By Brandon Burnett
Cold, Hard Football Facts Wizard of the NFC West (@B_Burnett49er)
As the Cardinals and Rams fade further into the abyss, San Francisco and Seattle enter Week 12 with prime opportunities to better their positions in the NFC Playoff Standings.
The 49ers, who gobbled up the Bears Monday night to overtake the NFC's No. 2 seed, march into the Superdome Sunday for a meeting with Drew Brees and the Saints. At 7-2-1, the Niners sit comfortably atop the NFC West with a 1 1/2 game lead over the second-place Seahawks.
At 6-4, Seattle remains the NFC's No. 6 seed. The 'Hawks head to Miami attempting to improve a 1-4 road record and extend the Dolphins' losing streak to four games.
Lastly, Arizona hosts St. Louis in a divisional matchup of two teams still searching for their first win since they last met back in Week 5. The Cards and Rams have a combined 0-9-1 record in that span.
Here are five reasons to be excited that every NFCW game is on Sunday and not Thanksgiving, when your annual mid-day feast quietly guides you into a tryptophan-induced, football-neglecting coma.
1. Colin Kaepernick has apparently earned himself a second-straight start at QB. (49ers vs. Saints)
Colin Kaepernick could do no wrong against Chicago and its No. 1 pass defense in his first NFL start. The second-year signal-caller finished the day 16 of 23 (69.6%), for 243 yards, 10.6 YPA, 2 TDs, 0 INT and a golden 133.1 rating.
According to Sports Illustrated's Jim Trotter, Jim Harbaugh has notified Alex Smith it will be Kaepernick under center against the Saints, and the decision is not related to Smith's health (suffered a concussion in Week 10 and has not yet been medically cleared to play).
It's an interesting decision, but with Harbaugh you never know what's going down until you see it in action. Maybe he's ready to hand the reigns to "the Kapper" full time. It was only one start, but tearing apart the Bears defense on MNF is no easy feat. And he looked pretty damn poised while doing it.
Or, Harbaugh wants to see how Kaepernick performs in a hostile environment while waiting for medical clearance on Smith before making a long-term decision.
Either way, the 49ers have the NFL's No. 1 ground game (165 yards per game and 5.48 YPC), which is any QB's (especially an inexperienced one) best friend. The Saints are No. 31 against the run (allowing 5.04 YPC), so they knew they would have their hands full no matter who the 49ers put under center.
Brees has been scorching hot as of late, and the Niners will enter a hostile Superdome filled with energized fans wanting to see their team win its fourth straight game. Keeping the All-Pro gunslinger on the sidelines with a clock-draining rushing attack will be key.
Then again, the 49ers are No. 3 in Offensive Passer Rating, and the Saints are No. 31 in Defensive Passer Rating. Whether the 49ers have Kaepernick or Smith in at QB, it does not appear their ranking in OPR will take a hit in Week 12.
The Saints on the other hand, must deal with a dominant 49er defense that is allowing just 13.4 PPG, ranks No. 1 in Bendability and Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt and is No. 4 in DPR.
2. This is a road game Seattle can't afford to lose, but probably will. (Seahawks vs. Dolphins)
The Seahawks are on a two-game win streak, but the excitement level has been tempered given that both victories came at home. Seattle has no problem sending its 12th man home happy (5-0 at CenturyLink Field), but it carries a disappointing 1-4 road record into Sun Life Stadium Sunday.
We've discussed the Seahawks' road woes many times, and for good reason. Seattle is 1-3 away from home against teams with a losing record. The one win was by four points over the 2-8 Panthers.
The defense is holding its own on the road, allowing just 18.4 points per game. Russell Wilson and the offense have been a different story.
The Seahawks are scoring just 15 PPG on the road, and Wilson has just four TD passes to eight interceptions. They've lost to all three road opponents that rank inside the top 10 of our Defensive Hog Index, where the Dolphins are No. 6. Miami is also No. 6 in Bendability and No. 10 in Defensive Passer Rating.
If the 'Hawks can't pull this one out, though, I've got no clue how they'll emerge victorious in Week 13 at Chicago. Even after getting thrashed by Kaepernick and the Niners, the Bears are in the top five of every defensive Quality Stat.
