By Brandon Burnett
Cold, Hard Football Facts Wizard of the NFC West (@B_Burnett49er)
There's really no telling how teams in the NFC West will stack up after Week 8.
A whole lot can happen.
As it stands, the 49ers have sole possession of first at 5-2. The Seahawks and Cardinals are close behind at 4-3, though Seattle is 0-3 within the division, and the Rams sit in last at 3-4.
A San Francisco win over Arizona and Seattle loss at Detroit would ensure the Niners a two-game lead over each divisional foe. However, if both the Cards and Hawks win, we would once again be looking at a three-way tie for first.
As for St. Louis, who will meet Tom Brady and the Pats at Wembley Stadium in London, a loss would drop them to 3-5 and potentially two games back of all three NFCW opponents if Seattle and Arizona both win. An upset over New England would bring them back within a game of first in said scenario.
Got it? Good.
1. It's Now or Never For the Cardinals
Arizona's fate lies in their own hands. Ken Whisenhunt knew coming into the season that going through the 49ers was going to be the only way to win the west.
Well, here you are.
Let's go back to Week 14 in 2011. The Cardinals beat the Niners 21-19 at University of Phoenix Stadium. They also did it with John Skelton, who will be under center in this one as well. And, they only had 55 rushing yards in the game.
Skelton found a way to throw three TD passes in that win, but the O-line was able to thwart the 49ers' pass rush and only allowed two sacks all night. After giving up 29 sacks in their last four games, it would be unwise to expect those numbers to repeat themselves. But they'll probably need to lean on the passing game to get the win, so each member of Arizona's 32nd ranked O-line (according to our trusty Offensive Hog Index) better eat an extra bowl of pregame Wheaties.
With 5'7", 185-pound LaRod Stephens-Howling getting the bulk of the carries in Arizona's backfield, it's unlikely the running game will be able to wear down the 49ers' defensive line. The Niners have allowed back-to-back 100-yard rushers, but that was against Marshawn Lynch and Ahmad Bradshaw—both 215-pound, hard-nosed backs.
The reason this game is so important for the Cardinals is not just that it will put them in a tie for the NFCW lead rather than falling two games behind, but every home game will be crucial from here on out.
Arizona's next two games are on the road, in Green Bay and then Atlanta. Going back to 2010, those two teams are 17-2 and 16-3 at home, respectively. Not to mention Aaron Rodgers is locked in and the Falcons have yet to lose at all in 2012.
On the flip side, the Cardinals are 4-15 in road games during that span. After the Packers and Falcons, they'll draw the Jets, Seahawks and 49ers for their final three road games of the season. Those squads are 13-6, 12-7 and 15-5 at home, respectively, from 2010 until now.
Winning even one of those road games will be tough for the Cardinals, let alone two or three. Lose on Monday night, and two is the minimum required to reach even a nine-win season, and that's if they run the table at home against St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago.
2. This is a Road Game Seattle Should Be Able to Win
Feed Marshawn Lynch and stop Calvin Johnson. Yes, it really can be that simple.
In 2011, the Lions went 8-2 when Matthew Stafford and Megatron hooked up for a touchdown, as opposed to 2-4 when they didn't. This year, Detroit is 2-4, and Motown's dynamic duo has yet to connect for six in any of those games.
What sets up Seattle so well in stopping Johnson is their big, physical defensive backs. There may not be another cornerback in the NFL that can match up with the 6'5", 236-pound wideout than 6'4", 221-pound Brandon Browner. On the other side, Richard Sherman (6'3", 195 pounds) isn't much smaller.
Together, these two can eliminate Megatron from making any real impact. No easy task, of course, but Chicago proved last week on Monday night football that it's entirely possible. Johnson was held to three catches and 34 yards in the game, despite being targeted 12 times.
Browner and Sherman, with the help of the safeties, have already shut down some of the game's bigger receivers, including Larry Fitzgerald and Dez Bryant. Those two combined for seven receptions (out of 18 targets), 80 yards and no TDs in their games against the Hawks.
