For the third straight season, the NFC West is the Sun Belt Conference of the NFL. Despite Arizona's miraculous Super Bowl run last year, there are no championship contenders. There are barely any division champion contenders, as you could argue against any team winning the division just as easily as you could argue for any team winning it. Regardless of who wins, they will most likely be in for an early playoff exit (like Arizona last year).
ORDER OF FINISH
y-Seattle Seahawks 9-7
Arizona Cardinals 7-9
San Francisco 49ers 4-12
St. Louis Rams 3-13
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona
Can Fitzgerald be expected to produce like he did in the playoffs (120 receptions, 2184 yards, and 28 TDs expanded over a 16-game season)? Probably not (especially if Anquan Boldin is healthy and/or happy and taking targets away), but even 70% of Fitzsy's playoff production would be pretty damn good (84 catches, 1223 yards, 19 TDs).
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco
Willis is a tackling machine (315 total tackles in 2 NFL seasons) who is above-average in coverage and possesses terrific instincts. Concerns about him include how far from the line of scrimmage he makes his tackles (5.4 yards) and how seldom he gets to the quarterback (5 career sacks, including only 1 last year). These very well may be flaws in Willis's game, but we won't really know until the 49ers get some beef up front to eat up linemen and some rushers on the outside to free up lanes in the middle (I'm looking at you, Manny Lawson!)
BEST COACH: Ken Whisenhunt, Arizona
This selection is almost by default. Steve Spagnuolo is a first time head coach, Mike Singletary seems more like a caricature than a coach, and Jim Mora is the last man to coach Mike Vick (and also lost his job by openly applying for the University of Washington head coaching postion). Whisenhunt is not afraid to try some crazy things (or at least let his coordinators try some crazy things, like whatever the hell defensive scheme Clancy Pendergast ran last year), and he obviously lit a fire under a moribund team for their playoff run, but that six week swoon after they clinched the division (2-4 record, with the wins coming over St. Louis and Seattle, and the losses coming by a combined score of 167-70) raises all sorts of red flags about how much control he really has over his team. If they start out 4-1 or 5-0, will they just lie down again?
1. How can Arizona not be the favorites? Aren't they the defending NFC champs?
Indeed they are the defending NFC champs, but you have to remember that several amazing things needed to happen for the Cardinals to earn that title. First, Jake Delhomme had to poop himself. Second, the Giants (and Eli Manning) had to choke in the wind vs. Philadelphia. Third, Larry Fitzgerald had to play at the highest level any receiver has played at in NFL history. Fourth, (are you seeing how remarkable this is yet?) Atlanta had to remember they were the Atlanta Falcons and yield timidly to the shockingly raucous University of Phoenix crowd in round one. Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, Kurt Warner had to stay healthy for 20 straight games. What are the odds that the 38-year old Warner, who has averaged 11.5 games per season in his four years in Arizona, will stay healthy for another 16? Speaking of health, is Tim Hightower going to be able to carry the load after Beanie Wells inevitably goes down with injury? Hightower certainly didn't seem up to it down the stretch last season (107 carries, 289 yards, 2.7 yards per attempt over the last 11 games including the playoffs). Add in the drama surrounding Anquan Boldin and suddenly there are a lot of questions on the offensive side of a team that relies on that offense to carry a mediocre defense. Does Arizona have the highest upside of any of the NFC West teams? Absolutely, but the odds are overwhelming stacked against them reaching those heights (again).
2. Ok, if not Arizona, then why Seattle?
First, the law of averages say the Seahawks can't be as injured as they were last year. To illustrate just how hamstrung Seattle was by injury, here is a snippet from the Seattle chapter of the Football Outsiders Almanac (available here):
"The wide receiver injuries started before the season even began, with neither starter Deion Branch nor slot receiver Bobby Engram available at the start of the year. Branch played just one game in the first half of the season. Engram missed all of September. Then in the season opener, Nate Burleson tore his ACL and was out for the year. Logan Payne tore his MCL a week later, and was also out for the year. Billy McMullen and Michael Bumpus were signed off the street in Week 3, and both were lost for the season by Week 6."
And that's just the wide receivers! Matt Hasselbeck struggled with back issues, the offensive line was in constant flux, and end Patrick Kerney missed the last half of the season with elbow problems. While Branch still shouldn't be counted on to stay healthy, and Hasselbeck may still struggle with those back issues, the rest of the offense should be much more stable, as well as upgraded. TJ Housmandzadeh replaces Bobby Engram, and Housh's underneath mastery should open up the outside for Burleson deep. Edge James replaces TJ Duckett, and while James is no spring chicken, he did show signs of life last postseason. And should Hasselbeck's back problems force him out of the lineup, Seneca Wallace could thrive in an offense that was originally built around a running quarterback. The defense welcomes rookie linebacker Aaron Curry, considered by some to be the best player in this year's draft. Curry will team with Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill to form one of the better young linebacking corps in the league. Add it all up, and it is still a mediocre team, but in this division, mediocre may just equal championship*.
*While the Seahawks may be a mediocre team, their schedule should make them look like world beaters, at least early on. I predict a 5-1 start going into their bye, with the only loss being Indianapolis in Indy. The only other road game during that stretch is at San Francisco, with home games versus St. Louis, Chicago, Jacksonville, and Arizona. I know St. Louis seems like the only sure win in that group, but I believe Qwest Field will regain some of the mojo it lost last season. After the bye, things get tougher, with 6 of the remaining 10 games on the road, but if Seattle can win 3 of their 4 remaining home games and win at Arizona in week 10, they should hold on for the division title.
3. Is there any hope for San Francisco or St. Louis?
Unfortunately, no. The 49ers are relying on Shaun Hill to guide an offense that consists of Frank Gore (when he's healthy), Vernon Davis being sent back to the locker room, and Michael Crabtree hanging out on the sidelines. Patrick Willis is obviously a building block, but who else stands out on defense, Nate Clements? Justin Smith?
St. Louis has a better young foundation than San Francisco, but the most important piece still isn't there: a quarterback. Marc Bulger had a nice run for a sixth round pick, but time is just about up for the former Mountaineer (in fact, I think if he gets one more concussion, he may be forced to retire). With no one to step in when Bulger is sidelined, an offense that will struggle with him (assuming Stephen Jackson continues to miss three to four games and no other receiving option emerges across from Donnie Avery) will sputter to a grinding halt without him, putting tremendous pressure on a defense that, despite some young pieces (DT Adam Carriker, DE Chris Long, MLB James Laurinaitis), still has a long way to go before it can carry a team. In this division, anything is possible, but these two teams contending is stretching the bounds of possibility.
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