NFC West: Matthew Stafford

Final 2013 preseason QB snap counts

August, 30, 2013
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.
Years ago, conventional wisdom would have applauded Carson Palmer for topping 4,000 yards passing with the Oakland Raiders last season.

Now, conventional wisdom has evolved to the point where mainstream analysis discounts those 4,000 yards because Palmer, entering his first season with the Arizona Cardinals, accumulated those yards in a losing context. Palmer went 4-11 as a starter.

Andy from New York hit the NFC West mailbag with a challenge we'll take up here. He thinks Palmer deserves more credit than he's getting.

"After two minutes of research, I found on the Hall of Fame's website that only 48 quarterbacks have thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a season (a combined 110 times)," Andy wrote. "Of those 110, only 18 times has it been done on a losing team (14 more times with a .500 record). If it is so 'easy' for a QB to rack up yards when playing from behind (when the defense knows it is a passing situation), why has it been accomplished only 18 times on a losing team in the entire history of the NFL?"

It's an interesting point. Passing for that many yards in a season requires some talent, obviously. But there is nothing inherently magical about the 4,000-yard plateau. Palmer passed for 3,970 yards while posting a 4-12 record in 2010. The 48-yard gap between 2010 (3,970 yards) and 2012 (4,018 yards) means nothing.

Palmer, Jon Kitna and Drew Brees each owns two seasons with at least 4,000 yards and a losing record. Elvis Grbac, Josh Freeman, Trent Green, Jeff Garcia, Bill Kenney, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Schaub, Matthew Stafford and Vinny Testaverde have each done it once.

Some of those quarterbacks were or are great players. Others were not so great.

ESPN developed the Total QBR metric to measure a quarterback's contributions to winning, whether or not the quarterback accumulated lots of passing yards. Manning scored a league-high 84.1 out of 100 last season. Mark Sanchez scored a league-low 34.0.

QBR can tell us something about the recent run on 4,000-yard seasons. Quarterbacks have combined for 42 of them since 2008. The QBR score Palmer posted last season (44.7) ranked 42nd out of those 42 on the list. The chart shows the seven times over the past five years when a quarterback passed for at least 4,000 yards without posting a winning record. Palmer probably had the worst supporting cast, but if anything, QBR affirms the general feeling on Palmer.

Now, back to Andy's point. Why aren't more quarterbacks from losing teams passing for 4,000 yards regularly? I'd venture that most quarterbacks good enough to pass for that many yards will be good enough to help their teams win most of the time. The question here is whether Palmer is one of those quarterbacks. Recent evidence suggests he might not be, but I think his prospects will improve with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Andre Roberts, Rob Housler and possibly even Patrick Peterson catching his passes.

NFC West fans might want to check out ESPN fantasy analyst Tristan H. Cockroft's thoughts on a couple quarterbacks he considers undervalued in fantasy drafts heading into the 2013 season.

The stats show Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson lasting longer than he should be lasting in fantasy drafts. Cockroft mentions the Detroit Lions Matthew Stafford and the Dallas Cowboys' Tony Romo as falling into this category as well.

The implication is that you might be able to snap up these players later than anticipated, unless you're playing in a league with fans from these teams, I'm assuming (I'll admit to shaking my head at the Seattle fan in my league who drafted Wilson last summer, before anyone had any idea he'd play the way he wound up playing late in the season).

Sam Bradford gets a mention in this analysis as well. He's a player with breakout potential, Cockroft thinks, based on changes to the St. Louis Rams' weaponry and the way Bradford was trending late last season.

The chart lists the 2012 games when Wilson and Bradford scored at least 20 fantasy points.
Sam Bradford and Matthews StaffordGetty ImagesThe contract extension Matthews Stafford, right, agreed to this week could portend what's in store for Sam Bradford in negotiations with the Rams after this season.
One year separated Sam Bradford from Matthew Stafford, quarterbacks selected first overall in the NFL draft. One year could also separate their contract extensions.

