NFC West Notebook: Every team’s outlook at the three-quarter mark
Entering the stretch run, perhaps no division has a wider disparity from top to bottom than the NFC West, which features the NFL’s highest-scoring team (Arizona) and its two lowest (St. Louis and San Francisco).
The red-hot Cardinals have a clear path to the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the NFC while hard-charging Seattle is well-positioned to claim at least a wild card. For the Rams and 49ers, the final four games represent a chance to assess future needs – and there are many for both teams.
Cardiinals on track for No. 2 seed in NFC
Quarterback Carson Palmer is on the periphery of the MVP conversation while directing the league’s top-ranked offense. The Cardinals have won six in a row, the wide receiver corps featuring Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown is getting healthy and rookie running back David Johnson allayed one major concern with a strong performance in his first start.
Given its potent passing game and some questions about its front seven on defense, Arizona’s primary goal is maintaining its two-game lead for home field and avoiding a cold-weather locale such as Green Bay in the postseason. Catching undefeated Carolina for the top-overall seed is a long shot given the remaining schedule. Starting Thursday, the Cardinals play their next three games against division co-leaders before Seattle, which sits three games back of Arizona, comes to town for the regular-season finale.
"There is time to look back on the journey and enjoy it but this isn’t it, especially on a Thursday-night week," coach Bruce Arians told reporters following Sunday’s 27-3 win at St. Louis.
UP NEXT: vs. Vikings (W), at Eagles (L), vs. Packers (W), vs. Seahawks (L)
PREDICTION: 12-4, first place in the NFC West
Seahawks hitting stride with soft scheduling awaiting
A defense that hasn’t looked quite as elite in 2015 showed up big in a smothering win at Minnesota on Sunday, fueling hopes that the Seahawks are set to make another late-season surge. Quarterback Russell Wilson has emerged from a slumber with a sizzling stretch, throwing 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions during a three-game winning streak. Five of those scoring passes have come in four-plus quarters since tight end Jimmy Graham was lost for the season.
Rookie Thomas Rawls is allowing Seattle the luxury of not having to rush Marshawn Lynch back into action and a cushy schedule has the Seahawks in control of their playoff destiny. Currently the sixth seed in the NFC, Seattle’s next three opponents are a collective 10-26. Making up three games on Arizona might be too much to ask, but the reigning two-time NFC champions have their swagger back after limiting the Vikings to 125 yards of total offense.
"We know we have a championship pedigree," cornerback Richard Sherman reminded reporters following Sunday’s win. "We’ve been there. We know what we are capable of."
UP NEXT: at Ravens (W), vs. Browns (W), vs. Rams (W), at Cardinals (W)
PREDICTION: 11-5, second place in the NFC West
Five-game skid punctures Rams’ playoff hopes
St. Louis all but hung up a "failed expectations" sign by firing offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti on Monday following a five-game losing streak in which it averaged a paltry 10.8 points. One of many hot-button topics for the Rams is deciding whether Jeff Fisher merits a chance to coach the final season of his five-year contract.
Rookie Todd Gurley was touted as an MVP candidate following a record-setting start to his career, but his production has dwindled dramatically while injuries to Robert Quinn, Chris Long and Alec Ogletree have dragged down a unit that carried the team during its 5-4 start.
Quarterback Nick Foles played himself out of a job and Sunday’s starter, undrafted free agent Case Keenum, appears to be a stop-gap solution. The Rams did invest a third-round draft pick in Sean Mannion and would be wise to give the rookie quarterback one or two starts down the stretch.
UP NEXT: vs. Lions (L), vs. Buccaneers (L), at Seahawks (L), at 49ers (L)
PREDICTION: 4-12, fourth place in the NFC West
49ers showing spunk with Gabbert under center
The offense has not improved appreciably since Blaine Gabbert replaced Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, but the 49ers have shown some moxie in Gabbert’s four starts. With Kaepernick recovering from surgery and facing a hefty payday if he’s on the roster come April 1, the final four games will set up as an audition for Gabbert to prove he can be the long-term answer.
Another immediate issue is deciding what to do with running back Carlos Hyde. Sidelined for five games with a stress fracture in his foot, Hyde has not practiced since Oct. 22 and the team must figure out what it has to gain by not shutting down the second-year back.
General manager Trent Baalke’s future, and thus that of first-year coach Jim Tomsula, could be decided over the final four games. One of Baalke’s prime offseason acquisitions, wideout Torrey Smith, has three TD catches of at least 71 yards but has two receptions or fewer in 10 of 12 games.
UP NEXT: at Browns (W), vs. Bengals (L), at Lions (L), vs. Rams (W)
PREDICTION: 6-10, Third place in the NFC West
- Alec Ogletree
- Arizona Cardinals
- Blaine Gabbert
- Carlos Hyde
- Carson Palmer
- Case Keenum
- Chris Long
- Colin Kaepernick
- Jimmy Graham
- John Brown
- Larry Fitzgerald
- Los Angeles Rams
- Marshawn Lynch
- Michael Floyd
- Nick Foles
- Richard Sherman
- Robert Quinn
- Russell Wilson
- San Francisco 49ers
- Seattle Seahawks
- Thomas Rawls
- Todd Gurley II
- Torrey Smith