NFC West News & Notes - 12/9/05

News and notes from around the NFC West.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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The Seahawks have shifted their focus from winning the division to claiming home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. No other NFC team is in better position to do just that. Seattle's remaining opponents are a combined 19-29 this season, starting with the 2-10 San Francisco 49ers, who visit Qwest Field on Sunday. Beating the 49ers would give Seattle a 6-0 record in NFC West play and at least a one-game cushion in the conference race.

The Seahawks are 16-point favorites in Las Vegas even though the 49ers came within a two-point conversion of forcing overtime against Seattle last month.

"The game in San Francisco was as close a game as we have had all year and still managed to win it," coach Mike Holmgren said. "We have to stay after it. We accomplished our first goal of winning the division. Now, there are other things ahead for us.

"We are trying to take this a game at a time. But we realize the NFC has teams that are winning and are very, very good. We must keep playing our style and that is the challenge for us."

Last month, the Seahawks were within a play or two of putting away the 49ers. They led 27-12 deep into the second half when a couple of lapses let the 49ers back into the game. Seattle prevailed 27-25 in a game that didn't have to be that close.

The 49ers have a new quarterback this time. Rookie first-round pick Alex Smith has taken over for Ken Dorsey, who was unable to maintain the level of play he showed in the second half against Seattle. Smith has lots of talent but very little experience, a combination the Seahawks encountered when they faced the Giants' Eli Manning.
Smith has even less experience than Manning. He also has far less talent around him. That bodes well for the Seahawks as they try to set a franchise record with their ninth consecutive victory.

Seattle enters this game with some depth problems in the secondary. CB Kelly Herndon and CB Andre Dyson will miss this game with injuries, marking the first time that Seattle will be without both at the same time. Starting RCB Marcus Trufant remains healthy, but the team will now turn to nickel/dime DB Jordan Babineaux to make the conversion from his more natural safety position. CB Jimmy Williams, a former 49er, is another option at the position.

Babineaux has been a big-play guy for Seattle this season. He forced a crucial fumble to preserve a victory at St. Louis. He picked off Cowboys QB Drew Bledsoe to set up the winning field goal against Dallas. Moving into the starting lineup presents new challenges.

Babineaux is a big, physical defensive back and a tremendous competitor. He could be overmatched at times in man coverage, but he'll make some plays too. While Seattle needs to get Herndon back to hold up against stronger teams, the Seahawks should be able to function effectively on defense against the 49ers.

Offensively, the Seahawks will look to finish what they started against the 49ers last month. Seattle will also look to bounce back from its season-low yardage output of 194 yards on Monday night. The Seahawks fell from first to fourth in total offense after their 42-0 victory over Philadelphia because Holmgren removed his starters from the game early in the second half.

SERIES HISTORY: 14th meeting. Seattle leads 7-6. The Seahawks have won five in a row against the 49ers, the longest streak by any team since the series began in 1976. Three of the last four were played in San Francisco. Seattle posted a 34-0 victory the last time the 49ers came to Seattle.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Seahawks face the easiest remaining schedule of the top eight teams in the NFC. San Francisco, Tennessee and Green Bay are a combined 7-29. Seattle also plays against the 12-0 Colts, who may or may not be going with their starters when they visit Seattle on Dec. 24. The combined record of 19-29 (.396) gives the Seahawks the inside track on securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Atlanta faces the toughest remaining schedule among the NFC contenders. The Falcons' remaining opponents are 29-19 (.604).

Chicago and Carolina have the best shot at overtaking Seattle because they are only one game behind in the standings. The Bears' remaining opponents are 23-25 (.479), but three of their four remaining games are on the road. Carolina's opponents are 25-23 (.521). The Panthers have Tampa Bay and Dallas at home, with road games against New Orleans and the Falcons.

--Seattle called only three pass plays in the second half of its 42-0 victory over Philadelphia on Monday night. Coach Mike Holmgren didn't want to run up the score, although he denied taking that approach out of consideration for Eagles coach Andy Reid, his good friend. "I am not going to run up the score on anybody," Holmgren said. "I just am not going to do it. I just didn't think they could score on us in the second half. I just felt with their injuries, watching the game, it just seemed like they were not going to sustain much.

"I never understood the urge to beat someone 70-3. I'm not going to do it. Not that that could have happened. I thought 42 points was enough, so let's go home."

BY THE NUMBERS: 8 - Consecutive 100-yard performances for Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander against division opponents, tying the NFL record shared by Marcus Allen, Freeman McNeil and Walter Payton.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "That will remain confidential." - Coach Mike Holmgren when asked to reveal whether the NFL fined him for speaking too loosely about officiating blunders.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

So far the Seahawks have been able to compensate for losing key players, a tribute to the personnel work of president Tim Ruskell and a staff that includes pro personnel director Will Lewis. Seattle has won eight consecutive games since losing leading WR Darrell Jackson. The team has also overcome the loss of FS Ken Hamlin for the season while losing RT Floyd Womack, CB Kelly Herndon, CB Andre Dyson, DT Marcus Tubbs and WR Bobby Engram for stretches.

Dyson was the latest to succumb to injury. He will miss the rest of the regular season after suffering a high ankle sprain during a 25-yard fumble return Monday night.

Dyson was starting in place of the injured Herndon. Herndon had been starting because Dyson missed time earlier in the season. Now there's a good chance former street free agent Jordan Babineaux will take over at left corner.

