Next up, the division who many argue contains the best team in the NFC. The question is WHICH NFC West team is the best? This division is an incredible storyline. In 2010, the NFC West was won by the Seattle Seahawks at 7-9. That’s right, the division was so bad that a losing record was enough to win the division! Two seasons have passed since then, and now the NFC West is known as one of the toughest in the league. Notably, every team in this division has come to be known for their defenses. In fact, all four teams ranked in the top half of the league in defense (based on yardage). Lots of hard-nosed football going on in the NFC West.
As for the schedule, besides the 6 divisional games, this division will play each team from the NFC South and the AFC South. Both divisions carry a mix of tough teams (Texans, Falcons), pushovers (Bucs, Jags), and everything in between. In addition, each team will play two unique games, one from the NFC North and one from the NFC East, based on divisional ranking from 2012.
San Francisco 49ers
2012 Record: 11-4-1 (1st in NFC West)
- Passing Offense: 23rd
- Rushing Offense: 4th
- Passing Defense: 4th
- Rushing Defense: 4th
Key Additions: WR Anquan Boldin, DE Glenn Dorsey, CB Nnamdi Asomugha, K Phil Dawson
Key Losses: QB Alex Smith, NT Isaac Sopoaga, WR/PR Ted Ginn, S Dashon Goldson
Their Season Depends On: Colin Kaepernick living up to expectations, the receiving corps being good enough, and their pass defense avoiding a drop-off.
We all saw what Colin Kaepernick did last year. I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong when I called Jim Harbaugh crazy for benching Alex Smith in the middle of his best year ever. That said, now Kaepernick has to put together a 16-game season where he will catch no one unawares. In the 7 regular season games that he started in last year, Colin Kaepernick averaged 230 yards per game passing. Not a lot, but that’s not how the Niners won their games. They did it with that 4th ranked ground attack, including Frank Gore and Kaepernick himself. To see success this year, though, the Niners have to be more than one-dimensional on offense, and that means Kaepernick winning a few games with his arm. To date, Kaepernick has only had a single 300+ yard game: the Super Bowl loss to the Ravens. I’m not saying he’s not up for the challenge, but there is a lot expected of Kaepernick this year. He has to meet them, or he’ll disappoint a lot of people.
As if there wasn’t enough pressure on the QB, there are a lot of question marks at receiver for the Niners in 2013. The injury to Michael Crabtree, just as he was beginning to really shine, is devastating. Defenses can now place their primary focus on Vernon Davis, meaning Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham, and Kyle Williams make up the primary weapons through the air. Boldin is the clear #1 in this scenario, but he’ll be seeing a lot more pressure than he’s used to since he often had better receivers opposite him in the past (Larry Fitzgerald, Torrey Smith). Manningham and Williams won’t pose as much of a threat, so it will likely fall on those two and the rest of the receivers to make plays through the air when Kaepernick needs to make them, thus drawing coverage from Davis and Boldin. If they can simply be good enough to be a viable change of pace from the dominant Niners ground game, this team should do just fine.
The most worrying difference about this team is on defense, of all places. The 49ers have fielded one of the most dominant defensive units for the past two years now. Even with the loss of Isaac Sopoaga (not a stat machine, but an important anchor for the D-Line), that front seven is still arguably the best in the league. The addition of Glenn Dorsey won’t hurt. It’s the defensive backs that bring cause for concern, however. Dashon Goldson is gone, along with his team-leading 3 INTs from last year. Donte Whitner is getting old, and many believe that the Niners should have parted ways with HIM rather than Goldson. In an attempt to address this problem, their front office brought in CB Nnamdi Asomugha (who has seen better days) and their first round pick, Safety Eric Reid. With a rookie and two aging veterans as likely starters, I wonder if we don’t see a bit of a slide in the Niners defense this year. Don’t get me wrong. They’ll still be good. They might not quite be as good as last year, though.
Prediction: In addition to the games common to the rest of the division, the 49ers play the Packers and the Redskins this year. Despite that extra degree of difficulty, I see the Niners getting over that ridiculous tie game from last year and improving to 12-4. I anticipate there will still be some growing pains from Colin Kaepernick, but the rest of that team is so complete that they’ll still win plenty of games. That 12-4 should be enough to put the Niners in… 2nd in the NFC West. Yep, you read that right. Read on.
