By Brandon Burnett
Cold, Hard Football Facts Wizard of the NFC West (@B_Burnett49er)
Are they not the division we thought they were?
After a 21-14 loss to the Vikings on Sunday, Arizona has dropped three straight and is now a Week 8 defeat from reaching the halfway mark of their record in 2011 (8-8). The Seahawks (also 4-3) have just one convincing win under their belt and are now 0-3 in divisional games. Two of the Rams' three wins were over the Seahawks and Cardinals and they'll draw the Patriots and 49ers as their next two opponents.
Even the Niners, who now sit alone atop the division at 5-2, have suffered the occasional slip up.
On the bright side, the NFC West is home to four of the best defenses the NFL has to offer. And we all know a consistently good D is the ticket to staying competitive.
Not much in the way of the O, though. Not this week at least. The Rams' 20 points in their 30-20 loss to the Packers was the highest output of any NFCW offense in Week 7 and more than the 49ers and Seahawks (49ers won 13-6 on Thursday night) combined.
1. The Cardinals O-Line Continues to Kill What Was Once a Promising Season
You have to feel for Larry Fitzgerald.
Arizona was able to scrounge up a whopping (for their standards) 356 yards of offense against Minnesota, their highest single-game output of the season. LaRod Stephens-Howling's 104 rushing yards was the first time a Cardinals' ball-carrier eclipsed the 100-yard mark in 12 straight games.
Yet they scored just 14 points, and their All-Pro wideout was held to 29 yards on four catches.
Just as you might expect from an offensive line allowing 7.3 sacks per game in its last three outings, the Cards allowed seven takedowns of John Skelton, who was starting for the first time since his Week 1 injury. Make that 19 sacks allowed to just 33 points scored in the month of October (three games).
Those totals came against the Rams, Bills and Vikings—none of which would be classified as NFL powerhouses, despite Minnesota's impressive early-season run. But their next three opponents, as we covered in our Week 7NFC West Preview, fit the description quite well.
First, they draw San Francisco on Monday Night Football. San Fran has held three of their last four opponents without a touchdown. After that, it's a trip to Lambeau Field to see Aaron Rodgers (16 TD's in last four games) and the Packers. A bye week follows, but it's off to Atlanta to visit the currently-undefeated Falcons in the Georgia Dome right soon after.
2. AP Ran Wlid, But Cardinals' Pass Defense Gave The Team Plenty of Chances to Win.
So, Adrian Peterson got his yards. He got 153 of them to be exact, highlighted by a touchdown on the Vikings opening drive. Outside of AP, though, Minnesota couldn't do squat. Christian Ponder played what was probably the worst 60 minutes of his NFL career (8 of 17 for 58 yards, zero TD's and two interceptions) and the Vikes converted on just one of their 10 third-down attempts. They managed a measly 58 yards on 24 offensive plays in the second half.
Skelton gave the Vikings their only points of the final two quarters when he fired a pass into rookie safety Harrison Smith's chest, which he promptly returned the other way for six points without even bothering to say thank you on his way to the end zone.
The Cardinals' D came into Week 7 at No. 2 in Bendability for a reason. This unit (allowing 16.9 points per game) is light years ahead of the 2010 version that allowed 434 points (27.1 PPG) on the season and finished at No. 26 in Bendability (link contains final 2010 Bendability stats).
If Arizona can get its offense healthy over the offseason and add some pieces via free agency and the draft, they'd be better equipped to make a serious run for the NFC West crown. They're only a game out with a chance to draw even on Monday night, though, so perhaps I'm writing them off prematurely.
I suppose we'll hold off until Monday and make an assessment at the halfway mark of the season.
3. The Rams Picked a Terrible Time to Invite the Reigning MVP Into Their Dome
There is rarely an opportune time to assign your defense with the task of shutting down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' air attack. That said, facing it six days after mercilessly torching the Texans' vaunted defense (ranked No. 2 in Defensive Passer Rating heading into Week 6) for 338 yards and six touchdowns is basically an unconquerable assignment.
The Rams came into Week 7 at No. 5 in Defensive Passer Rating and the D hadn't allowed a touchdown inside the Edward Jones Dome in its last seven quarters. They left it with a 30-20 loss to the Cheeseheads and their DPR taking a considerable dent.
At the end of the day, Rodgers finished with a stat line of 30 for 37 with 343 yards and three touchdowns. Rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins struggled in pass coverage for a second straight week. According to the guys at Pro Football Focus, Jenkins allowed completions on all eight passes sent his way in Week 6. Rodgers masterfully exploited the youngster all game and Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb combined to catch 16 of the 17 targets they received, many of them in Jenkins' direction.
The Rams take on Tom Brady and the Pats at Wembley Stadium in London next Sunday. My, what luck they have.
4. The Scoreability Struggles Live On
Last week, Sam Bradford and the Rams piled up 492 total yards of offense and averaged 6.7 yards per play, but—like the Cardinals this week—scored just 14 points.
Against the Packers, St. Louis' offense went for at least 23 yards (including consecutive drives of 66 and 65 yards) on each of their four drives but were only able to come away with six points. It wasn't until well into the fourth quarter that the Rams punched it in the end zone. They did so impressively, drives of 80 and 77 yards, but Rodgers was far too locked in for it to matter.
Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson ran with purpose, and that purpose was to pulverize the opposition. The two-headed attack appeared to wear the Packers defense down, but a combined 20 carries wasn't enough to help keep Rodgers off the field.
St. Louis dropped 11 spots in Scoreability after its inefficient efforts in Week 6. Sitting at No. 24 heading into the Packers game with an average of 16.84 yards per point scored, Sunday's total of 17.7 YPPS was bad enough to hurt them even more.
5. Looking Ahead to Week 8
San Francisco's MNF date with the Cardinals is crucial for the Niners to stay atop the NFC West after regaining sole possession of the lead for the first time in 2012. Alex Smith has struggled for two straight weeks and Arizona's D is allowing an amazing low total of 117 passing yards per game (three games) since Dolphins' rookie QB Ryan Tannehill threw for 431 yards in Week 4.
The NFCW battle should be even more meaningful for the Cardinals, though. San Fran's defense is playing at an even higher level than their own, and a loss means falling two games back in the division race while facing the fact that you've followed up a 4-0 start with four straight losses.
Seattle will head to the Motor City to take on the Lions. The trip kicks off a stretch of five straight games against non-divisional opponents, including the Vikings, Jets and Bears. The competition won't be easy, but it's a welcome sight for a team that's undefeated outside the NFCW but winless against teams within it.
A trip to the U.K. could be good for the Rams, fresh off their first home loss of the season. A win over the Patriots would give St. Louis twice as many victories as they accumulated in 2011 and help build the fan base for returns to London in 2013 and 2014. New England isn't looking all that invincible after dropping one to the Seahawks in Week 5 and needing overtime to get past the Jets in Foxborough on Sunday, so don't be afraid to expect the unexpected.