NFC West: Christian Ponder

Kevin Williams and Russell WilsonAP Photo, USA Today Sports ImagesKevin Williams' Vikings will face a challenge with Russell Wilson and the Seahawks playing at home.
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SEATTLE -- The Seattle Seahawks have amassed a 9-1 record despite playing with a patchwork offensive line and a receiving corps that lost one starter in Sidney Rice and never had its key offseason acquisition in Percy Harvin.

That's about to change. The offensive line could have all its starters on the field Sunday for the first time since Week 2, and Harvin could finally make his debut as a Seahawks receiver.

If Harvin plays, it would be against his former team, the Minnesota Vikings, adding more drama and intrigue to the moment. ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and Vikings reporter Ben Goessling discuss that, as well as the other storylines for Sunday's game.

Terry Blount: Ben, obviously, Seahawks fans are going crazy about the possible debut of Harvin and what he can add to the Seattle offense. But let’s look at this from the Minnesota side. The Vikings must feel like they got a pretty good deal out of this, don’t they?

Ben Goessling: I think they were pleasantly surprised to get as much for Harvin as they did. Everyone knew they were going to trade him, so for general manager Rick Spielman to get three picks, including a first-rounder, was quite the coup. He's done a good job over the years of creating a market for his players or picks, and the Harvin trade was no different. It will be a while, though, before we know if what they did with the picks worked. Xavier Rhodes, whom the Vikings took with Seattle's first-rounder, is being asked to play more zone coverage than he did in college, and he has struggled with that after coming out of Florida State as a press corner. He has the skills to be a good corner, but the learning curve is steep.

While we're on the subject of Harvin, how much of a factor do you think he'll be on Sunday? He probably wants to show up his old team, but will he get the opportunities to do so?

Blount: If he plays, I think it will be limited -- maybe 10 or 12 snaps, tops. We’re talking about a guy who hasn't played in an NFL game in more than a year. Pete Carroll has said over and over they will be very cautious with Harvin. They invested $67 million in the guy. They aren't going to risk everything in his first game back, especially in a game the Seahawks should win whether he plays or not. I know Harvin is fired up about playing against his old teammates, but the coaches want to hold him back a little. They probably want him to get his feet wet and save the real show for the New Orleans Saints on the Monday night after Seattle’s bye week.

Ben, there seem to be a lot of unknowns about the Minnesota quarterback situation, where the team is headed and with whom it’s headed there -- Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman, Matt Cassel or maybe someone who isn't there yet. What's the likely answer for the future?

Goessling: I think in the long run it's probably someone who isn't here yet. Spielman liked Freeman in the 2009 draft -- the Vikings might have drafted him if he were still on the board when their pick came -- and the Vikings are now getting a chance to work with him on a daily basis, though they don't seem to think they need to put him on the field to evaluate him. Cassel is probably a backup at this point, and though Ponder has been better lately, he just isn't consistent enough to count on long term. The Vikings will have a high pick in what looks to be a pretty good quarterback draft, and it would be a surprise if they didn't use the pick to take another crack at getting a franchise QB.

Terry, it’s been hard to get a read on the Seahawks' run defense this season. One week, they'll completely shut down an opponent's ground game. The next, they're giving up 200 yards to the Rams or the Buccaneers. Why has it been so inconsistent, and can Adrian Peterson exploit it this weekend?

Blount: That’s a great question. I think the Seahawks are better against the run than they were in those two games. But there are times when the front seven get so focused on rushing the passer that they discount the run, get out of position and end up missing tackles. The other problem in those two games was middle linebacker Bobby Wagner coming back too soon from a bad ankle sprain and not being able to play up to his usual standard. But last week against Atlanta he had nine solo tackles. The Seahawks know they are facing the best of the best Sunday, so they’ll be at their best for Peterson.

Ben, the Vikings haven’t won a road game this season. What would it take for them to win this one?

Goessling: Boy, this one seems tough for the Vikings. As we've discussed, they might be able to run the ball effectively against Seattle -- Peterson had one of his biggest games there last year -- but I don't think Ponder will have much success against that defense. I could see Marshawn Lynch giving the Vikings trouble, and if Harvin is in the lineup, there's part of me that thinks he'll have a big game.

