2011 NFL Predictions by Division: NFC West
The NFC West has been the worst division in NFL history since the league went to its current format of four divisions per conference in 2002.
In only one season have the teams finished with a combined record of .500 or better—in 2003 they were two games up. In the seven years since then, they have had five seasons finishing 12 or more games below and are 179-269...fewer than two wins for every three losses.
No other division has more than four combined losing records in those seven years (the AFC West). Two divisions (NFC East and AFC North) have just one losing composite record in that span.
Last season, the NFC West became the first division in NFL history to be won by a team with a losing record.
But it is also one of the most competitive divisions. Whereas the NFC North (see previews on provided link) has been dominated by the Green Bay Packers, every team has won the NFC West at least once after realignment.
They have not been without playoff success, either. Even last year's 7-9 division champion Seattle Seahawks won a playoff game, something all four teams had already done since realignment. The Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals even have NFC Championships.
This season is no different in either sense: All four teams could win the division, and all four could finish below .500. Both could even happen at once.
The following is the order I pick the teams to finish and why...
St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams nearly won the NFC West last season, coming within one play at the right time in the season from an 8-8 record. But they lost three of their last four, including the deciding game in Seattle.
The Rams did not make a lot of major improvements in the offseason, mostly bolstering an already good backfield. But neither did anyone else, and rookie Sam Bradford should get better.
St. Louis has the best running back in the division (apologies to Frank Gore, but he is not as durable) as well as probably the best quarterback. Those are the only two positions that generate league MVPs because they are the most important, and it will be just enough to flip the script and get them the division on the final game of the season.
If the Rams are going to reverse last season's results by winning the division on the last week, that means the Niners just barely miss out. So why are the Arizona Cardinals ahead of them?
Because that is how tight the division will be. San Francisco will go into the last week of the season with a chance to win the division, but in falling short, Arizona will take second place. The difference can be seen in the opponent in the NFC South: San Francisco has Detroit, while Arizona has Carolina.
If the Rams do not have the best quarterback in the division, Arizona does. The Cardinals gave up both a second-round pick and best cornerback, either of whom should be sufficient for a quarterback with only seven NFL starts and a losing record who was not taken until the second round.
Still, the Cards knew if they did not make the trade, they would not re-sign the league's best receiver, Larry Fitzgerald. Then the team would lose some of the battle for support in a state made up largely of fans of the Dallas Cowboys and the Midwest teams of their birthplaces.
Now they can only hope the gamble pays off. There is no doubt the two will partner well, but the rest of the offense is not very good: Beanie Wells and LaRod Stephens-Howling give them capable but unproven backs, but the offensive line needs work and they have lost a 1000 yard receiver two years in a row.
If their defense had gotten better, they would still win this division. But they lost one of the best players from a unit that finished 29th in yards allowed last year with an easier schedule than they will have this season.
San Francisco 49ers
No team in the NFL was as hurt by the lockout as the San Francisco 49ers.
With a new coach and two new coordinators, there was an entire system the players had less time to digest. More draft picks have to be counted on because the team struggled, and they now have to adapt not only to a new system but a higher level of competition.
And then there is Alex Smith. While technically more experienced than all other division quarterbacks combined, most of that experience is bad.
He has been in the absolute wrong situation in San Francisco, and now it is perpetuated. He has to learn a seventh offense in seven years, and he is the worst kind of quarterback (thinker rather than instinctive) for that.
At least they finally surrounded him with some receiving talent and a coach who does not smother an offense. But because he was technically a free agent, he could not take snaps the first couple days of camp. Sure, he had the playbook early enough for player-led workouts, but that offered no opportunity for coaches to give him much needed guidance or learn his strengths and weaknesses in this offense.
Because of being behind in the curve, I am predicting the Niners will enter the bye week with a losing record. Even in this division, they are not a good enough team to overcome that.
Tarvaris Jackson takes over for Matt Hasselbeck as quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks.
Jackson may have gotten Sidney Rice to come with him out west, but has far less receiving talent than he used unsuccessfully in Minnesota.
Jackson is a capable quarterback and a very good backup. But at best, you want him competing for the starting position with a young signal-caller who might not be ready.
While that may not be much of a step down, the rest of the division got better.
The Cardinals have a real quarterback, if one with an uncertain potential. The Niners will receive coaching at every position for the first time in nearly a decade. The Rams are developing young talent and almost beat Seattle last season.
With a tougher schedule, Seattle would do well to finish with the same record as last year. That may still not be enough to keep them from the cellar.