By Brandon Burnett
Cold, Hard Football Facts Wizard of the NFC West (@B_Burnett49er)
Not one of the four NFC West quarterbacks that started in Week 12 has more than three years of experience under his belt, but it was hardly noticeable for three of them.
Starting in place of Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick played well and received a little help from his defense, cruising to a 31-21 road win over the Saints. Sam Bradford, like Kaepernick, received two pick-sixes from his defense in a 31-17 road win over the hapless Cardinals.
Rookie QB Russell Wilson continued a streak of spectacular starts, but the Seahawks once again found a way to lose on the road, coughing up another late lead and falling to Miami 24-21.
Ryan Lindley, a sixth-round pick for Arizona in the draft this past spring, was the NFC West dud of the week. Lindley's four interceptions (two returned for TD) sent the Cardinals to a seventh-straight defeat.
'Zona has now completed its first-to-worst tour through the division. After jumping out to a 4-0 start, the Cards are in sole possession of last place in the NFC West at 4-7. San Fran advanced to 8-2-1, opening up a 2 1/2-game lead on the 6-5 Seahawks. The 49ers remain a half-game ahead of the Bears for the No. 2 seed in the NFC as well.
Here are five thoughts from what we saw of the NFC West in Week 12.
1. Dominant performances come in pairs for the 49ers defense. (49ers vs. Saints)
The 31-21 score won't reflect it, but this was absolutely another dominant performance from the NFL's No. 1 defense.
Holding Drew Brees and the Saints offense to 5.6 yards per pass attempt is no easy task, let alone taking two interceptions to the house against the All-Pro QB.
The 49ers' defense entered Week 12 No. 3 in rushing yards per attempt and completely shut down New Orleans' running game, allowing 59 yards on 21 carries (2.8 YPC). But it was the effectiveness of San Fran's pass rush, much like in last year's NFC playoff game, that frustrated Brees and forced him into costly mistakes.
The Niners, No. 3 in our Defensive Hog Index heading into Week 12, sacked Brees five times, with Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks recording 1 1/2 apiece. Aldon's performance extended his league-leading sack total to 16 1/2 on the year.
In addition to Brooks' multi-sack day, he returned a pick 50 yards for a score just moments before halftime. Safety Donte Whitner returned a tipped pass for a pick-six of his own in the third. That's 11 sacks and four INTs for the 49ers' D the past two games.
Jim Harbaugh's squad has now put together four two-game winning streaks in 2012. Each of the first three have been followed with a loss or tie. The defense has dominated for most or all of each win, and looked considerably sluggish during defeat or draw.
It'll be interesting to see if the Niners can buck the trend in Week 13 as they travel to St. Louis.
2. Seattle's last two road losses have been painfully similar. (Seahawks vs. Dolphins)
The last time the Seahawks played away from CenturyLink Field was Week 8 in Detroit. Seattle gave up a late TD to lose 28-24, allowing the Lions to rack up 415 yards of offense.
This time, it was 435 yards to Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins. Seattle's two second-half scores were washed away when the D surrendered 17 fourth-quarter points. Tannehill led an efficient Miami offense, but it was the Fins' running game that did the most damage.
Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas pounded out 147 yards and two scores between the two. The Seahawks allowed 189 rushing yards in all, and its once stout run defense continues to weaken. Seattle's defense was allowing opponents to just 3.70 YPC through Week 7, a number that rose to 4.34 YPC heading into Week 12.
As if that worsening trend isn't troubling enough, the 'Hawks D took another substantial hit Sunday.
Starting cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner reportedly (via ESPN's Adam Schefter) violated the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy. Pending appeal, a four-game suspension awaits each player—a blow Seattle cannot afford to absorb.
The Seahawks came into Week 12 No. 3 in Defensive Passer Rating, with much of the credit belonging to these two physical, lock-down corners. A four-game absence would remove them from the lineup until Week 17.
Wilson was magnificent under center once again, extending plays, drives, and finishing with a passer rating of 125.9. Seattle is 5-0 at home, yet 1-5 on the road. Lately, it's been the defense falling short—and now they'll likely be extremely short-handed.
