NFC West: Is It the Best Division in the NFL?

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NFC West: Is It the Best Division in the NFL?
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Two seasons ago, the NFC West sent its division winner to the playoffs with a 7-9 record. The division as a whole was outscored by 322 points that season. Even Marshawn Lynch putting the Seattle Seahawks on his back against the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs couldn't completely make up for how bad the division was.

This is no longer 2010, and the NFC West is no longer the worst division in football (congratulations, AFC South).

It's possible the NFC West could be the best division in the NFL.

Through the first two weeks, the NFC West has the highest combined point differential (plus-37) and the closest division to having all four of its teams in the positive' only the Rams (minus-one) have been outscored for the season.

The NFC West is set up like the Washington Nationals pitching rotation—pre-Stephen Strasburg innings limit—in its depth. The San Francisco 49ers are Strasburg, the dominant ace (yes, I might be abandoning this already), and the other teams make you happy you're not facing the ace, but can still beat you just as easily.

The key to a dominating division, which features Alex Smith and Kevin Kolb as two of the starting quarterbacks, is defense.

Football Outsider's Team Defense VOA (Value Over Average) has only one division with all four teams ranked in the top half. You guessed it, that division is the NFC West.

The defenses are also well balanced, again except for the Rams. Seattle, fourth overall, has the ninth-ranked pass defense and ranks third against the run. Arizona, eighth overall, is eleventh against the pass and fifth against the run. San Francisco's defense, fifteenth overall, is sixteenth against the pass and tenth stopping the run.

And even though the sixteenth ranked Rams defense is only 31st against the run, they have the best pass defense in the division, ranked sixth. With two interceptions in two games, cornerback Cortland Finnegan should make opposing players think twice before throwing the ball at him.

In a league that has become so quarterback dominant, having a tough defense is the best way to get around not having an elite quarterback to match. 

Even though Alex Smith and Kevin Kolb are still used as punchlines for lazy writers (see above), there's no denying the quarterbacks have played well. Combined, the five NFC West quarterbacks (including John Skelton) have thrown for 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. As the 49ers showed last year, you can win games by controlling the turnover battle.

Smith has yet to throw an interception, despite already attempting 57 passes. Kolb has also not thrown a pick in any of his five quarters of play this season. Sam Bradford has thrown the most passes, 60, but has only one interception—a 1.67 percent interception rate.

A rate that low usually isn't sustainable and means a regression will occur at some point, but that was said about Smith's 1.1 percent rate in 2011, and he has kept the ball out of defenders' hands so far this season.

Another advantage these teams have is their home field. Against east coast teams, San Francisco, Seattle and Arizona have a natural advantage because of the time zone in which they play. Of course, this wasn't too big of a deal when posting a losing record, but it occasionally swung a game or two.

The time change is just one factor in what has become a distinct home field advantage for NFC West teams. Last season at home, the 49ers were 7-1 and the Cardinals were 6-2. The Seahawks were only 4-4, but have the most college-like home field in the NFL, which can always affect opposing offenses. The Rams only won one game at home, but it was an upset over the New Orleans Saints—a big deal when you only get two wins all year.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

All four teams are 1-0 at home this season.

The NFC West was one last-minute Matthew Stafford drive away from being 7-1 through two weeks. The division may not send three teams to the playoffs like last year's AFC North, but no other division can go four teams deep. Two years after having no team above .500 for the season, maybe the opposite could happen this season.

 

Each week I will pick each game against the spread, with five "lock" picks.

Week 3 Picks

Home team in CAPS/Locks in BOLD

St. Louis (+7.5) over CHICAGO

Tampa Bay (+8) over DALLAS

San Francisco (-6.5) over MINNESOTA

Detroit (-3.5) over TENNESSEE

Cincinnati (+3) over WASHINGTON

NY Jets (-2.5) over MIAMI

NEW ORLEANS (-8.5) over Kansas City

Buffalo (+3) over CLEVELAND

INDIANAPOLIS (-3) over Jacksonville

ARIZONA (+3.5) over Philadelphia

Atlanta (+3) over SAN DIEGO

DENVER (+2) over Houston

OAKLAND (+4) over Pittsburgh

BALTIMORE (-2.5) over New England

Green Bay (-3) over SEATTLE

This Week: 1-0   Last Week: 7-7-2/2-2-1

Season: 16-14-2/4-5-1

 

For more NFL fun, follow Dan on Twitter @DanPizzuta

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