Patrick WIllis is one of the elite players in the NFL, and one reason why many consider the 49ers the most talented team ion the NFC West.
Predictions, prognostications and hunches come down to one thing: No one knows anything.
If anyone—from player to coach to so-called “expert” to fan—could predict a team’s chances in the upcoming season with a regular high-degree of accuracy, there’d be no reason to watch or care. Since no one can or does, the NFL plays out its games. That is, if there is no lockout.
Assuming that the owners and players will work out a new agreement, we can assess the chances from afar. Still, so much is unknown, such as what free agents end up where, whose injury from 2010 lingers in 2011 and what budding star is ready to burst on the scene.
Nonetheless, there seems to be consistent consensus that the NFC West is the weakest sister among the eight NFL divisions. After all, a sub-.500 team, Seattle, made the playoffs with a 7-9 record last year.
Of course, just to show you how unpredictable the NFL can get, Seattle promptly upset the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs.
The Saints were far from the team that vanquished Indianapolis some 11 months earlier (thank you injury god, who knocked out seven New Orleans running backs).
So we wonder and ponder and guess. For what it’s worth, here are seven reasons why the 49ers">San Francisco 49ers will win the NFC West in 2011.
One thing about being an avid fan: We watch every game, so we see every mistake. Over time, that can build up to an impressive perception that the team is just not that good.
And though we follow the game thoroughly and know the stats, we still don’t see as much of the other teams, even those within the division.
That said, the first step to making the playoffs is to win the division. But looking over the 2010 season, the Niners scored 41 points less than their opponents. What does that mean?
First, the offense scored 19.1 points per game, ranking 24th. The defense gave up 21.6 per game, ranking 16th. The differential of 2.6 per game ranks them 20th.
Compare the minus-41 with Seattle (-97), Arizona (-145) and, finally, St. Louis (-39). Compared to the rest of the division, the Niners are very close.
With that in mind, however, it should be noted that the Rams of 2009 had a points differential of minus-261, so to knock it down to minus-39 shows amazing improvement. That means the Rams might be the team to watch.
Sam Bradofrd of the Rams
Back to the “see every game” theme, and what that can mean for fans or detractors of Alex Smith, there’s this to consider: He was the second-best quarterback by rating in the division for 2010, with an 82.1 mark. That helped raise his career rating to 72.2.
Of course, that ranks slightly below the median in the NFL. But in the NFC West, he’s second only to Matt Hasselbeck of Seattle (82.2).
But in 2010, Hasselbeck’s rating was 73.2. So, Seattle struggled at the QB position as well. And so did Arizona, with Derek Anderson finishing the season as the Cardinals’ leading passer, but with only a 65.9 rating.
Of course, one of the bright stars in the NFL is St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford, who in his rookie year held up well to be the division’s top QB rating at 85.1.
Ray Lewis of Baltimore
The NFC West gets to play the AFC East this year, but the way the schedule works out, there are certain matchups that stand out.
For many, the ascendant Rams appear ready to be crowned the preseason division favorite. And yet, here are the first seven games for the Rams:
Eagles (home), Giants (road), Ravens (home), Redskins (home), Packers (road), Cowboys (road), Saints (home). Right now, all things being equal, those non-division games shake down to a 1-6 record. Perhaps too much to overcome?
That’s why they play the games.
At 313 yards per game last year, the 49ers hardly ranked as an offensive powerhouse. They were 24th in the league and averaged 19.1 points per game.
And yet they were better than their NFC West opponents:
No. 26 St. Louis—302.9, 18.1
No. 28 Seattle—297.9, 19.4
No. 31 Arizona—269.3, 18.1
Is that reason for hope? Perhaps not. But it does show that the 49ers had the chance to pluck the 2010 division title with just two more wins.
Matt Bryant of the Falcons
Two more wins? I have those two more wins right here. How about October 3, 2010, late fourth quarter, in Atlanta?
Nate Clements intercepts a Matt Ryan pass and heads toward the 49er goal line. He weaves, he dodges, and yet with less than two minutes left, all he had to do was get on the ground.
The 49ers could have burned all, or nearly all the time off the clock, preventing Ryan from mounting a comeback.
Nope. Clements keeps running, and just like that, nightmare ensues: From behind the ball is knocked out of Clements’ grasp. Atlanta recovers. Ryan marches. Matt Bryant kicks a 43-yard field goal to give Atlanta a 16-14 win.
How about September 20, 2010 in Candlestick Park?
Trailing the Saints 22-14, Alex Smith courageously leads the team downfield in the waning seconds. He’s throwing well on the move, and the plays are starting to fall in place. Frank Gore runs it in from 7 yards, and then Smith hits Vernon Davis for the tying 2-point PAT.
Bedlam. Play some defense and then win it in overtime, right?
To make it worse, Garrett Hartley’s 37-yard field goal is blocked by the Niners but still manages to get over the crossbar.
Add in those two games with the rest of the season, and it means 8-8 and the NFC West flag.
The 49ers have them, starting at secondary, quarterback, pass rush, Frank Gore’s health, Michael Crabtree’s attitude, Vernon Davis’ effectiveness and an offensive line that needs to congeal, to say the least.
But then, consider the Cardinals: They have no quarterback. Derek Anderson suffered through inconsistency, poor line play up front and no running game to divert defensive attention.
Head coach Ken Whisenhunt is searching, and the team’s best bet so far seems either to trade for Kevin Kolb of the Eagles or get backup Mark Bulger from the Rams. To do so will take a lot of creativity.
As for the Rams, there is no doubt that they have the quarterback with the most potential in Sam Bradford. Except to make him even better, they need a receiver. Last year, Danny Amendola led the Rams with 85 receptions at a paltry 8.1 yards per catch.
Bradford is talented, but no one in the receiving corps scares defenses. Even though rookie draftee Mark Salas is good, he’s nothing that makes defense step back and say, “Whoa.”
And Seattle, the division’s defending champ. Their quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, is 36 this year. He’s been beaten and he’s been torn. There are rumors that the Cardinals might try to get him. That said, that may not be the Seahawks’ weakness. Health along the defensive line is.
Last year, the front four of Red Bryant, Colin Cole, Brandon Mebane and Chris Clemons is effective, but only Clemons managed to play more than 12 games.
What does that mean? Other teams with any sort of effective offense may be able to control the ball against the Seahawks.
There’s an old adage among coaches.
When they have better players, the fans think they’re better coaches. When they have players that don’t match up to the opponents, then fans think they’re bad coaches.
In other words, in the NFL it comes down to players executing well. There are few trick plays and amazing comebacks. The players are so well coached it comes down to the best rising to the top.
In that vein, it might not be a stretch to say that the 49ers have more overall talent than their division opponents.
Whether the team played like it is another question, but think about it. Willis, Davis, Gore, Smith (Justin), Crabtree, Morgan, et al. As a group, there’s no pocket of talent in the NFC West to match that.
For that matter, the Niners have three players in the NFL Network’s list of Top 100 players in the league, as voted on by other players. They are: Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore. A case can be made that Justin Smith deserves to be in there.
That’s four elite players at key positions. What makes the 2010 season so frustrating was that the team was so close, had the talent but didn’t have the scheme to get the job done.
New coach Jim Harbaugh will do well to get the 49ers to understand that they have an edge in talent. It’s just a matter of playing to their overall ability that will make them NFC West champs in 2011.