This is the NFC division that us Bolts fans care about the most in 2014. The Chargers have already split their games with the two teams at the top of the division, but that may not mean that the remaining two games are going to be easier than the season opener. In fact, given the "coaching style" of the St. Louis team, that is the game that alarmed me the most seeing it on the schedule last spring.
Despite Arizona being a 10-6 team last year, nobody saw the 8-1 start coming. After all, they lost several good defenders to free agency, suspension, and (later) injuries. They started the season with a QB that many thought was way past his prime and limited. He later went down for 3 games with a nerve issue in his shoulder. They play in what was thought of as the toughest division in the league. Based on the "point differential" formula, they are an overachieving team, with a predicted record of 5-3.
Despite all of that, the Cardinals have been winning. The games have been solid or close wins, some of them have been ugly, and their average margin of victory is 8 points. They have only been in one lopsided game, in Denver, which was their one loss so far this season at the start of October. The Cardinals have a 2 game lead in the AFC West over the 2nd place team. The play that team (Seattle) twice so they are in absolute control of their own fate. With the defensive performance this year, compared to the expected drop off, Ted Bowles will probably be a sought after Head Coaching prospect in the next offseason.
What to Watch For
Finishing. The Cardinals have both games against the Seahawks left, in addition to the season finale in Santa Clara against a 49er team that is expected to wake up and return to dominance at some point this season. Being in control of your destiny is a double edged sword; losing the games you need to win can turn a special season into a heartbreaker. This may have the added complication of having Drew Stanton as the QB for the rest of the year, pending medical evaluation of his injury against Rams.
The Cardinals’ defense is dead last in the league in passing yardage allowed. They are also leading the league in interceptions. Turnovers are critical to wins; allowing yards is not necessarily detrimental to victory.
It is challenging for Championship teams to repeat. There are many reasons for this; personnel losses, coaching changes, and everyone on your schedule loading up their best effort to put your notch on their belt. The Seahawks managed to avoid wholesale personnel changes, did not lose either coordinator, but are certainly receiving max effort from every team they play. This remains a dangerous team stocked with young talent that runs the ball really well and defends against the run really well.
After practicing some addition by subtraction with the Percy Harvin trade, the Seahawks snapped a two game losing streak to win their last 3 in a row. QB Russell Wilson is unconcerned about his less than stellar receivers, as he is comfortable using his legs to make plays and extend drives. Russell is the 2nd leading rusher for the Seahawks. Marshawn Lynch looks as beastly as ever, skittle-ing his way to another 1,000+ yard season. Do not be fooled by the unexpected losses, this is a dangerous 6-3 team that has 5 of 6 division games remaining on its schedule. If Arizona stumbles, the Seahawks are certainly in position to swoop in and take the division crown again. Seattle is just as much the master of their own fate as Arizona is.
What to Watch For
November 23 through November 27. The ‘hawks host the Cardinals in the first battle of the birds on Sunday the 23rd and then play the 49ers in Santa Clara 4 days later on Thanksgiving. In fact their last 6 games starting on 11/23 all involve divisional opponents, with the exception of a roadie to Philadelphia on 12/7. The schedule makers tried to make sure that one of the best divisions in the league would not have a clear answer until the very end. Also, based upon won - loss record, the Seahawks have the toughest remaining schedule in the league.
Seattle’s offense is old school. They are next to last (31st) in pass attempts and 30th in passing yards, but 6th in the league in rushing attempts and 2nd in the league in rushing yards.
From seemingly out of nowhere, the 49ers have developed the skill of shooting themselves in the foot and elevated it to an art form. Santa Clara has left wins out on the table with pick 6 fests (Chicago), orgies of personal fouls (Arizona) and a goal line fumble capping off allowing 8 sacks of their mobile QB (St. Louis). This has left Jim Harbaugh’s crew in an unfamiliar position; at 5-4 they are 3rd place in their division, 3 games behind Arizona, 1 game behind Seattle. If that were not enough, the special teams have been suspect, allowing a blocked punt, a TD on a punt return, and are on the short side of the return yardage numbers on both kick-off and punt returns.
The team has looked erratic all season. A debate in the Bay Area centers around whether this is coaching or the loss of some key members of the defense and on the offensive line. Another line of thought involves asking Kaepernick to be a strictly pocket passer. It is the belief among many observers of the team that CK7 is better on the move, from the pistol, and allowed to run a read option from time to time. Still, for whatever reason, the ‘niners roster suggests that they are better than a 5-4 team, and that the 2014 effort so far has been a colossal under-achievement.
What to Watch For
A Wild Card push. The 49ers have an interesting schedule in the last 7 games. They have 3 games against the Giants, Redskins and Raiders that they will probably be heavily favored to win. They play Seattle twice and Arizona once. They are also playing the Bolts at home in week 16 of the season. If they can wake up fast enough to go 6-1 to finish the season, they can possibly make it into the playoffs. The NFC wild card race may be crowded this year, with the NFC East, North and West 2nd place teams probably in line for the two spots. Last year, the NFC West had a 10-6 team (Arizona) watch the playoffs from home. If that is where the 'niners finish in 2014, that may happen again this year.
At 34 years of age, Kassim Osgood can still find work on coverage and return units in the NFL. He is on the 49ers roster and has been active as a special teamer for 7 of the 49ers games. He has also been targeted for one pass, which he did not catch. Some things do not improve with age.
With Sam Bradford knocked out of 2014 in the pre-season, the Rams turned to Shaun Hill to lead them back to mediocrity this year. You have to give St. Louis props; deciding to hand the keys to an NFL offense to a 12 year career back-up was not a deliberate choice, like it was in Tampa Bay, it was desperation. Desperation turned to despair as Hill was injured in the first game, which elevated Austin Davis, the #4 QB in training camp, into the surviving starter.
With some good defensive talent (although some of that is on the IR now) and a decent O-line, the Rams were hoping to duplicate this season what Arizona did in 2013, but actually get a Wild Card slot. At 3-6, and with only 3 games of the last 7 against teams with sub-.500 records, that does not seem to be in the cards. It looks like Jeff Fisher will coach his team to a sub-.500 record for the 3rd straight season. Perhaps the Rams bring him back for the 4th year of his 5 year deal to see if maybe a healthy Bradford and some additional help from the draft can get this team into the playoffs in 2015 for the first time since 2004. Perhaps they do not and instead burn it all down and start over.
What to Watch For
Playmakers. The Rams best pass catching wide receiver is Brian Quick, with a total of 25 catches for 375 yards. The backs are all fairly average and Fisher is using them as a true committee, even though Tre Mason seems to be the best of the bunch. With this season basically over already, the Rams front office needs to figure out if there are any skill position players worth bringing back next year.
Sam Bradford, the league’s poster child for the Rookie Wage Scale, has one more year left to go on his 6 year, $78 Million deal he got right out of college in 2010. On a straight line basis, he has already received $65 Million on the contract. With 18 NFL wins to his credit, the Rams have paid him $3.611 Million per win so far. This is still a better deal than the one the Bolts got from Ryan Leaf. It is estimated that Leaf fleeced the Bolts out of $20 - 25 Million, which meant that the Chargers paid $5-6.25 Million + per win for his four victories.