NFC West: 49ers Head to St. Louis as They Close in on Division Crown
By Brandon Burnett
Cold, Hard Football Facts Wizard of the NFC West (@B_Burnett49er)
If the 49ers defeat the Rams this weekend, the Cardinals will officially be eliminated from NFC West contention.
After a 4-0 start, that's what it has come to in Arizona.
Luckily for Cardinals fans, the NFL will pin two 4-7 teams in the midst of a complete collapse against one another when AZ travels to New York to take on the Jets Sunday.
You'll pass on that snooze-fest? OK, the NFC West does have a couple decent matchups in store this weekend. Seattle heads to Chicago in a pivotal battle carrying playoff implications. The Seahawks are 6-5 and locked in the No. 6 seed, while the Bears currently occupy the NFC's No. 3 seed at 8-3.
Meanwhile, San Francisco heads to St. Louis to find out if these two can actually determine a winner this time. The two NFCW foes settled for a very unsatisfying, 24-24 tie Week 10 at Candlestick Park.
Here are five things to look for in Week 13.
1. Danny Amendola's availability means everything to this game. (49ers vs. Rams)
It's no secret that Danny Amendola is a difference maker. This year alone the Rams are 4-3-1 when he steps on the field and 0-3 when he sits out.
Against San Francisco earlier this month, the shifty wideout caught 11 passes for 102 yards and would've had plenty more if his 80-yard catch in OT wouldn't have been called back due to an irrelevant illegal formation penalty.
For the season, St. Louis is No. 17 in Offensive Passer Rating. Without Amendola for all but one game in 2011, the Rams finished at No. 31 in OPR. That alone says a lot about what he means to this team.
The 49ers don't need any help defensively. SF comes into the game at No. 1 in Bendability and Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt, No. 2 in our Defensive Hog Index and No. 4 in Defensive Passer Rating. They just scored two pick-sixes in one game against Drew Brees, in the Superdome no less.
If Amendola plays (and serves as more than just a decoy), it's been proven that he can frustrate the 49ers for 60 minutes—and more if need be. CB Carlos Rogers in particular, who covers slot receivers in the Niners nickel package, struggles with the Rams' stud WR.
2. Harbaugh's going with Kaepernick again, but is it the right move?
Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith under center for the 49ers when Smith suffered a concussion in the first half against the Rams in Week 10, and still isn't giving the job back.
Smith has been cleared to play and has a passer rating of 104.1 this season, but Jim Harbaugh has opted to ride the hot(ter) hand and stick with Kaepernick, who has now won each of his first two NFL starts.
Is it a smart move? There are less physical limitations with Kaepernick, but Smith was having a year even better than last year's career-best campaign before his injury against St. Louis. Hell, he had completed 25 of his last 27 passes with four TDs and no interceptions.
It's a tough decision, as Kaepernick brings excitement and a cannon for an arm into the mix. Still, he's shown to be a bit more careless with the football than Smith, and that could eventually get him into trouble. With RB Kendall Hunter and WR Kyle Williams gone for the year (injured on the same play, no less), the offense grows even more inexperienced.
Kaepernick survived his first road test in New Orleans, but St. Louis is No. 15 in DPR whereas the Saints are No. 29. CB Janoris Jenkins ran two interceptions back for scores against Arizona last week.
3. The Seahawks need more than Russell Wilson to pull an upset in Chicago. (Seahawks vs. Bears)
Seattle is one of six NFL teams with five home wins in 2012. In fact, the 'Hawks are undefeated at CenturyLink Field at 5-0. The problem is they have as many road losses as home wins.
At 1-5 out on the lonely road, Seattle is very much an underdog against the Bears this weekend.
It's looking like they'll have their talented duo of CB's in action, who will serve a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance enhancing drug policy, pending appeal. If the appeal is not heard before this weekend, Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman will play.
A four-game suspension to two of the better defensive backs in football would likely be a dagger through the heart of Seattle's season. Even if they do suit up against Chicago, the 'Hawks need plenty of help outside of the secondary and their ever-improving rookie quarterback, Russell Wilson.
Wilson completed 21 of 27 attempts for 224 yards, 2 TD and 0 INT with a passer rating of 125.9 last week, but it still wasn't enough to beat the Dolphins. Now he'll be facing a defense that is No. 1 in DPR and No. 2 in Bendability.
The key is to get Beast Mode up and running again. Marshawn Lynch crashed against Miami, rushing for just 46 yards on 19 carries after four straight 100-yard performances. The Bears have the league's best pass defense but are No. 19 in Defensive Rushing Yards per Attempt.
4. Can the Cardinals stout defense mask their offensive deficiencies this week? (Cards vs. Jets)
Arizona is No. 2 in DPR, but No. 31 in OPR. It's also No. 31 in Rushing Yards per Attempt and No. 32 in third-down conversion percentage. You simply cannot win in the NFL with such a poor offense.
Unless you're playing the Jets.
See, New York doesn't exactly field a defense capable of capitalizing on such glaring weaknesses. Being at home is an advantage, but the Jets are a middle-of-the-road team in DPR with no Darrelle Revis and have fallen to No. 28 in Bendability.
Plus, New York proved last week at home against the Patriots that finding creative ways to lose is no issue for this team. The Jets allowed 35 second-quarter points in a 49-19 loss, with three TDs coming in a span of 52 seconds. Yeah, 52 seconds.
Arizona was able to intercept Matt Ryan five times in the Georgia Dome, so I imagine they'll fare decently well against Mark Sanchez in New York. The Cardinals are No. 4 in Defensive Hog Index, where the Jets are No. 26 in Offensive Hog Index. So, dominating in the trenches defensively should come with ease for AZ.
Still, having lost seven straight, it's no wonder that the Jets are favored by 4.5 points. With third-string rookie QB Ryan Lindley under center for a second-straight week, I'm surprised it isn't more.
5. Predicting Post-Week 13 NFCW Standings (1-2 in Week 12)
1. San Francisco 49ers (9-2-1)
Whether or not Danny Amendola plays, I see the Niners coming out on top against St. Louis. I'd be more concerned with how Colin Kaepernick performs in his third-straight start than with a dominant defensive unit that will be hungry to avenge a weak performance against the Rams in Week 10.
2. Seattle Seahawks (6-6)
I said I'll never trust Seattle on the road again, so this shouldn't come as a surprise. It's not hard to love the level Russell Wilson is playing at right now, but there's something about this team that makes it incapable of closing games away from home. The Bears are 5-1 at home and the Seahawks are 1-5 on the road. You do the math.
3. St. Louis Rams (4-7-1)
The 49ers haven't been able to put together a single three-game winning streak in 2012, so St. Louis does have that going. The Niners have four two-game winning streaks, but falter every third game. The Rams are out-manned in nearly every Quality Stat, but that didn't stop them from having every chance to win in San Francisco three weeks ago.
4. Arizona Cardinals (4-8)
Down the slippery slope they slide. Instead of the Cardinals being happy to see the Jets on the schedule, it's the other way around. New York is a mess. Arizona is a mess. At 2-4, the Jets hold little advantage being the home team. But Lindley at QB is a serious disadvantage for the Cards.
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