Why the NFC West Will Dominate the NFL in 2013

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Why the NFC West Will Dominate the NFL in 2013
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Colin Kaepernick's fifth NFL start was going to be against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in a mid-December road game on Sunday Night Football. 

His goal was simple. He had to lead the San Francisco 49ers past a quarterback and a team who had only lost a couple home games in December since Brady took over as the starting quarterback in 2001. Yes, the goal was simple, but it just didn't seem attainable. 

Kaepernick went on to throw four touchdown passes and lead San Francisco to an inspired 41-34 victory over the Patriots. 

For the Patriots, it was their third loss to the NFC West in four games that season. They had opened up their home slate with a loss to the eventual cellar-dwelling Arizona Cardinals in Week 2. If anyone had a good idea of just how much the NFC West had improved, it was Tom Brady and the Patriots. 

Utilizing ESPN's QBR metric, NFC West lead writer Mike Sando came to the following conclusion after San Francisco's seven-point win in New England in Week 15. 

Brady has a 75.4 passer rating against the 49ers, Cardinals and Seahawks. His rating is 110.8 against everyone else. He has a 51.6 QBR score against the 49ers, Cardinals and Seahawks 

That's where this story starts and really gets going. 

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Brady wasn't the only one who couldn't handle NFC West defenses in 2012.

(2012 Defensive Stats, via NFL.com)
Team PPG 1st Down Rushing Passing Total Yards
Seattle 15.3 (1st)   18.4 (8th) 103.1 (10th) 203.1 (6th)   306.2 (4th)
San Francisco 17.1 (1st)   17.8 (2nd)  92.4 (4th) 200.2 (4th)  294.4 (3rd)
St. Louis 21.8 (14th)   20.4 (22nd) 117.5 (15th) 225.1 (15th)  342.6 (14th)
Arizona 22.3 (17th)   18.0 (5th) 137.0 (28th) 200.8 (5th)  337.8 (12th)

 

As you can see above, Seattle and San Francisco finished in the top 10 of the NFL in each major statistical category on defense. Meanwhile, both Arizona and St. Louis finished in the top half of the league in total yards against. 

It's this type of defense that led to the NFC West obtaining the reputation as the new black and blue division. A myriad of youngsters from each team stepped up to form one of the best sets of defenses the National Football League had to offer. 

As evidenced by Brady's subpar performances against this division, they went out there and performed at an extremely high level against the best competition the league had to offer. 

It wasn't until Justin Smith's injury in Week 16 against the very same Patriots that San Francisco started to show holes in its defense. Ultimately, that cost the 49ers a sixth Lombardi Trophy. 

That being said, the continued excellence from each of the four teams in the division on the defensive side of the ball went a long way in them earning the respect of their opponents. 

Playing great defense is fine, but both San Francisco and Seattle rode the arms and legs of their young quarterbacks to go from playoff contender to legitimate Super Bowl contenders. 

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Kaepernick set 49ers' postseason records for a quarterback

Most Total Yards in SF Playoff History (via Pro Football Reference)
Player Year Games Total Yards TD INT
Colin Kaepernick 2012     3    1,162  7  2
Joe Montana  1984     3     873  8  5
Joe Montana 1989     3     819 11  0
Steve Young 1994     3     749 11  0

 

The amazing part of this is that Kaepernick's performance came after starting a total of seven NFL games prior to his initial postseason outing under center. Both Montana and Young were grizzled veterans. Of course I am not comparing the young quarterback to two of the best signal-callers in the history of the National Football League, that would be a horrendous overshot. Instead, I am just giving you a bit of an understanding of what he did this past season. To even be mentioned in the same breath as those two Hall of Fame is utterly ridiculous. 

For his part, Russell Wilson absolutely dominated postseason play. He outperformed both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in the second season, defeating the latter on the road in his playoff debut. 

Overall, Wilson combined for nearly 700 yards and five scores in two playoff games as a rookie. 

Both Kaepernick and Wilson also led their teams from behind. For San Francisco's young signal caller, it was a set of performances. The first came against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship. San Francisco fell behind 17-0 in the first half against Atlanta before coming back and winning the game, 28-24. 