The comparisons came into focus for Bradford and the St. Louis Rams after Stafford reached an agreement Tuesday on a new deal with the Detroit Lions.

There are some differences between the quarterbacks and their contract situations, but also striking parallels -- including some on the stat sheet that suggest the performance gap between these players isn't all that wide.

Let's consider some of the dynamics, while framing reasonable contract expectations for Bradford, who enters his fourth NFL season amid internal expectations that he's better positioned for success than at any other point in his NFL career.

Labor context: Both Bradford and Stafford were No. 1 overall picks under the previous labor deal. Stafford got $41.7 million in guaranteed money as part of the rookie deal he signed in 2009. The figure was $50 million for Bradford.

Quarterbacks drafted first overall under the current labor agreement have gotten about $22 million guaranteed. The new agreement prevents teams from renegotiating rookie deals for three seasons.

While times have changed, existing contracts provide some foundation for negotiations on future ones. That was particularly true for Stafford as the Lions sought a new long-term deal for him.

Price of renegotiation: In recent years, the Lions had tweaked their quarterback's contract to create short-term relief under the salary cap. Those tweaks drove up the eventual franchise-tag value for Stafford, giving the Lions additional reason to work out an extension that was friendlier under the cap.

Before the new deal, Stafford was scheduled to carry a franchise-tag value exceeding $23 million as a free agent after the 2014 season. The projected franchise-tag figure for Bradford will be around $19 million after the 2015 season. The figure is lower for Bradford than for Stafford because the Rams have not renegotiated Bradford's rookie deal.

That is one fairly significant difference between the Stafford and Bradford situations, one that would seem to give the Rams additional flexibility.

About those guarantees: Stafford had already received the guaranteed money associated with his rookie deal, giving him reason to seek an extension featuring new guaranteed money. Bradford will face a similar situation after the 2013 season. He'll have his guaranteed money, and he'll have an incentive to seek additional guarantees, at least in theory. A new deal between Bradford and the Rams could make sense next offseason.

The players: Stafford has outperformed Bradford to this point in their careers. He posted a 65.5 Total QBR score with 41 touchdowns, 16 picks and a 97.2 NFL passer rating in 2011, numbers Bradford hasn't come close to approaching in any of his first three seasons.

Of course, Stafford had arguably the NFL's best receiver in Calvin Johnson, while Bradford has thrown to an injury-riddled cast of largely anonymous wideouts. Bradford nonetheless took a significant step forward last season, setting single-season career highs in touchdown passes, TD-to-interception ratio and Total QBR, among other categories. His numbers compared more favorably to Stafford's numbers last season, as the chart at right shows.

The Rams think Bradford will only improve with a second year in the same offensive system, especially with an upgraded line and a young group of ascending players at the skill positions. And if the 2013 season fails to meet expectations, the Rams are in position to stay the course. The 2012 trade they made with the Washington Redskins put them in position to build for 2014 and beyond. They don't expect to be seeking a new quarterback just as their young core is maturing.

The bottom line: The extension Stafford signed this week gives him new guarantees without paying him as much per season as the highest-paid quarterbacks are receiving these days. That seems fair, particularly given the premium Stafford received as a rookie under the old labor agreement. Bradford could be traveling on a similar path.

Joe Montana recently listed Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Eli Manning as his five top active NFL quarterbacks, in no particular order.

No surprises there, although Eli Manning might not automatically qualify with the others if we polled a wider audience, in my view.

Montana withheld from consideration a younger group featuring Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck.

"Still too early, but they look great," Montana tweeted.

Montana apologized for leaving off Joe Flacco, but he didn't say which of the other five would leave the list to make room.

Montana's list featured the top four players in Total QBR over the past three seasons, with 1,000 pass attempts as the minimum for consideration. Eli Manning ranked eighth over that span. Kaepernick (76.8), Griffin (71.4), Wilson (69.6) and Luck (65.0) ranked among the NFL's top 11 in QBR last season, with Kaepernick at No. 3.

