Well we’re here. Summer’s over and the boring Sundays are done. Time for some football! But first … time to conclude this week’s NFL divisional outlooks. I ran through the East, previewed the North and predicted the South. Now, i’ll try my hand at the West.
Should be a great year but even if it wasn’t, it’s fooball so it would still be better than what any other sport has to offer. This season seems wide open for the taking, just a matter of who wants it. Oddly enough, the AFC and NFC West divisions aren’t as strong as their conference counterparts but both divisions feature a couple of extremely talented teams. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either one of my projected winners in the Super Bowl, it’s just a matter of health.
NFC West- Arizona Cardinals
I grew up on the San Francisco 49ers being a great team. Steve Young, Jerry Rice and Merton Hanks were my guys. So it’s a shame that most publications don’t even include the Niners in preseason discussions anymore when it comes to divisional champs. The team is on the right track back to respectability though. A competent coaching staff and some young talent have the team pointed in the right direction. But that direction won’t be clear this season though. The absence of a respectable quarterback will keep the Niners out of any serious contention until the position is upgraded.
The St. Louis Rams are a disaster. Their offense will be somewhat of a threat as long as Steven Jackson remains healthy but quarterback Marc Bulger is already playing with a broken pinkie. The defensive stars are few and far in between. It took the Rams 20 years to make their second Super Bowl appearance in 1999. Judging by the current state of the team, we could be looking at 2019 for another Super Bowl invite.
The Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals are going to duke it out for this year’s western crown. It almost sounds funny mentioning the Cardinals as contenders but the world saw last year that Arizona was for real.
The Seahawks were the opposite of high-flying last year with standout quarterback Matt Hasselbeck grounded with a back injury. His return should guarantee Seattle at least eight wins and the addition of wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh gives Hasselbeck the dependable target that he hasn’t had in a while. Last year’s defense was atrocious, finishing at 30th in the league. Seattle added the top linebacker prospect in the draft in Aaron Curry and will look to relive their 2007 season, when they finished in the top five in both sacks and takeaways. The Seahawks are in position to contend for the title in the west, but only if Hasselbeck and the defense return to form.
A few stout drafts and the steady hand of quarterback Kurt Warner has put the Cardinals in the position to contend. Arizona has one of the most talented teams in the NFC and it seems like every year for the past few seasons, they come away from the draft with a big time prospect. This year’s steal was Ohio State running back Chris “Beanie” Wells. Wells will be expected to help the so-so running game that will hold key to the Cards’ season. Starting back Tim Hightower was impressive in the preseason and Wells scored two touchdowns in his first action of the season against the Green Bay Packers.
We already know what Warner and Arizona’s dynamic receivers can do. The defense is opportunistic with a talented secondary. If Hightower and Wells can give the Cards a productive run game, Arizona’s offense could be unstoppable this season. The Cardinals were one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history away from bringing home a title and they’ll be in unknown territory this season. Last year’s playoff birth was their first since the ’98 season so it will be interesting to see how the players respond to such a quick turnaround.
Seattle and Arizona may likely split games this year and the Cardinals will be shown more respect this season by opposing clubs. Arizona did whatever they wanted to do in the NFC playoffs last year. Their run was impressive and with the addition of Wells and improvement of Hightower, the offense should be enough to carry them a divisional crown.
AFC West-San Diego Chargers
Easiest division in the league by far. The Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos will be lucky to win five games combined as both clubs are in the midst of major overhauls. The Broncos may have set their ballclub back a few years with their fiasco surrounding franchise QB Jay Cutler and both the Chiefs and Broncos will be in their first year of playing the 3-4 defense. Long seasons could be in store.
The Oakland Raiders will field a tough squad this year behind the direction of tough-as-nails coach Tom Cable and could possibly contend for the western title if things bounce their way. While Oakland will be much improved, they’re no where near as talented as the San Diego Chargers, who look to capture their fourth straight division title this season.
The Chargers have talent everywhere from quarterback to waterboy and the return of Shawne Merriman and the selection of DE/OLB Larry English should return the pass rush spark that the team lacked last year. The Chargers went 8-8 in a wakeup year for the club. San Diego was a popular Super Bowl pick with media pundits fawning all over them last summer after their courageous battle against the New England Patriots in ’07’s AFC Championship.
Injuries to Merriman and LaDainian Tomlinson handicapped the offense and defense as the team hobbled to a 4-8 start. San Diego then ran off four straight wins including a round one victory against the Indianapolis Colts and quarterback Phillip Rivers had his best season ever. Although San Diego lost to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round, the experience of playing two of the AFC’s most successful teams in back-to-back years should give the Chargers an insight on what it takes to reach the next level.
San Diego won’t be as highly favored to compete for a Super Bowl this year but because the division is so weak, they can easily reel off six wins against AFC West foes that could propel them to homefield advantage in the postseason. Health is key however. Tomlinson, Merriman, Rivers and talented tight end Antonio Gates have battled injuries over the past few seasons. If San Diego’s big four can remain healthy, the Chargers have the potential to win more than just the AFC West title