(CBS San Francisco) — After their Super Bowl LIV appearance, the San Francisco 49ers came into the season as favorites in the NFC West. But injuries and COVID concerns have led them to a 5-8 record so far, good enough for last place in the division. They could conceivably climb out of the cellar and even make the playoffs, but a division title is off the table. The Arizona Cardinals, at 7-6, have struggled as well. But their playoff hopes are a little brighter. Both teams could also play spoiler to the division leaders.
At this point, the NFC West really comes down to the division-leading Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks, both at 9-4. The Rams hold the tiebreaker by virtue of their win over the Seahawks a month ago. But the two teams will meet again in the second-to-last week of the season. That game could decide the division.
There’s still a lot of football to be played in the NFC West. And Week 15 pits three of the division’s teams against teams from the NFC East. CBS San Francisco sports anchor Dennis O’Donnell looks at the division’s matchups.
All times listed are Eastern.
San Francisco 49ers @ Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, December 20 @ 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
The 49ers and Cowboys both enter this game without their starting quarterbacks. Jimmy Garoppolo is recovering from an ankle sprain that may keep him out the rest of the season. Dak Prescott broke his ankle in Week 5, which sidelined him for the season as well. The quarterback play for both teams has been spotty at times in their respective absences.
Nick Mullens is picking up lots of yards through the air, averaging 268.8 yards per game in his last four starts. But he’s also turning the ball over. “Nick Mullens, seven turnovers in his last four games,” O’Donnell points out. “The 49ers, as you know, decimated by injuries, like the Cowboys are. The 49ers, I feel, are going in the wrong direction. The end of the season can’t get here soon enough. The Niners are actually two-point favorites in this game. But no Deebo Samuel, so Mullens, who struggled last week against Washington, is going to struggle again, I think.”
The Cowboys boast a subpar defense, even if they’re decent against the pass. And they give up a league-worst 30.8 points per game. “The key for me, watch out for a little revenge factor,” says O’Donnell. “Aldon Smith (former 49er), 78-yard touchdown return last week for the Cowboys. Three first-half turnovers.”
Their offense is better, though they clearly miss Prescott. The upside is that backup Andy Dalton is an experienced quarterback with a track record of success. “The Cowboys looked really good, 30-7 over Cincinnati,” O’Donnell notes. “Andy Dalton looked like the old Bengals quarterback in that game.”
The Cowboys success in Week 15 should be taken with a grain of salt, of course. The Bengals are the worst team in the NFL not named Jets or Jaguars. And they were without rookie quarterback Joe Burrow.
Philadelphia Eagles @ Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, December 20 @ 4:05 p.m. (FOX)
The Eagles benched the struggling Carson Wentz last week, in favor of Jalen Hurts. And the move seemed to pay dividends. Philadelphia knocked off the NFC South-leading Saints, 24-21, to pick up their fourth win. Hurts only passed for 167 yards. But he wasn’t sacked at all, which is saying something given the Eagles lead the NFL in sacks allowed. Hurts also ran for 106 yards, with Miles Sanders adding another 115 yards, though most of that came on one play. The offense seemed rejuvenated.
This week Hurts will face Kyler Murray, another dual-threat quarterback who’s been successful running the football at times. “Both of those quarterbacks are from Oklahoma,” O’Donnell points out. “Both love to run the football. Kyler Murray over 700 yards rushing, behind Lamar Jackson. But Jalen Hurts, in his first start at quarterback, ran for over 100 yards. The only other quarterback to do that in his first start in NFL history, of course, Lamar Jackson.”
The Cardinals may resort to a more pass-heavy approach however. The Eagles starting cornerbacks both could be out for Week 15. Darius Slay has a concussion and is still going through the protocol. Avonte Maddox has a knee injury. Neither practiced yesterday.
“I think the Cardinals, go to the air,” says O’Donnell. They have to win this game.”
The Cardinals have lost three of their last four games and find themselves on the playoff bubble. “I think, Murray, even with a shoulder injury, decimates the Eagles by the air, not the ground,” says O’Donnell.
Seattle Seahawks @ Washington Football Team, Sunday, December 20 @ 1:00 p.m. (FOX)
The Seahawks and Washington present an interesting matchup. Both teams need another win as they push toward the playoffs. The 9-4 Seahawks did it on offense last week, dismantling the hapless New York Jets, 40-3. Washington relied more on defense in their 23-15 win over the 49ers.
“I think Washington actually looked great against the 49ers last weekend,” says O’Donnell. “They upset San Francisco. But it was done primarily on the defensive side of the ball. Chase Young is awesome. His first half stats… four tackles, a quarterback hit, one sack, one forced fumble and a touchdown. That guy was a one-man wrecking crew. Washington had two defensive touchdowns against San Francisco.”
Russell Wilson is a much different quarterback from 49ers backup Mullens. Wilson is the NFL’s third-leading passer to date, with 3,685 yards and 36 touchdown passes so far this season. However, he’s also been sacked 40 times, which is the second most behind only Wentz. Meanwhile, Washington’s pass defense allows only 206.3 yards per game and has sacked the quarterback 40 times, both among the best totals in the league.
Wilson is certainly reliable in pulling out close games. And this matchup promises to be tight. Though it all may hinge on the availability of Washington QB Alex Smith, who is a little banged up. “One word of caution, Alex Smith did not practice on Wednesday,” O’Donnell notes. “We don’t know about a status for Sunday’s game.”
New York Jets @ Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, December 20 @ 4:05 p.m. (FOX)
The winless Jets are crawling to the finish line and the top pick in next year’s NFL Draft. Picking up a win in their final three games seems unlikely, though theoretically possible. Could it come in Week 15, against the top team in the NFC West?
According to O’Donnell, “there is no chance. The Jets are basically last in every conceivable offensive category you can think of.”
Among the top-line team stats, that includes total yards per game (269.8) and points per game (14.1). Those numbers aren’t likely to improve much against one of the NFL’s better defenses. The Rams allow the fewest total yards per game (285.8) and the third-fewest points (18.9).
“The Rams are favored by 17 points in this football game,” O’Donnell points out. “The Rams aren’t going to lose. They’re atop the NFC West with the tiebreaker. So the Rams win this one easily. The Jets had their best chance a couple of weeks ago against the Raiders, who won it on the final play of the game.”