In Detroit's last two losses, Stafford has thrown 97 passes, while Lions' running backs have carried the ball only 29 times. Johnson is on pace to receive 176 targets this season, which is 18 more than in 2011.
The Lions have had success in the run game, but typically refuse to take advantage. It seems as though they'd rather force the ball to their star receiver whether he's covered or not. If they don't stray from that line of thinking, Seattle will have a solid opportunity to advance to 5-3.
3. Bendability Key for Rams to Keep Brady Winless Against the NFCW
In two games against the NFCW this season (Cards and Hawks), Brady has completed 64 of 104 pass attempts for 721 yards, three TDs and three INTs. His passer rating in each of those two contests were 79.6 and 79.3. In his other five games (four of them wins), Brady's passer rating was at least 95—and over 100 in all but one. He's also got nine scores and zero interceptions in non-NFCW games.
One of the reasons that the Cardinals and Seahawks were both able to squeak out wins against a team that is much tough than their 4-3 record suggests, was the defense's continued ability to bend, but not break. The Patriots are going to get their yards through the air, but stuffing the run game and keeping them to field goals will give any team a chance.
It all comes down to Bendability. The Seahawks are No. 2 in the NFL in this Quality Stat, with an average of 19.63 yards per point allowed. Against the Pats, they averaged 20.6 YPPA, a truly impressive number. New England gained 475 yards of offense, but couldn't move the ball on the ground and only put up 23 points—a low total for their standards. Brady had to throw 58 times in the game and Seattle knew it was coming, picking him off twice and defending seven passes.
Arizona held the Patriots to 18 points on 387 total yards, or 21.5 YPPA. On the year, the Cardinals are No. 7 in Bendability, with an average of 18.52 YPPA. So, you could say the defense was a huge part in them pulling off the upset.
For the Rams to pull off an upset of their own this week, they need to follow the same script. St. Louis has two extremely talented corners in Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins, but Rodgers picked the two apart in Week 7. Jenkins, the rookie, was abused all day.
If St. Louis can't get pressure on the QB and stand tall against the run, Brady will experience a similar amount of success, and the Rams will be two, it not three, games out of first.
4. Bold Statement of the Week: The NFCW Has Three of the NFL's Top-Five Defenses
While the Rams' D has suprised us much of the year, they're not yet in the class of the 49ers, Seahawks and Cardinals. Considering how strong each of those defensive units are, it'd be quite the accomplishment if they were.
Let's crunch some numbers to see how impressive the Niners, Hawks and Cards have been on D in 2012.
That's right, folks. All three rank in the top 10 of every defensive Quality Stat. And all three are allowing less than 17 PPG on the year. Outside of the Niners, Cards and Hawks, only the Chicago Bears can make that claim.
5. Predicting Post-Week 8 NFCW Standings (3-0 in Week 7)
1. San Francisco 49ers (6-2)
In 2011, the Cardinals finished the season 7-2 and the 49ers caught them right after winning four of five (the only loss in that span was to SF). Now, Arizona has dropped three straight and allowed over seven sacks per game since Week 4. I'm going to go ahead and say that's the difference in this game.
2. Arizona Cardinals (4-4)
I doubt either team reaches the 20-point mark on Monday night, and Arizona's defense should be able to give a struggling Alex Smith fits for 60 minutes. But are they prepared for a ground attack getting 176.6 YPG and 5.9 yards per carry? The Cards' D is No. 20 in rushing yards per attempt, so it's time to step it up.
3. Seattle Seahawks (4-4)
Once again, Seattle will get their chances to beat the Lions, but only if Russell Wilson can get this offense converting on third downs. Detroit's D-line battered Jay Cutler relentlessly in Week 7 and held the Bears to 13 points in their own stadium. The Hawks have just three TDs in their four road games this season, and it'll end up costing them again in Detroit.
4. St. Louis Rams (3-5)
Arizona and Seattle successfully rattled Brady and it allowed them to pull out close wins. Can the Rams pile it on? I think not. But I do expect football fans in the U.K. to get their money's worth, especially if St. Louis can pound away with Stephen Jackson and Daryl Richardson as much as possible.