NFC West: Panthers-Cardinals
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
Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic says there's something not quite right about the Cardinals' offense. Boivin: "Let's not start addressing (Kurt) Warner's age against just yet. It was only six weeks ago that he completed 24 of 26 passes against Jacksonville. It was only three weeks ago when he put up his second of back-to-back 300-yard games. He still has it. But for his offense to regain its big-play threat, the deep passing game needs to return."
Also from Boivin: Julius Peppers' interception return for a touchdown was the key play Sunday.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals proved how quickly things can change in the NFL. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett: "I don't think we got exposed. I think they just outplayed us, offense and defense. I'm just shocked that we lost, period. I don't care about no rushing yards. They could have had 1,000 rushing yards and we won. That would have been better for me." Carolina was much, much better than advertised.
Also from Somers: Anquan Boldin moved past Larry Centers for the Cardinals' all-time receptions lead. Also, rookie LaRod Stephens-Howling provided one of the few bright spots for Arizona.
More from Somers: The Cardinals' inability to strike downfield is forcing them to settle for longer drives, which are tougher to sustain.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Arizona allowed 270 yards rushing even though the Cardinals had to know what was coming.
Also from Urban: There seemed to be no panic in the Cardinals' locker room. Urban: "While it may be frustrating for (coach Ken) Whisenhunt and his players that they couldn’t avoid a stumble after the previous week, it’s also true this team has dealt with -- many times -- rebounding from a scenario just like this."
More from Urban: The Cardinals' previously tough third-down defense gave up five consecutive third-down conversions on the Panthers' opening drive.
|Rick Scuteri-US PRESSWIRE|
|Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald isn’t making the plays he was making last season.|
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- This current Arizona Cardinals team might never develop the maturity and emotional stability needed to play at a high level from week to week.
The Cardinals might continue showing up when the stakes are high or when the public doubts them -- as when they upset the New York Giants on the road last week -- only to vanish the way they did Sunday during a 34-21 home loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt will express disappointment and frustration. Quarterback Kurt Warner will talk about how these Cardinals remain a work in progress. Linebacker Karlos Dansby or someone else will credit the other team for a fine effort.
The public will doubt the Cardinals and the cycle will start all over again.
Sound familiar? It should.
The 2008 team upped its record to 4-2 with a milestone victory over the Dallas Cowboys, only to lose at Carolina in Week 8. That setback was temporary. Those Cardinals won their next three to all but close out the NFC West race.
One primary difference this season could threaten the Cardinals' ability to make another playoff run. The current Cardinals, 4-3 and leading the NFC West, simply can't find ways to push the ball downfield to their wide receivers in general and Larry Fitzgerald in particular. It's short-circuiting their offense.
At this point last season, Fitzgerald had caught 43 passes with a 15.4-yard average and five touchdowns. Anquan Boldin was leading the NFL with seven touchdown receptions. Warner had 14 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 102.1 passer rating despite enduring a meltdown game against the New York Jets in Week 4.
Fitzgerald is averaging only 10.8 yards per catch on his 47 receptions this season. Boldin, who did not return Sunday and could miss additional time after aggravating an ankle injury, has only one touchdown. Warner's rating has fallen nearly 20 points from this point last season to a middling 81.5.
Fitzgerald owned the playoffs and made the big play look routine last season. He hasn't caught a pass longer than 27 yards all season. In 2008, Fitzgerald had 10 games with at least one reception of 30 yards or longer -- and he was only warming up for the most prolific postseason by a receiver in NFL history.
"Teams are trying to bang him at the line of scrimmage and get a safety up over the top of him as much as they can when he is singled up," Warner said. "Some of it has been protection at times where we haven't been able to hold it to try and take the shots down the field. Other times it's just the defense hasn't dictated to take those shots."
There's simply no acceptable explanation for Fitzgerald to lose nearly 5 yards per reception overnight. It's not like opponents are suddenly discovering Fitzgerald is a threat. Fitzgerald previously flourished with or without Boldin. Opponents have rolled safeties to Fitzgerald's side in past seasons, to no avail.
"You're right, it's not like it's never been that way before, but I think when we get into games like this where we are down, teams putting safeties back, they are running man coverage underneath and trying to get pressure on us with four guys and it's a tough coverage to throw against," Warner said.
