Just when you thought you had a read on it, the expected drama of how the potent NFC West will unfold took an abrupt turn this week with the return of the “Boom” in the Seattle Seahawks atmosphere. However, off to a fast start, the Arizona Cardinals are set to dig in their heals and take on all comers while the St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers manage to break even so far as they continue to piece together their identities with the NFC West’s newest parts. With a highly-predicted Super Bowl representative bringing up the rear, this division promises to provide must-see TV throughout the year, and below are two of those games.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS vs ARIZONA CARDINALS Sunday, 1:05 PM PT, FOX.
For the second week in a row, the San Francisco 49ers run into a buzz saw. The Arizona Cardinals are the highest-scoring team in the NFL and making me look smarter than I really am with my week 1 statement that they are capable of hinting shades of the Greatest Show on Earth II. Their defense, their secondary specifically, is better talented than what that Rams’ Super Bowl Championship team possessed, a note to store away for later use. Though perhaps not quite a Ben Roethlisberger or having an equal to Antonio Brown with Larry Fitzgerald up in age, quarterback Carson Palmer has proven that he’s just as capable of picking a defense apart, especially when the opposition plays man coverage. It can also be argued that he has an overall better crop of receivers to work with while Martavis Bryant is out on suspension. The speedy receiver J.J. Nelson will be out for about a month with a partially-dislocated shoulder but starting WR Michael Floyd returned from his injury and is being eased back into the action, so the Red Birds shouldn’t miss a beat.
For the 49ers, with Carlos Hyde and Torrey Smith not 100% but probable, and Reggie Bush being doubtful, things don’t look too good. Their game plan is to establish the run game like in week 1 but like last week, it’s hard to stick with that plan playing catch-up—even harder with an O-line that lacks push. On the defensive side, there is no one man to account for in the trenches so they go with schemes and trickery and cross their fingers, but Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians is one of the league masters at breaking down defenses and exploiting their weaknesses, which could explain Andrew Luck’s recent woes.
The 49ers allowed 43 points and scored 18 in Pittsburgh. Now they travel to Arizona to play a slightly better offense with a better overall defense than Pittsburgh. They are not a bad team, but shorthanded and over-matched here.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS vs. ST. LOUIS RAMS Sunday, 10 AM PT, FOX
Despite the many pre-game shows and previews that will predict a Steelers victory, Las Vegas sees this game as either a ‘pick’em’ or favors Pittsburgh by only a point. I find this as interesting as last week’s Rams-Redskins game spread (Rams favored by only 2.5 points), a game I would’ve lost a small fortune giving points if I had a small fortune to put up. With Le’Veon Bell returning, many of the same experts that sided with me might even be more perplexed at the oddsmakers’ mindset, but not me, not this time. Besides the notion that the eye test tells me to throw out last week’s Rams egg-lay, St. Louis matches up to the Steelers better because (1) the Rams have a pass rush. In week 1, the Patriots sacked Big Ben three times and he finished the game with just one touchdown pass, and the Steelers with only 21 points. Last week he was not sacked at all and he put on a passing clinic. Expect the Rams to pressure him early and often with Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers pushing up the middle. (2) Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower was a beast week 1, and I expect Rams’ LB Alec Ogletree (a man possessed week 2) to have the same success. (3) What I do not foresee is the red carpet being rolled out for ‘the Gronk’ to catch and score at will, with the Rams being pretty good covering high-profile tight ends.
The danger for the Rams will hinge on the success of returnee Le’Veon Bell around the sides where the Rams got exposed against the Redskins, and the other receiver, Darrius Heyward-Bey, who’s having the best season of his career, in my opinion. Antonio Brown will get his for sure, but the Rams at home have enough speed and defensive fire power to make it a respectable battle. Steelers can’t boast defensively, and given the time, Foles comes alive, making Tavon Austin the double-threat he’s born to be. Additionally, we may finally get a look at the long-awaited back Todd Gurley, listed as questionable only because of qualifying fools to remove him. He’s ready to go and excited despite coach Fisher’s reluctance to say “all systems are a go!” Still, I have a feeling that Fisher wants him somewhat battle-tested before traveling to face division rival Arizona Cardinals the following week.
Gut over logic and numbers this week for me…but if you want numbers, the Rams are the slight numbers-fed computer pick of Oddsshark(dot)com.