As teams begin to peek out from the preseason salad toss of players trying to make NFL rosters, "let us" - get it? I got a million of 'em! I'll be here the whole weekend, and remember to tip your waitress! - consider the one really important question heading into the 2014 NFL regular season: Who will win the NFC West?
Every year, I seem to want to prognosticate (no ramdude, this does not involve a nether-regions examination) not just who'll win the NFC West, but who'll take a step back. I mean, someone kind of has to, if the St. Louis Rams are going to win, right? So along with picking the winner of the NFC West, I'll be whipping out the 'ol crystal ball, wiping away the Cheetos dust which so slightly covers it, and talking about the team(s) who could struggle this year...
Super Bowl Champions, yada, yada... This is a new year, and repeating as NFL champions isn't an easy thing to do. Russell Wilson is the key for this team's season, so forget the Richard Sherman-esk rants about their defense, who lost a few key components which gave them their incredible depth and situation-al ability. Don't get me wrong, this will be a tough defense. But I'm curious just how penalized they'll be given the NFL's new found penchant for calling illegal contact with wide receivers? What's more, think about just how the Seahawks' offense will get along if Russell gets banged up? They'll run the ball, you say? Well, if there's a weakness to be seen on this team, offensive line would have to top my list. Beast-mode Marshawn Lynch is a sound plan, but in a division with staggering defenses everywhere you look, a one dimension team won't go far.
Huzzah! My crystal ball says - yet again - that the 49ers will stumble and fall! In truth, it tells me this every year, so it's a brown-nosing liar. It knows any REAL Rams fan wants the 49ers to bumble and stumble, so it says what I want to hear. Yes, I bought my crystal ball from the Rams' online shop - it came with a free Mardy Gilyard jersey - but there's no way the orb knew it was headed out to New Mexico?
The thought of a 49ers' defense playing second fiddle to the OFFENSE is hard to wrap my head around, but it's a very real possibility this season. Outside of possible problems at running back - Frank Gore is like 87 years old - the San Francisco offense has real potential. It's the defense that catches my eye, and their two preseason outings thus far have shown me this unit is in serious trouble. The loss of Navarro Bowman until the middle of the season, and pending suspension of the off-field challenged Aldon Smith, have this defense looking - potentially - like the worst in the division right now? The secondary is a serious issue, especially at corner back. Rookie linebacker Chris Borland may very well hold the key to how the early season breaks for San Francisco...
As surprising as this team was in 2013, they still have a serious "Boo-la Boo-la", hex-like thingy to conquer: only 3 division wins in the last two years. Without being more successful against division opponents, the Cardinals can't get to the promised land: The NFL playoffs. Carson Palmer has one of the top five wide receiver corps in the NFL, and an improved offensive line. Yet, in a division with stacked defenses, the health of an aging Palmer - and a coin toss running game - make this offense anything but a solid lock each week.
The Cardinals will be without Daryl Washington's services for the entire season. Losing one of the best linebackers in the NFL isn't an easy void to fill. Add in the latest loss of Darnell Dockett to an ACL injury, and the run heavy division opponents may wind up being simply too much for the desert birds. In an odd twist, their talent secondary featuring Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie, Tony Jefferson, Justin Bethel, and rookie Deone Bucannon may force teams to attack their weakened - and aging - front seven. Weak side linebacker John Abraham(15 years) and inside linebacker Larry Foote (13 years) combine with defensive tackle Frostee Rucker (9 years) to present foes with an aging front. The play of second year linebacker Kevin Minter may very well hold this team's entire immediate future.
St. Louis Rams...
The thing standing out to me about the Rams for 2014 is... Nothing? Well, that could be a misstatement, since it's widely held the Rams' defensive line may be among the very best in the NFL. Yet, the lack of "remark-ability" at virtually every other part of the Rams isn't an overstatement. The problem here, is the Rams are so immersed in youth it's quite honestly too early to truly see who's successfully transited the NFL growth curve. Sparks, flashes, go along with bungled assignments and miscues. All understandable to an extent, but the honeymoon is over. Expectations by the Rams' fanbase are higher than they've been in quite some time. Players like Janoris Jenkins, Brian Quick, Tavon Austin and - YES - Sam Bradford, all represent high draft selections. They've hit the point where fans want to see not just potential realized, but complete seasons played.
I like Sam Bradford. I mean, what's not to like, right? Uber-talented coming out of college, and so nice he could star in a remake of the '60s series "My Three Sons" - Jeff Fisher taking Fred MacMurray's role? - he's exhibited class and enthusiasm as he struggled to survive on a dismal team for his first few seasons in the NFL. Bradford has the arm to make any pass, but his detractors see only a check-down quarterback with limited ability to go through his receiver progressions. Labels of every kind abound for the former University of Oklahoma star. I have little problem believing if Bradford had landed on a better team, he'd be talked about with the Aaron Rodgers-Tom Brady crowd of cool kids. But he didn't, and now he's faced with what seems like an unending string of "make or break" seasons.
The bottom line - and every Rams fan knows this if they're being honest with themselves - is Sam Bradford has to produce for the Rams to be successful in 2014. Shackled with a "gun shy" offensive coordinator in Brian Schottenheimer, Bradford has the best offensive weapons he's likely to see in a Rams uniform. His every limp and stumble will be over-analyzed, and each errant pass will have naysayers screaming. It's as if he has to pass for 5000+ yards, 40 touchdowns, kick a 99 yard quick-kick field goal, and marry Bar Refaeli ( She's mine, dammit! So stay away Sam, or Derinda will kick your ass!) to quiet his doubters. Practical as I'm known to be - don't say it Brandon Bate! - there's no way the Rams go anywhere above a .500 season without Bradford having his best year as a Pro.
So who'll win the NFC West? Look, this isn't a jump ball. If it were, San Francisco, Arizona and St. Louis would be members of "the Lollipop Guild", and Seattle would be LeBron James. Seattle's home field advantage is HUGE, let alone the fact the Seahawks are a talented team. Yet, the NFL is a twitchy thing. Key injuries, or an unexplained run of bad luck, can bring even the best teams to their knees.
The two obvious potential apple cart up-setters for Seattle are St. Louis and Arizona. Of the two, only St. Louis has enough mystery about just how good they can be. It's their unknowns - and what they wind up doing with them - that could have St. Louis confounding NFL media in 2014. It's not likely though, with a mid-season schedule of opponents which borders on the edge of insane. Starting on October 5th with a game in Philadelphia, and ending on November 16th at home against the Denver Broncos, in between the Rams will face the 49ers - twice -, Seattle, Arizona, and Kansas City.
My final standings in the NFC West:
St. Louis: 3-3
San Francisco: 3-3