A New NFC West Rivalry
RENTON, Wash. — Remember, oh, about three long months ago, when 49ers-Seahawks was the best rivalry in the NFL?
The Niners are 7-7, oddly out of the playoff hunt, and are 1-5 against Seattle since late in 2012. So, is it really such a great rivalry now, particularly with the upheaval expected in San Francisco after the season?
The way Arizona’s playing, it’s fair to ask whether the Cardinals are going to be the new rival for Seattle in the West.
Let’s check out the regular-season standings in the division since Bruce Arians took over as Cardinals coach prior to the 2013 season:
This week, either Ryan Lindley or a significantly knee-hampered Drew Stanton will play quarterback for Arizona (11-3) in the NFC West championship game against visiting Seattle (10-4). Ergo: The Seahawks are going to skate. The Seahawks handled Arizona 19-3 in their first meeting Nov. 23, after all. But look again.
I’m like the rest—I like the Seahawks on Sunday. But the Cardinals defense, as it has all year, is going to have something to say about that. Arizona sacked the slithery Russell Wilson seven times in their first meeting this year (“It should have been 11," Cards coach Bruce Arians said this week), and as the Seahawks left their indoor practice field late Thursday afternoon, coach Pete Carroll sounded pessimistic about the status of a couple stalwarts who could prevent an 11-sack afternoon in the desert Sunday evening.
"Russell isn’t going to go," Carroll said of left tackle Russell Okung [chest], and it looked grim for center Max Unger [concussion] too. Neither practiced Wednesday or Thursday. And trusted guard J.R Sweezy missed both days as well, but there is some hope he’ll be able to go Sunday night.
Most likely line combination for Seattle against the marauding Cardinals, who have allowed exactly two more points than the Seahawks this year, from left to right: Alvin Bailey, James Carpenter, Lemuel Jeanpierre, Sweezy, Justin Britt.
"It is what it is," said Carroll. Then he repeated that. “We really haven’t had our group on the line all season. But look at what Arizona’s had to put up with all year. They had major losses before the season even started, and the injuries they’ve had, week after week … Bruce Arians has done an unbelievable job. And when we’ve played, his group makes it as difficult on us as anybody we play."
There is no question Russell Wilson will feel the pressure Sunday night. In the first meeting between the teams, Arizona blitzed on 50 percent of passing downs, according to Pro Football Focus. That was with a healthier offensive line for Seattle—and Arizona still got home consistently. And those blitzes don’t always come from linebackers. This season, safety Deone Bucannon has blitzed on 20 percent of the passing downs he’s played, mostly from a linebacker slot. Cornerback Jarraud Powers has gotten into the act too, blitzing on 8 percent of the passing downs he played.
This is the personality of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles of Arizona, and the reason Bowles will be a popular interview for teams seeking a head coach in the off-season. He has lost three huge pass-rushing factors due to injury or suspension, and still the Cardinals are among the top five defenses in football, and have been all season. As Seattle right tackle Justin Britt told me Thursday, “There’s so much stuff they do, and they do it at random times. You have to know every indicator they have. They’re top 5 in turnover ratio, and they’ve got great rushers like Calais Campbell, Matt Shaughnessy, Frostee Rucker. We’ve got to be very smart every play.”
The variable in the Arizona scheme is all the times Bowles puts physical safeties on his front six or seven. He loves to rush safeties. Bowles loves to rush, period. This season, the average NFL team has blitzed on 29.7 percent of all passing downs. Arizona: 39.7 percent.
Maybe line play bores you. Trench play? Zzzzzzz. But this Sunday, it’s going to determine whether Arizona wins the West. If Bowles’ blitzes get home, if the Arizona rush can strip-sack the elusive Wilson two or three times, all of a sudden a game that has a huge quarterback mismatch in Seattle’s favor can change. And you can bet Bowles is in his meetings telling his players the winner of the NFC West will be the team that hits the quarterback the most Sunday night. With the Seattle offensive line being in flux, and the Arizona pressure packages being so good, the foolish storyline is: Lindley’s playing, so the Cardinals don’t have a prayer. The smart storyline is: Seattle had better protect Russell Wilson, or the ‘Hawks could be on the road for the playoffs.
I mentioned to Carroll that this could be a nice preview for him and his team, with the Super Bowl set for Glendale, Ariz., six weeks from Sunday night. “You’re the first person who’s mentioned that," he said.