The chart below shows leaders since 2010. Check out the ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions for Rodgers and Brady. Both were in the 4.5-to-1 range, well above the others. Kaepernick was at 3.3-to-1 last season, compared to 2.6-to-1 for Wilson. Those figures ranked among the NFL's top seven last season.
What comes to mind after the Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals agreed on a trade sending Carson Palmer to Arizona:
  • The price: The Cardinals are sending a 2013 sixth-round pick (176th overall) and a 2014 seventh-rounder (conditional on Palmer starting at least 13 games, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter) for Palmer and the Raiders' seventh-round pick (219th overall) in 2013. Palmer has started at least 13 games in three of the past four seasons and seven times since first becoming a starter in 2004. The price in draft-choice compensation was so low because the Cardinals knew Oakland would release Palmer in the absence of a trade. General manager Steve Keim and the Cardinals' front office deserve credit for getting a starting quarterback without giving up too much. Sometimes a team acts hastily in the presence of great need, particularly when there's a powerful head coach involved. That arguably happened to an extent with the Kansas City Chiefs when they acquired Alex Smith for a second-round choice. Smith might be more appealing than Palmer, but is he that much more appealing?

  • The salary: We'll revisit initial reports on financial compensation once the numbers can be verified and put into context. Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Palmer will get $16 million over two years, with $10 million guaranteed. That makes Palmer the obvious starter. And with backup Drew Stanton having received some guaranteed money as well, he becomes the clear No. 2.
  • The protection: Cardinals quarterbacks took a league-high 58 sacks last season. The team's new coach, Bruce Arians, favors a downfield passing attack. Arians' quarterback in Indianapolis last season, Andrew Luck, was put under duress and/or hit before throwing a league-high number of times, according to ESPN Stats & Information. What does this mean for the immobile, 33-year-old Palmer? Not as much as those numbers suggest. Palmer ranked seventh among qualifying quarterbacks last season in sacks per drop back. He was at 4.4 percent, below the 5.9 percent average for 32 qualifying quarterbacks. Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan were ahead of Palmer in this category. Offensive lines deserve some blame for sacks, but quarterbacks play a huge role in them. Mobility isn't the key variable, either. Palmer gets the ball out.
  • The INTs: Palmer throws interceptions at a high rate. Perhaps he'd be better off taking a few more sacks. Palmer ranks 25th among 29 qualifying quarterbacks over the past three seasons in touchdown-to-interception ratio. Palmer is at 1.22 in this category, ahead of only Mark Sanchez (1.14), Colt McCoy (1.05), Matt Hasselbeck (1.03) and Chad Henne (0.88).
  • The impact: Palmer has been an average quarterback in recent seasons as measured by Total QBR. I would expect the Cardinals to win a few more games as a result, perhaps getting into the 8-8 range, all else equal. Arizona posted a 5-11 record last season, but that was misleading. The Cardinals went 1-11 over their final 12 games. The quarterbacking was horrendous. Ryan Lindley, John Skelton and Sanchez were the only quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts to finish with a negative number in points above replacement. That suggests they were not just below average, but also worse than replacement-level players. Palmer finished the season at plus-44.7 in this category. That was 23rd in the NFL out of 39 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts -- not great, but so much better than Lindley or Skelton.

Back with more in a bit. I've revived Palmer-related charts that ran recently. The one below shows stats following the major injuries Palmer has suffered.

One way to think of Rams' LT upgrade

March, 18, 2013

PHOENIX -- Had the 2009 NFL draft gone as planned for the St. Louis Rams, the team would be thinking about a contract extension for tackle Jason Smith.

The 2009 draft did not go as planned for the Rams -- or for a long list of teams.

Smith struggled before St. Louis traded him to the New York Jets last year for journeyman Wayne Hunter. The Rams recovered Sunday. They reached agreement on a four-year contract with tackle Jake Long, the first player chosen in the 2008 draft.

Think of it as the Rams upgrading from Smith to Long at left tackle.

