By Brandon Burnett
Cold, Hard Football Facts Wizard of the NFC West (@B_Burnett49er)
Believe it or not, the NFC West has two teams in the thick of the NFC playoff race, and it appears as though they'll only be entrenching themselves deeper into the postseason picture this weekend.
The Seahawks are 7-5 and in sole possession of the No. 6 seed, while the 49ers are one and a half games ahead at 8-3-1—good for the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
After defeating San Francisco with under 30 seconds remaining in overtime last Sunday, even the Rams (5-6-1) have an outside chance of sneaking into a wild card spot.
All three of the aforementioned NFCW squads head into Week 14 with favorable matchups, particularly the 'Hawks and Niners. Seattle will host Arizona, the division's new doormat, having already won all five of its previous home games in 2012.
As for San Francisco, the Dolphins head to Candlestick Park to square off against a 49er team that is 6-0 following a loss or tie under Jim Harbaugh.
And the Rams, well the offense will finally get a bit of a break when it visits Buffalo this weekend. St. Louis' defense has put more points on the board than the offense over the past two weeks, but that looks to change against a Bills' D that is No. 29 in the NFL in Bendability.
1. The Miami Dolphins are going to have 99 problems on Sunday. (Dolphins vs. 49ers)
49ers' outside linebacker and NFL sack leader Aldon Smith has 17.5 sacks on the year and 13 in his last six games alone.
Jake Long, Miami's starting left tackle and former No. 1 overall draft pick, would've been tasked with neutralizing the seemingly unblockable No. 99 on Sunday, but the Dolphins just placed the four-time Pro Bowler on injured reserve with a torn triceps muscle.
Smith has often made a fool out of inexperienced or inadequate tackles throughout his short time in the league. Most notably, he tallied 5.5 sacks against Chicago in an effort that resulted in two Bears' starting lineman losing their jobs.
Johnathan Martin, Miami's rookie right tackle, will now slide to the left side. It's a move that bodes very well for Smith and his quest to break Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22.5 sacks.
The Dolphins are No. 27 in our Offensive Hog Index, proving that the O-line play hadn't been up to par even before Long's injury.
Now, a rookie lineman protecting a rookie quarterback's blind side against the NFL's sack leader? Ryan Tannehill is in for a rough afternoon. Even more so if the Dolphins fall behind early on.
According to Pro Football Focus, Martin has allowed a team-high 34 QB hurries in 2012. That's 23 more than right guard John Jerry, who is second among Dolphins' lineman. Only four tackles in the NFL have allowed more QB hurries than Martin, and two of them play in Arizona. Go figure.
You'll definitely want to keep your eyes glued to No. 99 when the 49ers' defense is on the field this weekend.
2. It should be smooth sailing for Seattle at home. (Cardinals vs. Seahawks)
The Seahawks are coming off a big road win over Chicago in Week 13. They were 1-5 in road games going into the game, so needless to say Seattle's 23-17 OT win over the Bears should serve as quite a confidence booster.
Now it's back at CenturyLink Field, a place where the 'Hawks feel, and basically are, invincible.
Russell Wilson has been doing everything necessary to force Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck to share the rookie QB spotlight, but he still gets little attention for what has been undeniably phenomenal play. Wilson has nine TD passes to zero interceptions over his last four games and finished with a passer rating of over 100 in each.
But the impressive and surprisingly resilient rookie won't need to do much this week.
Wilson will be able to simply sit back and watch his defense make a mockery of the worst offense in the NFL. Arizona is dead last in the league in Offensive Hog Index, Real Passing Yards per Attempt and Real Quarterback Rating. The Cards are also No. 29 in Scoreability.
Seattle, however, is No. 3 in Bendability, No. 5 in Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt and No. 9 in Defensive Passer Rating (fell from No. 3 in Week 13). One setback for the Seahawks is that Brandon Browner will miss the final four games of the season after violating the league's performance enhancing drug policy. Both he and fellow CB Richard Sherman appealed their suspensions, but Browner decided to drop his appeal on Wednesday.
Even so, the Cardinals offense is in shambles, and Seattle's second-team defense would likely keep AZ from scoring for 60 minutes. The Cards' D held the Jets to seven points last week and it still wasn't enough to end the team's eight-game slide.
3. The Cardinals are merely playing the role of spoiler at this point.
Nothing can save the Cardinals' season now, but that's not to say they can't help make someone else's path to the playoffs a little more difficult.
The way this season has gone, Arizona ending its eight-game losing streak and delivering the Seahawks their first home loss of the season wouldn't be all that shocking.
Who am I kidding.
Arizona's offensive output against the Jets last week was all kinds of bad. So bad, I'm not sure where to start in describing it. The Cardinals somehow managed to go 0-15 on third downs and converted just five first downs the entire game. In 54 snaps, they averaged 2.5 yards per play and crawled their way to 137 yards of offense.
Really? Against the Jets? Ken Whisenhunt should've started Ryan Lindley from day one, at least it would've ensured the Cardinals next year's No. 1 pick and first dibs at any QB they want. Then again, what good is a brand new quarterback if you've got no offensive line? Problems, problems.
A win in Seattle would ease the pain for a week, if nothing else.
4. It's time for the Rams to start helping out their point-producing defense. (Rams vs. Bills)
When I said the Rams' D had been scoring more than its offense lately, I was referring to one man in particular: Rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
The newbie has scored three touchdowns over the past two weeks. St. Louis didn't score a single touchdown on offense in the win over San Fran. Sam Bradford threw two TD passes in a 31-17 win over the hapless Cards a week prior, but Jenkins matched him score for score by returning two interceptions to the end zone.
For the Rams to get their offense back on track, they need to unleash a heavy dose of Steven Jackson. St. Louis has been doing exactly that, only against much tougher run defenses. The Bills are No. 28 in DHI and No. 31 in rushing yards against, allowing 4.91 yards per carry.
Jackson was able to stomp all over Arizona's defenses two weeks ago, gaining 139 yards on 24 carries. If given 24 carries against Buffalo, the damage will be even more extensive.
The Bills have a solid run game themselves, averaging 5.19 YPA behind an effective tandem of backs in C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. If the Rams plan on getting back to .500 and keeping their slim playoff hopes alive, containing Buffalo's duo of RB's and unleashing their own is a must.
5. Predicting Post-Week 14 NFCW Standings (1-2 in Week 13)
1. San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1) - An explanation probably isn't required here. In addition to Miami's issues across the O-line, the Dolphins are No. 25 in Scoreability. Given that the 49ers are No. 1 in Bendability, at home and coming off a loss, it's pretty clear where the advantage lies.
2. Seattle Seahawks (8-5) - Once again, this is a no-brainer. Seattle's defense is going to have a field day against Lindley and the Cardinals. Wilson can simply feed the beast that is Marshawn Lynch and let everything else sort itself out. After throwing the game-winning TD pass last week, he's earned it.
3. St. Louis Rams (6-6-1) - Unlike the other NFCW matchups this week, St. Louis and Buffalo may be a toss-up. The Bills are 5-2 against teams .500 or worse and 3-2 in home games. The Rams' Week 12 victory over AZ was their first road win of the season, but they managed to tie the 49ers the week before that. I'll take St. Louis.
4. Arizona Cardinals (4-9) - They've dropped eight in a row. Why stop now?