There are only 80 games remaining over the final five weeks of the NFL’s regular-season schedule, and if it feels like a disproportionate slice of the spotlight is about to fall on games involving the NFC West, you might be on to something. Fortunately for football fans everywhere, the vaunted NFC West finally looks ready for its close-up.
Lauded as the NFL best division for at least two years now, the NFC West didn’t necessarily follow the expected script this season, with Arizona doing its darndest to run away with things while Seattle and San Francisco -- the past two NFC Super Bowl teams -- struggled to both tamp down internal dissension and avoid falling below .500 at midseason.
But the events of Week 12 cast a whole new light on the league’s deepest and most head-coach-driven division, and look at it now. The NFC West has its swagger back, and suddenly has a bit of a race on its hands. As the most dramatic and meaningful five weeks of season loom, it’s the NFC West that’s front and center and about to captivate our attention with a string of glamor games.
The potential game-changer, of course, was Seattle’s 19-3 conquest of the first-place Cardinals at CenturyLink Field on Sunday. Combined with San Francisco gutting out a 17-13 win over visiting Washington, the NFC West’s top three teams are now within striking distance of each other, with Arizona at 9-2, while Seattle and San Francisco improved to 7-3. If the playoffs started today -- and if they did this entire column would be moot -- the Cardinals would hold the NFC’s top seed, with the Seahawks at No. 6 and the 49ers finishing out of the money in the conference’s eighth spot.
But there’s still plenty of time for that picture to change, and the three-team round-robin play to come should be fascinating, with these five pivotal division games on tap: Seattle at San Francisco in Week 13 on Thanksgiving night; Arizona at last-place but still-dangerous St. Louis in Week 15; San Francisco at Seattle in Week 15; Seattle at Arizona in Week 16; and Arizona at San Francisco in Week 17. Throw in the Seahawks’ critical Week 14 cross-country trip to first-place Philadelphia, and there’s a six-pack of showdowns on the way in the NFC West.
There’s a lot on the line these days in the NFL’s most compelling division, and here’s a quick synopsis of where each team (minus the last-place Rams) stands as the season’s final month unfolds:
• Reason to worry: The Cardinals offense the past two weeks has admittedly faced two premier defenses in Detroit and Seattle, but you can’t exactly say it rose to the challenge in response. Arizona has scored only 17 points in the two games since Drew Stanton replaced the injured Carson Palmer at quarterback, and a mere three points over the last seven quarters (Arizona built an early 14-0 lead against the Lions in Week 11).
Arizona totaled just 204 yards of offense against the Seahawks, the worst output of Bruce Arians’ two-year coaching tenure, and managed just 12 first downs. Stanton looked every bit the backup quarterback for a change, throwing for 149 yards with an interception and three sacks, making a number of dubious decisions in the process.
Without the injured Larry Fitzgerald (MCL sprain) at receiver for the first time since he last missed a game in 2007, the Cardinals lacked a home-run hitter and looked almost devoid of playmaking weapons. That sort of lineup may be able to get the job done at Atlanta (4-7) this week, but without Fitzgerald and better production from Stanton, the four-game stretch of Kansas City at home, at St. Louis, Seattle at home and at San Francisco looks positively treacherous.
• Reason to chill: Defense rarely slumps and the tone is set for the Cardinals on that side of the ball. Arizona, despite field position challenges all game long, held Seattle to four field goals and one touchdown, and dropped Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson for a season-high seven sacks. Though the elusive Wilson got free to rush for 73 yards, there aren’t many quarterbacks who can play his game. The Cardinals did much better at limiting Marshawn Lynch, holding him to just 39 yards on 15 carries.
As much as any team in the league, Arizona reflects the demeanor and attitude of its head coach, and always-confident Arians rarely flinches and never panics. In his 27-game stint in the desert, the Cardinals have lost consecutive games just once and are 6-1 after defeats. That two-game losing streak, though? It came against San Francisco and Seattle in Weeks 6-7 last season. Still, the Cardinals know how rebound from a loss, and believe in the next-man-up mantra that it has lived by this season. Even if Fitzgerald is sidelined for more time, a full-blown slide seems highly unlikely.
It reality, Arizona has math on its side, even as it enters the most difficult stretch of the season. Just two more wins will ensure a record of 11-5, and that’s probably going to be good enough to win the division and earn a first-round bye. Especially if one of those wins comes at home against Seattle in Week 16, meaning the Cardinals can do no worse that splitting their season series against both the Seahawks and 49ers.
• Reason to worry: Have we mentioned the Seahawks face a bear of a schedule in the final five weeks of the season? They’re at the 49ers on Thursday night, and they haven’t won on the road against San Francisco since 2008, two years before the start of the Pete Carroll era. Then it’s at Philadelphia, where the Eagles are 6-0 at home this season. After a home game against the 49ers in Week 15, Seattle plays at Arizona, and the Cardinals are also 6-0 at home in 2014. Finally comes a home game against the Rams in Week 17, with St. Louis being the team that dropped the Seahawks to their season-low point of 3-3 with that Week 7 upset at the Edward Jones Dome.
Seattle probably needs a minimum of 10 wins to make the playoffs, and even that’s no absolute lock to get in. That means the Seahawks have to win their final two home games against the 49ers and Rams, and steal one on the road, where they are a middling 2-3 season. That’s no easy task, given that San Francisco, Philadelphia and Arizona all have their own playoff lives and positioning to fight for. A loss to the 49ers on Thursday night and the Seahawks at 7-5 will already be in desperation mode, needing almost to run the table to make the postseason.