Smith played right tackle during his Rams career, but that was because the team realized he wasn't the answer on the left side, contrary to expectations on draft day. Smith was supposed to be the Rams' franchise left tackle. Long fills that role now.

The Rams are betting on Long to regain good health following two injury-shortened seasons. Their general manager, Les Snead, has said the team had no concerns about Long's health following biceps and triceps injuries.

The Rams' future at left tackle appears brighter than at any time since the Orlando Pace era.

Wilson, Bradford gain in adjusted QBR

January, 2, 2013
The Total QBR metric we've consulted in evaluating quarterback play can be tweaked to account for strength of opposing defense.

Alok Pattani of ESPN's analytics team passed along information showing how these adjustments would affect QBR rankings for the 36 quarterbacks with enough plays to qualify for consideration.

Seattle's Russell Wilson and St. Louis' Sam Bradford joined Detroit's Matthew Stafford as the biggest winners in terms of ranking spots gained. Each would move up three ranking spots if opponent strength were factored.

Wilson jumps from eighth to fifth, moving past wild-card playoff opponent Robert Griffin III. Griffin moved back one spot to No. 7.

The chart shows the changes for qualifying NFC West quarterbacks, plus Griffin and Andrew Luck, who are competing with Wilson for offensive rookie of the year. The numbers suggest Griffin and Wilson are interchangeable from a production standpoint.

Fifty is considered to be an average QBR score. The max is 100. Peyton Manning led the NFL in unadjusted QBR (84.1) and defense-adjusted QBR (82.5). The New York Jets' Mark Sanchez ranked last in both at 23.4 (unadjusted) and 22.1 (adjusted).

MVP-caliber quarterbacks tend to be in the 75-plus range.

Arizona's quarterbacks did not have enough plays to qualify in the broader league rankings. However, the defense-adjusted QBR scores for Kevin Kolb would have been lower (38.0 to 33.5). They would have been higher for John Skelton (13.9 to 14.2), Ryan Lindley (9.8 to 11.5) and Brian Hoyer (37.7 to 44.2).

Note that San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick had enough plays to qualify for consideration. He was third in the NFL this season. Kaepernick rises to second behind only Manning when considering only production as a starter.

The move to replace Alex Smith with Kaepernick remains a sensitive subject. The 49ers have opened themselves to criticism if the team fails to reach the Super Bowl. However, the numbers suggest Kaepernick is doing at least as much to help the 49ers win. One question, I suppose, is whether those contributions cost the team in other ways, specifically in relation to style of play. That is a tough one to answer.

Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III Getty ImagesThe playoff matchup involving rookies Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III won't be lacking intrigue. NFC East blogger Dan Graziano and NFC West blogger Mike Sando discuss this Sunday's playoff game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field, in Landover, Md.

Sando: Well, Dan, we meet again. It wasn't all that long ago that I was reduced to fly-on-the-wall status during a three-way discussion with our AFC South guy, Paul Kuharsky, over which quarterback -- Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson -- was looking like the offensive rookie of the year. That was before Week 11. Griffin and Luck were still seen as prohibitive favorites. Since then, all Wilson has done is go 5-1 as a starter with two road wins while leading the NFL in Total QBR and ranking second to his wild-card counterpart, Griffin, in NFL passer rating. This should be a showcase game for both.

Graziano: Yeah, this year's NFL playoffs mark the death of patience, I fear, as those three rookie quarterbacks have led their teams into the playoffs and now people will expect one-year turnarounds all over the league. It seems these are a couple of pretty special cases, though. I was arguing Wilson for rookie of the year on TV last week on the grounds that his team has performed the best of the three, but that was merely a random tiebreaker I picked -- the idea that while Griffin, Wilson and Luck have all elevated their teams, Wilson has elevated his to the highest level. What amazes me about Griffin is that he has been the same guy from Week 1. I know Wilson had to work his way into his current level of excellence, while Griffin had one of his best games in the opener against the Saints and hasn't looked back. Even the past couple of weeks, as he plays on a bad knee, you see a level of maturity and confidence that just leaves you unable to believe this is a 22-year-old rookie. He makes the right throw and the right decision regardless of pain or dire circumstances, and while the knee does appear to be affecting him when he runs, it doesn't appear to affect the other key aspects of his game -- most notably operating this complex Shanahan offense from play to play.

