By Brandon Burnett
Cold, Hard Football Facts Wizard of the NFC West (@B_Burnett49er)
The NFC West invades Thursday Night Football for second time in three weeks as the Niners prepare to host Russell Wilson and the red-hot Seahawks in a Week 7 primetime divisional showdown with major early playoff implications.
The Cardinals, who share a three-way tie for the division lead with the Hawks and Niners, will be forced to hand the keys back to the QB that began the year as the starter, John Skelton, after losing Kevin Kolb to a nasty rib injury on Sunday.
Arizona will take its anemic offense into the Metrodome to face the Vikings on Sunday afternoon in an attempt get back in the win column, while St. Louis hosts Aaron Rodgers and the Packers fresh off a 42-24 thrashing of the formerly undefeated Texans.
A couple quick NFC West fun facts before we get started...
- The entire AFC has two teams (Ravens and Texans) over .500. The NFCW has three.
- All four NFCW teams have the same record as their Week 7 opponent.
- The Cardinals (97), Seahawks (93) and 49ers (94) are three of just four NFL teams that have yet to allow 100 points in 2012. The Bears are only the other team (71), but have played one less game.
1. Battle For NFC West Supremacy Comes Down to the Ground Game
The goal for each squad in Thursday night's battle between the Niners and Seahawks should be simple: gain more rushing yards than your opponent.
Seriously, their last six meetings, the team that won the rushing battle emerged victorious all six times. And only once did the winner out-pass its opponent (49ers did in a 19-17 nail-biter Week 16 last season).
For the 49ers in particular, the running game is vital to success. San Fran has put up an eye-popping amount of yards per game (223) in their four wins, yet got away from the run in both losses (84.5 YPG). What's puzzling is the 49ers averaged 4.56 yards per carry in their two defeats but only called 37 run plays as opposed to 81 pass plays in those games.
Seattle, on the other hand, managed to upset the Patriots in Week 6 despite getting just 2.7 YPC from Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch. The Seahawks placed their fate into Russell Wilson's hands and he came through with 297 yards and three TD's, including two in the final eight minutes of the game.
Of course, it's much easier to throw against New England (No. 27 in Defensive Passer Rating) than San Francisco (No. 9 in DPR), so Beast Mode will be needed to effectively wear down a 49ers defense that's No. 6 in Rushing Yards Allowed per Attempt.
It may not pertain to the Hawks as much in other matchups, but history proves that for these two, the ground game rules.
2. Difficult Three-Game Stretch Is Going to Make or Break the Rams' Season
It's time to find out if Jeff Fisher's revitalized Rams can hang with the big dogs.
Despite a disappointing three-point loss to the Dolphins last week, St. Louis (3-3) already has more wins than in all of 2011, and more importantly, have been competitive in all but one game this year.
With Green Bay coming to the Edward Jones Dome this week, the Rams kick off a three-game stretch against teams who finished a combined 41-7 last season. They'll stay home to face New England next week, followed by a Week 9 bye and a trip to San Francisco in Week 10.
The O-line will need to step up to the plate if the Rams expect to keep pace with the stiff competition. The unit ranks No. 28 in CHFF's Offensive Hog Index. With the NFC's sack leader in Clay Matthews (eight sacks in six games) coming to town this Sunday, pass protection will be crucial.
You can't knock the performance on D, though. This "Ram Tough" D ranks in the Top 10 of every defensive Quality Stat.
Whatever happens, the Rams remarkable improvement over last year can't be denied. St. Louis was 0-6 at this point in 2011 with a point differential of -115. As it stands in 2012, they're basically as even (110 points for to 111 points against) as their 3-3 record in that regard.
3. Someone Pressed Pause on the Kevin Kolb Era Again
Really, it was only a matter of time.
After succumbing to defenders to the tune of 22 sacks in a three-game span, it seemed like a given that some bone in Kevin Kolb's battered body was going to give way sooner than later. Ironically enough, the hit that separated several of his ribs from his sternum was a designed run in which RB William Powell went the wrong way and left Kolb and his iffy improvisational skills to fend for themselves.
On the bright side, at least he won't become a victim of the terror Jared Allen is expecting to unleash this Sunday.