"I don't expect the team to do anything differently," coach Mike Holmgren said. "I don't expect the game plan for the offensive and defensive coaches to be adjusted because of that. That is the challenge to the players and to the players' credit, the young guys who have moved into a starting position or played a lot have done a good job."

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES
--WR Darrell Jackson did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. The team upgraded him to questionable this week. Coach Mike Holmgren said he expected Jackson to practice Friday for the first time since undergoing knee surgery after the fourth game. If Jackson's knee responds favorably, the Seahawks plan to work him back into the offense Sunday. Jackson will play a limited role at first.

--DT Craig Terrill has not practiced this week. He is questionable with a shoulder injury. Terrill, a 2004 sixth-round pick from Purdue, has been a surprisingly productive member of the four-man rotation at DT. He's a high-motor guy with better skills than his pedestrian body type would otherwise suggest.

--LB Jamie Sharper remains sidelined by an infected knee. He could miss another couple of games.

--LB D.D. Lewis has not practiced this week. He is questionable on the injury report.

GAME PLAN: The Seahawks should try to re-establish their running game after RB Shaun Alexander got only 49 yards in limited work Monday night. Alexander remains the best option on offense even though the 49ers are weak in the secondary. Defensively, the Seahawks have some depth problems at cornerback, but they should not forget about the blitz because 49ers QB Alex Smith probably lacks the experience to make them pay consistently.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Seahawks CB Marcus Trufant vs. 49ers WR Brandon Lloyd. Trufant is generally in position to make plays but he doesn't always play the ball very well. Lloyd has an uncanny ability to make seemingly impossible catches. He hurt the Seahawks during Seattle's 27-25 victory in San Francisco last month. Slowing down Lloyd should be a huge priority for Seattle.

Seahawks DT Rocky Bernard vs. the 49ers' interior offensive line. Bernard collected two sacks when these teams played last month. He sat out the first quarter of Seattle's recent victory over the Eagles as punishment for missing the team flight to Philadelphia. Bernard leads the team in sacks and can earn a fat payday this off-season by finishing strong. He has been leading or tied for the NFL lead in sacks by a defensive tackle, a trend that should continue in this game. Bernard benefits from teams' decision to double-team DT Chuck Darby on passing downs.

INJURY IMPACT: The team's rock-solid depth at cornerback has hit rock bottom, or close to it, with the loss of Kelly Herndon and Andre Dyson to injuries. Seattle has just enough depth to get by against less-talented passing games. DB Jordan Babineaux gets the start on the left side. He's a physical player and a competitor who has gotten playing time at safety.


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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Call it Cardinals luck. This franchise needs absolutely no help being bad. It has been among the league doormats for decades largely on its own merit. But bad luck - Cardinals luck - also has contributed to the malaise. And almost always, that luck involves the team's highest-paid players.

If you really want to know what's wrong with the Cardinals, follow the money. High first-round draft picks, premier free agents and their own re-signed star players have not returned on the investment.

The bad fortune appeared to change last year, when Arizona drafted receiver Larry Fitzgerald third overall. Fitzgerald had a splendid rookie year, and in his second pro season he has 1,128 receiving yards, leads the NFL in catches of 20 yards or longer and is tied for the NFC lead with 82 receptions. Also last year, free-agent acquisition Bertrand Berry became a Pro Bowler with 14 1/2 sacks. Personnel fortunes were looking up. Then this year, Berry suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle last month, an injury that required surgery and landed him on injured reserve.

And kicker Neil Rackers, who was setting all kinds of accuracy records for field goals (he made his first 31 and is 32-for-33 on the season) and leads the league in touchbacks on kickoffs, tore a calf muscle in practice late last week - a month after he had received a new deal that gives him a lifetime of financial security. He missed last Sunday's win at San Francisco but is lobbying hard to be active this weekend against Washington for short- and mid-range field goals. His initial prognosis was a three-week absence. Rackers is the leader at his position in Pro Bowl voting.

And in September, first-round draft pick Antrel Rolle, chosen eighth overall in April, injured a knee after playing only three games as a pro. He's been shelved since. He returned to practice Wednesday and could play against the visiting Redskins on Sunday. The Cardinals have been dreadfully thin at corner during his absence. Berry, Rackers and Rolle do not face career-jeopardizing situations, and all are under contract for next year. So to that extent, the Cardinals' fortunes still may be turning their way.

But it hasn't usually been that way. They've been strained under the salary cap because players in whom they have invested heavily haven't done the job.
In free agency: The team signed center Mike Gruttadauria, the starter for then-Super Bowl champion St. Louis, in 2000 in hopes that he would anchor the offensive line. Gruttadauria, however, was bothered by knee problems from his first training camp and never panned out.

In 2002, the Cardinals signed cornerback Duane Starks from the Ravens' Super Bowl-champion, record-setting defense to replace legend Aeneas Williams. But Starks had back problems among a rash of injuries and he never took ownership of the spot.

In 2003, the team signed Dexter Jackson, the Super Bowl MVP with Tampa Bay, but he, too, succumbed to injuries and never really made a mark while in the desert.

In re-signing their own players: The Cardinals gave defensive tackle Eric Swann a team-record signing bonus in 1998, and his arthritic knees promptly gave out before he could complete the first year of the new deal.

