In the final game of the 2010 regular season, the 6-9 Seattle Seahawks hosted the 7-8 St. Louis Rams in what was surely the single worst “win-and-in” game in the history of professional football.
In that contest, the immortal Charlie Whitehurst led the Seahawks to a 16-6 victory and the NFC West title, as Seattle became the first team to ever win a division with a sub-.500 record.
That game, and that season, was merely the rotten cherry atop an extremely off-putting sundae. In the five-year stretch from 2007-2011, the NFC West failed to produce two teams with records better than 8-8 in the same season, while every other division did it at least once in that span.
The NFC West was an outright laughingstock, and was derided by fans and media alike. For years, it seemed to proudly hold the mantle of “worst division in football,” brandishing a scarlet letter “W” that would have made Nathaniel Hawthorne blush.
But something’s happened in the past few years.
The 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh as their head coach and got really, really good. The Seahawks, behind Pete Carroll and John Schneider, are building a powerhouse in the Pacific Northwest. The St. Louis Rams, with Jeff Fisher and Les Snead running the show, are on the verge of breaking through. And even the hapless Arizona Cardinals are moving in the right direction, with Bruce Arians and Steve Keim now in charge.
Now, the NFC West isn’t even close to being the worst division in football.
In fact, I’ll argue that, in 2013, it’ll be the best.
Let’s examine why.
The best one-two punch
Simply put, no division in football features a better top two teams than the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.
Not the Ravens and Steelers in the AFC North. Not the Texans and Colts in the AFC South. Not the Redskins and Giants in the NFC East. Not the Packers and Vikings or Bears in the NFC North. Not the Falcons and Saints in the NFC South.
None of those duos can match what the 49ers and Seahawks have built, and continue to build.
As always, it’s prudent to start with the quarterbacks, and these two teams possess two of the very best young signal-callers in the league: Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco and Russell Wilson in Seattle.
Both Kaepernick and Wilson were majestic in this year’s postseason, with the former coming within a few yards of a Super Bowl title. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Matt Ryan’s late-game heroics in the divisional round to knock Seattle out of the postseason, we’d all have been treated to a 49ers/Seahawks NFC title game, and that’s certainly what I wanted to see.
Both 53-man rosters are stacked with talent on both sides of the ball, and both teams play a physical, punishing brand of defense that harkens back to a forgotten era.
And then there’s the fact that, right now, San Francisco and Seattle are engaged in the NFL’s version of a Cold War, as each organization seeks to overtake the other.
When the Seahawks traded for the talented but mercurial Percy Harvin, it was a shot directly across the bow of their NFC West rivals. Not to be outdone, the announcement was made a few short hours later that the 49ers had completed a deal for Anquan Boldin, who had torched them in the Super Bowl. Punch, counterpunch.
As of right now, I see both teams winning double-digit games and qualifying for the postseason. I believe that one will end up representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII, and I wouldn’t be stunned if they ended up playing for the NFC championship.
Don’t look now, but the Rams are on the up-and-up
Quick: which NFC West team finished with the best divisional record in 2012?
Nope, not the 49ers. Wrong, not the Seahawks.
It was the St. Louis Rams, who finished 4-1-1 in the division, including a wins at home over both San Francisco and Seattle.
There’s no question that head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead are turning things around in St. Louis. The defense is being improved, and the franchise quarterback, Sam Bradford, is in place. The Rams have two first-round picks in both this draft and next, by virtue of last year’s trade with the Redskins that netted Robert Griffin III for Washington.
I loved the Rams' signing of tight end Jared Cook, who should become the security blanket that Sam Bradford desperately needs. In addition, the Rams have young talent at receiver in Chris Givens and Brian Quick, and will surely add playmaking ability at the position during the draft, giving Sam Bradford his best set of weapons yet.
Plus, it’s impossible to overstate just how important it is for Bradford to be working with the same offensive coordinator for the second year in a row. As Bradford gets set to enter his fourth season, this will be the first time that he won’t have a new system to learn, as Brian Schottenheimer returns as OC. If there were a time for Bradford to make “The Leap,” it’s now.
Based on last season, it’s easy to see that the Rams won’t back down from the 49ers or Seahawks. It makes for a fascinating offseason, and while I expect San Francisco and Seattle to finish one-two in the division, it wouldn’t shock me if the took one of those spots.
The worst team isn’t all that bad
I know that last season the Arizona Cardinals had the worst quarterbacking situation in the history of professional football. Jim Hart or Neil Lomax would have been better options than the pu-pu platter of Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and Ryan Lindley.
Even with that said, the Cardinals are moving in the right direction. The promotion of Steve Keim to general manager was an inspired one; there aren’t many talent evaluators in the league as respected as Keim.
Keim slammed his first head coaching hire out of the park when he tabbed Bruce Arians to be his man. Arians has a successful offensive background, and I expect the team’s quarterback play to improve markedly under his direction.
Plus, they have the requisite pieces on defense to be a potentially dominant unit. Players like Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and Patrick Peterson are all the caliber of player needed to lead a team toward the postseason.
If the Cardinals sign a quarterback like Drew Stanton this offseason and draft another, the position will be significantly better off than it was in 2012.
I’m not saying the Cardinals will qualify for the postseason; they likely won’t. But they are improving, and they’re far from the worst last-place team in the league.
The 49ers and Seahawks are both world-beaters who will qualify for the postseason in 2013.
The Rams are on the upswing, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them make a ton of noise next season.
The Cardinals are reloading, and they are better than you think.
The NFC West will be the NFL’s best division in 2013.
Nick Kostos is the executive producer of the "SiriusXM Blitz," hosted by Rich Gannon and Adam Schein, on SiriusXM NFL Radio. You can follow Nick on Twitter.