By Brandon Burnett
Cold, Hard Football Facts Wizard of the NFC West (@B_Burnett49er)
Dashon Goldson's bone-crunching hit on Cardinals' receiver Early Doucet summed up the entire evening rather well.
San Francisco ball-carriers ran freely, Alex Smith came a dropped pass shy of perfection, and the 49ers' extremely efficient defense brutalized Arizona's offense from start to finish in a 24-3 beatdown in the desert.
It was the fourth game in five weeks the Niners allowed three points or less, and their +86 point differential in 2012 is the NFC's best.
Let's do our best to consume what went down on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium before eventually assessing the condition of the NFC West.
1. Alex Smith and the Passing Game Conquered One of the NFL's Top Pass Defenses
Before Monday night, the Cardinals were the No. 2 team in CHFF's Defensive Passer Rating.
That is no longer the case.
Smith converted on 18 of his 19 pass attempts, good for 232 yards and three scores. Had Delanie Walker not flubbed a catchable pass early in the second quarter, he would've been perfect. He more than made up for the drop, however, with an insane sideline catch of a pass that was tipped into the air by a defender.
Nonetheless, the Niners' QB finished with a passer rating of 157.1 and averaged 12.2 yards per attempt. Not to mention he did it on the road and against one of the top defenses in the league.
Of course, it does help when you have Frank Gore and the NFL's top rushing attack pounding away at will.
But it wasn't so much what Smith was doing that got Arizona in trouble in pass defense. San Fran's receivers were fantastic after the catch. Michael Crabtree had Patrick Peterson on his heels all night, churning out numerous third-down conversions on plays that should've been short gains. Crabtree finished with seven catches for 72 yards and two TDs, including a brilliant grab over Peterson in the end zone.
Peterson's ugly performance could go down as the worst of his young NFL career, but he wasn't the only Cardinals' defender looking foolish Monday night.
Randy Moss even got in on the action, taking his only catch of the day 47 yards for a score, leaving several defenders in the dust on his way to paydirt. Moss hauled in the pass on the sideline, made a slick move inside, busted through a weak Paris Lenon arm tackle and hit an extra gear to outrun Sam Acho into the end zone.
The 49ers' offense has been pulling somewhat of a Jekyll and Hyde act this season. In games like this, they've been able to control the tempo with an overpowering running game and timely third-down conversions. But in other weeks, they've strayed from the ground game and completely stalled any production.
Either way, Monday night was clearly the former.
2. Arizona Better Pack Its Slip-Resistant Shoes For the Road
Few were really buying in to Arizona's 4-0 start, but this clearly isn't the same team that upset the Patriots in Foxborough Week 2.
A bye week will offer some time to regroup, but that won't come until after a Week 9 trip to face a red-hot Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field. Not exactly a prime opportunity for the defense to regain its composure.
After the bye, it's off to Atlanta.
The easier half of Arizona's season has passed, and now they'll be swimming upstream from here on out just to stay in the playoff race. Hell, an NFCW crown seems out of the question at this point, and if the division were to send two teams to the postseason, it's looking like it won't be the Cardinals or the Rams.
3. Do the 49ers Have the NFL's Best Defense?
They hit. They have playmakers in the secondary. They get after the quarterback. They smother opposing run games.
They're allowing a league-low 12.9 points per game.
So, who can compete with that? Well, the Chicago Bears can. The Niners have nothing on their six defensive scores, or their 23 takeaways over seven games. But with five of their interception returns coming against the Jaguars, Panthers and Cowboys, it's clear the Bears D has been feeding off the weak.
Still, the two defenses are pretty close to even right now. Chicago is allowing 14.3 PPG, which is exactly where the 49ers were at heading into Monday night. The Bears came into Week 8 No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating, with the Niners at No. 3.
The Bears are also tops in Bendability and the Defensive Hog Index, no easy feat.
So, for now, let's call it a draw, leaving the two to settle the score in their Week 11 Monday night matchup at Candlestick Park.
4. Only the Seahawks Can Loosen the Niners NFC West Stranglehold
You have to wonder if the ineptitude of Arizona's offense is simply laying too strong of a burden on its defense. Costly offensive turnovers in recent weeks have doomed them in close games, and the run defense seems to spring a bigger leak each week.
Now they'll face Rodgers and Matt Ryan in consecutive games after Smith and the 49ers inconsistent passing attack picked them apart. An NFC West title has never seemed so far away.
The same could be said for the Rams, who've dropped three straight after a 3-2 start.
And the Seahawks? They've dropped their last two, but are probably the only team capable of keeping the divisional race, well, a race. Of course, having an 0-3 record in the division all but guarantees the 'Hawks will have to win the division outright. But is that possible?
Likely? No. But possible? It just may be.
Seattle plays five of their final eight games at CenturyLink Field, a place where they're 3-0 in 2012. Remaining road games in Buffalo and Miami could be had, though a Week 13 trip to Chicago won't be fun.
Say, worst-case scenario, San Francisco finishes the season 3-5 and goes 9-7 on the year. Can Seattle win six of their next eight to finish 10-6? They would only need to match the Niners record if San Fran lost their final four divisional games, but how realistic is that?
This isn't baseball, a two-game deficit in a 16-game season can be more insurmountable than it seems at first glance. The Seahawks and Cardinals are staring at exactly that. The Rams have an even bigger hole to dig out of.
5. Where Do We Go From Here?
It's back home for San Francisco and St. Louis. Both NFCW squads will be idle in Week 9, but you can bet they'll be seeing a lot of each other during the time off.
On game film, that is.
St. Louis will head west to meet the Niners in Week 10, their first battle of the year. The Rams have only one win over San Francisco in their past eight attempts, but a road upset like this would be a huge step for Jeff Fisher's young squad.
As previously mentioned, the Cardinals head to Green Bay for a Sunday matchup with the Packers at 1 p.m. EST. The two teams haven't met since Kurt Warner led Arizona to a 51-45 overtime win in the 2009 NFC wild card game. Rodgers has 18 TD passes in his last five games, and the Pack have won four of them.
Seattle returns home from a Week 8 loss to host the 5-3 Vikings on Sunday. These two haven't met since the 2009 season, either, when Minnesota won 35-9. I'd be shocked to see the 'Hawks even allow 20 points in this one. If Seattle can pull out a win in Week 9, the 3-4 Jets come to town in Week 10, and two straight victories could spring this team to a solid second half.