If you had taken an informal poll of football pundits before the 2012 NFL season began and asked them which division was the toughest in the National Football League, I can just about guarantee you that very few people would have said the NFC West.
In fact, many would likely have called the NFC West one of the weaker divisions in the league.
However, as we enter the seventh weekend of the season, three of the four teams in the division have winning records. A division that most felt would be dominated by the San Francisco 49ers has turned into what appears to be the NFL's strongest division, top to bottom.
The 49ers still appear to be the class of the division, especially after a hard-fought 13-6 win over the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday night that showcased San Francisco's formidable defense and a healthy dose of running back Frank Gore.
The eighth-year veteran gashed Seattle for 182 total yards in the victory.
Gore injured his ribs during the game, but the 29-year-old insisted to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee that he will be fine by the time the 49ers face the Arizona Cardinals in a battle for first place a week from Monday:
"I'll find a way to get out there and help the team," the running back said of playing in the next game. "What do we have—11 days, 10 days?—before the next game, so that will be good."
Those Arizona Cardinals are trying to right the ship a bit, having dropped two straight after winning four in a row, including a 19-16 overtime setback against the Buffalo Bills last week in which Arizona lost quarterback Kevin Kolb to a rib injury.
Kolb's injury means that John Skelton, who opened the season under center before hurting his ankle against the Seattle Seahawks, will take back the reins for the team. But as wide receiver Andre Roberts told Bob Baum of The Associated Press via The San Francisco Chronicle, another switch at quarterback won't be a huge adjustment for the Cardinals:
"It's not too much of a big deal," wide receiver Andre Roberts said after Wednesday's practice. "You know we had John at the beginning of the year, we had him in camp, so it's not like we're bringing somebody in new that we haven't played with. John's been here for a while. We understand what he brings to the table, so it won't be that big of an adjustment."
Where the Cardinals desperately do need to make an adjustment is along the offensive line. The team has allowed a gaudy 28 sacks in six games, far and away the most in the NFL.
Week 7 is already in the books for the Seattle Seahawks.
Their loss to the 49ers was a disappointing one coming off their huge come-from-behind win over the New England Patriots last week. Head coach Pete Carroll made no excuses when speaking with Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk:
“We need to do better,” Carroll said after the game. “That’s unfortunate. That’s not how we play...That’s really unfortunate, because I think we’re a lot better than that.”
The Seahawks' loss can hardly be blamed on the focal point of Seattle's offense, however, as running back Marshawn Lynch topped 100 yards on the ground for the second straight time against San Francisco's top-ranked run defense.
That rates a bag of Skittles, folks.
In fact, even the NFC West's cellar dweller is far from a bottom-feeder, as a much-improved St. Louis Rams team has already won more games in 2012 then they did all of last season.
Granted, there's still some work to be done in the Gateway City, as evidenced by the team's sloppy 17-14 loss to the Miami Dolphins. But as Green Bay Packers offensive line coach James Campen told The Green Bay Press-Gazette, the Packers won't be taking the Rams' talented defensive linemen lightly when the two teams square off in St. Louis Sunday:
They have two very good edge rushers—quick, explosive, athletic guys right around that 265, 270 range that can make it difficult for you if you’re not playing fundamentally sound against players like that.
The key to most of the success that the NFC West has enjoyed this season lies on the defensive side of the ball.
All four teams in the division rank in the top 10 in the NFL in total defense.
The division is littered with defensive stars, from Seattle Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons to linebackers Patrick Willis of San Francisco and Arizona's Daryl Washington, to cornerback Cortland Finnegan of the St. Louis Rams.
Those sorts of stout defenses can both keep teams in the hunt and make for the sort of low-scoring, physical affairs that we saw in San Francisco on Thursday night.
There's still a ton of football to be played, and an awful lot can change, but the fact remains that teams in the NFC West appear set to trade punches all season long.
That's how football should be played, and while it's not coming from the location we expected, we should all be grateful that we'll be treated to some good old-fashioned slugfests as this season moves along.