And despite doing enough to get the job done against Arizona on Sunday, the Seahawks offense still isn’t close to clicking on all cylinders. The passing game has been a season-long problem, and with no Golden Tate or Percy Harvin around, Seattle doesn’t scare anyone in terms of stretching the field. Wilson threw for 211 yards against the Cardinals, but that ended a streak of four straight sub-200-yard passing games for the champs, and Seattle’s 30th-ranked passing attack has eight such games in 11 tries this season. That won’t cut it against the heavyweights the Seahawks have to contend with.
• Reason to chill: For the first time in quite a while, the Seahawks defense looks like its dominating self. Renewed health and a timely team meeting apparently had a lot to do with the re-appearance of last year’s winning mojo, with middle linebacker Bobby Wagner back in the lineup after missing six weeks with a turf toe injury and strong safety Kam Chancellor saying he finally felt pain-free after battling an assortment of injuries this season. With the exception of nose tackle Brandon Mebane, Seattle had 10 of its 11 defensive starters ready to go against Arizona, the healthiest the Seahawks defense has been since Week 6 against Dallas.
The Cardinals’ total of three points was Seattle’s best defensive effort in that department since it blanked the Giants 23-0 in Week 15 of last season, and the spark that Wagner and Chancellor provided (a team-high eight tackles each) seemed to give the entire unit a lift and recapture some of last year’s magic. From Carroll on down, the Seahawks are convinced they’re getting healthy at just the right time and are ready to go on a roll.
Part of their confidence stems from an air-it-out team meeting last week, with locker room leaders like receiver Doug Baldwin, cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Earl Thomas, Wilson, Chancellor and Lynch trying to identify what was missing this year and how to navigate the difficult road forward. It may sound clichéd to some on the outside, but Seahawks players say the session reminded them to play for each other and helped reformulate the tight bonds that existed during last year’s championship run. As Carroll said: “We turned our focus to trusting one another. ... I’m hoping it helps us reconnect with something we were looking for.’’ If it does, Seattle may still have time to put together a legitimate defense of its Super Bowl title after all.
• Reason to worry: While the 49ers have the easiest remaining schedule of the three NFC West contenders, this is by far the toughest road to the playoffs they’ve ever had to navigate in the four-year Jim Harbaugh coaching era. Usually San Francisco is playing for postseason positioning at this point in the year, but not this time. The 49ers are on the outside looking in at the moment, sitting eighth in the NFC postseason race, and battling for their playoff lives. And with Arizona’s ascendancy in the season’s first 12 weeks, a wild-card entry is likely to be the path San Francisco must take.
The good news is the 49ers face only one more road trip of any length, that being their Week 15 journey to Seattle. Three home games and a trek across the Bay Bridge to play in Oakland in Week 14 lightens their burden in that respect. But on the down side, San Francisco has yet to establish any real homefield advantage at their state-of-the-art Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, going just 3-2 there, with five-point wins over the Eagles and Chiefs, and the nail-biter against Washington on Sunday, when the 49ers didn’t take the lead for good until less than three minutes remained.
Having three games remaining against NFC West teams (two against Seattle, one against Arizona) allows the 49ers to make up the necessary ground in head-to-head competition, but it can’t be comforting for San Francisco fans. The 49ers went 13-4-1 in the division in the regular season from 2011-13, but are just 1-2 this year, and they had to mount an impressive comeback at St. Louis in Week 6 to get their only win. When you throw in a game at Oakland, which just knocked off AFC playoff-contending Kansas City, and a home date with a Chargers team that will be trying to make its own playoff dreams a reality, the 49ers are going to have to earn everything they get the next five weeks.
San Francisco’s most immediate concern? Stopping a top-ranked Seattle running game (169.6 ypg) on Thursday night. The 49ers just got rolled for 125 yards rushing by Washington’s Alfred Morris, and now here comes Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson’s problematic knack for keeping the chains moving via the ground game.
• Reason to chill: If the Thanksgiving night showdown with visiting Seattle really is in essence a potential playoff elimination game for the two second-place clubs in the NFC West, you have to like the 49ers’ chances. For one, they have beaten the Seahawks five consecutive times at home, as has already been mentioned. Secondly, pressure-packed games are routine for Harbaugh’s club. Both this year, and in the course of going to three straight NFC title games in his first three seasons on the job. San Francisco knows how to play when the stakes are high.
This year, the 49ers lead the league in narrow escapes, winning five times by seven points or fewer. Victories over the Eagles, Saints, Giants and Washington all turned on a single play, and San Francisco lost to the Rams on Colin Kaepernick’s goal-line fumble. It’s routine by now for the 49ers to survive on the razor’s edge, which helps explain how they’re somehow three games over .500 despite outscoring their opponents by only three points this season, 228-225. Goal-line stands and fourth-quarter rallies have been front and center during San Francisco’s current three-game winning streak, and there’s a muscle memory that has been established. The 49er believe they’re going to keep it close and then find a way to make the play that delivers victory.
There’s also the late-season confidence boost that comes from San Francisco’s improving defensive fortunes. Though NaVarro Bowman still hasn’t returned from last year’s devastating knee injury in the NFC Championship Game, the fact that outside linebacker Aldon Smith had his first two sacks of the season on Sunday against Washington was a welcome sight. Smith missed the first nine games of the season due to league suspension, and his fresh legs are just what the doctor ordered in San Francisco. Add in the stout rookie contributions of linebackers Chris Borland and Aaron Lynch, along with cornerback Dontae Johnson, and the 49ers defense is still thriving even with linebacker Patrick Willis lost for the season after a toe injury earlier this month.