NFL Week 4 NFC West: Welcome To Bizarro World

Coach Jim Harbaugh and the much beleaguered Alex Smith have enjoyed a good first quarter of the 2011 season.

What else would you expect from the NFC West?? After all this is the division that had a worst to first scenario in sending the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl. They had the worst record ever to qualify for that game and came within 3 minutes of winning it. Then you had the worst to first 2010 division champion Seattle Seahaws. They became the first team in NFL history with a losing record and make the playoffs. What did they do for an encore?? Promptly upset the Super Bowl champion Saints in a wild wild card game 41-36. Why are we bringing it up?? This wacky division is at it again.

Enter the San Francisco 49ers. A team that struggled to find itself under Coach Singletary is suddenly, the scrourge of the division under new commander Jim Harbaugh.  A division where many pundits pointed to St Louis as the best the NFC West had to offer are having to reevaluate. At 3-1 this team has shown flash in being able to move the football.  Alex Smith…who?? Alex Smith has completed 67.7% of his passes for 795 yards  4TDs and only 1 interception. Serious get off the floor those are his real stats. In Harbaugh he got what he desperately needed, a quarterback coach.

The cavalcade of Alex Smith detractors have fallen silent. Of course the season is still young however this team is moving in a direction and a purpose not seen by the bay since Steve Marriucci.

Funny how once you start drinking a winning elixir everyone starts to fly right. Haven’t heard a peep out of Frank Gore about being traded now have we??  He’s rushed for 275 yards so far but his 3.7 yard average needs to improve. They just upset the “Dream Team’ Eagles, who were desperate for a win, 24-23 last Sunday, to move to a 3-1 record. Many folks scoffed that they didn’t play anyone after a week 3 13-8 win in Cincinnati. Until you realize that the number 1 defense in the NFL belongs to those Bengals. Yet what is important is San Fran has been packing a defense also. Right now they are in the middle of the pack at #17, and this team is scrappy and not beating itself. They take on an aspiring heavyweight contender when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week. Two 3-1 teams putting the recent past behind them…who ya’ got??  OK, reserve giving your answer for the end of the week. As for the standings…

NFC WEST W L T PCT HOME ROAD DIV CONF PF PA DIFF STRK
San Francisco 3 1 0 .750 1-1-0 2-0-0 1-0-0 2-1-0 94 75 +19 Won 2
Seattle 1 3 0 .250 1-1-0 0-2-0 1-1-0 1-2-0 58 97 -39 Lost 1
Arizona 1 3 0 .250 1-1-0 0-2-0 0-1-0 1-3-0 86 87 -1 Lost 3
St. Louis 0 4 0 .000 0-3-0 0-1-0 0-0-0 0-3-0 46 113 -67 Lost 4

Cardinal signal caller has had a moderate start, yet 3/4ths of the season left, he could get hot.

Now why was this division article entitled bizarro world?? Well most of us so called experts had the complete inverse of these standings as our final predictions. Kolb in Arizona was going to bring the long ball back to the desert. He and Larry Fitzgerald were going to bring the offense the glory left behind in the 2008  & 2009 seasons. Now if only Beanie Wells could stay healthy…uh see what we mean?? Right now Chris “Beanie” Wells has rushed for 321 yards and 5 TDs and is averaging a robust 5.4 yards per carry. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/crd/2011.htm Its not that Kolb has underwhelmed, teams are covering his only legitimate threat in Fitzgerald. He’s had to check down or throw the ball away. His stats look just like those that got him “Wally Pipp-ed” by Vick in Philadelphia. That withstanding he is still over 200 yards per game with 1,049 yet he’s thrown 5TDs and 4 ints.

Right now this team is suffering from glaring losses in Steve Breaston and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Breaston to help stretch the field and Cromartie to help out their 24th against the pass rating. Asking rookie CB Patrick Peterson to come in and be a Deion clone was foolish without a mentor. Right now he has 1 int, only 3 passes defensed yet leads the team in tackles with 18. What does that mean?? He’s getting burnt as a rookie yet makes sure to tackle the receiver once the ball is caught. Right now they aren’t forcing any turnovers out of their opponents and are a -6 in the turnover ratio or they might be 3-1 or 2-2. With their upcoming game with the Minnesota Vikings, this could be just what the doctor ordered for a tired pass defense. Funny that’s what Minnesota is saying about Arizona’s pass defense for the betterment of their team’s offensive psyche. If they can get to their bye week at 2-3 they can get back in the race.

