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A punchline no more, NFC West is leading the way early in 2012

Two weeks into the 2012 regular season, behold the new power that is the NFC West. A laughingstock of sorts less than two years ago, when the 7-9 Seahawks became the first losing team to ever claim a division title, the NFC West is not inspiring much humor these days. Rather respect.

In case you hadn't noticed, the NFC West already has the following gaudy accomplishments on its resume this season:

-- It's the only one of the NFL's eight divisions with a pair of 2-0 teams (San Francisco, Arizona), and the division's cumulative 6-2 record is the best in the league. With one of the West's two losses coming in head-to-head play (Arizona over Seattle in Week 1), its only defeat outside the division was St. Louis' last-minute, opening-week loss at Detroit. The West's 5-1 record outside the division is tops in the NFL, and the division's 4-0 record in Week 2 was only its second such perfect mark since realignment in 2002.

-- The NFC West boasts a team (the 49ers) that went into Green Bay and upset the Packers and reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. It also has a team (the Cardinals) that traveled to New England and upset Tom Brady and the defending AFC champions, who had never lost a home opener at Gillette Stadium until this past Sunday. The Packers and Patriots went a combined 17-2 at home last season, including the playoffs.

You can add to that list the Rams cooling off the Robert Griffin III-led Redskins juggernaut in Week 2, and the Seahawks dominating Dallas and Tony Romo, who were fresh off their impressive road upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Giants on opening night.

-- Defense is leading the way in the West. Three of the division's teams are in the top 10 in points allowed, with Seattle (27 points) featuring the lowest total in the NFC and ranking third overall, followed by Arizona (34 points) in fifth, and San Francisco (41 points) tied for ninth place.

-- Defending NFC West champ San Francisco has quickly racked up a pair of wins against 2011 playoff teams (Packers and Lions), and the 49ers are one of only three playoff teams from a year ago to have started this season 2-0. Arizona has won an NFL-best nine of its past 11 games, dating to Week 9 of last season, and is the league's surprise 2-0 team. And like the 49ers and Cardinals, the Seahawks and Rams also beat 1-0 teams in Week 2, evening their record at 1-1 with impressive wins over NFC East opponents in their home openers.

The division's current success ratio isn't likely to hold up all year, but on the two most important fronts in the game -- quarterbacking and coaching -- the NFC West looks to be in much better shape than it has for quite some time. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has been a revelation so far in Seattle, and Rams quarterback Sam Bradford is showing signs of returning to his stellar rookie form of 2010 after the struggles of 2011. San Francisco's Alex Smith, once all but dismissed as a long-term starting option for the 49ers, has become the division's gold standard at the position, and even Arizona's Kevin Kolb has returned to relevancy in the past two weeks after losing his job to John Skelton coming out of the preseason.

Last year, the division got a big boost (and an injection of color and controversy) from the arrival of 2011 NFL Coach of the Year Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, and this year saw St. Louis start over by landing Jeff Fisher, the longtime Titans head coach who is respected for his wealth of league experience. Add in Pete Carroll's three-year tenure in Seattle, which has had its highlights, and the division-best six seasons Ken Whisenhunt has been on the job in Arizona (with just one losing record), and there's a lot more cache to this coaching foursome than the struggling days of Mike Nolan, Scott Linehan and Jim Mora.

The NFC West is where it's at so far in 2012. The NFC Worst jokes are over. And maybe the best is still to come. In Week 3, the division has a pretty tough road to post another 4-0 mark, with Green Bay at Seattle on Monday night, Arizona playing host to the 2-0 Eagles, St. Louis at Chicago and San Francisco staying in the NFC North at Minnesota.

"It's a very aggressive division,'' Seattle's Carroll said Monday, via Seahawks.com. "Our style, San Francisco's style, the way the Cardinals are playing defense. I don't know much about the Rams; haven't seen them much, yet. But what else is Jeff [Fisher] going to do? He's going to bring it.

"So it's shaping up to be a really cool division. And I think people are going to look at it a lot differently than they have, say, a couple years ago.''

