NFC West: final word

Final Word: Super Bowl XLVII

February, 2, 2013
Super Bowl XLVII Final Word: Ravens | 49ers

Five nuggets of knowledge about the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII:

Vernon Davis can be an unstoppable postseason force: The seventh-year tight end has averaged 27.6 yards per reception in four playoff games over the past two seasons. He has 16 catches for 442 yards and five touchdowns in those games. That includes a five-catch, 106-yard performance against Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.

Since Davis entered the NFL in 2006, no other tight end with even half as many postseason receptions has averaged better than 17.8 yards per catch on them. Davis' five postseason scoring catches are two more than any other tight end since 2006. He faces a Ravens defense that allowed two touchdowns, picked off five passes and ranked second in Total QBR allowed (39.9) when opposing quarterbacks targeted tight ends.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
AP Photo/Dave Martin49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has a passer rating of 101.2 over his first nine NFL starts.
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick: Through nine career starts, his production has put him in elite company. No quarterback making his first nine starts over the past five seasons ranks higher than Kaepernick in winning percentage (77.8), yards per pass attempt (8.6), passer rating (101.2), or Total QBR (84.0).

Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco are among the quarterbacks ranking lower than Kaepernick in those categories through nine career starts since 2008. Although Flacco has come on strong in the playoffs this season, he trails Kaepernick in those key statistical categories even over his nine most recent starts (55.6 win percentage, 7.7 YPA, 97.4 passer rating and 47.0 QBR).

Turnovers: Teams winning the turnover battle have a 7-1 record in the past 10 Super Bowls. The 2005 Seattle Seahawks were the only team in that span to lose a Super Bowl with a positive turnover margin in the game. Baltimore is plus-5 in turnover differential in the playoffs, best in the NFL. The 49ers are tied for second at plus-2. The Ravens are averaging eight points off turnovers per playoff game, best in this postseason. The 49ers are tied for second at seven points per game off turnovers.

The 49ers' pass defense could be vulnerable: Counting regular season and playoffs, Baltimore has completed 40 passes on throws traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. That is nine more than any other team has completed. The Ravens are averaging an NFL-best 2.1 such completions per game, a figure that has risen to 3.3 per game in the playoffs. The 49ers have allowed two in each of their two playoff games, giving them up to Julio Jones (twice), Greg Jennings and James Jones. They had allowed two or more in a game just six times in the regular season, never in back-to-back games. Ravens receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin each have four such receptions in the playoffs, most in the NFL. The 49ers' Davis ranks second with three.

The 49ers' option running game is in focus: San Francisco has averaged 8.4 yards per carry with four touchdowns on 29 option rushes in the playoffs. That is up from 5.4 yards per carry with three touchdowns on 26 option rushes in Kaepernick's seven regular-season starts. As the chart shows, Frank Gore already has more yards on option rushes in the playoffs than he had in the full regular season. Kaepernick gained 99 yards on option rushes against Green Bay in the divisional round. The Ravens faced 15 option runs this season, all against Washington in Week 14. The Redskins finished that game with 93 yards and a 6.2-yard average on those plays.

Prediction: 49ers 27-23: The 49ers have the advantage in weaponry without much question. And although Flacco has never been hotter, Kaepernick has been the tougher quarterback to defend. There's a good chance that will be the case again Sunday.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: 49ers at Falcons

January, 18, 2013
NFC Championship: 49ers-Falcons AFC Championship: Ravens-Patriots

Five nuggets of knowledge about the NFC Championship Game matchup Sunday between the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome:

Quarterback equalizers: The 49ers went 5-2 this season when facing top-10 quarterbacks by regular-season Total QBR scores. They can make it 6-2 with a victory over Matt Ryan's Falcons. Colin Kaepernick was the 49ers' quarterback when the team defeated Tom Brady (Patriots), Aaron Rodgers (Packers) in the playoffs, and Drew Brees (Saints). Alex Smith was under center for the 49ers when the team defeated Rodgers in Week 1 and Russell Wilson (Seahawks) in Week 7. Kaepernick lost to Wilson in Week 16. Smith lost to Eli Manning (Giants).

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Josh D. Weiss/USA TODAY SportsThe Falcons have won 34 of their 40 home games with Matt Ryan as the starting quarterback.
Tough tasks on road: The 49ers are heading into an unfriendly NFL venue for the third time in 35 days. The Falcons are 34-6 at home during the regular season and playoffs when Ryan starts at quarterback. The 49ers won last month in Foxborough, Mass., where the Patriots are 86-15 when Brady starts. More recently, the 49ers lost at Seattle, where the Seahawks were 8-0 this season. The home win-loss records for Brady (.851) and Ryan (.850) rank first and second among quarterbacks who entered the league during the Super Bowl era (minimum 20 home starts). Terry Bradshaw (75-14) and Joe Flacco (35-7) are next on the list. The 49ers also won on the road this season against Brees, who has gone 32-11 in the Superdome since 2008.

Mixing it up: The 49ers or Falcons will become the ninth franchise to represent the NFC in a Super Bowl over the past 10 years. New England, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis are the only AFC franchises to play in Super Bowls over the same period. This will change only if Baltimore defeats the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Carolina, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Arizona, New Orleans, Green Bay and the New York Giants (twice) have represented the NFC over the past nine years. On a side note, the Falcons defeated the 49ers in the 1998 postseason on their way to their lone Super Bowl appearance.

Tight ends should flourish: Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez has 99 receptions in 17 games this season and could be wrapping up a Hall of Fame career. His 49ers counterpart, Vernon Davis, finished the 2011 postseason with 10 receptions for 292 yards and four touchdowns. The numbers suggest one or both could make a significant impact on Sunday.

When opponents target tight ends, the Falcons' defense ranks last in the NFL in Total QBR allowed (96.8), last in yards allowed per drop-back (9.3) and 31st in yards allowed per completed pass (12.6). Those figures count the postseason.

Although the 49ers have allowed a league-low 8.78 yards per completion to tight ends through the divisional round, tight ends caught eight of the 19 touchdown passes San Francisco allowed during the regular season. That was the second-highest percentage in the NFL behind Denver. Only five teams allowed more scoring passes to tight ends.

