NFL Nation: Final Word NFC 2012 Week 4

Final Word: NFC West

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 4:

49ers' defense in focus: The San Francisco 49ers brought the NFL's best defense into the 2012 season. That was the widely accepted assumption, anyway. But after Christian Ponder and the Minnesota Vikings scored a 24-13 victory against the 49ers in Week 3, San Francisco could stand to reverse a few early statistical trends. The 49ers are even in turnover differential, collecting and committing four. They were plus-28 last season. The 2012 team has also allowed five touchdowns on five red zone possessions. The 49ers allowed 14 in 34 possessions last season. Their Week 4 opponent, the New York Jets, led the NFL in red zone TD percentage last season. The Jets are off to a slower start this season, ranking just 24th.

[+] EnlargeChris Clemons
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireA commitment to running the ball could help the Packers take some heat off of QB Aaron Rodgers.
Cardinals, Seahawks tighten screws: Arizona and Seattle have had the best defenses in the division to this point in the season. Neither has allowed more than 20 points in a game despite facing Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Michael Vick and Tom Brady. Arizona is the only NFL team to hold every opponent beneath 20 points. The Cardinals, Seahawks and unbeaten Atlanta Falcons are the only teams to allow fewer than 50 points through three games.

Rams in no rush: The St. Louis Rams promoted a run-first mentality when Jeff Fisher arrived as head coach. Fisher's current team (Rams) and former team (Titans) are the only ones without a rushing TD through three games. The Rams have scored all four of their offensive TDs through the air. They now face a Seattle defense allowing 2.5 yards per carry to opposing running backs. That includes a 0.4-yard average in the red zone, where running backs average 2.6 yards per rush across the NFL. Opposing backs have eight rushes for three yards and two TDs in the red zone against Seattle.

Sending a message: The Rams have a 12-41 (.226) non-division record since 2007. They are only 4-26 (.133) against NFC West opponents over the same period. Fisher must stop the divisional bleeding for the Rams to make significant progress this season. His first opportunities come with Seattle and Arizona visiting the Edward Jones Dome over a five-day period beginning Sunday. The Rams are 2-18 against those teams since 1997. That includes 1-4 at home against the Seahawks and 0-5 at home against the Cardinals.

Upping those playoff odds: The NFC West could have three teams at 3-1 or better heading into Week 5. That seems to be what oddsmakers expect to happen. Arizona (3-0) is roughly a six-point favorite at home against the Dolphins. San Francisco is roughly a 4.5-point favorite against the Jets. Seattle is roughly a three-point favorite against the Rams.

Cardinals fans should know that teams starting 4-0 have earned playoff berths 82.5 percent of the time (52 of 63) under the current postseason format. The percentage is 64.8 (118 of 182) for teams starting 3-1, 35.3 percent (71 of 201) for teams starting 2-2 and 14.7 percent for teams starting 1-3 (22 of 150). Of course, those percentages fall for teams playing in divisions with multiple playoff contenders.

Note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: NFC North

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 4:

[+] EnlargeMike McCarthy
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenIf the Packers don't recover after Monday night's controversial loss, history suggests their playoff hopes could be in trouble.
The Goodell Bowl: That's what I'm referring to Sunday's game at Lambeau Field, which pits two teams who have felt aggrieved by the policies of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The New Orleans Saints are 0-3 after Goodell suspended coach Sean Payton for the season and interim coach Joe Vitt for six games because of their roles in his investigation of an alleged bounty program. The Packers, meanwhile, were the team most impacted by the NFL's attempt to use low-level replacement officials in its first three weeks. How much were the Packers impacted by last Monday's loss to the Seattle Seahawks? Even if they win Sunday to even their record at 2-2, they face this fact: Under the current playoff format, only 35.3 percent of 2-2 teams advanced to the playoffs. If they fall to 1-3? History suggests they have a 14.7 percent of playing in the postseason.

Run to Daylight: The Packers balanced their offense midway through the Seahawks game, giving tailback Cedric Benson 15 of his 17 carries after halftime. It was no coincidence that all three scoring drives came after that point. Will the Packers bring that approach Sunday? The Saints defense has really struggled this season but has been particularly vulnerable to the run, giving up a stunning average of 215 rushing yards per game. The Packers' initial game plan hasn't worked well in any of their first three games, and they've gone scoreless in the first quarter each time. That hasn't happened in the first three Packers games of a season since 1991.

Tables turned: For so long, a trip to Detroit was an automatic victory for the Minnesota Vikings, who won 16 of 17 in this series before the Detroit Lions broke through in the 2010 season finale. The Lions have now won three consecutive games over the Vikings, and it is the Vikings who own a dubious distinction: They've lost their past 11 NFC North games. The Lions haven't had the start they would have liked this season and are a fourth-quarter comeback in Week 1 away from an 0-3 record. Meanwhile, the Vikings surprised everyone with a convincing victory last Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers, and they'll get downfield receiver Jerome Simpson back from suspension. But it doesn't appear many people consider them legitimate contenders quite yet. The Lions are healthy six-point favorites, and 11 of 14 ESPN experts picked them to win.

The Allen factor: Vikings defensive end Jared Allen terrorized the Lions last season with six sacks, three in each game, and a forced fumble. Allen has been limited by neck spasms that started in last week's game against the 49ers, and his only sack this season came on the 49ers' final offensive play last week. But one way or the other, Allen will be a key part of this game. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is nursing a strained leg/hamstring/hip, and you can count on Allen testing right away whether Stafford is moving any slower in the pocket.

