NFC West: Vikings-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
The piece also points out how the Cardinals and Vikings are likely to face one another in the playoffs. Minnesota will almost certainly be the second seed in the NFC. Arizona has a good shot at the third seed.
"As a team, the Vikings have been stuffed for no gain or a loss on 25 percent of their carries, the highest figure in the league," Verhei writes. "They usually make up for that with plenty of long runs -- they've gained 27 percent of their rushing yards more than 10 yards downfield, a higher share than any team except Tennessee and San Francisco -- but their running game, while explosive, is terribly unreliable. That makes a matchup with Arizona particularly bad news, because the Cardinals are the NFL's best team at stuffing opposing runners, doing so on 27 percent of all carries. If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, it was -- Peterson was stuffed for no gain or a loss seven times in 13 carries Sunday night. His longest run of the night was 11 yards; his other 12 carries gained a total of 8 yards."
Also worth noting: Arizona might never have to venture outdoors during the playoffs. As the third seed, the Cardinals would play any postseason road game in the Metrodome or Superdome. The team keeps the roof closed at University of Phoenix Stadium in part because quarterback Kurt Warner likes it that way.
There's some good stuff in there.
On a semi-related front, someone recently asked whether I could incorporate passer ratings into some of the personnel-related charting I do for all NFC West teams. If that was you, please raise your hand. I put together some formulas to make that happen.
Also from McManaman: Michael Adams' interception was a key play for Arizona.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic cannot remember a time when the Cardinals defeated a good opponent as thoroughly as they defeated the previously 10-1 Vikings. Somers: "It was interesting talking to some of the defensive players last week. I asked a few about what Brett Favre was doing differently this year, given he had been intercepted just three times. A handful of players told me Favre didn't look much different, that he was still taking chances with the ball and that his receivers were making great catches. I got the feeling the Cardinals felt like they could get to some passes. They did. They intercepted two and strong safety Adrian Wilson could have had two more. Not easy catches, but he could have made them."
Also from Somers: a game story noting that the Cardinals looked a lot like the team that advanced through the NFC playoffs.
Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals bounced back from their 2008 defeats to Brett Favre (then with the Jets) and the Vikings. Bickley: "The Cardinals had twice the motivation. They wanted a piece of Favre, who threw six touchdown passes against Arizona last season as a member of the Jets. They wanted a chunk of the Vikings, who punished the Cardinals in Glendale last season. The latter beating was so profound that Adrian Wilson placed a stat sheet from the game inside the trunk of his car, serving as a daily visual reminder."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com offers postgame notes. He likes what Antrel Rolle offers in the Wildcat offense, although watching Rolle carry the ball so loosely made me think the play call could have resulted in disaster for Arizona.
Also from Urban: Adams would like Favre to autograph the football he intercepted.
More from Urban: Quarterback Kurt Warner walked with a limp after the game. The Vikings hit him in the hip on his final pass attempt. This was not the same hip Warner had surgically repaired during the offseason.
Don Banks of SI.com must be feeling pretty smart after writing a column coincidentally featuring the same headline that appeared on mine. Banks: "Near misses get you nowhere in the NFL, but the fact remains that Arizona is a 99-yard Vince Young-led drive away from being 9-3 at the moment, with five consecutive wins and eight victories in its past nine games. As is, its 7-2 since starting 1-2, and these Cardinals have really put things together. But until Sunday night, we really hadn't noticed, because the Saints were streaking to 12-0 and the Vikings were surging to 10-1 behind Favre's historic season."
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireKurt Warner returned to the lineup and passed for 285 yards and three touchdowns thanks in large part to the protection he received from his offensive line.
The defending NFC champion Arizona Cardinals played better than anyone in the conference Sunday. And as they proved last season, timing can be everything.
Their 30-17 victory Sunday night over the previously 10-1 Vikings reestablished Arizona as a legitimate threat to make another Super Bowl run. It also demonstrated how much the Cardinals have grown since last December, when the Vikings dominated them here and Arizona limped into the playoffs.
"We're learning a lot about ourselves as a team, but if we can continue to play like we did tonight, I'm excited about where we can go," coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
The Cardinals outperformed the Vikings in every important dimension: offense, defense, special teams, coaching, intelligence and overall orneriness.
Their postseason swagger was back.
Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell didn't even notice when Brett Favre tried to get in his face after Campbell rag-dolled the Vikings' quarterback during one of three Arizona sacks.
Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett slipped under Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson to bring down Adrian Peterson for a 5-yard loss in the third quarter (Peterson averaged 1.5 yards per attempt).
Jeremy Bridges, starting at left tackle for the first time in his career, typified the Cardinals' bravado. With a little help, Bridges improbably held the Vikings' Jared Allen without a sack. The Vikings might as well have had Jared from Subway trying to distract Kurt Warner with a foot-long Veggie Delite.
"Everybody to a man this week was talking about how great their defensive line was and how much pressure they could put on us," Whisenhunt said. "For us to be able to have no sacks tonight was really a tribute to our [offensive] line."
Bridges matched Allen syllable for syllable in a game-long exhibition of trash talking.
"It was one of the funnest games I've ever played in my life," Bridges said. "I'm hoarse right now. I ran my mouth the whole game."
The Cardinals' success in pass protection -- zero sacks in 32 pass attempts -- stood out as the single most surprising and pivotal development of the game. Right tackle Levi Brown, maligned ever since the Cardinals drafted him instead of Peterson, had a better game than the two-time Pro Bowl runner. But Bridges' success against Allen, who had two sacks during a 35-14 Vikings victory at Arizona last season, might have been more stunning.
"He started getting frustrated and he got a little corny with the things he was saying," Bridges said. "It got a little comical. He started to pout like a little baby, but that is to be expected. ... You have success and then you are not having it, you are going to be a little frustrated."