San Francisco then fell behind 28-6 to the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl before mounting one of the best comebacks in the history of the postseason. Ultimately, it would come up just a few yards shy of hoisting the Lombardi trophy. 

Seattle's quarterback led his team from a 20-0 halftime deficit against the very same Falcons before losing 30-28. 

These three performances represented a coming-out party for the young quarterbacks and their up-and-coming teams. 

In the end, two NFC West teams were a field goal away from going up against one another in the NFC Championship game. This just two years after the division made news by sending a 7-9 team to the postseason. 

Talk about a turnaround. 

Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Neither San Francisco or Seattle waited until the new league year to begin making noise around the NFL circles this offseason. The Seahawks went out and acquired Percy Harvin from the Minnesota Vikings the day before free agency was set to begin. Just hours later, San Francisco sent a sixth-round pick to Baltimore for Anquan Boldin, a player that had torn apart its defense just over a month earlier in the Super Bowl. 

The "NFC West Arms Race" was on. 

Seattle proceeded to add Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Antoine Winfield to one of the best defenses in football. Meanwhile, San Francisco turned its backup quarterback (Alex Smith) into a second-round pick in 2013 and a conditional third-round pick in 2014 in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs. 

While Seattle was making dramatic moves and upgrading its roster in free agency, San Francisco was stockpiling picks for the upcoming draft.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Rams were looking to improve on a surprising 2012 campaign. They went from two wins in 2011 to seven wins last year under the leadership of new head coach Jeff Fisher. Their major acquisitions surrounded the offensive side of the ball with free-agent pickups like Jared Cook and Jake Long.

In the desert, Arizona was still playing fourth fiddle as the reigning cellar dwellers. They fired Ken Whisenhunt and brought in Bruce Arians, who had a tremendous amount of success with the Indianapolis Colts as an interim head coach this past season. For the Cardinals, it has become all about building a team that can contend in the toughest division in football.

As you saw  above, the Cardinals have a stout defense. They just needed to add a couple pieces to the offensive side of the ball in order to up their game. While the addition of Carson Palmer might get chastised by the national media, there is little doubt in my mind that he is an upgrade over the myriad of indecency that the Cardinals sent out to play quarterback in 2012. 

Loaded with two of the best teams in the entire National Football League, the NFC West entered this past draft with a chance to put the league on notice even further. 

Boy, did it ever. 

St. Louis appeared to join the NFC arms race by fueling up early in the draft and gaining some of the better talent on the board, while Arizona managed to make sweeping upgrades on both offense and defense. 

Al Bello/Getty Images

Let's just take a gander at what experts around the football world gave NFC West teams in terms of grades in the 2013 NFL Draft

Team BR CNN Kiper
San Francisco  A-  A  B
Seattle  B+  B-  B
St. Louis  A-  A  A-
Arizona   B+  B+  B

 

As you can see, the lowest grade any team got from the three sites I referenced (NFL.com grades to come Friday) was a B-. However, it is important to note that none of these grades took into account Seattle's acquisition of Percy Harvin and the 49ers pickup of Anquan Boldin. Say what you want about both trades, those two players will make immediate impacts in 2013. 

Without getting into too much detail about the draft, which has been covered at length, let's look at some of the key draft picks that have joined the NFC West in the last week. 

 

San Francisco 49ers

Hands down one of the best drafts in the NFL. San Francisco addressed a need by trading up for Eric Reid in the first round. It went into the draft with free safety being only one hole in the starting 22, and they get a cheaper, younger version of Dashon Goldson. San Francisco then traded out of the No. 33 spot, a pick originally obtained from Kansas City in the Alex Smith deal, picked up a third-round pick in 2014 and nabbed defensive end Tank Carradine from Florida State at No. 40.  

Our very own Matt Miller had Carradine ranked as the No. 5 overall player in the draft and top defensive end, even ahead of Dion Jordan. 

San Francisco then nabbed a replacement for Delanie Walker in the form of a high upside tight end, Vance McDonald from Rice. He immediately becomes a major cog for Kaepernick in the passing game. 

That being said, what San Francisco did in the fourth round was nothing short of highway robbery. 

