By Brandon Burnett
Cold, Hard Football Facts Wizard of the NFC West (@B_Burnett49er)
Are we really heading into Week 11 right now?
At this point last season, the 49ers were 8-1 and lapping every team in the NFC West. Fast forward to present time, and San Francisco is once again atop the division, only this time not by such a large margin.
Seattle, who is closing in on the 6-2-1 Niners at 6-4, gets a week off. The Cardinals are back in action, heading to Atlanta having not won a game since September 30. And St. Louis will host the Jets in a matchup featuring two struggling squads that haven't tasted victory in over a month.
Here are five things to keep your eye on in Week 11.
1. The NFL's top two defenses are about to duke it out for our viewing pleasure. (Bears vs. 49ers)
The Chicago Bears are No. 1 in Bendability. The San Francisco 49ers are No. 2.
Does it get any better than that?
I love great defensive matchups. So, naturally, this game is going to be a little slice of football heaven for me. San Francisco's D is packed full of heavy hitters, and the Bears, featuring Charles Tillman and his "peanut punch", have been forcing turnovers at a ridiculous pace.
Chicago has 19 interceptions (seven returned for touchdowns) and 17 forced fumbles in nine games—including four by Tillman alone in Week 9. In addition to leading the league in Bendability, these QB killers are tops in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and Defensive Passer Rating.
Offensively, each team's signal-caller suffered a concussion in Week 10 that ended his day.
Alex Smith is reportedly on track to start Monday night, but Jay Cutler's status isn't as promising. Cutler threw five interceptions at Candlestick Park in a 10-6 loss three years ago, and Smith's evening didn't go a whole lot better. Expect more of the same for any quarterback that starts Monday's matchup.
2. The Cardinals are the inferior bird this week. (Cardinals vs. Falcons)
Way back in Week 3, when all was well in Arizona, the Cardinals de-feathered the Eagles in convincing fashion. The defense forced three turnovers and scored a TD, and the offensive line only allowed three sacks.
Then things started to get ugly.
The O-line surrendered nine sacks to Miami the following week, and has been No. 32 in our Offensive Hog Index ever since. Arizona is also No. 30 in Negative Pass Play Percentage and 3rd down percentage.
Now Ken Whisenhunt's crew must find a way to right the ship in Atlanta Sunday, a place where Matt Ryan and the Falcons are 4-0 in 2012 and 17-3 in their last 20 games. After losing a nail-biter to the Saints last week, though, Atlanta is undefeated no more.
Even so, at 8-1, winning remains a very familiar feeling. Obviously that isn't the case for Arizona, who will noticeably reek of failure the second they step foot in the Georgia Dome. The Cardinals are No. 32 in Rushing Yards per Attempt (3.41), No. 27 in Scoreability and No. 30 in Real Quarterback Rating.
Before Drew Brees and the Saints dropped 31 on Atlanta last week, its defense was allowing 17.9 points per game. The Cardinals have only managed 10.6 PPG during their five-game losing streak.
It'll take a monumental performance from Arizona's defense for the Cards to sneak away with a win.
3. Finally, someone the Rams can beat up on. (Jets vs. Rams)
The New York "Freak Show" Jets bring their circus act to St. Louis this weekend, and my guess is Cortland Finnegan and the Rams' defense couldn't be happier.
Once sitting at No. 6 in Defensive Passer Rating through three games, St. Louis is now No. 18 in DPR. Of course, three straight games against QB's in the top five of the NFL in passer rating can have that effect.
Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady helped drop a combined 75 points on the Rams in consecutive weeks, and Alex Smith was 7-for-8 with 78 yards and a TD (143.8 passer rating) before exiting in the second quarter. Of course, St. Louis being without rookie Janoris Jenkins, who was suspended along with WR Chris Givens for violating team rules, didn't help.
The problems of the past can be washed away this week, though, when Mark Sanchez stumbles into the Edward Jones Dome Sunday. The Jets are No. 30 in Real Passing Yards per Attempt and Offensive Passer Rating, and No. 31 in Real Quarterback Rating.
If there was ever an offense to get the Rams' D back on track, it's this one. They'll get Jenkins back, but who knows if that's a good thing considering how atrocious he's been been over the past month.
With Danny Amendola back on offense, St. Louis should continue to move the ball like they did before he broke his collarbone. With a little help on D, the Rams should be able to notch their fourth win of 2012.
4. How will the 49ers bounce back from a tie?
We know San Francisco, under Jim Harbaugh, plays phenomenal football following a loss.
But what about a tie?
For both the Rams and Niners, tying felt painfully similar to losing. They'd both been idle the week prior, so the desire for the W had been burning for a fortnight for each squad. Yet, no victory would be had.
The Jets know first hand what it's like facing the Niners after a loss. They were on the receiving end of a 34-0 lashing San Fran dished out a week after what, at the time, seemed like a huge upset loss to the Vikings.
The 49ers' defense has allowed 24 points or more three times in 2012, with the third being to St. Louis last week. The D held opposing offenses without a touchdown for the next eight quarters after each of the first two. Chicago could be without Jay Cutler, and scored just six points against Houston in Week 10.
In five games following a loss under Harbaugh's lead, this team is 5-0 and outscoring opponents by an average score of 19-3. The Bears may be No. 1 in Scoreability, but a large part of that is thanks to seven defensive touchdowns and an extremely weak first-half schedule.
Chicago has only one win over a quality opponent in 2012, which was Week 1 against the Colts. If the 49ers truly treat a tie as a loss, the Bears are in big trouble.
5. Predicting Post-Week 11 NFCW Standings
1. San Francisco 49ers (7-2-1)
With or without Cutler, I see the Bears dropping their second straight game. They've piled on against weak opponents, scoring 51 against Tennessee, 41 against Jacksonville and 34 against Dallas, but are a complete mess offensively against talented defenses. Not only are the 49ers a talented defense, they are an angry, talented defense. Lovie Smith won't like the 49ers when they're angry.
2. Seattle Seahawks (6-4)
Rest up, Seattle. Three road games in the next month will be brutal. An 0-3 record in the NFC West leaves little room for error.
3. St. Louis Rams (4-5-1)
Finally, the Rams climb out of the NFCW cellar. It's been a tough stretch, but a beatdown of the Jets will have this team feeling good about itself again. St. Louis draws Arizona in Week 12, so now is the time to put together a little winning streak before hosting the Niners in Week 13 with a chance to put that tie in the past.
4. Arizona Cardinals (4-6)
Arizona's losing streak is far from over. The Cardinals will have had two weeks to prepare for Atlanta come Sunday, but the offensive line will still look the same, and John Skelton will again throw for around 300 yards yet fail to put points on the board. With no running game to speak of, he'll probably put up 45+ pass attempts for the third straight game.