Quarterback Jake Plummer received an NFL-record (at the time) $16 million signing bonus for a new deal after leading Arizona to a 9-7 mark in 1998 followed by a playoff win. He then threw more interceptions than TD passes, and the team never again had a winning record.

In the draft the past 10 years: Defensive end Simeon Rice, the third player chosen overall in 1996, ripped the organization and left for Tampa Bay, where he led the league in sacks. Cornerback Tom Knight, chosen ninth overall in 1997, had chronic injury issues and never was a dominant player. In 1998, the team shelled out a franchise-record financial package for defensive end Andre Wadsworth, whose shaky knees caused him to retire early.

In 1999, receiver David Boston, chosen eighth overall, moved on after he was charged in connection with driving under the influence, and he continued to have problems with two other franchises. In 2000, running back Thomas Jones, chosen seventh overall, never took ownership of the position, suffered a broken hand in an off-field incident and left, later resurfacing successfully with Chicago. In 2001, offensive lineman Leonard Davis, the second pick overall, began his career as a dominating guard but has struggled the past two years at left tackle, where he leads the league with 12 false-start penalties this season.

In 2002, defensive lineman Wendell Bryant, chosen 12th overall, was a holdout, never became a starter and was cut. In 2003, the team wisely traded down from the No. 6 draft position after the run of bad luck. In 2004, the Cardinals took Fitzgerald, and this year they selected Rolle.

Still, the leadership of Berry - even while sidelined - the play of Fitzgerald and the determination of Rolle to rehab, even if he makes it back for only a few games, indicate that the Cardinals perhaps have turned a corner. They have won two of their last three, a ray of hope in their 4-8 season.

"We've got players that still love the game," coach Dennis Green said. "It's all about making that commitment and dedicating yourself to your job and your team. It comes down to how bad you really want it and how bad you want to be out there with the guys.

"That's important as you make decisions on guys. Is this the kind of guy you want on your football team? Is this the kind of guy that wants to be a good teammate to guys that are good starters? You've got to be a good backup who's loyal and really works hard."

SERIES HISTORY: 117th meeting. The Redskins hold a 70-44-2 lead in the series over the Cardinals in a matchup of old NFC East foes that were split four years ago by realignment. They have not played since Sept. 8, 2002, when the Redskins pulled out a 31-23 decision behind 327 yards passing and three touchdown throws by Shane Matthews, complemented by Stephen Davis' 104 rushing yards. The Redskins haven't played in Tempe, Ariz., since Dec. 9, 2001, when they won 20-10, thanks to 110 rushing yards by Davis, now of Carolina. The most memorable game recently from the Cardinals' perspective was a team-record 522-yard passing effort by Boomer Esiason that lifted the Big Red to a 37-34 overtime win in RFK Stadium on Nov. 10, 1996.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and kicker Neil Rackers are pushing to become first-time Pro Bowlers. Fitzgerald has more than 1,000 yards receiving this season (1,128), second in the league. He leads the NFL in catches of 20 yards or longer and is tied for the NFC lead with 82 catches.
Rackers, recovering from a torn calf muscle, made his first 31 field-goal tries and leads the league in touchbacks on kickoffs. He is the current leader in balloting among kickers with 395,820 votes.

--When offensive lineman Alex Stepanovich went on injured reserve this week with a shoulder injury that will require surgery, he became the 13th player, the sixth starter and the fourth offensive lineman that the team has lost for the season.

--Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin are coming off the fourth game in which each had more than 100 yards receiving. If they do it again, they will tie an NFL record held by Detroit's Herman Moore and Brett Perriman in 1995. When Fitzgerald crossed the 1,000-yard mark for the season last weekend, he became the youngest player in Cardinals history to reach the milestone. "I think it is just another step for me to becoming a great receiver for the Cardinals," said Fitzgerald.

Boldin had a highlight-reel 54-yard TD pass play among his 129 yards against the 49ers, causing coach Dennis Green to remark, "I think it was in his top five all-time plays. This was huge because he was further out than some of his other big plays, he was going for the first down on a third-and-20 and he got it, and then all of the sudden he starts making guys miss."

Quarterback Kurt Warner said of Boldin: "He reminds me of Marshall Faulk. He has the special quality to him that Marshall had in those types of situations. It's just fun to watch. I know I used to have a hard time carrying out my fakes with Marshall because I'd want to watch him, and it is the same way with Anquan." Boldin needs 8 yards to join Fitzgerald as a 1,000-yard receiver for the season. He and Fitzgerald would become the second pair of receivers in franchise history to accomplish the feat. The other was Rob Moore (1,584) and Frank Sanders (1,017) in 1997. Fitzgerald and Boldin have the most receptions (150) and most yards (2,120) of any receiving tandem in the league.

--Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs is 20-4 vs. Dennis Green.

BY THE NUMBERS: 8 - Receiving yards needed by Anquan Boldin to reach 1,000 for the season and join teammate Larry Fitzgerald with that mark.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I started off slow, just like any other rookie. Once I started to settle down in the offense and be a little more patient, things have been going pretty well." - Running back J.J. Arrington, who has rushed for 207 of his 283 yards in the past five games.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Rookie RB J.J. Arrington finally is showing signs of being the weapon the Cardinals thought he was when they drafted him in the second round in April. After a slow start, Arrington has gained 207 of his 283 rushing yards in the past five games and has added diversity to an attack that had become one-dimensional. That has contributed to the team winning two of its past three games. "I think he's playing his best football of the year, and it is time to continue to build upon that," QB Kurt Warner said.