Terry, as I said, this matchup looks like a bad one for the Vikings. But time and again we've seen the Seahawks let inferior opponents hang around and nearly beat them. Do the Vikings have any reason for hope this weekend, or do you see this as an easy Seahawks win?

Blount: I think the Vikings are catching the Seahawks at the wrong time. The offensive line probably will have all five starters back for the first time in eight weeks. If Harvin makes his debut, it will add enormous energy and excitement for the team and the fans. And the Seahawks are coming off their best game of the season, a game in which they looked like the Super Bowl contenders everyone expected to see. This is their last game before the bye, so they will go all out to make sure they get there with their 13th consecutive home victory.

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Final 2013 preseason QB snap counts

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
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Six projected starting quarterbacks played in their teams' final exhibition games of the 2013 preseason. The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson and the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick were two of them, and both led touchdown drives before exiting after one series. None of the NFL's projected starters got hurt Thursday night.

The chart shows week-by-week snap counts for quarterbacks I singled out as projected starters heading into preseason. NFC West alums Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn might not start after all, but I've left them in the chart for context.

St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has generally played starters in the final preseason game. He did not this time.

"Typically I have, but I guess in the new world that we’re in, it’s hard to," Fisher told reporters after the Rams' game against Baltimore. "What that implies is that I'm pleased with where they are right now, those guys that sat. They worked hard. We got a great workout and it allowed them to fast-forward their minds to Arizona."

Fisher could have been alluding to the run of higher-profile injuries around the league this summer. Last year, the Rams lost rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers to a high-ankle sprain in the final preseason game.

The Rams emerged from this preseason healthier than their division rivals. That did not stop the 49ers from playing their offensive starters or the Seahawks from playing starters on both sides of the ball Thursday night. The Arizona Cardinals rested most of their starters, though Michael Floyd was one notable exception.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh offered no explanation for playing his starting offense one series. Kaepernick hadn't gotten many snaps through the first three games, however. Getting additional reps for Kaepernick and the team's group of emerging receivers made some sense on the surface.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll went into the final preseason game saying he wanted starters to play because the team values this games as competitive opportunities.

NFL teams have played their most important snaps of the 2013 exhibition season now that every team has played at least three games.

This becomes a good time to check out how many snaps each projected starting quarterback has played. The players listed in the chart below entered preseason as the quarterbacks I considered most likely to start season openers. We might have to make adjustments in some cases.

Teams have different priorities based on a range of factors. This snapshot does provide some context.

A few notes regarding the NFC West info:
  • Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer appeared sharper in the preseason opener than he did subsequently. Pass protection was one problem against San Diego on Saturday night. Palmer still got 37 snaps, his highest total of the preseason. But with the team losing key players Rob Housler and Jonathan Cooper to injuries, snap counts for Palmer were not a leading storyline.
  • St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford has played 25 snaps in each of the last two preseason games. He is averaging 10.2 yards per pass attempt in the preseason and has a 114.1 NFL passer rating to this point (he finished the 2012 preseason with five touchdown passes, no picks and a 116.3 rating). The team's most recent preseason game, at Denver, provided Bradford a good opportunity to connect with Jared Cook, the tight end St. Louis lured away from Tennessee in free agency with $19 million in guarantees. Cook caught four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown.
  • San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick has played fewer snaps than any projected starter other than the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III, who has not yet played in a game since suffering knee injuries in the playoffs last season. Kaepernick finished strong against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night, completing his final six passes, including one for a touchdown.
  • Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson took three sacks and threw two interceptions while playing 38 snaps against Green Bay in the most recent preseason game. The Packers, meanwhile, pulled Aaron Rodgers after 10 snaps. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the Packers came after Seattle with scheme-related wrinkles an offense would address in the regular season, but not preseason.
The San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick has played fewer preseason snaps than any projected starting quarterback except for the still-idled Robert Griffin III.

Big deal? Not necessarily.

Injuries, game circumstances, position battles and other factors affect how NFL teams allot playing time during the exhibition season. Kaepernick played 12 snaps in the preseason opener, not far from the 13.8-snap average for projected starters in openers. His four snaps against Kansas City in the 49ers' second preseason game came in well below the 26.6-snap average for the other projected starters in their second preseason games.

