Around the NFC West: Cards hosting title game

The Cardinals are preparing to host the NFL Championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, the Rams are deciding between five finalists for their head-coaching position and the Seahawks are settling in under new coach Jim Mora – the former 49ers defensive coordinator – as we take a look inside the camps of the 49ers' three divisional rivals in the NFC West.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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As they prepare to host the NFC championship game on Sunday, the Cardinals are attaching little significance to their game against the Eagles on Thanksgiving night. That's no surprise, since the Cardinals lost, 48-20, in a game in which they trailed, 21-0, midway through the second quarter.

The Cardinals had plenty of excuses not to play well, and they took themselves up on each one. They were coming off a difficult loss to the Giants the Sunday before, then had to fly across country on Wednesday, with little preparation, for an opponent they didn't know a lot about.

In addition, they had the NFC West nearly clinched, needing just one victory in their last five games. So when things turned ugly early in that game, they stayed that way.

"I've kind of tried to keep that game out of my mind, to be honest with you," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "We didn't handle that very well at all. And give Philadelphia credit, because they put it to us on all levels, in every phase of the game."

The Cardinals committed four turnovers, gained just 260 yards and had only 12 first downs. The Eagles had their way on offense, too, gaining 32 first downs, 437 yards and scoring touchdowns on six of seven trips inside the Cardinals 20.

Donovan McNabb had four touchdown passes. Two of them went to running back Brian Westbrook, who also rushed for two touchdowns and 110 yards.

Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner wasn't sacked, but he did have three interceptions that night. The only comfort that night, joked defensive end Bryan Robinson, is that few people get the NFL Network.

"You've got to have a short memory in this game," Warner said. "I felt that game was just a tough situation for us. The Eagles came out and played a great football game. But this is a different game, a different time."

The Cardinals believe they are a different team now, and they sure look like one. They limped into the playoffs but have been impressive in victories over Atlanta and Carolina. They are underdogs against Philadelphia, just as they were in their previous playoff games, and it's a role they relish.

"We've been through a lot," said defensive end Darnell Dockett, "and there ain't nobody on the face of the Earth who thought we'd be in this situation. But here we are. One more game and we'll be where every player in the NFL wants to be."

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The Cardinals have been a more complete team in the playoffs, with the defense and offense playing equally well.

"I can't say enough about the way our team has played in these two playoff games," said quarterback Kurt Warner. "Defense giving us short fields, defense coming up with huge plays, offense being able to capitalize on that, running the football, offensive line doing a tremendous job. You can look at it across the board. Everybody is playing their best football right now."

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Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has done a nice job of controlling Warner's offenses over the years.

The Eagles are 4-2 in games when Warner starts. And Warner's statistics are below his career averages. He has completed about 57 percent of his passes, with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions.

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The Cardinals added about 7,000 seats to University of Phoenix Stadium, so Sunday's crowd should be the largest for an NFL game in that stadium. Team president Michael Bidwill probably will elect to keep the retractable roof closed to make the place as loud as possible.

"I'm looking forward to seeing a whole new level of loud this weekend," coach Whisenhunt said.

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Whisenhunt has concentrated this week on keeping his team grounded, despite all the attention it's receiving.

"You also have to handle not getting too big for your britches," he said. "Most of the time when the 32-team field gets down to four teams and all that attention comes to you, a lot of times guys starting feeling a little better than they are, maybe losing that work ethic that got you to that point.

"Everybody in this organization has gotten calls from friends and family, wanting to come to the game. The teams that can keep their focus are the ones who can be successful and have a chance to move on."

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Defensive end/outside linebacker Bertrand Berry, like many of his teammates, has never been this far in the playoffs. And when he looks back, it will be especially satisfying.

"I'll have plenty of time when the season is over, when my career is over, to reflect back on what's happened," Berry said. "We're in the moment right now, and right now I just want to work as hard as I possibly can. There will be a time to celebrate when it's appropriate. Now is not the time. We haven't done anything yet."


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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When summer began, Scott Linehan figured he had done everything right in an effort to improve the team from a 3-13 record in 2007. After all, in his first season as coach in 2006, the Rams were 8-8 and finished one game behind Seattle in the NFC West.

After an injury-riddled 2007 season, Linehan hired Al Saunders as offensive coordinator, made other changes to his coaching staff, and took the team out of St. Louis to Wisconsin for training camp in an effort to help bond the team.

However, hanging over the team throughout the summer was the absence of running back Steven Jackson in a contract holdout. Jackson finally signed and reported after missing 27 days, but he struggled at the start of the season.

That and a difficult beginning schedule sent the Rams to an 0-4 start, and Linehan was fired after a Week 4 loss to Buffalo. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett was named the interim coach, and after the team's bye, they responded with wins over Washington and Dallas.

It didn't last. Jackson suffered a groin injury against the Cowboys, and after a good performance in a loss to New England, the next four losses were blowouts.

When Jackson returned, the Rams were competitive, showing how valuable he is to the team's chances for success. However, they lost their final 10 games under Haslett to finish 2-14.

The offseason began with the elevation of Billy Devaney to general manager and the departure of Jay Zygmunt and John Shaw from football decisions. Zygmunt left the organization, while Shaw remains an adviser to owner Chip Rosenbloom.

Despite losing games, Haslett developed respect in the locker room, and among non-football employees of the organization. He is one of five finalists for the job.

Devaney will likely make a decision in the next week whether to bring back the known in Haslett or go for the unknown among the other candidates.

This is Devaney's first time running the football operations of a team, which clearly makes this the most important decision of his NFL personnel career.

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In addition to interim coach Haslett, the other four finalists for the head-coaching job are defensive coordinators Leslie Frazier of Minnesota, Rex Ryan of Baltimore and Steve Spagnuolo of the Giants, and Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.

