Last season, it seemed pretty clear that this was the best division in the league. After all, the Seahawks were the defending champions, and the 49ers had been to the Super Bowl the year before. The NFC West represented the NFC once again last season, as Seattle made it all the way back, only to lose in the last 26 seconds on that controversial 2nd and 1 that will likely haunt the franchise and their fans forever.
But getting past that, I still would probably argue that this is the best division in the league. A team from this division has gone to the last three Super Bowls, and the Seahawks look ready to make another run at it. The Arizona Cardinals were a playoff team last season, and the Rams had some unbelievable defensive performances late in the season, keeping the Broncos to a pedestrian 7 points, and then shutting out two opponents in a row during a streak that saw them go 12 quarters without allowing any touchdowns.
Here's the breakdown of my predictions, and why I went the way that I did with these predictions):
1. Seattle Seahawks (projected NFC West winners) - Last year's Seattle Seahawks really reminded me a lot (and I mean a lot) of the 1993 Dallas Cowboys. Like those Cowboys, the Seahawks were coming off an intense and energetic championship season. They were coached by someone who knew how what it felt like to win the championship both in college and in the NFL. They had a very strong and fast defense, and a strong running back was the anchor of the offense. Both teams got off to sluggish starts, and then came on strong towards the end. Both teams had a surprise team make a very strong run to win the division (Dallas had the Giants in 1993, and Seattle had the Cardinals in 2014). Both teams finished 12-4, capturing their division with huge showdowns against those surprise teams in the division very late in the season, and both teams captured home field advantage in the final game of the season. They both qualified for the Super Bowl for a second straight season, too. But that is where the comparisons ended, because while the Cowboys struggled but ultimately won their second straight Super Bowl against their AFC East opponents, the Seahawks struggled but ultimately fell short against their AFC East opponent. But it was not just that Seattle lost, of course. it was the way that they lost that will continue to nag at them. They were right there, in position to win, with a 2nd down and only one yard away from the winning touchdown. Then came the play that will likely haunt this franchise forever, and become part of their legacy. It ruined the opportunity to win a second straight Super Bowl, and become the clear front runner for "Team of the Decade" honors. Still, the Seahawks are a very strong team right now, and locked up some of their best talent for years to come. That said, they probably lost some of their ability to retain great talent in the future, but they can worry about that later. Right now, they should be a strong contender this season, and the clear favorite in this division. It really is hard to see anyone being able to oust the Seahawks from what feels like an inevitable third straight division title.
4. St. Louis Rams (projected second place team) - The Rams showed more than just a little potential last season, particularly on the defensive side of things. Very few teams in NFL history have shut out opponents on consecutive weeks. The 1985 Bears had been the first team to do it since the Steelers of the 1970's, and the 2000 Ravens were the next team to do it. I cannot think of another example of any team doing it since, until the Rams managed the feat last year. Add to that the fact that they kept the Cardinals to just two field goals in the third game, and that they also managed to hold the explosive Broncos to a mere touchdown in a blowout upset win over Denver, and you have a defense that has real potential. But the Rams had some bad luck last year with injuries, and they were in a tough division, with the defending champion Seahawks, a 49ers team loaded with talent and had gone far the three prior seasons, and a legitimate playoff contender in Arizona. St. Louis this year should be a lot tougher, as they showed that they can beat the Cardinals, and the 49ers had a significant drop. With any luck in not repeating misfortunes with injuries, this is a team that could, and probably should, contend for then playoffs, at least.
3. Arizona Cardinals (projected third place team) - Arizona had a lot of the pieces in place last season, racing off to a hot 9-1 start, and looking like they actually might take the division title, when they held a three game lead. But perhaps inevitably, they cooled off, losing both late season contests to Seattle, and essentially going from the hottest team in the NFC to barely hanging on to qualify for the playoffs. Once there, they took the first exit on the road to the Super Bowl, losing right away at Carolina. Still, this is a team with a serious defense and some talent on offense, and if things go right for them, they could make another strong run to the playoffs this season. It would not be really shocking if they placed anywhere from first to third in this unpredictable division, although I think that they will be in the running for the playoffs until the end. I just do not know if they will get there again this season.
2. San Francisco 49ers (projected second place) - It is hard to believe that the 49ers had quite as rough of an off-season as they did. I tried to think of the last time that I saw so much talent leave on team during an off-season as happened to San Francisco these last few months, and could not think of a single time that another NFL franchise experienced this on such a level. The only immediate example that came to mind was in another sport, when the 1998 Chicago Bulls won the NBA title, then allowed that team to completely disintegrate, leaving only one player left from that championship season going into the next season. Yes, it was that bad in San Fran, as their star running back, wide receiver, and several other impact players on both offense and defense left, heading for greener pastures elsewhere. And it all started with the head coach, which means that the departures all happened at the same time, just like with the Bulls all of those years ago. And like with the Bulls in 1999, I suspect that the impact of a suddenly very different team will show on the field of play. San Francisco experienced a disappointing season last year, going from favorites to also-rans very quickly. They were not a serious playoff contender by the end of the season, even though they certainly had enough talent to have been. But this season, the 49ers would be lucky just to repeat last year's 8-8 mark. Too many holes to fill will leave San Francisco struggling from early on, and I do not see them escaping a last place finish this year.