins and gave up pass plays of 62 and 53 yards, the latter for a touchdown. All three rookies -– cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford and free safety Zeke Motta –- made some mistakes in coverage. But Trufant has held his own most of the season after coming in as the team’s first-round draft pick, so he’s going to compete, but Alford still has some ground to make up. Motta might not even play with regular starter Thomas DeCoud possibly returning from a concussion. However the Falcons line up, they have to play with better eye discipline and technique. Not to mention the pass rush has to make an effort to put pressure on the elusive Kaepernick or else he’ll carve up the Falcons and let loose to Davis, Boldin, and Crabtree.

The Falcons were supposed to be challenged heavily by the read-option this season with matchups against Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Kaepernick. Wilson didn’t use it much and RGIII didn’t play. So, will Kaepernick and the 49ers utilize the strategy on Monday night, or has it just not been as effective this season?

Williamson: They haven’t used it much this season. It’s been used occasionally. But I will tell you this: Kaepernick has been running with a lot of confidence in the past few games. I think it is because the passing game has opened up and it has affected the entire offense positively. Vaughn, do you get the sense the Falcons have a lack of confidence facing Kaepernick and this offense because of the loss in the NFC title game?

McClure: The Falcons can’t be too confident about much of anything, at 4-10. From a defensive standpoint, six starters who faced Kaepernick last season either are no longer with the team or have been benched. And if DeCoud doesn’t return this week from a concussion, there’s a possibility that five rookies will start against the 49ers offense come Monday night. It will be quite a lesson for those players, to face a true dual-threat quarterback. The Falcons haven’t looked too confident the past two weeks defending against a pair of backup quarterbacks, Matt Flynn and Kirk Cousins.

A lot has been made of Aldon Smith's off-field issues this season. In fact, Falcons receiver Roddy White actually stepped out and said Smith was a "good dude" who just made a mistake. How has Smith responded after his time away from the team, and is he back to his normal self on the field yet?

Williamson: Yes, Smith is back to his dominating self. He has been back for six games and he was eased into the defense after missing five games while seeking treatment for substance abuse. Smith has been particularly good for the past four games, and he’s been dominant the past two games. He is his normal self as a pass-rusher and he is continuing to grow as a complete player. He is a major cog in a defense that is playing at a high level. Vaughn, do you see any way the Falcons can slow Smith and crew Monday night?

McClure: No. Not at all. This offensive line has been like a sieve all season long. Don’t be fooled by the Falcons being ranked eighth in sacks given up per pass attempt. They’ve allowed Matt Ryan to be sacked or hit way too many times despite Ryan making a conscious effort to get the ball out quicker this season. Right now, the Falcons are relying on second-year left tackle Lamar Holmes to protect Ryan’s blind side, and Holmes is coming off being abused by Brian Orakpo of the Redskins. Plus, the Falcons have to be aware of Ahmad Brooks along with Smith. I covered a game last season during which the 49ers totally dominated the Chicago Bears with a swarming pass rush, led by Smith. I can envision the same thing happening to the Falcons.

Mike Glennon and Kellen ClemensGetty ImagesMike Glennon's Bucs and Kellen Clemens' Rams have remained competitive down the stretch.
The St. Louis Rams will wear their throwback uniforms Sunday when they take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The old school blue and yellow is intended to spark memories of the famous NFC Championship Game the two sides played after the 1999 season.

It's also going to serve as a reminder of how far both teams have to go to get back to a place where they're competing for Super Bowls. The Rams are 6-8 and Tampa Bay is 4-10, leaving both squads on the outside looking in for the postseason.

Despite the knowledge they'll be home in January, both teams have remained competitive which should make for an interesting matchup when they renew acquaintances at the Edward Jones Dome.

ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas discuss Sunday's game.

Wagoner: After a rough start, it seems the Bucs have somewhat righted the ship here (pun unmercifully intended) toward the end of the season. How have they been able to do that, and do you think Greg Schiano has made a case to keep his job?

