Around the NFC West: Cardinals making history

An inside look at each of the four teams in the NFC West division along with report cards for each from Sunday's games.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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For years, the Cardinals have been like the guy who drives around with his car's blinker on: They were always threatening to turn a corner.

This year, however, they just might be serious about it.

At 4-2, they have a two-game lead in the downtrodden NFC West. They will be hard to knock out of that position as long as they continue to play well at home, where they are 9-2 in two seasons under Ken Whisenhunt.

The Cardinals have won their last six games at home, their longest streak since 1975-76. Protecting home field is usually one of the first steps a team takes on the road to respectability.

Winning on the road, at least occasionally, is the next one. The Cardinals are 3-8 away from Arizona under Whisenhunt, and they know they have to improve in that regard.

"That's the next step for us," Whisenhunt said. "We've got to take this home show on the road."

For now, however, the Cardinals are content to rest and savor a 30-24 overtime victory over the Cowboys. This is the Cardinals' bye week and they could use the rest. Several key players are dealing with injuries, and the week off should help them immensely.

"I think we do get to enjoy it," Whisenhunt said of Sunday's victory. "That was a big win. There was a lot of hype, a lot of attention that went with that. We found a way to win the game, even though a lot of times it seemed like things were stacked against us. That gives us confidence going into the bye week and even into our next game."

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Whisenhunt didn't regret calling for an onside kick with the score 14-14 in the third quarter.

"There's a lot of thought that went into that," he said. "There was a lot of preparation that went into that. We had a lot of momentum on our side, and I felt if we had gotten that ball at that point in time, we could have put the game away."

One local columnist called it a needless gamble.

"First of all, I don't consider it a gamble," Whisenhunt said. "Second of all, I didn't consider it needless. I thought it was something that could help us win that game."

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Dallas QB Tony Romo had been sacked only four times in the first five games. The Cardinals added three to that total Sunday.

"They were very disruptive up front," Romo said, "and give them credit. That was as good a D-line as I've felt I've gone against in a long time."

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RB J.J. Arrington, inactive the first four games, has made big plays in the past two games. He had a 93-yard touchdown return to open Sunday's game.

"We thought the ball was going to go right, but it went left," Arrington said. "I didn't know what I should do, so I just ran it to the outside and everybody was blocked."

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The Cardinals blocked a punt and returned it for a score to end the game in overtime. It's the first time in NFL history that a game has ended that way. It's the first time since the merger in 1970 that a team has scored a touchdown on the first and last plays of the game.

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The Cardinals (4-2) have a winning record after six games for just the third time since moving to Arizona in 1988.

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REPORT CARD VS. COWBOYS

PASSING OFFENSE: A -- Kurt Warner didn't have eye-popping stats (22 of 30, 236 yards, two TDs, one interception) but he was accurate and courageous. He was hit on almost every throw yet delivered the ball accurately time and again. Steve Breaston has emerged as a go-to receiver.
RUSHING OFFENSE D -- The Cardinals never mustered much of a ground game. Edgerrin James carried only nine times, with backup Tim Hightower getting seven carries. It's too early to say if that's just a one-game thing or if it will become a trend.
PASS DEFENSE: B -- Tony Romo passed for three touchdowns, but he was under pressure all day, and he fumbled twice. Terrell Owens didn't hurt the Cardinals, but RB Marion Barber did some damage.
RUSH DEFENSE: A -- Barber didn't find much room to run, as the Cardinals defensive front dominated. The Cowboys' vaunted offensive line never opened many holes.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A -- The Cardinals scored two special teams touchdowns, on a kick return and a blocked punt return that won the game. An excellent effort that proved to be the difference in the game.
COACHING: B -- The offense struggled early, but the team began to click in the second half as the coaches opened up the game plan. Defensively, the Cardinals were excellent. Ken Whisenhunt got a little daring with an onside kick with the score tied at 14 in the third quarter.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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Ever since he was named head coach of the Rams after the firing of Scott Linehan, Jim Haslett has delivered one consistent message: Don't hang your heads after bad plays. Keep playing. Respond to adversity because there will be adversity.