Arrington's five-game spurt coincides with the return of Warner from a groin injury. "I just feel more and more comfortable with him each week. I just look for him to continue to improve," Warner said.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--QB Kurt Warner has fired a TD pass in five consecutive games since returning from a groin injury, and he leads the NFC with four 300-yard games - the most by a Cardinals quarterback since Neil Lomax's five in 1988. Warner ranks sixth in the league with a 97.1 fourth-quarter passer rating.

--RB J.J. Arrington has 207 of his 283 rushing yards in the past five games - coinciding with the return from injury of QB Kurt Warner.

--RB Marcel Shipp, the team rushing leader, returned to practice Wednesday after missing a game (neck). He is probable, but now he has to compete with a red-hot J.J. Arrington.

--RB Obafemi Ayanbadejo is proof that QB Kurt Warner is looking for receivers other than Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Ayabadejo has 27 receptions, including 16 on third downs, ranking second in the league among backs.

--WR Larry Fitzgerald cracked the 1,000-yard mark receiving with his 129 yards last weekend in a win at San Francisco. He leads the NFL in catches of 20 yards or greater with 21.

--WR Anquan Boldin should have no trouble matching Larry Fitzgerald as a 1,000-yard receiver this season. Boldin, after 156 in a win over the 49ers on Sunday, needs only 8 more to reach the four-figure milestone.

--OLB Karlos Dansby is among seven linebackers in the league with at least four sacks.

--SS Adrian Wilson plays more like Larry Wilson, a Cardinals Pro Football Hall of Fame member who made the safety blitz famous, every day. He leads the league in sacks among defensive backs with six.

--K Nick Novak made the best of a tough situation in his Cardinals debut. Novak was signed last week to fill in for injured Neil Rackers, who made his first 31 field-goal tries, leads the league in touchbacks and is the leading vote-getter among kickers in Pro Bowl balloting. Novak made all three of his field-goal tries - from 30, 35 and 19 yards - in a win at San Francisco on Sunday. Novak is likely to play again this week against visiting Washington, although Rackers (calf injury) is lobbying coaches to activate him.

--K Neil Rackers sought a second opinion on the torn calf muscle in his left leg - his plant leg. He is a long shot to return this weekend against Washington. He did not kick in practice on Wednesday.

--C/G Alex Stepanovich (shoulder) was placed on injured reserve. It's a huge loss to the offense. He started every game at center last year and started at center, right guard and left guard this year after injuries wiped out the guards.

--LB Isaac Keys, who played in three games early this season, was re-signed for the third time this year. He was released the last time late last week before the San Francisco trip.

GAME PLAN: With five of the top seven defensive linemen lost for the season, including Pro Bowl DE Bertrand Berry, the defense is getting good mileage out of the safety blitz. SS Adrian Wilson has six sacks. QB Kurt Warner is having no trouble finding wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, but the real key has been the recent emergence of the tight ends and running backs as receivers. His ability to move it around and make the attack less predictable has keyed wins in two of the past three games.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

--A battered and beaten Cardinals defensive front, with five of its top seven players on injured reserve, vs. Redskins RB Clinton Portis, tied for third in the league in rushing. This would appear to be a huge mismatch. It would be a big job for the Big Red even with a full complement of personnel. Arizona is run-stop-challenged, and has been for several years. But if Portis can run at will, he will be the best buddy of QB Mark Brunell, who can fire his left-handed passes whenever he chooses.

--Cardinals QB Kurt Warner, who gradually is beginning to resemble the guy who once was league MVP, vs. Redskins CB Carlos Rogers, an up-and-coming rookie. The key word for Rogers is "rookie," facing a veteran who could abuse him badly. Although Rogers is tied for the NFC lead among rookies with two interceptions, Warner has fired a TD pass in five consecutive games since returning from a groin injury, leads the NFC with four 300-yard games and ranks sixth in the league with a 97.1 fourth-quarter passer rating.

INJURY IMPACT

The team took yet another blow up front, this time on the offensive side, when C/G Alex Stepanovich's shoulder required surgery and he was placed on injured reserve this week. He started every game at center as a rookie. After a slow start this year, caused by a preseason hand fracture that required surgery, he started not only at center but also at right guard and left guard to cover for injured players. ... With LG Reggie Wells (ankle) and RG Elton Brown (knee) also out, the starting interior line this weekend is expected to be LG Adam Haayer, C Nick Leckey, and Fred Wakefield or Jeremy Bridges at right guard. Bridges returned to practice Wednesday after missing a game. The team also missed starting RT Oliver Ross for four games. Only LT Leonard Davis has been on the field every game among the offensive linemen. The result has been predictably inconsistent play, although the team has found a way to win two of its past three games.

The defensive front is similarly decimated. The best player, Pro Bowl DE Bertrand Berry (torn pectoral), had surgery and is on injured reserve. Berry joins fellow defensive linemen DT Kenny King, wrist; DT Russell Davis, biceps; DE Calvin Pace, cut arm, and NT Langston Moore, shoulder, with season-ending injuries. The Cardinals, who can't stop the run and rely heavily on quarterback pressure to cover for an ailing secondary, have lost five of their top seven defensive linemen and find themselves struggling for depth in the area where they went to training camp best supplied.

