The NFC West has seemed to take a nose dive in recent seasons. It does not feel all that long ago that two, and possibly even three, serious contenders were in this division. The Seahawks went to two consecutive Super Bowls, and won one. The team that they beat to get there, the San Francisco 49ers, made the Super Bowl recently as well, and went to three straight NFC title games. And the Cardinals looked to be on the rise, as well, qualifying for the NFC Championship Game just a couple of seasons ago. Well, last year, the Seahawks continued what appears to be a steady decline. They were still good, but nowhere near as dominant as they once were. The Cardinals made some moves that many expected could instantly make them a serious threat to qualify for the Super Bowl, but their season started off badly, and they never were able to get the thing off the ground to recover. Whatever progress the Rams had seemed to make also went down the drain last season, as they lost 11 of their last 12 games, and had the lowest scoring offense in the league. Finally, the 49ers lineup has been decimated over the course of recent years, effectively ending any chance of remaining relevant. The 49ers had the worst defense in the league last year, and their offense was not much better.
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) - The Cardinals should have been a lot better last season. I mean, a lot better! This was a team that could explode on offense, and seemed to have a serious defense, to boot! Yet, somehow, the Cardinals just never got it in gear. It all started with a loss on opening weekend to a Patriots team sans Tom Brady, which felt like a missed opportunity, to be sure. Arizona seemed to reestablish themselves a bit by crushing Tampa Bay the following week, but then they lost in Buffalo and to the Rams, and that put them in a hole that they never seemed capable of fully digging out of. It kept going on like that, with this team losing, then winning to try and recover, but then going back to losing. Before long, the Cardinals had a dismal 5-8-1 mark after a 48-41 loss in New Orleans, and were out of the playoffs. Yet, that was when Arizona finally showed what they were capable of, beating the Seahawks in Seattle, and then crushing the Rams in the season finale. Perhaps they can build upon that momentum at the end of last season in hopes of getting off to a better start, which would be fitting for a team with this level of talent. The Cardinals are just too good to suffer through the kind of season that they had last year, and that is why I am predicting a much better season this year. Head coach Bruce Arians won "Coach of the Year" honors twice recently, and he will likely have this team better prepared to make good on the level of talent in Arizona. They also seem to have finally figured out how to beat the Seahawks, and that is why I picked them edging out the Seahawks for the division title.
2. Seattle Seahawks (projected seocnd place) - At times last season, the Seahawks appeared to show glimpses of what they used to be, not all that long ago. This is a team that went to two straight Super Bowls, and the only thing that prevented them from back-to-back titles was an atrocious call right at the end of that second Super Bowl. But the team never seemed to have really recovered. They lost some of their luster the following season, and last year, despite winning another division title, they seemed to take yet another step down from the perch. Seattle's defense is still quite tough, still one of the best. However, their offense left a lot to be desired. It has dropped off from the days when their pounding approach, which might not have been exactly pretty, was nonetheless highly effective. It also allowed quarterback Russell Wilson to have the option of either using his arm or his legs to keep opposing defenses off balance. But now, the Seahawks running game seemed to lack the punch that it once had, and it has put more pressure on Wilson. He responded well last season, throwing for over 4,000 yards and running for 259 yards, to boot. Plus, he threw for 21 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions. But the Seahawks need to establish a much stronger running game if they hope to return to the Super Bowl, as opposed to merely winning the division, and then getting bounded - for the second year in a row - to the eventual NFC Champions. Again, the Seahawks have not been the same since that 2nd and 1 that cost them the Super Bowl, and it seemed to diminish them in their own eyes. However, the only way that they can erase those memories would be to emulate the team that defeated them, the Patriots. Remember when Brady and Belichick went undefeated, and then lost the Super Bowl to the Giants? Or when they lost to those same Giants in the rematch a few years later? No, you likely do not define the Pats with that anymore, because of the two recent, amazing championships. For Seattle to get back to being dominant, they need to re-establish a dominant running game, like the one they had with Marshawn Lynch. Otherwise, this team might continue to win division titles or qualify for the playoffs, but they will be overshadowed by one single play that seems to define just how close they got to greatness on a dynasty level, and how they got in their own way of this ultimate success. This team is definitely good enough to qualify for the postseason, and possibly win the division, to boot. Unless they take big steps towards improving their running game in particular, the Seahawks will not go too far once in the playoffs, and that is a shame for a team as otherwise solid as this one.
4. Los Angeles Rams (projected second place team) - It was a strange first season back in Los Angeles for the Rams. First, they get shut out in an embarrassing season opening loss to the 49ers on a nationally televised game, with the Niners widely and accurately expected to be one of the worst teams in the league. Then, the Rams go on an absolute tear, winning three straight games, and beating two playoff teams from the season prior in the process. And then, the end of the season, during which the Rams won only one of their final 11 games. This team had an atrocious offense that produced the least points of any team in the league last year. They had one of the worst turnover ratios in the NFL, with only four teams - the Browns, the Jaguars, the Jets, and the Bears - having worse turnover ratios. And the defense was not especially good, either, and thus could not make up for much, if any, of all of this. Opposing teams scored 26 points or more eight times last season, or half of the time that the Rams took the field. Meanwhile, the Rams scored 14 points or less a whopping 10 times. All of that is obviously not a formula for success, and that is why the Rams finished with a dismal 4-12 mark on the year. Head coach Jeff Fisher was fired towards the end of the season, and so there is a feeling that almost everything is being replaced with this franchise. All of that does not bode well for the L.A. Rams, and the only thing preventing me from predicting that this team would finish in last place within this division would be that the 49ers were and probably still are even worse!
2. San Francisco 49ers (projected last place) - Last season, the 49ers recent misfortunes with losing so much talent so quickly finally caught up with them. San Francisco fell, long and hard. They did get two wins, both coming against the Rams. But the Niners have little hopes to really drastically improve their results for this upcoming season. There are question marks at quarterback, at running back. The defense is not very good, and neither is the offense. The Niners had one of the worst turnover ratios in the league. In short, they were not able to avoid mistakes, could not stop anybody on defense, and they just did not have anywhere near the firepower to keep up with most of the opponents when they did pile on the points. There are just too many holes here to make this thing work especially well. The defense was the worst in the league last season, allowing an average of 30 points per game. Their offense is not much better, scoring an average of around 19 points per game. The 49ers allowed 30 points or more nine times, and eight times, this team scored 18 points or less. Quite a few times, they allowed both 30 points by opposing teams, while being held to under 18 points. Obviously, that is not a formula for success, and there were far too many holes for this team to fill to fix in just one single offseason. So, the 49ers are in rebuilding mode, and as such, they likely will struggle greatly once again this season. A last place finish in this division seems unavoidable.