And that's what happened in Sunday's 19-17 victory over the Washington Redskins. The adversity started early. The Rams had 12 players on the field on Washington's first third-down attempt. It gave the Redskins a first down.
The Rams stopped them, but Dante Hall wasn't able to field a short punt, and it was downed at the 3-yard line. On the second play, running back Steven Jackson fumbled, the Redskins recovered, and on the next play, Clinton Portis scored.

Haslett said Monday, "I was actually laughing at the time. I said to one of the coaches, 'I've been talking about dealing with adversity all week, and it's sure starting early.'"

But the Rams responded. They forced three turnovers in the first half, the first for the Redskins on offense this season. All three were in Rams territory. One, a fumble by guard Pete Kendall, who caught a deflected pass and tried to run, was returned 75 yards for a touchdown by safety Oshiomogho Atogwe with nine seconds left in the first half. The Rams led 10-7 instead of trailing 10-3 or 14-3.

By the time the game ended, the Rams had 168 fewer yards, 14 fewer first downs and 105 fewer rushing yards. But a 49-yard field goal by Josh Brown on the final play won the game, and even that was made more difficult because of a 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on guard Richie Incognito.

Said Haslett, "I think they handled it pretty well today. I'd say there were some adverse situations today. But that's the National Football League, and that's how it is. You have to give my guys credit; they worked their butts off today. It's not easy coming in here and winning."

Said Atogwe: "The first quarter of the season is over and done with. We had to just get on with the rest of the season's ballgames and see what we can do with it. I think that everyone took that approach. We came in with new energy and a new resolve about how we wanted to handle the season."

Of course, the trip to Washington would have been a disappointing one had rookie receiver Donnie Avery not made the catch he did on third-and-13 and if Brown hadn't calmly drilled the 49-yard field goal that won the game.

The Rams had squandered a 16-7 fourth-quarter lead and were trailing 17-16 with 1:13 remaining and the ball on their own 41-yard line. Three plays earlier, quarterback Marc Bulger had connected with Avery on a 12-yard pass on third-and-2. On the next third down, Avery streaked down the right sideline and made an outstanding adjustment to the inside en route to a diving catch for a 43-yard gain.

It was left to Bulger to break things down to their bare essentials, noting the fine line that exists between winning and losing in the roller-coaster NFL.

"Coach Haslett did a good job," Bulger said. "He got us on point, and we knew exactly what is expected of us. There are no question marks. He is a fiery guy. We made plays when we had to, (but) if Donnie doesn't make that play, then there are a lot of question marks."

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In two weeks as head coach, Haslett has made it fun to come to work again, not only for his team, but for the whole franchise.

Haslett met with the entire organization Oct. 6 and told them they are all a part of what is trying to be accomplished. He invited everyone to practice. He told them to bring their families. Last Friday, about 10 staffers were at practice.

After the win over Washington, Haslett said game balls will go "to the people in the building. They supported us. They came to practice, hung signs. You don't win in this league with just players and coaches. You win with an entire organization. The marketing side, the business side, everyone has to be as one. When the players do well, it makes their job a little easier. We need to unite this building and make them feel good about themselves."

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Haslett took part of the blame for the over-the-top behavior of G Richie Incognito, who was whistled for two unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties, including one in the final minute that forced Josh Brown to kick a 49-yard field goal instead of one from 34 yards.

Haslett said he talked to Incognito about being nasty and aggressive in the game, but he acknowledged that Incognito crossed the line.

"I kinda overdid it," Haslett said, "but he has to understand there's a fine line. When Richie plays his best football, he's aggressive. He played an outstanding game, but he doesn't have to do those extra things. If we had lost that game, he might not be here today."

Haslett talked to Incognito extensively Monday, and he said Incognito has to realize officials are watching him closely. QB Marc Bulger addressed that when he said, "It's tough to calm him down when he's going. Richie's always talking. Going at it. I knew from the get-go ... the refs have a book going into a game. They know who to look for. They came at him during the first series. I tried to warn him they were going to go after him. You don't want him to go that far, but he can get the D-line off their game a little bit. It's nice to have a guy with a little bit of nasty in him."