Sando: Yes, Griffin has been the same guy all the way through. I give the Redskins' coaches credit for having the flexibility to basically install the offense Griffin ran in college. That had to smooth the transition. How many Super Bowl-winning offensive coaches would do that for a rookie? Not many. Wilson had run one system at North Carolina State and another at Wisconsin before learning yet another in Seattle -- all while sharing practice reps with one or two veterans (we forget that incumbent starter Tarvaris Jackson (!) was on the roster for a while with Wilson and Matt Flynn). Once the season started, the Seahawks' coaches seemed to suddenly realize they had a rookie behind center. It was as though Pete Carroll's defensive background hit the override switch on all the preseason excitement. Seattle didn't really unleash Wilson for several weeks.

Graziano: I think the interesting part of this game will be what the defenses decide to do to try to slow down these rookie quarterbacks. Washington's defense ended up ranked 28th in the league, but they're winning lately by forcing turnovers and getting sacks at a higher rate than they did earlier in the season. And defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has excelled at changing schemes week to week and sometimes even within games to confuse offenses. The blitz-heavy package they used against Tony Romo and the Cowboys on Sunday night was unlike anything they'd put on film all year, and it clearly confused the Cowboys, who never adjusted to it. I doubt Wilson can expect to see the same kind of defense Romo saw Sunday. The numbers seem to indicate that they'd be wise to blitz him, but having watched the Redskins for the last couple of months there's no way to predict what Haslett will come up with.

Sando: The Seahawks led the NFL in fewest points allowed this season, but it didn't always feel that way. Their ability to generate a pass rush late in games has been a problem, particularly on the road. They aren't a heavy blitzing team. Sometimes I think they've been too conservative defensively late in games. They were leading late at Detroit and Miami, but broke down defensively in the end. The Seahawks also ranked only 24th in QBR against play-action passes, an area where Griffin averages an additional 5.0 yards per attempt (11.7). Seattle does have the defensive speed, however, to handle running quarterbacks. Cam Newton had his roughest outing of the season against Seattle. My thinking is that Griffin is going to have to beat this defense with his arm.

Graziano: Griffin has been pretty lethal against the blitz, so the Seahawks probably are better off in coverage against him anyway. And he has beaten plenty of teams with his arm. Dallas on Thanksgiving comes to mind. I am intrigued about the matchups in the secondary, as Pierre Garcon and the Redskins' receivers are big and physical but don't often see the kind of big, physical corners the Seahawks have in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. (Who does?) The Redskins were 9-1 this year in games in which Garcon played (he missed six games with a foot injury), and his ability to win his matchups deep as well as on slants over the middle has added a great deal to the Washington passing game in the second half of the season. How will the Seahawks play him?

Sando: I'm not anticipating any special plan for Garcon. Seattle played more zone than usual when holding Calvin Johnson to three catches for 46 yards, but the defense sprung leaks everywhere else. Seattle did not appear comfortable changing its style for that game. Matthew Stafford wound up having a career day on third down. Garcon is good, but I don't think the Seahawks will feel as though he's a scheme buster. They'll need to watch him on first down. Garcon has 66 percent of his receiving yards on first down. He has 13 catches for 337 yards -- that's 25-plus yards per catch -- from play-action throws on first down. Those types of plays haven't been pivotal against Seattle this season. The Seahawks have been more vulnerable, at times, against good slot receivers. Santana Moss might be of greater concern to Seattle.

Graziano: Interesting. And what about the run game? Alfred Morris finished second in the league in rushing yards, and I know Seattle has a reputation as a tough run defense, though I see the Seahawks finished in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed per attempt. Morris and the Redskins' play-action passing game go hand-in-hand (obviously), but is he going to be able to find anything like the running room he found against Dallas the other night? Teams have had to back off a bit because of the threat of RG III as a runner. You mention the way they handled Cam Newton as a running quarterback, but Morris seems to add something Carolina didn't offer as a threat from the running back position in Week 5.