"I didn't want anything freakish to happen," Harbaugh told reporters Sunday. "Sometimes you gotta have a plan and you also need a feel, too. So, just felt like he has gotten tremendous amount of work in practice. Though you’d like to have him play more in the preseason games, it comes down to a feel there."

The chart shows how many snaps projected starting quarterbacks have played in the preseason. "DNP" shows when a projected starter did not play. "MNF" reflects the scheduled "Monday Night Football" game between Pittsburgh and Washington.

Greetings. I'm en route to Atlanta and looking at the San Francisco 49ers' NFC Championship Game matchup with the Falcons from a few angles.

Ryan
Ryan
First up: a look at how Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has played at home, compared to how the 49ers' defense has played on the road.

There have been some unusual performances for both.

Ryan threw five interceptions at home against Arizona this season. The 49ers' defense struggled on the road against Minnesota's Christian Ponder.

The overall numbers hopefully give us at least a starting point.

Ryan has been less consistent at home than one might expect given his 34-6 starting record in the Georgia Dome since 2008. Ryan posted his five lowest single-game Total QBR scores at home this season, all between 32.1 and 53.1. He posted six of his eight highest single-game scores on the road. But his fifth-highest score in 17 games this season was the 85.4 he posted against Seattle at home in the divisional round.

Russell Wilson (97.4 QBR) and Ponder (89.9) combined for six touchdown passes with one interception against the 49ers in games played at CenturyLink Field and the Metrodome, respectively.

Back in a bit with a look at the 49ers' defense against top quarterbacks.

Colin KaepernickKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSan Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has three rushes of 50-plus yards in his past 41 carries.
Michael Vick, arguably the most feared rushing quarterback in NFL history, has run with the ball 828 times over 12 seasons, counting playoffs.

Three of those 828 rushes gained at least 50 yards.

Now, consider this: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has three 50-plus-yard rushes in his past 41 carries. That stands tied for second in the NFL for the full season with Chris Johnson and Jamaal Charles, each of whom have more than 275 carries. Only the incomparable Adrian Peterson has had more 50-plus rushes since Week 1 (seven).

There is no recent precedent for Kaepernick in the NFL. His NFL passer rating (98.7) and Total QBR score (82.8) through eight career starts (one of them postseason) both rank No. 1 for any player's first eight starts over the past five years.

Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Robert Griffin III and Aaron Rodgers are among those trailing Kaepernick by those measures.

The leading question heading into the NFC Championship Game was supposed to ask why coach Jim Harbaugh messed with a good thing by moving Kaepernick into the lineup over veteran Alex Smith. Smith, after all, had completed 25 of his previous 27 passes. He had a 104.1 passer rating, the NFL's highest completion percentage and a higher two-year winning percentage than Tom Brady when Kaepernick made his first start in Week 11.

The question now is more like, "What took Harbaugh so long?"

Perfect situation

Kaepernick, selected 36th overall in 2011, was the sixth quarterback drafted in his class. Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton went ahead of him. Those five have enjoyed varying degrees of success. None stepped into a situation nearly as favorable as the one awaiting Kaepernick.

The 49ers had in Smith a veteran starter with an even temperament and a willingness to provide whatever support a young quarterback wanted.

Kaepernick, unlike the five quarterbacks drafted ahead of him, would have a retired quarterback as his head coach. Four of the five quarterbacks drafted ahead of Kaepernick would begin their careers under defensive-minded head coaches. The fifth, Tennessee's Locker, would have a former guard as his head coach. All but Kaepernick and Locker would make their starting debuts as rookies.

As things worked out in San Francisco, Kaepernick would have a full season and half of another to become acclimated before starting.

When Smith suffered a concussion and the 49ers finally needed Kaepernick to start, they could support him with a dominant rushing attack and one of the NFL's top defenses. The 49ers ranked among the NFL's top five in point margin per game, rushing yards, yards allowed and defensive EPA from the day they drafted Kaepernick to the night they started him for the first time.

Smashing debut

What a night it was for Kaepernick and the 49ers on Monday, Nov. 19, at Candlestick Park.