3. Janoris Jenkins lacks consistency, not big-play ability. (Rams vs. Cardinals)
Jenkins introduced himself into the NFL with a pick-six in his professional debut against the Lions in Week 1. He's been inconsistent, and at times downright awful, ever since.
But not Sunday. Not when Lindley, a fellow 2012 NFL draftee, was throwing ill-advised passes his way. Both of Jenkins' interception returns were basically handed to him, but props to the speedy DB for putting six on the scoreboard each time.
The secondary, combined with 139 hard-earned yards from Steven Jackson, made the difference in this contest.
Arizona remained true to form, and all St. Louis had to do was help them further two months worth of struggles. The Cards came into Week 12 No. 25 in Scoreability, needing 17.40 yards per point scored. Against the Rams, they needed 22.05 YPPS.
Lindley targeted Larry Fitzgerald 12 times, but the two connected on just three of them. The All-Pro WR finished with three catches for 31 yards and is on pace for the worst season of his career.
It's been a tumultuous couple of months for Fitzgerald and the Cardinals, who at 4-7, are last in the NFCW and two games out of a wild card spot. The Rams move to 4-6-1 and sit 1 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. One more loss for either team all but eliminates them from contention.
4. Assessing the quarterback position of each NFCW team.
In light of the so-called "quarterback controversy" swirling around in San Francisco, I feel we may as well recap the QB situations of each NFCW squad.
San Francisco: Kaepernick proved deadly once again this week, scoring a rushing TD, escaping pressure several times and firing numerous strikes to intended receivers throughout the game. The question remains, did Harbaugh start the Kapper with intentions of making him a long-term starter, or to give Alex Smith an extra week of rest?
It may be a little bit of both. Smith wasn't cleared for contact until a couple of days before the game, remember, so he wasn't given first-team reps throughout the week. Harbaugh reiterated after the game that he felt uncomfortable sending Smith out there with how long it took him to get clearance.
Obviously, the way Kaepernick has played, there is no rush.
Seattle: No QB controversy here. Despite having a rookie under center, the Seahawks entered Week 12 at No. 12 in Offensive Passer Rating. Sunday marked the fifth game in 2012 Wilson finished with a passer rating of 100 or higher. He's been lights-out at home and is playing better on the road every time Seattle travels. The same cannot be said for the rest of the team, however.
St. Louis: No QB dilemma here, either. Bradford is having the best season of his three-year career despite missing Danny Amendola much of the season. Even so, he's arguably been bested by Wilson, Smith and Kaepernick in terms of NFCW QB performances this season. The Rams' passing attack has had its good times, but there have been plenty of bad moments as well.
Arizona: Kevin Kolb is apparently the only QB capable of winning games behind the Cardinals horrific offensive line. John Skelton was benched in Week 11 for an unproven sixth-round pick, one that just threw four INTs to zero TDs. The 49ers and Cards are polar opposites in terms of their QB situations. Arizona's ordeal is not a desirable one. Somehow, someway, Ken Whisenhunt has find a way to get his talented receivers the ball.
It's just not going to be this year.
5. Looking ahead to Week 13's NFCW action.
The 49ers travel to St. Louis in Week 13 for a rematch of their Week 10 tie. San Francisco has failed at its first three chances to extend a two-game winning streak this season, and it wouldn't be entirely shocking to see it happen again. The Rams have lost three straight at home, but they'll be fired up for this one after advancing to 3-0-1 against NFCW foes in 2012.
Seattle heads to the Windy City, forced to pick itself up on the road against one of the NFL's dominant defenses. The 'Hawks provided us with a clear reminder why they shouldn't be trusted away from CenturyLink this weekend, and it'd be a miracle if they pulled one out in Chicago. Luckily, the Vikings and Bucs fell to 6-5 in Week 12, too. So, this isn't exactly a must-win for the 'Hawks to retain the NFC's No. 6 seed. But it's close.
Oh, Arizona. Finally, an offense that plays to your level. Mark Sanchez vs. Ryan Lindley? That may be what we see in Week 13 as the Cards head to New York to take on the Jets. With the Bears, Lions, 49ers and Seahawks the rest of the way, this may be 'Zona's last shot at another win in 2012.