Aces Wild in NFC West with 49ers Win

Chad KlassenCorrespondent IDecember 15, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - DECEMBER 14:  Running back Beanie Wells #26 of the Arizona Cardinals rushes with the ball as safety Michael Lewis #32 of the San Francisco 49ers attempts to tackle him at Candlestick Park on December 14, 2009 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The NFC West is not only among the weakest divisions in football, but it may also be the wackiest.

After the 49ers shocked the division-leading Cardinals 24-9 at Candlestick Park on Monday night—completing the season sweep of Arizona in the process—oddsmakers in Vegas just might have to stop handicapping the division that's been incredibly unpredictable.

A week after dominating Brett Favre and the Vikings in primetime, the national spotlight wasn't nearly as glamorous for the defending NFC champions. They turned the ball over seven times in a game that could've clinched the division.

Certainly, failing to wrap up the NFC West on Monday night is a moot point for Arizona. The Cardinals get the conference's two worst teams, St. Louis and Detroit, in the last three weeks of the season and should win their second straight division title. 

But a meager performance in San Francisco brought the Cardinals back down to earth. It took them from a top contender against Minnesota—determined to earn a first-round bye—to a middle-of-the-pack team that could be bounced on wild-card weekend with a mistake-filled effort.

Instead of playing like the division crown was on the line, Arizona looked ill-prepared from their opening possession. They never got into the kind of rhythm offensively on which Kurt Warner thrives as an elite quarterback.

To their credit, the 49ers—who were minus-one in the turnover battle at Seattle last week—were able to get pressure on the Cardinals' offense. With an effective pass rush, they disrupted Warner's rhythm-oriented passing attack and shut down the run game.

A disappointing 20-17 defeat to the Seahawks seems like a distant memory now for the Niners, who bounced back in a big way—forcing seven takeaways and beating Arizona for the second time in 2009.

Monday night's surprising win by San Francisco marks what has been a wacky trend in the division this season—teams showing promising signs with stout performances only to return to NFC West mediocrity the next week.

For the defending champions, Arizona, who have been surprisingly impressive on the road this year with a 5-2 record, there has been a pair of mishaps at the University of Phoenix Stadium—the same home at which they went 8-2 in 2008, including the playoffs.

Those two losses—a 31-10 defeat against Indianapolis and a 34-21 loss to Carolina—put serious doubt in the minds of many around the NFL that Arizona could actually repeat as conference champions, let alone division champions.

Warner threw seven interceptions between the two letdowns—five picks to the Panthers alone—and his Cardinals were looking like a team, similar to the Steelers, that was suffering from a Super Bowl hangover. However, they rebounded with a three-game winning streak after each embarrassing defeat.   

For their part, the 49ers started 3-1, with a season-opening win in Arizona, and were a Favre-miracle away from winning their first four contests.

Until beating the Cardinals again, to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, San Francisco had lost six of its last eight following the hot start. This all due in large part to inconsistent quarterback play and the absence of injured Frank Gore in the backfield.

Even for a 5-8 Seattle team that's never been in the NFC West conversation this season, there was a point in the season that inspired hope in Seahawks Nation.

A convincing 41-0 blowout over Jacksonville in Week 5 brought great excitement to the city, and it seemed as though Seattle had finally found its mojo offensively. They were starting to look like a legitimate playoff team.

Matt Hasselbeck had four touchdown passes, two of which went to coveted free agent T.J. Houshmandzadeh, while an aging defense put up its second shutout of 2009.  

However, the Seahawks, who had been humbled by the Colts a week earlier in Indianapolis, were pounded 27-3 by the Cardinals the very next week. They've lost five of their last eight games since demolishing the Jaguars—ironically the team that's now in playoff contention in the AFC.     

It's just been one of those wacky years in the NFL, where parity has reigned supreme every Sunday. But if the NFC West has taught us anything, the high-flying Cardinals will be back despite leaving San Francisco humiliated.

After all, Arizona has experienced this same rollercoaster ride before, only one year ago. A 47-7 thumping at Foxboro last December was followed by a four-game winning streak and a berth in the Super Bowl.


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