NFC West: The NFL's Up-and-Coming Division
The NFC West has been football's most laughable division over the past few seasons. And despite some sentiment that they might not be the worst, the thought mostly holds true. No other point measures the futility of the NFC West quite like sending a division winner to the playoffs despite a losing record.
On the other hand, you have to go all the way back to the 2003 season to find a year in which an NFC West team didn't win a playoff game. I did no other research for any other division, but that is a pretty impressive streak. In addition to that, the NFC West won 30 games this year. That was equal to the NFC East, better than the AFC South and only a game behind the AFC West.
Whether or not you think the NFC is a down division isn't the point. Like most things, football teams can be quite cyclical. All signs point to each of the four NFC West teams pointing in the right direction.
San Francisco 49ers
You would be hard pressed to argue against the San Francisco 49ers being a team that is trending up. In fact, the only argument against the 49ers trending up would be that they have already arrived. They may be due for a slight letdown next season but anything under double-digit wins would be a huge disappointment.
They have a strong offensive-minded coach, a defense that is elite and a multitude of young, promising players. St. Louis' demise this year is proof enough that nothing can be taken for granted and that any team can be humbled.
The most glaring need for the 49ers is at the wide receiver position. More consistency from Alex Smith and the offensive line is also a must.
When Jim Harbaugh asks the players on his team, "Who (in the NFC West) has it better than us?" His team will rightfully answer, "NOBODY."
The Arizona Cardinals finished the 2011 season as average as possible, at 8-8. It's tough to know the true story of the 2011 Cardinals without looking a bit deeper at their schedule. A tough start pushed the Cardinals out of contention early.
But a 7-2 finish is something to build on. It would have been a 8-2 finish but they could not hold on against the Baltimore Ravens. Their only second-half losses came on the road against the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals, two playoff teams. It's also worth noting that of their eight losses, four were by four points or fewer.
Any team with Larry Fitzgerald has serious offensive firepower. Beanie Wells rushed for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. The defense was second in football with 54 sacks, fifth in interceptions at 23 and fifth again with 18 forced fumbles.
But Kevin Kolb is still a huge question mark, no coach on the team should feel as if they have great job security and Levi Brown was considered by some to be the worst starting left tackle in football. Overall, though, this team has a defense that can get scary and Fitzgerald. So things aren't looking too bad for 2012.
Much like the Arizona Cardinals, the Seattle Seahawks started out 2011 so poorly that they never really had a chance to recover. A 2-6 start was too much to overcome, even though it was followed by a strong 5-3 finish.
It's easy to pinpoint the Seahawks' most glaring weakness, starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. I applaud Pete Carroll for not going out and finding the best option available, no matter how good or bad it was, something the Cardinals may have done with Kevin Kolb. But if a good starting quarterback can be found and Sidney Rice can stay healthy, the Seahawks will have plenty of pieces to put together a successful 2012 season.
Marshawn Lynch ran as well as any back in football last year after his slow start. Doug Baldwin was a find as an undrafted free agent and Richard Sherman was possibly the best cornerback in the draft out of the fifth round. Earl Thomas might be the best safety in football in a few years.
The puzzle is not complete for the 2012 Seahawks by any stretch of imagination, but plenty of pieces are there to build upon.
St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams found themselves in a similar position to both the Seahawks and Cardinals. The only difference was that a slow start to their season was followed by a finish that was just as slow. Many experts were confident in picking the Rams to win the NFC West and were just as confident in Sam Bradford's ability to expand on his nice rookie season.
The Rams' mistakes were many this year, but none were bigger than their inability to bring in a true No. 1 wide receiver. Bradford leads a team filled with promising young talent. Steven Jackson is near the end of his run, but is more than a legitimate running back.
James Laurinaitis is a solid middle linebacker, and Chris Long, James Hall and Robert Quinn are a trio of pass-rushers that will get to the quarterback for years to come. Both Jason Smith and Roger Saffold are tackles for the Rams that finished the year on injured reserve.
The Rams also have other, non-player items that make their future especially bright. They have a brand new coach in Jeff Fisher who represents consistency as much as any other man in football. He took over the Houston Oilers during the 1994 season and stayed for over 16 seasons.
They have the second pick in the draft as well as the No. 1 pick in the second round, both of which could yield high ransoms in a trade. They also have more salary cap space than any team in football.
If 2011 was nothing but an anomaly and the Rams can build off the strength of their 2010 season, it could be a very successful campaign for the Rams in 2012.