• I'm repeating myself here, but I've said all along that it's probably going to be a process for Peyton Manning in Denver this season, with No. 18 finishing stronger than he'll start out in 2012. We saw evidence of that in the Broncos' 27-21 loss in Atlanta Monday night, when Manning threw an unheard of (for him) three picks in the first quarter, floating the ball into coverage at times and not reading the defense as accurately as we've seen in the past. And that was against an injury depleted Atlanta secondary.

Manning's very solid showing in the opening-week win at home against Pittsburgh wasn't a mirage, but it's not necessarily going to be his base-line performance for the year either. He's still getting comfortable with new receivers and a new environment after 14 years in Indy, and as we saw against Atlanta, there's still a bit more wobble to some of his passes than we're used to.

Manning has never said he's all the way back in every respect, and it's only because of our collective "Are we there yet?'' rush for answers that we've tried to make a definitive judgment on his status before the results are all in. Come December, I think he'll be playing better than he did in September. But only time will tell if that hunch proves prophetic.

• Monday night's scorecard for the performance of the replacement refs wasn't pretty and it capped a ragged Week 2 effort by the stand-ins. The command and control issues in terms of game management are growing, and it's clear that a tipping point in this situation is fast approaching, if it wasn't reached in that chaotic first quarter in the Broncos-Falcons game.

The NFL has made its point: The officials are not the game and can be replaced. Duly noted. The officials union has not caved and also has the right to say at least a partial "I told you so.'' Now it's time for both sides to declare victory in their own way and get past this stalemate. The longer it goes, the more the league is drawing attention away from the players and the games, and hurting the on-field product, whether the NFL cares to admit it or not.

The "admirable job'' spin isn't working. We've reached "The Emperor has no clothes'' portion of the proceedings, and it's obvious that some very real problems exist without the more experienced officials on the field. There's plenty of good reasons for this saga to end, and few for it to continue.

• If there's one thing you can take to the bank in the NFL, it's that if you hire Steve Spagnuolo to your coaching staff, you're going to start that season 0-2. It happened in 2007, when the Giants made Spagnuolo their defensive coordinator and promptly went 0-2 before rallying to finish 10-6 and win a Super Bowl title.

It happened in 2009, when Spagnuolo got the Rams head coaching job and started his first season 0-7, en route to a 1-15 record in his debut year. And it has unfolded once again in 2012, with the Saints adding Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator to replace the departed and disgraced Gregg Williams.

What ails the Saints is far from all the fault of Spagnuolo, but the New Orleans defense has clearly underachieved through two games, with the Saints and Chiefs tied for the most points allowed in the league at 75. For the record, I can't see the plight of the 2012 Saints duplicating either the 2007 Giants' mountaintop experience or the depths of the 2009 Rams. But it's probably safe to say it'll be closer to New York's results than St. Louis'.

• How much longer can the Raiders keep wishing and hoping and praying that the old Carson Palmer shows up? Palmer threw another interception in Oakland's blowout loss at Miami, and he now has 17 picks, 15 touchdown passes and 20 sacks in his 12 games wearing the Silver and Black. Hue Jackson's big gamble of last October looks worse all the time, and while there was no playoff berth last year after the controversial trade with Cincinnati, there's little reason for hope so far this season in Oakland.

• As we head for Week 3, the RGIII-led Washington Redskins actually lead the NFL in scoring with 68 points in two games. When was the last time the Redskins scored that many in consecutive games? Here's a hint: It wasn't in the Rex Grossman, Donovan McNabb or Jason Campbell starting eras.

It came in Weeks 15-16 of 2005, when Washington put up back-to-back 35-point showings in wins over Dallas and the Giants. The quarterback for that 70-point explosion was Mark Brunell, who helped that Joe Gibbs-coached team go 10-6 and win a first-round NFC playoff game.

• It's a good thing 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh didn't listen to any of the pundits who said he absolutely had to cut ties with Alex Smith and start fresh at quarterback when he took the job in early 2011. Smith, the first overall pick in 2005, is 16-4 as a starter since Harbaugh got to town. He might even be the best mid-to-late career success story at quarterback since 1971 first overall pick Jim Plunkett blossomed (also in the Bay Area) with the 1980 Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders, nine years after he hit the league.