Another MNF affair: An NFC North team will participate in Monday Night Football for the second consecutive week, and the Chicago Bears' matchup at the Dallas Cowboys comes during a streak of six prime-time NFC North games in six weeks. We're popular. We get it. I'll have plenty more to say about this game over the weekend and on Monday, but for now let's bring you up to date on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler's tough record in prime-time road games. Cutler is 3-6 in those games as a Bears starter and 5-10 overall in his career.

Final Word: NFC East

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 4:

Look out for an air show: The odds favor a lot of passing yards in Sunday's game between the Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The teams rank as the two worst pass defenses in the league this season. Washington is giving up 9.1 yards per pass attempt, tied with the Saints for second-worst in the league, better than only the Giants (9.3 yards a pass). The Bucs are allowing 8.9 yards per attempt, fourth worst. The Redskins rank 31st in the league in passing yards allowed per game, and the Buccaneers rank 32nd. So although Washington and Tampa Bay rank only 22nd and 30th, respectively, in passing offense so far this season, it wouldn't be a surprise to see both passing games get on track Sunday afternoon.

[+] EnlargeArizona Cardinals
Jennifer Stewart/US PresswireTo win Sunday, Michael Vick and the Eagles must avoid turnovers against the opportunistic Giants.
Here, you take it: The New York Giants have forced eight turnovers this season, third-most in the NFL through three weeks. On Sunday night, they play the Philadelphia Eagles, who have committed 12 turnovers. My friend and colleague Mike Sando emailed Thursday night to tell me the Eagles have turned the ball over more times this season than have the Falcons, Patriots, Redskins, Texans, Seahawks and Jaguars combined, and two more times than the 49ers did all of last season. That's completely ridiculous, and if the Giants can get any kind of pass rush against Michael Vick and force him to make the kinds of bad decisions that have characterized his season so far, it's not likely to get any better Sunday night.

Something's got to give: According to ESPN Stats & Information's "Next Level" numbers, the Eagles' pass defense has allowed only five completions on throws more than 10 yards downfield so far this season. Giants quarterback Eli Manning has averaged seven such completions per game. Manning's completion percentage when throwing the ball more than 10 yards downfield this season is 60.0. The Eagles' defense is allowing a completion percentage of just 18.5 on such throws. Manning is the toughest test yet for an Eagles pass defense that has made its bones against Brandon Weeden, Joe Flacco and Kevin Kolb. But on the flip side, Manning hasn't faced a tough pass defense since the Cowboys in Week 1. He's put up huge numbers the past two weeks against Tampa Bay and Carolina.

Romo on the run: According to our "Next Level" stats, the Chicago Bears lead the NFL with 14 sacks in spite of sending four or fewer rushers on 77.5 percent of opponents' dropbacks. Especially against the Dallas Cowboys' porous offensive line, the Bears are likely to generate considerable pressure on quarterback Tony Romo in the "Monday Night Football" matchup. If Romo can avoid sacks, however, this could be a good thing for Dallas. Since 2010, Romo has thrown 12 touchdown passes without an interception when throwing from outside the pocket. That's the highest total in the NFL over that time.

Defensive struggle: Unlike that Bucs-Redskins game on Sunday, Monday night's game looks as though it could be a low-scoring affair. The Cowboys are allowing an NFL-low 250 yards per game this season. The Bears' average is sixth best in the league at 279 yards allowed per game. If someone can get on the scoreboard early, it could have a distinct advantage the rest of the way.

Final Word: NFC South

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 4:

Throwbacks bring good luck: Team marketing departments love throwback uniforms because they create more merchandise to sell. Some coaches also love the throwback uniforms because they believe they bring good luck, and coaches are a superstitious group. Count Atlanta’s Mike Smith among them. The Falcons will wear their throwback uniforms Sunday against Carolina. The Falcons started wearing throwback uniforms (red helmets, black jerseys and white pants) in 2009 and are 5-1 in those outfits. They’re scheduled to wear them again in a game Nov. 29 against New Orleans at the Georgia Dome.

[+] EnlargeAtlanta Falcons
AP Photo/Gregory BullWith a win over Carolina on Sunday, Atlanta would tie their franchise record for the best start to a season.
Looking at history: The Falcons can tie the franchise record for best start in team history with a win against Carolina. The 1986 and 2004 teams each started 4-0, but each lost its fifth game. If the Falcons win against the Panthers, they’ll have a chance to set a team record when they play at Washington in Week 5.

Chasing the record: There’s a bright spot as the 0-3 New Orleans Saints travel to Lambeau Field to play the Green Bay Packers. If Drew Brees throws a touchdown pass, he’ll tie the NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass. The record is 47 by Johnny Unitas from 1956 through 1960. If Brees ties the record Sunday, he’ll have a chance to break it the following week at home against San Diego. You might recall that the Chargers are the team that unceremoniously let Brees go after the 2005 season, and he still carries a chip on his shoulder about that.

Contact coming slowly: We all know that the defense has been a big problem for the Saints. One of the biggest problems is that the Saints haven’t been able to stop runners in the backfield. The Saints have allowed a league-high 477 yards before making first contact with the ball carrier, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Opposing runners are averaging 3.7 yards before a New Orleans defender even touches them.

Run defense much improved: Despite their 1-2 start, the Buccaneers have made some significant improvements. One of them has been the run defense. Tampa Bay is allowing a league-best 2.3 yards per rushing attempt, and that comes after a season in which the Bucs allowed a league worst 156.1 rushing yards per game. The Bucs also are leading the NFL by allowing just 0.95 yards before first contact. Last year, the Bucs allowed 3.04 yards before contact, which ranked No. 31.

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