NFC West spin cycle: Week Two

Pro Football Weekly
Cardinals place QB Kolb on I.R
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Cardinals place QB Kolb on I.R

Well what do you know? Four games and four victories. Not too shabby a week for a division that has been deservedly considered the weakest in the league for what seems like forever. Capped off by the 49ers’ manhandling of the Lions in prime time, the NFC West definitely moved up in class in Week Two beginning with the Cardinals’ jaw-dropping upset victory on the road over the Patriots 

What follows is our weekly team-by-team take on the state of the NFC West.

CARDINALS

What we learned: Say hello to the NFL’s answer to baseball’s Baltimore Orioles. Overcoming a 13½-point spread to hand the highly regarded Patriots their first home-opening loss ever at Gillette Stadium, the 2-0 Cardinals somehow continue to grind out gritty victories, nine in their last 11 games dating back to last season, to be specific. While it appears to many leaguewide observers that they are working their winning magic with mirrors — they have been outgained 641-498 in victories over the Seahawks and Patriots — the Redbirds keep overcoming the odds mostly on the strength of a tough, fast, resilient defense coordinated by Ray Horton that has been particularly stingy in the red zone. On offense, QB Kevin Kolb was patient and efficient enough to likely secure his hold on the starting job.

What’s in store next: The Cardinals will be meeting their imperfect match this Sunday at home in the Eagles, a team that has gotten off to a similar 2-0 start despite nine turnovers the first two weeks. Philly also escaped with its life in Week Two, overcoming its own mistakes to defeat the Ravens on QB Michael Vick’s one-yard TD run with 1:55 remaining. Arizona could have a sizable edge in the trenches, where a D-line spearheaded by DEs Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett, both of whom had excellent outings vs. the Pats, will be squaring off against a fragile Eagles front wall that reportedly lost starting C Jason Kelce for the season Sunday with a knee injury.

What the heck? No, Larry Fitzgerald’s stats against the Patriots (one catch for four yards) are not a figment of our imaginations. That arguably the NFL's top wideout was so totally ineffective in arguably the team’s greatest upset ever is almost impossible to comprehend. Fitzgerald’s four yards were his fewest in a game since his rookie season in 2004. It’s worth noting Fitzgerald’s fantastic effort in the Cardinals’ 21-17 Week 10 win over the Eagles last season — seven catches for 146 yards and a pair of TD catches. Another unusual aspect to the Cardinals’ Week Two win were some uncharacteristically creative plays on offense, most notably a direct snap to CB Patrick Peterson out of the backfield for a 17-yard gain and a five-yard TD run up the middle by Kolb.

RAMS

What we learned: Based on the first two games of the Jeff Fisher era, if the Rams don’t win, they will at the very least be one extremely tough out. Fisher’s young team continued to show the same kind of gumption and all-out effort that was on display in their near-upset of the Lions in Week One, rallying from a 21-6 deficit Sunday for a stirring 31-28 victory over the Redskins in their home opener. QB Sam Bradford made his detractors take notice, clearly outplaying celebrated Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III with a 310-yard, three-TD performance that brought back fond memories of his impressive rookie campaign. Seventh-round RB Daryl Richardson stepped up big time after Steven Jackson left the game with a groin injury in the second quarter. Despite again losing OLT Rodger Saffold with a knee injury, the Rams’ patchwork O-line more than held its own, allowing only two sacks as the offense piled up 452 yards.  

What’s in store next: The Rams hit the road for the Windy City, where they will be taking on a well-rested Bears team attempting to bounce back from a very ugly prime-time loss to the Packers lowlighted by a miserable performance in every way imaginable from QB Jay Cutler. Memo to Fisher, an ex-Bear: The Bears are 4-1 in games following a contest in which Cutler throws three or more interceptions (he had four vs. the Packers). A key defender for the Rams could be rookie Janoris Jenkins, who got burned on a TD bomb Sunday. Also keep close tabs on the statuses of Jackson and Saffold.