In addition to their injury woes up front, the Cardinals still are without rookie CB Antrel Rolle, their first-round pick, who is recovering from knee surgery but is not on IR. He began light workouts last week, turned it up a notch in Wednesday's practice, and could be available for duty in nickel packages Sunday against the Redskins.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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The Rams called only five running plays in the second half of last week's loss to Washington, and the critics once again emerged crying for running back Steven Jackson to get the ball more. Of course, overlooked in the analysis of the second half was that the Rams called only 15 plays prior to their last possession, when they were down by 15 points. In addition to the five runs, there was also one short pass to Jackson.

Most notably, the running game wasn't working, and the offense generally struggled with rookie quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick under center and an offensive line that also has some injury issues.

Still, interim coach Joe Vitt knows the offense has to find a way to run the ball better to win games. "We've got to balance our attack," Vitt said. "We've got to play it a special way right now because of the personnel we have, or we're not going to have a chance. We can't go into a football game asking Fitz to throw the ball 50 times a game and let him win it for us."

Right guard Adam Timmerman said of the running game, "You've got to stick with it. You've got to be committed to it, and you should pop one. I know there were a couple plays (against Washington), I think it was to the left side, where Steven (Jackson) almost had a breakout. Somebody made a good tackle and we didn't get the breakout.

"But you have to be committed to it, stick with it in blitz situations, and you're going to pop one. Unfortunately we didn't break a big one." Exactly. Of Jackson's 11 running attempts, his longest gain was 9 yards. He was stuffed often, leading to passing downs, and when first downs aren't made, there are no opportunities for more plays.

Timmerman also acknowledged that the blocking has to be better. "We should've executed what (was) called better," Timmerman said. "I think everybody's got to be character guys and look at themselves and say, 'Hey, I could've played better. I could've done this better.' And assume their percentage of the responsibility."

Looking back at the game, Fitzpatrick said, "The things we were doing in the run game weren't working, and we felt like throwing the ball was going to be the best way to succeed last week. Unfortunately things didn't go our way. But I think we're going to try to establish a little bit more of a run game this week and we'll see what happens. But we're going to do whatever we can to move the ball downfield whether it be running or passing." Added Vitt, "We wanted to run the ball. But I tell you what, every time we tried to run the ball, they were in the backfield. And that's just the truth. Pretty soon, you're just wasting plays. Minus 1. Minus 1. Plus 1."

But the interim coach concluded, "We've got to take a hard look at what we're doing schematically." Part of that could be to do more formations and having players in motion, an aspect of the Mike Martz offense that hasn't been seen as much since he went on medical leave.

SERIES HISTORY: 32nd regular-season meeting. The Vikings lead, 16-13-2, but the Rams have won the last three games in the series by a combined score of 137-83. That includes a 1999 playoff game, and all three of the games were in St. Louis. Prior to the three games, the Vikings had won six straight, including a 1988 playoff game. The last game played in Minnesota was a 1991 Vikings victory, 20-14.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Interim coach Joe Vitt is facing the final four games this season, knowing the team has little chance of making the playoffs, while emphasizing doing things the right way. Asked if players will buy into his thinking, Vitt said, "They don't have a choice," he said. "This is not a democracy now. There's only one way to play this game. There's only one way to practice this game. If they don't want to do that - if anyone doesn't want to do that - we'll put the next guy in.

"We're two games under .500, with four games to go. We're all being evaluated. Coaches, players, administrators. All being evaluated. I think the true character is going to be exposed in tough times." When asked if the team has enough guys who feel the same way, Vitt said, "I didn't put it up to a vote today. Maybe they ought to start wondering how I feel. My feelings are hurt. Players and coaches are notorious. They can smell the house burning before the match is ever lit. Believe me."

--The Rams hope strong safety Adam Archuleta will be able to play Sunday. He has missed two games because of a concussion. Archuleta practiced for two days before Sunday's game against Washington, but then didn't practice Friday and was inactive for the game. "He wanted to go, but he didn't feel very good on Friday," interim coach Joe Vitt said. "On Wednesday and Thursday, he got through practice, but wasn't his normal self. He was slow to react to things. I think I said this to you guys yesterday, to activate him and put him in to play and something happen to him, I'd never forgive myself. He should be better this week, he's itching to play."

Archuleta admitted, after claiming Friday he felt fine, "I didn't feel right (last) week. There were some instances in practice where I just was confused. I wasn't myself. I could've talked myself into playing. But I think at the end of the day ... another incident would not have been good. I wasn't 100 percent confident. I want to step on the field and say, 'All right. Let's go. Let's do this.' "

After practice Wednesday, Vitt said, "I thought he had his best work today that he had in the last week and half. I thought he moved around well. He was more alert, more into it, so I think he's going to be a go. We have to wait and see, (but) he took his full amount of reps today."

--Despite the run defense being gashed for big plays, and the offense stumbling, the Rams still trailed only 10-7 entering the fourth quarter. Things might have been different had guard Adam Timmerman not been called for holding on a third-quarter 44-yard pass play to wide receiver Torry Holt that would have put the ball at the Redskins' 16-yard line.

Timmerman was stunned by the call.

"To me, the guy was off-balance and falling down, and I just pushed the guy down," said Timmerman. "I really don't think there was any holding involved, especially to change the drive on a long completion - and end a drive eventually. You've got to kind of roll with some of that. Some of that, they call and you wonder how in the world they could call it. But they did. That's my responsibility to make sure they can't even have a hint of being able to make a mistake like that."

