I obviously saved the best division in the NFL for last. It’s only appropriate that I do so, right? You have two bonafide contenders and at least one sleeper team lurking in the shadows. The only question is, who is the said sleeper the St. Louis Rams or the Arizona Cardinals? The Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers will probably battle for the best record in the NFC, probably even the entire league. It seems like ages ago when the NFC West was the laughingstock of the entire league. However, since then, and that was only in 2010, this division has turned into the best in the business. Welcome to parity in the NFL.
Will the Seahawks’ passing attack be better than it was last year?
History tells us it could, if that smash-mouth attitude towards pulverizing anything that stands in their way continues to show up week in and week out. But will it? I’m confident that it will but I’m also throwing out a loose caveat that it probably won’t matter. The Legion of Boom remains intact with the only departure being Brandon Browner taking his talents east to New England. Likewise, the front seven will continue to be formidable against opponents. And I’m not discounting the fact that Seattle’s 12th man will continue to be a huge factor at home. My concern lies in the offense, not so much with any individual decline, but the totality of it. Last year, the Seahawks ranked fourth in the league in rush offense and pretty much carried the load because the passing offense was 26th in the league. This year, I think the Seahawks running attack will decline immensely, forcing Russell Wilson to start throwing the ball to…wait, who exactly are Seattle’s receivers? Okay, I’m kidding. Percy Harvin is still there but he will he be healthy enough to last an entire year? Don’t sleep on the loss of Golden Tate either. Outside of Harvin, Wilson’s only reliable target are Doug Baldwin, tight end Zach Miller and running back Marshawn Lynch. I hate to disappoint Seahawks fans but I’m not exactly confident in a receiving corp that features the likes of Arceto Clark, David Gilreath and Jermaine Kearse. If the Seahawks have a shot at replicating that magical run last year, there a need to be have an improvement somewhere. The only place that can happen is with the passing game but I’m not sure Wilson has enough weapons to make it happen.
Can Colin Kaepernick live up to his shiny new contract?
Kaepernick got paid in the offseason so now the spotlight turns to him and whether he can justify the massive contract handed to him by team management. I probably like Kaepernick more than most people do. He’s a dual threat that can make smart decisions and plays with a poise you normally don’t see from a quarterback with his age and stature. But his passing still needs a lot of work, which is critical if the team wants to preserve the legs of running back Frank Gore. Kaep has arguably the best offensive line in the league to give him some time. He also has a pretty stout receiving corp that now includes Stevie Johnson. I like Johnson’s skills and he’s got the tools to be a go-to-wideout if he spends less time blaming God for his dropped passes. But none of that matters if Kaepernick can’t improve on his passing accuracy. That would be a shame when you have receivers like Johnson, Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, and tight end Vernon Davis to throw to. I think Kaepernick will be better this season, even if my faith in him has somewhat wavered in the past. Time to step up, No. 7.
Can the Arizona Cardinals win with Carson Palmer at quarterback?
Last season was an admittedly good year for the old man Carson. He stood long enough to play all 16 games, which is a modern marvel in its own right. He also managed to pass for over 4,200 years and 24 touchdowns, which are good numbers for a QB. But he also threw 22 picks and lost another three balls to fumbles. That wave of inconsistency, coupled with questions on the running attack, could prevent Arizona from making any serious threat in the NFC West. That’s going to put the onus on Palmer to stay upright for another full season. He’s got one of the best receivers in Larry Fitzgerald to throw to and don’t sleep on Michael Floyd. The kid oozes with talent and showed it off for a large part of last season. The addition of Ted Ginn Jr. will also help open things up for Palmer. But that lack of a running attack will become a huge cause for concern if it doesn’t improve from now until the start of the season. It’s a shame, really, because that offensive line came on strong last year but it probably won’t matter too much in the running game without a back that can bust open for long runs. The Cardinals defense will be stout this year that much I’m sure of. But it does seem like the season will ride on Palmer’s arm again, but I’m not sure we’re going to see him play the whole year. Then again, at least they have Ryan Lindley, Drew Stanton, and Logan Thomas as backups. Oh, wait…
Will Sam Bradford’s contract year be a good thing or a bad thing for the Rams?
Let me put it this way: if the Rams were in the, say, AFC South, they’d be contending with the Indianapolis Colts for that division title. Unfortunately, they find themselves in a division that also includes the Seahawks, the 49ers, and the Cardinals. In short, that’s three of the best defenses in the league playing a significant part of a schedule against a quarterback (Sam Bradford) who can’t seem to stay healthy long enough to justify the massive contract he received as a former number 1 overall pick. It might sound cliché to once again point to a quarterback as the biggest thing that’s tied to a team’s success but the applies with the Rams this year the same way it did last year and probably moving forward as long as Bradford is under center. The good news is that Bradford is in a contract year, which is incentive enough on its own for him to play the best season of his career. The bad news is that Bradford is in a contract year, which could also end up with him forcing his throws too much and getting hurt again at some point in the season. At some point, I think the Rams need to start over with a new quarterback if Bradford bombs this year. That’s the only way to move forward since the team already has a lot of pieces in place, especially with that defense, to rise up the ranks in the NFC West.
The Seattle Seahawks have an over/under win total of 11 wins. The San Francisco 49ers are at 10.5 wins. I’m going be a contrarian for once and say that the 49ers will win more games than the Seahawks this season. They’ll also win the NFC West by doing that if you’re still with me. Here’s why: Seattle caught a lot of breaks on the road last season that vaulted their record to 6-2 away from Seattle. I’m not sure that’s going to happen again this year. The competitiveness of the NFC West will also play a part in it because I don’t see automatic wins for Seattle in any of its division road games. On the contrary, I think San Francisco will have the better record on the road compared to Seattle. Outside of the three division games, they have Denver, Dallas, New Orleans, the New York Giants, and Oakland. That’s a 3-2 record at worst. If they can get that record, I think the 49ers can reach at least 11 wins in the NFC West, the same total I have Seattle getting in its best-case scenario.
Meanwhile, both the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams have an O/U line of 7.5 wins apiece. I’ll make it short here: I like the Cardinals to win at least 8 games and the Rams to probably peak at 7.
If you want value, you can toss a coin between Seattle (11/10) and San Francisco (5/4) to win the NFC West. It’s likely going to go down between those two teams anyway. Meanwhile, the Cardinals and the Rams are 8/1 apiece, which seems low St. Louis and high for Arizona if Palmer and the passing game continue to thrive under Bruce Arians. I have no issues with both defensive units. I just have a little more faith in Arizona’s passing attack than I do in St. Louis.
The Seattle Seahawks are the favorites to win the Super Bowl at 6/1 odds while the 49ers are close behind at 7/1 odds. Again, this is really a matter of picking which team you’re more comfortable with. Remember, San Francisco was an errant Kaepernick throw away from beating the Seahawks in the NFC title game last season. It’s only appropriate that both teams get to do it again this year, right? For all the marbles? Should that happen, I see San Fran closing the deal against its rivals, which probably means that I like those 7/1 odds better than Seattle’s 6/1 odds.
As much as I like the Cards and to a lesser extent the Rams this year to make some noise in the division, they’re not winning the Super Bowl with Carson Palmer and Sam Bradford so cross off those 50/1 and 55/1 odds, respectively.
Predicted Order of Finish
Give me the 49ers to edge the Seahawks in the last few weeks of the season to win the NFC West. Arizona could make a run for it, but it probably won’t last long, or at least long enough until Palmer to start throwing some ducks, same with St. Louis. I wish Bradford all the luck and good health in the world this season. I just don’t think it’s going to matter in the big picture.
1. San Francisco
4. St. Louis