Kaepernick completed 16 of 23 passes (69.6 percent) for 243 yards and two touchdowns against a Bears defense that had been leading the NFL in defensive EPA while ranking first in NFL passer rating allowed (61.5) and second in Total QBR allowed (20.4) to that point in the season. The 49ers won, 32-7.

Weeks later, Kaepernick would become the NFC's offensive player of the week for tossing four touchdown passes against New England. The Patriots' Brady entered that game with an 84-14 career starting record at home, counting postseason. The 49ers built a 31-3 lead and won 41-34 after Kaepernick found Michael Crabtree for the winning 38-yard touchdown pass with 6:25 remaining.

Kaepernick's 181 rushing yards against Green Bay in the divisional playoffs set a record for an NFL quarterback in any game. But Kaepernick, reportedly the owner of a 94 mph fastball when he played baseball, stands out nearly as much for his arm.

One pass busted Randy Moss' finger. Another throw, this one on third-and-12 against Chicago, led veteran tight end and longtime Smith supporter Vernon Davis to bow before his new quarterback right there on the field.

"I'm just so proud of him in that moment because the ball that he threw me, it was just one of those balls that you see Tom Brady throw," Davis said at the time. "Second window, right on the money. Surprise. I didn't expect the ball to come, because we ran that play quite a few times, and the tight end usually don't get the ball on that play."

Third-down difference

Kaepernick (96.8) and Smith (94.5) have similar NFL passer ratings as starters on third down this season.

Kaepernick holds a striking lead (86.3 to 32.9) in Total QBR on third down, however.

Sacks and rushing plays account for the difference.

Kaepernick's 20-yard touchdown run against the Packers came on a third-and-8 play early in the game. It gave him 19 carries for 180 yards and two scores with nine first downs on third-down rushing attempts this season. Smith has seven third-down carries for 43 yards and one first down.

Kaepernick has taken four sacks on 77 third-down drop backs. Smith has five additional sacks on 10 fewer third-down drop backs.

The 49ers average an additional 2.2 yards per third-down drop back when Kaepernick is their starting quarterback relative to when Smith is the starter.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh
Jeff Lewis/Icon SMI49ers coach Jim Harbaugh says QB Colin Kaepernick's ability to rebound from bad plays is rare.
Another kind of resiliency

No quarterback can top Smith for resiliency over the past several seasons. Smith has survived nearly annual coordinator changes, criticism from former head coach Mike Nolan, excruciating pain associated with injury, and his unexpected benching this season.

Kaepernick has shown another kind of bounce-back ability.

The quarterback's 20-yard touchdown run against the Packers came one drive after Kaepernick threw an interception for a touchdown.

A 50-yard scramble in the fourth quarter at St. Louis in Week 13 set up the go-ahead field goal one drive after Kaepernick's errant pitch gave the Rams an easy touchdown.

Kaepernick has led 49ers touchdown drives on the possessions immediately following the four interceptions he has thrown. As Cam Inman pointed out, Smith has never done that following any of his 10 picks over the past two seasons.

Mere coincidence? The 49ers do not think so.

"I'm not making any statement like I know how to do it, or not do it," Harbaugh told reporters. "I'm just observing that he seems to have a rare ability to bounce back."

Harbaugh, the owner of 129 touchdown passes and 117 interceptions during his regular-season playing career, would seem to have a feel for such things.

"As a quarterback, you throw an interception in a game, there's just a tendency the next time to double-check things," Harbaugh said. "And that's not the way to do it. You want him to be trusting what he sees and cut it loose. And I think he’s shown a rare ability to not have to double-check."

What's next

Critics unmoved by the evidence supporting Kaepernick could have questioned Harbaugh's decision more credibly had the 49ers failed to advance past the divisional round. That's no longer possible now that Kaepernick has advanced as far as Smith did last season.


Smith completed 46.2 percent of his passes with two touchdowns, three sacks, a 97.6 passer rating and 30.7 QBR score during the 49ers' 20-17 defeat against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game last season. The 49ers, playing with a severely diminished receiving corps, converted just once on 13 third-down opportunities.

Kaepernick appears well positioned to improve upon that standard. He posted five single-game QBR scores in the 80s or higher since becoming a starter in Week 11, counting his 94.7 figure while amassing 444 total yards and four touchdowns against the Packers. Kaepernick is tied with Seattle's Russell Wilson for the most 80-plus games over that span. Ryan, Peyton Manning and Rodgers are next with four apiece.

