The Niners are back, the Cardinals and the Rams keep clawing away like hungry dogs and the enigmatic Seahawks keep sputtering. Such is the case for the NFC West four weeks into a season in which they have turned into arguably the strongest division in the NFL.
What follows is our weekly team-by-team take on the state of the NFC West.
What we learned: The Cardinals’ tendency for ugly wins and narrow escapes returned with their 24-21 Week Four victory over Miami in overtime. It was the team’s fifth OT game in the last 13 dating back to last season, all victories. Clearly hindered by the absence of DE Darnell Dockett, who was inactive with a hamstring injury, the defense, which had been so stifling the first three games, got torched. The Dolphins' offense abandoned the run game Ray Horton’s "D" was expecting in favor of a hurry-up offense featuring passes from rookie QB Ryan Tannehill to WR Brian Hartline (franchise-record 253 yards receiving) and Davone Bess (7-123). But the defense came up with tide-turning plays in crunch time, as did QB Kevin Kolb. Making up for an ugly interception from the Dolphins’ two-yard line, Kolb’s 4th-and-10 TD pass to WR Andre Roberts with 29 seconds left in regulation that put the game into overtime might have been a signature moment, similar to the one Alex Smith experienced with his game-winning TD toss to Vernon Davis in the 49ers’ wild-card victory over the Saints last season.
What’s in store next: The good news is that the Cardinals have never lost in St. Louis — which is where they are headed for a Thursday-night encounter — under the direction of Ken Whisenhunt. The bad news is that they will have to bounce back only four days after a very draining game against the Dolphins. Jeff Fisher’s feisty young Rams are far from a pushover, as they showed in their upset victory over Seattle Sunday that was highlighted by brilliant special-teams play.
What the heck? We already mentioned Kolb’s interception from the Miami two-yard line — a throw he tried to force to ace WR Larry Fitzgerald. What we did not mention was that Fitzgerald was pushed out of bounds on the play before Miami’s Sean Smith made a nice interception. … Fifteen rushes for a mere 28 yards, eight sacks allowed and a couple of really bad days at the office for rookie starting ORT Bobby Massie and CB William Gay are other sore points worth mentioning. Massie was manhandled by Dolphins DRE Cameron Wake (4½ sacks), while Gay was replaced by Greg Toler after having all kinds of problems covering Bess.
What we learned: How about giving serious early consideration to Rams special-teams coach John “Bones” Fassel as Assistant Coach of the Year? A longtime weak link, St. Louis’ special teams have truly been special so far this season. Rookie PK Greg Zuerlein and rookie P Johnny Hekker provided all the points in an upset victory over a Seahawks team that had won 13 of its previous 14 games vs. the Rams. “Greg the Leg” remained a perfect 12-for-12 in FG attempts this season, with four field goals, including a pair of team record-breakers (a 58-yarder followed a little later by a 60-yarder). Hekker showed off his arm as well as his leg with a TD pass to Danny Amendola on a fake field goal, as Amendola lingered near the sideline but never left the field. Head coach Jeff Fisher continued to show why he might have been the most coveted coach on the open market this past season. In addition to the deft trickery he pulled off on the fake FG, Fisher managed the clock masterfully.
What’s in store next: Here come the Cardinals, amazingly one of only three undefeated teams left in the NFL with the season’s first month in the books. Arizona was very fortunate to escape with an overtime win over a Dolphins team that sliced and diced Ray Horton’s vaunted defense to bits (the Cardinals were outgained 480-297 in Week Four). With Cardinals CB-RS Patrick Peterson champing at the bit to start cranking out TD returns in the same manner as his record-breaking rookie campaign — he had 80-yard-plus punt returns for TDs in each of the Cardinals’ wins over the Rams last season — it’s a good bet special teams could be the featured attraction this week on "Thursday Night Football."
What the heck? Fisher considers a strong running game and strong defense against the run to be essential ingredients in the pursuit of lasting success. On Sunday, the Rams had neither. Seahawks RBs Marshawn Lynch and rookie Robert Turbin (combined 26-163) consistently broke through to the second level. On the other side of the ball, workhorse RB Steven Jackson had one nice 23-yard run, but he gained only 32 yards on his other 17 carries.
What we learned: Bouncing back from what most close observers considered to be a dangerous trap game in Minnesota, the Niners look like a heavyweight contender again following their 34-0 whitewash of the Jets in the Meadowlands. The Niners returned to their normally overpowering form, with a ground game that cranked out a whopping 245 yards and a suffocating defense that forced four turnovers and three sacks (two by OLB Aldon Smith) and allowed the Jets only 45 yards on the ground. But the team also added a very effective dose of creativity courtesy of backup QB Colin Kaepernick, who ran five times for 50 yards (including a seven-yard TD), threw one pass to Randy Moss that was the longest attempted by the Niners all season and even lined up at wide receiver to further confuse the befuddled Jets.
What’s in store next: Five of the Niners’ next six games are at Candlestick Park beginning with a visit from the Bills this Sunday. Buffalo blew a 21-7 third-quarter lead and ended up getting clobbered 52-28 by the Patriots in Week Four, as two Pats running backs (Stevan Ridley and rookie Brandon Bolden) each ran for 100 yards — the first time the Patriots had done that since 1980. You’d have to think Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Kaepernick, the Niners’ new secret weapon, are licking their chops over the prospect of moving the chains in a major way for the second consecutive week.
What the heck? Maybe the Niners should spend the week in Youngstown, Ohio, before every game. As was the case last year in a similar situation, the Niners thrived on the final leg of an extended road trip that greatly deviates from the NFL norm. There wasn’t anything else that anybody could really question in Week Four, except maybe the two missed FG attempts by David Akers, who had made 8-of-9 attempts this season entering the game. And it’s worth noting that one of the misses was a 55-yarder, which for every other kicker in the league except Greg Zuerlein is perfectly excusable.
What we learned: Once again in Week Four, the Seahawks came through with an overpowering ground game (179 yards rushing, 5.3 avg.) and a tenacious defense that did not give up a TD. But Seattle’s passing offense continued to be a huge problem as the team dropped to .500 after getting upset on the road 19-13 by the division-rival Rams. Rookie QB Russell Wilson continued to show growing pains, throwing three interceptions and having problems converting third downs (only 2-of-9 vs. St. Louis, converting only 28 percent on the season). Twice in the second half the Seahawks had to settle for field goals after driving inside the Rams’ 20-yard line. The Seahawks have been inside the opposition’s 20-yard line 11 times so far this season and have only three TDs and six FGs to show for it.
What’s in store next: The Seahawks will be looking for their first win on the road this Sunday in Carolina, where they will be taking on a Panthers team that came extremely close to pulling off a major upset of the undefeated Falcons last Sunday but fell just short. Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch (155 total yards in Week Four, 5.9 ypc), who has picked up where he left off last season with his uncanny knack for bouncing off defenders for extra yardage, could be a major headache for a Panthers "D" that had major problems limiting Falcons RB Michael Turner (171 total yards, 7.9 ypc) in Week Four.
What the heck? Where do we start? How about the fact that head coach Pete Carroll was outsmarted at every turn by coaching rival Jeff Fisher? Carroll got duped on a fake FG for a TD and unsuccessfully ordered an onside kick to start the second half that resulted in a 60-yard field goal by Rams rookie Greg Zuerlein, giving the Rams a 16-7 lead. It’s also worth noting that the Seahawks defensive ends had zero sacks against a patchwork Rams O-line after going nuts vs. Green Bay six days earlier. Still, if TE Anthony McCoy hadn’t fallen down on Wilson’s third interception — which clinched the Rams’ win — the outcome might have been completely different.