Nice option to have: The Falcons allowed a league-high 8.9 yards per carry to opposing quarterbacks this season, ranking just worse than Buffalo (8.8) and Green Bay (8.5). Kaepernick set an NFL record for quarterbacks with 181 yards rushing against the Packers in the divisional round.

Atlanta has allowed a respectable 3.9 yards per carry on the 36 regular-season and postseason option rushes when quarterbacks handed off the ball. But opposing QBs gained 124 yards on six carries when quarterbacks kept the ball. Cam Newton accounted for nearly all that yardage thanks to option runs covering 72, 32 and 10 yards against the Falcons.

The 49ers often run the option from Pistol formations. The team gained 233 yards rushing and passing from the Pistol against Green Bay. That matched the 49ers' total from the formation beginning in Week 11 -- when Kaepernick became a starter -- through the end of the regular season.

Kaepernick is getting most of the attention, but wouldn't it be fitting if one of the 49ers' most respected and longest-tenured players, Frank Gore, wound up leading the team to the Super Bowl? Gore says he's getting more comfortable with the changes implemented when Kaepernick became the quarterback. His 119 yards and 5.2-yard average against the Packers marked season highs for Gore since Kaepernick became the starter.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: Seahawks at Falcons

January, 11, 2013
NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Seattle Seahawks' divisional playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome:

Banking on Wilson: Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has 11 total touchdowns (eight passing, three rushing) against one interception in the Seahawks' past five road games, counting playoffs. He has the NFL's third-highest passer rating (104.7) and second-highest Total QBR score (87.1) in road games over that span (since Week 8).

The Falcons have allowed only six touchdown passes at home all season. They have picked off 12 passes in those games. Their QBR allowed at home (32.6) was second-best in the NFL this season (playing the NFL's easiest schedule surely helped).

Though Wilson outplayed the injured Robert Griffin III during Seattle's wild-card victory at Washington, his QBR score for that game (36.7) was his lowest since Week 7. It ranked 65th out of 95 QBR scores for playoff starters since the 2008 season. The quarterbacks responsible for the 30 lower postseason QBR scores -- Griffin among them -- went 3-27 in those games. Seattle probably needs more from Wilson to beat the Falcons.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports With another 100-yard effort Sunday, Marshawn Lynch can make team history, tying Shaun Alexander for the most games with at least 100 yards in a season.
Beast Mode: Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch has reached 100 yards rushing in five consecutive games and 11 times overall this season. He needs one more 100-yard game to tie the franchise record Shaun Alexander set during Seattle's 2005 Super Bowl season. Doug Martin (142), Cam Newton (116), LaRod Stephens-Howling (127), Alfred Morris (115) and Willis McGahee (113) reached 100 yards rushing against the Falcons this season. The Falcons went 3-2 in those games.

Irvin in focus: The Seahawks are counting on rookie first-round draft choice Bruce Irvin to take over for the injured Chris Clemons at the "Leo" position along the defensive line. The sack Irvin collected against Washington in the playoffs was his first since Week 14 and second in the Seahawks' past seven games. Irvin hasn't had a sack on the road since collecting two (plus a critical forced fumble) against Carolina in Week 5. Irvin has been building to this moment, however. He has played 57.3 percent of the defensive snaps since Week 14 after playing 39.5 percent of them previously this season.

Nice option to have: Increased use of option plays has helped unleash the Seahawks' ground game since a Week 13 victory at Chicago. The Seahawks are averaging 155.2 yards rushing before contact over that six-game span, up from 85 per game prior to that. The Panthers had 21 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown on option runs in a 30-28 defeat against Atlanta in Week 4. Newton then posted a season-high 97.0 QBR score against the Falcons during a 30-20 victory in Week 14. He had two touchdown passes and a 72-yard run against Atlanta in that game. Overall, the Falcons allowed 30 carries for 218 yards and two scores on plays ESPN charted as zone reads, options and option pitches.

Late-game worries: The Seahawks are riding a three-game road winning streak, but their defense hasn't been reliable during the final minutes of closely contested games away from home. That's a concern against the Falcons, who went 7-2 in one-score games this season. Ryan had four touchdown passes, zero picks and an 83.4 QBR score in the final two minutes of halves this season. That was up from 14 touchdowns with 11 picks and a 59.3 QBR score in those situations previously. Seattle's road opponents posted an 88.4 QBR score in fourth quarters this season, the highest allowed by any team this season and well above the average (55.1).

Late-game drama could be additionally nerve-wracking for Seattle given that regular kicker Steven Hauschka was placed on injured reserve with a calf injury. Veteran Ryan Longwell, 38, will be kicking in a game for the first time since the 2011 season. The Seahawks suffered a 30-28 home defeat against Atlanta last season when coach Pete Carroll opted for a 61-yard field goal try on fourth-and-8 with 13 seconds remaining. Seattle would presumably go for it if faced with a similar situation this time.

Final Word: 49ers vs. Packers

January, 11, 2013
NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about the San Francisco 49ers' divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday at Candlestick Park:

Season of change: These are not your 2011 49ers. The three players most instrumental in San Francisco's divisional victory over New Orleans last season -- Justin Smith, Alex Smith and Vernon Davis -- enter this game on different terms. Justin Smith will try to play through a triceps injury that has sidelined him for three weeks and will require surgery in the offseason. Alex Smith gave way to Colin Kaepernick as the starting quarterback in Week 11. Davis, who caught 10 passes for 292 yards and four scores in the playoffs one year ago, has six catches in his past six games. Kicker David Akers, who set an NFL record for field goals last season, struggled enough recently for the team to sign Billy Cundiff. Who are these 49ers, anyway? Tune in Saturday to find out.