Finalists were being interviewed in Los Angeles by owners Chip Rosenbloom and Lucia Rodriguez, adviser John Shaw and general manager Billy Devaney.

Frazier was interviewed Tuesday and Garrett Wednesday. Spagnuolo was scheduled to be interviewed Thursday. Ryan's status will be reviewed after the Ravens' game Sunday against Pittsburgh, although persistent reports out of New York claim he is expected to become the next coach of the Jets.

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Devaney and Spagnuolo have connections from earlier in their careers.

Devaney was a scout with Washington in 1983 when Spagnuolo was getting his feet wet as an intern in the player personnel department.

Ten years later, Spagnuolo was with the Chargers as a scout when Devaney was the club's player personnel director.

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The Rams have gone years without a director of pro personnel, but that is expected to change soon.

Devaney has interviewed Mike Williams for that job, and there were indications he might be added this week. Williams is currently San Francisco's assistant director of pro personnel.


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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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Jim Mora expects his team to play with "relentless effort." In his first official press conference as the Seahawks' head coach, Mora paid tribute to Mike Holmgren, the man he coached under for the last two seasons.

Mora, the seventh coach in franchise history, said he learned several things from his coaching mentor, including using patience to make tough decisions. However, Mora said he will walk to his own drum beat.

"Those are incredibly big shoes to fill," Mora said about taking over for Holmgren. "But I'm going to be me. I have to be me. I think people that fail in this business when they follow someone that has been legendary, (who) is great, sometimes do it because they try to be that person."

During Mora's hour-long, question-and-answer session with Seattle-area reporters on Tuesday - his first since being announced as the heir apparent to Holmgren nearly a year ago - he stayed true to his word, showing an energetic, engaging personality that captured the audience's attention.

A Seattle native who played football at the University of Washington, Mora said the Seattle gig was his dream job, and his goal is for the Seahawks to retake the NFC West Division crown, and ultimately compete for a Super Bowl each season.

His dream is to bring home the Lombardi trophy and lead a parade from the city's icon, the Space Needle, to the Seahawks home at Qwest Field.

Mora will have a lot of work to do in turning around the Seahawks' fortunes. Seattle finished 4-12 in Holmgren's final season. Injuries were to blame for much of Seattle's problems, as team stalwarts like quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, offensive tackle Walter Jones, defensive end Patrick Kerney and receiver Deion Branch missed long stretches of the season.

However, team president and general manager Tim Ruskell understands injuries weren't the sole reason for the Seahawks failing to win the NFC West Division for a fifth straight time, and changes will be in order during the offseason.

"Guys that we counted on - and count on - to play well for us didn't have great years," Ruskell said. "There's a lot of people in that category."

But Mora said he believes the team has most of the talent already on the roster to win. Mora said the Seahawks do not need a major overhaul, and will be helped by an infusion of talent through the draft and free agency. The Seahawks will draft No. 4 overall, the highest draft position for the franchise since taking Shawn Springs with the third overall pick in the 1997 draft, and then selecting Walter Jones three picks later.

And Ruskell said the Seahawks have enough salary cap space to make some noise in free agency.

Mora's plan to improve next season includes a more focused effort on the part of his coaches to get the best out of players through improved scheme and technique, and an enthusiastic, attitude change generated by a jolt of youth to the coaching staff.

Mora hired a new offensive coordinator in Greg Knapp, 45, who served as Mora's offensive coordinator in Atlanta and is known for producing offenses that run the ball effectively. He also hired Casey "Gus" Bradley as the team's new defensive coordinator.

Bradley, 42, previously worked as the Bucs' linebacker coach, and came highly recommended by renowned ex-Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.

Young guns Dan Quinn, 39, a defensive line coach who worked with Mora in San Francisco, was culled from the New York Jets staff to serve as Seattle's assistant head coach/defensive line coach. And Jacksonville receivers coach Robert Prince, who worked with Mora in Atlanta, will serve in the same position for Seattle.

Mora retained 12 coaches from Holmgren's staff, but offensive coordinator Gil Haskell (65 years old), defensive coordinator John Marshall (63), receivers coach Keith Gilbertson (60) and defensive line coach Dwaine Board (52) were released. Assistant special teams coach John Jamison (60) and tight ends coach Jim Lind (61) retired.

Mora said he will be heavily involved in the defensive game planning, but stopped short of saying he will call the plays.

Offensively, Mora will rely on a strong running game and the veteran presence of Hasselbeck. Mora said he expects Hasselbeck to return healthy from a bulging disk in his back that forced him to miss eight games this season, and that Hasselbeck is his starting quarterback.

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Seattle linebacker Julian Peterson, the former 49ers All-Pro, has been named a Pro Bowl injury replacement for Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks. The trip to Hawaii will be Peterson's fifth overall Pro Bowl appearance, and third straight with Seattle.

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Hasselbeck spoke for the first time since Jim Mora officially took over as the team's head coach. During an interview with a local radio station Hasselbeck said his rehabilitation on the bulging disk in his back is going fine, and he should be ready to participate in Seattle's first mini-camp in April.

Hasselbeck also said he's had conversations with new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, and the language used to call plays should be much simpler than Holmgren's offense, which will help with the transition of free agents, draft picks and new additions to the team.

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Knapp has never had an offense finish out of the top 10 in rushing, including stops in San Francisco, Atlanta and Oakland. The Falcons led the league in rushing all three years Knapp was in Atlanta.

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Mora already is looking into how to improve Seattle's struggles on the road, particularly on the East Coast. Mora said he's contacting some track coaches who train elite athletes to compete in international events to ask them how they deal with time changes from one event to the next. The Seahawks are 1-8 the past two seasons in games played in the Eastern time zone.


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