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Friday, December 24, 2010
Final Word: NFC West

By Mike Sando

NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

Matt Hasselbeck
Will Matt Hasselbeck have a better performance than his Week 15 showing against the Falcons?
1. Calling all quarterbacks. NFC West starting quarterbacks Matt Hasselbeck, Sam Bradford, Alex Smith and John Skelton combined for two touchdown passes, eight interceptions and an 0-4 record in Week 15. All but Smith will be back in the lineup for his team in Week 16. Which one, if any, will rise to the occasion? Arizona faces a Dallas defense that has allowed 31 scoring passes, tied with Houston for most in the league. But the Cardinals have only eight touchdown passes all season. No team has finished a season with fewer since Oakland had seven during the 2006 season. Something has to give when Dallas visits Arizona on Saturday.

2. Watch out for the tight ends. The San Francisco 49ers' Vernon Davis scored on a 73-yard reception the last time he played a game in the Edward Jones Dome. Davis isn't the only tight end to watch during NFC West games this weekend. The Cardinals will presumably be keeping close watch on the Dallas Cowboys' Jason Witten, who has four touchdowns over the team's past three games. Arizona has surrendered scoring passes to five tight ends this season: San Diego's Antonio Gates, Carolina's Jeff King, Oakland's Zach Miller, Minnesota's Visanthe Shiancoe and New Orleans' Jeremy Shockey. Seattle's Chris Baker had a 44-yard reception against the Cardinals, although he did not score on the play.

3. Troy Smith and the deep ball. The Rams have had increasing problems defending the deep ball. Opponents' passer ratings have risen from 32.8 in the first eight games to 100.0 in the past six games on passes traveling at least 15 yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The 49ers' Troy Smith completed 6 of 10 such passes for 193 yards and a touchdown against the Rams earlier this season.

4. End of the road for Alex Smith? The 49ers' decision to start Troy Smith instead of Alex Smith does not prevent the latter from getting on the field Sunday or even in Week 17. But with Alex Smith's contract set to expire and the team already assured of a losing record, the 49ers appear closer to cutting their losses with the 2005 first-round draft choice. A year ago at this time, the 49ers were going out of their way to make sure Alex Smith got as much playing time as possible. "I want Alex to get all the playing time he can," coach Mike Singletary said then. "It's important for us and him. Every situation he can possibly be in, I want him to learn every lesson he possibly can. I want to see every drop of everything he has." This December? Not so much.

5. Keep those playoff scenarios handy. Remember, the Seahawks' game at Tampa Bay means nothing in the division race if the Rams defeat the 49ers earlier Sunday. In that case, the 49ers would be out and the Week 17 winner between Seattle and St. Louis would advance to the playoffs. The 49ers will win the division if they win their final two and Seattle fails to reach 8-8. If the Rams lose to the 49ers, they'll need a victory at Seattle and a 49ers home loss to Arizona for a playoff berth. Got it?