[+] EnlargeJustin Smith
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports The 49ers are welcoming back Justin Smith from injury this week. Will he be near full strength?
Just in time: Justin Smith appears to be critical to the 49ers' defense. The team allowed 4.5 yards per play with him on the field and 5.1 per play without him this season. Opponents took a sack once in every 14.8 drop-backs with Smith on the field compared with once every 26.8 drop-backs without him. The 49ers forced a turnover every 41.2 plays with Smith and every 57 plays without him. Without Smith contributing at a high level, the 49ers will have a tougher time pressuring QB Aaron Rodgers with four-man rushes.

Something has to give: Rodgers had 22 touchdown passes and only three interceptions on the road this season. The 49ers' defense has allowed seven touchdown passes while picking off six passes at home. San Francisco held Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees far below their usual Total QBR scores this season. In the divisional round last season, New Orleans' Brees completed 40 of 63 passes (63.5 percent) for 462 yards and four touchdowns, with two picks and three sacks against San Francisco. His NFL passer rating (93.5) and Total QBR score (63.1) were good, but the Saints still lost.

Not much of a rush: The 49ers are facing a Packers team that went all season without producing an individual 100-yard rusher. The 1981 49ers were the last team to win a Super Bowl without having a 100-yard rusher during the regular season. The 1970 Baltimore Colts and 1966 Packers also won Super Bowls without one. 49ers RB Frank Gore hasn't hit 100 yards rushing in a game since doing so against Seattle in Week 7. He has eight 100-yard games over the past two seasons, but none after Week 8. Gore averaged 5.6 yards per rush in the playoffs last season, but he got only 29 carries in two games.

Watching for Woodson: The 49ers must watch for Packers safety Charles Woodson, who is returning from a broken collarbone. Green Bay has been about 50 percent more likely to blitz with a defensive back when Woodson is on the field. Kaepernick has completed 13 of 20 passes for 158 yards (7.9 per attempt) with no touchdowns or picks when opponents rush at least one defensive back. Former starter Alex Smith had a higher NFL passer rating (116.0 to 89.2) and QBR score (82.0 to 65.3) against DB pressure during the regular season. Smith led the NFL in completion percentage (73.0) against all forms of added pressure, completing 11 of 12 such attempts against Green Bay in Week 1. Kaepernick is at 57 percent completions against five or more pass-rushers.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: Seahawks at Redskins

January, 4, 2013
NFC Final Word: East | West | North AFC: North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Seattle Seahawks' wild-card playoff game against the Washington Redskins on Sunday at FedEx Field:

Rookie showcase. Washington's Robert Griffin III (102.4) and Seattle's Russell Wilson (100.0) are the only qualifying quarterbacks in NFL history to finish their rookie seasons with NFL passer ratings in triple digits. They also are the first full-time rookie starting quarterbacks to face one another in an NFL playoff game. Houston's T.J. Yates was a replacement for Matt Schaub when he went against fellow rookie Andy Dalton in the playoffs last season.

Wilson and Griffin aren't alone among rookies playing prominent roles for their teams. The Redskins, led by Griffin and 1,600-yard rusher Alfred Morris, have a league-high 46 touchdowns passing, rushing or receiving from their rookies this season. The Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts are tied for second with 30 apiece.

Seattle also got 12 sacks from its rookies. Bruce Irvin had eight of them. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner finished his rookie season with 140 tackles, three interceptions and two sacks as an every-down player.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsSeattle quarterback Russell Wilson has shown steady improvement when facing heavy defensive pressure this season.
Picking their spots. Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said he counted nine all-out blitzes for Washington against Dallas in Week 17.

The Redskins collected a league-high 12 interceptions while blitzing during the regular season. Wilson, after struggling against pressure early in the season, has eight touchdown passes with no picks against five or more pass-rushers since Week 8. He has hit on six deep passes against five-plus rushers over that period, third most in the NFL. Deep passes are those traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage before the reception.

Wilson has eight overall touchdown passes on these deep throws, tied for second most in the NFL. He has thrown none of them on the road, however. His completion rate on these throws drops from 53.3 percent at home (16-of-30) to 28.6 percent on the road (8-of-28).

Pictures of health. The Seahawks enter the playoffs with zero starters on injured reserve unless you count guard James Carpenter as a player Seattle was counting on. Nickel pass-rusher Jason Jones and nickel cornerback Walter Thurmond are the most prominent Seahawks on IR. The Redskins' IR list features starters Adam Carriker, Brian Orakpo, Fred Davis, Jammal Brown and Brandon Meriweather. Also, nickel cornerback Cedric Griffin missed four games to a suspension and is returning.

Watch that play fake. The Seahawks have increasingly used play-action to great effect from the shotgun formation. Wilson has completed 14 of 15 such passes over the past five games. Both defenses must be wary. Griffin's average target depth jumps by a league-high 5 yards on play-action throws. His Total QBR score is a 13th-ranked 58.4 without play-action. It jumps to 86.8, fourth best in the league, when using the tactic. Seattle's defense ranks 24th in QBR allowed (74.4) against play-action. Washington's defense ranks third (46.9) by this measure.

Cornerback playmaking. Griffin, Wilson, Morris and Marshawn Lynch will command most of our attention as the most productive offensive players for each team.

There should be some outstanding battles in the secondaries as well. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is one of four players over the past 10 seasons with at least eight interceptions and three forced fumbles in one season (Charles Woodson and Ed Reed are two others to do it).

Sherman and fellow corner Brandon Browner tick off opposing receivers with their aggressive, sometimes against-the-rules tactics. The Redskins haven't gotten many calls along those lines. They made only seven first downs this season via penalties for illegal contact, defensive pass interference or defensive holding this season. That is half the NFL average and second fewest in the NFL behind Cleveland (six).

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: NFC West

December, 28, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

Three of a kind. Not since 1991 have three NFC West teams finished a season with winning records. It could happen in 2012 if the St. Louis Rams upset the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. The Rams would finish 8-7-1 with a victory. Seattle and San Francisco already have 10 victories apiece. The 1991 NFC West race finished with New Orleans (11-5), Atlanta (10-6) and San Francisco (10-6) ahead of the Los Angeles Rams (3-13). Also with a victory, the Rams would become the second team since the merger to post an undefeated division record without qualifying for postseason.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY Sports Steven Jackson is nearing another milestone. closing in on his eighth consecutive 1,000-yard season.
Making history. The Seahawks have never finished a season ranked first in fewest points allowed. Seattle enters Week 17 having allowed 232 points, fewest in the NFL by 21 points. Chicago has allowed 253. The 49ers have allowed 260. Seattle has allowed 17 or fewer points in its past four games, the Seahawks' longest streak since 2003 and 2004.

