For the second installment of my eight-part 2010 NFL division-by-division preview I will be taking a look at the NFC West. For each division preview I will preview each team in the division and then at the end I will predict who will win the division and how the other three teams will end up behind them. In this division we have the team with the newest first overall draft pick, two teams on the rise and a team that made it to the Super Bowl the year before last. To read my NFC South division preview (which also contains more detail about this NFL preview series as a whole) click here.
Teams: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams
This division has been dominated by the Cardinals over the last two years with a 10-2 division record during that time, and dominated by the Seahawks the previous four years. Since the league expanded to 32 teams and the resulting division realignment in 2002 the 49ers won it once (2002), the St. Louis won it once (2003), then the Seahawks won it four years in a row (2004-07) and the Cardinals won it the past two year (2008-09). In only two of those years was it truly any sort of a race for the division title, and there has never been the necessity for a tie-breaker to determine the division champs, and on top of that for the majority of that time this division has been considered one the weaker -if not the weakest- division in the league. So needless to say this hasn’t exactly been an exciting division, but I expect that to change this year with the retirement of Kurt Warner, the Niners and Seahawks both having great offseasons and there being new hope for the future in St. Louis.
These teams will be facing the AFC West and NFC South this year.
Arizona Cardinals – I’d say this team is the biggest question mark in the division this year. The toughest part for them is going to be the tough schedule they have. I see them likely going 4-2 in the division – sweeping the Rams and taking one a piece from the Seahawks and 49ers. For their NFC South opponents they have the Saints and Buccaneers at home and travel to play the Falcons and Panthers. They’ll beat the Bucs and lose to the Saints. The away games are two tough opponents anyhow and it’s always hard to travel East so I don’t see them winning either of those, going 1-3. Against the AFC West they host the Raiders and Broncos and travel to Kansas City and San Diego. They should win the two home games, as well as the one in San Diego because each of the past three years the Chargers have developed a reputation of starting the season poorly – each of the past three years they’ve been 2-3 through five games and the Cards play them in Week 4. So actually, the team I have them struggling against out of the AFC West (and I know people are going to criticize me for it) is the Chiefs. I have them losing in KC. I believe Arrowhead Stadium will have it’s once-feared home field advantage back with a rejuvenated and re-energized fan base. That’s 3-1 against the their counterpart division from the AFC. Finally, the huge difference maker, their two remaining games are against the Cowboys and in Minnesota against the Vikings. I don’t think either of these are winnable games especially if Favre decides to come back. That’s an 8-8 season for the defending division champs.
Last year this team went 10-6 to win the division and then downed the Packers in the highest scoring post season game in the history of the league to win their matchup in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. However they got obliterated in the following round by the eventual Super Bowl Champion Saints and then in the offseason starting quarterback Kurt Warner retired, leaving Matt Leinart to lead the offense. They also lost Karlos Dansby (ILB), Neil Rackers (K) and Antrel Rolle (S) to free agency. Plus they traded away Anquan Boldin to Baltimore for a couple of draft picks. Together those players combine for 75 out of a possible 80 starts last season. Last year’s starting left offensive tackle Mike Gandy is also gone, as well as starting left outside linebacker Chike Okeafor. On the other hand they picked up nine-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter, and they added Jay Feely to replace Rackers and Derek Anderson to provide some healthy competition for Leinart. They also swapped a couple of draft picks to get safety Kerry Rhodes from the Jets. In the draft they grabbed defensive tackle Dan Williams in the first round and linebacker Daryl Washington in the second round. Both should be able to push for starting spots this season.
San Francisco 49ers – While the Cards were the biggest question mark, I’d say this Niners team is the smallest. They also have a rough schedule, but they’re much improved from last year. I see them going 5-1 in the division with a sweep of the Rams and Seahawks while trading one with the Cardinals. Like the Cardinals they host the Saints and Bucs but travel to Carolina and Atlanta for their NFC South games, and for the same reasons as the Cardinals I see them finishing 1-3 in those games. For the AFC West, they should beat the Raiders and Broncos when they come to town, but fall in Kansas City and San Diego. Their remaining two games are against the Packers in Green Bay and against the Eagles at home. They play in Green Bay in December which will be extremely tough so I don’t see them winning that one. The Eagles game is relatively early in the season, and against a team that may struggle to find a rhythm early without long time leaders Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook, plus that’s a cross-country trip from Philadelphia making it a game the Niners could scrape a win out of, giving them a record of 9-7 on the year as well.