2012 Record: 11-5 (2nd in NFC West)
- Passing Offense: 27th
- Rushing Offense: 3rd
- Passing Defense: 6th
- Rushing Defense: 10th
Key Additions: DE Cliff Avril, CB Antoine Winfield, WR Percy Harvin, RB Christine Michael
Key Losses: DT Alan Branch, DT Jason Jones, KR Leon Washington
Their Season Depends On: Russell Wilson building on last year, an even better run game, and the ball-hawking skills of the defense.
Russell Wilson has got to be smiling a lot coming into this season. With the addition of Percy Harvin, the Seahawks QB will have an easy time of finding viable targets in the future. When Sidney Rice and Golden Tate are your #2 and #3 receivers respectively, you know you’re in good shape. This year, though, it seems that Percy Harvin may only show up late in the season, as hip surgery is taking him out for 3 months minimum. Now it’s on Russell Wilson himself to keep progressing. Last year saw Wilson account for 30 total touchdowns. His 64.1% completion rate was impressive as well, and you can expect that number to go up this year. The only thing anyone can say negatively about him is that he doesn’t put up a lot of yardage (3118 yards in 2012), but he really doesn’t have to. Why?
Because of the Seahawks’ run game. Marshawn Lynch seems to be turning into one of those RBs that just get better with age. Entering his 8th season, Lynch looks bigger, runs harder, and plays smarter than he ever has before. Against Father Time, however, everyone eventually loses, which is why the Seahawks drafted 2nd-round RB Christine Michael to give Lynch some help in the backfield. The way I see it, this is an incredibly smart move by the Seattle front office, because they are adding talent at the position BEFORE it becomes a dire need, and it helps increase the longevity of their star RB right now. Expect Christine Michael to see plenty of playing time as a change-of-pace back, which will keep Lynch fresh and able to make explosive “beast-mode” runs late in games. Will he eclipse his 1590 yard season from last year? Probably not, but if this plan works, the Seahawks offense will give defenses nightmares regardless. I guarantee Lynch won’t care about yardage drop-off if he finds himself playing in the Super Bowl.
A key part of making it to the big game, however, will involve the Seattle defense. We know this defense was incredible in 2012, and the addition of Antoine Winfield will make it that much harder for QBs to pass against them. Last year with the Vikings was one of Winfield’s best (including a team-high 3 INTs). The Seattle D-Line saw some changes, however, but not enough to make me think they’ll suffer greatly in defending the run. One big reason the Seahawks were successful, though, was their ability to take the ball away. To call the Seahawks defense “opportunistic” is an understatement. They had 31 takeaways in 2012, including Richard Sherman’s incredible 8 INTs. This defense needs to continue taking advantage of every chance they get to give the ball back to their offense, or this team could slip.
Prediction: The unique games for the Seahawks include the Giants and the Vikings, which I see as winnable games. Frankly, I see a lot of success coming for the Seahawks, though some of it hinges on other receivers stepping up in Percy Harvin’s absence. Assuming he is, I gotta predict Seattle improving to 12-4, champions of the NFC West (winning the tie-breaker with the 49ers based on division record).
St. Louis Rams
2012 Record: 7-8-1 (3rd in NFC West)
- Passing Offense: 18th
- Rushing Offense: 19th
- Passing Defense: 15th
- Rushing Defense: 15th
Key Additions: TE Jared Cook, WR Tavon Austin, OT Jake Long
Key Losses: WR Danny Amendola, RB Steven Jackson, S Quintin Mikell
Their Season Depends On: Sam Bradford not having to make excuses, replacing Steven Jackson, and the defense turning the corner.
The truth is that Sam Bradford has had plenty of excuses made for him. “He’s not getting enough protection!” and “He doesn’t have enough weapons on offense!” and “They keep changing the scheme on him!” Well the time for excuses has ended, and Bradford needs to see significant improvement or watch as the Rams replace him next year. With the addition of Jake Long, Bradford should be plenty protected. Having Tavon Austin and Jared Cook as new weapons, Bradford has people to throw the ball to (though the running game has questions… more on that later). Perhaps most importantly, Bradford is getting a chance to play a second year in a row in the SAME system, something he’s never had the luxury of. Now is the time for Bradford to prove if he’s going to remain a starter in this league, or if he’s going to start looking for backup jobs.