Milestone weekend. Steven Jackson, Russell Wilson and Aldon Smith are chasing milestones as the regular season wraps up.

The Rams' Jackson needs 10 yards rushing for his eighth consecutive 1,000-yard season, which would tie LaDainian Tomlinson and Thurman Thomas for fourth behind Emmitt Smith (11), Curtis Martin (10) and Barry Sanders (10).

Seattle's Wilson has 25 touchdown passes, within one of Peyton Manning's rookie record. Wilson, with a 98.0 NFL passer rating, also has a shot at breaking Matt Hasselbeck's single-season franchise record (98.2).

Smith, with 19.5 sacks, needs three to break Michael Strahan's single-season record for sacks. Houston's J.J. Watt (20.5) is nearer the record, however.

Stopping the bleeding. The 49ers have been outscored by 50 points and allowed more than 700 yards over their past five-plus quarters. That is nearly as much yardage as the 49ers allowed over a 12-quarter stretch of games against Chicago, New Orleans and St. Louis. The trend is about to end. The 49ers' Week 17 opponent, Arizona, has 735 yards in its past four games. The Cardinals' Brian Hoyer is making his first NFL start at quarterback.

Crabtree's time. The NFC West is in danger of finishing without a 1,000-yard receiver for the first time since the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions in 2002. The 49ers' Michael Crabtree needs 67 yards against Arizona to become the team's first 1,000-yard receiver since Terrell Owens in 2003. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald needs 215 yards to reach 1,000 for the sixth consecutive season. Seattle's Sidney Rice needs 252 yards for 1,000. Crabtree is averaging 91.5 yards per game since Week 13, sixth-most in the NFL.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: NFC West

December, 14, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:

Chasing Brady, record: San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith needs three sacks to tie the NFL's single-season record since 1982, when sacks became an official NFL stat.

While Smith will be matching up primarily against the New England Patriots' offensive tackles Sunday night, quarterback Tom Brady looks like his toughest adversary. Brady has taken 20 sacks on 517 dropbacks this season. He has held the ball three or fewer seconds on 70 percent of pass attempts. That means Smith and the 49ers' pass-rushers need to work quickly.

The 49ers have collected 24 of their 32 sacks this season after three seconds. That included all five of their sacks against New Orleans' Drew Brees, another tough-to-sack quarterback. San Francisco beat Brees thanks largely to a pair of interception returns for touchdowns. While Brady has thrown only four picks all season, he threw three of them during defeats to NFC West teams (Seattle, Arizona).

49ers scoreboard watching: The 49ers have scored at least 27 points in two of their past three games. That looks good on paper, but the offense hasn't always been functioning at optimum efficiency. Interception returns accounted for 14 of 31 points against New Orleans. Then, after a 16-13 defeat at St. Louis, the 49ers scored only six first-half points against the Miami Dolphins before pulling away to win 27-13.

New England has held its past three opponents beneath 20 points, the Patriots' best three-game stretch since 2009. The 49ers are 1-3 when failing to score 20 points.

Waiting game: Coaches generally instruct their quarterbacks to deliver the football in timely fashion. The sooner the better, sometimes. There are still times when good things come to those who wait.

Seattle Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice ranks tied for the NFL lead with four touchdown receptions on throws delivered at least four seconds after the snap.

Week 15 opponent Buffalo has allowed eight such touchdown passes, most in the NFL. Quarterback Russell Wilson's willingness to hold onto the ball is one key variable. One question this week is whether a foot injury will sideline Rice or limit his effectiveness. Rice has avoided concussions the past two weeks despite taking huge hits. He's unsure when he suffered the foot injury, but it has kept him from practicing.

Third-down prowess: The St. Louis Rams' Week 15 opponent, Minnesota, has surrendered first downs on 44 percent of third-down pass attempts, the highest rate in the league.

Can the Rams take advantage? Quarterback Sam Bradford has been outstanding on third down during fourth quarters and overtime. His 86.9 Total QBR in those situations ranks fifth in the NFL. Unfortunately for the Rams, Bradford ranks 35th out of 36 qualifying quarterbacks in third-down QBR during the first three quarters of games. He's at 7.6, ahead of only Arizona's recently benched John Skelton.

Ben Roethlisberger (92.2), Brady (89.6) and Aaron Rodgers (84.8) lead the NFL in third-down QBR across all quarters. Bradford ranks 29th at 20.1. He has three touchdowns, three interceptions, 16 sacks and a 54.8 completion percentage on third down this season.

Third-down improvement could be key as the Rams try to follow through on coach Jeff Fisher's stated priority: keeping Vikings running back Adrian Peterson off the field.

Where Fitz stands: Arizona Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley has completed six of 30 attempts when targeting top receiver Larry Fitzgerald. That is one reason Fitzgerald ranks only fourth in receiving yardage among NFC West players this season.

Fitzgerald ranks second on his own team behind Andre Roberts even though Roberts has 42 fewer targets (126-84) and one fewer game played.