Not bad company for the sixth quarterback selected in his draft class.

Silver linings: Cardinals vs. Bears

December, 27, 2012
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The facts: The Arizona Cardinals fell to 5-10 with a 28-13 home defeat to the Chicago Bears in Week 16.

The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
  • The Cardinals held Bears quarterback Jay Cutler to one completed pass in his first 11 attempts.
  • Arizona held Chicago to 23 percent conversions on third down, the second-lowest rate for a Cardinals opponent this season (Minnesota 10 percent).
  • Chicago became the fifth Cardinals opponent this season to gain fewer than 300 yards against Arizona.
  • The Cardinals held Cutler beneath 50 percent completions. Fellow NFC North quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers (46.7), Matthew Stafford (48.0) and Christian Ponder (47.1) also failed to complete half their passes against Arizona.
  • Larry Fitzgerald topped 100 yards receiving for the 34th time in his career and the second time in two games against the Bears.
  • Punter Dave Zastudil set an NFL single-season record for punts downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
  • Defensive back Justin Bethel returned a blocked field goal try 82 yards for a touchdown.
Looking ahead: The Cardinals finish the season at San Francisco in Week 17.

NFC West Stock Watch

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
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FALLING

1. Rams' playoff hopes. Losing at home to the Minnesota Vikings a month after losing at home to the New York Jets? When the season ends, the Rams will look back on those two defeats as the ones that prevented them from shattering expectations. At 6-7-1, the Rams will need lots of help to reach the postseason. One scenario would require Week 16 victories by the Rams, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Houston, Arizona and Baltimore, followed by Week 17 victories by the Rams, Detroit, Green Bay and Philadelphia. That's too much to ask.

2. Ted Ginn Jr., 49ers returner. Ginn muffed a punt and was fortunate to recover the ball while the 49ers were protecting a 38-31 lead with five minutes left in the fourth quarter at New England. Ginn nearly muffed another one when he came dangerously close to making contact with the football. At this rate, the 49ers could again be vulnerable to losing a playoff game after forcing the other team to punt.

3. Rams' defense. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson gashed St. Louis a season-high 212 yards during a 36-22 victory in the Edward Jones Dome. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder operated at high efficiency, particularly early in the game. That combination helped the Vikings jump to a 30-7 halftime lead. We can't blame the Rams' defense for the pick-six Sam Bradford threw, but giving up 211 first-half yards was rough for St. Louis.

4. Field-goal kicking. The 49ers' David Akers missed wide to the left from 39 yards, albeit in miserable conditions. Seattle's Steven Hauschka had an extra point blocked. St. Louis' Greg Zuerlein missed from 57 yards, which is no big deal, except that "Legatron" can connect from that distance, particularly indoors. Zuerlein shanked this one. Arizona's Jay Feely is excused from this discussion. He made his only attempt, a 51-yarder.

RISING

[+] EnlargeMichael Crabtree
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesMichael Crabtree left Kyle Arrington and the Patriots in his wake with a momentum-changing touchdown.
1. Russell Wilson, Seahawks QB. Wilson's stock was already high, but he earned a spot atop the list with a record-setting performance during Seattle's 50-17 victory over Buffalo. Wilson became the first player in NFL history to provide three rushing touchdowns and one passing touchdown in a first half. His Total QBR score for the game was 99.3, the highest qualifying single-game score in the NFL this season.

2. Michael Crabtree, 49ers WR. San Francisco's top receiver burned the Patriots for 107 yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions. Both touchdowns covered more than 25 yards. Crabtree split two defenders to make the first one in traffic. The second one covered 38 yards and broke a 31-31 tie in the final seven minutes. That was the game-winning score. Much of the pregame focus was on Patriots receiver Wes Welker. Carlos Rogers and the 49ers seemed to fare well against Welker. Crabtree outplayed his New England counterpart on a big stage.

3. Colin Kaepernick, 49ers QB. Kaepernick became the first 49ers player since Jeff Garcia in 2003 to toss four touchdown passes in one game. He did it under difficult weather conditions on the road against a Patriots team that had won seven consecutive games. Kaepernick was not perfect, but almost nobody was in this game.

