Friday, August 12, 2016

2016-17 Season NFC West Preview

The NFC West has arguably been the best division in the league now for several years. The winner of this division has gone at least as far as the NFC Championship Game dating back to the 2011 season, when the 49ers barely lost to the Giants. After that, the winner of the division represented the NFC in the next three Super Bowls, and while they only went 1-2 in those games, both the 49ers in XLVII and the Seahawks in XLIX came close to winning. Last season, the Cardinals continued the tradition of the NFC West winner advancing to the NFC title game, but their luck ended there, as they lost to the same team that the Seahawks had lost to the week before. Still, this division is loaded, and it would be somewhat of a surprise if an NFC West team, and possibly even two, play again in the NFC Championship Game. There is not one, but two legitimate title contenders within this division, and both are eying a trip to Houston for a crack at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. As for the Rams and the 49ers, each needs to work to improve offensively just to prevent more disappointment.

Here's the breakdown of my predictions, and why I went the way that I did with these predictions):

1. Arizona Cardinals (projected division champion) - Arizona finally had the type of regular season success that their fans could only dream of in years past. Everything went right for them, as they jumped out to an early lead in the divisional race and this time, unlike in 2014, they never looked back, hanging on for a convincing division title, and beating the Seahawks for good measure. Their 13-3 mark was good enough to win the NFC West and clinch a playoff bye, and they managed to hang on to a victory against the Green Bay Packers, albeit just barely, earning an NFC Championship Game appearance at Carolina. Of course, everything went wrong in that game, but it was good to see the Cardinals back in the playoffs that deep, for the first time in years. During the offseason, the Cardinals added defensive end Chandler Jones to add talent and depth to their already intimidating defense, and that might very well prove to make this team the favorites to repeat as NFC West champions once again. If Chris Palmer stays healthy and the offense looks as good as it did last year, watch out! Arizona's offense was second in terms of producing points last season, so you cannot ask for much more than that. Plus, their defense was one of the better units in the league, and they made some major moves to upgrade their defense even more for this upcoming season. That makes the Cardinals almost a double-headed monster of sorts, and that is why I could not pick against them to at least defend their division title, as they seem serious about being a winner these days. This is a legitimate title contender!

2. Seattle Seahawks (projected secnd place) - After two straight Super Bowl seasons, the Seahawks finally started to feel the pressure of being the Super Bowl favorites. They got off to a rough start last season, and although they recovered enough to qualify for the playoffs. While they were at their peak in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the ball also bounced their way more than a few times, particularly in the two NFC Championship Games. The ball kind of bounced their way a little bit in the playoff game against Minnesota, a game that, quite frankly, they were lucky to survive. But in Carolina, their luck ran out. Seattle looked sloppy for too long, allowing the Panthers to go up 31-0. To their credit, the Seahawks fought back and made a game of it. They even seemed to have Carolina on the run a bit in the second half. However, they fell short of what would have been a historical comeback (what would have been the second greatest come from behind victory ever), and were instead sent packing. Having had the entire offseason to think about it, now it is time for Seattle to try and rise back to the top, although there are some challenges. With the high profile departure of Marshawn Lynch, will the Seahawks find a way to return to their once dominant running game? Will they be able to overtake the Cardinals in the NFC West? Are they capable of not only returning to the playoffs, but possibly back to the Super Bowl? These are all legitimate questions for Seattle, and they should be a playoff team and, possibly, the division champions. At worst, they might sink to second place again, but make no mistake about it: the Seahawks have retained enough talent from their recent glory days to be taken seriously again. After all, they were only one horrendous decision from back-to-back Super Bowl titles, and really only a couple of plays away in last season's divisional playoff game from a stunning comeback and another NFC title game. Yes, they are capable of going far this season. This team ranks among the elite defenses, and has for years now. To boot, they still have one of the elite offenses in the league, and have retained much of that talent to make yet another run this season. Seattle is still a very legitimate contender, and a serious threat to all other teams.

4. Los Angeles Rams (projected second place team) - The biggest news is that the Rams are returning to Los Angeles. The second biggest city in the country will no longer have to suffer the indignity of not having a team. It has been a long time since I remember using the term "Los Angles Rams," although admittedly, referring to them as the St. Louis Rams always took some getting used to. The only question, then, is what type of team the city of angels is going to get. The Rams are one of those teams that really are hard to figure. They seem to have some talent, and they often seem to be in position to contend for a playoff berth. Then inevitably, something happens. Something somewhere goes wrong, and the Rams suffer through a long, losing season. By now, I would have thought that Jeff Fisher would changed this team, brought them closer to being competitive. But then again, this is a brutal division, with teams representing the NFC in three of the last four Super Bowls, and with the division winner having appeared in the last five NFC Championship Games. Kind of tough to make a mark under those circumstances. Still, the Rams really need to make some kind of noise, show some significant improvements, and they need to do it in the very near future. They have a fairly decent defense, although this is largely overshadowed in a division where elite defenses reside in Seattle and Arizona. Unfortunately, the Rams really struggled on offense, and were ranked near the bottom. There was a span of four games when the Rams scored a total of 36 points in the combined games. Not surprisingly, they lost all four of those contests. That perfectly illustrates the weaknesses on this Rams team, and makes it clear where the focus should be on improving this team. What makes it all the more frustrating for Rams fans is that they show promised. After all, this team actually swept Seattle last season, and they beat the Cardinals in Arizona! They know how to play tough within their own division. But if they do not get more consistent production from the offense, this team just cannot get to the next level to make a serious run for the playoffs.

2. San Francisco 49ers (projected last place) - One year after what was perhaps the worst offseason ever seen in the NFL, the 49ers are still just trying to cope. They were perhaps not as bad as some thought they would be last season, and even started off the season in spectacular fashion by crushing the Minnesota Vikings, and eventual playoff team and division winner! However, San Francisco could not make it last, and they happen to be in what still might be the toughest division in the league. That makes it hard to see how the 49ers can be very competitive this coming season, with at least two legitimate title contenders, and possibly a third playoff contender in the Rams. The major problem that San Francisco suffered was in scoring points. No other team scored fewer in 2015! They averaged just shy of 15 points per game, only scored 20 or more points in four games, and they did not reach the 30-point plateau in any of their games. They failed to score even 20 points in nine of their final ten games, and were held to 14 points or less in six of those contests! It becomes very difficult to win if you cannot score points, even if you have a solid defense. And the 49ers had a fairly decent defense, but it was far from elite. There are still all sorts of question marks at quarterback, with the Colin Kapernick situation still providing uncertainty here. Plus, the Chip Kelly experiment was a mixed bag of nuts at best in Philadelphia, which begs the question of how well it will work in the NFC West, where the Seahawks and Cardinals are both among the elite defenses, and even the Rams have a fairly solid unit. This team still had an incredible wealth of talent fairly recently, and it is almost breathtaking to think of how quickly that base of talent was depleted or left, one way or the other. For a team steeped in rich traditions on offense in particular, to see this unit as literally the lowest scoring one in the league is almost shocking, and that makes it hard to see how the 49ers will avoid a last place finish this season.

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