Michael Crabtree (761), Roberts (675) and Rice (658) have more receiving yardage than Fitzgerald (652) this season. The Rams' Chris Givens (584), Danny Amendola (576) and Brandon Gibson (537) have a chance to overtake Fitzgerald.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: NFC West

December, 7, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:

Seeking divisional breakthrough: The Seattle Seahawks play a divisional game at home for the first time this season when Arizona visits CenturyLink Field. They are 0-3 in NFC West play to this point. That makes the Seahawks one of four teams without a divisional victory this season. Kansas City, Tennessee and Detroit are the others. The Cardinals claimed a 20-16 victory over Seattle in Week 1. Arizona has been outscored by 45 points in NFC West games overall, however. Only the Chiefs (minus-53) and Titans (minus-49) have worse scoring differentials in division play.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
Derick E. Hingle/USA Today SportsColin Kaepernick's ability to make plays outside the pocket should come in handy against Miami.
Kaepernick on the outside: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has thrown three touchdown passes this season, all on passes delivered outside the pocket. He faces a Miami Dolphins defense that ranks 31st in opponents' completion percentage (67.3) and Total QBR (78.9) when defending such throws. Kaepernick could find opportunities on passes outside the yard-line numbers. Two weeks ago, Seattle's Russell Wilson completed 15 of 18 such passes for 167 yards, two touchdowns and a 142.4 NFL passer rating against Miami. Earlier in the season, St. Louis' Sam Bradford completed 16 of 23 such attempts for 221 yards and a 100.1 rating against the Dolphins.

Sack record within reach: The Dolphins will play without injured left tackle Jake Long this week. Long has struggled as a pass protector this season, at least by his standards, but the Dolphins surely would have preferred Long to rookie replacement Jonathan Martin. The 49ers' Aldon Smith leads the NFL in sacks with 17.5, tying Fred Dean's single-season franchise record. Smith needs five sacks to tie Michael Strahan's NFL record for one season. Note that the NFL did not track sacks officially before the 1982 season.

Rams' rookie show: The Rams head to Buffalo with a chance to further showcase a promising rookie draft class. Rams rookies have 1,354 yards from scrimmage this season, the fifth-highest total for any team's 2012 class. The class has scored 39 of the Rams' 47 points during victories over the past two weeks, including three touchdowns from cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Rookie receiver Chris Givens has 16 catches for 207 yards over the past two games. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers hasn't scored points, but he has been increasingly strong against the run. That's a big key for the Rams against the Bills, which rank fourth in rushing yards this season with 1,775.

Wilson milestone near: Seattle's Wilson leads NFL rookies with 19 touchdown passes this season. Peyton Manning (26), Charlie Conerly (22), Cam Newton (21), Andy Dalton (20) and Dan Marino (20) are the only players with more during their rookie seasons. Wilson has nine touchdowns without a pick in his past four games. However, he is facing a Cardinals defense that has traveled well. Arizona picked off Matt Ryan five times in Atlanta. The Cardinals held Tom Brady and the Patriots to 18 points. And while Aaron Rodgers tossed four scoring passes against Arizona, he failed to complete even half his passes. The 49ers' Alex Smith was the lone quarterback to truly torch Arizona's defense this season.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: NFC West

November, 30, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13:

Seeking historic start: The San Francisco 49ers have gone 2-0 in Colin Kaepernick's first two starts at quarterback. A victory against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday would make Kaepernick the first 49ers quarterback since the 1970 merger to win his first three starts with the team. Joe Montana went 0-3 for the 49ers when Bill Walsh was in the early stages of an organizational rebuild. Steve Young went 1-2 in his first three starts with the team, tossing one touchdown and four interceptions in those games.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
Kyle Terada/US PresswireQuarterback Colin Kaepernick can make history by leading the 49ers to a win Sunday.
Not bad for a backup: Recently demoted 49ers quarterback Alex Smith can point to a 19-5-1 starting record since the start of last season as evidence he is getting a raw deal. Kaepernick (2-0), Smith and Seattle's Russell Wilson (6-5) are the only quarterbacks with winning records as starters for NFC West teams over that stretch. Records for the others: Tarvaris Jackson (7-7), John Skelton (6-6), Kevin Kolb (6-8), Sam Bradford (5-15-1), A.J. Feeley (1-2), Ryan Lindley (0-1), Charlie Whitehurst (0-2) and Kellen Clemens (0-3).

Linebackers in focus: The Rams had their way with the 49ers' defense in the running game when the teams battled to a 24-24 tie in Week 10. They succeeded in getting blockers on the 49ers' usually outstanding inside linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

Vic Fangio, the 49ers' no-nonsense defensive coordinator (is there any other kind?), wasn't about to blame the defensive struggles on some imaginary lack of focus or motivation. "Well, to me, that’s just an excuse," he said. "We got blocked."

The 49ers have subsequently tightened up their run defense and rewarded Bowman with a contract extension through 2018. Can they better contain Steven Jackson, who has 321 yards over the past three games? Note that the Rams have scored 20-plus points just 15 times since 2010, and four of those were against the 49ers. They have 270 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns in their past two games against San Francisco.

Central time: The Seahawks have a 3-4 record under coach Pete Carroll when playing in the Central time zone. Oddly, that includes a 2-0 mark against the Bears at Soldier Field, site of Seattle's game this week. The Bears are 15-5 at home against everyone else.

Dropping off the map: The Cardinals averaged 22.8 points per game during their 4-0 start. They have averaged 12.7 points per game while losing their next seven. They went from winning games by 7.5 points on average to losing them by 11 points on average.

This is the third consecutive season Arizona has suffered a losing streak of at least six games. Arizona is the only team in the NFL with more than two such streaks over the past three seasons. Buffalo and St. Louis each have two. Thirteen other teams have one. The Cardinals haven't lost eight in a row since 2006. They fired Dennis Green as coach after that season.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: NFC West

November, 23, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 12:

Fateful QB decision: If carried out as expected, the San Francisco 49ers' move to replace Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick will be the most scrutinized decision in the NFL this week and perhaps all season.

Smith has completed 25 of his past 27 passes. The 49ers have posted a 19-5-1 record the past two seasons with Smith in the lineup. Smith has 38 touchdowns with 11 interceptions in his past 30 starts dating to late in the 2010 season. His Total QBR score has risen from a sub-average 45.8 last season to 69.8 this season. The latter figure ranked ninth in the NFL through Week 11 and would represent Pro Bowl-caliber play if sustained over a full season.

What's not to like? Smith ranks only 25th in third-down QBR at 32.0. That is up from 22.0 last season, but it's still not good enough.

