NFC West: Cardinals-Rams 112209
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
The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
- Steven Jackson became the first player in Rams history to record five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He carried 24 times for 116 yards and a touchdown.
- Second-year defensive end Chris Long recorded a sack for the third game in a row. He has played better lately, a good sign for the Rams given how much they invested in him.
- Rookie Brandon Gibson caught five more passes, giving him 12 receptions in the last two games.
- The Rams finished with eight quarterback hits, including one that knocked Kurt Warner from the game. That was a tribute to coach Steve Spagnuolo's blitz schemes. The Rams impressed the Cardinals as a well-coordinated team, and Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt said so afterward.
- The Rams held the Cardinals scoreless in the second half.
ST. LOUIS -- The knock on Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner -- that he can be injury prone -- became outdated years ago.
Warner hasn't missed a game to injury since 2005, after all.
But when the three-time Super Bowl starter sat out the second half as a precaution Sunday after feeling "fuzzy" from a big hit, the other NFC West teams must have liked what they saw.
This division is the Cardinals' to lose until the minute Warner walks away, probably after next season.
Backup Matt Leinart struggled to hold off the St. Louis Rams 21-13 after Warner handed him a 21-3 lead and an offense that had amassed 316 yards and 17 first downs in less than two quarters.
Leinart completed 10 of 14 passes for 74 yards, including a clutch 20-yarder to Early Doucet as Arizona finally handed the Rams their ninth defeat in 10 games. But the Cardinals' offense punted four times and lost a fumble while generating seven first downs and zero points with Leinart at the controls.
Holding Leinart to Warner's standard isn't realistic or fair, but an occasional touchdown might be nice. Leinart has thrown one touchdown pass in his last 127 attempts dating to a 23-20 victory over Seattle early in the 2007 season.
This was the third time Arizona handed over the offense to Leinart this season. The Jaguars, Bears and Rams have outscored Arizona by a 24-0 count with Leinart in the game.
"Am I happy? I'm happy we won," Leinart said. "Obviously, I'm going to get better and keep working and if my opportunity comes, keep making the most of it."
While the Rams pitched a second-half shutout, no one in the Edward Jones Dome played tougher defense than Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. He offered unwavering support for Leinart, but it was a tough sell.
"I think some of it has just been bad luck," Whisenhunt said. "If you go back to Jacksonville, he threw a pass on a naked [bootleg] that was a first down and the guy drops it. He throws a pass today on a naked after just making on that same drive a big third-down conversion to Larry ... and it's fumbled. I mean, that's not Matt's fault."
Leinart overthrew Fitzgerald twice on the Cardinals' first drive of the third quarter. He seemed to hold the ball too long while taking a 9-yard sack on a third-and-3 play with 6:06 remaining in the game. A fumble in that situation could have cost Arizona its second consecutive 7-3 start.
"As with anything, you get into a groove as you are doing it and have some continuity, you get more comfortable," Whisenhunt said. "The play he made to Early, I don't see how you can make a better play than that as a quarterback."
Warner completed 15 of 19 passes for 203 yards, two touchdowns and a 146.3 rating. He had just completed a 14-yard pass to Fitzgerald in the second quarter when Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe hit him from behind. Warner appeared shaken, but he stayed in the game for five more plays, leaving only after Beanie Wells' 1-yard touchdown run gave Arizona a 21-3 lead with 2:23 left in the first half.
"It was one of those situations where I didn't feel perfect, so I just wanted to be cautious with it," Warner said. "I actually feel pretty good right now. Just a very, very slight headache. I remember everything that happened. I didn't get knocked out."
Warner said he hasn't suffered a concussion since probably 2003, when he was still with the Rams. The serious injury Anquan Boldin suffered against the Jets last season rattled Warner. Another teammate, Sean Morey, has battled concussions this season. Warner is 38 years old. He has seven children. He made the right decision.
"I think you get farther in your career and you see life beyond football and you realize that this game is just a game," Warner said. "There are other things that you want to do and you want to be smart, especially when it comes to your health. I think that is what I have learned."
Warner overshadowed his former team when he was in the game and through the manner he left it. His St. Louis successor, Marc Bulger, wasn't much of a factor in the outcome -- not a good sign for a player with an $8.5 million salary next season.
But as Leinart showed the Rams on Sunday, drafting a quarterback in the first round assures nothing.
"Not taking anything away from Matt Leinart, because he is capable of getting the job done and they got a ton of weapons still, but I think it just shows you how good Kurt is, that when he comes out, things kind of shut down a little bit more for them," Rams defensive end Chris Long said. "Kurt just makes plays."
Referee Bill Leavy and crew penalized Rams tackle Adam Goldberg for unnecessary roughness after Marc Bulger threw incomplete on first-and-10 from the Arizona 13 with about 4 minutes remaining. The call mystified Goldberg, who said he was merely blocking his man as usual.