Teams are inviting the Cardinals to run the ball and Arizona has shown signs of improvement in that area. But this team cannot maximize its potential without Fitzgerald reemerging as a dominant force.
"Once (they) get a lead, they do a nice job of running the football and grinding out the clock and then they are able to get in the right defense to prevent the big plays," Fitzgerald said. "The closer the game is, the more the field is open."
Six turnovers changed the dynamics Sunday, but the Cardinals couldn't get anything going down the field from the beginning.
Instead of going deep on the first play, as Whisenhunt had intended, Warner checked down to running back Tim Hightower. It's becoming an all-too-familiar scenario for Arizona. The Cardinals handed off to a running back or threw to one on their first six plays and 10 times in their first 11 plays. Their running backs account for 17.4 percent of receptions this season, up from 12.8 percent during the 2008 regular season.
With Boldin either out or limited, the Cardinals might need to reinvent themselves a little.
As thoroughly as the Panthers dominated Sunday, the Cardinals trailed by only 10 points, 31-21, with nearly 10 minutes remaining. Arizona's defense limited the Panthers to a three-and-out possession. A team with Warner, Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston should have been able to rally, particularly at home.
Arizona had first-and-10 at its own 39 when Warner dropped back to pass with 7:13 remaining. Warner had sufficient time to find an open receiver, but there were apparently none. Warner held the ball as he kept searching for someone to get open. Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers finally tracked down Warner from behind, sacking him and forcing a fumble. Carolina recovered and the Cardinals were finished.
"They are dropping a lot of people off in coverage, so it's like, run the ball," Breaston said. "You have to run the ball. I think we run the ball good, but we were playing from behind the majority of the game. As a team, we can't have turnovers like that."
Overall, the Cardinals let down against a desperate team and paid the price. Their defense tackled poorly and played without discipline. The bounces that had gone against the Panthers all season suddenly went their way. It was puzzling at times, but teams make their breaks a lot of the time and Carolina did that Sunday.
"The biggest thing with us, it's a continuous pattern," Breaston said. "You've got to want this. You've got to want to be the elite of the NFL. You've got to want to break that trend of, 'Oh, we win a couple games and fall back.' You've got to want to put the streak together, keep looking forward and don't be happy with where you are because stuff will happen like today. When we have a nice little run, we have to keep grinding like the way we got there."
Especially when the one thing Arizona always could count on -- Warner to Fitzgerald down the field -- isn't what it used to be.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The rugged Carolina team that failed to show up against Arizona during the playoffs last season made an unexpected appearance at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 8.
The Cardinals, perhaps a bit high on themselves after beating the Giants, seemed completely unprepared.
Instead of catching interceptions from Jake Delhomme as previous scripts suggested the case would be, the Cardinals threw them to Carolina. Kurt Warner, picked off five times, tends to have a game like this every so often. But the Cardinals' defense, ranked No. 1 in yards allowed per game entering Week 8, failed to compensate. This defeat was a team effort.
Arizona's performance demonstrated again that the Cardinals cannot be trusted to perform well consistently. The Cardinals can still be plenty dangerous when threatened or when the stakes are high. But they are rarely a sure bet when the evidence says they should be one. And they should have been a safe bet Sunday.
Warner often could not find open receivers when he did have time to throw. This has been a recurring theme for Arizona this season, and an unexpected one. The Cardinals cannot be at their best while feeding dump passes to running back Tim Hightower after failing to find open receivers. It's one of the angles I plan to explore upon heading to the locker rooms momentarily.
On the injury front, Anquan Boldin did not return after aggravating his ankle injury. Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, Jerheme Urban and Sean Morey were the receivers when Arizona went to its four-receiver offense.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Asked about the Cardinals on ESPN Radio, I said the team could validate its recent success with an impressive victory over the Panthers.
Any kind of Arizona victory would be impressive at this point.
Carolina has dominated in nearly every aspect while building a shocking 28-7 lead in the first half.
The Cardinals' run defense has imploded. Rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie bit on a pump fake, allowing Steve Smith to get behind him for a 50-yard touchdown reception. The Arizona offensive line has been overpowered a few times, including when immediate pressure up the middle pressured Kurt Warner into throwing quickly to Beanie Wells in the left flat, only to have Julius Peppers pick it off and return the ball 13 yards for a touchdown.
