NFC champion will be whoever tames the West

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Power comes and goes in the National Football Conference like it’s the Middle East.  Who controls the NFC West?  You have to pause to think about it, as if you’re asked who’s the leader of Egypt or Libya,

Things are more settled in the American Football Conference, where Denver ruled so commandingly a month ago.  The Broncos, you may have forgotten, were 6-1, having knocked off some solid teams:  Indianapolis, Kansas City. Arizona, San Francisco, San Diego.  Their only loss was in Seattle, against the Super Bowl champions in overtime.

Peyton Manning’s most pressing concern at the time was Denver’s scoreboard operator orchestrating cheers when he was trying to make his calls, too few of which were running plays.  Or was it too many?

Whatever it was, Denver’s dream season changed into something like post-Arab spring. This month the Broncos were blown out by the Patriots and Rams before barely hanging on at home against Miami.

So the Broncos are as yesterday as the Boston Red Sox, so close and yet so far from their pinnacle. 

The new flavor is New England.  With their 34-9 carving of Detroit Lions for a pre-Thanksgiving feast, the Patriots look like the new Broncos, or the 2013 Seahawks.  Or perhaps even the 2007 Patriots who won 18 consecutive games before losing the Super Bowl.

The Patriots this year are good enough to bench the Sports Illustrated cover boy, Jonas Gray, for oversleeping (his cellphone expired, and with it his alarm clock) and still run all over the NFL’s No. 1 defense.  They seamlessly replaced Gray with LeGarrette Blount (12 carries, 78 yards, 2 TD), plucked from the waiver wire after he stalked off the field when he got tired of caddying for LeVeon Bell in Pittsburgh.

The Patriots have won seven games in a row because they have multiple ways to win.

They have a Hall of Fame quarterback in Tom Brady and a transformational tight end, Rob Gronkowski.  The Gronk is their primary weapon in the passing game and an edge-clearing blocker in the run game.  And, not to be overlooked in this golden age of marketing, he dances better than the league’s other white guys.

On defense the Patriots barely miss their best pass rusher, Chandler Jones, because they have the eternal shutdown corner, Darelle Revis, who did not let Megatron go off.

Meanwhile, out west, where the NFC stakes its Super Bowl claims, a true Cinderella story emerged.  The Arizona Cardinals, perched at 7-1 with the NFL’s best record, were talking of being the host team in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1. 

But then they faced the suddenly resurgent Seahawks, the team that went to sleep after beating Denver in a statement game that prevented Super Bowl atonement.  With the repeat win over Denver following a romp of a season opener against Green Bay, the Hawks were overcome with overconfidence.

But by midseason, when they were 5-3, their swagger was gone.  A hacked-in tweet from Cam Newton said what others were saying openly, that the captain of swagger, Richard Sherman himself, was “overrated.”

Having been beaten by San Diego, Dallas, St. Louis and Kansas City, the Seahawks looked like sitting ducks for the air assault of Bruce Arians, coach of the visiting Cardinals, whose only loss had been with their third-string quarterback.  They seemed confident that Carson Palmer’s backup, Drew Stanton, could guide them to victory in Seattle, where they had won the year before, which is to say Seattle’s Super Bowl year.

Not only was Seattle’s defense leaking throughout the half-season, there was a fissure in the locker room, with the hammer of the offense, Marshawn Lynch, unhappy that management wasn’t eager to extend his contract beyond this season, postseason or not.

With his anti-social attitude (snubs the media and White House, and his teammates at halftime).  Lynch was perceived as disruptive of his own team. 

So what happened?  The Seahawks on Sunday afternoon smothered the Cardinals, 19-3.  A Seattle pass rush that was dormant since the Super Bowl emerged with fury: heretofore passive Cliff Avril twice sacking Stanton and legally hitting him three other times.

And not coincidentally, Sherman, whose back has been often seen on video this year, was in shutdown form.  For most of the day he shadowed Michael Floyd, who caught no passes.

The key here was the reawakening of Avril.  “He was on fire from the get-go,” said Seattle coach Pete Carroll.  “He was really pounding the quarterback.”

Without a pass rush, Sherman’s weakness had been exposed: his 4.56 speed in the 40 is sub-corner, which is why he was a fifth-round draft pick.  He cannot be an island like Revis or Arizona’s Patrick Peterson (as Peterson, with his 4.34 speed, was ungallant enough to point out).  Sherman can blanket a fast receiver for 30 yards, but after that he needs help from the safety, which fortunately for him is Earl Thomas.

However, without a pass rush, even the league’s rangiest safety was stressed to keep up with everyone.  Seattle’s defense, with Avril stalled, was not up to the challenges of DeSean Jackson (157 yards), Emmanuel Sanders (149), Antonio Gates (3 TDs) and Jamaal Charles (159 yards rushing).

But against Arizona in CenturyLink, the Hawks were 2013 vintage.  How did they return to themselves?

“Hard talk, arguments,” said the All-Pro safety, Thomas.  “Like a family, and just like a family, we came together.”

They did it without a major contribution from Lynch, who rushed for 39 yards on 15 attempts.

Instead they relied on Russell Wilson, who at a shade under 5-11 is somehow a one-man offense.  He was sacked seven times Sunday but sprang back to throw for 211 yards and run for 73, which was 34 more than Lynch.

A couple of myths were exposed in Seattle’s throttling of Arizona.  Myth No. 1 is that the Cardinals are as good with Stanton as they were with Palmer.  Stanton does not have the veteran’s savvy and the ability to withstand pressure on the pocket.  And as ESPN’s Ron Jaworski observed, “The ball doesn’t explode out of his hand the way it does out of Palmer’s.”

Myth No. 2 is that the Cardinals won’t miss Larry Fitzgerald, with a strained knee ligament, because he’s 31 and is slowing down anyway and they’re better off with the younger, faster legs of Floyd, Jaron Brown and John Brown.

What should not be overlooked is that Fitzgerald is an old pro like Anquan Boldin, Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne who stretch high and low to pull in the difficult ball.  These guys know how to keep drives alive.  Without Fitzgerald the Cardinals lack a third-down playmaker and end zone producer.  Jaron Brown dropped a touchdown.

It may be true, as Arians contended, that “everything was self-inflicted.”  But the bottom line is he couldn’t get behind Thomas with the long ball that’s the trademark of his offense.  The Cardinals were so overmatched that you do have to respect Seattle’s chances for a repeat Super Bowl.  The statement will be emphatic if the Hawks win on the road Thanksgiving night against their hated rival, San Francisco.

The 49ers, who have played in the NFC championship game three consecutive years, have the same record now as Seattle, 7-4, and the only advantage the home field gives them is that it’s not CenturyLink.  Their Northern California Cool crowd doesn’t provide much spark for the home side.  Expect a low-scoring game, with neither team protecting its quarterback.

Seattle’s O-line is still nothing more than stopgap, which suits Wilson fine, as he makes some of his biggest plays off scrambles when his protection breaks down.

San Fran’s Colin Kaepernick is also a free-running quarterback, but while his passing stats are similar to Wilson’s, he has rushed for no touchdowns and just 17 first downs, compared to 4 and 38 for his adversary.  Kaepernick runs to escape trouble; Wilson runs to pick up first downs and touchdowns.

In a defensive battle, the advantage goes to the quarterback who’s most likely to make a clutch play.  That would be Russell Wilson, the Brady of the West.  The Seahawks have regained their excellence.  But how long can they maintain it?


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