Yasinskas: The amazing thing is, despite the 0-8 start, the Bucs never stopped playing hard. That's led to wins in four of their last six games. That's happened mostly because the defense has played very well and the offense has played just well enough. Still, it remains to be seen if Schiano has done enough to keep his job after this season. My personal opinion is the ownership likes him and likes how he's cleaned up the locker room, but I think he needs to win these final two games to have any chance of staying.

The Rams obviously aren't going to the playoffs either. What's left for them to play for?

Wagoner: Nothing particularly tangible is out there save for a chance to finish .500 for the first time since 2006 and only the third time since 2004. In St. Louis, that does represent progress given the last decade has been such a disaster in terms of wins and losses. Since Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead arrived, they've quietly targeted 2014 as the breakout season for this young team. Any progress they can make toward that is a good thing. It would serve them well to engender confidence among the fan base that the 2013 team is better at the end of the year than the 2012 team was.

You mentioned the work of the defense in keeping the Bucs competitive this year. It seems linebacker Lavonte David is quietly having a huge year and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is also enjoying a second straight big season. You see those guys every day. Are they receiving proper credit for the job they've done or is it lost in the mix of a losing season?

Yasinskas: McCoy went to the Pro Bowl last year, so he's not a complete unknown. He should go to the Pro Bowl again this season. He already has eight sacks and is shooting for double digits. David isn't nearly as well known outside of Tampa Bay, where fans already are comparing him to Derrick Brooks. David is having a phenomenal season. He has six sacks and five interceptions. That makes him just the seventh player in NFL history to have at least five sacks and at least five interceptions in the same season. There even has been talk of David as a defensive player of the year candidate. I think his play makes that a legitimate possibility. But Tampa Bay's losing record probably will work against him.

Speaking of defensive player of the year candidates on non-playoff teams, St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn deserves to be in the conversation. Do you think he's earned a chance?

Wagoner: With two games to go, I think a legitimate argument can be made that he should not only be in the mix but also win the award. He's become the dominant and disruptive pass-rusher everyone expected him to be and he's drastically improved as a run defender, which allows him to stay on the field for all three downs. And he's not just doing it against bad teams. He is second in the league in sacks, first in forced fumbles and has countless quarterback pressures and hits. He's done a lot of that damage without the benefit of a lead and ample pass rush opportunities to boot. He's also two sacks from tying Kevin Carter for the most in a season in the history of the St. Louis version of the Rams.

I'm curious about the guy Quinn and Co. will be chasing Sunday. It looked like the Bucs had quite a quarterback conundrum on their hands earlier this year, but the switch to Mike Glennon has calmed things quite a bit. What does Glennon bring to the table and do you believe he's done enough to cement himself as the guy moving forward?

Yasinskas: Glennon has been a pleasant surprise after the Josh Freeman mess early in the season. Glennon brings a big arm and is naturally poised. He's been slowed a bit recently as he ran into some good defenses (Carolina and San Francisco), but the Bucs still think his trajectory is pointing up. As for whether Glennon is the quarterback for the long term, a lot depends on what happens with Schiano. If there's a new coach, he might elect to bring in his own quarterback. But Glennon is Schiano's quarterback. Schiano tried (unsuccessfully) to recruit Glennon to Rutgers and has been infatuated with him ever since.

Speaking of rookies who are having a big impact, tell us what running back Zac Stacy has brought to the St. Louis offense.

Wagoner: Simply put, Stacy's emergence in the run game has been the key to the Rams' turning it around after one of the worst rushing starts to a season in franchise history. He's not going to wow anyone with his speed or flashy moves in the open field. But he's physical, intelligent and extremely patient. When the Rams have success on offense, it's a direct result of the run game working, usually with Stacy as the centerpiece. He opens things up for backup quarterback Kellen Clemens in the pass game and helps keep defenses off-balance. He's been a revelation as a fifth-round draft choice.

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