Once again the National Football League has shown us that if there's one thing that you can expect in pro football, it's the unexpected, as a division that many believed would be one of the NFL's weakest in 2012 may actually be its strongest.
Before the season most pundits predicted that the San Francisco 49ers would repeat as NFC West champions, with a smattering of contrarians who believed that the Seattle Seahawks could be dark-horse contenders should the 49ers falter.
However, things haven't gone according to plan, and four games into the season, all four teams in the NFC West find themselves at or above .500.
Without question the biggest surprise in the division to this point is the Arizona Cardinals, who have ridden a strong defense and the surprisingly solid play of quarterback Kevin Kolb to a 4-0 record and first place.
Kolb, who was pressed into action when starter John Skelton went down in the season opener against the Seattle Seahawks, has completed over 60 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns against only two interceptions, including two last-minute drives that have earned the respect of star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, according to Mike Sando of ESPN.
"If we would have been in that situation in the past, we would have seen guys hanging their heads," Fitzgerald said. "The atmosphere on the sideline would have been different. But now there's not a guy on the sideline who didn't believe we could go out there and win this ballgame."
The Cardinals, off to their best start since 1974, have won 11 of their last 13 games and eight straight at home, and with a favorable schedule upcoming it's entirely possible that the Cardinals could be 7-0 heading into a huge Week 8 showdown with the San Francisco 49ers in Glendale.
The 49ers, for their part, have held up their end of the bargain. Outside of a hiccup on the road against an improved Minnesota Vikings team, the 49ers have probably looked more dominant than any other team in the division.
The 49ers are fresh off a 34-0 whitewashing of the New York Jets in which the vaunted San Francisco defense looked as disruptive as always, and star pass-rusher Aldon Smith told the Associated Press via The Washington Post that the 49ers came into the game with the intention of sending a message.
“After the last game,” linebacker Aldon Smith said of San Francisco’s 24-13 loss at Minnesota last week, “some people were questioning us and we knew what we were capable of.”
Up the coast a ways the Seattle Seahawks have been a more difficult team to figure out.
When they are firing on all cylinders in front of the raucous crowd at CenturyLink Field the Seahawks can be as formidable as any team in the NFL, riding a strong defense and the power-running of Marshawn Lynch to wins over the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers (sort of).
However, both times the Seahawks have left the Pacific Northwest they have come away empty-handed. After a 19-13 loss to the St. Louis Rams, the Associated Press via Sports Illustrated reported that head coach Pete Carroll was forced into the uneasy task of trying to stamp out a quarterback controversy after rookie Russell Wilson threw three interceptions.
"We're going with Russell right now,'' Carroll said. "He's working his tail off to get it right, and where all of the focus that goes to the quarterback position, there's a lot of guys that figure into what's going on, and he's one of them. So we're just trying to get better.''
This week's contest at Carolina is a huge one for Wilson and the Seahawks, who can't afford to potentially fall three games off the pace and have to show that they can win on the road.
Then there are the Rams. Granted, St. Louis likely isn't going to stay in the race for the division title. However, after pulling out all the tricks to beat the Seahawks and with as many wins already this year as they had in all of 2011, head coach Jeff Fisher already has his team preparing to try to knock off the Cardinals on Thursday night, according to the Associated Press via The Washington Post.
“As I told them, yesterday was Wednesday, today is Thursday but it’s a Wednesday practice, tomorrow is Friday but it’s Tuesday,” he said smiling. “All that matters is the football, right?”
This race will really heat up in Week 7 and Week 8, when San Francisco battles Seattle and then Arizona in successive weeks, but both before and after that stretch the division that appeared to have been a cupcake has suddenly become a slugfest.