Picking up the likes of Marcus Lattimore and Quinton Patton in the fourth round was absolutely ridiculous. Lattimore would have been the first running back off the board if it wasn't for a second ACL injury in three seasons. He will likely sit this upcoming season and eventually take over for Frank Gore. Patton, on the other hand, should be an immediate impact performer. He was one of the most underrated receivers in the draft and has a chance of being the most productive of the group. 

 

Seattle Seahawks

Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Despite the fact that Seattle still has Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin on  the roster, it made the decision to "reach" for Texas A&M product Christine Michael in the second round. While this pick wasn't well received by a vast majority of experts, Michael adds just another ground-and-pound dimension to a vastly improved offense. 

The additions of Jordan Hill, Jesse Williams and Tharold Simon in the mid rounds add depth and talent to certain areas of need. I absolutely love what Seattle did along the defensive line in bringing in Hill and Williams. Both should make immediate impacts in 2013. It's all about building competition and depth for a contending team. 

 

St. Louis Rams

Some said that the Rams yielded too much to move up for Tavon Austin in the first round, but it is a move they really had to make. The West Virginia product is easily the most dynamic skill-position player in the draft and adds another dimension to an offense that seems to lack receiving talent. Austin will produce immediately in the slot, maybe a Percy Harvin-lite player as a rookie in 2013. 

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Alec Ogletree in the second round fills another need at weak-side linebacker. He is a damn good cover guy and will help a pass defense that was dramatically improved last season. While it remains to be seen how the Rams will utilize T.J. McDonald, there is no doubt he is a talented player in the secondary. If they decide to use him somewhat like what we see with Kam Chancellor in Seattle, this is a great pick. If not, it leaves a bit to be desired. 

Mid-round selections Barrett Jones, Zac Stacy and Brandon McGee represent both value and need. Stacy could even start the season in the Rams lineup ahead of a couple of marginal running back options. The talented Vanderbilt product is going to be a pounder between the hashes and lowers the blow of losing Steven Jackson in free agency. 

St. Louis did some amazing work in this draft and put itself in the postseason conversation heading into offseason programs around the NFL. 

 

Arizona Cardinals

Al Bello/Getty Images

Bruce Arians and Co. had one of the most underrated drafts in the NFL. They selected value at positions of need clear across the board. Jonathan Cooper was the best pass-protecting interior lineman in the draft and shores up the interior of one of the worst offensive lines in the league. As an immediate starter, Cooper represents a ridiculous upgrade. 

I had a top-20 grade on Kevin Minter heading into the draft and Arizona was able to nab him in the second round. He can come in and be a great complement to Daryl Washington at right inside linebacker.

Tyrann Mathieu, one of the most divisive figures in the draft, represents a major upgrade in terms of talent along the defensive secondary and may be a cog on special teams. 

Arizona also grabbed value with Alex Okafor and Stepfan Taylor in the mid rounds. 

While Arizona still has a long way to go in order to contend in the toughest division in football, this draft was a great start. 

Where the NFC West Teams Stand

There is little doubt that Seattle and San Francisco are two of the best teams in the NFL at this point. They went punch, counter punch throughout the offseason and have two of the best rosters in the entire league. 

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In fact, the two games that they play this upcoming season should represent two of the best games of the year. I know that those of us on the west coast will be paying especially close attention. 

The larger question here will be whether the NFC West will actually grab three of the six postseason spots in the conference in 2013. 

According to Bovado, San Francisco has the best odds to win the Super Bowl in 2013 at 6-1, while the Seahawks come in at 9-1, right behind San Francisco, Denver and New England. 

Talk about being stacked. There is no other division remotely close to what the NFC West has in terms of talent across the board. It is the best division in football right now and it really isn't close. 

You just have to feel sorry for the AFC and NFC South, both of whom have to look forward to taking on this division in 2013. 

As it is, I wouldn't be surprised to see Seattle and San Francisco as the last two teams standing in the playoffs next January from the NFC. I also wouldn't be surprised to see the Rams nab the No. 6, giving this division three playoff teams. 

What a far cry from just a few short years ago. 

 

Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist here at Bleacher Report. Vincent is the head sports editor over at eDraft, co-host of Draft Sports Radio, which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m. ET, and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus.

Go ahead and give him a follow on Twitter @VincentFrankNFL.

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