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After Incognito's penalty, Haslett had one play run into the middle of the line and let the clock run down to two seconds. He had more confidence in K Josh Brown than in the offense getting some of the 15 yards back.

Said Haslett, "I told (Brown) that (he is) by far the best kicker I have been around. And not from the standpoint of being a kicker; he's a great kicker, but the guy lets nothing bother him. He got a new holder this week (punter Donnie Jones), he's kicking off grass, and then he was supposed to kick from (34) yards and it got pushed back to (49). Nothing bothers him. He's awesome to be around, he's a team guy. He'll do anything for you. The guy's just the best, he really is."

Asked about the longer kick, Brown said, "It's still a chip shot; anything under 55 is still a chip shot. That's how you have to view it. It's not an arrogant thing; it's not a cocky thing. I've made this a thousand times. I did. I made it all week this week. (He kicked a 61-yard field goal in practice.) You can't overstress. You hit the ball as you normally would and you watch it go through the yellow sticks. A lot of people want to make this a lot harder than it is. It really needs to be this way. You can talk yourself out of a lot of great opportunities."

When the large crowd at FedExField was mentioned, Brown got off the line of the year. Referring back to his days with the Seahawks, he said, "In Seattle, they're crazy, they're loud, they love that excitement. I had to learn how to feed off all those things. I did. (Here, it's) 92,000 people screaming at you.

"You ever see one man control 92,000 people? You just did."

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REPORT CARD VS. REDSKINS

PASSING OFFENSE: C -- QB Marc Bulger was 15 of 26 for 136 yards with a passer rating of 72.0, and he was lucky to avoid two interceptions. However, the biggest play of the game was a 43-yard pass to rookie Donnie Avery that put the Rams in position for the winning field goal. Without that catch, Bulger had just 93 yards and averaged 6.6 yards per completion.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus -- RB Steven Jackson was exactly at his season average of 3.6 yards per carry, totaling 79 yards on 22 attempts. Most of Jackson's best runs came when Bulger was in the shotgun formation with the defense spread. Jackson's longest run was just 9 yards.
PASS DEFENSE: B-minus -- QB Jason Campbell had a passer rating of 93.1, but he had no touchdown passes and threw for just 208 yards. The Rams got to Campbell for four sacks, and one of the three turnovers was a fumble by OG Pete Kendall after he caught a deflected pass.
RUSH DEFENSE: C -- The Redskins rushed for 181 yards, with Clinton Portis leading the way with 129 on 21 carries. The average per attempt was 5.8 yards, but the Rams did reduce the big plays against them.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A -- This was one of the best all-around special teams performances the team has had in a long time. It starts, of course, with PK Josh Brown's four field goals, which included kicks of 51 yards and the 49-yard game-winner. Brown also had two touchbacks on kickoffs, and the longest kickoff return against was 28 yards. P Donnie Jones averaged 47.2 yards with a 40.7 net, with two inside the 20. The coverage team limited PR Antwaan Randle El to 19 yards on four returns with one fair catch. Rams KR Dante Hall had his best day of the season after letting two short punts bounce at the beginning of the game. Hall had a 32-yard kickoff return and 34-yard punt return.
COACHING: A -- It wasn't pretty, but coach Jim Haslett had his team play hard and hang in the entire game. The victory snapped an eight-game losing streak dating back to last season, and this was the first time in seven games that the Rams allowed fewer than 31 points.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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The San Francisco 49ers have gotten unsteady play from their defense, but head coach Mike Nolan said no changes are coming.

The 49ers rank 26th in the league in total defense through six games. They have surrendered 30 points or more in each of the past three games. But no changes are going to be made, Nolan said.

"I'm looking for us to play better, and more than anything else, I think the players that we've got on the field are competent, quality players, and we have to do a better job," Nolan said.

The 49ers have a veteran defense, including the league's most-experienced starting secondary with cornerbacks Nate Clements and Walt Harris, and safeties Mark Roman and Michael Lewis.

