By Brandon Burnett
Cold, Hard Football Facts Wizard of the NFC West (@B_Burnett49er)
What did we learn about the NFC West in Week 8?
Well, the 49ers and Cardinals still have to duke it out in the desert Monday night, but it became evident on Sunday that neither the Rams, nor the Seahawks, are serious contenders in 2012.
A San Francisco win over Arizona would bring the reigning NFC West champs to 6-2, two games ahead of their nearest challenger.
We weren't expecting a playoff-caliber season out of the Rams quite yet. But Seattle, who soared out to a 4-2 start after toppling the Patriots in Week 6, seemed to be on to bigger and better things this year.
Seattle just doesn't have the same sizzle away from home, and that proved true once again in a 28-24 loss to the Detroit Lions. Pete Carroll's crew will be busy searching for answers this week, sitting at a mediocre 4-4 overall with an 0-3 record in the division.
As for the Rams, they were far from OK in the U.K. this weekend. St. Louis fell 45-7 in the NFL's annual regular-season visit to Wembley Stadium in London. Figuring the trek wasn't worth the trouble, St. Louis' uncharacteristically porous defense allowed Tom Brady and the Pats to score touchdowns on each of their first five drives of the game.
We're still expecting a slugfest Monday night, but the play from Seattle and St. Louis in Week 8 did not meet the high standard of defensive play the NFCW has set for itself in 2012.
Let's look at five things we learned from Sunday's NFCW action.
1. Seattle's Road Woes Live On
You haven't heard this often in 2012, or at all, really, but feel free to dump the blame on the Seahawks' defense for this loss.
No, not because the unit allowed a game-winning touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Titus Young with 20 seconds remaining in the game. It's what put them in position to give up that TD that's particularly troubling.
The Seahawks' D allowed an offense that was No. 23 heading into Week 7 in converting third downs to succeed on 12 of their 16 third-down attempts Sunday. As a result, Seattle only held the ball for 25 minutes and 17 seconds. Never mind that the unusually efficient offense put up 24 points and averaged 6.8 yards per play; the defense just couldn't get them the ball enough.
That fact couldn't have been more evident than when Detroit manufactured their 16-play, 80-yard scoring drive to drain the final five minutes of the game. The ability to do so ensured that a lively Seattle offense couldn't fire back with a last-minute drive.
Any time you hold Megatron to three catches for 46 yards, you typically expect to come away with a win.
In defense of Seattle's lack of defense, Stafford's passes were more precise than they've been all year. Lions' receivers not named Calvin Johnson were making some big-time plays, too. But the inability to pressure the QB consistently was a key to Stafford's big day, one in which he threw for 352 yards and three TDs—and running for another.
Cornerback Richard Sherman—who dubbed himself "Optimus Prime" via Twitter this past week—may have helped keep Megatron in check, but it was his soft coverage that allowed Titus Young to get over the top for a 46-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter.
The Lions were at home and desperate for a season-changing victory. Wilson and the offense did their part to deny them of one, but the defense was unprepared for a Detroit passing attack that needed just a small spark to ignite.
Within two weeks' time, any magic lingering from a Week 6 upset win over the Patriots has completely evaporated.
2. Hello, Bye Week!
By no means did the Rams earn this week off. Not once in their 14-loss 2011 season did St. Louis lose by such a wide margin.
Chris Givens' 50-yard TD pass from Sam Bradford gave the Rams a 7-0 lead and something to build on, but a string of punts in addition to a surprisingly inept defense allowed this game to get out of hand rather quickly. That first drive went for 80 yards. The next five? Just 56 total yards.
Maybe the Rams just got caught out of their element. After all, this was the first game all year St. Louis trailed by more than six points going into halftime. Even in losses, Jeff Fisher's team has always come to play.
That was not the case this week. And, at 3-5, the Rams could be as many as three games out of the NFCW lead come Tuesday morning. Of course, if that happens, they'll be left to play for nothing more than we expected them to be playing for in 2012.
