Around the NFC West: Cards can clinch title

Taking a look inside the camps of the 49ers three divisional rivals in the NFC West along with Week 11 report cards for each team.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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When a team has enjoyed only one winning season in 20 years and it hasn't won a division title in 33 years, every game becomes a proving ground.

That's what the Cardinals have faced this year. Whether it was trying to win on the East Coast, or beating a good team at home, or winning in Seattle, or winning three straight for the first time in 2002, every game has presented challenges.

So far, they have passed most of the tests. The Cardinals are 7-3 and could clinch the NFC West title by beating the Giants this Sunday, which will be their biggest challenge of the season.

Most of the Cardinals weren't quite ready to turn their attention to the Giants in the moments after the victory over Seattle on Sunday.

After all, it was their first victory in Seattle since 2002, and it dashed any remaining hopes the Seahawks had of winning a fifth consecutive NFC West title.

"You know, with this team (Seattle) being as good as they have been over the years and us having as many problems as we have had, it is nice to come in here and get a victory," Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner said. "I think the big thing for us is that we are starting to win some big games on the road, and we are playing better on the road."

Now comes the Cardinals' biggest challenge of the year: beating the Giants. The Giants are comfortable in Arizona, having won Super Bowl XLII there, and their defensive front presents some problems for the Cardinals passing attack.

"We know we are going to meet the best," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "This is the best team in football."

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The Cardinals could clinch their first division title since 1975 this week. If they beat the Giants and the rest of the division loses, the Cardinals are NFC West champs.

"I am excited about this win," DE Darnell Dockett said Sunday night. "But by the time I land in Phoenix, my mind will be focused on the Giants. I saw what the Giants did to Seattle up there. That should tell you something."

Dockett was just a little off on his facts. The Giants beat Seattle, 44-6, in New Jersey.

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SS Adrian Wilson's availability for the Giants game is in question because of his sack on Matt Hasselbeck.

If the NFL determines that the hit was helmet-to-helmet, Wilson could be suspended. He already has been fined $25,000 for a hit on Buffalo's Trent Edwards this year, and the league informed him that a $50,000 and a suspension could be imposed on his next infraction.

"I don't think it was a helmet-to-helmet hit," Wilson said. "Once again, they didn't throw the flag."

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CB Ralph Brown played most of the game after starter Rod Hood left with a rib injury. Brown held up well.

"I've been in the league nine years," Brown said. "I have a lot of experience, so when they needed me, I wanted to do my job."

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The Seahawks conceded the NFC West title to the Cardinals after the game and were gracious in acknowledging they won't win a fifth consecutive division championship.

"Really, all you can do is tip your hat to the other guy," said coach Mike Holmgren, who talked to Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and a few players after the game. "I talked to those guys who have battled like crazy, just like we did five or six years ago, when we were coming up. And when you get there, it's a wonderful feeling."

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Rookie CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had the first two interceptions of his career, and he had the two balls in his locker after the game. He's going to keep one, and he's not sure what he'll do with the other.

"I am going to get on this plane ride and just think about it and celebrate," Rodgers-Cromartie said.

REPORT CARD VS. SEAHAWKS

PASSING OFFENSE: A -- Kurt Warner had an interception and lost a fumble, but those things are bound to happen when you throw 44 times. He completed 18 of his first 20, and Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald combined for 23 catches and 337 yards.

RUSHING OFFENSE: D -- There just isn't much there for rookie Tim Hightower, who had 11 carries for 35 yards. Overall, the Cardinals ran 24 times for 76 yards. Their best running plays are draws and other misdirection plays.

PASS DEFENSE: A -- The Cardinals intercepted three Matt Hasselbeck passes and sacked him twice. A solid performance, especially with injury problems at cornerback.

RUSH DEFENSE: A -- The Cardinals filled every gap, rarely allowing the Seahawks a crease. Starting RB Julius Jones gained 19 yards on 10 carries.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-minus -- Neil Rackers made all four field goals, including a 54-yarder. He has made 13 straight. The coverage teams were sub-par, and the return teams aren't producing much.

COACHING: A -- The Cardinals won in Seattle for the first time since 2002, and they have a three-game winning streak for the first time since 2002. The offensive game plan was creative, and the defensive plan, which called for more blitzing up the middle, worked well.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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One thing the last three weeks of Rams football has shown is that the team's problems are a lot deeper than the head coach.

There was a momentary period of optimism after Jim Haslett was named to replace Scott Linehan following an 0-4 start, games that were lost by a combined score of 147-43.

But the past three games, including Sunday's 35-16 loss to San Francisco, have reverted back to that beginning.

In three losses to Arizona, the Jets and the 49ers, the Rams have been outscored 116-32, and each game has essentially been over by halftime, with the Rams trailing by a combined score of 99-10. In the past two games, they have been behind by a total of 75-3 after two quarters.

Each game has featured brutal stretches of play where turnovers created poor field position and led to many of those points. Sunday, the 49ers scored 28 points in a 10:04 span of the second quarter. The previous week, the Jets scored 17 points within 5:42 of the first quarter and another 23 points in 11:37 of the second quarter.