On his weekly radio show, Vitt said of the call, "We watched the tape and we could watch it until the cows come home, and you won't find offensive holding on that play."

BY THE NUMBERS: 18.45 - RB Steven Jackson's average running plays per game this season. In 1999, when the Rams went to the Super Bowl, RB Marshall Faulk averaged 16.5 rushing attempts a game.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Not unless he has wings and can fly. There has to be a running lane. There has to be somewhere to run the football, and if there is, Steven (Jackson) will find it. There was no running lane yesterday, none." - Interim coach Joe Vitt, when asked if the offense would be helped by Marshall Faulk getting more carries.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Center Andy McCollum recently signed a two-year contract extension through the 2007 season. The deal includes a signing bonus of $500,000 and salaries of $1 million in both 2006 and 2007.

Linebacker Jeremy Loyd took the roster spot vacated by Dexter Coakley, who was placed on injured reserve with a fractured fibula. Loyd was with the Rams in training camp, and had 18 special teams tackle in 10 games for the Rams in 2003. He missed the 2004 season because of a torn pectoral muscle.

Cornerback Dwight Anderson, who was released in training camp after missing curfew, was also re-signed.

Said interim coach Joe Vitt, "Jeremy Loyd really came close to making the team this year. It was nip and tuck all the way. What he does is he is an excellent special teams player. The year before I got here I looked at all the film on his special teams play. He can run, he can change direction; he is a good tackler, so he's going to upgrade our special teams. He's familiar with the system.

"Dwight Anderson, quite frankly, it was kind of a disciplinary thing in the training camp. If we would have had a chance to reclaim him off waivers a little earlier and evaluate him and put him into the system, he may have made our team. So I think both are just natural guys to be on our football team. They know the system, they know the locker room, (and) they know what's required of them, so it's really good to have both of them back."

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--RB Steven Jackson did not practice Wednesday because of a sore ankle, and is expected to do very little Thursday before getting most of the action Friday. Jackson is expected to play Sunday.

--OL Blaine Saipaia was placed on injured reserve Wednesday because of continuing concerns over a concussion he suffered Nov. 27 against Arizona.

--RT Alex Barron, who underwent surgery last week to repair a broken bone in his hand, will not play Sunday against Minnesota.

--CB Terry Fair did not practice Thursday because of an aggravation of the neck injury he suffered in the preseason. It was first announced Fair had been placed on injured reserve Wednesday, but he wasn't.

--CB Travis Fisher, sidelined by a groin injury, will seek another opinion on what should be done about the injury.

GAME PLAN: The intent is fairly obvious for the Rams; the question is whether they can carry it out. When the Rams are on offense, teams have put eight in the box, making it difficult to run, and if the Rams pass, the blitz comes, and blockers have struggled picking it up. If the Rams can get RB Steven Jackson going and take pressure off rookie QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, they can compete in this game, provided the defense minimizes big plays.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Rams defensive left end Leonard Little vs. Vikings RT Marcus Johnson: Little has only four sacks this season, and is hampered by an ankle that will need surgery after the season. However, the rookie Johnson will still have his hands full.

Rams secondary vs. Vikings WR Koren Robinson: The Rams' defensive backs make a lot of receivers look good, and they will have to contend with Robinson, who is beginning to make an impact on the Vikings' offense.

INJURY IMPACT: The secondary should get SS Adam Archuleta back, but how effective he will be after missing two games because of a concussion is a question.
The offensive line lacks depth with OL Blaine Saipaia now on injured reserve. He was the team's backup guard and tackle. RT Alex Barron is out because of a hand injury.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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Rookie quarterback Alex Smith showed the first signs of why the 49ers selected him with the top overall pick in the draft. Now, coach Mike Nolan would like to see him show a little more of a sustained high-level performance on Sunday when the 49ers face the NFC West-champion Seahawks.

"Boy, if he could have 60 minutes like first 30 minutes," Nolan said, referring to the 49ers' 17-10 loss last week to the Cardinals. "He's only played in three games. This was only one game, but I'm pleased with what I saw."

What Nolan said impressed him even more than Smith's first-half performance, in which he completed 11 of 12 passes for 138 yards, was how Smith acted in the team's meeting rooms on Monday, when he was going over the game with his teammates. "He commands his position and he doesn't shiver in his boots about talking to the guys," Nolan said. "It was good. I was pleased to see that. It's very unusual for a young player like him to do that."

Smith took full responsibility for his second-half mistakes, which included three interceptions. Nolan said Smith was partly - but not entirely - to blame for the interceptions. Some of the turnovers were the result of protection breakdowns, bad pass routes and, of course, poor decisions by Smith.

"So much of this offense revolves around the quarterback," Smith said. "Talking in those meetings is part of the leadership that's expected out of the position. You have to admit your mistakes when you make a mistake, and you have to point the finger at yourself. As a quarterback, it's my job to get things figured out." Smith figures to do a lot of learning in the final four weeks of the season, as the 49ers hit the road for three straight games. After facing the Seahawks, they travel to meet the Jaguars and Rams before finishing the season at home against the Texans.

Smith is about to face a huge challenge. His one road start resulted in the team's embarrassing 52-17 loss to the Redskins. He said it's easy to get into a routine at home because everything remains the same. On road trips, there are so many variables. "Your schedule is pretty much the same when you're at home," Smith said. "On the road, things change. You try to stay with the same structure, but you're on a different field and in a different environment.

