NFC West: Matt Bryant
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
I'm generally aware of the evidence suggesting there's little point in calling timeout right before the opposing team attempts an important kick. But I hadn't seen updated figures. So, I promised to take a closer look.
Wyman was asking in relation to the Seattle Seahawks' decision to call timeout before the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Bryant attempted the winning 49-yard field-goal try in the divisional playoffs Sunday. Seattle called timeout before the attempt. The Falcons snapped the ball anyway. Bryant missed his non-counting attempt. Bryant then made the winning kick following the timeout.
The chart shows field-goal rates in the final minute of fourth quarters by distance for iced and non-iced kicks since 2001, counting playoffs. The overall percentages are the same. Iced kickers have made a higher percentage of longer-range kicks. Perhaps it's easier lining up the longer ones when given additional time. Perhaps there aren't enough attempts to make such a conclusion.
Bryant's attempt against Seattle falls into a range where the numbers suggest calling timeout might not matter much either way. Filtering just for 49-yard tries, iced kickers have made 4 of 6 since 2001, counting the one Bryant made. Non-iced kickers have made 3 of 6 from that distance. Not much to go on there.
Wyman, co-host Bob Stelton and I also discussed the Seahawks' hiring of Dan Quinn, the Arizona Cardinals' search for a head coach, and that other small detail in the NFC West this week: San Francisco's appearance in the NFC Championship Game.
Their projection model has the Seahawks beating Atlanta and the 49ers beating Green Bay by a combined four points.
Seeing such close final scores brought to mind the kicking issues affecting the Seattle-Atlanta and San Francisco-Green Bay matchups in the divisional round this weekend.
Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka has a strained calf. Punter Jon Ryan subbed for Hauschka on a kickoff during the Seahawks' wild-card victory over the Washington Redskins. Seattle won that game by 10 points. A closer finish might have complicated decisions on whether to attempt a field goal from various ranges.
The Seahawks aren't sure how well Hauschka will be able to perform against the Falcons.
The 49ers and Packers might be better off with an injured Hauschka, who made 88.9 percent of his field-goal tries during the regular season, than with their current kickers. San Francisco's David Akers and Billy Cundiff joined the Packers' Mason Crosby at the bottom of the NFL's rankings for field-goal accuracy this season.
Akers was 35th out of 37 qualifying kickers with a 69.0 percentage. Crosby (63.6) and Cundiff (58.3) rounded out the rankings.
The chart shows field-goal percentages by distance for NFC West kickers and their opponents in the divisional round. The 49ers have not yet announced which kicker will take the lead against the Packers.
"We have a leader in the clubhouse and we'll see how it goes," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters.
Akers made field goals from 25, 37 and 41 yards during the 49ers' 36-32 victory over New Orleans in the divisional round last season.
That was the highest number in NFL history, matching totals from 2003 (Week 12) and 1993 (Week 15), according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Expansion has increased the chances over the years, but with so many close games in Week 3, I wanted to quickly touch upon kicking dynamics heading into Week 4:
- 49ers: Former longtime Philadelphia Eagles kicker David Akers returns to Philly with the San Francisco 49ers. He has made all seven field-goal tries this season, including two from 50-plus yards, both in clutch situations. He has touchbacks on 52.9 percent of kickoffs, best in the NFC West. Akers has been outstanding and the 49ers have leaned on him heavily while playing conservatively on offense.
- Cardinals: Jay Feely, who missed twice amid tough weather conditions during a 13-10 defeat at Seattle last week, faces one of his former teams when the New York Giants visit University of Phoenix Stadium. Feely is tied for the NFL lead with three misses this season. He missed only three last season, connecting on 24 of 27 attempts. Feely has touchbacks on 33 percent of kickoffs, which ranks third in the division. That is up from 22.9 percent last season.
- Seahawks: Seattle's Steven Hauschka has made all three of his attempts as a budget replacement for Olindo Mare, who cashed in with Carolina in free agency. Hauschka has one touchback in nine kickoffs for an 11.1 percentage that ranks last among players with more than two kickoffs. Mare has made all five field-goal attempts while producing touchbacks on half his kickoffs.
- Rams: Josh Brown has two of his three games indoors, an advantage over his divisional counterparts. He has touchbacks on 45.5 percent of kickoffs. Brown has made all four field-goal tries from inside 30 yards, missing one of two from 40-49.
The chart shows field-goal stats for kickers playing for and against NFC West teams in Week 4. The "missed from" column includes abbreviations for field goals missed short, wide right, wide left and blocked. Note: I added the Redskins' kicker to the list; thanks to Los Angeles Rams of St. Louis for pointing out the omission.
