Friday, December 14, 2012
Final Word: NFC West
By Mike Sando
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Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:
Chasing Brady, record: San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith needs three sacks to tie the NFL's single-season record since 1982, when sacks became an official NFL stat.
While Smith will be matching up primarily against the New England Patriots' offensive tackles Sunday night, quarterback Tom Brady looks like his toughest adversary. Brady has taken 20 sacks on 517 dropbacks this season. He has held the ball three or fewer seconds on 70 percent of pass attempts. That means Smith and the 49ers' pass-rushers need to work quickly.
The 49ers have collected 24 of their 32 sacks this season after three seconds. That included all five of their sacks against New Orleans' Drew Brees, another tough-to-sack quarterback. San Francisco beat Brees thanks largely to a pair of interception returns for touchdowns. While Brady has thrown only four picks all season, he threw three of them during defeats to NFC West teams (Seattle, Arizona).
49ers scoreboard watching: The 49ers have scored at least 27 points in two of their past three games. That looks good on paper, but the offense hasn't always been functioning at optimum efficiency. Interception returns accounted for 14 of 31 points against New Orleans. Then, after a 16-13 defeat at St. Louis, the 49ers scored only six first-half points against the Miami Dolphins before pulling away to win 27-13.
New England has held its past three opponents beneath 20 points, the Patriots' best three-game stretch since 2009. The 49ers are 1-3 when failing to score 20 points.
Waiting game: Coaches generally instruct their quarterbacks to deliver the football in timely fashion. The sooner the better, sometimes. There are still times when good things come to those who wait.
Seattle Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice ranks tied for the NFL lead with four touchdown receptions on throws delivered at least four seconds after the snap.
Week 15 opponent Buffalo has allowed eight such touchdown passes, most in the NFL. Quarterback Russell Wilson's willingness to hold onto the ball is one key variable. One question this week is whether a foot injury will sideline Rice or limit his effectiveness. Rice has avoided concussions the past two weeks despite taking huge hits. He's unsure when he suffered the foot injury, but it has kept him from practicing.
Third-down prowess: The St. Louis Rams' Week 15 opponent, Minnesota, has surrendered first downs on 44 percent of third-down pass attempts, the highest rate in the league.
Can the Rams take advantage? Quarterback Sam Bradford has been outstanding on third down during fourth quarters and overtime. His 86.9 Total QBR in those situations ranks fifth in the NFL. Unfortunately for the Rams, Bradford ranks 35th out of 36 qualifying quarterbacks in third-down QBR during the first three quarters of games. He's at 7.6, ahead of only Arizona's recently benched John Skelton.
Ben Roethlisberger (92.2), Brady (89.6) and Aaron Rodgers (84.8) lead the NFL in third-down QBR across all quarters. Bradford ranks 29th at 20.1. He has three touchdowns, three interceptions, 16 sacks and a 54.8 completion percentage on third down this season.
Third-down improvement could be key as the Rams try to follow through on coach Jeff Fisher's stated priority: keeping Vikings running back Adrian Peterson off the field.
Where Fitz stands: Arizona Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley has completed six of 30 attempts when targeting top receiver Larry Fitzgerald. That is one reason Fitzgerald ranks only fourth in receiving yardage among NFC West players this season.
Fitzgerald ranks second on his own team behind Andre Roberts even though Roberts has 42 fewer targets (126-84) and one fewer game played.
Michael Crabtree (761), Roberts (675) and Rice (658) have more receiving yardage than Fitzgerald (652) this season. The Rams' Chris Givens (584), Danny Amendola (576) and Brandon Gibson (537) have a chance to overtake Fitzgerald.
ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.