Saturday, December 25, 2010
Keys to the weekend in the NFC West
By Kenton Wong, Doug Kern, and Mark Simon
Remember, we told you a month ago how bad the NFC West was in 2010.
Things haven't changed much. The division's collective point differential is now minus-300. The AFC South is the only other division with a negative differential (minus-20).
The worst record a playoff team has had since the league expanded to 12 playoff teams is 8-8, done eight times, most recently by the 2008 Chargers.
Unless the Rams or Seahawks win out, we will have the first sub-.500 playoff team under the 12-team playoff format. Amazingly, the division champion (at 8-8 or worse) will host a first-round playoff game. But don't count the NFC West out. In each of the past five seasons, a West team has won a playoff game.
With that in mind, let's take a stat-based look at a key to the coming week for each of the three NFC West contenders.
St. Louis Rams (6-8)
Remaining games: vs San Francisco 49ers, at Seattle Seahawks (clinch division with two wins)
Key stat: Quarterback Sam Bradford needs to break out of his slump. Since posting a season-high 308 yards and three touchdown passes in a win over the Broncos, Bradford has not thrown a touchdown pass in the past three weeks. He's averaged just less than 200 passing yards per game, and has thrown five interceptions.
The key to a turnaround may be in the short-passing game. Bradford threw 35 of his 42 passes (83.3 pct) 10 yards or fewer against the 49ers in Week 10, the second-highest percentage of the season for him. The strategy was successful, as Bradford went 26-for-35 with a touchdown when throwing the short pass in that 23-20 overtime win.
Two good games would allow Bradford to make some history. He needs to throw for 675 yards in the last two games to break Peyton Manning's record for passing yards by a rookie.
Seattle Seahawks (6-8)
Remaining games: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, vs St. Louis Rams (clinch division with two wins)
Key stat: The Seahawks have lost six of their past eight games, with each loss being by at least 15 points. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck needs to take care of the football. He's thrown at least two interceptions in each of the past four games and his next interception will give him 18, a new career worst for picks thrown in a single season.
A different approach this season has been costly for Hasselbeck. He's been more likely to throw the football outside the numbers (in other words, he's tried to pick on specific cornerbacks) and more often than not, it's come back to hurt him.
He's thrown 12 interceptions when targeting those spots on the field, averaging one every 18 attempts, by far the worst rate in the NFL. He's two times more likely to throw a pick when throwing outside the numbers in 2010 than he was in 2009.
The one bit of good news for him: His opponent this week, the Buccaneers, hasn't had an interception against such a pass in its past four games. Though Tampa Bay rates above average on the season at defending those passes, it has rated middle of the pack the past four weeks.
San Francisco 49ers (5-9)
Remaining games: at Rams, vs Cardinals
Key stat: The 49ers will need to win on the road (where they're 1-6 this season) and to continue to get production from Frank Gore's replacements at running back -- Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon. They've combined to average 124 yards per game rushing and receiving over the past four weeks (Gore averaged 119 pre-injury).
Westbrook and Dixon have had success recently running to the outside against teams that play a 3-4 defense. That approach might not work this week.
St. Louis, which plays a 4-3, is strong against runs to the outside, but has struggled defending the run in the middle of the field. The Rams have allowed opponents 6.8 yards per run up the middle over the past three weeks, worst in the NFL in that span.