Why The 49ers Are Still Alive In The NFC West: Team By Team Breakdown
Wow, could this season have gone any worse for the 49ers at this point? Here is a team that was far and wide favored to win the worst division in football; the NFC West. The 49ers now sit at 0-4 staring up at three .500 ball clubs in the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, and St. Louis Rams. Here's the crazy thing, though. At 0-4, the San Francisco 49ers are not even close to being out of the race for their division's title. In the following slide show, I want to look at each team's remaining schedule and offer some predictions and insight into how this division will turn out at the end of the year.
So, here we go!
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I am going to start with the team that I consider to be the worst in this division, the Arizona Cardinals. No team in the league has a worse net point differencial (-60) than the Arizona Cardinals do, yet they are somehow a .500 team. That's due in large part to the quality of their opponents in their wins vs. their losses. Their Week 1 win was over a St. Louis team that is not nearly as good as the one that won its past two games. Sam Bradford was in his first NFL game and this Rams team didn't know what to expect out of its offense. Still, Arizona barely squeaked by, winning 17-14. Then, they barely got by Oakland in their other victory.
In the team's two losses, Arizona has looked pitiful. Their defense has been porous and their offense non-existent. Que Max Hall to take over for Derek Anderson and the guy hits the ground five times with a sack. Not much better of an option, and this team looks in serious trouble moving forward. They have been unable to establish the run game all year and cannot seem to get Larry Fitzgerald as involved as he needs to be.
Let's take a look at their schedule the rest of the way out:
Realistically, I see them winning one, two, or maybe three of their remaining games. They can probably steal one of four vs. the 49ers or Seahawks, but I don't see them getting two splits out of these division opponents. I think the Rams team Arizona meets in Week 13 will be much better than the one they barely got by in Week 1, and I expect the Rams to take care of business with Sam Bradford playing well. Looking out of division, the only possible wins I see are vs TB (who I'm not sold on at 2-1) and at Carolina.
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Man, did these guys look bad vs. St. Louis on Sunday! This is a hard team to figure out. A blowout vs SF to open the season and a quality win vs SD was impressive. Outside of California opponents, we've seen a different team. Also, the San Diego game wasn't going to be a win without Leon Washington taking back two kicks on special teams meaning this team could easily be 1-3.
Hasselback is well past his prime, as his 4:6 TD to INT ratio and passing at just above 200 yards a game is showing. Meanwhile, this team cannot establish an identity on the ground. Forsett is clearly the feature back moving forward, but he has generally looked unimpressive. The continual shakeups at receiver are not helping the pass game establish its identity either.
As for the defense, they are pretty decent. However, pretty decent doesn't win you division titles unless you have an offense like the 2009 Saints to compensate for it. And even then, that Saints defense overcame its issues by making big plays and causing a lot of turnovers, something this Seahawks defense has not been able to do much of this year. This team is on the right track, but they are still a couple years away from being good. But they might be good enough in this division; I'm not counting anyone out except for the Cardinals.
The Seahawks schedule plays out as follows:
@ Chi- winnable if Cutler sits and still winnable if he plays. Won't be easy but the Seahawks have a shot here.
@ Oak-60% chance of victory
KC-35% chance of victory
Car-70% chance of victory
@SF-playing inspired, desperate, and vengeful, SF takes this game.
St. L- Rams have got Seattle's number as they complete the sweep
So, record should fall anywhere between 6-10 and 9-7. I got them pegged for 8-8.
St. Louis Rams
How much better is this team than you thought they would be? They already have as many wins as last year and thinks are looking up for the first time in the post-Kurt Warner era. Marc Bulger never turned out to be the answer and the Rams found Sam Bradford to be the guy who would make them remember days when this team put up more offense than any team in the league. Bradford looks scary good for a guy who only has a quarter of a season under his belt, connecting with an ensemble cast of receivers who seem to be outplaying their abilities at this point. Whether this offense can keep it up remains to be seen. A healthy Steven Jackson will be key if they want to make a serious run at a playoff spot.
The defense has also looked surprisingly good, pressuring quarterbacks into making mistakes all season long. They currently rank 18th in pass defense and 21st against the rush and I expect them to improve both of their rankings to eventually sit middle of the pack in the league. This team is already playing well above the expectations that were set for them this summer, and they are buying into Coach Steve Spagnuolo's philosophy. They have a legitimate shot to win the division this year and will be in contention for it for years to come.
Here's what lies ahead for the upstart Rams:
I have them beating Tampa Bay, Carolina, Arizona, and Seattle. Throw in one more win somewhere on the schedule and I have the Rams finishing at 7-9. I think by the time they meet San Fran the 49ers will have figured some things out and will be playing more like the team we thought they would be rather than the team they have been. That's a big reason why I have the Niners beating the Rams twice.
As for some other games that may require my rationale in order to support my argument, I like Detroit this upcoming weekend because even at 0-4, they have looked good hanging with quality teams like Minnesota and Green Bay. Their offense is very talented and I don't think the Rams have the weapons to win a shootout. Kansas City may not be as good as their current record indicates (best in NFL) but this is a team getting production from all over the roster that figures to be clicking with great efficiency by Week 15. Denver has Kyle Orton throwing the ball all over the place and needs to establish some sort of a run game to be a legitimate playoff team but I think they are better than the Rams at this point.
San Francisco 49ers
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On paper, the best team in this division. Based on execution, one of the worst teams in the league. Based on unforced errors, the very worst team in the league. The 49ers are no stranger to shooting themselves in the foot, as they showed time and time again Sunday (looking at you Nate Clements and Alex Smith). What can this team do to get it turned around?
Coach Mike Singletary may not be one of the better coaches in the league based on football knowledge, but he knows how to motivate young men and is the kind of guy who can will an 0-4 team to turn it around. The 49ers killed themselves in the opener against Seattle by not getting plays in on time and taking stupid penalties. Against Atlanta, they used an exorbitant amount of bonehead plays to lose the game. The self-made troubles stop now and this team starts to look like the machine it should be.
Here's what the 49ers have to do to snatch this division from the jaws of defeat:
Phi- With Michael Vick most likely not playing and the 49ers in what is essentially a must-win at this early point in the season, the boys in red and gold step up at home.
Oak- Not a bad team but 49ers are better. Playing inspired off big win vs. Philly, they keep building momentum with win over Bay Area rivals.
@ Car- not a good team. 49ers should win.
Denver, St. Louis, Tampa. Get these three in a row with two at home (all three technically have SF listed as the home team but they meet Denver in England), no reason they shouldn't take two with crowd behind them coming off consecutive wins.
@Green Bay- 49ers seem to play good teams tough but Lambeau in December will prove too much. Packers win.
Play one game each against three division opponents and also play San Diego. Assuming that the San Diego game is a loss, the 49ers need to rally and win their three divisional matches here to go 9-7 and take the division.
It's rare to see a team start so bad and make the playoffs, but if there was ever a team put in a more favorable situation to do so, it's the 2010 San Francisco 49ers.
So The Final Standings Are....
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San Fran 9-7
St. Louis 7-9
Arizona 4-12 (missing that kindly old gentleman pictured at left quite a bit)