NFL Nation: Midseason 09 NFC West

Midseason Report: Cardinals

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:39
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Power Rankings: Preseason: 17. This week: 10.

2009 Schedule/Results

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner is an MVP candidate.
Where they stand: The Cardinals are 5-3 and leading the NFC West by two games. The are still striving for consistency on offense, but a 41-21 victory over the Bears in Week 9 suggests they could be on the right track. Kurt Warner looks like an MVP candidate when he has time to throw and his receivers get open. That hasn't happened consistently enough to this point, but the Cardinals are in good position to defend their division title and make another playoff run.

Disappointments: The team is 1-3 at home and inconsistent from week to week. Also, the first two players Arizona drafted this year have contributed less than anticipated. First-round choice Beanie Wells is starting to get more chances, with positive results. But an ankle injury sidelined him during camp and forced him to play catchup through the first half of the season. Second-round choice Cody Brown, drafted to help the pass rush, landed on injured reserve before the season. Larry Fitzgerald did not immediately build upon his record-setting postseason. His per-catch average remains down sharply from last season. Anquan Boldin's recent antics were another disappointment. At tight end, Ben Patrick had to serve a four-game suspension. On the offensive line, tackle Levi Brown has continued to struggle with penalties and in pass protection. On defense, second-year cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been inconsistent. He has the talent to be a Pro Bowl player.

Surprises: The Cardinals are 5-3 overall and 4-0 on the road despite the long list of disappointments outlined above. They have won on both coasts and in between. Previously untested Calais Campbell has proved to be a worthy replacement for defensive end Antonio Smith, who left in free agency. Alan Branch, who would have belonged in the paragraph about disappointments in past seasons, has turned into a valued contributor on the defensive line. Branch and Campbell are among the reasons Arizona has ranked among the NFL leaders in run defense this season. Free safety Antrel Rolle, long a threat to make the big play, has developed into a more consistent player.

Outlook: The NFC West title is the Cardinals' to lose. Arizona's closing schedule is much easier this season than it was when the Cardinals stumbled through December in 2008. I have a hard time believing the Cardinals will continue losing games at home. They will probably win at least five or six on the road. Evening up that home record at 4-4 seems reasonable. In that case, the Cardinals would finish 9-7 or 10-6. Either record should be good enough for Arizona to emerge with a second consecutive division crown.

Midseason Report: 49ers

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:38
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Power Rankings: Preseason: 18. This week: 20.

2009 Schedule/Results

Cary Edmondson/US Presswire
San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree's absence earlier in the season hurt the 49ers.
Where they stand: The 49ers are 3-5 and second in the NFC West after four consecutive defeats. Their inability to hold second-half road leads against the Vikings and Colts has proved costly. Winning those games might have given the 49ers the momentum needed to push for a division title. Instead, the 49ers have changed quarterbacks, something they seem to do most seasons, and they are still carving out an identity on offense.

Disappointments: First-round draft choice Michael Crabtree missed the start of the season during a contract dispute. More significantly, the offensive line hasn't developed as expected, particularly at guard and right tackle. Right guard Chilo Rachal, a promising young prospect, has clearly regressed. While tight end Vernon Davis and others have responded favorably to coach Mike Singletary's direct challenges, Rachal looks like he could use a confidence boost. Poor play at guard and right tackle have stood out as the No. 1 limiting factors for Shaun Hill, Alex Smith, running back Frank Gore, Crabtree, coordinator Jimmy Raye and the offense in general. The 49ers are good enough on defense. Their special teams can be a strength. Fixing the offensive line has to be the top priority in the second half of the season and beyond. Losing left tackle Joe Staley to a sprained knee hurt.

Surprises: Davis has finally seen the light -- and frequently the end zone -- in his fourth NFL season. He has gone from symbolizing wasted potential to demonstrating the effect Singletary can have in challenging players to reach their potential. Davis ranks tied for the NFL lead in touchdown receptions. He is on pace for 84 receptions and 14 touchdowns. On defense, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin has turned into a strong player against run and pass, giving the 49ers a tough defensive front. The secondary has outperformed most expectations after losing veteran cornerback Walt Harris to a season-ending injury. In retrospect, Shawntae Spencer would have beaten out Harris easily. Spencer has returned from reconstructive knee surgery to play at a high level. He was the best cornerback on the team this season, even when Nate Clements was healthy.

Outlook: The 49ers are approaching must-win territory against the Bears on Thursday night. The 49ers lack the offensive line and possibly the quarterback to become a serious playoff threat this season, in my view. The next eight games give them what might be one final chance to find out whether Smith can become their long-term quarterback. Davis and Crabtree provide ample young weapons. Gore will continue to pick up yards even though the blocking figures to remain a problem at times.

Midseason Report: Seahawks

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:37
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Power Rankings: Preseason: 14. This week: 25.