In the loss to Arizona that began the streak, the Cardinals scored 24 points in an 11:28 span of the second quarter. In the past two games, the Rams have had a total of eight turnovers in the first half.

"I'm kind of perplexed by it," coach Jim Haslett said after Sunday's game. "I'm not really sure what to say because we come out in the second half and end up playing a lot better."

Of course, the improved play in the second half the past two weeks came with the opponent nursing huge leads.

Still, three killer turnovers in the second quarter Sunday obscured the fact that the offense actually moved the ball. The Rams had 203 yards at halftime, including 85 yards rushing. Quarterback Marc Bulger was 12-for-19 for 127 yards, but his three turnovers helped the turn the game into a rout, along with a defense that once again gave up big play after big play.

In that fateful second quarter, Bulger couldn't handle a center exchange and San Francisco recovered. He then threw two interceptions on the next two possessions and the 49ers scored three touchdowns after getting the ball at the Rams' 16-yard line and at their own 40 and 44.

Center Nick Leckey took responsibility for the botched snap, while one of the interceptions was aided by wide receiver Donnie Avery stumbling and being too close to wide receiver Torry Holt, which allowed safety Michael Lewis to peel away from Avery and make the interception of the pass intended for Holt. The other interception was a deep pass to Avery that was underthrown.

Said Haslett, "Then we do nothing on defense to stop them from scoring every time they touch the ball except for the turnover in the first half. That was terrible."

As noted, big plays were again a problem for the defense. Of the 213 passing yards by quarterback Shaun Hill for the entire game, 151 came on five first-half plays. In addition, 89 of San Francisco's 135 rushing yards came on six of their 36 rushes.

The score would have likely been worse before the litany of turnovers had safety Oshiomogho Atogwe not punched the ball out of the arm of running back Frank Gore after a 37-yard run on San Francisco's first possession. The 49ers had 259 yards at halftime on 29 plays (8.9 yards per play) and 127 yards on their first three possessions on just 11 plays (11.5 yards per play).

Said Holt, "The first halves have been devastating for us as a football team and it's tough. It's tough to recover. You go in the half with a team up 40, up by 35 on you, 28 on you, but I would say the thing about our football team, we were coming out in the second half and we're fighting. We're not giving up and we're fighting. We are just down such a big deficit it's tough."

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In his first game against the Rams, WR Isaac Bruce had one reception for 20 yards. Bruce told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "Yeah. It was strange. Just watching guys run up and down on the field in the Rams uniform. All my friends. I had to catch myself a couple of times, because I was still cheering for Torry (Holt), still cheering for Marc (Bulger), hoping that they would still make plays. But of course, not too many.

"Part of me is still there. Part of me will always be there. So I sympathize. But they have great character, and they'll get this right."

Of course, 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz was the Rams' coordinator during the 1999 Super Bowl season and the head coach for the Super Bowl loss in 2001. His final season as head coach was 2005.

Asked if he's surprised the team is 5-21 since the start of the 2007 season, Martz said, "To be honest with you, no.

"Not really. That's kind of where it was going when I left. We were just fighting to keep it up. I was real proud of the way these guys worked and competed for me. We lost players each year, players kept leaving, and we just weren't able to replace them. But they kept playing and they competed well. I'm more proud of that than anything during my tenure there.

"Those were great years. We knew it was a special place in time. We tried to savor it as long as we could. That's a major part of my life, and I'll never forget it. Those will always be sweet memories."

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LT Orlando Pace played just nine games in 2006 and 2007, and now it is likely he will miss some more after injuring his right knee late in the first quarter against San Francisco.

Said Pace, who turned 33 on Nov. 4, "At this point, you've almost got to laugh about it. It's been a frustrating last few years for me."

Pace was diagnosed with a Grade 2 MCL injury and is expected to miss two-to-four weeks.

Adam Goldberg replaced Pace, and then after halftime, Brett Romberg replaced RG Richie Incognito, who suffered a strained rotator cuff. Incognito was having an MRI late Monday to determine the severity of his injury.

On defense, CB Ron Bartell suffered a knee injury in the first quarter that could be season ending if it's a torn meniscus. Bartell was replaced by Jason Craft.

Said Bartell, "I'm not going to jump to any conclusions till I see the MRI. If it's torn, then I'll deal with it, get surgery, and try to come back as soon as we can. Hopefully, it's a sprain or something."

It turned out there was no meniscus injury or bone bruise and that the injury was to his soft tissue. Bartell will be day to day and might be available for Sunday's game against the Bears.

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WR Derek Stanley played, but an ankle injury kept him from returning kickoffs and punts.

RB Travis Minor averaged 22.7 yards on kickoffs with a long of 34, but Dane Looker nearly lost a fumble on a punt return and totaled 19 yards on five returns. That included one 13-yard return, so his other four totaled six yards.