If Seattle plans to ditch the road blues and transform into a legitimate playoff team, it has to start here.
3. The Rams could actually tie for the second time this season. (Rams vs. Cardinals)
Face it, these teams have completely forgotten how to win.
St. Louis had several chances to claim victory in San Francisco two weeks ago, but went completely brain dead in every clutch moment of the game. The offense seemed to make strides with Danny Amendola returning, but went stagnant against the Jets at home in Week 11.
This is one of those games where both teams are playing so badly you feel inclined to go with whoever's at home. Well, that'd be Arizona, but Ken Whisenhunt has anointed rookie and sixth-round pick Ryan Lindley as this week's starter due to John Skelton's ineffectiveness. That sort of midseason moves tends to temper expectations a bit, but it's not as if it could get much worse.
The Cardinals finished with a historically low 1.5 passing yards per attempt against the Falcons in Week 11 despite benefiting from its defense forcing six turnovers. 13 of their 19 points came on drives that went no further than nine yards apiece.
Kevin Kolb threw for 289 yards in 'Zona's first meeting with St. Louis, but ended up with only a field goal in a 17-3 loss. Sam Bradford completed just 33 percent of his passes, but found the end zone twice.
Even on the road, this looks better for the Rams than it does the Cardinals. There is a definitive edge on offense for St. Louis with Bradford and Steven Jackson in the backfield. Arizona has Larry Fitzgerald, but no O-line and no QB. They are, however, No. 2 in DPR. So that pesky Cards' pass defense could neutralize any momentum the Rams create.
Screw it, we'll call it a draw. This game is at least going to overtime. Bet on it.
4. Can Aldon Smith break Michael Strahan's single-season sack record?
Aldon Smith recorded as many sacks (5 1/2) in one game Monday night as Buffalo's Mario Williams (signed 6-year, $96 million deal in offseason) has all season.
With 29 sacks in 26 career games, the sixth overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft is averaging a hair over a sack per game. In 2012, he's now hauled in a league-leading 15 sacks in 10 games.
To break Michael Strahan's single-season NFL record of 22 1/2 sacks, Aldon would need 7 1/2 over the 49ers final six games.
SF's season finale will be home against the Cardinals. Arizona has allowed 10 more sacks (44) than any other NFL team through 10 games. No. 99 tacked two more onto his total in the first matchup.
Adding to his tally will be a tough task for Aldon this week, as New Orleans has only allowed 16 all year. New England, the 49ers Week 15 opponent, has only given up 15.
In addition to seeing Arizona once more, the Niners travel to St. Louis (26 sacks allowed) in Week 13 and host Miami (21 sacks allowed) after that.
It may come down to Week 17 against Arizona, but there's definitely a chance this is the year Strahan's sack record falls, with it being Aldon Smith who tears it down.
5. Predicting Post-Week 12 NFCW Standings (2-1 in Week 11)
1. San Francisco 49ers (8-2-1)
Getting pressure on Brees will be key, but it won't be as easy for the 49ers as it's been in recent weeks. New Orleans is a dangerous team no matter how bad its defense may be, but SF has been firing on all cylinders offensively, too. Kaepernick and Smith can both get the job done, and in different ways. The 49ers No. 1 defense will give up some points, but their offense will score more.
2. Seattle Seahawks (7-4)
I'm absolutely on the fence with this one. I hate placing my trust into Seattle in any road game, but Miami was just held to three points against the Titans and 14 against Buffalo. If the Seahawks can't outscore that bad of an offense with the defense they have, they'll never be trusted away from home again.
3. Arizona Cardinals (4-6-1)
I said it and I'm sticking to it. The Rams and Cardinals will tie in Week 12. St. Louis has burned me twice in a row between tying the 49ers and flopping against the Jets, so what's one more? At least if it does happen I can forever claim to be the guy that predicted a tie in the NFL. That'd be like the second-coolest thing that's ever happened to me. Really.
4. St. Louis Rams (3-6-2)
The first NFL team to ever tie twice in one season! I'll drink to that.