Smith has done a disproportionate amount of damage on early downs, when opponents must account for the 49ers' formidable ground game. His QBR score on first and second downs has jumped from 55.9 last season to 80.8 this season. Might the lagging third-down production point to limitations the 49ers think Kaepernick can transcend?

Kaepernick hasn't played enough to draw meaning from his third-down performance. So far, though, so good. The second-year pro has completed 7 of 12 passes for 123 yards on third down. He has one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown. His third-down QBR score (65.6) would mark a significant improvement if maintained over time.

[+] EnlargeAldon Smith, John Skelton
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsAldon Smith (99) is poised to become the NFL's all-time leader in sacks over a player's first two seasons.
Chasing down history: 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith needs two sacks to pass Derrick Thomas and tie Reggie White for the most sacks in a player's first two seasons since 1982, when sacks became an official stat. White had 31 in 1985-86. Thomas had 30 in 1989-90. Smith has 15 this season after collecting 14 as a rookie. Denver's Von Miller ranks sixth on the list with 24.5 in his first two seasons heading into Week 12.

Fresh-faced QBs: Kaepernick, Seattle's Russell Wilson and Arizona's Ryan Lindley had not started an NFL game before this season. All three are expected to start in Week 12. That makes St. Louis' Sam Bradford, with 36 career starts, the most seasoned starting quarterback in the division this week. The NFC West is bucking a broader NFL trend, however. Teams will have used no more than 42 starting quarterbacks through Week 12, the fewest to this point in any of the past 20 seasons, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

Hitting the road: Wilson has gone 5-0 at home with 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 67.7 QBR score in those games. He heads to Miami in Week 12 having posted a 1-4 record on the road with four touchdowns, eight picks and a 47.3 QBR score. It's looking up for Wilson on the road, however. He completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 236 yards, two touchdowns and a 93.7 QBR score in his most recent road game, at Detroit. He's got a 70.7 QBR score for his past three road games, up from 23.6 for his first two. My feel is that Wilson has improved overall in recent weeks and that should translate to the road as long as his overall trajectory remains upward.

Welcoming back Wells: Running back Beanie Wells' return from a toe injury comes after the Cardinals pumped up their yards-per-carry average from a league-worst 3.5 through Week 8 to an 11th-ranked 4.3 since Week 9, a span of two games for Arizona. Wells faces a St. Louis run defense that has improved since he gashed it for 228 yards in Week 12 last season. The Rams are allowing 4.1 yards per carry, down from 4.8 last season. No Rams team has allowed fewer yards per carry over a season since 2002. On a side note, the Cardinals need no worse than a tie to avoid becoming the first NFL team to lose seven consecutive games after a 4-0 start.

Note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: NFC West

November, 9, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 10:

Teams facing the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers tend to focus on containing those teams' strong running games. This could be opening up first-down opportunities for quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Alex Smith. Seattle's Wilson is completing 69.9 percent of his passes on first down. Smith is completing a league-high 76.1 percent. Each quarterback has five first-down scoring passes. Only Peyton Manning (94.6) ranks higher than Wilson (84.92) and Smith (84.86) in Total QBR on first down this season. Wilson faces a Jets defense ranked 11th in first-down QBR allowed (56.2). Smith faces a Rams defense that ranks sixth in that category (50.5 allowed).

[+] EnlargeLeon Washington
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonLeon Washington, with a career-high 29.1 yards per kickoff return, will face his former team for the first time.
A horrific leg injury derailed Leon Washington's promising tenure with the Jets in 2009. Washington, now in his third season with the Seahawks, gets a shot at his former team for the first time Sunday. He is averaging 29.1 yards per kickoff return, which would be a career high for a single season. He owns seven career kickoff returns for touchdowns, but hasn't taken one all the way back since 2010, before the NFL moved kickoffs back to the 35-yard line to facilitate touchbacks in the name of player safety. The Jets allowed a 104-yard kickoff return for a score to New England's Devin McCourty this season, but they still rank a respectable 14th in yards allowed per kick return.

This is a big week for St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long. He's coming off subpar games against Green Bay and New England. The Rams will need him at his best against emerging 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis. Two years ago, when Davis was a rookie, Long schooled him memorably. Davis is the one getting acclaim lately, showing up on various midseason all-star lists. Long had 13 sacks last season. He has four through eight games in 2012. The Rams are counting on him to show up Sunday. They gave him a contract extension worth more than $12 million per season because they thought he could win matchups like the one he faces against Davis.

The Rams could welcome back left tackle Rodger Saffold and receiver Danny Amendola from injuries. Both players could start, but will they finish? Two years ago, the Rams lost an overtime game at Candlestick Park when Saffold couldn't finish the game, leaving backup Renardo Foster to deal with all-world 49ers defensive end Justin Smith. Smith beat Foster for a key third-down sack in OT. Foster is long gone. A healthy Saffold still represents an upgrade from backups Wayne Hunter and Joe Barksdale. Amendola, meanwhile, must watch out for hard-hitting defenders such as Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. He's coming off a shoulder injury.

The Rams-49ers game is one of two this week featuring quarterbacks drafted first overall. Peyton Manning and Cam Newton square off in the other. Manning has a 27-9 starting record against teams featuring No. 1 overall picks in the lineup, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Only Terry Bradshaw has a better record in such matchups among No. 1 overall quarterbacks with at least five matchups. The 49ers' Smith is 5-3 in these games, fourth-best behind Bradshaw, Manning and John Elway among qualifying top picks. The Rams' Sam Bradford hasn't faced the 49ers since 2010, when he went 1-1 against them. Troy Smith, not Alex Smith, started those 2010 games for the 49ers.

Final Word: NFC West

November, 2, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 9:

[+] EnlargeLynch
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireSeattle running back Marshawn Lynch ranks second in the NFL in yards after contact with 303.
Beast Mode versus All Day: Seattle's Marshawn Lynch and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson will not be facing each other directly, of course. They will be in the same stadium on the same day, however, which is a treat for NFL fans. Peterson (775 yards) and Lynch (757) are the NFL's leading rushers. Peterson has more yards after contact (404) than Steven Jackson has overall (403). Lynch ranks second in yards after contact with 303. Both backs face defenses that have given ground against the run recently. Peterson has played five of eight games at home and done most of his damage there. All four of his rushing touchdowns were scored at home. Seven of his eight rushes covering 20-plus yards were also at home. Peterson has averaged 5.5 yards per carry at home and 4.5 on the road.