The Cardinals occasionally helped Bridges, leaving running back Tim Hightower to assist in protection. But there were other times when Bridges held up well enough for Warner to make big plays in the passing game. Warner, back in the lineup after missing six quarters because of a concussion, completed 22 of 32 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin combined for 15 receptions and 241 yards.
The Vikings had previously recorded at least one sack in 23 consecutive regular-season games.
Bridges called this his "Shawshank Redemption" after the Washington Redskins released him when reducing their roster to 53 players.
"[Allen] said he didn't know my name," Bridges added. "I said, 'You'll know by the end of the game because they're going to say it a whole lot on ESPN.' "
Another surprise: The Cardinals averaged 8.3 yards per attempt on 10 carries from their one-back, double-tight end offense. They didn't have to spread the field or resort to gimmicks in generating yards on the ground. They finished with 25 rushes for 113 yards, with Hightower breaking a 32-yard run.
As impressive as the Cardinals were on offense, their defense and special teams were at least as good. Steve Breaston's 64-yard punt return was pivotal early. Arizona also pressured Favre into his fourth and fifth interceptions of the season. Strong safety Adrian Wilson probably should have had at least one more pick.
The Cardinals felt as though Favre was still taking chances this season, contrary to conventional wisdom. His receivers' ability to make plays on the football was the primary difference in Favre's revival, their thinking went.
Only a garbage-time touchdown pass while the Vikings trailed 30-10 prevented Favre from finishing with more interceptions than touchdowns.
The Cardinals needed a strong showing on defense after watching the Titans march 99 yards for the winning touchdown against them in Week 12. They got two sacks from Bertrand Berry and improved play from Alan Branch and the other nose tackles.
"We don't always get it right," Whisenhunt said, "but a lot of times when something happens to us, we respond in the correct way."
That's probably bad news for the San Francisco 49ers. They surprised the Cardinals in the season opener, 20-16, but Arizona can clinch its second consecutive NFC West title by beating the 49ers at Candlestick Park in the Monday night game next week.
Anyone who watched the Cardinals against Minnesota would have to like their chances -- in Week 14 and beyond.
Arizona looked like a Super Bowl contender Sunday.
Kurt Warner's ability to play at an MVP-caliber level after missing six quarters to a concussion makes everything right for the Cardinals. Warner took a hit on the Cardinals' first play. He shook it off and threw three first-half touchdown passes on the way to a 30-17 victory.
Receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston haven't looked this good together in a while. They overwhelmed the Vikings secondary, finding openings when tackles Levi Brown and Jeremy Bridges held up better in protection than anyone could have expected. The Vikings' inability to get consistent pressure on Warner stood out as the most surprising and pivotal development for both teams.
This was a statement game for Arizona. The Cardinals were more physical. Their defensive line won individual matchups, including when Darnell Dockett slipped under Steve Hutchinson to make a tackle in the backfield. Getting 2 sacks from Bertrand Berry was a bonus.
They are 8-4 and leading the NFC West by three games.
The 49ers went into Week 13 thinking they could beat the Seahawks, then possibly overtake Arizona with a victory over the Cardinals in Week 14. The thinking seemed somewhat plausible, or at least defensible at the time. The Cardinals' performance against Minnesota made those thoughts seem laughable in retrospect.
When the Cardinals are right, there isn't another team in the division close to their level.
The Cardinals' receivers are having their way on intermediate routes. Arizona's ability to hold up in pass protection is putting the Vikings' secondary in a further bind.
Dansby's injury-related absence during the Titans' winning 99-yard drive last week hurt the Cardinals. Inside linebacker Gerald Hayes, a run defender, replaced him.
Favre is taking chances in this game. Adrian Wilson had two passes in his hands, but could not hold on. Dansby held on. The Cardinals have to like their chances.
The speed Steve Breaston offers the offense has made a big difference. He looks healthier than he was earlier in the season. Anquan Boldin is also making a statement on a national stage. That 39-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown was All-Pro caliber.
This would be a statement victory for the Cardinals if they could beat the Vikings.
Arizona has helped left tackle Jeremy Bridges in protection against Jared Allen, a wise move.
The Vikings have lost right tackle Phil Loadholt to a shoulder injury. His return is questionable. The Cardinals, already without left tackle Mike Gandy, briefly lost right guard Deuce Lutui, who returned for the next series.
Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie just left the game. Not sure if it's serious, but three of the four projected starting tackles in this game are not playing.
Not having both starting tackles could give the Cardinals' pass-rushers a needed edge.
The Cardinals are 19-1 under Ken Whisenhunt, counting playoffs, when they win the turnover battle. They are 2-17 when they lose the turnover battle and 6-2 when turnovers are even.
Update: Steve Breaston's long punt return might have bailed out Hightower.
There's lots of purple here at University of Phoenix Stadium. Fans are cheering loudly as the Vikings run onto the field.
Guessing percentages is tough. I might be conservative in saying at least 25 percent of the crowd appears to be supporting the Vikings.
Jeremy Bridges gets the start. Arizona should be better with a healthy Bridges than they might have been with a diminished Gandy, who is suffering from a pelvic injury.
I'll be watching to see if the Cardinals help their tackles in protection. It's not something they do very often.
The Cardinals had started the same five offensive linemen since the start of last season.
"Three potential problems for Cardinals," it read.
Facebook friend Keith wasn't having it.
"Let's see three potential problems the Cards might pose for the Vikings," he shot back, "not always these cup half-full downer posts."
OK, OK. I get it. Cardinals fans must be getting a little nervous with Kurt Warner seeking medical help and the 10-1 Vikings returning to the scene of their 35-14 victory over Arizona last season.
Keith and other citizens of Cardinal Nation could probably use some affirmation.
They've come to the right place.