Doubt I’ll be the last if the Seahawks can survive the Bowles treatment in this game.
About Last Night …
Jacksonville 21, Tennessee 13. If this ninth straight loss by the Titans convinced you of one thing, it should be this: There is no hope without a quarterback in Nashville. And Tennessee GM Ruston Webster (if he still has the job come mid-January) needs to do a thorough study on Jay Cutler. I don’t say he should pick up the phone and call whoever is running the Bears and aggressively try to acquire the tarnished Cutler. I am saying he should exhaust all video and scouting avenues to see if Cutler is worth the risk. What 2014 (and recent prior years) has convinced us is that you are winning nothing in the NFL without a quarterback. Cutler might not be a sure thing, but he’s a lot surer than anything the Titans have on the roster. And the Titans won’t get Marcus Mariota if they sit at two or three in the first round, because he’s going number one, and Tampa Bay would be foolish to not pick Mariota if it has the chance. Again: This is not a vote for Tennessee to aggressively pursue Cutler. It is a vote for the Titans to aggressively investigate Cutler—and go after him hard if they find he’s the best option for a team with a good offensive line and cadre of young receivers. Best option, I say—not perfect option.
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Ricky Wagner, right tackle, Baltimore (number 71). The latest foil for J.J. Watt is better than you think, though most football fans haven’t heard of Ricky Wagner. Baltimore’s fifth-round pick out of Wisconsin in 2013 protected Russell Wilson in the quarterback's one season as a Badger, and he’s a big man (6-6, 308) with long arms and a good punch, which will help him against Watt. Wagner’s having a good year too. He’s allowed just two sacks, per Pro Football Focus, and his last four games have produced excellent protection for Joe Flacco: zero sacks, three hurries, no hits on the quarterback. Watt, as we know, is a different animal, and it won’t just be Wagner who has to be solid. Watt moves around and will be a test for right guard Marshal Yanda and center Jeremy Zuttah too. The game within a game at Houston on Sunday will be how the Ravens scheme to stop Watt from wrecking their playoff hopes.
Bose Sound Bite of the Week
Browns coach Mike Pettine on Johnny Manziel's first start:
"I don't think I need to... you know I always like to say I need to see the tape. He didn't play well. Looked like a rookie, played like a rookie. And again, I know a lot of it was we didn't play well around him, but he made some obvious mistakes that typically a veteran quarterback won't make."
Regular Old Quote of the Week
“I would have a major problem if somebody said something like that. I think anybody that plays the position, you can't help but empathize with Jay for that situation. You talk all the time about being connected, being a unit, believing in each other. But if you have unnamed sources, people out there cutting you down, and then you find out it's the person calling the plays, that would be really hard to deal with, to look at him the same way."
—Aaron Rodgers, to Mike Silver of NFL.com, on the controversy with the rival Chicago Bears. Chicago offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer admitted to being the source for an NFL Network report that trashed his own quarterback, Jay Cutler.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
The biggest games in addition to Seattle-Arizona, one by one, in Week 16...
1. Indy at Dallas: Will DeMarco play—and how will he play if he’s active? The Cowboys have a history of playing players who are on the edge of health. (In other words, guys with recently broken bones. See: Romo, Tony.) DeMarco Murray, the league’s leading rusher, versus a generous run defense, might be too much for Jason Garrett to ignore. On the other hand … wouldn’t the 201-yard Jonas Gray game against the Colts five weeks ago tell Garrett and the Jones family that the Lance Dunbar/Joseph Randle combo platter could suffice with Murray resting that broken hand until Week 17?
2. Atlanta at New Orleans: Falcons could bury the Saints with a win. I don’t think Atlanta’s winning this game, but I would make these points: A Falcons win gives them the tiebreaker over the Saints, and the Saints are no longer invincible at home. This is a lose-and-you’re-out game, in essence, in the NFC South. This also could be the Last Chance Saloon on Mike Smith’s Atlanta coaching career, the one big win he needs to show Arthur Blank the Falcons still play for Smith.
3. Cleveland at Carolina: Cam looks like he’ll play. Cam Newton’s words to Ron Rivera when Rivera visited the quarterback in the hospital 10 days ago after his car accident: “Coach, I’m sorry." Rivera pooh-poohed that, saying Newton should just think about his health. But the way Newton thinks now, basically, is that if there’s any way he can play in this game, he will. And he not only practiced the past two days on a limited basis, but he played pickup basketball in a charity function Tuesday and was moving well and throwing well throughout Wednesday’s practice. I’d be surprised if Newton isn’t part of the only Newton-Manziel regular-season matchup until 2018 (or ever) on Sunday in Charlotte.
