The NFC West is so tightly contested that in the blink of an eye — or in the time it took Kyler Murray to scramble to his left, elude a sack, stop just short of the boundary and heave an astonishing Hail Mary about 45 yards into triple coverage in the end zone and for DeAndre Hopkins to somehow shrug off the blanket of defense and grasp the ball out of the air — the Arizona Cardinals vaulted from third place behind the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks to the division lead. All three teams are 6-3, but Arizona owns the tiebreaker with the best won-loss record within the division at 2-0. And the Cardinals and Seahawks play on Thursday night.
“In basketball terminology, that’s what they call it when somebody gets dunked on,” Hopkins said of his masterpiece. “It was on three people. They were in position. It was just a better catch by I.”
In the end, all three teams may make the playoffs anyway (all three would be in if the playoffs started right now), but the horse race for the top spot is attributable to one uncomfortable fact: For all of the early MVP talk, Russell Wilson’s recent mistakes have kept the Cardinals and Rams alive for the division title and a home game. Wilson had three turnovers Sunday — two interceptions and a fumble — the second straight game and the third time in four games in which he’s had at least three turnovers. Wilson has 10 turnovers (seven interceptions and three fumbles) since Week 7 and, not surprisingly, the Seahawks lost three of those four games.
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It’s unfair to blame Wilson alone for the Seahawks’ sudden slide from undefeated to vulnerable. Wilson has been operating under an enormous amount of pressure this season with almost no margin for error while trying to cover up for a historically bad defense. And he was operating under the pressure of the Rams’ defense Sunday. He was sacked six times, harassed many more, did not throw a touchdown pass for the first time all season and it’s entirely understandable that he was pressing.
The Seahawks would be nowhere without Wilson. But when Wilson didn’t even see the yards of wide-open field in front of him before he threw a pass to the end zone that was picked off by cornerback Darious Williams late in the first half — about as clear an indication that Wilson might be pressing as there could be — it laid bare the trajectory of the Seahawks’ season. They need Wilson to be practically perfect, and as his infallibility has slipped in the last month, so has the Seahawks’ dominance of the division. In the first five games — all Seattle wins — Wilson threw 19 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. He did not fumble at all. In the four games since, the Seahawks are 1-3, and Wilson has thrown nine touchdowns, seven interceptions and he had fumbled three times. If we define the most valuable player as the one who is truly indispensable to his team, there’s a good argument to be made that Wilson deserves it more than ever for carrying the Seahawks.
Wilson said the first interception was simply a bad decision. He should have just run it, he said several times. But he does not think he is pressing.
“The reality is I know who I am,” Wilson said. “I know I have been great and will be great and will continue to be great. I know there are better days ahead. I have no doubt greatness is in store.”
What is left in the wake of the Seahawks’ stumble is nothing less than the NFL’s best division and, alas for the Seahawks, a better balanced team than they are.
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The Rams, in second place, beat the Seahawks with a balanced offensive attack and with almost even distribution among a trio of running backs. And they play hellacious defense, entering the game as the league’s second-ranked defense. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey spent most of his time shadowing receiver DK Metcalf, Seattle’s leading receiver. He was not targeted at all in the first half and finished with just two receptions. And Williams had both of the Rams’ interceptions and three passes broken up.
“We strive for perfection and in hopes of not getting perfection, we still reach elite level defensive play,” Ramsey said.
There are two things that can stop the Rams: Injuries, like the one that caused left tackle Andrew Whitworth to leave the game on a cart and a difficult second-half schedule, the hardest of the three NFC West contenders. The Rams go to Tampa — their fifth cross-country trip this season — for a Monday night game against the Bucs in Week 11. In addition to games against the Patriots and Seahawks, the Rams still have to play the Cardinals twice.
About the Cardinals. They are in first place by a sliver, but much like the Seahawks, are nearly completely dependent on their quarterback conjuring magic. Fortunately, Murray does that often. As jaw-dropping as Hopkins’ reception was, Murray’s pass was just as spectacular. He was off-balance when he threw it and he put it in the perfect spot. The Cardinals entered the game with the second-ranked rushing offense, and while Murray was the team’s leading rusher, it was Kenyan Drake who had a 100-yard game Sunday, as part of 217 rushing yards for the Cardinals.
Still, the Cardinals suddenly overtaking the Seahawks in the NFC West is almost as startling as Murray’s desperation pass.
“I kept asking our guys, ‘Did he catch it?'” coach Kliff Kingsbury said.
Hopkins did. And the Cardinals have caught the rest of the division, too.