4. Cardinals' dignity. Arizona made bouncing back from a 58-0 defeat in Seattle appear easy during its 38-10 rout of the Detroit Lions. The 86-point swing in scoring differential was the largest for one week since the 1968 Lions followed a 59-13 defeat to Dallas with a 42-0 victory over Chicago.

Wrap-up: Vikings 36, Rams 22

December, 16, 2012
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Thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' performance during a 36-22 home defeat to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 15:

What it means: The Rams lost ground in the NFC West and NFC playoff picture while falling to 6-7-1. This was only the Rams' second defeat since Oct. 28, but it was a costly one. Home defeats against Christian Ponder (Vikings) and Mark Sanchez (New York Jets) could wind up keeping the Rams from the postseason in Jeff Fisher's first year as head coach.

What I liked: Fans gave Steven Jackson a standing ovation after the running back passed 10,000 rushing yards for his career. Fans had every right to be cranky at that point. The Rams trailed 33-7 late in the third quarter when Jackson achieved the milestone. It was good to see fans set aside their disappointment to honor one of the top players in franchise history. Rookie receiver Brian Quick caught a scoring pass for the second time in his career, both in the past six games. The 4-yard reception tied the score early in the second quarter. Sam Bradford threw a second touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, an impressive throw to the back of the end zone through traffic for Danny Amendola. He made it three touchdowns with a 6-yarder to Lance Kendricks in the final eight minutes.

What I didn't like: The Rams were not competitive at home against a flawed team and with playoff positioning on the line. Yes, they rallied in the fourth quarter, but only after the Vikings had built a 33-7 lead. The Rams could not sufficiently protect Bradford. They could not stop Ponder from making plays on third-and-long, fourth-and-short and third-and-goal during the Vikings' opening touchdown drive. They could not stop Adrian Peterson from breaking off an 82-yard touchdown run right after Quick's tying touchdown reception. They could not protect the football, turning it over with a bad center exchange and with an interception Minnesota's Everson Griffen returned for a touchdown. The pick-six made the score 24-7 midway through the second quarter. Game over.

Playoff picture: The Rams could still earn a wild-card berth if they finished 8-7-1 while second-place teams from the other NFC divisions finished 8-8 or worse. They'll need to win road games against Tampa Bay and Seattle to have a chance. The New York Giants' defeat Sunday helped. The Chicago Bears' defeat also helped. Washington won comfortably and that was not good for the Rams.

No stopping Peterson: Peterson carried 24 times for a season-high 212 yards and a touchdown. The Rams went into the game determined to contain him, largely by keeping him on the sideline while their offense controlled the ball. They gave up too many long runs. Peterson now has 1,812 yards heading into the final two regular-season games.

What's next: The Rams visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 16.

The difference between Ponder, Bradford

December, 15, 2012
12/15/12
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The Minnesota Vikings are watching closely to see whether Christian Ponder projects as their starting quarterback for years to come.

"There have been some encouraging moments this year," Kevin Seifert wrote on the NFC North blog, "but his relative lack of production in a run-based offense has left his long-term viability something short of clear."

The St. Louis Rams are feeling better about things after their young quarterback, Sam Bradford, led the winning 84-yard touchdown drive at Buffalo in Week 14. But as the Rams and Vikings prepare to play Sunday in St. Louis, similarities in production for Ponder and Bradford are tough to ignore.

Ponder owns 23 starts over two season. His stats line up very closely with stats for Bradford's first 23 starts. The chart breaks out the numbers. An additional column shows production for Bradford across all subsequent starts.

Ponder has a 78.3 rating and 40.9 QBR score this season. His starting record (7-6) and Bradford's starting record (6-6-1) are similar. My feel is that Bradford is the better player by a fairly wide margin, but the stats suggest that might not be so clear.

Bradford's passer rating (81.9) and Total QBR score (48.1) are higher this season than for the time periods featured in the chart. He has generally played much better during first quarters, fourth quarters and overtime. That could mean nothing. The differences could be largely random. I do wonder, however, whether the disparity reflects a desire by coach Jeff Fisher to minimize risks until circumstances dictate otherwise.

