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Cardinals, Seahawks hit their strides after rough starts

Everyone has been a little tough on the NFC West at times, but after the 7-9 division winner a year ago, it was only fitting. So in that vein, I feel it's only fair to send some love out there now, as two teams in this division are much improved the past month or so and deserving of more respect.

San Francisco is a legit threat, and the Rams are a lost cause right now with big changes ahead. But seemingly without anyone noticing, the other two teams in the division have been making nice strides since November.

» Arizona had a six-game losing slump that bled into November, and they allowed 127 points in the final four losses, a shocking total. The defense was in disarray. Since then, Patrick Peterson has played like a rookie of the year candidate, the front seven has been getting much more pressure and the Cards have allowed just 86 points in the past five games, winning four of them and losing only to the 49ers. After getting gashed on the ground much of the season, the Cards have held the 49ers, Rams and Cowboys the past three weeks to 3.8 yards per carry.

» Seattle has won three of its past four, with wins over the Giants and Baltimore already this season, and has built an elite defense. There are playmakers at every level of the defense, with Brandon Mebane and Red Bryant playing at a Pro Bowl level on the line, Chris Clemons leading the pass rush, David Hawthorne anchoring the linebackers and young safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, who might be the best duo in the league. They're holding opponents to an 80.5 passer rating, just outside the top 10, and only the Bengals, Ravens and 49ers have a better ground defense.

Both the Cardinals and Seahawks have been helped by their running backs. Arizona's Beanie Wells broke out with a 228-yard outing in Week 12. And Seattle's Marshawn Lynch is on an eight-game TD tear for the Seahawks and is running people over.

Clearly figuring out quarterback long-term is a massive issue for Seattle, and Arizona needs to be certain Kolb is the piece to build around. But there have been plenty of signs of life lately for the Cards and Seahawks.

Weekly Tebow update

Against the Vikings, Tim Tebow looked more comfortable passing the ball than we have seen to this point, and the ability to rally his team remains phenomenal. A few other points:

» Tebow has now started seven games this season, with one interception and one lost fumble.

» He's accounted for 13 TDs, and despite completing less than half his passes, is approaching a solid QB rating of 88.

» Tebow's fourth-quarter passer rating is up to 109.7, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning.

» He's averaging 6.4 yards per carry in the fourth quarter, third-best of anyone in the NFL, trailing only teammate Willis McGahee and LeSean McCoy.

» Tebow also has two fourth-quarter rushing TDs to go with five scoring throws.

I like the Broncos to handle the Bears this week, and I bet they give the Patriots a game, too. Wonder what Tebow's playoff stats will look like? I'm thinking we might get the chance to find out.

Odds and ends

On NFL Network
"NFL Replay" will re-air the Broncos' 35-32 win over the Vikings on Tuesday, Dec. 6 at 9:30 p.m. ET.

» For as much national heat as Joe Flacco seems to take, I still would take him over Matt Ryan from that same draft. Ryan has yet to win a playoff game and Sunday, in what amounted to one for the Texans, he was not good. In fact, rookie fifth-round draft pick T.J. Yates outplayed him on the other side of the field. Save for yards per attempt, Ryan's numbers are down across the board. The explosive plays haven't been there to the degree Atlanta has hoped, and with 12 picks already, Ryan is on pace for a career-high. There is no shortage of talent around him, but his interceptions and inaccuracy was a major problem on Sunday.

» And hats off to the Texans. No team has lost more world class talent, and they keep plugging along.

» Not sure what's going to come of Jacksonville's staff after the season, but running backs coach Earnest Byner continues to get it done. He was with Clinton Portis in Washington, and got nice production out of fill-ins like Ladell Betts there. In Tennessee, he was with Chris Johnson for his attack on 2,000 yards. And he's been great with Maurice Jones-Drew the past few years and has helped develop Deji Karim.

» Lardarius Webb may not be a Pro Bowl selection this season, but if he continues this development, the cornerback tandem of him and Jimmy Smith could be special in Baltimore. Both have great ball skills and natural coverage instincts. The idea that the Ravens were vulnerable in the secondary is becoming outdated.

» Still remain suspicious of the Carson Palmer experiment in Oakland. We'll see when they get a few more receivers back healthy, but I'm not sure he's going to prove to be a real upgrade over Jason Campbell.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @JasonLaCanfora

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