Smith has completed a cool 70.2 percent of his passes this season (40 of 57) for 437 yards and four touchdowns, with a 115.9 passer rating. And he's working on a franchise-record streak of 216 passes without an interception, a fairly impressive accomplishment given that I seem to remember San Francisco's had some decent quarterbacks over the years.

• I get that new Bucs head coach Greg Schiano is pushing the whole "play-to-the-last-whistle'' mentality in Tampa Bay, especially after the lack of intensity and discipline became the problem last year under fired Bucs coach Raheem Morris. I just think there's more potential downside than upside in Schiano coaching his players to show no respect or regard for an opponent dropping into the victory formation for the last clock-killing play of the game, as Tampa Bay's defense did against the Giants on Sunday -- to much consternation by New York head coach Tom Coughlin.

It does have blowback potential on the Bucs should the Giants and Tampa Bay meet again down the road. The irony, of course, is that the whole idea of the victory formation to close out a win started because of the 1978 "Miracle in the Meadowlands,'' when Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik's late-game fumble against the Eagles became the finest moment of Herman Edwards' NFL career and changed how offenses in the lead approach the final few snaps of a game.

As for the irritation level between Coughlin and Schiano, the ex-Rutgers coach, I suppose they won't be going to see Jersey Boys together any time soon.

• Tough times in Tennessee. The Titans have been out-scored by a league-worst 49-point margin in two games, second-year quarterback Jake Locker looks a little lost as the team's No. 1, and Mike Munchak so far has the makings of a modern-day Joe Bugel coaching hire (great offensive line coach, less-than-great head coach). It's early, but Tennessee is under considerable pressure at home this week against Detroit, especially since ex-Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz got away from Nashville and has led the Lions back to the playoffs. That's a little juxtaposition Tennessee doesn't need right now.

It was just a bad week all around for the Titans, who lost 38-10 at San Diego on Sunday. Longtime Tennessee head coach Jeff Fisher of the Rams won his first game ever as somebody else's head coach, ex-Titan Pacman Jones returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown in Cincinnati's win over Cleveland, and even Randy Moss is back in the league and playing for a winning team in San Francisco. And we haven't even mentioned the disappearance (once again) of running back Chris Johnson.

• If you like balance, the NFC North is for you this season. Not to say the division will be this even all year, but at the moment, all four teams are 1-1, having scored between 45 and 51 points, while allowing between 40 and 50 points. Detroit, Minnesota and Chicago are all 1-0 at home and 0-1 on the road, while the Packers have split their two home games.

• You can kill the Patriots for going conservative with their play-calling on their final ill-fated drive of the game in the loss to Arizona, but it strikes me as a second guess that doesn't make much sense. For starters, kicker Stephen Gostkowski had already made field goals of 53, 51, 46 and 34 yards in the game, so I can't see why the Patriots should have been extremely nervous about settling for a 42-yard attempt with the game on the line.

And if there was a goat in this game, the horns belonged on tight end Rob Gronkowski, not Gostkowski. "Gronk'' had the holding call that negated the 30-yard Danny Woodhead touchdown run that would have likely won the game, and two plays later committed a false start that cost the Pats five more yards of valuable real estate.

And besides, Billy Cundiff probably thinks there was a certain karma at work on Gostkowski's way-wide left game-ending miss.

• Sunday turned out to be a great day to run the ball, even though the great September weather around the league seemed made for the ever-popular passing game. Twelve teams checked in with at least 130 yards rushing in Sunday's 14 games, with 11 of those posting 148 yards or more on the ground, and four clubs enjoying a 200-yard rushing game.

The ground attack was led by Reggie Bush and Miami. The Dolphins rolled up 263 yards on 43 runs, with Bush providing 172 of those on his 26 attempts. For all of us who said Bush would never be an every-down back in Miami, the former Saint has made us look like idiots. Sorry we ever doubted you, Reg. Maybe you just had to get out of New Orleans after all.

Carolina (219 yards rushing), Houston (216) and Buffalo (201) were the other members of the 200 Club on Sunday, and it was pretty much a winning formula to keep the ball on the ground. Of the 12 teams that rushed for at least 130, eight won in Week 2.

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