NFC West Remaining Schedules: Who Has the Easiest Path to the Playoffs?
We're a quarter of the way through the season and no team from the division has a losing record.
Putting together a nice stretch of games to open up the season is always good, but grinding through the next 12 will be another story.
Let's take a look at each team's remaining schedule, and what their chances are of playing football in January.
1. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are the only team in the NFC West that hasn't played a team within its division. They notched an impressive win at Green Bay to open the season and followed it up with a Sunday night victory over Detroit at home.
This excludes the divisional games, but you have to like the 49ers' chances of making it through that slate relatively unscathed. The six non-divisional opponents have a 10-14 overall record.
The game in Foxborough against the Patriots is scheduled for December 16th, which could mean snowy football. And despite the Saints' 0-4 start, playing against Drew Brees in the Superdome is never easy. But aside from those two contests, the 49ers don't appear to have any real trouble standing in their way of a second straight playoff appearance.
That is, unless the Arizona Cardinals have anything to say about it.
2. Arizona Cardinals
The 2012 Cardinals burst out of the gates by winning their first four games including a road victory against New England and an absolute thrashing of the Eagles at home.
QB Kevin Kolb replaced a banged up John Skelton and has thrown for seven touchdowns with just two interceptions while posting a 97.6 QB rating. The running game has yet to find a rhythm but the defense, led by Patrick Peterson and Daryl Washington, is playing lights out.
Remaining home games: Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears
Remaining away games: Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, New York Jets
Aside from five divisional games, the Cardinals' remaining opponents have a 17-11 record on the season. Road games against the Falcons and Packers will be tough, and the Vikings don't appear to be the same pushover as last year. In addition, the Lions and Bears will present tough challenges at home.
Despite the hot start, Arizona is going to need to find more balance on offense or teams like Atlanta and Green Bay are going to be tough to keep up with. They've been surprising everyone so far, but don't expect the hot streak to last much longer.
3. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks opened up the season with a loss at Arizona. But back-to-back home wins against Dallas and Green Bay (and perhaps some luck) righted the ship quickly.
Last week's loss against St. Louis dropped their divisional record to 0-2, but all three teams in the NFC West still have to travel to the Northwest where the 12th man will be waiting.
Remaining home games: New England Patriots, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets
Remaining away games: Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears, Buffalo Bills
The Seahawks' main concern thus far has been the lack of a passing attack. While Russell Wilson hasn't been terrible, his ability to escape the pocket and make plays with his feet may be the only thing keeping backup Matt Flynn on the bench at this point.
What's keeping Seattle afloat is the solid play of Marshawn Lynch (over 100 yards per game on the ground), and a defense led by Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman in the secondary.
The remaining opponents outside the division have a combined 15-17 record, but the two early losses puts the Seahawks in a tough spot. None of the five road games listed appear to be too difficult, but penciling in two or three wins out of the group is a bit premature.
The next two weeks will tell a lot about the Seahawks as they travel to Carolina before returning to Seattle for a game against New England. If they exit this mini-stretch 0-2, January football may never arrive.
4. St. Louis Rams
The Rams opened up the season with a road loss to the Detroit Lions, followed by a victory against the Redskins and another road defeat, this time at Chicago. But after rebounding against the Seahawks this past Sunday, Sam Bradford and company find themselves at 2-2 and already looking to surpass last season's win total.
Bradford is throwing the ball with more velocity than he ever did throughout an injury-plagued 2011 campaign, but the rushing attack is averaging less than 100 yards per game.
Remaining home games: Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Minnesota Vikings
Remaining away games: Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The road schedule appears manageable, but looks more daunting when you factor in a road trip to each team in the division. And while it's nice to have the Patriots and Packers at home, this isn't "The Greatest Show on Turf" of the Kurt Warner era and the home-field advantage isn't what it used to be.
Sam Bradford clearly has the same talent the Rams saw before they selected him with the first pick of the 2010 NFL draft, but without a healthy running game St. Louis will continue to have trouble scoring.
A 2-2 start is probably better than fans expected, but it's hard to see them maintaining a .500 pace throughout the season.
Conclusion: Who Makes It Out?
The San Francisco 49ers were the team to beat heading into the year, and nothing so far has led me to believe things will turn out differently.
The St. Louis Rams still appear to be a couple years away from competing for a playoff birth, and the Seahawks just don't have enough firepower behind their rookie quarterback.
The Cardinals are in great position to challenge for the NFC West title, but they have the toughest remaining schedule by far. Once they lose a game or two, I expect we'll start to see a team that looks more like last year's version than a playoff contender.
The theme of the division is stifling defenses with competent yet rarely explosive offenses. But San Francisco remains the most battle-tested of the group after last year's trip to the NFC title game, and they know what it takes to win big games.
The group is certainly improved from the last several years, but I don't see this being a division that sends multiple teams to the postseason.