Friday, December 23, 2011
Final Word: NFC West
By Mike Sando
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:
About those playoff scenarios. The Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks must win Saturday to remain in contention for the fifth or sixth seed in the NFC. But if Detroit beats San Diego and Atlanta wins against New Orleans, both NFC West teams are out regardless. That is because all scenarios placing an NFC West team in the postseason require the NFC West team going 2-0 while Detroit and/or Atlanta goes 0-2. The Falcons and Saints do not play until Monday night, so the Seahawks and Cardinals could remain in suspense all weekend even if they win. Update: The Falcons directly affect the Cardinals' eligibility for postseason; they affect only the Seahawks' ability to claim the fifth or sixth seed.
49ers linebacker Aldon Smith needs just two more sacks to break Jevon Kearse's season record for rookies.
The Rams and draft order. Indianapolis' second consecutive victory following an 0-13 start has left the Colts tied with St. Louis (2-12) and Minnesota (2-12) for victories this season. But if Indy loses to Jacksonville in Week 17, the Colts will hold the No. 1 overall choice in the 2012 draft, no matter what happens with the Rams or Vikings. Another Colts victory would open the door for the Rams to land the top overall choice. But if the Rams and Vikings tie for the worst record at 2-14, Minnesota would have the inside track on the No. 1 choice based on an easier strength of schedule. The Rams finish the season against Pittsburgh and San Francisco. The Vikings face Washington and Chicago.
Big plays aplenty. We should expect the Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals to strike for big gains through the air, provided A.J. Green's shoulder injury allows for it. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and the Bengals' Green each entered Week 16 with seven receptions of 40 yards or longer, one behind Detroit's Calvin Johnson for the NFL lead. Fitzgerald had only one 40-plus reception last season. He had zero in 2009, when Kurt Warner's shoulder injury affected his ability to throw downfield. The seven receptions for 40-plus yards are a season high for Fitzgerald. He had 17 in his previous seven seasons. That helps explain why Fitzgerald is averaging 17.8 yards per reception, up 5.2 yards from last season and well above his previous season high (14.9 in 2008).
Chasing the rookie record. The 49ers' Aldon Smith, with 13 sacks through 14 games, needs an additional 1.5 sacks to tie and two to break Jevon Kearse's rookie record for most in a season, set in 1999. The record dates to 1982, when sacks became an official NFL stat. The Seahawks will presumably take extra precautions in guarding against sacks while playing their third game without injured left tackle Russell Okung. Last season, they allowed eight against Oakland when an injury sidelined Okung. They allowed none against the sack-happy New York Giants one week later, also without Okung. Scheming made the difference. So far this season, the Seahawks are gaining fewer yards per rush (4.0 to 2.9) and allowing fewer sacks per pass attempt (.09 to .04) without Okung, but a small sample size diminishes what the numbers say. Okung has played about 84 percent of the offensive snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Pro Bowl marketing drives. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has been promoting quarterback Alex Smith for the Pro Bowl. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has been promoting cornerback Brandon Browner the same way. The matchup between Smith and the Seahawks' ball-hawking secondary stands out as critical to the game's outcome. Browner, despite leading the NFL in penalties, has six interceptions, two returned for touchdowns. He has five picks in Seattle's past four games. The 49ers lead the NFL in takeaways this season, but Seattle ranks fourth -- and first since Week 10, just ahead of San Francisco. Smith has done an outstanding job protecting the ball. He has no interceptions in his past three games and only five all season. He's facing a Seattle defense that has steadily improved and now ranks eighth in yards allowed and sixth in points allowed.