The NFC West has become one of the saltier divisions in the league thanks to Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers and Pete Carroll’s Seahawks. Last year, both teams reached the postseason, marking the first time since 2004 this loop sent as many as two squads to the playoffs.
It was only three years ago Seattle won the West with a 7-9 record, the only time in history a team finished first with a losing record. Two years earlier, the four teams went a cumulative 20 games under .500, yet another black mark in the record book for the NFC West.
This season, the defending NFC champion 49ers and Seahawks appear stronger than 2012 thanks in large part to the experience gained by SF quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Seattle’s Russell Wilson. St. Louis and Arizona also are capable of making noise in the wild-card chase.
The feisty Rams went 4-1-1 in the division last season, going 1-0-1 vs. San Fran. In Arizona, the Cardinals fired coach Ken Whisenhunt and replaced him with Bruce Arians. Also, QB Carson Palmer came over from Oakland.
Here’s how the division should play out, with teams listed in order of predicted finish. Odds are furnished by the LVH SuperBook.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (10-11 to win division; 6-1 to win Super Bowl): Although the 49ers don’t appear to have a weakness, they had better not be suffering from a Super Bowl-losing hangover, for their first three foes (Green Bay, Seattle, Indy) all went 11-5 in the regular season last year. It’s the most difficult opening stretch based on last year’s results.
Kaepernick will be starting his first full season at QB after taking over for since-departed Alex Smith. Kaepernick’s norm of 8.32 yards a throw last season was tops in the league, but he’ll be without WR Michael Crabtree (Achilles tendon) for a good part of the season. His 85 catches for 1,105 yards more than doubled any other SF receiver last year. But maybe offseason pickup Anquan Boldin, who led Baltimore in receiving in 2012, can fill that void.
Of course, RB Frank Gore is still around and capable of turning nothing into a blockbuster gain, which he did against KC in a recent exhibition. Defensively, the unit ranked third in the league, yielding only 294.4 yards a game. But it struggled in its final six outings, including the playoffs. That’s when that average ballooned to 387.3, which would have ranked next to worst over the course of a full season.
Note: In what could be the 49ers’ most crucial game of the year, they host Seattle in Week 14. The good news for San Fran is the Seahawks will be working on short rest after hosting New Orleans on Monday Night Football.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (6-5 division; 13-2 SB): Wilson came on like gangbusters last year in leading the Seahawks to the postseason and a road playoff victory over Washington. But he’s going to have to do without WR sensation Percy Harvin, acquired from Minnesota in the offseason. He’s out with a hip injury, which surely will remove some electricity from the Seahawks’ attack.
If Seattle could take its act on the road it would be a load. Last year the Seahawks were the NFL’s sole undefeated team at home, but only 3-5 away from their 12th man. That five-game margin was the greatest for any team.
Note: Seattle has the misfortune of facing three teams coming off Thursday games, tied for most in the league. But at least that’s one fewer than last year’s league-leading four, when they went 3-1 SU/ATS.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (20-1 division; 100-1 SB): The Cards’ quick start this summer, in which they shut out Green Bay and forced six turnovers in a win over Dallas, has caused fans to board the bandwagon. They’re still 100-1 to win the title, but the odds at the SuperBook were 300-1 three weeks ago.
Offensively, Palmer (8-17 as a starter in Oakland) will indeed be an upgrade over last year’s four-headed monster that steered Arizona to its closing 1-11 death spiral. But since the offensive line was an even weaker link than the QBs, how will the cement-footed Palmer hold up torrents of pressure? Arizona’s 3.4 yards a rush, meanwhile, was the worst average in the league the past three seasons. So, it’s unlikely Steelers castoff Rashard Mendenhall will trigger a turnaround.
Note: The addition of disruptive DB Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu to a defensive unit that had the second most interceptions last season (22) gives Arizona a fighting chance to stay in games despite offensive limitations.
ST. LOUIS RAMS (15-2 division; 40-1 SB): Coach Jeff Fisher did wonders to make the youthful Rams competitive (7-8-1). The team showed it was responsive to Fisher when it came off a 38-point loss to the Patriots by next playing the 49ers to a 24-24 tie in SF.
However, now the Rams will see how they’ll fare without RB Steven Jackson, from Las Vegas, and his eight straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons. They also lost their top two WRs – Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson.
Note: No matter how good the Rams turn out to be, they still will be facing the toughest road schedule in the league (based on last year’s records), with their foes having a cumulative .613 winning percentage. By contrast, San Francisco’s road opponents are at .434.
Next week: AFC West
“Popular” Bob Christ has been forecasting Professional Sports games for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in newspapers from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. Contact him at [email protected].