Sando: The Seahawks ranked 30th in yards per carry allowed from Week 7 forward. They became vulnerable to trap runs against Frank Gore in Week 7. In my view, that game and perhaps another one at Miami were the only ones in which poor run defense played a meaningful role in a Seahawks defeat. Adrian Peterson had a monster game against the Seahawks, but that said more about Peterson than it said about Seattle. The Seahawks won that game by 10, anyway. I'd be surprised if Seattle's defense struggled against Morris the way Dallas' defense struggled against him. The Seahawks are so much healthier. I really liked the way Cincinnati defended the Redskins earlier in the year, cutting off the perimeter and delivering big hits. That is how Seattle will try to play.

Graziano: Yeah, the game I'm looking at is the Monday night game against the Giants in Week 13, when Washington trailed 13-10 at the half and won 17-16. They couldn't stop Eli Manning and the Giants from moving the ball in the first half, but they totally changed their defensive game plan at halftime, increasing the pressure on Manning and playing more man-to-man coverage in the secondary. New York was able to contain Griffin but for a 46-yard run in the third quarter, but the Redskins stayed patient and won a close game. That patience is going to be the key. Washington, for the past month or so, has displayed a patience and maturity befitting a team that has been here before, and if that continues Sunday I think they have a chance to slug it out with Seattle and be in position to win it in the end. It'll be the toughest game they've played in quite a while (heck, we haven't even talked about Marshawn Lynch!), and it's likely to be a lower-scoring game than they're used to playing, but as long as the playoff stage doesn't freak them out, I anticipate they'll have a chance.

Sando: Having covered the Seahawks for some time and knowing their playoff history, it’s odd seeing them favored to win a road playoff game (something the team has not done since the 1983 season, by the way). That’s how much of a game-changer Wilson has been. Seattle is a team without a glaring weakness. Not much about this team surprises me any longer. I feel as though the Seahawks have the healthier and hotter quarterback at this time. That could be the difference.

Sando's best guesses: Week 17 predictions

December, 28, 2012
We're down to the final two NFC West games of the 2012 regular season.

Let's jump right into the predictions before too much thought steers me away from two straightforward games:
  • St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks, 4:25 p.m. ET: The Seahawks are 7-0 at home and about as hot as a team could be, having become the first team since the 1950 Los Angeles Rams to score 150 points over a three-game period. St. Louis has gone 3-0-1 in its past four road games, and 4-0-1 against the NFC West. I'm most interested in seeing how the young quarterbacks compare. The Rams' Sam Bradford faces a tougher test behind a reshuffled offensive line. Advantage, Russell Wilson. Also, the winning coach should be coach of the year in the division, in my view. Sando's best guess: Seahawks 27, Rams 13.
  • Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers, 4:25: The 49ers had a hard time on the road with Tom Brady and Russell Wilson over their past six quarters. A cure is in sight. Arizona's Brian Hoyer is making his first NFL start. He becomes the Cardinals' fourth starting quarterback this season after John Skelton, Kevin Kolb and Ryan Lindley. On the plus side for Arizona, the Cardinals' pass defense gave Brady, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford and others trouble (those three combined for one touchdown and nine interceptions against Arizona). The 49ers were the one team to shred Arizona's secondary, but that was with Alex Smith and a healthier receiving corps. What can Colin Kaepernick do? Handing off to Frank Gore wouldn't be a bad idea. Sando's best guess: 49ers 24, Cardinals 9
Noted: I went 2-1 on picks last week, moving my record to 33-17 for the season when picking games involving NFC West teams. We've also got the "You called it" competition going, plus the Pigskin Pick'em group.

Silver linings: Cardinals vs. Bears

December, 27, 2012
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.

Stunning achievement for Cards' defense

December, 20, 2012
The 2012 NFL season is not a total loss for the Arizona Cardinals.

