Look how far this division has come. Let’s look back three years ago to 2010. On a gloomy Sunday Night in Seattle the St. Louis Rams (7-8) and Seattle Seahawks (6-9) battled for the division title on National television. The Seahawks won the game 16-6. The Seahawks then “upset" the New Orleans Saints in overtime. The Saints had the better record but the Seahawks won the West so they had home-field advantage.
Let’s move on to 2011. The division was up for grabs and the 49ers took control. QB Alex Smith led the 49ers to 13-3 record and a NFC title appearance before losing to the New York Giants 20-17 in OT. Last season we saw the emergence of QBs Collin Kaepernick (San Francisco) and Russell Wilson (Seattle). Both QBs led their teams to the playoffs. Kaepernick and the 49ers fell just short of winning the Super Bowl after a great goal-line stand by the Baltimore Ravens.
This past off-season the most noise came from the NFC West. All four teams made some solid improvements. The 49ers added WR Anquan Boldin, along with re-signing a lot of their players and an impressive draft haul due to a whopping 11 selections. The Seahawks added another weapon to the offense in Percy Harvin and added to their defense in Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to beef up their defensive line. The Rams added OL Jake Long and TE Jared Cook in Free Agency and moved up to draft WR Tavon Austin and moved back to draft LB Alec Ogletree in the first round to add so much needed talent on both sides of the ball. The Cardinals have a new coach in Bruce Arians, a new QB in Carson Palmer and they still have a stellar defense. Last year the division was very top heavy. San Francisco went 11-4-1, Seattle went 11-5, St. Louis went 7-8-1 and an impressive 4-1-1 in the division, and Arizona went 5-11.
When you look at what each team added and the coaching staffs I see San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis all making the playoffs. San Francisco has a great young QB in Collin Kaepernick but teams will start to game plan better for him because they have had a lot of time to dissect tape. Their offense took a hit this off-season when they lost WR Michael Crabtree for the season but look for bigger roles from WRs Mario Manningham and hoping the 2nd year AJ Jenkins can have some impact on the offense, and TE Vernon Davis. Their run game is dynamic with Frank Gore and the explosiveness of Collin Kaepernick (ask Green Bay, about what he did in the playoffs). But what makes the 49ers so special is their defense. Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith are perennial pro-bowlers and cause havoc for the QBs. Their one weakness on defense is their secondary. Their front seven is very strong but they are replacing safety Dashon Goldson with rookie Eric Reid. So we will see how they fair with a rookie safety. I predict the 49ers to go 11-5, 4-2 in the division and finish atop the NFC West.
Let’s head up north to Seattle. The Seahawks added another weapon to an already dangerous offense by trading for Percy Harvin. He adds another deep threat to their roster. The key to the Seahawks offense is how teams game plan for Russell Wilson. Just like Kaepernick teams have had a full off-season to game plan for him so how he reacts is key. But Wilson is a film hound and studies film like a coach. He is a very smart QB so I don’t expect this to faze him that much. I believe Marshawn Lynch will have another good productive season. The defense will be tenacious. Richard Sherman is one of the top CBs in the NFL and he is hungry. The additions to the line make them stronger and Bobby Wagner will thrive in his second year. I predict Seattle will go 11-5, 3-3 in the division as well but lose the tiebreaker to the 49ers.
Now let’s go to the Midwest where the Rams are looking to improve on the success they had in their first season under head coach Jeff Fisher. Fisher took over the team after a 2-14 season and you quickly saw a different team starting in Week 1 when they pushed the Lions to the wire (The Lions were coming off their best season in recent years at that point). The Rams swept the 49ers last season going 1-0-1. Last year in the off-season the Rams focused on defense and this year it was to help out their young QB Sam Bradford. They signed TE Jared Cook and added OL Jake Long to protect his blind-side. The big key to the Rams offense is that this is the first time Sam Bradford is in the same system for consecutive seasons. In the draft the aggressive Rams offense jumped to the 8th overall pick to select WR Tavon Austin out of West Virginia. This kid is a flat-out playmaker. He adds a much-needed weapon to the Rams offense. The Rams have a solid core of young wide outs look for Austin Pettis, Chris Givens, and Brian Quick to all contribute and watch out for another rookie Stedman Bailey. The weakness in the Rams offense is the loss of RB Steven Jackson. Jackson was a Ram from 2004-2012 and was a workhorse back the Rams will need to replace him. The replacements as of now are the trio of 2nd year players Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead and rookie Zac Stacy. I think Stacy will break out be the starter and Pead and Richardson will be great complements to him.
Defense is the staple of any Jeff Fisher team and last year the Rams defense was great. I only see them getting better. The addition of Alec Ogletree the rookie out of Georgia will shape up the linebacker core. The secondary I believe is one of the best in football. CBs Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins have the opportunity to be one of the best if not the best tandem in all of football. The weakness is the safety spot. The projected starters are Darian Stewart a third-year player and T.J. McDonald a rookie they took in the 3rd Round. Stewart was hurt most of last season but in his first year he showed signs of promise but has the tendencies to overrun plays at times. McDonald is a big, bruising safety that fits the mold of a Fisher safety. If he can mature like the Rams hope he can, he will solidify the spot for years to come. I predict the Rams to 10-6, 4-2 in the division and lock up the last wild card spot.
The Cardinals are another strong team. Bruce Arians was the right man for the job. He adds an offensive mind to a team with lots of weapons on that side of the ball. The wildcard for this team is which Carson Palmer will show up. Carson Palmer is a Heisman Trophy winning QB but has not looked the same since his injury in 2005 playoffs. Hopefully throwing to the likes of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd helps him play better. The addition of RB Rashard Mendenhall is another moved that if he is healthy he will do wonders for their offense/ The defense is great with playmakers Patrick Peterson, Daryl Washington, and Darnell Dockett. If Tyrann Mathieu can remain out of trouble he adds another strong player to that defense. I feel the Cardinals are still a couple of years away from contending in this division but I would not be shocked in the slightest if they cause some trouble. I predict they will go 5-11, 1-5 in the division and look to draft a QB of the future in the next draft.
This will be the best division in the National Football League. With three teams in the playoffs don’t be surprised to see one of these teams hoisting the Lombardi trophy in New York this February.