The 49ers' inability to hold on against the Colts is going to cost them. Winning that game could have put some pressure on the Cardinals.
A few thoughts as NFC West games approach in Week 8:
- The 49ers need more from their offensive line. I'm not sure why the team hasn't given Tony Wragge a chance at one of the guard spots, but perhaps it is time.
- Recently benched 49ers quarterback Shaun Hill seemed reluctant to push the ball down the field, perhaps a reflection of the coaching staff's emphasis on avoiding mistakes. Alex Smith seemed more comfortable taking those chances. Smith has nothing to gain by mimicking Hill. He needs to cut loose a little bit. I expect him to play aggressively.
- Nate Clements is not finished as a starting cornerback for the 49ers. He hasn't looked right at times this season, particularly recently, and he was never a shutdown cornerback, but Clements can still be a good player, in my view.
- Kurt Warner should pay special attention to getting rid of the ball quickly early in the game against the Panthers. He basically needs to convince Carolina that its pass rush isn't going to get there no matter how well Julius Peppers and the Panthers apply pressure. Warner did this effectively in the playoff game against the Panthers last season, as I recall. Once that happens, a quarterback can take more time later in the game.
- Jake Delhomme's interceptions appear almost entirely responsible for the Panthers' struggles this season. Carolina seems to have a good offensive line. Massive turnover on the coaching staff could be hurting the Panthers, but this team shouldn't be nearly this bad. Delhomme's problems have transcended situations, but his numbers against added pressure are second-worst in the league among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts. The numbers, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information: 22-of-47 passing for 315 yards with one touchdown, six interceptions and a 36.5 rating. Ouch. Delhomme has three touchdowns and seven interceptions against standard pressure.
- The Seahawks expected their running game to hit stride at about this part of the season, but that assumed at least some continuity on the offensive line. The constant shuffling up front will likely delay the ground game's emergence, putting additional pressure on Matt Hasselbeck to carry the offense -- a tough task for a team that seems to change left tackles every week or two.
- Nate Burleson has been the Seahawks' best wide receiver. He ranks ninth among NFL wide receivers with 157 yards after the catch, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The top eight: Wes Welker (266), Hines Ward (235), Miles Austin (225), Andre Johnson (224), DeSean Jackson (208), Santonio Holmes (206), Hakeem Nicks (173) and Roddy White (171).
- Something has to give when the Rams' weak pass offense meets the Lions' weak pass defense. Detroit has allowed 17 passing touchdowns this season. The Rams have scored only five. Opposing quarterbacks have a 117.8 rating against the Lions this season. If the Rams cannot have success against this pass defense, then what?
- The Lions' Calvin Johnson and the Rams' Steven Jackson have combined for one touchdown this season (Johnson scored it). I like both players' chances of finding the end zone in Week 8, assuming Johnson's injured knee allows him to contribute. (Update: Calvin Johnson is inactive for today's game)
I'm heading to University of Phoenix Stadium shortly to watch the early games on TV and the Panthers-Cardinals game in person. Have a great first day of November.
You know NFL teams are close to selling out when the league agrees to offer 24-hour blackout extensions.
The extensions put pressure on fans to purchase the few remaining tickets. The league generally responds by allowing the games in question to air on local television.
That's what happened Friday, with the Cardinals announcing their Week 8 game against the Panthers will be shown locally on Fox. A blackout would have led the local affiliate to show the Vikings-Packers game locally instead. I've heard from a few people on that subject.
If you're an NFL fan living in the Phoenix area and not planning to attend Panthers-Cardinals, which game would you rather watch?
The NFL granted a 24-hour blackout extension to the Cardinals, giving the team extra time to sell enough tickets for its Week 8 game against Carolina to appear on local television.
The team has experienced the NFL's largest percentage increase in local television viewership from 2008 to this season, but ticket sales for some games have lagged. A rough economy explains part of the problem. The Panthers are not a marquee opponent.
It's tough to blame the Cardinals at this point. They are 4-2 and coming off a road victory over the Giants. They appeared in the Super Bowl last season. Their stadium is terrific.