Stopping the Vikings short: The Seahawks will be looking to improve their third-down defense after allowing 12 conversions in 16 chances against Detroit last week. Scott Linehan, the Lions' offensive coordinator, credited his players' ability to gain first-down yardage on passes caught short of the sticks. Linehan was right. The Lions converted four first downs on passes caught short of the first-down marker. That was twice as many as any Seattle opponent had managed in a game previously this season. The Vikings' Christian Ponder has completed a league-high 13 third-down passes for first downs on throws caught short of the sticks. On all downs, Ponder has completed 49 passes for first downs on these throws. That is the third-highest total in the NFL (Tom Brady 57, Matthew Stafford 50). Vikings receiver Percy Harvin averages 11.1 yards per reception, including 8.6 yards after the catch. The Seahawks need to defend him well on shorter passes.

Home-field advantage: Seattle has a 3-0 record at home this season despite facing three quarterbacks with Pro Bowls on their résumés. Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo combined for three touchdowns, three interceptions and a 58.1 Total QBR in those games. Ponder has a 47.3 QBR score on the road this season. He has eight rushes for 25 yards and one first down on the road. That is down from 16 carries for 79 yards and four first downs (with one touchdown) at home. Seattle should fare well in this matchup.

Peterson's redemption tour: Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson suffered through a rough game against Michael Crabtree and the San Francisco 49ers in Week 8. He faces what appears to be even tougher matchups against the Green Bay Packers. Peterson isn't shying away from the scrutiny. "It all depends on how I bounce back," Peterson said. "This will definitely see what type of player I am and how bright my future is." Peterson and the Cardinals' defenders must stay disciplined. Rodgers leads the NFL in yards per attempt (10.3), touchdown passes (four) and passes covering 30-plus yards (four) on throws made from outside the pocket.

Bringing the heat: The 40-degree forecast for Green Bay shouldn't be a huge factor for the warm-weather Cardinals. The heat referenced here relates more to the Arizona pass rush. The Cardinals are allowing an NFL-low 44.8 completion percentage when they pressure with five or more defenders. Rodgers leads the NFL in completion percentage (70) and touchdown passes (10) against such pressure, however. The 49ers' Alex Smith completed 7 of 8 attempts for three touchdowns in these situations Monday night.

Note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: NFC West

October, 26, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 8:

Three streaks to the test: NFC West teams are 4-0 at home in division games. The Arizona Cardinals will try to keep that streak going at home against the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night. Also, the Seattle Seahawks are 4-0 outside the NFC West. They’ll try to make it 5-0 with a victory at Detroit. However, quarterback Russell Wilson has thrown all seven of his interceptions on the road this season. Finally, the Cardinals’ John Skelton has thrown an interception in 10 consecutive games, the NFL’s longest active streak.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll
Joe Nicholson/US PresswirePete Carroll and the Seahawks face a Lions team that has thrived in the fourth quarter.
Finishing power: The cliche about needing to play a full 60 minutes sounds less trite for the Seattle Seahawks heading into their game at Detroit. The Lions have gained 992 of their 1,926 yards passing in fourth quarters this season. They have thrown all seven of their touchdown passes in fourth quarters. The Lions have 1,075 yards passing in fourth quarters and overtimes. That is 448 more than any other team has gained and 723 more than the Seahawks have gained. Seattle has only 1,230 yards passing for the season. The Seahawks' defense has held opponents to one touchdown pass with two interceptions and a 73.4 NFL passer rating (eighth-lowest) after the third quarter. However, Seattle has allowed 26 passing first downs (eighth-most) and a 67.1 Total QBR (12th highest) across the same span.

Best of both worlds: The 49ers’ defense generally doesn’t blitz much. There should be little need for sending added pressure against the Cardinals. Minnesota got seven sacks against Arizona last week without rushing more than four players on any dropback. Skelton has thrown 17 picks over the past two seasons, all but one against defenses rushing four or fewer defenders. Former starter Kevin Kolb had six touchdowns with only one pick in those situations this season. That could mean Skelton isn’t reading the coverages well enough.

Rediscovering Fitzgerald: Larry Fitzgerald’s production has dropped by 6.1 yards per reception from last season (17.6 to 11.5). He has zero receptions for 40-plus yards after collecting eight of them in 2011. He ranks 36th in receptions of 25-plus yards with three after tying for the NFL lead in that category with 17 last season. Average target depth could be one of the variables at play for Fitzgerald. His depth has fallen from 13.2 yards last season to 5.7 this season out of double formations (one back in the backfield, two skill players per side); it has dropped from 16.0 to 7.1 on the handful of empty formations the team has used. This suggests, on the surface, that Fitzgerald has less time to get downfield when the Cardinals send additional players into pass routes. Target depths have been about the same from two-back and trips formations. However, it’s also true that 2011 was an unusually strong season, even by Fitzgerald’s standards. He set a single-season career high for yards per catch by 2.7 yards.

Missing mainstays: The St. Louis Rams miss injured receiver Danny Amendola, who probably will not play against New England. The Patriots miss injured tight end Aaron Hernandez, who did not make the trip to London for the game. Football is a team sport, however. The Rams have run about as many snaps with Amendola on the field as they have run without him on the field, before and after the injury. They’re averaging slightly more yards per play without him (7.6 to 7.0). They have five offensive touchdowns without him and four with him. The Patriots are averaging slightly more yards per play (5.7 to 5.3) without Hernandez on the field. Their yards per pass attempt is much higher with Hernandez off the field or unavailable through injury (8.1 to 6.0), especially on first and third downs. Amendola and Hernandez are missed, but life must go on, and it has.