2009 Schedule/Results

Where they stand: The Seahawks are 3-5 and third in the NFC West after beating the Rams, Jaguars and Lions (the 49ers are also 3-5, but they hold the tiebreaker based on head-to-head results). Seattle probably needs to beat the Cardinals in Week 10 to consider itself part of the division race. The 49ers and Cardinals have already beaten Seattle. The Seahawks have already lost twice at home. This team is running out of second chances. Losing a tough game at home to the Bears in Week 3 proved costly.

Steve Dykes/US Presswire
Linebacker David Hawthorne has proven to be an upgrade for the Seahawks.
Disappointments: The team's inability to shake its recent injury problems devastated Seattle early in the season. The bigger disappointment for the Seahawks might come in the realization that getting key players healthy isn't necessarily going to make a big difference. Some of the problems on offense are easily explained by constant injury-related shuffling on the line, highlighted by Walter Jones' inability to return from knee surgery. That has contributed to underwhelming production in the running game after Seattle adopted more zone-blocking concepts. On defense, the Seahawks were supposed to be better. Linemen Brandon Mebane and Cory Redding enjoyed strong training camps. Neither has stood out much to this point. Defensive end Darryl Tapp has faded some after initially transferring a strong camp into a good start to the season.

Surprises: Linebacker David Hawthorne qualifies as the biggest surprise for Seattle -- by a wide margin. Losing veteran middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu to a season-ending injury would have seemed catastrophic a couple years ago. Hawthorne has arguably provided an upgrade. He has two sacks and two interceptions in his past two games. The energy and intensity he brings stand out. Receiver Nate Burleson has bounced back strong from knee surgery, developing into the Seahawks' most productive receiver. He is the only wide receiver on the team with a reception of 35 yards or longer. To have Burleson leading the team in receptions and receiving yards is somewhat surprising after the team signed T.J. Houshmandzadeh in free agency.

Outlook: This was supposed to be the point in the season when the Seahawks started to get healthy and hit stride. It could happen. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck gives the Seahawks a chance to compete and win games against quite a few teams. The overall offensive consistency has not been there, however. Sometimes the Seahawks almost appear resigned to their fate, as if beaten down by all the injuries and defeats dating to last season. I haven't sensed an edge to this team. Confidence appears shaky. And with upcoming road games against Arizona and Minnesota, it's likely the Seahawks will fall further from contention.

Midseason Report: Rams

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:36
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Power Rankings: Preseason: 32. This week: 30.

2009 Schedule/Results

Fernando Medina/US Presswire
Steven Jackson has emerged as a leader under new head coach Steve Spagnuolo.
Where they stand: The Rams are fourth in the NFC West with a 1-7 record. Expectations were low because the Rams parted with so many established players as part of a massive rebuilding project. The Rams are showing signs of improvement, particularly on offense, and they have continued to battle admirably despite glaring deficiencies at some positions, notably receiver. Beating the Lions before the bye week might have been critical for the Rams' psyche. They have bought into rookie coach Steve Spagnuolo, but believing would have been tougher if the Rams had taken an 0-8 record into their bye week.

Disappointments: The Rams knew they would struggle some as a young team finding its way amid significant scheme changes. To be competitive and win a few games to this point, they needed more from safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, cornerback Ron Bartell, defensive end Chris Long, receiver Donnie Avery, tight end Randy McMichael, quarterback Marc Bulger, tackle Alex Barron and defensive tackle Adam Carriker (placed on injured reserve). The team has invested considerable resources in each of those players. None is enjoying a particularly strong season. Veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon was another player expected to contribute. The Rams waited for him to emerge before trading him to the Eagles. Losing receiver Laurent Robinson to a season-ending injury was crushing. He had emerged as the Rams' best option.

Surprises: Defensive-minded coaches can sometimes be combustible, as Mike Singletary and Jim Mora have shown within the division. Spagnuolo has shown unwavering poise despite the Rams' struggles. He has been consistent with his message and unflappable. The team's veteran players have bought into Spagnuolo to a degree the Rams could not have anticipated. Having the previously volatile Steven Jackson onboard with the program was critical for Spagnuolo. Jackson has become a leader and a leading Spagnuolo proponent. His growth and maturity has helped the Rams stick together through brutally tough defeats, notably the overtime loss at Jacksonville after defensive end Leonard Little scored to put the Rams ahead in the final minutes of regulation.

Outlook: Jackson gives the Rams their best chance at being competitive. He has four 100-yard rushing games and a 4.8-yard average per carry even though defenses have little else to fear from the Rams' offense. The Rams play a relatively tough schedule over the second half of the season, starting with a home game against the undefeated Saints in Week 10. They have a chance to win a couple more games, but the rough schedule and the Rams' limitations make any final record projection better than 3-13 seem optimistic. The final eight games will stand as a success if the Rams win a couple of them while watching some of their core players develop. Even then, the Rams could very well need to consider drafting a franchise quarterback. The team also needs better young talent on its defensive line. Little and fellow veteran James Hall are the best pass-rushers on the team. That is not a good sign for a team that has recently used high first-round choices for defensive linemen.

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