This team finished 8-8 last season, but went 5-1 in the division which certainly shows some promise. The only player they lost in free agency that is even of slight concern is Dre Bly, who only started six games last year, and they signed Will James Peterson as a free agent to replace Bly. Other than that the Niners didn’t make any significant acquisitions in free agency, but had a great draft. With their two first round picks they grabbed a couple of offensive linemen in Anthony Davis, who is expected to start on the right side of the line, and Mike Iupati, who is the likely starter at left guard. In the second and third round they drafted Taylor Mays (S) and Navorro Bowman (LB) respectively, both of who will be challenging for starting jobs this season. And to top it all off they traded a fifth round pick to the Dolphins for Ted Ginn Jr. who will no longer have the burden of being expected to perform as a primary receiver (like he was in Miami) but instead can use his blazing speed out of the slot as the third receiver in San Francisco – behind Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan, which (just as a heads up) is going to be a scary good receiving trio in a couple years. Alex Smith is is serviceable but when they get a quarterback in there who is truly worthy of being deemed a “franchise quarterback” those three receivers plus Vernon Davis and Frank Gore will make for an extremely dangerous offense, and they already have the most exciting defense in the league.
Seattle Seahawks – I’m intrigued to see what Pete Carroll does with this team. He no longer gets to simply wave a magic wand (interpret that how you want) to get the best players in the country on his team. This team better hope that Aaron Curry starts playing up to all the hype he had as a rookie last year. I understand that it was his first season, but it was definitely disappointing. I expect having a year under his belt will really help and he’ll be much improved this season. I think they’ll likely go 3-3 in the division, sweeping the rams, trading wins with the Cards and losing both matchup against the Niners. With their NFC South opponents they run the risk of getting swept because they have to go all the way from Seattle to Tampa Bay to face the Bucs and the other three are almost certain losses. Their saving grace against Tampa Bay is that the Bucs will likely be out of playoff contention at that point and the Seahawks might still be in the race so I’ll put them at 1-3 against the NFC South. For the AFC West games they will travel to Denver and Oakland and host the Chiefs and Chargers. I see them actually being able to win three of these games, possibly all four. I will have them go 3-1 against the AFC West though. The other two games are a game when they will be hosting the Giants and one where they travel to Chicago to face the Bears. I don’t think they’ll be able to win either of these games giving them a final record of 7-9.
The Seahawks lost Ken Lucas in free agency, who was a six-game starter as cornerback and they released Deon Grant who started all 16 games at safety last year. That would be a pretty big blow to their secondary, however they drafted the safety out of Texas, Earl Thomas with their second first round pick (14th overall) and in the fourth round they got Walter Thurmond, a corner out of Oregon. Thomas should be able to step in and start immediately and Thurmond will at least help fill the hole that Lucas left behind, and has the upside to develop into a solid starter down the road. On the offensive side of the ball Nate Burleson, who started 12 games at wide receiver was lost in free agency, as was Justin Griffith, who started 11 games at full back. With their second round pick the the Seahawks grabbed Golden Tate, the wide receiver out of Notre Dame, who should end up being much more valuable than the Burleson. The most important draft pick for the Seahawks though was first round pick, Russell Okung, the offensive tackle out of Oklahoma State, who is expected to start at left tackle immediately. They also added free agent guards Chester Pitts and Ben Hamilton to improve the offensive line.
St. Louis Rams – The Rams do indeed have hope for the future, but I wouldn’t set the expectations too high for this season. As indicated by the previous three teams, I have them getting swept in the division, going 0-6. As for their NFC South games I think they can beat the Bucs but the chances of winning any of the other three are slim to none. Against the AFC West as predicted in this post, I have them going 2-2, beating the Chiefs at home, beating the Raiders in Oakland and falling to the Broncos and Chargers. The last two games on the Rams schedule are at home against the Redskins and up in Michigan against the Lions. The Redskins should be significantly improved from last year, and while the Lions is a potential game the Rams could hope to win, I just don’t see it happening. This has the finishing the season at 3-13, which if you’re being optimistic is 300% better than last year.
The Rams didn’t lose anybody too terribly important in free agency, but they didn’t bring in any big names either. They had a solid draft, getting new-face-of-the-franchise-quarterback Sam Bradford with the first overall pick, his body guard – AKA: new starting left tackle Rodger Saffold in the second round, a very solid cornerback with Jerome Murphy in the third round, and a potential game changing return man with Mardy Gilyard in the fourth. The Rams are certainly taking steps in the right direction and are building toward the future, but won’t be contending for much of anything just quite yet.
This division certainly won’t be argued as the best of the eight that makeup the NFL but it’s certainly improving. I could see the 49ers, Cardinals or Seahawks taking this division. However when it comes down to it the Seahawks just don’t seem to be quite there yet and they will be dealing with a coaching change, while the Cardinals lost a lot of important players and will be dealing with a starting quarterback change. This give the Niners the best shot at it in my eyes and it was reflected in the record predictions I ended up having. I could see any of the teams in this division winning or losing two (maybe three) more games than what I had projected for them. What’s really sad is that I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if this division is won by a team with a losing record. I’m obviously not predicting that, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it happened either. Though at the same time I wouldn’t be completely blown away if one of these teams ended up with double-digit wins. Either way, this is how my predictions had the teams falling:
1. San Francisco 49ers
2. Arizona Cardinals
3. Seattle Seahawks
4. St. Louis Rams
Let me know what you think in the comments. Next on the list is the NFC East.
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