What the heck? You weren’t alone if you thought Fisher was reprimanding Jackson for the running back’s spike of a ball that he thought he had just successfully toted into the endzone. Enter an unsportsmanlike-conduct call on Jackson, who coincidentally never returned to action after the penalty. It turns out, though, Jackson was removed because of his aforementioned groin injury. In addition, there couldn’t have been a more unlikely Week Two hero than TE Matthew Mulligan. Entering the game with only six career catches, Mulligan, primarily known for his blocking, caught a one-yard TD pass four plays after blocking a punt.

49ERS

What we learned: On a prime-time stage in their home opener, the Niners further substantiated their status as the most complete team in the NFC — and quite possibly the entire NFL. Limiting Matthew Stafford from making big plays downfield the same way they limited the dangerous Aaron Rodgers one week earlier, San Francisco’s bend-but-don’t break defense held the Lions to 206 net yards in the first 57 minutes of a convincing 27-19 victory. After a quiet Week One effort, ILB Patrick Willis registered a team-high nine tackles. QB Alex Smith, who has now thrown 216 consecutive passes without an interception, was once again deadly efficient, establishing a particularly effective connection with WR Michael Crabtree, who converted three key third-down situations, and TE Vernon Davis (two TD passes, seven in past four games, counting playoffs)  

What’s in store next: It would appear the Niners will have a substantial edge in their Week Three visit to Minnesota, where they will be taking on a 1-1 Vikings team that fell just short in Week Two to Andrew Luck and the Colts on Adam Vinatieri’s 53-yard field goal in the final seconds. RB Adrian Peterson represents the Vikings’ best hope for success next Sunday, but after coming back to earth a bit vs. Indy, A.P. will be hard-pressed to move the chains against the Niners’ suffocating run defense.

What the heck? What’s this? The Niners actually made a turnover? Snapping a string of six consecutive games without a turnover, Kendall Hunter coughed up a kickoff return that led to a 41-yard field goal by Lions PK Jason Hanson. … There was also speculation that the eye injury that temporarily sidelined ORT Anthony Davis on Sunday was a form of payback from Lions DE Cliff Avril. Davis was poked in the eye by Avril one play after a sideline scrum involving Avril, Davis and TE Delanie Walker. But cooler heads later prevailed, claiming it was just a heat-of-the-moment incident with no ulterior motives.

SEAHAWKS

What we learned: Using the same blueprint that enabled them to look like a legitimate playoff contender while winning five of their last eight games last season, the Seahawks bounced back from a shaky season-opening loss with a complete dismantling of the Cowboys in their home opener. With rookie Russell Wilson looking a lot sharper than he was in Week One (15-of-20 passing for 150 yards and a TD pass to TE Anthony McCoy) and RB Marshall Lynch pounding Dallas’ run defense into submission with 122 yards on the ground while Seattle’s defense limited Dallas to 89 total yards in the second half, Seattle wiped up on an opponent that had beaten them three times in the last four years. Seattle’s special teams deserve special mention. One week after Leon Washington’s long kick returns kept them in the game vs. Arizona, a forced fumble by Michael Robinson on the opening kickoff and a return of a blocked punt for a TD by Jeron Johnson triggered an early 10-0 lead. 

What’s in store next: Live, on Monday night, it will be Aaron Rodgers and the Packers holding court in noisy CenturyLink Field, well-rested 10 days removed from their impressive divisional victory over the Bears. After having to deal with Cowboys OLBs Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware without OLT Russell Okung (check status, bruised knee), Seattle’s offensive line must contend with Packers ball-of-fire ROLB Clay Matthews, whose six sacks after two games matches his entire 2011 total. But the most obvious matchup worth noting is the Packers’ deep WR corps, which probably will have Greg Jennings back in the lineup (groin, check status), vs. Seattle’s excellent young secondary.

What the heck? Seahawks Nation probably will be talking for the rest of the season about WR Golden Tate’s crushing fourth-quarter block on Cowboys LB Sean Lee that sprung Wilson for a 14-yard gain. While Seahawks fans and Tate’s teammates lavishly praised the statement-making hit, Fox Sports officiating maven Mike Pereira concluded that the hit probably should have been ruled a penalty on a “defenseless” player. Look for a fine to be coming Tate’s way in the not-too-distant future.

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