The hype that accompanied the NFC West was actually unavoidable.
It started in the off-season, when the Los Angeles Rams made a blockbuster trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Arizona Cardinals added big names such as defensive end JJ Watt and wide receiver AJ Green to a mix that already included quarterback Kyler Murray, receiver DeAndre Hopkins. included. and outside linebacker Chandler Jones.
Add to that the San Francisco 49ers, the 2019 NFC champions, getting healthy off-season and the star power of quarterback Russell Wilson and coach Pete Carroll for the defending champion Seattle Seahawks, and we knew this season had potential. And it was fun, starting with the division taking a combined 7-1 the first two weeks (the loss was in overtime, by the way) and the Cardinals going into week 6 as the league’s only undefeated team.
These storylines led FiveThirtyEight to question whether the NFC West is the best division in NFL history. While that will eventually come true, we know that a) the NFC can ball West and b) it has shifted 180 degrees from where it was in 2010, when the Seahawks became the first team in NFL history to win a division with a losing record.
ESPN reporters Josh Weinfuss (Arizona Cardinals), Lindsey Thiry (Los Angeles Rams), Nick Wagoner (San Francisco 49ers) and Brady Henderson (Seattle Seahawks) answer the division’s most pressing questions:
Has the NFC West lived up to its billing for the season as the toughest division?
winefuss: It’s really good, but I’m not sold on five weeks of it being the hardest division. The 49ers have lost three in a row and haven’t looked good at times, and the Seahawks don’t look like the Seahawks of yesteryear. Is the NFC West a great division? Yes. Is it the heaviest? The AFC West and NFC South might want to talk.
three: FiveThirtyEight’s argument that the NFC West could be the best division in NFL history has passed the eyeball test for five weeks, but it seems debatable given Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is out indefinitely and 49ers quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance are also dealing with injuries. Nevertheless, all four teams have more than a 25% chance of making it to the playoffs, putting the entire division ahead of 17 other teams in the postseason, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
charioteer: Until now, yes. The division was a late-game meltdown in Seattle against Tennessee as they became the first in NFL history to start the season 8-0, proving the strength of the group when playing other NFC divisions and the AFC . The Cardinals are the NFL’s only undefeated team, and the Rams have beaten defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In addition, the in-division games are usually hotly contested. The West already looked tough, but the rise of the Cardinals has taken it to another level.
Henderson: It has more combined wins than any other division, and the league’s only undefeated team. So yes. We’ll see if the Seahawks can keep their heads above water and keep them from dragging things down. Hard to argue this hasn’t been the best division so far.
How’s your quarterback?
winefuss: Murray has been pretty good. That was sarcasm. Murray is one of the best in football right now. He is the co-favorite with the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen for MVP according to Caesar’s sports book. Statistically, he is one of the best quarterbacks in the game. He is an enigma to defense due to his ability to run, dodge, stop, cut, and then throw every type of pass in the book. There isn’t much he can’t physically do. As long as he stays healthy, which was the problem with Arizona’s 3-6 finish last season, Murray will remain one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
three: Stafford delivers exactly what was expected when LA completed a blockbuster transaction for the veteran quarterback during the off-season. Stafford’s arm, understanding of defense and ability to throw under pressure have allowed coach Sean McVay to open the playbook, including explosive throws in the field that the Rams have missed in recent seasons. By a 4-1 start, Stafford has passed 1,587 yards, the third most in the NFL and the fourth most by a player during his first five games with a team in NFL history. He has completed four passes for more than 40 air yards, despite having five such completions with the Detroit Lions last season. And according to Stafford, even better days are ahead. “We would like to be 5-0,” he said after a 26-17 week 5 win over division rival Seattle. “But we’re where we are, and I think the fun part is being 4-1 and knowing that my best football game isn’t over yet.”
charioteer: The 49ers have the most complicated quarterback dynamics in the league, not just the division. Coach Kyle Shanahan keeps his word that Garoppolo will be the starter, with rookie Lance getting situational snaps. Lance made his first start against Arizona when Garoppolo suffered a right calf injury. Lance showed the dual-threat ability that Garoppolo just doesn’t have, leaving many to wonder if he’s increasing the San Francisco advantage. Barring one more injury, it looks like Garoppolo will return as a starter after the Week 6 retirement, but it remains to be seen for how long. If the faltering offensive production (and the accompanying slow start) continues, Lance’s time will come. That’s especially true if the Niners don’t point their season in the right direction.
