By Brandon Burnett
Cold, Hard Football Facts Wizard of the NFC West (@B_Burnett49er)
By now, football fans around the country are well aware the NFC West is home to a pair of the NFL's most dominating defenses. We've seen the 49ers smother Matthew Stafford and the Lions air attack on Sunday Night Football, and the Seahawks did the same to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Monday Night Football.
The undefeated Cardinals will travel to St. Louis to battle the Rams on Thursday night, and one of the division's best kept secrets is about to be let out.
These two can play some D, too.
1. The Edward Jones Dome is Arizona's Home Away From Home
The NFC West is 8-0 in home games this year, with the Rams contributing two of those victories. That said, the Cardinals have a nice little streak on the line Thursday night. They've pulled off seven straight wins in St. Louis.
Focusing directly on Thursday night's matchup, we aren't expecting much of what everybody seems to love these days: offense.
St. Louis held the Seahawks to 13 points last week, and Seattle actually has a running game. Arizona does not. They've tried to pound the rock 101 times so far in this young season, but have only managed 2.7 yards per carry. The Cardinals could very well be forced into relying on the pass against the Rams.
Therein lies a potential problem.
St. Louis is No. 1 in CHFF's Defensive Passer Rating, having allowed just two passing touchdowns in four games. The Rams have eight interceptions, too, good for the second highest total in the league. Arizona's rookie right tackle Bobby Massie was embarrassed last week, allowing four sacks and many more hurries against the Dolphins' Cameron Wake.
For Arizona to have success in the passing game, Kevin Kolb has to get the ball out quick and avoid making foolish decisions. He threw his first two picks of the year last week, and we've seen what happens when Kolb's confidence begins to dwindle.
If the Rams can upset the undefeated Cardinals at home, parity in the NFC West will have reached an all-time high.
2. The 49ers Musn't Overlook Buffalo's Aerial Attack
San Francisco is not an easy team to beat when they're at home. They're 8-1 in regular season home games under Jim Harbaugh, and all eight wins have been by at least a touchdown.
With Buffalo coming to town, the 49ers dominant run game is set up for a huge day against a defense that isn't quite sure what stopping the run means. The Bills are allowing 137 rushing yards per game this year at a rate of 4.9 yards per attempt. They've also given up six TD's to opposing ball-carriers.
The 49ers should be able to score some points on Sunday, but San Fran's defensive front will have to get consistent pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick to prevent the Bills from keeping pace. Fitzpatrick has 12 TD's in four games, and Buffalo has scored 24 points or more every week.
The Niners are fresh off a shutout over the hapless Jets, but this is an entirely different offense.
For one, the Bills can actually run the ball. With Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, they run it pretty damn well. No defense can stuff an opponent's rushing attack like the 49ers, but they'll have to spend some extra time this week studying Buffalo's dynamic ground game.
If that causes them to overlook Fitzpatrick and the passing game, we may have an unlikely high-scoring affair brewing in the Bay Area.
3. Seattle Can't Be Trust on the Road, Not Even Against the Panthers
What is it with this team? As impressive as the two home wins over the Packers and Cowboys were, two road losses against divisional teams have been just as disappointing.
If you want to punch your ticket to the postseason, you have to at least show you can win games away from home.
The Seahawks just aren't doing that.
It'll be particularly interesting to see how Cam Newton performs against this Seattle D. The Panthers are No. 1 in the NFL in Real Passing Yards per Attempt, but the Seahawks are No. 3 in Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt and No. 7 in Defensive Passer Rating.
But the Falcons were No. 2 in Defensive Passer Rating heading into Week 4, and that didn't stop Newton from throwing two TD's and posting a passer rating of 119.3 on the day. Carolina nearly sank Atlanta on the road, and they're desperate for a win.
Expect them to get one on Sunday.
4. The NFC West Will Continue To Put on a Defensive Clinic
If it wasn't for the Rams ranking 17th in Bendability, the NFC West would have all four teams in the top half of every defensive Quality Stat there is. Arizona, San Francisco and Seattle are each allowing less than 17 points per game, and St. Louis isn't far behind.
It's no fluke, folks. This division is legit, and it all starts with an extremely physical approach on defense.
How else would the lowest-scoring division in the NFC have at least two more victories than any other division?
5. Predicting Post-Week 5 NFC West Standings
1. Arizona Cardinals (5-0)
St. Louis will have every chance to win Thursday's game, but the magic will continue for the Cards instead. The Rams haven't exactly established themselves as a dominant team, but they've been competing. If Arizona comes out on top, they have to be considered as a legit playoff contender.
2. San Francisco 49ers (4-1)
The Niners had no trouble getting back on track last week, and they now have three straight home games ahead of them. San Fran should use their powerful ground game to steamroll the Bills, but there will be chances to open up the passing attack if they choose to do so. Buffalo may surprise with a couple of touchdowns, but they won't come away with a win.
3. St. Louis Rams (2-3)
Thursday's game against the Cardinals presents itself as a potential turning point for the Rams' season. Win, and you're no more than a game out of first. Lose, and you're three games back. I'm expecting the latter, but it won't be by much.
4. Seattle Seahawks (2-3)
Outside of a Week 3 stinker against the defending champion Giants, the Panthers have played some respectable football. Newton will come up big for Carolina in this one, dropping the Hawks' to 2-3. With games against the Patriots and 49ers to follow, a loss here could set Seattle back substantially.