Even though we are three weeks into the regular season, the NFL still is refusing to give the NFC West the respect that it deserves. For a minute, the San Francisco 49ers were the darlings of the league, but now it seems as though they have fallen from grace after their upset loss to the vastly underrated Minnesota Vikings. The West appears to the be the gem of the NFC and, possibly, the most competitive division in the NFL. In a majority of the power rankings released earlier in the week, analysts have, at least, the Cardinals and 49ers in the Top 10, while some even have Seattle cracking into that top tier. So, within the NFC West how do the teams stack up?
1. Arizona Cardinals (3-0, 1-0)
The Arizona Cardinals looked to have quietly stolen the blueprint for the San Francisco 49ers’ 2011 success and implemented it perfectly this season. They are winning tough games with an unstoppable front seven, impressive secondary play, and a move-the-chains, balanced offensive attack. Even without an offense, the Cardinals have put up at least 20 points each week, which seemed unlikely given the injuries to Beanie Wells and the one-time starting quarterback, John Skelton. Say what you want about the San Francinco team from last season or their dramatic, season-opening win on the road at Green Bay, but the Cardinals are 3-0 this season. They have played against arguably better talent than 49ers and are the only team with a win in the division. More importantly, they are winning the close game, the games that are boiling down to the finals seconds, which should only be improved with the return of Beanie Wells and the apparent emergence of Kevin Kolb as an adequate, Alex Smith-like quarterback.
2. San Francisco 49ers (2-1, 0-0)
It is hard to argue that a team without the best record in a division should still be considered the best team in the division, but the 49ers could easily make a case for it. San Francisco is hammering away on the ground, and tearing people up on the defensive side of the ball. However, we have heard for weeks about the toughness and physicality of the defense, and never once heard about some of the deficiencies as a team.
The 49ers defense, while potent, is still allowing teams to convert on 45.2% of third downs, have only caused 4 turnovers in three games, and only recorded 5.0 sacks on the season. To make matters worse, their all-star middle linebacker Patrick Willis is currently struggling through injury, although he will undoubtedly continue to play. Against the Minnesota Vikings, they could not stop the possession-oriented passing of Christian Ponder, and allowed 146 yards of offense on the ground alone. Much like the rest of the division, when the defense is not clicking on all cylinders, the offense cannot compensate through putting points on the board. Unlucky for them in this weeks’ rankings, the Cardinals have yet to make any of those mistakes, which is why they get the top spot.
3. St. Louis Rams (1-2, 0-0)
WHAT?!?!?! The St. Louis Rams may be the only team in the NFC West that isn’t being talked about by the mainstream, NFL media. When they do, it is typically reading the box scores or murmuring some sarcastic comment about how it is the “same ‘ol,” Rams not being about to close out games. Even after a win against the beloved Washington Redskins, the only players that received attention were Josh Morgan for throwing the ball at Cortland Finnegan’s face and RGIII, even though he had a terrible game when he actually attempted to throw the football instead of run it.
If you have actually watched any of the Rams’ games, you would know that their secondary is as good as any team right now in the NFL. St. Louis is tied for 5th in the league in interceptions and seen only two rushing attempts for over 20 yards by opposing ball carriers. The defense has given up only two passing touchdown on the year, while allowing opposing offenses to convert only 33.3% of their third down (T-8th). For comparison, the much-hyped Seahawks’ defense has allowed a 44.7% third down efficiency (22nd) and the 49ers have allowed 45.2% (23rd). Although they have allowed 5 rushing scores on the ground, two of those rushing touchdowns were the direct result of a idiotic penalty by the special teams (Mario Haggan’s roughing the punter against Chicago) on third down or a obvious missed call by the refs (holding on Finnegan, allowing RGIII to rush for this first touchdown).
Defense aside, the Rams have shown that they can keep games close against tough opponents and fight through adversity to get a “W”. After Week 2, Sam Bradford and Danny Amendola led, or where nearly leading, every important category in the passing game (i.e. quarterback rating, completion percentage, receptions for first downs, etc.). Had the Rams stayed with the running game against the Bears, we may be talking about a completely different team this week, which I am sure they have been discussing in the locker room all week.
After the NFL admitted the clock management error in the Detroit game that forced the Rams to take an additional timeout before the two minute warning, wasting a valuable down when the Lions had only one timeout to stop the clock, St. Louis should really be sitting at 2-1, in the same place as the ‘Hawks. Regardless, they have shown at least some competency on the offensive side of the ball against some of the most dominant front sevens in the league, while putting up similar, or better, defensive numbers to the rest of the division.
4. Seattle Seahawks (2-1, 0-1)
I honestly believe that the Seattle Seahawks deserved the win over the Green Bay Packers, regardless of the “Inaccurate Reception” call in the end zone. However, I do think that the Seahawks have been, and remained to be, one of the more overrated teams in the NFL right now. Not saying that they are in the lower tier of the league by an means, but their wins have not been all that impressive so far in the season. The Green Bay Packers, although still touted as one of the best team in the NFL, has already dropped two games to NFC West opponents, and were lucky to pull out the win over the Chicago Bears in Week 2. Moreover, the lowly Packers currently tied with the Cleveland Browns in total points scores and have already committed 24 penalties, tallying 258 yards.
Their game against Dallas was impressive, but the Seahawks have yet to show competency on the offensive side of the ball. Russell Wilson has yet to throw for over 155 yards in a game and has completed under 55% of his passes twice already this season, which is not going to win games in this stingy confrence. The Seahawks already have more penalties than any other team in the NFL on offense (32), most of which have come on the shaky offensive line, whereas the Rams, Cardinals, and 49ers all have 20 penalties or less (the Seahawks defense has also had 25 penalties, which is the 8th highest in the league). Worse, Seattle is converting an abysmal 29.3% of their third down attempts, trailed only by the Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In order for the Seahawks to win games it appears that they need three things 1) Marshall Lynch will need to put up 100+ yards in the game, or else, the offense will stall out with the mediocre passing attack, 2) the ‘Hawks have to be playing at home, with the “12th Man” effecting the opposing team and boosting their rookie quarterback’s confidence, and 3) have the Monday Night replacement ref officiate every game (just kidding!). They are also the only team with a loss in the division, although they have a chance to hit the .500 this week with another divisional game.
Before everyone starts to lose their mind about their team, sit back, relax, and understand that the rankings could easily be rearranged in any number of ways. St. Louis could undoubtedly be anchoring the NFC West, especially after the loss to the Chicago Bears last week. The 49ers should arguably be in the top spot in the NFC West and, maybe, the entire league. For once, the West is not the joke of the league, which should lead to some amazing divisional battles throughout the season. This week, the St. Louis Rams take on the Seattle Seahawks. It should be a battle of the defenses, showing the first head-to-head comparison between the two top tier secondaries.