REPORT CARD VS. 49ERS

PASSING OFFENSE: D -- QB Marc Bulger passed 53 times, completing 34 for 295 yards, but a fumbled center exchange and two second-quarter interceptions led to 21 points and turned a 14-3 deficit into a 35-3 halftime score. WR Donnie Avery had nine receptions for 93 yards, while RB Kenneth Darby added 83 yards on six receptions. WR Torry Holt had five receptions for 60 yards.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- Not that it mattered much, but RB Antonio Pittman had a solid afternoon, gaining 95 yards on 14 attempts. But most of it came in the first half (10-for-69).

PASS DEFENSE: D -- 49ers QB Shaun Hill completed 75 percent of his passes for 213 yards and a passer rating of 142.3. In the first half, when the game was decided, Hill completed 12 of 14 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns. Five of the completions totaled 151 yards.

RUSH DEFENSE: D -- It wasn't horrible, but big plays once again were the story. RB Frank Gore had four runs of 10 yards or more, while Michael Robinson and DeShaun Foster each had one. Gore totaled 106 yards on 18 attempts.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- PK Josh Brown missed a 48-yard field goal that would have provided the team an early lead, and P Donnie Jones had one of his worst days of the season. A 41-yard punt by Jones in the first quarter was returned 29 yards to the Rams' 34-yard line and set up San Francisco's first touchdown. The return game was typically unimpressive.

COACHING: C -- There's not much to say, considering another first-half meltdown. Coach Jim Haslett is realizing what a daunting task he inherited.


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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said that the team's role, now that it is 2-8 and out of the race for the NFC West title, has changed from winning the division to playing spoiler.

It is not something Holmgren ever thought he would be saying in what is his final season as a head coach.

But now that they have lost their third consecutive game while the Arizona Cardinals improved to 7-3, Holmgren addressed the players and coaches on Monday morning and told them that they need to approach the remaining six games of the season in a professional manner.

"We're fortunate," Holmgren said. "And to cheapen that, or to take anything away from that opportunity by not giving it everything you have every week, regardless of how the team's doing, I would be very disappointed if the guys handled it that way. I don't think they will. I don't believe they will. Those are some of the things I talked to them about."

Holmgren did not disclose any tangible changes that he would make, though he did say there would be some.

He did not, however, think there would be significant personnel changes, in part because there have been so many injuries that Holmgren does not have the luxury of playing younger players in place of veterans.

The one thing Holmgren wanted to impress on them is that while he may be leaving the organization at the end of the year, others still are watching them perform. What they do now can affect their future.

"I think anytime you have a season like we're having, down the stretch, there are some ramifications that will be the result of how you play now, for next year. I think that's a consideration," Holmgren said.

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Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck on Sunday night said he thinks that some of Arizona's players should be fined this week for several of the hits they had on him. Though he did not say which play specifically, Hasselbeck was talking about Adrian Wilson's sack in which Hasselbeck was hit in the helmet. On Monday, Hasselbeck apologized to the Cardinals, saying he did not mean what he said on Sunday night.

"I think they played hard, I think they played physical, I think they played within the rules and with class," Hasselbeck said. "So I regret saying that. In fact, I hope nobody gets fined. I guess that's what I'd say."

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Hasselbeck was loopy in his postgame press conference following Sunday's loss to Arizona. He did not have a full explanation for what made him seem disoriented, though Mike Holmgren said Hasselbeck did not have a concussion.

"I don't know. I don't really know," Hasselbeck said. "I don't have a good answer for you. I've been asked that question, and I don't have an answer."

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REPORT CARD VS. CARDINALS

PASSING OFFENSE: D -- In his first game back in six weeks, Matt Hasselbeck made some good passes during his 17-for-29, 170-yard day. But he also threw three interceptions, including one on the first play of the Seahawks' final drive that squelched any opportunity to win the game. Hasselbeck's passer rating was 47.3. Rookie tight end John Carlson dropped a pass for a third consecutive game.

RUSHING OFFENSE: D-minus -- The Seahawks gained only 43 yards on 22 carries, though their one positive is that T.J. Duckett scored two touchdowns from inside the 5. Not only did Julius Jones gain 19 yards on 10 carries, but he also fumbled the ball, setting up an Arizona field goal.

PASS DEFENSE: F -- The Seahawks allowed Kurt Warner to complete 19 of his first 21 passes en route to 395 yards passing overall. Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald combined for 347 yards, the most two receivers in one game have gained against them in 22 years. Boldin had one play for 45 yards and Fitzgerald had one for 33 yards.

RUSH DEFENSE: B-plus -- The Seahawks have been decent against the run all season, and it wasn't difficult against a Cardinals team that loves to throw. Seattle held Arizona to 76 yards on 24 carries, a 3.2-yard average.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- Josh Wilson had another impressive return, this one for 54 yards that set up Seattle's first touchdown. Punter Jon Ryan had his best game of the year, averaging 44.5 yards on four punts, including a 59 yarder.

COACHING: C -- Defensive coordinator John Marshall went from zone coverage to man-to-man in the second half, cutting Kurt Warner's production in half. But by then it was too late. Mike Holmgren decided to go for it on fourth down in the fourth quarter, which got the Seahawks within striking distance. But they also had to burn a few timeouts because they had 12 men on the field on one play and 10 men on another.



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