NFC West Predictions

Posted: 08/30/2014 by levcohen in Football

Now, for the division you’ve all been waiting for: the NFC West, which is nearly universally considered the best in football. This is a division that has four tough defenses, the Super Bowl champions, last season’s two NFC Championship representatives, and the only team with more than eight wins to miss the playoffs (the 10-6 Arizona Cardinals). Last season, the NFC West went 42-22 and 30-10 outside its division. Will it be as good this year? As you’ll see, I don’t think they’ll tally as many wins, but I’d still argue that it’s easily the toughest division in football to play against. Remember, this is a division whose defenses allowed the first, third, sixth, and 11th fewest points allowed this season while outscoring opponents by 359 points. The next best in that department was the AFC West, who outscored opponents by 249 points. Now onto the predictions.

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4): I don’t think the Seahawks will win 13 games again this season, but that’s more because of luck than anything else, as they won two overtime games last season. With that said, I think this team will be nearly as good as the one that cruised to the #1 seed in the NFC and were the eventual Super Bowl champions. Their schedule is tough at first, so don’t be surprised or all that worried if the Seahawks are 2-1 or even 1-2 heading into their week four BYE (they play the Packers home in the first game of the NFL season, before heading to San Diego and returning home to play Denver in a Super Bowl rematch in week three). After the BYE, though, they should start reeling off the wins. This is, after all, pretty much the same team as the one that dominated the league last season. This team won’t always be this stacked with talent, as they’ll eventually have to start paying their young studs (Russell Wilson is the main one, but there are others), but they haven’t had to worry about that yet. The offense, in fact, might be even better. Percy Harvin will presumably play more than a game and catch more than a single pass this season, and, even if he plays less than half the season, he should make a huge impact. With the exception of a departed Golden Tate, the rest of the offensive weapons, headed by Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch, are back, although Lynch is likely to leave after this season. Outside of Harvin the receiving options won’t impress you, but the running game is so potent and Wilson is so good that the offense finished 7th in DVOA last season. With Harvin returning, they should maintain an above-average offense. When you pair that with a defense that will likely be the best in the league again, that’s scary. About that defense: it’s pretty good. You probably realized that in last year’s Super Bowl, when the defense terrorized Peyton Manning en route to a 43-8 (that score is still shocking) thrashing of the Broncos. The core of their terrific defense is all back, from defensive backs Richard Sherman (possibly the best corner in football), Earl Thomas (the best safety in football), Kam Chancellor, and Byron Maxwell to linebackers Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvin to linemen Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. The scary thing? All eight of those guys are between 24 and 28 years old, so each is squarely in his prime. Last year, this team finished 7th in offense, 1st in defense, and 5th in special teams in terms of DVOA en route to being by far the best team in football. I don’t think much has changed, and they should win 12 or 13 games and a first round BYE again this season.

2. San Francisco 49ers (9-7): I already stated my concerns about the 49ers in my “three overrated teams” post, so I won’t really touch on them again. Just a couple things: Colin Kaepernick isn’t a great quarterback and the defense is missing its two best players (NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith) for at least the first half of the season. There’s also this: the 49ers play the Broncos, Saints, and, of course, the Seahawks away from home. Three away games against three of the four best teams in football? That’s tough. The offensive line might also take a step back along with running back Frank Gore. With all that said, I have the 49ers edging out the Cardinals on a tiebreaker and winning the second wildcard spot again. Last year, they won the second wildcard at 12-4. This year, they’ll win it at 9-7 or 10-6. I just don’t think there will be four 12-4 teams in the NFC again this season.

