LA will prove Rams tough out West
August 29, 2018 3:01 AM
by Bob Christ
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh of eight NFL division previews. The series ends next week with the AFC West.
For the first time in 14 years, the Rams are the choice to win the NFC West, having ended 13 consecutive seasons of non-winning football with a division-best 11-5 mark in 2017.
But, as is often the case, heavy loop favorites such as the Rams (a 5-9 choice) can slip up like Seattle last year (as a 2-7 West pick) and two seasons before (at 1-4). Thus, second-year coach Sean McVay’s club needs to build on its success during a season it faces a first-place schedule that includes games against Super Bowl champion Philadelphia and New Orleans. No other West team has to face those two powerhouses.
Overall, it’s been an unusual offseason in the division. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle all opened at 20-1 to win the Super Bowl on the Westgate Las Vegas board, but LA has gained in popularity and is now a co-favorite with the Vikings to represent the NFC in the title game. San Francisco and Seattle have dipped well behind. Arizona, with rookie coach Steve Wilks, seems almost out of sight with a win expectancy of six games, tied for worst in the league.
Here is how the division figures to play out, with teams listed in order of predicted finish. The odds are courtesy of Westgate Las Vegas:
1. LA Rams (5-9 to win division; 10-1 to win Super Bowl): McVay had a debut for the ages last season when he took a Rams team that hadn’t surpassed a .500 record since 2003 to the West flag, an improvement of seven wins over 2016. The only other rookie coach in history to build a winner so fast after the team had a stretch of at least 10 straight non-winning seasons was Vince Lombardi with the 1959 Packers.
More excellence is expected from the Rams this year, thanks to the emergence of QB Jared Goff, the 2016 overall No. 1 draft pick, and the re-emergence of RB Todd Gurley, who totaled 1,305 rush yards (4.7 norm) and 19 total TDs. And now they’ve added former Saints/Patriots deep threat WR Brandin Cooks.
And LA’s offensive line is one of the best, headed by OLT Andrew Whitworth and C John Sullivan. Thanks in large part to their addition in 2017, LA yielded only 28 sacks. A year earlier, the Rams gave up 25 in the final six games.
The defense, guided by DC Wade Phillips, has immense talent with the signing of DT Ndamukong Suh to a unit that already had standout DT Aaron Donald (holding out). DBs Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib were big-time adds also.
They’ll be asked to help a defense that yielded 4.7 yards a rush last year, tied for second worst in the league. It doesn’t help, though, that their LB corps was stripped clean and the Rams are rebooting there.
Note: The Rams won four games last year by 30-plus points. The other 31 teams combined for eight such routs.
2. Seattle (5-1 div, 60-1 SB): For the first time in five years the Seahawks aren’t recognized as the cream of the crop in the NFC West, coming off a 9-7 season in which the offense revolved almost entirely around QB Russell Wilson, who led the league in TD passes with 34. He also was the team’s runaway rushing leader with 586 yards and three touchdowns, but that’s about to change.
To help the ground game the Seahawks drafted Rashaad Penny in the first round. He rushed for 23 TDs at San Diego State as a senior, 22 more than all the Seahawks RBs had in 2017.
Defensively, the fix won’t be so easy. Standout safety Kam Chancellor and DE Cliff Avril have retired, while cornerback Richard Sherman (now in SF) and DT Michael Bennett (Philly) have moved on.
In order for Seattle to contend for a wild card or better, they’ll have to do more than feast on rookie/backup QBs, against whom they were 4-1 last year. This year they’ll have six games against QBs who finished in the top nine in passer rating last year. That list doesn’t include Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers or Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins.
Note: The schedule isn’t favorable for Seattle, which catches division-winning KC and the LA Rams when they’re off an extended break after playing on a Thursday. And twice the Seahawks play on short rest after a MNF appearance.
3. San Francisco (9-5 div, 30-1 SB): The 49ers’ offseason was flush with hope despite a last-place finish after newly acquired QB Jimmy Garoppolo guided the team to five straight wins to cap a 6-10 season after a 0-9 start.
That stretch gave Garoppolo a 7-0 career mark as a starter, including his brief stint as Tom Brady’s suspension replacement in 2016. But he had only seven TD throws and five INTs in that closing run, so there remain questions especially about his ability to generate TDs instead of settling for FGs. In his starts, the 49ers kicked 18 field goals and were only 7-for-12 scoring touchdowns on first-and-goal possessions.
Garoppolo had good chemistry with WR Marquise Goodwin, who caught 29 of 43 targeted throws from him in Games 12-16. Before that, Goodwin caught only 27 of 62 passes.
The rushing attack, which lost departed veteran RB Carlos Hyde, should be sparked by the acquisition of ex-Vikings all-purpose back Jerick McKinnon, who suffered a sprained knee in early August but should be fine for Week 1.
On defense the unit will need to keep making improvements to the run defense after finishing 22nd in yards allowed in 2017 after being last in 2016 with the worst yield per game (165.9) than any team since 2010.
Note: The 49ers will be looking to become the 23rd team since 2003 to go from worst to first in its division. Only Houston in the AFC South has better division odds than San Francisco.
4. Arizona (10-1 div; 100-1 SB): There’s a whole new look in the desert this year with Wilks taking over for retired Bruce Arians and with Sam Bradford/Josh Rosen set to take over at QB for retired Carson Palmer.
On the up side, the team gets back standout RB David Johnson, who totaled 20 TDs in 2016 but was lost in Game 1 last season with a fractured wrist. On the downside, a partially rebuilt offensive line must be able to protect the brittle Bradford and slow-to-throw Rosen after giving up an NFC-high 52 sacks last year.
On defense, Arizona will have to go without three of its top four tacklers from last season. Maybe Wilks can help there. He was DC at Carolina where they ranked seventh in yards allowed.
Note: The Cardinals have the toughest schedule in the league (tied with Tampa Bay) based on win expectancy for their foes as posted by the Westgate. Last season, Arizona had the easiest slate and finished 8-8.