The St Louis Rams have been sabotaged by injuries with Stephen Jackson missing several games and thrusting all the pressure on Sam Bradford. With the threat of the run, defenses underestimated Bradford last year and he lit them up. This year he’s been under fire with Cadillac Williams unable to sustain a consistent ground game. Williams is the type of back who’ll gain 0, -1, 1, then a 10 yard burst. So the average looks good but 3 drives like that and they don’t score yet it seems like he’s effective stat wise. However with Jackson back, they fell behind 17-0 to the Redskins and tried to play catch up with an an undermanned receiving corp. The Rams defense isn’t getting any rest during games and they’re getting pushed around. Last week they got shoved off the ball from the get go as the Redskins amassed 196 yards rushing. Not the recipe when you have a big back and downhill runner in Jackson. They need this bye week as they take on the champion Packers upon they’re return. Their season could teeter on that one football game. An upset there to build their confidence could fuel a resurgence. They haven’t played any of their division rivals yet either. We know they are 0-4, yet we remember when an 0-3 Buffalo Bills team in ’98 made the playoffs that same year. The ’92 Chargers started out 0-4 and won a division title back when there was a 5 team division. So it can be done. Can they summon up the strength for that game against Aaron Rodgers & company with two weeks rest??

See what we mean?? If the Rams can turn the tide and get back in the NFC West race, it’s Bizarro World all over again measuring against the first quarter of the season.

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2011 NFC West Previews & Predictions

In the NFL, all divisions are not created equally. The NFC West has been in flux for the last decade without a clear cut champion. Even the 2008 Arizona Cardinals run to Super Bowl XLIII was a season where they were 9-7, and lost a late season game 47-7 to Matt Cassel and the Patriots. Last year’s 7-9 division champion Seahawks was more of a product of a young St. Louis Rams team that came up short in the end than brilliant Seattle play.  As we march into 2011, it looks like the Rams will rise from the ashes in this division.

2011 NFC WEST PREDICTION

St Louis Rams        9-7  *

Seattle Seahawks  6-10

Arizona Cardinals 5-11

San Fran 49ers       3-13

St Louis Rams have the best young quarterback in Sam Bradford and another solid season with Stephen Jackson at running back.  Last year, Coach Spagnuolo’s team had to learn how to win and did so with a 5 game improvement in the win total. If they can get a significant contribution from WR Austin Pettis, drafted from Boise St to help Bradford further develop. Folks seem to forget that Sam Bradford is only a few years removed from a Heisman trophy season that saw him throw for nearly 50 TDs as a junior. This is no fluke. Now that Chris Long is coming on (last season 8.5 sacks) and James Laurinitis leadership at linebacker, this team is on the rise and should rule the NFC West for the next few years. They have a murderous early schedule but starting with week 9, should run the table the rest of the way. The only notable game to show that they have grown up is the week 16 matchup in Pittsburgh on Christmas Eve. Just don’t be thrown off when they start out slow.

The Seahawks will look like a totally retooled team in the early part of this season and will revert  back to the enigmatic bunch we saw through much of last season. Only this time it’s going to be growing pains through breaking in Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback once sorry Tavarris Jackson underwhelms again. The second time is a charm, he helped collapse Minnesota when they kept him and let Sage Rosenfels go. So once Favre got injured…they crash landed with Jackson at the controls and that was a team with the same offensive co-ordinator and new wideout Sidney Rice there as well.  Same story, different channel.

They also have to find a leader to take over for Lofa Tatupu who was released. Aaron Curry has to move into that role and now needs to develop into the elite linebacker his draft status calls for. Will Marshawn Lynch blossom into the running back that emerged with the great run in last year’s playoff or will he revert back to the on again, off again runner he was in Buffalo?? This team will win a few games early but will descend to search mode as they need to find out who they are. They still don’t have an identity and the second half of the season will be a struggle for Coach Carroll and his team.

As for the Arizona Cardinals, congratulations on finding a quarterback in Kevin Kolb but you spent too much for him. Should have kept Rodgers-Cromartie and had the division’s best cornerback tandem with he and Patrick Peterson. Yes go ahead and start the rookie and let him take his lumps.  The Cardinals are still anemic rushing the football and teams can gang up on Larry Fitzgerald now that Steve Breaston is gone to Kansas City. Early Doucet and Andre Roberts have to have early success at receiver on the other side or this team will have a long season on offense. Kolb will be out to prove that he is a top flight quarterback and he should have kept his job in Philadelphia. Truth is, he played like he was given the job and not one that he earned. Both Mike Vick and Kafka from Northwestern had better statistics in last year’s pre-season.