Under this theory, Bradford would start games quickly when following a script, then lose his way to a degree before rallying when the outcome was in the balance.

The numbers are striking.

Bradford has 11 touchdowns with three interceptions in first quarters, fourth quarters and overtimes this season. His corresponding passer rating (95.6) and QBR score (75.1) rank among the league leaders. Bradford has four touchdowns and seven picks in second and third quarters. His rating (67.0) and QBR score (21.9) lag accordingly.

It's something to monitor, at least.

Football Today: NFC West Week 15

December, 15, 2012
12/15/12
9:30
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Ross Tucker, Matt Williamson and Jay Soderberg are back with their weekly NFL predictions on the latest Football Today podcast for Week 15.

I've been singling out NFC West-related highlights for those interested. The full podcast is worth a listen as well.
  • 6:35 mark: San Francisco 49ers at New England Patriots. Tucker thinks the 49ers must take advantage of the Patriots' slower linebackers. Williamson thinks the Patriots have the best team in the NFL. He called their blowout victory over Houston last week, but he expects a much tougher game for New England in this one. Williamson boils down the game to Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick.
  • 23:25: Minnesota Vikings at St. Louis Rams. Williamson likes the Rams' defense and thinks Jeff Fisher should be coach of the year. He loves the matchup and thinks Adrian Peterson will need 175-plus yards for the Vikings to win the game. Tucker likes the Rams' defensive front seven. He also predicts a pick-six for the Rams' secondary against Christian Ponder. I feel that's a good call.
  • 30:22: Seattle Seahawks at Buffalo Bills. Williamson expects a low-scoring game. He and Tucker are both picking the Seahawks. Tucker is down on the Bills, his former team, after home losses to Tennessee and St. Louis. Soderberg picked against Seattle heading into the Seahawks' 58-0 victory last week. He's taking them this time.
  • 32:35: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals. Tucker and Williamson are looking forward to Patrick Peterson facing Calvin Johnson. Williamson wonders whether the Cardinals might surprise this week, but he's not betting on it. Soderberg is making the Lions his lock of the week.

Tucker, Williamson and Soderberg pick outcomes for all games in Week 15, so check out the full podcast if you can.

Related: Check out ESPN's expert picks for the week. Seattle and Detroit are unanimous picks this week. Seth Wickersham is the only one picking the 49ers to beat the Patriots. Picks are mixed for the Vikings-Rams game.

Sando's best guesses: Week 15 predictions

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
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Three teams remain in the NFC West title chase heading into the final three weeks of the 2012 regular season.

That's a significant change from last season, when the San Francisco 49ers cliched the title with a 26-0 victory over the St. Louis Rams in Week 13.

How much has changed? The Rams outscored the 49ers this season, 40-37. They've gone from 2-14 last season to 6-6-1 this season. Seattle, at 8-5, has already exceeded its victory total from last season.

The 49ers are still good, of course. They're leading the West at 9-3-1. But with the Seahawks and Rams in the hunt, the 49ers can hardly coast into road games against New England and Seattle.

Looks like we're in for an exciting finish. Here's a look at my picks for Week 15:
  • Minnesota Vikings at St. Louis Rams, 1 p.m. ET: Rams fans should sit back and enjoy the Vikings' Adrian Peterson while realizing Christian Ponder is the key for Minnesota. Peterson has more yards rushing than Ponder has managed passing over the last seven games. Ponder has completed two of his last 21 attempts traveling 10-plus yards past the line of scrimmage with no touchdowns and three picks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Rams' corners should have chances to jump routes. Sando's best guess: Rams 20, Vikings 14.
  • Seattle Seahawks at Buffalo Bills, 4:05: The Bills' defensive front is playing better recently. Seattle has potential manpower concerns at cornerback and wide receiver, depending on Sidney Rice's status. Still, if the Seahawks are a legit playoff team, they have to win this game, right? Marshawn Lynch is getting much of the attention heading into this game against his former team, but I'm thinking Russell Wilson will be the story, one way or another. Sando's best guess: Seahawks 23, Bills 17.
  • Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals, 4:05: Fans should covet an opportunity to see Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson in the same stadium. Too bad only one of them has an NFL-caliber quarterback throwing to him. What do the Cardinals have left after losing 58-0? Sando's best guess: Lions 24, Cardinals 9.
  • San Francisco 49ers at New England Patriots, 8:20: Great measuring-stick game for San Francisco. The 49ers haven't played in a matchup of this magnitude since suffering a 26-3 home defeat to the New York Giants in Week 6. I think they'll fare better in this one. It's ultimately tough picking against Tom Brady and the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, but if I were a betting man, I'd take the 49ers and the six points. Sando's best guess: Patriots 24, 49ers 20.
Noted: I went 3-0 on picks last week, upping my record to 30-13 for the season. That's pretty good for someone of my caliber. We've also got the "You called it" competition going, plus the Pigskin Pick'em group.

