NFL 2012: The Future of the NFC West
Who would have thought at the beginning of the season that the NFC West would have by far the best overall record in the NFL?
Probably no one.
Through the first five weeks of the 2012 NFL season, the NFC West is a combined 14-6. The next closest division is the NFC North, at 11-8. Pretty remarkable.
In recent years, the West has been regarded as the worst division of the NFC. Heck, in 2010 the Seattle Seahawks won the division at just 7-9.
Now the NFC West is thought of as one of the toughest divisions to face in football.
So what happened?
Let’s take a look at the teams who make up the West and predict how it will all play out by the end of the season.
4. St. Louis Rams
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Who would have thought the Rams would be sitting at 3-2 five weeks in?
Well, not me, and probably not anyone who watched St. Louis in 2011.
In 2011, the Rams finished 2-14.
Now, the Rams boast one of the better coverage units in the NFL and have had a complete turn-around on defense.
The addition of Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins to the Rams secondary has already paid off unbelievably well.
The reason the Rams will not be able to keep winning is their offense.
While Sam Bradford has looked much better periodically this year, the loss of top receiver Danny Amendola will crush the offense and Bradford’s hopes of a somewhat decent season.
If St. Louis had an accountable running back or another receiver who could pick up the slack left from Amendola’s injury, this might be a different story, but the fact remains—they don’t.
Therefore, despite their strong start, the Rams don’t stand a chance of keeping up in the NFC West for the rest of the season.
3. Seattle Seahawks
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The key to the Seahawks’ early season success thus far has been their overpowering defense.
Seattle has proven they are just as tough to throw and run on as the 49ers.
Seattle has been so successful with opposing quarterbacks because they are able to frequently flush them out of the pocket and disrupt plays before they can develop.
Seattle ranks fifth in the NFL in sacks. They have gotten to the quarterback 16 times this year, including eight sacks in the first half against Green Bay.
The Seahawks’ rush defense have also been immaculate. In five games, they have given up just two rushing touchdowns and allowed only 66.6 rushing yards per game.
On the other side of the ball, the Seattle has been rushing the ball extremely well.
Marshawn “The Beast” Lynch is nearly impossible to bring down. Every time Lynch touches the ball, he has the ability to truck five players and take off towards the end zone. As long as Lynch is in the backfield, Russell Wilson will have time to throw.
If the Seattle Seahawks hope to keep up in the NFC West, they will need to capitalize on leads late in games and prove themselves against the New England Patriots and the San Fransisco 49ers in the next two weeks.
2. Arizona Cardinals
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The Arizona Cardinals have been the biggest surprise team of the early season.
After starting the year 4-0, Arizona lost its first game this past Sunday to division rival St. Louis.
Thus far, the Cardinals don’t rank in the top 14 in passing or rushing offense. They also don’t rank in the top 14 in passing or rushing defense either.
So how are they doing it?
Kevin Kolb hasn’t been perfect, but most of the time he has gotten the job done. He has executed three late fourth-quarter touchdown drives and finds ways to win games.
His 1,041 passing yards and seven touchdowns won’t wow anybody, but if Kolb is able to keep winning games, the Cardinals will keep starting him.
The emergence of Andre Roberts has also helped out Kolb early in the season. The third-year receiver out of Citadel has become Kolb’s second favorite target and continues to produce every game.
The defense has also been a key factor in the Cardinals success. Through five games, the Arizona defense has not given up more than 21 points, despite playing both New England and Philadelphia.
Arizona will be tested in the next few weeks as they face Minnesota, San Francisco, Green Bay and Atlanta all in the space of five weeks.
If Arizona is able to come out 3-2 during that stretch, then they will make the playoffs this year, but through the wild card, not as NFC West champions.
1. San Francisco 49ers
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The San Fransisco 49ers are clearly the most elite of the bunch.
At 4-1, the 49ers are yet to break out of the pack, but there are very telling signs they are about too.
Over the past two games, the 49ers have outscored their opponents 79-3 and now have the highest point differential in the NFL.
San Francisco has been clicking on all cylinders.
Thanks in part to Alex Smith, an undeniable rushing attack and an impressive offensive line, the 49ersoffense has been unstoppable.
So far in 2012, Smith has completed 68.6 percent of his passes and leads the NFL with a 108.7 passer rating.
But the story has been the rushing game.
Thanks to Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter averaging 5.4 yards per carry through the first five games, the 49ers rank first in the NFL with 979 yards on the ground and 195.8 rushing yards per game.
On the other side of the ball, the San Francisco defense has been stellar once again.
They currently allow only 13.6 points per game—the lowest in the NFL—and rank second in passing yards allowed per game with 181.2. They have also held opposing running backs to just 81.4 rushing yards per game.
If the 49ers are able to keep pounding away on the ground with the same efficiency and remain as dominant on the defensive side of the ball as they are expected to, they will find themselves in the Super Bowl.