"How can a veteran defense make mistakes? Same as a rookie does - just not having attention to detail," Nolan said. "We're looking at the whole package. It's not like we're saying, 'Play better or we're not going to get better.' We need to play every facet of the game."

Nolan is heavily involved with defensive coordinator Greg Manusky in putting together the defensive game plan. Nolan and Manusky talk a lot about the strategy for the game through Saturday. On game days, Manusky takes over the bulk of the play calls. Nolan said he has not considered taking over the play-calling duties.

"We collectively discuss a lot of it," Nolan said. "There's not a whole lot of calls that I would've changed, but at the same time we look at where can we do our part to assist the players."

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Linebacker Patrick Willis wore the radio transmitter for the first time this season to relay play calls from the sideline to his defensive teammates in the huddle. Up until Sunday's game, safety Mark Roman held that responsibility.

"I liked it," Willis said. "I had a good week of practice and felt comfortable doing it."

Willis recorded a team-high eight tackles, but missed an opportunity in the fourth quarter to record an interception deep in 49ers' territory. He couldn't hold onto Donovan McNabb's pass for Baskett. Two plays later, the Eagles kicked the go-ahead field goal.

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Allen Rossum got the first offensive start of his NFL career, when he lined up at receiver on the first play of the game. Rossum also caught his first NFL pass - a 4-yarder - in the game. Rossum had nine previous NFL starts, all at cornerback. Earlier this season, he scored his first offensive touchdown on an end around.

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Nolan challenged a call on Sunday that he probably should not have been allowed to challenge in the first place. After Eagles' kicker David Akers' go-ahead 38-yard field goal was ruled good, Nolan said he asked the officials if he could challenge the call.

Field goals can only be challenged if it was ruled to be below the top of the upright. Referee Ron Winter informed Nolan the kick was below the upright, thus making it challengeable. The call was not overturned, as replays seemed to show the ball was over the upright, making any use of replace inconclusive.

"They have to correct that," Nolan said. "There's got to be some kind of signal that says it's not only good but it's not challengeable or it is. Obviously, that didn't cost us the game. But anyway, it's something they've got to fix."

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REPORT CARD VS. EAGLES

PASSING OFFENSE: D -- For a good portion of the game, the passing game did a good job against the aggressive Eagles defense. But it all fell apart in the fourth quarter. J.T. O'Sullivan was sacked three times (all in the fourth quarter). He committed three turnovers (all in the fourth quarter), including two interceptions. The lone bright spot was the emergence of tight end Vernon Davis, who caught six passes for 75 yards.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- Frank Gore topped the 100-yard mark for the second time this season despite rushing just 19 times. He also scored a touchdown. The 49ers did a good job on the ground. However, backup DeShaun Foster was stopped for no gain on a third-and-1 run. All in all, the 49ers gained 131 yards rushing on 27 carries (4.9 average) despite Delanie Walker's disastrous 10-yard loss on an end-around in the fourth quarter.
PASS DEFENSE: D-minus -- Cornerback Walt Harris had a poor day in coverage and had an illegal contact penalty. Donovan McNabb tore apart the 49ers, as he completed 23 of 36 passes for 280 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. The 49ers were unable to get any pressure on McNabb, who was not sacked. It was a poor game from the 49ers' pass rush and the secondary.
RUSH DEFENSE: D -- The Eagles did not have Brian Westbrook on the field, but it didn't seem to matter. Correll Buckhalter rushed for 93 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries. The 49ers' defensive line was driven off the ball, allowing Buckhalter to average 5.2 yards per rushing attempt.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- Ray McDonald and Donald Strickland combined for a huge momentum-changing play at the end of the first half. McDonald blocked a punt and Strickland picked it up and raced 41 yards for a touchdown to cut the 49ers' deficit to one point at halftime. But the 49ers' coverage units gave up a lot of yards. Andy Lee did not punt well, especially in the fourth quarter. Joe Nedney had a strong day with field goals of 32, 37, 53 and 29 yards.
COACHING: F -- The coaching staff failed on all fronts. Mike Nolan wasted two replay challenges, while failing to challenge a more critical third-down play in the first quarter that would've prevented the Eagles from scoring a touchdown. The defensive game plan was vanilla. They failed to get any pressure on McNabb. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz inexplicably went away from the run game in the fourth quarter when the 49ers needed to control the clock. Of the 16 offensive plays the 49ers ran in the fourth quarter, Gore touched the ball just twice.