4. Buffalo at Oakland: The Bills are the D that no one wants to play in January. Buffalo will handle Oakland and get to 9-6; I’m pretty sure of that. That makes a Week 17 game at New England very, very big for the AFC playoffs. There is no question in my mind Buffalo could walk into a game against the third-seeded team (Indy? Whoever wins the North?) and win. I say “could," not “would.” Any defense that holds Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers without a touchdown over eight quarters is a defense of a damn serious contender. If the Bills simply play turnover-free, they can win one or more January games. One last note to darken Buffalo’s mood this morning: The Bills stink on tiebreakers, with losses to similarly 8-6 Kansas City and San Diego, and a lousy 4-6 AFC record. So they need the Chiefs and Chargers to lose this weekend, plus the AFC North teams to falter. Being really good late in the year doesn’t always translate to a playoff spot.
5. Kansas City at Pittsburgh: An elimination game, almost. Love these games in Week 16. If Kansas City wins, both teams are 9-6 overall and 7-4 in conference games, and there could be five of those 9-6 AFC teams exiting the weekend. I don’t see a seven-loss team having a prayer with the jumble of teams in the six-loss range, so Kansas City has to send the house early and often at Ben Roethlisberger, if only to cool off his relationship with Antonio Brown. This has to be some sort of record: Brown has eight straight games with at least eight receptions. Marvin Harrison (143 catches) and Wes Welker (123, number two all time, tied with Herman Moore) had only six straight with eight or more.
6. Baltimore at Houston: The Ravens have a beat-up corner group, and so they’re thankful to be facing a beat-up quarterback team. The Texans, with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tom Savage both out, turn to Case Keenum. Baltimore will play with three corners signed off the street or practice squads in the past six weeks: Rashaan Melvin (Week 10), Antoine Cason (Week 15) and Chris Greenwood (Wednesday). And starter Anthony Levine was signed off the street two years ago. Five corners, four off the scrap heap. And this team is 9-5.
7. San Diego at San Francisco (Saturday): Can Philip Rivers save the Chargers with his bad back? The Chargers have picked a very bad time to stall offensively—with just 24 points in the past eight quarters—and now, from Adam Schefter, comes word that Rivers’ back injury is worse than the club is letting on. Rivers will play—in the first regular-season game Jim Harbaugh has ever coached that’s been meaningless—despite missing practice this week with the aching back. Maybe it’s aching from Rivers having to carry this franchise for so long.
8. Denver at Cincinnati (Monday night): The Bengals will see different Broncos. Our Greg Bedard had a great stat on The MMQB in his “Settle This” column. “In the first 10 games, the Broncos passed the ball on 62 percent of their snaps, and ran it 38 percent of the time. In the past four games, it’s almost completely flipped. The Broncos are passing 44 percent, running 56 percent. And they’re running it better. After averaging 3.7 yards per carry in the first 10 games, they’ve averaged 4.5 yards per carry since.” I'm certain Cincinnati defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is aware. In Peyton They Still Trust, but the Broncos will bring a running game to Paul Brown Stadium, and the Bengals had better be better than 4.3 yards per opponents’ rush in this one, or their very narrow lead in the AFC North will turn into a very narrow deficit.
Now for other newsy things …
9. The latest on Jim Harbaugh. Now that Michigan has made an ARod-type offer to Harbaugh, the bar seems to be set for agent David Dunn to shop around. Best options: 1. Miami, 2. Oakland, 3. Jets. Why Oakland two, even though Harbaugh and family would prefer to stay by the bay? Because there’s a good chance this franchise isn’t going to be by the bay much longer. And is Mark Davis ready to pay his coach $9 million a year, plus pay the Niners compensation? Harbaugh may take the risk, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
10. The Cutler fallout. I’ll write more about this Monday, but everything is in play in Chicago—whether Marc Trestman returns, whether Phil Emery returns, and whether Jay Cutler returns. Tennessee makes sense, because Ken Whisenhunt has a history with vet quarterbacks, and the Titans are so desperate, and may miss out on Marcus Mariota. Plus, Cutler played at Vanderbilt and owns a home in the area.
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