Watching Oakland flounder on offense against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 6 nearly convinced me to start the Denver Broncos' defense against the Raiders in Week 7.
The Broncos' defense allowed seven touchdowns and a field goal during a shocking 59-14 defeat.
I went with the Kansas City Chiefs' defense against Jacksonville instead and picked up 15 points, enough to produce a 123-point week when 90 points was median score in the ESPN.com Blog Network Gridiron Challenge. It's a small step in the right direction after three rough weeks.
The Raiders' historic offensive performance demonstrated, again, how unpredictable the NFL can be from week to week.
More evidence: The highest-scoring team for Week 7 carried a no-longer-plausible name: "NFC WEST CHAMPION 49ERS". Roddy White (34), Michael Turner (26), Washington Redskins defense (25), Joe Flacco (22), Aaron Rodgers (20), Frank Gore (15), Anquan Boldin (15), Vernon Davis (13) and Matt Bryant (7) combined for 177 points. Nice work.
Overall, "The Waveicles" held onto the top spot among the more than 3,500 entries. One small complaint: How can Drew Brees produce 22 points while throwing four interceptions? Seems like one of the worst performances of a player's career shouldn't produce so well from a fantasy standpoint.
Finally, some friendly advice for Tim Graham (AFC East): Leaving players idle during bye weeks surrenders points you'll never get back, a lesson I learned last season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Mike Sando: If you think I can be a stat geek, you ought to meet the people from ESPN Stats & Information. I posed your question to them and they produced a list since 2001 showing all kicks of at least 35 yards in the final 2 minutes or overtime when the score was tied or the kicking team trailed by no more than 3 points. These seemed like reasonable parameters.
Icing the kicker seemed most effective during overtime. Kickers made 18 of 31 tries -- 58.1 percent -- from an average of 41.87 yards when opponents iced them in overtime. Kickers made 32 of 44 tries -- 72.7 percent -- from an average of 43.84 yards when opponents did not attempt to ice them in overtime.
The percentages were nearly identical for iced and non-iced kicks during the final 2 minutes of regulation.
The 49ers' Joe Nedney has made more overtime field goals without a miss -- four -- than any other kicker since 2001.
No kicker during that time has attempted more than three field goals in overtime after an opponent called timeout. Eleven kickers made their only attempt during those situations. Among those without a miss, only Shaun Suisham attempted more than one. He made both tries. Robbie Gould and Jay Feely were the only kickers with more than two attempts in those situations. Gould made 2 of 3. Feely made 1 of 3.
The first chart shows results for all overtime kicks since 2001, by iced or not iced.
The second chart breaks out NFC West kickers during those sudden-death situations.
The third chart ranks kickers since 2001 who have made at least three kicks without a miss from 35-plus yards to tie or take the lead in overtime or the final 2 minutes of regulation.
The Steelers' Jeff Reed must have Prestone in his veins. He's made all five clutch kicks from 35-plus yards when opponents tried to ice him. Reed, Matt Bryant, Paul Edinger and John Carney have made all 13 tries since 2001 when opponents tried to ice them. They combined to make 23 of 23 kicks whether or not they were iced.
Adam Vinatieri has made 11 of 12 kicks whether or not he was iced in these situations. Feely has made 8 of 15, giving him three more misses than anyone since 2001. Martin Gramatica (5-9), Phil Dawson (4-8) and Wilkins (3-7) were the only others with more than three misses.
Former Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins had the most misses when iced, making only 1 of 5 in those situations (he made both tries when he was not iced). Feely was the only other kicker with more than two misses in those situations. He made 3 of 6.
The fourth chart shows kickers with at least four total clutch attempts who have proven more effective after opponents tried to ice them.
Like the third chart, this one shows all kicks of at least 35 yards in the final 2 minutes or overtime when the score was tied or the kicking team trailed by no more than 3 points. These eight kickers made 20 of 23 attempts when iced, but only 19 of 33 attempts when given no extra time to think about it.
A few kickers were more accurate when not iced. Matt Stover was perfect on nine tries when opponents did not ice him. He made 3 of 5 attempts when iced. Overall, the six kickers on this list -- all with at least two iced misses -- made 42.3 percent of these pressure kicks when iced and 78.3 percent when not iced.
Download the final creation here.
And if there's anything else you've always wanted to know, ask away in the comments and I'll see what we can find out.
Thanks to Grant for asking this one.