The one step backwards this offense took was in the run game. The loss of Steven Jackson leaves a big hole to fill. The current projected starter is… Daryl Rchardson? His 475 yards and zero TDs in 2012 weren’t incredible, though he did average 4.8 yards per carry. It’s hard to imagine him scaring anyone, though. A possible story could arise from rookie RB Zac Stacy, however. There’s a lot of positive talk about this guy, and he might be able to contribute as well. Barring Stacy becoming the next Alfred Morris, though, the Rams could have a much tougher time running the ball this year.
One of the biggest strengths of the Rams in 2012 was the defense. It has been over 10 years since the Rams ranked in the top half of the league in defense, and they did so last year. This is an incredibly young group with the “elder” statesman being Cortland Finnegan (29). Last year saw a bunch of no-name players on defense start making names for themselves. Everyone knows Chris Long, but what about Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Robert Quinn, and Janoris Jenkins? They had big years, and they’re looking to make them bigger with the addition of rookie LB Alec Ogletree. If the Rams want to keep pace in the NFC West, they need a defense to match the big dogs.
Prediction: The Rams will face the Bears and the Cowboys this season, which is tough but manageable. Don’t forget that last season the Rams had the best divisional record in the NFC West (4-1-1). While they might not duplicate that performance this year, it shows the Rams can win big games. I say Jeff Fisher and Sam Bradford do enough to get them another year to prove themselves. 9-7, still 3rd in the NFC West but much improved.
2012 Record: 5-11 (4th in NFC West)
- Passing Offense: 28th
- Rushing Offense: 32nd
- Passing Defense: 5th
- Rushing Defense: 28th
Key Additions: RB Rashard Mendenhall, S Yeremiah Bell, LB Karlos Dansby, QB Carson Palmer, LB John Abraham
Key Losses: RB Beanie Wells, RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, CB William Gay, S Adrian Wilson
Their Season Depends On: Production from receivers not named Larry Fitzgerald, Rashard Mendenhall convincing us he’s still relevant, and the sudden materialization of pass protection.
If there was ever a time for Michael Floyd to grow up fast, this would be it. With a semi-legitimate QB in Carson Palmer, it will come down to Floyd (and partner in crime Andre Roberts) to give Palmer looks that he can take advantage of. We know what Larry Fitzgerald brings to the game, and we know he commands respect from defenses. If the other receivers can step up, Bruce Arians can really take advantage and use them when Fitzgerald draws defenders away. Floyd’s 12.5 yards per reception was best on the team, but he was only targeted 86 times (catching 45). If Carson Palmer can give Floyd more chances, the Cardinals might just see an offense develop.
For that to happen, though, the Cardinals need to find a rushing attack of SOME kind. With the removal of Beanie Wells and LaRod Stephens-Howling, it has fallen to Ryan Williams and Rashard Mendenhall to make it happen. Williams had a few flashes of brilliance last year, but he still averaged a disappointing 2.8 yards per carry. Mendenhall hasn’t seen much action at all in the last couple years, and even in his prime there wasn’t a lot to be impressed with. The one thing Mendenhall had going for him was his nose for the end zone when close. 27 of his 29 career TDs were from within the opponent’s 10 yard line. With the weapons at hand, though, are the Cardinals expecting to find themselves that close to the end zone frequently? Mendenhall has to be better than he ever was in 2013 if he wants to make the Cardinals relevant again.
Lastly, the Cardinals need to protect the QB. Simple as that. Last year saw Cardinals QBs (all four of them) get sacked a total of 58 times. That’s atrocious. Carson Palmer simply will not be able to start all 16 games if he’s getting beat up like that. They drafted OG Johnathan Cooper to address this, but one rookie will not solve all their problems. They also grabbed Chilo Rachal from the Bears O-Line. Yeah, because they were doing a great job protecting Jay Cutler last year, right? Right. If I were Carson Palmer, I’d be worried.
Predictions: Notice that I didn’t even mention the Cardinals defense. We know they’ll be good against the pass (because, well, Patrick Peterson), and I can imagine they’ll improve against the run with the addition of John Abraham and Karlos Dansby, but this team can’t do ANYTHING if they can’t at least move the ball a little, and they were THE WORST offense last year with 263.1 total yards per game. Even only facing the Eagles and Lions this year as their unique games, this is looking like a tough first year for Bruce Arians. 3-13, last in the NFC West.