Henderson: It’s not good in Seattle. But given the circumstances, it could be much worse. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports that there is a good chance Wilson could return in four weeks. That piece includes the Seahawks’ farewell and two games to win — Sunday night at the Pittsburgh Steelers and October 31 at home against the currently winless Jacksonville Jaguars. A Monday night game against the New Orleans Saints in between will be more difficult. But backup quarterback Geno Smith is competent enough and the schedule favorable enough to think the Seahawks have a shot at coming out of that three-game span 4-4. They need their defense to come on and run Chris Carson back to stay healthy — he missed last week with a neck injury — so the Seahawks can lean on the running game and take the pressure off Smith.
What is the biggest problem each team faces?
winefuss: Injuries to the cardinals. With a 5-0 start, Arizona has shown the NFL that it has the offense and defense to win big. This team does not have many or no major weaknesses. Until he scored just 17 on Sunday to beat the 49ers, Arizona was averaging 35 points per game. It has been dominant. If the Cardinals can keep up that kind of offensive pace, the only thing stopping them this year is staying healthy. If they can do that, the ceiling is really high. If they can’t, an injury to key players can stop the momentum before it really gets going.
three: Inconsistency for the Rams. A week after an emotional 34-24 win over the Buccaneers, the Rams suffered significant disappointment in a 37-20 loss to the Cardinals. At times, the offense, defense and special teams appear to be Super Bowl-caliber units, with Stafford completing highlights and defenses standing strong on the goal line, but each phase is also prone to disappointment, which is why the team has had to grind what players described as ugly wins in Indianapolis and Seattle. For the Rams to reach their full potential and forge a deep playoff and Super Bowl run, they must prepare consistently from week to week and develop the ability to play consistently in all three phases throughout a game.
charioteer: The 49ers, mired in a three-game loss streak, have had plenty of trouble, but most seem to fall under the disappointing offensive performance umbrella. The dominant Super Bowl defense of 2019 is gone, which means the offense has to make up for the difference. So far that hasn’t happened. The Niners still move the ball fairly consistently, but miss big plays (their 15 plays over 20 yards tie for 27th in the league) and have had a painfully slow start. In the four games after week 1, the Niners have scored a total of 21 points in the first half. It doesn’t matter who’s quarterback, the Niners need more from everyone on offense, including Garoppolo and Lance.
Henderson: It’s Wilson’s injury to the Seahawks, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Because unless Seattle can fix its broken defenses, it doesn’t matter how long it takes Wilson to get back. The Seahawks have allowed at least 450 yards in four consecutive games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that is the longest streak in team history and tied for the longest in NFL history. The issues are across the board: problematic cornerback play, an underperforming pass rush, not enough takeaway and not enough impact plays from Jamal Adams, who doesn’t blitz that often. The Seattle defense got off to another historically poor start last year and it took longer than this one to hit a 180 midway through the season. The impetus was to start the pass rush. The Seahawks have the same firepower as last year, suggesting they could bring about another turnaround. But if Smith gets the chance to keep them alive, it can’t wait until the middle of the season. It has to happen now.
How will the division shake out?
Weinfuss order of finish: Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks, Niners. The Cardinals won’t just win the division – they’ll be one of the top two seeds in the NFC.
Thirty order of finish: Cardinals, Rams, 49ers, Seahawks. The Cardinals will win the division. It remains a somewhat risky choice as Kliff Kingsbury’s side started off hot last season before collapsing in the second half of the schedule. Murray is playing great with another season of experience and the defense has tightened up.
Wagoner order of finish: Rams, Cardinals, 49ers, Seahawks. The Rams and Cardinals are reaching the postseason, but don’t be surprised if third place ends here as well.
Henderson order of finish: Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks, 49ers. The Seahawks will get Wilson back and fix their defenses in time to at least make it interesting.
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