NFC West: 2013 Week 4 Rapid Reaction

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
video
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.

First Down

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.


Second Down

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.


Third Down

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.


Fourth Down

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.

 

Rapid Reaction: Seahawks 23, Texans 20

September, 29, 2013
9/29/13
4:41
PM ET

HOUSTON -- A few thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' 23-20 overtime victory against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium.

What it means: Even on a day when the Seahawks looked awful in many areas of the game, they still found a way to win, pulling off a stunning come-from-behind victory on the road. This game showed the Seahawks have some problem areas on the offensive line and can give up big yards on defense. But it was quarterback Russell Wilson's scrambling and running downfield that got Seattle back in the game in the fourth quarter. Then a Richard Sherman 58-yard interception return for a touchdown tied the game before a Steven Hauschka 45-yard field goal won it. This is the first time the Seahawks have ever won the first four games in a season.

Stock watch: An awful day for the Seattle offensive line, but no one should be surprised with three starters injured. Free safety Earl Thomas had an early interception off a tipped ball and Sherman tied it in the fourth quarter with the pick-six, but the Seahawks struggled on defense in the first half. It was a season-worst day for the defense early, but things changed in the second half and overtime when the Seahawks' defense looked like the No. 1 unit in the NFL.

First half woes: The Seahawks gave up 324 yards in the first half, including 226 yards passing. The Texans led 20-3 at the half after Houston receivers were wide open in the middle of the field against the highly acclaimed Seattle secondary. What happened?

Wilson a sitting duck all day: With three starters out on the offensive line, including Pro Bowlers Max Unger and Russell Okung, the backups up front were no match for defensive end J.J. Watt, linebacker Whitney Mercilus and the other Houston pass-rushers. Wilson was sacked five times and under pressure on almost every pass play, yet still managed to bring the Seahawks back in the fourth quarter and lead the team to victory.

What’s next: The Seahawks travel to face the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. It will be the second consecutive 10 a.m. PT start time for the Seahawks and the third of five 10 a.m. starts this season.

Rapid Reaction: Cardinals 13, Bucs 10

September, 29, 2013
9/29/13
4:17
PM ET
TAMPA, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Arizona Cardinals13-10 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

What it means: The Cardinals are starting to look like they're in real trouble offensively. Before the fourth quarter Sunday, they went without a touchdown for six consecutive quarters because of an inability to finish deep inside opponents' territory. But there are larger issues, such as the play calling. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald wasn’t targeted once in the first half. When he finally was, the offense started moving, only to stall out thanks to two interceptions by quarterback Carson Palmer. The inability to convert on third down continued, which prevented Arizona from sustaining drives. The Cards had the ball for just 10 minutes, 23 seconds in the first half.


Stock watch: No one player on the Cardinals’ defense played well enough to warrant being singled out, and too many played poorly. Patrick Peterson saved the day for Arizona with an interception late in the fourth that allowed the Cards to tie the game, then eventually go ahead for good. The defense kept the Cards in the game despite the circumstances. They not only came in without four starters but also lost Darnell Dockett and Jasper Brinkley during the game to groin injuries.

Picked off: Two of the Cardinals’ best opportunities to score were derailed by interceptions by Palmer. And both display his continued penchant for throwing short or wide. The first was with the Cards lined up at the Bucs' 15, Palmer was a few feet short of an open Michael Floyd. On the second, Palmer went a tad wide to Fitzgerald and was picked off by Darrelle Revis. Two passes that could’ve been completed had Palmer’s accuracy been a little tighter.

Mental mishaps: Maybe the Cardinals were still stuck in vacation mode, but some of their on-the-field decisions Sunday raised a few eyebrows. Palmer was flagged for an intentional grounding because he threw a pass into the feet of an offensive lineman instead of holding it during a sack. And Dockett’s taunting and horse-collar penalties helped the Bucs’ field position.

What's next: The Cardinals return home after a 1-1 road trip to host the Carolina Panthers at 1 p.m. MT Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 35, Rams 11

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
11:57
PM ET

ST. LOUIS – A few thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers35-11 win over the St. Louis Rams:

What it means: The 49ers are not dead. Give this club a ton of credit. The 49ers entered this game on a short week in a bad way. They were outscored 56-10 in the previous two games, banged up and dealing with the fact linebacker Aldon Smith had entered an alcohol treatment center. This a crucial time for San Francisco, and the team answered the call. The offense wasn’t perfect but it was impressive, and the defense was tremendous (led by linebacker NaVorro Bowman) playing without Smith and linebacker Patrick Willis, who was injured. The 49ers improved to 2-2 and showed that as defending NFC champions, they are not ready to go bye-bye anytime soon.

Stock watch: Frank Gore’s stock is way up. The 49ers went to the basics offensively and it paid off. Gore was terrific. He had 153 yards on 20 carries, including a 34-yard touchdown on fourth-and-inches to make it 14-3 late in the second quarter. The 49ers had success on the ground in the first half Sunday in a loss to the Indianapolis Colts, but then got away from it in the second half. This time they stuck to their plan and it opened up the passing game.

Fair-catch kick: This game got fairly uninteresting in the second quarter as the 49ers pulled away. But San Francisco did keep things fresh when kicker Phil Dawson attempted a free kick at the end of the first half. Had he made the 71-yard attempt it would have been a field goal. It had no chance. The Rams tried to return it, but got nowhere. It was the first time the 49ers used the rare play in 24 years. It may be another 24 years before they try it again. But yeah, coach Jim Harbaugh was going to win this game. Everything was on the table.

What’s next: The 49ers get a relaxing weekend. That’s the payoff of a Thursday night game. The preparation is challenging, but if you win, it’s a great weekend at home and the start of a nine-day rest period. The 49ers will be refreshed when they host Houston on Oct. 6 in a Sunday night game. The home fans will be looking for a better effort than what San Francisco gave against Indianapolis.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 35, Rams 11

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
11:56
PM ET

ST. LOUIS -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 35-11 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday night.

What it means: For the second consecutive week, the Rams essentially didn’t show up, this time on a national, prime-time stage. It's being kind to give them the benefit of the doubt for mounting some sort of charge in the second half in Atlanta in Week 2. That’s officially a trend.

At this point, rather than being a young team on the rise as many expected, the Rams have regressed in all three phases and it’s fair to wonder which direction this supposed steppingstone season is headed.

Stock watch: Up: None. Last week, we gave a mention to punter Johnny Hekker. The team no-showed again, and the only thing that seems to be improving is its potential draft position in April.

Down: The St. Louis Rams. Offense, defense, special teams, coaching, you name it, it’s trending in the wrong direction.

Division dominance done: Under coach Jeff Fisher the Rams were 5-1-1 against NFC West foes entering this one and they seemed to have a particular spell over the Niners in 2012. Forget all of that.

An ailing San Francisco team -- missing two of its best defenders on a short week -- got healthy in a hurry against the Rams and atoned for a winless showing against St. Louis last season with a thoroughly dominant and convincing victory on the Rams’ home turf.

What’s next: The Rams will have a long weekend to lick their wounds from the past two games and try to figure out where everything has gone wrong. Some serious reflection will be important because after a home game against Jacksonville, which no longer looks like a gimme, the Rams play a stretch of three games that includes trips to Houston and Carolina and a home game against Seattle.

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