NFC West’s status as an elite division in the NFL was disputed for some time. However, these times are long gone and the Monday Night Football thriller Seahawks 27-24 overtime win over the 49ers only further proved that.
After a game that will most probably end up as a candidate for Game of the Year, the intrigue out West is anything but gone. San Francisco currently holds a slim half-a-game lead over Seattle, while also having a tough schedule and facing the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field in Week 16. The Seahawks, who haven’t won the NFC West in three seasons, have had their hope kept by a truly sensational Russell Wilson, who has the best TD-Int. ratio in all of football at 23-2. Their defence, and Jadeveon Clowney in particular, made a statement surely heard ‘round the league in primetime.
The Rams, meanwhile, haven’t been the spectacle we witnessed last season. Without Todd Gurley being good from the backfield, the offense has been inconsistent, as proven in their latest loss in Pittsburgh. Their defense hasn’t done its job unless the front line puts pressure on the QB – something that’s occurred very sporadically in the last few weeks.
NFC West could treat us to what the NFC South treated us to two years ago, sending three teams to the playoffs, putting the Saints and the Panthers against each other for the third time in the 2017 season. The West, which has two of the most impressive teams playing in it, could have something even bigger in store.
We kept hearing how the 49ers weren’t for real because of the teams they beat, but the blowout victory against the red-hot Panthers seemed to wipe those thoughts out. After SF’s first loss, they don’t have the most impressive record anymore. According to PlayOffStatus.com, the Niners’ opponents had an average winning percentage of 44%, third-worst only to the Giants and the Cowboys.
The 8-2 Seahawks have had the toughest schedule with 50%, beating divisional opponents Rams and 49ers in primetime, and losing to divisional leaders in New Orleans and Baltimore. While that might be the bright take, they had a tough time with the Browns and the Bucs, and have had exactly two games with a difference of two or more possessions – 14-point loss to Baltimore and 17-point win at Arizona.
It was all smiles in LA for the first three weeks of the season – the Rams started 3-0 while putting up 30 points on a solid Carolina defense and crushing the Saints Revenge Tour at the LA Coliseum. A mighty downfall followed – they have lost 3 of their last 5, allowed 55 to Tampa Bay (the Bucs offense is good, credit where it’s due) and lost their only divisional games, with Jared Goff throwing a game-clinching interception in Seattle and passing for just 78 yards of passing in LA’s 20-7 home loss to SF.
The only positives result-wise came from a three-game winning streak – wins over Bengals, the Falcons and the Giants, with Kyler Murray leading a game-winning drive in the latter one. Arizona is 3-3-1 in one-possession affairs.
Strength of remaining schedule
Arizona: .618 (1st)
San Francisco: .614 (2nd)
Seattle: .598 (4th)
Los Angeles Rams: .591 (5th)
The four NFC West teams are all represented in the top 5 of the NFL’s toughest schedules remaining. That has something to do with three of them being good, but also with the West facing AFC North (which now includes the uprising Steelers) and NFC North. The 49ers’ Week 13 clash with Green Bay is the team’s toughest game while Seattle will have to face another North side on MNF in Minnesota, the 9th-best scoring offence in the league.
Biggest questions each team faces
Can the Seahawks defence keep it up?
Even with the addition of Clowney, the Seahawks have been pretty average on that side of ball, allowing the tenth-most points per game. That certainly wasn’t the case on Monday Night, when Clowney had one of two defensive TDs for Seattle on a night when they took the ball away 3 times. In 5 of their 6 remaining games, they only face offensive units in top 15 in scoring, peaking at 4th (49ers) and bottoming at 13th (Eagles).
Are the Rams good enough for a Wild Card spot?
This is a very complicated question, especially in a wildly stacked NFC once again. In the AFC, the Rams would have been a single game behind the top wild card spot. Instead, now they’re trailing the Vikings by two for the second berth in the NFC. The 5-4 Eagles and the 5-4 Panthers have much easier schedules, while the reigning conference champions have only one game against a possible contender for a wild card spot – on the road in Dallas.
Should the Niners be wary of upsets against Cardinals, Falcons?
San Francisco faces some of the best teams in the league throughout the remainder of their campaign, making visits at Baltimore and Green Bay. However, their season-spoilers could turn out to be the two easiest games – their next clash at home vs. the Cards and their Week 15 game vs. the Falcons.
Arizona gave Kyle Shanahan’s team a real run for their money in Glendale, as the Cardinals have also done so against teams such as the Ravens and the Buccaneers. The Falcons just last week put an end to the Saints’ seven-game winning streak. Late in the season that could be the ending sequence in San Fran’s division crown hopes.
What are the goals for Arizona in 2019, 2020?
Cardinals are clearly rebuilding coming off a 3-13 2018 campaign and with a new play-caller on the sidelines, and could probably be satisfied by the direction of their rebuild. On the other hand, Arizona have missed some chances to have an even better record and confirm the positives, if not battle for something out of this season.
In order for them to carry this spark into 2020, they need to invest in their receiving corps and look into their passing defense, which has allowed less yards than only Tampa Bay. CB Patrick Patterson might be on his way out, despite the Cardinals strongly refusing to have had such discussions.
Key weeks and games
Week 11: Cardinals at 49ers
If San Francisco wants to solidify its position before the going really gets tough, they need a big bounce back game at home against Arizona. Last time out the 49ers won a very close game on TNF, with Jimmy Garoppolo showing his brilliance even without the best of his running game. However, his problems under pressure have been pretty obvious all season long, and could turn out to be an issue against a Cardinals front line, which ranks 9th in sacks with 27.0.
Week 12 around the National Football League is going to be something. That statement possesses an even bigger meaning within the NFC West. The 49ers will have to defend their position in an all-or-nothing game against the 8-2 Green Bay Packers while the Seahawks visit Philadelphia. On Monday Night the Rams will be looking to keep their season alive versus the Ravens.
Week 13: 49ers at Ravens
The nightmare stretch for the Niners continues. This time it’s an early-window visit to M&T Bank Stadium and a Ravens team that is just flying with Lamar Jackson at QB. The 49ers have the weapons to limit his success on the ground but Baltimore still has a lot of weapons to both mix up the running game and provide help for the run-threat playmaker.
Week 15: Rams at Cowboys
As we already noted, that might possibly be LA’s only head-to-head against a wild card competitor. If the Cowboys slip out of first place in the East, the game in Arlington will have tons of repercussions. The Rams beat the Cowboys in the Divisional Round in January en route to their first, and most probably lone, Super Bowl appearance of the decade.
Week 16: 49ers at Seahawks
Does the race for the West stay close down the stretch, this game could compete with SF-SEA from this past week for the Game of the Year. Unless either of the two sides suffers a shocking losing streak, or perhaps some injury woes, this matchup is going to determine one of the two top seeds in the NFC.