Why the NFC West Is the Best Division In Football
In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks became the first team in NFL history to win their division with a losing record. They finished 7-9 that season. In 2013, the St. Louis Rams finished 7-9 in that same division yet finished in last place in the NFC West. Times have certainly changed for this once weak division. The reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks won the division last season and their chief rival the San Francisco 49ers have been to the last three NFC championship games, advancing to the Super Bowl two seasons ago. The Arizona Cardinals finished third in the division last season with a 10-6 record, but didn’t even make the playoffs. To put it in perspective, the Green Bay Packers finished 8-7-1 and won the NFC North crown.
As the 2014 season nears, this division may be even stronger from top to bottom this season. The Seahawks and 49ers, led by their young quarterbacks and vaunted defenses, are two of the favorites to win this year’s crown and the Cardinals and Rams have improved. No other division rivals the NFC West from top to bottom. If the Rams or Cardinals were in another division, they may be the favorite to win it. Denver Broncos start linebacker Von Miller recently said the NFC West was the best division in football. This season, the reigning AFC champ Broncos will play their NFC crossover games with this stacked division. Here are in-depth reports on each NFC West team:
The Pete Carroll-coached Seahawks rode a smash mouth defense to a Super Bowl title last season, routing the Broncos 43-8. Seattle allowed a league-low 241 points last season, ranked first in total yards allowed per game and had the league’s top pass defense. They are led by All-Pro players in the secondary – cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas. Both signed long-term contract extensions this offseason and there is no reason why this unit will slow down as both players are 26 years of age or under. While veteran defensive linemen Red Bryant and Chris Clemons were released, Michael Bennett was re-signed to a four-year deal. Bennett is a dynamic pass-rusher and can play both defensive end and defensive tackle. Seattle is at its best rotating defensive linemen and they still will have the depth to do that this season. The linebacking corps returns and they are all young as well.
While the league’s best defense should once again be one of the league’s top units, expect the offense to take a step forward. Quarterback Russell Wilson was asked to just manage the game the past two seasons and rely on a power-running game led by running back Marshawn Lynch. Wilson is one year older and will be relied on a little bit more to throw the ball around. Wide receiver Percy Harvin is fully healthy and will be a matchup nightmare. While Golden Tate departed in free agency, Harvin, if healthy, will more than replace him. Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Sidney Rice round out the receivers and give Wilson plenty of options. Lynch is in the final year of his contract but there is no reason he should slow down. Second-year RB Christine Michael will back up Lynch and is ultra-talented and should spell Lynch for a few carries to keep him fresh.
San Francisco 49ers
If Seattle is number 1, San Francisco is 1A. They are almost mirror images of one another with great coaching, a mobile young quarterback and a stingy, hard-nosed defense. The big offseason stories involved two of their youngest players, with DE Aldon Smith making the news for his troubles with the law and QB Colin Kaepernick signing a mega-extension. Kaepernick struggled to throw the ball without WR Michael Crabtree early last season, but his numbers improved greatly once he got back in the lineup. An offseason trade for WR Stevie Johnson and drafting WR Bruce Ellington give Kaepernick more options to throw to and develop his passing. While he is lethal with his legs, rushing for 524 yards, improving his passing will cause a lot of problems for opposing defenses. The running game will be relied on heavily with RB Frank Gore leading the way and plenty of options waiting in the wings led by second-rounder RB Carlos Hyde.
On defense, the 49ers will have to deal with some personnel losses at the beginning of the season. Aldon Smith will most likely be suspended for at least a few games and star LB NaVorro Bowman is likely to start the season on the physically unable to perform list after suffering a major knee injury in last year’s conference championship game. Patrick Willis and Justin Smith both return, but are a year older. The 49ers usually strong defense will be fine, but during the first half of the season, they may have to rely on their offense a little more than usual.
Arizona was one of 11 NFL teams to reach double-digit victories last season, but was the only one from that group to not make the playoffs. That’s how life is in the NFC West. The Cardinals had a solid offense led by veteran QB Carson Palmer and an excellent defense, particularly against the run, ranking first in the NFL in that category. On offense, Palmer returns after throwing for 24 TDs and will have wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd to throw too. Their offensive line should be a good unit, especially with the addition of 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper who missed all of last season with a broken leg.
Darryl Washington was a top player on the Cardinals defensive unit. However, Arizona has to survive without him for 2014 after he was suspended for the entire year for using a banned substance. That is a serious blow to this unit which will have to rely on veterans Karlos Dansby and Darnell Dockett along with a strong secondary spearheaded by Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson. Newly signed Antonio Cromartie may also help the secondary, adding a veteran who if healthy can provide a nice boost.
St. Louis Rams
The Rams had two of the top 11 picks in this year’s draft. They filled a need with the first pick by selecting offensive tackle Greg Robinson and drafted the best available player on their board with their second pick, taking DT Aaron Donald. The Rams defensive line ranks as one of the league’s top units and employing another fearsome pass rusher makes the unit even scarier. DE Robert Quinn leads the unit and is coming off an All-Pro season where he registered a franchise record 19 sacks and forced seven fumbles. While the defense is a strongpoint for the Rams, the offense has to come around for them to make any noise in this difficult division.
Former first overall pick QB Sam Bradford will be back from a torn ACL and this is a make-or-break year for him. They have a good offensive line now and a strong running game led by RB Zac Stacy who ran for just under 1000 yards last year. Tavon Austin is a jack-of-all-trades wide receiver and will be relied on for more consistent play in his second season. If Bradford can make the leap to a good starting QB, this team has a good shot at the playoffs. However, being in a division where three other teams hit double digit wins last season, makes for a very difficult schedule. They were just 1-5 against division foes last season.