"I think it'll be a great experience for me."

The 49ers (2-10) have been awful on the road this season, going 0-5 and getting outscored by an average of 22 points. The club has searched for ways to turn things around, but it probably has more to do with a lack of talent than a lack of attitude. "It would be one thing if we were 8-0 and home and 0-8 on the road," Nolan said. "But looking at our record the last two years, it's not like there's a real significant difference between road and home. But there is something to the fact that we haven't played as well on the road."

The 49ers are playing three straight on the road for the first time since 1991. The 49ers have won just twice in their last 22 games away from home, including one victory in each of the 2003 and '04 seasons. "When you're traveling, it's just you and the guys you're with and everybody's against you," 49ers defensive lineman Bryant Young said. "You got to go in with that mindset that it's you and against the world, because nobody's going to be rooting for you.

"We do have to better job of understanding the importance of the trip and knowing it's a business trip."

SERIES HISTORY: 14th meeting. The Seahawks lead 7-6, including victories in the last five meetings. The Seahawks won the earlier meeting between the two clubs 27-25 at Monster Park on Nov. 20.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The 49ers find themselves in contention for the top overall draft pick, or what a lot of people are calling the Reggie Bush Sweepstakes.
Coach Mike Nolan said he wants to get a few more victories as the 49ers conclude their season, even if he knows that would prevent the 49ers from having the option of picking the dynamic USC running back. "If we can win out and pick at 13 and get Bush at 13, that would be great, wouldn't it?" Nolan said. "Do you think that'll happen?"

Although Bush is an underclassman, Nolan made it known that he would covet that kind of playmaker on his team.

"I enjoyed watching him the other day when he jumped from the 5-yard line into the end zone," Nolan said. "That was nice. I hadn't see him in a while; that looked good. I think I saw Priest Holmes do that a time or two. He looks like a good player."

--Quarterback Alex Smith threw just eight interceptions during his college career at Utah while tossing 47 touchdown passes. However, thus far in his professional career Smith has already thrown eight interceptions but has yet to throw a touchdown pass. "This is something I'm definitely not accustomed to, but my job is to get better right now and give this team the best chance to win," Smith said. "If that's me throwing a bunch of touchdowns or not throwing a bunch of touchdowns, the bottom line is to win games."

--Nolan said he is pleased with his coaching staff and vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan. But he intimated that some changes could be coming to the organization upstairs. When Nolan was asked about the lack of a veteran NFL person in the organization, he said it was an aspect of the organization he might address during the off-season. In the past, the 49ers have had such well-respected men as Bill Walsh, John McVay and Bill McPherson as a resource for coaches and the personnel department.

"As I evaluate everything about the organization, including myself day-in and day-out, I make a lot of notes about a lot of things that need to be done at the right time," Nolan said Monday. "But right now is not the right time for that." Nolan said he seeks the advice of people with whom he has coached in the past. He is known to be very close with former NFL coach Dan Reeves. "They don't have to work here to be helpful to me," Nolan said. "You always call on your mentors. I've worked for several very good coaches and so I feel very fortunate that I can call on those people from time to time. And they've been extremely helpful to me.

"I keep an open mind as far as we go forward as far as this organization and what the structure will look like to make sure it's right on the field."

--Nolan has come under fire in the Bay Area for some of his coaching decisions, including a bizarre sequence in which he called a timeout to get his defense to regroup after Frank Gore's fumble Sunday against the Cardinals. Then, he decided to challenge the fumble call. When the call was upheld, the 49ers had lost their remaining two timeouts. Nolan said he got bad information from the officiating crew and that he never would have challenged the call if he thought he ran the risk of losing a timeout.
"Usually, they're very helpful," Nolan said of the officials. "In that case, it just so happens, I got the short end of the stick."

--Safety Keith Lewis makes his first career start on Sunday. But he likely would have gotten the call several weeks ago if he weren't so valuable to the team on special teams. After veteran Tony Parrish went down with a broken leg, Lewis was considered to replace him in the starting lineup. But Nolan ultimately opted on sending Ben Emanuel onto the field instead of Lewis.

Nolan explained to Lewis that it was because the team could not afford to take him off special teams. Lewis proved his worth last week when he blocked the second punt of his NFL career. "It was definitely frustrating," Lewis said. "I have a goal of being a starter some day in this league, so it was tough to swallow at the time. As time goes on, it makes a little more sense to me."

--Assistant head coach/linebackers Mike Singletary is already being talked about as a potential head coaching candidate for next season. His name has been tossed around in regards to the Lions job. Singletary said he has not heard anything about how serious of a candidate he might be for that job.

"I'm really excited about being here," Singletary said. "I'm very excited about what coach Nolan is striving to do. As I told coach before, I'm looking at the next (four) games and what we need to do. As far as the vacancy is concerned, I can't really think about being a head coach until that time comes. When the time comes, we'll see what happens."