Their defense continues to force opposing quarterbacks into mistakes while holding them well below their usual performance levels.

The 12 primary quarterbacks Arizona has faced to this point in the season have combined to complete 54.5 percent of their passes with 16 touchdowns, 21 interceptions and a 33.3 Total QBR score against the Cardinals.

Those same quarterbacks have completed 62.8 percent of their passes with 212 touchdowns, 112 picks and a 61.2 QBR score against everyone else.

The chart lists those 12 quarterbacks by QBR differential.

Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson have combined for three touchdowns, 11 picks and a 23.4 QBR score against Arizona. They have 92 touchdowns, 33 interceptions and a 74.8 QBR score against everyone else.

These are stunning achievements for defensive coordinator Ray Horton, his staff and the Cardinals' defensive players. The Arizona offense has done almost nothing to help them. In fact, the offense has repeatedly put the defense in tough situations.
Even the most enthusiastic Arizona Cardinals fan might have a hard time getting too excited about the team's Week 15 game against the Detroit Lions.

Arizona is 4-9 and has lost nine in a row. Detroit is 4-9 and has lost its past five.

The matchup does offer one compelling subplot: Patrick Peterson versus Calvin Johnson. Peterson, the Cardinals' second-year cornerback, hyped the matchup during the week. He called himself the NFL's top corner and Johnson the second-best receiver behind Cardinals teammate Larry Fitzgerald.

There is no way to verify where a corner ranks, and Peterson wouldn't qualify as an independent source for information on the subject, obviously. But with six interceptions this season, he's one of the reasons Arizona ranks second in NFL passer rating allowed (71.9) and fourth in Total QBR allowed (41.5).

Johnson leads the NFL in receiving yards with 1,546. That is 204 yards more than runner-up Brandon Marshall.

The chart shows Johnson's production against each opponent this season, sorted by descending order of yards. There are columns for receptions, targets, yards, yards after the catch, yards after contact, touchdowns, first downs, average target depth and number of receptions for 30-plus yards.

Peterson is the second NFC West cornerback to play up his matchup against Johnson.

Seattle's Richard Sherman changed his displayed Twitter named to "Optimus Prime" in a challenge to the "Megatron" nickname associated with Johnson.

Johnson had only three catches for 46 yards against Seattle, but the Seahawks played zone coverage extensively. Sherman wasn't matched against Johnson play after play. The Lions' Matthew Stafford completed 34 of 49 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner to cap an 80-yard touchdown drive.

Throwing caution to the rookie QB wind?

November, 29, 2012
Here in the NFC West, we like to ease our young quarterbacks into the starting role by having them drop back to pass as many times as possible in their very first starts.

For example, when Sam Bradford made his NFL debut with the St. Louis Rams, in a game against Arizona during which the point differential never exceeded seven, the team "limited" him to 57 dropbacks. That was the most in the NFL over the last five seasons for a quarterback making his first NFL start, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

More recently, in Week 12, the Arizona Cardinals "eased" rookie Ryan Lindley into the role by limiting him to 54 dropbacks during a 31-17 home defeat to the Rams. That was the second-most dropbacks in the NFL over the last five seasons for a QB making his first NFL start.

The previous high, 52, was set by current Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb when Kolb was with the Philadephia Eagles.

By now, you realize I'm joking about efforts to bring along young QBs slowly. Change the word "eased" to "shoved with both hands between the shoulder blades" and you'll be nearer the truth. Bradford and Lindley combined for seven interceptions in their debuts.

Seattle's Russell Wilson had 43 dropbacks in his starting debut this season. San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick was not a rookie when he made his starting debut in Week 11. He had 26 dropbacks in that game.

Lindley's 27 first-half dropbacks against the Rams trailed only Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck for most in a first half during Week 12. Lindley completed 17 of 24 passes in the half, but the Rams returned one of his throws for a touchdown. The Cardinals' two pick-sixes for the game accounted for the final scoring margin.