Around the NFC West: First-place Rams

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the NFC West is ripe for the Rams' taking. He says the Rams have the best quarterback and best defense in the division. Miklasz: "This will be a very important game Sunday when the Rams travel to San Francisco. The Rams have to earn some credibility by proving they can win on the road. Even in this weak division, some road wins are mandatory. And the 49ers have to win this one. They'll be a desperate team. If they lose, the Niners will be 2-7 and will find it hard to get back up. If they win, the 49ers will be 3-6, and have some positive momentum going -- and they can use that to pull off an extended run and steal the division. I have to think that for the Rams, this is their most important game against the 49ers since the 1999 season. The Rams had better buckle up; they're going to see a lot of Frank Gore running at them Sunday."

Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams woke up Monday sharing first place in the NFC West. All they had to do was watch the Giants beat the Seahawks. Linebacker James Laurinaitis: "It is what it is. We have eight games to go. No one in here is celebrating."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with coach Steve Spagnuolo and Rams players following their bye week. Also: "If the playoffs started tomorrow, the Rams would be NFC West champs because they hold the tiebreaker by virtue of their 20-3 victory over the Seahawks on Oct. 3. Of course, the playoffs don't start tomorrow, something Spagnuolo is very aware of -- and made sure his players were aware of on Monday."

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams are breaking in Bryan Kehl at linebacker after Larry Grant started the first seven games on the weak side. Coats: "The start was Kehl's fourth in three NFL seasons. A fourth-round draft pick in 2008, Kehl (pronounced keel) spent two years in New York -- his first under Steve Spagnuolo, then the Giants' defensive coordinator -- before being released after Week 1 this season."

Also from Coats: Danario Alexander is recovering quickly.

Rogers Hensley of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asks colleagues whether the Rams can win the NFC West. Thomas: "It’s certainly there for the taking. But the Rams have to show they can win a couple, three games on the road. And with five of their final eight away from the friendly confines, that’s a tall task. Keep an eye on Arizona at 3-5. The Big Red have five of their final eight at home, and have the easiest remaining schedule of any of the NFC West teams. Winning on the road will be the key. So far Seattle is the only NFC West team to win on the road against a non-division opponent."

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com provides Rams-related notes, including one about tackle Jason Smith remaining limited in practice as he works his way back from a concussion.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com expects the team to get injured players back for its game against Arizona in Week 10. Farnsworth: "After playing without eight injured starters in Sunday’s 41-7 loss to the New York Giants at Qwest Field, the Seahawks could get quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (concussion), defensive tackle Brandon Mebane (strained calf) and left tackle Russell Okung (sprained ankle) back for this week’s game against the Cardinals."

Also from Farnsworth: Pete Carroll has lost two games in a row for the first time since 2001. Welcome back to the NFL.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks will likely wait until Wednesday before clearing Hasselbeck to return from the concussion he suffered at Oakland.

Also from O'Neil: a look at what he learned from the Seahawks' 41-7 defeat to the Giants. O'Neil: "After five games, the Seahawks had the No. 2-ranked rush defense. Now, they're ranked No. 19, allowing 112.6 yards per game as the Seahawks have lost first Brandon Mebane, then Red Bryant for the year and finally Colin Cole. Seattle isn't going to rediscover that formidability all at once, but it needs to start improving." Seattle built its run defense around Bryant and Cole in particular. Bryant isn't returning this season. Cole could miss an extended period. That'll make improvement difficult.

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks can focus on sharing first place in the NFC West, which beats focusing on getting outscored 74-10 over the past two games.

Liz Mathews of 710ESPN Seattle links to audio from Carroll's news conference Monday.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says close defeats leave Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt with a sick feeling in his stomach, whereas blowing losses lead to bitterness. Also, safety Adrian Wilson cut off an interview by saying the Cardinals aren't on the same page right now, whatever that means.

Also from McManaman: The Cardinals could be without backup defensive lineman Kenny Iwebema for the remainder of the season. Iwebema has been one of the more violent special-teams players in the division. He's fun to watch and the Cardinals will miss him, but their overall health remains relatively strong.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic shares what he learned from the Cardinals' 27-24 overtime defeat at Minnesota. Somers: "It's startling that what counts for progress this season is not turning the ball over and mixing in a touchdown. But that's where the Cardinals are. Quarterback Derek Anderson might have played his best game this season. He made wise decisions, including throwing the ball away on 3rd and goal. But the Cardinals offense scored only 10 points."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says only one of the Cardinals' remaining opponents has a winning record (Kansas City).

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says Alex Smith intends to help Troy Smith prepare for Week 10 even though Troy Smith could take Alex Smith's job. Maiocco: "All indications point toward Troy Smith getting at least another start for the 49ers -- with the door wide open for him to take over as the 49ers' permanent starting quarterback for the second half of the season."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee sizes up remaining NFC West team schedules while making sense of the division race. On the 49ers: "The league's schedule makers didn't cut the 49ers a lot of slack this season. The second half isn't as demanding as the first half, which included an 11-day road trip and a 12,000-mile round-trip, but it's no walk in Hyde Park, either. One stretch has them playing Monday night in Arizona and then going on the road to Green Bay, a six-day desert-to-tundra turnaround. Remember, the 49ers were terrible in Kansas City following a Monday night game to New Orleans earlier this year. Another tricky spot - they'll only have a couple of days to prepare for a Thursday night game against San Diego. As always with Norv Turner's team, it appears it was better to draw San Diego early in the season than late."

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Alex Smith and coach Mike Singletary have different views on leadership. Smith: "I think being a middle linebacker on defense and a leader is very different than being a quarterback. Executing on the offensive side of the ball and the defensive side of the ball are very different things. It's a very different mindset, in my opinion."

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the Raiders are leading the 49ers as the Bay Area's best NFL team even though San Francisco won a recent game between the teams.

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News reads Alex Smith's comments as another bad sign in the relationship between head coach and quarterback. Singletary lauded Smith's leadership when naming him a team captain before the season, then lamented a lack of leadership on offense more recently. Alex Smith obviously isn't a rah-rah leader in the Singletary mold. The 49ers are also very young on offense. The team might need stronger and more outward leadership from its quarterback as a result.

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News also looks at the leadership issue.

David White of the San Francisco Chronicle says Singletary wants his quarterback to bring the offense together through tough times. Quarterbacks have credibility when they play well.