BY THE NUMBERS: 22 - Consecutive games the opposition has gained more net yards passing that the 49ers. The last time the 49ers had more yards passing in a game was Oct. 17 of last year when they threw for 272 yards and the Jets had 222 yards in a 22-14 Jets victory.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "A victory. It's simple. I want to see victory because we came so close so many times. At the same time, prior to the victory you want to continue to see your football team with great effort and commitment to the preparation all week long, and the commitment to the game and do what it takes to try to win a game" - 49ers coach Mike Nolan on what he'd like to see from his club in the final four games.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

When the season began, the 49ers' linebackers were considered the strength of the team. It was one of the reasons the club decided to implement a 3-4 defensive scheme. But the 49ers traded Jamie Winborn to the Jaguars, and starter Jeff Ulbrich was lost after five games due to a torn biceps muscle. Looking ahead of next season, the linebackers are probably the club's biggest question mark.

Outside linebacker Julian Peterson, the club's franchise player, is set to be an unrestricted free agent, and the 49ers do not appear likely to retain him with a one-year deal at $8.7 million or more. They have to make a decision just how much they're willing to spend to retain Peterson's services. Peterson, who missed 10 games last season with a torn Achilles' tendon, returned to form in the season opener with 2 1/2 sacks. But he has been shut out since. Peterson ranks fourth on the team with 59 tackles. He is tied for third with six passes broken up.

Also, leading tackler Derek Smith is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, along with outside linebacker Andre Carter. Smith leads the 49ers with 116 tackles this season, the ninth straight season he has gone over 100 stops.Carter has been a bit of a disappointment this season, registering just 3 1/2 sacks. He had 12 1/2 sacks his second season in the league, but managed just 12 sacks in his next 34 games.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--S Marques Anderson was signed to the active roster on Tuesday. Anderson played 10 games for the Raiders last season but was released in this preseason. The Broncos claimed him before releasing him last month.

--K Jose Cortez spent two weeks on the 49ers' roster before getting the boot when Joe Nedney was declared healthy enough to resume the kicking chores. Cortez played in one game and missed his only field-goal attempt, a 34-yard try against the Titans.

--C Jeremy Newberry underwent microfracture surgery Tuesday on his right knee. Newberry has no cartilage remaining in his knee, so team physician Dr. Michael Dillingham drilled small holes in the bone to promote bleeding and possible tissue growth to serve as a buffer between the bones in his knee joint. Newberry is working on a three- to four-month timetable.

--FS Keith Lewis is slated to make his first NFL start on Sunday against the Seahawks, as he replaces Mike Adams in the starting lineup. Lewis, who saw just a handful of snaps in last week's game when Adams was injured, recorded an interception. He earlier blocked a punt.

--WR Johnnie Morton was supposed to be a 10- to 15-snaps a game player when the 49ers signed him as a free agent. But because of Arnaz Battle's lingering knee injury, Morton has started nine games. He will likely start his 10th on Sunday against the Seahawks.

GAME PLAN: QB Alex Smith looked impressive in his first half back last week after missing five games with a right knee sprain. However, Smith reverted back to his early-season form with three second-half interceptions in a 17-10 loss to the Cardinals. Smith is a big key against the Seahawks, because he has shown a vulnerability to being rattled. The Seahawks are going after home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, so they will want to turn the heat up on Smith and get him off-balance early in the game. Smith will need to get some help from the running game. It looks as if RB Kevan Barlow will return to the lineup after missing a game with a banged-up knee. The 49ers will likely face a Seattle defense that puts eight men in the box. It is incumbent on offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy to put Smith in a place to succeed by taking advantage of one-on-one matchups on the outside. WR Brandon Lloyd, who is wildly inconsistent in his production, must take advantage of some favorable matchups to make some plays down the field. Defensively, the 49ers will be focused on stopping Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander, who leads the NFL with 1,388 yards and 22 touchdowns. The 49ers have done a relatively good job against the run this season, yielding an average of 3.8 yards a carry.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

49ers LOLB Julian Peterson, who has been held without a sack since the first week of the season, vs. Seahawks LT Walter Jones, who is in the first year of a seven-year, $52.5 million deal.

49ers run defense, which has yielded just 3.8 yards a carry to the opposition, vs. Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander, who leads the league with 1,388 yards and has averaged 4.9 yards a carry and 22 TDs.

49ers LT Adam Snyder, making his fourth career start at this position because of Anthony Clement's ineffectiveness, vs. Seahawks DE Grant Wistrom, a long-time NFC West nemesis of the 49ers who was neutralized when the teams met just three weeks ago.

INJURY IMPACT: DE Bryant Young (right knee) is making tremendous progress after missing two games with tears to the MCL and meniscus cartilage. It is unlikely he will play this week against the Seahawks, but looks to be on target for a return Dec. 18 against the Jaguars. ... FS Mike Adams (left knee) is doubtful for Sunday's game with an MCL sprain. The club expects him to miss one game and be back for the Dec. 18 game at the Jaguars. ... RB Kevan Barlow (left knee) missed one game and is questionable for Sunday's game against the Seahawks. ... FB Fred Beasley (neck) is listed as probable after missing three games with a stinger. ... TE Steve Bush (concussion) is probable. ... CB Ahmed Plummer (left ankle) is doubtful for Sunday's game. He has missed nine games after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips in late September. ... WR Arnaz Battle (right knee) is not expected to play Sunday. He has been bothered by knee problems since the third week of the season. ... C Jeremy Newberry (right knee), FS Tony Parrish (left leg), LT Jonas Jennings (right shoulder), LB Jeff Ulbrich (left biceps), CB Mike Rumph (foot), TE Eric Johnson (foot) and WRs Derrick Hamilton (left knee) and Rashaun Woods (thumb) are on injured reserve.


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