- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:
Alex Smith has 49ers fans seeing red. More than a few have reached out to me in anger after the 49ers reinstalled Smith as their starting quarterback heading into an elimination game against Seattle (the 49ers must win to keep alive their playoff hopes). Watching Troy Smith struggle deep in Green Bay territory last week pointed to one area where Alex Smith enjoys a significant advantage: the red zone. Alex Smith leads the NFL in red zone passer rating (125.0) among players with at least 10 attempts. He has eight touchdowns, no interceptions, no sacks and a 75.9 percent completion percentage on those throws. Troy Smith's red zone numbers: 2-of-7 for 20 yards, one touchdown and a 79.2 rating.
Rams must avoid deep trouble. The St. Louis Rams have cut down on the number of deep pass completions they've allowed this season. Opponents are completing only 34.1 percent of attempts traveling 15-plus yards past the line of scrimmage, the fourth-lowest figure in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Opposing quarterbacks have a 53.6 rating on these passes, the second-lowest against any defense in the league. Injuries in the secondary are putting the Rams at risk in this department heading to New Orleans. Consider: Since 2008, Saints quarterback Drew Brees leads the NFL in rating (111.2) and touchdowns (37) on passes traveling at least 15 yards downfield.
Seattle's line playing together. The Seahawks expect to start the same five offensive linemen for the third game in a row. They used the same five in consecutive games only once previously this season (victories over Chicago and Arizona coming out of the bye). Marshawn Lynch is averaging 4.2 yards per carry when Russell Okung plays left tackle, up from 2.3 without Okung. Lynch's 22-yard touchdown run against Carolina was his fifth scoring run of the season and the first longer than 1 yard. Week 14 opponent San Francisco is allowing 3.6 yards per carry this season. Only Pittsburgh (3.0) and the New York Jets (3.4) allow fewer yards per attempt.
Time for Rams to open it up? The Rams have failed to exceed 20 points in 10 of their 12 games this season. They twice failed to reach 20 points against Arizona even though every other Cardinals opponent scored at least that many. Conventional wisdom says the Rams must lean on their ground game against New Orleans to keep Brees off the field. I'll buy that to an extent. The reality, however, is that Brees is probably going to get his points anyway. The Saints have scored at least 30 in each of their past four games. If the Rams can turn this game into a low-scoring brawl, it's an indication they might be able to win a playoff game this season, should they qualify for one.
Cardinals must make a (home) stand. The Cardinals had to smile a little when they checked out their schedule heading into the season. Sure, they opened with three of four on the road, but having three in a row at home beginning Nov. 29 was going to put them in position to finish the season strong. Not quite. The Cardinals have lost the first two games of that three-game home stand, extending their overall losing streak to seven. Losing to the Denver Broncos in Week 14 would guarantee a losing home record for Arizona this season, something the Cardinals haven't experienced since going 3-5 at home in 2006.