Around the NFC West: Gotta stop the pass

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
10:05
AM ET

The St. Louis Rams, like every team preparing to face the Minnesota Vikings, appear focused on containing running back Adrian Peterson.

Makes sense. Peterson, after all, has rushed for 1,600 yards through 13 games. He is clearly the best player on the Vikings' roster. The Rams would be better off if they could limit the damage from Peterson.

It's just not clear whether containing Peterson is really the key to defeating the Vikings.

Peterson has averaged 23 carries for 119.7 yards during seven victories. He has averaged 17.3 carries for 127 yards in the Vikings' six defeats. He ran all over Seattle's defense, but with Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder struggling, Seattle controlled the game and won with its own ground game and three first-half scoring passes.

Ponder has a 70.0 Total QBR score with eight total touchdowns, six turnovers and 11 sacks in the Vikings' seven victories. He has a 17.9 QBR score with seven total touchdowns, 10 turnovers and 17 sacks in six defeats.

There doesn't seem to be a strong connection between Peterson's production on the ground and Ponder's success through the air. The old adage about using the run to set up the pass usually doesn't apply in the NFL, anyway. The Vikings have provided evidence of its limitations.

How the Rams fare against Ponder could be more important than how they fare against Peterson as St. Louis looks to extend a three-game winning streak.

Second chance for Wilson against Cards

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
9:20
AM ET
Seattle Seahawks rookie Russell Wilson completed 6 of 18 passes for 47 yards with a 42.4 NFL passer rating and 14.6 Total QBR score when the Arizona Cardinals rushed five or more defenders in Week 1.

He had no touchdowns, no interceptions and took three sacks while averaging 2.6 yards per attempt on those plays during that 20-16 defeat at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Since then, Wilson has been much better against added pressure, a trend he'll be looking to continue when Arizona visits Seattle on Sunday. Wilson has completed 46 of 73 passes for 562 yards with a 102.7 rating and 66.8 QBR score against five-plus rushers after Week 1. He has six touchdowns, two interceptions and has taken seven sacks while averaging 7.7 yards per attempt on these plays over 11 games.

Wilson and the Seattle offense have grown, no question. But they also haven't faced many defenses as strong as Arizona's has been against the pass. The Cardinals emerged from Week 13 having sent five or more pass-rushers 40.9 percent of the time, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL this season. The percentage was 51.2 against Seattle in the first meeting.

"As football players, you know who’s talented and who could really play because you have played them once before, but also you have seen them on film that we watch every day," Wilson told reporters this week. "When you turn on the film, you realize how well they move around, and how aggressive they are, how much pressure they bring and the great things that they do on defense."

How Wilson fares against the Cardinals' pressure schemes Sunday will be a key plot line at CenturyLink Field.

"I think I'm 12 times more prepared," Wilson said. "I just feel so much more confident out there understanding what they're trying to do, and just getting use to the speed of the game. Playing those live games really helps."

How recently drafted QBs are stacking up

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
10:53
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Every team in the NFC West has been starting a quarterback drafted since 2010 in recent weeks.

The trend will likely continue unless Kevin Kolb returns from injury and gets the start for Arizona against Seattle.

I've put together a chart showing 2012 stats for all quarterbacks drafted since 2010 (minimum 10 attempts). They're ranked by Total QBR, which is a rate stat, not a cumulative stat. The order doesn't necessarily reflect how much each player has contributed to his team over the full season. It does generally reflect how well each quarterback has played when given a chance.

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