3. For the Sake of a Competitive NFC West Race, the Cardinals Have to Win Monday Night
Seattle's loss rules out a potential three-way tie heading into Week 9, but Arizona can still keep all parties from falling at least two games behind with a home win over the 49ers.
They stymied a San Francisco team—one that was 10-2 at the time—at home in 2011. They'll have to do so again in order to avoid heading to Lambeau Field in Week 9 on a four-game losing streak.
Seattle, who carries a previously mentioned 0-3 record against NFCW foes, needs an Arizona win more than Arizona does. Not by much, but the Hawks clearly can't afford to lose any more ground. They'll host a feisty Vikings squad in Week 9 and the Jets in Week 10. If Seattle can get by Minnesota, New York should be a walk in the park. Then, it's a bye week with three road games in a four-week span to follow.
This division hasn't been conquered by the same team in consecutive season since the Cards in '08 and '09, but the Niners can take a huge step toward establishing long-term dominance with a win Monday night.
4. Inside the Numbers
The pending Monday night game leaves a lot up in the air, so we'll stuff some numbers into your skull for awhile—focusing on the Rams and Seahawks at the halfway points of their seasons.
Marshawn Lynch's 12-carry, 105-yard day in Detroit gives him four 100-yard games on the year and 10 in 23 games since the start of 2011. Beast Mode has 757 rushing yards through eight games, which would give him 1,515 for the season if he continued this pace.
After eight games, Russell Wilson is on pace for season-long totals of 2,930 passing yards, 20 TD and 16 INT. He's had a passer rating of 96.8 or higher in four of the Seahawks' eight games, but under 62.5 in three of their four losses.
With two giveaways Sunday, Seattle's turnover differential falls to -2 in 2012. They were +8 through 16 games in 2011. After forcing 31 turnovers a year ago, the Seahawks have just 11 takeaways in 2012.
With nine takeaways through eight games, St. Louis is on pace to match their total (18) from 2011. The Rams finished with 23 giveaways a year ago, and have 11 thus far in 2012.
With just 403 rushing yards through eight games, Stephen Jackson's streak of seven straight 1,000-yard seasons could be in serious jeopardy. At this pace, he would finish with 806 yards rushing in 2012.
Even after the 45-7 loss, St. Louis is on pace to score more points (274) and allow less (372) than they did in 2011. Last year, the Rams managed just 193 points in 16 games, and have 137 so far in 2012.
5. Playing Out the NFC West
Here's a brief glance at how I expect the NFC West to play out after the regular season comes to a close.
1. San Francisco 49ers (12-4)
Predicting that they'll only fall to Chicago at home in Week 11 and the Patriots in Foxborough Week 15, San Francisco will finish a game shy of their 2011 mark and repeat as NFC West champs. Of course, a loss Monday night would force me to seriously reconsider that projection.
2. Seattle Seahawks (9-7)
Lucky for Seattle, they've got five home games on the second half of the schedule. The defense is legit and Wilson keeps getting better, but a 10-win season just isn't realistically attainable for a team that can't pull out road wins over quality opponents. The Seahawks only road win came against the 1-6 Panthers by the score of 16-12.
3. Arizona Cardinals (7-9)
Arizona's remaining schedule is a treacherous path to travel, starting with Monday night. Even after this three-game stretch against the Niners, Packers and Falcons, the Cards still have to go to San Fran and Seattle. Not to mention they'll host Chicago and a seemingly revived Detroit team late in the year as well.
4. St. Louis Rams (6-10)
The Rams are down, but not out. Not in terms of what they're realistically trying to accomplish, anyway. Signing Cortland Finnegan will pay dividends for years, and there's potential stars up and down the roster. A 6-10 record won't make any head coach happy, but a four-game improvement from 2011 is nonetheless a solid start for the Jeff Fisher era.