The NFC West was the tightest division in football entering Thursday night, with just two games separating first and worst. The Seattle Seahawks' victory helped give the division's bell curve some shape, as they now hold a 1.5-game lead over second-place San Francisco.
It's hard to find a game the Seahawks will drop in the next month. Four games separate Seattle and a Week 12 bye, and Pete Carroll's team will face opponents with a combined record of just 5-16. It's conceivable they can win out before the off week, which would put them at 10-1.
We learned that Russell Wilson continues to make it easy to extol his virtues and wax poetic about his ability with the football in his hands. It has been a long time since the NFL saw a player as gifted as Wilson at operating outside the pocket. It's not unusual to see a passer find an open receiver on the run, but Wilson shows an unnatural ability to put touch on the ball in hurried situations while not losing his composure with pass rushers around him.
Improvisation has set Wilson apart since he was drafted in 2012, and his creativity makes him almost impossible to stop. Defenses are left in a no-man's land when he rolls out, caught between commitments to stopping his run or defending against the pass. Few defenses make the right decision when he's outside the pocket, as seen on Seattle's second touchdown Thursday where the linebacker and safety over-committed to covering Marshawn Lynch in the flat, allowing Zach Miller to have free release into the end zone.
One area Wilson needs to improve moving forward is protecting the ball on contact. A lot is made of his lack of interceptions, but fumbling has been an issue. He has fumbled eight times this season, losing five (including two costly turnovers inside the red zone which resulted in 10 points for Arizona on Thursday). It's easy to look past these problems when Seattle is winning big, but this is an element to his game that will be exploited by defenses.
The Arizona Cardinals have some soul searching to do following the costly loss at home. A season record of 3-4 is hardly insurmountable in a soft NFC, but Week 8's game against the Atlanta Falcons is a must-win in order to keep any wild card hopes alive, but
The problem for Arizona is on the offensive side of things and twofold: an inability to protect the passer and inconsistent running. These factors create a scenario where an aging Carson Palmer is being asked to do too much and his arm strength is starting to falter. This was typified in the second quarter of Thursday night's game, when Palmer underthrew Michael Floyd, forcing the receiver to bat down a pass that would have been easily intercepted by Richard Sherman. Palmer's vision is still there and you can see what he wants to do with the football, but the 33-year-old's arm isn't allowing him to do it.
We learned that an aggressive defense wont be enough to carry the Cardinals in 2013. In Week 5 Arizona was able to beat the Carolina Panthers on the back of its defense in a game where the offense gained just 250 yards and turned the ball over three times. These games have proved to be the exception, not the rule. Against Seattle, the defense got plenty of pressure and generated two red zone turnovers but the good was erased by mistakes in the secondary and poor offensive play.
The pressure is on San Francisco to stay in step with Seattle, which is easier said than done. This week they face a Tennessee Titans team that is ailing but confident, and almost handed the Seahawks a loss in Week 6. It's too early in the season to rest on the promise of a Wild Card spot, especially when a path to the Super Bowl might need to go through Seattle, one of the most hostile home environments for visiting teams.
The next five games are vital for San Francisco, and both the 49ers and Seahawks will circle Dec. 8 when the sides meet in Seattle in a game that could have huge playoff implications.