NFC West: Cardinals Collapse in Atlanta, Lose Sixth Straight
By Brandon Burnett
Cold, Hard Football Facts Wizard of the NFC West (@B_Burnett49er)
Leave it to the Arizona Cardinals to make Matt Ryan the first NFL quarterback since Bart Starr in 1967 to win a game despite throwing for five interceptions and no touchdowns.
These birds are fly like that.
Unlike John Skelton, however, Ryan's performance didn't result in a seat on the cold, hard bench. Ken Whisenhunt grew so tired of the lack of production from his passing game that he replaced Skelton with rookie (and sixth-round pick who had never thrown an NFL pass) Ryan Lindley.
Sorry, Ken. It's simply out of your hands at this point.
Arizona's 23-19 loss to the Falcons was as painful as they come. Its defense forced six turnovers and held Atlanta's ground game to 2.4 yards per carry, yet somehow it wasn't enough.
I'm not sure which is more pathetic: The Rams losing at home to a Jets' squad which hadn't won in the past month, or Arizona's unmatchable desire to extend its losing streak at all costs.
Whatever the case, we can now confidently say the NFC West is a two-team race.
1. The Cardinals have been pretending all along.
So, about that 4-0 start...
The competition has been tough, with Atlanta serving as Arizona's fourth straight quality opponent. Even so, losing a game in which you finished +5 in turnover differential is unacceptable regardless of opponent.
The Cards, behind LaRod Stephens-Howling's 127 yards on 22 carries, even out-gained Atlanta on the ground 137-58.
Of, course, that's not the whole story. Let's break down exactly what went wrong here.
Of Arizona's 14 drives, 11 of them failed to produce a first down. 13 of the Cardinals' 19 points came on drives that went no further than nine yards apiece. The offense converted on just two of its 16 third-down attempts.
And instead of thanking the defense for starting it inside mid-field numerous times, 'Zona's offense allowed defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux to return a fumble recovery for a score unattested—mistaking it for an incomplete pass.
Perhaps the Cardinals' last chance at salvaging what at one time resembled a promising season ran away with Babineaux.
Truth be told, it probably wasn't meant to be from the start. Arizona finished the 2011 tied for No. 31 in our Offensive Hog Index. After doing little to actually strengthen the unit this offseason (drafting two late-round tackles and signing overpaid and under-performing guard in Adam Snyder), it should come as little surprise the Cardinals' O-line is in sole possession of No. 32 in OHI in 2012.
Arizona also finished 2011 at No. 29 in Real Quarterback Rating and came into Week 11 sitting at No. 30 this season. No playoff team from 2011 finished outside the top 20 in RQBR.
2. You know your season is over when...
You lose to the Jets by two touchdowns, and Mark Sanchez completes 75 percent of his passes.
And he did it in your house.
Come on, St. Louis. Tying the defending NFC West champs in their house is a noteworthy accomplishment for any squad coming off a two-win season. But you follow it up with a 27-13 loss to a team that reeks of underachievement? Sanchez hasn't completed 75 percent of his throws in one game since Week 12 in 2009. The Jets came into the game at No. 31 in Real Quarterback Rating.
Not only did the Rams fail to force a single turnover, they committed three of their own. The offense that looked formidable against a tough 49ers defense took only two of its drives further than 26 yards against the J-E-T-S Jets.
St. Louis scored first and last in this game, but the Jets accounted for 27 unanswered points in between. The Rams started fast and finished strong, but things got away from them quickly during their mid-game nap.
Coming into Week 11 needing to gain 18.57 yards for every point scored (No. 28 in Scoreability) St. Louis proved to be even more inefficient against New York, finishing with 21.61 YPPS on the day.
Any shot at the postseason for the 3-6-1 Rams is now realistically dead and gone, but that lack of offensive efficiency is a good place for Jeff Fisher to begin directing his focus.
3. Who will win the race to the bottom of the NFC West?
Arizona hasn't won a game since Week 4, and the Rams haven't notched a victory since Week 5 against the Cardinals.
They may not like it, but one team must win in Week 12. Well, maybe not. The Niners and Rams tied in Week 10, and the Texans couldn't put away the Jaguars until there was two minutes left in overtime Sunday.
St. Louis travels to Arizona next week with a chance to sweep the season series. If the Rams are successful, they'll make the long-awaited leap out of the NFCW cellar and stuff the Cards in it on their way out.
Even if the Rams drop this one, I still see Arizona overtaking fourth place before season's end. They'll draw the Jets and Seahawks on the road after St. Louis, followed by home games against Detroit and Chicago before the season finale at San Francisco. The Cardinals will have no difficulties finding ways to lose at least four of those five games.
The Rams' remaining schedule is equally tough, but at least they've displayed the potential to tie their way out of last place.
4. How will Monday Night Football impact the NFCW standings?
Until they host the Bears Monday night, the 49ers are now the only NFCW team that hasn't played 10 games in 2012.
San Francisco can not only overtake sole possession of the No. 2 seed in the NFC with a win, it can extend its lead over the Seahawks to one and a half games. At 6-4, Seattle is now two games up on the third-place Cardinals but one behind the 6-2-1 Niners.
If the 49ers lose to Chicago, the Seahawks will control their destiny in the NFCW race. They host the Niners in Week 16, and would be just a half-game back of SF with a Bears' win.
Another plus for Seattle is that its remaining schedule is arguably the easiest of any NFCW team. It hosts each NFCW foe once before the year is over in addition to making trips to Miami and Buffalo.
If the Bears win Monday night, we'll have a race on our hands, NFC West fans.
5. Looking ahead to Week 12.
As previously mentioned, the Rams will travel to Arizona in Week 12. The winner (if there is one) can keep its faint postseason hopes alive. A St. Louis loss means the Rams cannot win more than eight games in 2012. A Cardinals loss would mean a seven-game losing streak, one worse than the six-game slide endured a season ago.
Seattle hits the road fresh off a bye to meet the Dolphins in the Sunshine State. The Seahawks have won two straight, and Miami has dropped three in a row. Their only home wins in 2012 have come against the Raiders and Rams—not exactly quality opponents. The 'Hawks, though, are 1-5 on the road this year.
San Francisco heads to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for a rematch of last year's NFC Divisional playoff game. That matchup was at the 'Stick, but the Niners must now take down a Saints' squad that has found its stride, winning five of its last six.
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