"He knocked the defender down well after the pass was released and in my judgment, unnecessarily hit a player after the ball had been gone," referee Bill Leavy told pool reporter Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Goldberg suggested he couldn't know whether the ball had been thrown because his back was to the quarterback. In his mind, letting up might have put Bulger in danger of a sack. The penalty moved back the Rams 15 yards to the 28.
The drive ended with Bulger throwing incomplete to Donnie Avery on fourth-and-4 from the Arizona 7. Replays appeared to show contact between Avery and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
"My field judge said that the contact was incidental," Leavy told Thomas. "No restrictive contact (was made) and not enough to call a foul."
Warner said he could have stayed in the game, but he wanted to play it safe because he values life beyond football. He remained in the game for five plays after taking the hit from Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe.
I'll have more from Warner in the column I'm about to write following the Cardinals' 21-13 victory at the Edward Jones Dome.
Warner absorbed what the team called a "blow to the head" late in the second quarter. He stayed in the game for five additional plays as the Cardinals finished a touchdown drive. He did not return after that drive.
Backup Matt Leinart had trouble getting much going in the second half even though he inherited an offense that was running the ball effectively.
The Rams did a poor job capitalizing until it was almost too late. And when they did have a chance to force a potential tie, receiver Brandon Gibson dropped a pass in the end zone, bailing out Leinart and the Cardinals. Update: Upon further review, the pass might have been tipped.
This game illustrated Warner's value and how much ground the Rams still must make up from a talent standpoint.
Warner watched the second half from the sideline and remained in uniform. If he is not injured seriously, the Cardinals all but wrapped up the NFC West title by opening a three-game lead over the 49ers in the division. Looking down on the field as I write, Warner is holding hands with the Rams' Jonathan Wade and Keith Null as part of the postgame prayer circle.
Arizona is 7-3 for the second season in a row. The Cardinals are 5-0 on the road. They should be able to get to nine or 10 victories, which should be enough to defend their division title.
The Rams are now rallying.
What a horrible defeat this would be for Arizona.
Kurt Warner does not appear to be seriously injured. He is watching the second half from the sideline.
Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe hit Warner from behind during the drive. Warner stayed in the game for five more plays even though he appeared shaky immediately after taking the hit.
The Cardinals have listed Warner's return as questionable.
The Rams had given other teams problems lately, forcing the Saints to play a complete game against them.
The Cardinals have shown up on defense, stuffing Steven Jackson on two consecutive runs to turn over the ball on downs. Coach Ken Whisenhunt and the offensive staff have been creative, unveiling at least one new personnel-formation combination.
The running game continues to be there for the Cardinals. That will be key for their offense as they try to open up more big plays down the field. Arizona, up 21-3, is picking up where it left off against the Seahawks last week.
Another sign the Arizona offense is rolling: Kurt Warner completed a 27-yard pass to ... tight end Ben Patrick.
Looking like a long day for the Rams.
That makes their fourth wideout more valuable than most. Early Doucet has replaced Jerheme Urban in that role recently. Urban did not play in Week 10. The Cardinals named him inactive Sunday.
The decision makes some sense. While Urban was effective, the team needs to find out whether Doucet, a 2008 third-round choice, can help the offense. Anquan Boldin's future with the team is uncertain beyond this season. Developing Doucet could help this season even if Boldin remains with the team. The team also knows Urban will be ready if called upon.
Also inactive for Arizona: safety Rashad Johnson, linebacker Chike Okeafor, tackle Herman Johnson, guard Brandon Keith, tight end Stephen Spach and tight end Dominique Byrd. Brian St. Pierre is the third quarterback.
The Rams' inactive list features cornerback Danny Gorrer, linebacker Dominic Douglas, guard Roger Allen III, tackle Phil Trautwein, guard Richie Incognito, receiver Jordan Kent and defensive end C.J. Ah You, who appears headed for injured reserve. Keith Null is the third quarterback.
As noted in this video shot Friday, I'm headed to St. Louis for the Cardinals-Rams game Sunday.
Last season, your input periodically influenced which games I attended. The exercise became a bit futile as the Cardinals ran away with the division title and other teams played meaningless games.
The Rams' and Seahawks' struggles this season have made some of their games less attractive. The 49ers' more recent struggles discounted some of their games to a degree.
In a perfect NFC West world, divisional balance would make each team's games compelling most of the weeks.
The Cardinals-Rams game offers an opportunity to see the division leader against an improving Rams team still in its formative state. It's also a chance to see the Rams' Steven Jackson, arguably the most inspiring runner in the NFL this season.
Enjoy your Week 11. I'm traveling most of Saturday and will check back here in the evening. Those looking for instant fame can leave Week 11 predictions right here.