Note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: NFC West

October, 19, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 7:

Wind up the pass-rushers: Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Clay Matthews and Jared Allen are pass-rushers to watch in games featuring NFC West teams Sunday. Long and Quinn have combined for 10 sacks for the St. Louis Rams. They'll be facing a Green Bay offense that has stabilized since allowing eight first-half sacks against Seattle. Matthews has eight sacks for the Packers and will match up against Rams left tackle Wayne Hunter, a backup who has missed recent practices with back trouble. Meanwhile, Minnesota has to like Allen's chances working against Arizona Cardinals left tackle D'Anthony Batiste. According to Stats LLC, Batiste ranks second only to Cardinals right tackle Bobby Massie in sacks allowed this season. The totals are nine for Massie and 7.5 for Batiste.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Tim Fuller/US PresswireSam Bradford and the Rams have struggled against the Packers in recent seasons.
Airing it out: The St. Louis Rams, 3-0 at home heading into their game against Green Bay, have lost their past three to the Packers overall. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has more touchdown passes in the past week (six) than the Rams have managed in their past four games against Green Bay dating to 2006. Sam Bradford topped 300 yards passing without finding the end zone during a 24-3 defeat at Lambeau Field last season.

Seeking faster start: The Cardinals have won 11 of their past 15 games overall, but not because of the way they've started on offense. Arizona's offense has only two first-quarter touchdowns since Week 6 last season, a span of 17 games. That is tied with Jacksonville and Indianapolis for the fewest over that stretch. The Jaguars and Colts have played one fewer game apiece during that span.

Outside looking in: Five of the six TD passes Rodgers threw last week were perimeter passes, defined as those caught outside the yard-line numbers. The Rams are allowing a league-low 4.9 yards per attempt on these throws, with two touchdowns and four interceptions. However, the Rams collected three of those perimeter picks way back in the season opener. They allowed one of those scoring passes to Miami's Ryan Tannehill last week. Tannehill completed six such passes while posting a 101.3 NFL passer rating on those throws.

Point taken: The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers combined to allow 19 points against each other Thursday night. The Rams have allowed 33 over their past three games. The Arizona Cardinals head to Minnesota as the only NFL team yet to allow more than 21 points in a 2012 game. The Vikings have scored 26 against Jacksonville, 24 against San Francisco and 30 against Tennessee in their three home games. They have allowed 20 total points in their past two at home. The Cardinals have scored 19 points over their past two games after scoring at least 20 in each of their first four.

Note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this entry.

Final Word: NFC West

October, 12, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 6:

All about third down. The San Francisco 49ers' offense took considerable criticism after converting just once on 13 third-down plays against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers' defense deserves some third-down scrutiny heading into the rematch at Candlestick Park. The 2011 49ers held the Giants to 4.6 yards per play with no touchdowns on first and second downs during the teams' regular-season game last season. Everything changed on third down. The Giants averaged 8.8 yards per third-down play against the 49ers. They gained 127 yards and scored two touchdowns on 10 third-down pass attempts against the 49ers' nickel defense, without taking a sack. The 49ers were much better getting third-down pressure in the playoff rematch, but the Giants still averaged 7.2 yards per pass attempt with seven first downs on third-down plays against the 49ers' nickel defense.

Letting Welker catch it. The Seahawks' matchup against Patriots receiver Wes Welker will be a difficult one. The key, coach Pete Carroll has said, will be for Seattle to limit the damage once Welker inevitably gets the ball in his hands. This probably is an underrated aspect of the Seahawks' league-leading defense. Seattle is allowing 4.09 yards after the catch per reception. That ranks second in the NFL behind Minnesota (3.9) and just ahead of Green Bay (4.12). The figure for Seattle was 4.9 last season and 5.8 in 2010. Welker averages 6.4 YAC/reception, a significant figure given how many passes he catches (NFL-high 30 over the past three games, with 6.5 YAC/reception on those catches). The Seahawks have allowed 3.6 YAC/reception against wide receivers lined up in the slot, where Welker lines up most of the time. That figure ranks 12th in the NFL (the range is 1.9 to 8.1, with 4.5 as average).

[+] EnlargeLaRod Stephens-Howling
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireLaRod Stephens-Howling may now get more carries in Arizona with Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams injured.
Behold 'The Hyphen.' LaRod Stephens-Howling's return from a hip injury comes at the right time for Arizona. Fellow running backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams are out. Stephens-Howling has been a utility player for Arizona, not an every-down back, because he lacks the size needed to run on early downs, week after week. Desperate times call for desperate measures, however, and that could mean leaning on Stephens-Howling a little more regularly. The 5-foot-7, 180-pounder set career highs with 21 carries and 92 yards during a victory over Seattle in Week 17 last season. Four of his longest runs that day -- 39, 8, 8 and 7 yards -- came on first down with no more than two wide receivers on the field. Can Stephens-Howling, William Powell and Alfonso Smith help the NFL's worst rushing offense (2.7 yards per carry) exploit Buffalo's league-worst rushing defense (5.7 yards per carry allowed)?

First-and-Long. The Miami Dolphins made left tackle Jake Long the first player chosen in the 2008 NFL draft. The St. Louis Rams took defensive end Chris Long with the second pick. Both players will be on the field at the same time when the Rams visit the Dolphins, but they'll be matching up against younger players. Jake Long faces 2011 Rams first-rounder Robert Quinn, who is coming off a three-sack game and has already exceeded his total for last season. Chris Long faces Dolphins right tackle Jonathan Martin, a second-round choice this year. Both Longs should like their chances in these matchups. If Quinn's speed can factor in the pass rush, perhaps St. Louis can force Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill into mistakes.

Readying the stat sheet. Last week, the 49ers had a 300-yard passer, a 100-yard rusher and two 100-yard receivers for the first time since 1961. Meanwhile, the Giants became the first NFL team since 1960 to have one player rush for at least 200 yards (Ahmad Bradshaw) while another player caught three touchdown passes (Victor Cruz). There is more. The 49ers have won each of their past two games by 30-plus points, the first time since 1961 they've accomplished the feat (they have never done it three games in a row). The Giants have set a franchise record for any four-game stretch with 1,877 yards against Tampa Bay, Carolina, Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this entry.