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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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The Seattle Seahawks will be missing quarterback Matt Hasselbeck for one more week, meaning they will be playing with a backup when they face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday night.

Hasselbeck had not sufficiently recovered from a hyperextended knee he suffered against the New York Giants on Oct. 5, so he went to see a specialist in Los Angeles on Sunday night.

The specialist, according to Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, said that Hasselbeck is experiencing weakness in the knee because of a bulging disc in his back, a topic that was derided by the team as overblown earlier in the season.

When a report surfaced on Sept. 7 that Hasselbeck had a bulging disc that required an injection, Holmgren said that everybody of a certain age has a bulging disc and that it is nothing to be concerned about. Hasselbeck said the same thing in his meeting with reporters after losing to Buffalo.

Now, it turns out, the back is a bigger issue than the Seahawks let on and it will cost the 33-year-old Hasselbeck a second consecutive game, at least. Holmgren said Hasselbeck will undergo rehab designed to allow him to play against the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 26, if all goes well.

Who will replace Hasselbeck remains to be seen. Charlie Frye started in a 27-17 loss to Green Bay because Seneca Wallace had re-aggravated a calf injury during the week and was limited in what he could do.

Frye, however, threw for only 83 yards and had two interceptions.

Wallace is a possibility to play against the Buccaneers, though Holmgren said he will have to see him practice and make progress before he decided whether he will be able to start on Sunday, in part because if he loses mobility it cuts into the playbook.

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John Madden will not be a part of the Sunday night broadcast of the game between Seattle and Tampa Bay. It breaks a string of 476 consecutive games in the booth for Madden over 28 years. Since Madden does not fly, he would have had to drive from Florida to California and back to Florida in a three-week stretch.

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Holmgren said he disagreed with a holding call on Seattle offensive lineman Mike Wahle that negated a 51-yard run by Julius Jones on Sunday and that he would send a tape of the game to the league to complain - not that it will do any good.

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REPORT CARD VS. PACKERS

PASSING OFFENSE: D -- With Charlie Frye playing quarterback, the Seahawks managed only 83 yards through the air, their lowest production since 2001. Frye threw two interceptions and was not able to complete a pass to Bobby Engram, who had eight catches the week before. The Seahawks were four for 11 on third-down conversions, two of which came late in the fourth quarter.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- The grade may have been better were it not for a controversial holding penalty called against left guard Mike Wahle, which negated a 51-yard gain by Julius Jones. At the time, the score was tied at 10. Thereafter, the Packers took the lead and Seattle was forced to abandon its running game. Jones had only 44 yards on 12 carries and the team had 113 yards rushing, 30 of which came on two scrambles by Charlie Frye.
PASS DEFENSE: D -- The numbers they gave up were not huge - 208 yards passing - but they consistently were not able to get stops on third down. The Packers were 10 for 18 in third down conversions, and Aaron Rodgers had a 111.5 passer rating that included a 45-yard TD pass to Greg Jennings.
RUSH DEFENSE: A -- The Seahawks limited Ryan Grant to just 90 yards on 33 carries, a 2.7-yard average. The longest run they gave up was a 17-yarder. The rush defense kept putting Green Bay in third down situations, but the pass defense was unable to get stops.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- They weren't great, but they didn't really hurt the Seahawks the way they have in the past. Olindo Mare made another field goal, his 10th in 10 attempts, and punter Jon Ryan, facing his former team, averaged 48.8 yards a punt, including a 62-yarder. However, the punt coverage team also allowed a 46-yard return that set up a score.
COACHING: D - Mike Holmgren displayed very little confidence in quarterback Charlie Frye and called a conservative game that featured very little imagination. Defensively, the Seahawks blitzed time and again and rarely were able to get to quarterback Aaron Rodgers.



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