Yet Kolb will solidify this franchise’s quarterback situation for the first time since Neil Lomax. Yes Kurt Warner was outstanding for 2 years, we mean a quarterback to build a franchise around for a 5-7 year run. He needs one of his other receivers to emerge to begin the process. On defense this team is in a little bit of flux so they need to break out on offense to win games. They just don’t have enough horses to do that at this point.

San Francisco needs to blow the team up and start from scratch. You have Colin Kaepernick as a quarterback, who isn’t ready, and busts Alex Smith and Troy Smith to man the position until he is. The first item up for bids is to trade Frank Gore for several draft picks to an AFC team. The Browns, Bengals, Patriots, Bills, Colts, all need a marquee running back. Several of those teams want to get over the hump and think they are a running back away, capitalize on it and get some draft picks.  Especially a team you can expect to underwhelm and get even higher draft picks from the resultant record. With an anemic offense and an underachieving receiving corp in Michael Crabtree and Ted Ginn Jr, expect 8 man fronts to limit Gore’s effectiveness anyway. He wants to be traded and won’t run hard once the team dips out of contention, so alleviate that problem.

Right now go with Vernon Davis as your leader on offense and Patrick Willis on defense. Treat the 2011 campaign as a prolonged preseason and see who will fit Coach Harbaugh’s future roster. Don’t be surprised if former Stanford Cardinal Toby Gerhart doesn’t find his way to the bay to join next year’s draft pick Andrew Luck (Stanford) if the 49ers finish 3-13 as we think they will. The rebirth of the 49ers could just be in it’s beginning phases and this is a glimpse into next year for 49er fans to get excited about.

Next up: NFC South

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Steelers best Ravens again

Steelers 31-24

Steelers beat the Ravens in the playoffs again, this time a 31-24 defeat in the divisional round.  The Steelers solidified they are the better of the two by winning a second time against their rival in the playoffs in three years.  What became evident as the game moved into the second half was the difference in the quarterbacks.  Ben Roethlisberger’s stature grew at the critical juncture of the game where Flacco seemed to wilt as though the game was too big for him.   Even when the Ravens were leading his throws were short and were quick dump offs to Ray Rice.  He challenged downfield a few times each throw was late and the defender was right there.  Once Ike Taylor was right in Derrick Mason’s hip pocket and the other Mason had to stop to break up what would have been an interception by William Gay.  Where was Anquan Boldin? 

The real issue was the stature of Ben Roethlisberger and how the magnitude of the event doesn’t phase him, in fact he thrives in it.  Anymore late game heroics its time to talk about him in the John Elway mold.  He’s won late games in the regular season, playoffs, and the Super Bowl XLIII pass to Santonio Holmes with seconds left is one of the greatest throws in history.  Yesterday as the Steelers got the ball back, I joked on my facebook page; “If you want to know why I voted Ben Roethlisberger #2 behind Tom Brady, watch this”.  Its become that common place. You saw the confidence in his eyes as he walked onto the field.  The epitome of swagger, and in his body english, spirit, and words engenders confidence in his teammates.  As Coach Tomlin said ‘he doesn’t blink and his teammates follow him’. Enough said…

So where does Baltimore go from here? They need a quarterback exchange.  A trade for Kevin Kolb would be the ideal situation.  The Steelers aren’t about to go anywhere.  They are one of the oldest teams in football but look at this young , speedy recieving corp they are putting together. Ben is still young and most of the defensive stars are in the middle of their career.  Flacco’s confidence hasn’t improved and in a league with Aaron Rodgers coming of age yesterday, Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman, Mark Sanchez and all these young quarterbacks coming on, he needed to have shown more improvement. Yet his confidence even hampered the way the Ravens coaches with the play calling.  Ray Lewis is near retirement and new leaders have to emerge and Flacco struggles there as well.  You have to get another quarterback, Ravens I hate to say.

A friend of mine told me that I might be over reacting and then I had to remind him of David Woodley.  A young quarterback for the Miami Dolphins who took his team to Super Bowl XVII. Even though he had his issues that had coach Shula replace him on occasion, he had a lead at halftime yet could only complete 1 pass in the second half in a 27-17 loss.  Now he could have stayed with Woodley, instead he drafted Dan Marino 3 months later.  Know when you have seen enough.  When it comes to Joe Flacco I have.