3. Arizona Cardinals (9-7): Poor Cardinals. They are the holders of the: “Best Team To Miss The Playoffs So Everyone Feels Bad For Them” award, and I think they might win that made-up award again this season. This is a pretty talented team. The offensive weapons, in particular, are pretty darn good, especially when compared to their division rivals’ weapons. Running back Andre Ellington is super quick and set to break out this season; last year, he gained 652 yards on just 118 carries, or 5.5 yards per carry. And that was when he was in a timeshare. Quarterback Carson Palmer’s receiving options are also pretty darn good, and this is a team that looks like it’s going to be able to put up some points. Larry Fitzgerald is still Larry Fitzgerald, and he’s joined by Michael Floyd, who’s a great deep threat and is set to break out in his third year, and rookie John Brown, who has already been compared to Marvin Harrison (obviously premature, but still…). The offensive line has also improved from below-average to adequate, as they splurged on left tackle Jared Veldheer and also are counting on the return of last year’s first round pick Jonathan Cooper, who missed all of last season. With all that said, the quarterback is still Carson Palmer. That’s never a good thing, especially for a team with playoff aspirations. With a good quarterback, this team could be 11-5, but Palmer can’t be considered good at this stage of his career. The 34-year-old had a career high 22 interceptions last year next to only 24 touchdowns, so his 4,000+ yards were somewhat hollow. Expect that to be the case again this season as the Cardinals will remain adequate but unspectacular offensively. The defense was a different story, allowing the sixth fewest points in football despite being put in bad positions after Palmer interceptions time after time after time. The secondary will be good again, thanks to a cornerback duo of Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie that might be the best in football. The defensive line should also be good, although the linebackers are a different story. Inside linebacker has always been a huge weakness for the Cardinals, and it will be again this season. With all that said, I don’t think they’ll finish #2 in defensive DVOA again this season, but the secondary, d-lineman Calais Campbell, and ageless wonder John Abraham (36 years old, 11.5 sacks last season) should keep them around the top-5. I really like this team, so I was surprised that I only ended up picking them to win nine games, but this division is just so tough.

4. St. Louis Rams (7-9): Since the Sam Bradford injury, a lot of people have been saying that the Rams are going to fall off a cliff and finish around 5-11. I don’t see it: Bradford missed about half of last year (they were 3-4 when he went down) and the Rams still finished 7-9. Besides, Shaun Hill is a much better quarterback than last year’s backup, Kellen Clemens, is. Some would argue that Hill is better than Bradford. I wouldn’t go that far, because, while he definitely has better stats, he has attempted just 16 passes since 2010 and is now 34-years-old. Still, Hill is a respected backup in this league, and shouldn’t be a train wreck. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have great offensive weapons to work with, so I don’t think this offense will be any better than last year’s, which finished just 22nd in DVOA and 21st in total points. Luckily, the Rams should be able to gain a lot of field position from their special teams, which finished 4th in DVOA last year mostly thanks to the returning skills of Tavon Austin, an exciting and speedy young player who hasn’t yet figured it out as a route runner or pass catcher but definitely has as a returner. The defense, which finished 11th last year, could crack the top 10 this season. The defensive line is absolutely devastating, without a doubt the best in football. People could make a case for the Texans, who have J.J. Watt and Jadaveon Clowney coming from each side, but the Rams are deeper and better over all. Robert Quinn challenged for the NFC DPOY last season with 19 sacks, 12 stuffs and countless quarterback hits, and he’s joined by Chris Long, who has recorded at least 8.5 sacks in each of the past four seasons. There’s also 2012 first round pick Michael Brockers and the guy I’m most excited about, first rounder Aaron Donald. Donald is an absolute beast: in his Pittsburgh career, he had 29 sacks and 66 tackles for loss. He’s also been a monster this preseason, so it’s safe to say that he’s set to be a star. The defensive line is going to put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and protect a relatively weak secondary. The linebacker core is also pretty good, so this is going to be a good defense, albeit not among the elites. The problem is that, with the current state of the offense less than ideal, they’ll probably have to be elite in order to challenge for a playoff spot. I don’t agree with all the doomsday predictions, because I think Hill is competent and the defense is good, but this is unlikely to be a playoff team. Another 7-9 season and top 12ish pick seems like a safe prediction. If Hill is better than expected and some of the weapons (Austin, among others) develop quickly, this could be a nine-win team. They could also be a disaster, unable to put up points in the tough NFC West. I’ll take the middle ground and say they’ll be competitive but eventually come up short in a bunch of games.

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