Nope, it's the John Skelton show in the desert for the second time this season, and judging by what we saw in the final minutes of the Cardinals Week 6 overtime loss to the Bills, this losing streak may turn into a painfully elongated experience. Skelton went 2 for 10 in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, and his OT pick was what ultimately ended the Cards streak of five straight wins when going to OT at home.
Kolb is expected to miss 6-8 weeks and rookie third-string QB Ryan Lindley is now left to back up Skelton. Unless the Cardinals sixth-round pick in this year's draft is the second coming of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr., the O-line is going to have to find a way to keep Skelton upright.
It certainly doesn't get any easier after this week. After Minnesota, it's a Monday Night matchup with the 49ers followed by trips to Green Bay and Atlanta. Luckily, a bye week follows the Week 9 trip to Lambeau Field, but a rematch with the Rams and road games against the Jets and Seahawks remain before Kolb's return if he were to miss eight weeks of action.
After they navigate through that mess, the Cards close the season with the Lions, Bears and 49ers.
Buckle up, Cardinals fans. If you haven't already.
4. Where Are Those Elite Quarterbacks We're Always Hearing About?
Defense, as you probably know, has been a common theme for the NFC West all season. The Cardinals, Seahawks and 49ers are all allowing right around 16 points per game, and the Rams aren't far behind at 18.5.
Seattle and San Fran have been extremely successful in run defense, but the entire division has been stifling passing attacks all year. And some potent ones, at that.
For starters, every NFCW team is in the Top 10 of Defensive Passer Rating. The Niners and Hawks each have victories over Rodgers and the Packers, with the Rams trying to join the club on Sunday. The Cardinals flustered Tom Brady long enough to come away with a 20-18 win in Week 3 and four of Matt Stafford's five interceptions in 2012 fell into the hands of NFCW defenders.
Eli Manning took down the Niners on Sunday, but it was the first time he failed to reach 200 yards since Week 14 of 2010 and his 53.6 completion percentage was his lowest since Week 16 in 2011 against Darelle Revis and the Jets.
No one around here is calling Cam Newton an elite QB, but his stat line against Seattle (12 for 29, 141 yards, 0 TD) was the worst of his two-year career in terms of completion percentage and passing yards.
Anyway, the NFCW isn't finished flustering these so-called superior signal-callers quite yet. The Packers take on St. Louis this week and Arizona in Week 9. The Cards and Seahawks each get their chance to further Stafford's struggles late in the year, and the Niners still have dates with Brady's Pats and Brees' Saints left on the schedule, too. I suppose we should include Arizona's Week 9 meeting with Matt Ryan and the Falcons while we're at it.
5. Predicting Post-Week 7 NFCW Standings (1-3 in Week 6)
1. San Francisco 49ers (5-2)
The Niners broke down in the second half on Sunday, while Russell Wilson was busy carrying the Seahawks to a second straight win. That said, San Fran is 4-0 and outscoring opponents 93-11 in games following a loss under Jim Harbaugh. Expect a low-scoring game, and if Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley, who is the 49ers top run blocker, can't suit up due to a concussion suffered in Week 6, it could make life much easier for Seattle's already stout run defense.
2. Arizona Cardinals (4-3)
Things are going south in a hurry in the desert with no reprieve in sight. The Vikings are no longer an easy out and Arizona's offense was in shambles before Kevin Kolb got hurt. Minnesota is outscoring opponents 80-43 in three home games and the Cards' last road trip resulted in a 17-3 loss to the Rams. Patrick Peterson and the rest of the defense will have to come up big in this one.
3. Seattle Seahawks (4-3)
Pete Carroll's bunch is playing tough football, no doubting that. If they can top San Fran at the Stick, Jim Harbaugh's reign of the division will be in serious jeopardy. The Seahawks will probably be favored when the Niners head to their place, but no such luck here.
4. St. Louis Rams (3-4)
Week 7 could be the start of a long finish to the season in St. Louis. The Rams are 3-0 at home in 2012, but it's hard to imagine them stopping both the Packers and the Patriots in consecutive weeks. In saying that, neither team will get out easy and if they overlook this squad, they'll end up regretting it.