NFC West: 2013 Week 8 ATL at ARI

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.

 
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When right tackle Eric Winston reported for training camp in July, he didn't know his teammates' names.

But during his first practice, he saw a running back with No. 38 on his jersey scamper by and Winston wanted to know who it was.

[+] EnlargeAndre Ellington
Jennifer Stewart/USA TODAY SportsConsider running backs coach Stump Mitchell happy that Arizona drafted rookie Andre Ellington in the sixth round. "He was a steal," Mitchell said.
Everybody learned Andre Ellington's name Sunday.

The rookie running back filled in for starter Rashard Mendenhall, who was out with a toe injury, and ran for 154 yards on 15 carries and single-handedly opened the passing game in the Arizona Cardinals' 27-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons. It was the fourth-best outing for a Cardinals rookie and was highlighted by an 80-yard run that drew gasps around the stadium.

After bouncing out left with the help of blocks from Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, Ellington turned on the afterburners. He was nearly caught by Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel but Ellington found an extra gear and darted into the end zone.

"He's got a burst to him," Winston said. "And he's got really good vision. I think [rookie running back] Stepfan's [Taylor] got a little something to him, too.

"Ellington's got that home-run ability, and I think he's got a chance to be special if he wants to be special in this league."

Ellington paired with Taylor on Sunday for 29 carries, and the two provided a dimension to the offense the Cardinals had not seen this season. By gaining yards and points on the ground, Arizona forced the Falcons to honor the run, which meant they couldn't send seven or eight guys per play on a pass rush.

That allowed Palmer to throw for 172 yards on an efficient 13-for-18 passing day.

"It makes [the defense] worry about it," Palmer said. "Defensively, you've got to worry about 38 (Ellington) in the game. You've got to worry about screen. You've got to worry about him running inside, him running outside. Toss plays. Then the play-action."

With the running game working, the offense clicked. Ellington said the Falcons didn't know what to expect because the run and pass burned them throughout.

He knew what to expect from himself now that he's fully healthy again. The way Ellington played and how Taylor complemented him leaves Arians in a tough position come Nov. 10 against Houston. Does Ellington remain the starter after kick-starting the offense? Or does Arians hand the keys back to Mendenhall?

"We'll look and evaluate how everything goes and how he responds to the treatment," Arians said. "He'll play when he's 100 percent healthy."

Ellington said his body will feel the grind Monday but he was ready for his coming-out party.

"I try to be the best that I can be," Ellington said. "When my opportunity comes, I just try to make the best of it."

Cards D pressures Ryan into turnovers

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
10:18
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It looked all too familiar to the Arizona Cardinals.

A team went down early, couldn’t catch up on the ground and was forced to throw the ball. But the more they threw, the more they were sacked and intercepted.

There was one exception Sunday. It wasn’t the Cardinals who were in that situation for a change. Arizona got on top of the Atlanta Falcons early Sunday and forced them to play catch up from the shot gun. It allowed the Cardinals to do what so many teams have done to them: attack fast and in waves.

Arizona sacked Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan four times and had as many interceptions in a 27-13 win at University of Phoenix Stadium.

“We know they like to throw the ball a lot, so anytime you get [61] attempts throwing the ball, you have to get your hands on some of them,” linebacker Daryl Washington said. “I thought we did a good job up front getting pressure on Matt Ryan.”

Sunday’s performance by the defense, which Washington said was Arizona’s best this season, was a step-by-step process aided by the offense getting a lead early in the second quarter that the Cardinals didn’t relent.

First, it was stopping the run. The Cardinals stuffed Steven Jackson, limiting him to six yards on 11 carries in his first game back from injury. Ryan, in fact, was the Falcons’ leading rusher with 13 yards on a single carry.

Second, it was pressuring Ryan. Arizona’s four sacks were one more than Atlanta had allowed in any game this season. As the Cardinals have learned, when a team is in passing situations, the pocket tends to close quicker than usual. Atlanta found that out.

“When you get pressure on him like that you have to throw the ball the ball quick,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “Throwing the ball usually leads to interceptions.”

Indeed it does.

Third, it was taking advantage of pressuring Ryan into quick decisions. The Cards had four interceptions, all in the second half. Washington came down with one and rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu came down with another. But safety Rashad Johnson, who didn’t start, had two.

“It was just the same, the preparation that I take week-in and week-out going into games,” Johnson said. “In this football game, [there’s] so many plays that everybody’s going to get an opportunity to make plays throughout the year. I just wanted to continue not to press because I hadn’t had any picks earlier in the season and I knew they would come.”

Locker Room Buzz: Arizona Cardinals

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
9:17
PM ET
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Observed in the locker room after the Arizona Cardinals27-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons:

Abraham
No bye-week blues: It was a jovial Cardinals locker room as they enter the bye week at 4-4. Guys were smiling, laughing and hugging it out. “Not saying you can relax more now, but you feel a little better about your preparation for your weeks coming out,” linebacker John Abraham said.

Abraham cleared: Abraham left the game in the third quarter after a blow to the head, but the former Falcon said he took and passed a test after the game.

Painful finger: Left tackle Bradley Sowell got his right middle finger caught in a blocker during the game and damaged part of his nail. It was painful, he said, but Sowell was able to finish the game.

Collector’s items: Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald became the youngest player in NFL history to catch 800 passes. When asked what he’ll do with the game ball, Fitzgerald said it’s going home. He has kept the ball from his first catch and then from every hundredth after. That leaves him with nine overall.

Rapid Reaction: Arizona Cardinals

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
7:39
PM ET

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A few thoughts on the Arizona Cardinals' 27-13 victory against the Atlanta Falcons.

What it means: The Cardinals offense began to click Sunday against Atlanta, but was it because the Falcons' defense played badly or the Cardinals’ running game helped balance the passing game? Either way, Arizona showed what its passing game could do when its running game shows up. The Cards gained 201 yards on the ground, which kept the Falcons’ pass rush honest and allowed let offensive line give Carson Palmer time to throw.

Stock watch: Rookie running back Andre Ellington was given an opportunity to show what he can do as the starter Sunday and made the most of it. Ellington made a case to unseat Rashard Mendenhall as the Cardinals' primary back when the team returns from its bye week in November. His ability to cut on a dime and his breakaway speed add another dimension to the Cardinals offense as he showed on an 80-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Ellington finished with 154 yards.

Another record: Larry Fitzgerald’s 17-yard catch at the end of the third quarter was the 800th of his career, making him the youngest player in NFL history to reach that mark at 30 years, 57 days old. And the record came on a day when news broke that he could be traded or have his contract restructured during the offseason.

Pick party: Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan came into Sunday’s game with three interceptions, one for every 81.3 attempts. He left Arizona with more than twice as many. The Cardinals intercepted him four times in his 61 attempts. Safety Rashad Johnson had two, the first was by linebacker Daryl Washington and the third by safety Tyrann Mathieu.

What's next: The Cardinals have a bye next weekend before hosting the Houston Texans at 2:25 p.m. MT on Nov. 10 at University of Phoenix Stadium.

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