Naturally, the success of the St. Louis Rams this season will most heavily hinge on the players within the organization. If the defense plays like a Top 10 squad, Sam Bradford plays like a No. 1 overall pick, and the new offensive toys play to their potential, the Rams’ should see that translate into wins on Sunday.
However, each team in the NFL does not play within a vacuum. The ability of a team to succeed inevitably relies some another team(s) to fail. That is especially the case in the NFC West, where there appear to be, at least, three teams vying for a mere six playoff slots in the NFC. San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis cannot all be completely dominate since each team makes up one-eighth of their others’ schedules.
So, for the Rams to move up to the “next level,” which most would consider a playoff birth, there will have to be some mixture of self-improvement and some failure by others. So, who are some of the players like might effect the Rams ability to make the playoffs in 2013?
Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals
Outside of the residents of Arizona, there is no one that would look at a matchup between the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals, and deem the ‘Cards the “favorite.” In fact, most in Rams Nation have already marked both games against the 2012 NFC West 4th-place finishers as “should win” contests. However, outside of the massive plague of injuries that streaked through the Arizona defense last season, the only thing really holding the ‘Cards back was competent quarterback play. Palmer is well past his prime at this point in his career, but with an elite receiver in Larry Fitzgerald and respectable talent in Andre Roberts and Malcolm Floyd, he could certainly find a way to get the ball in the endzone. The Rams will need every win they can get in 2013 if they want a shot at a playoff spot, and the play of Palmer might be the determining factor in two of those games. Not only will he effect the Rams directly, he could help them indirectly by stealing a win or two from the Seahawks or the 49ers, which would certainly effect the overall standings at the end of the season.
Anquan Boldin, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Most would point to Colin Kaepernick as the fulcrum of the San Francisco 49ers’ success, and fairly so. However, the injury to Michael Crabtree might have shifted some of that “pressure” to Anquan Boldin. Originally, Boldin was expected to join the team as the third receiving option, behind Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. Now, the aged receiver has been elevated back to the No. 1 spot, and will be expected to match the high level of productivity exhibited by Crabtree at the end of the 2012 season. Kaepernick targeted the former 1st rounder on over 40% of his passes during his 10 game stint as the 49ers’ starter, with Crabtree accounting for 37% of his passing yards and 50% of his passing touchdowns. In the playoffs, Crabtree caught 3 out of 4 Kaepernick’s passing touchdowns and 20 of his 49 completions. If Boldin can match that level of production, the 49ers should be just as formidable as they were last season. If not, the NFC West might see some drastic changes in the “power structure” of the division. Some, including myself, have Seattle stealing the NFC West crown next season. If that is the case, St. Louis and San Francisco will be fighting for one of the two remaining spots in the NFC playoff picture, where a single win, loss, or tie can be the difference between suiting up in January or sitting on your couch at home.
Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, DEs, Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson or Percy Harvin would be the obvious choices here, but the real “strength” of the Seattle Seahawks is their defense, which was arguably a Top 5 unit in the NFL last season. Their success hinged on the superb play in the secondary, but was help by a stellar rookie season from Bobby Wagner and both a solid pass rush and run support from their front-four. This season, the ‘Hawks seemingly went out and signed every “big name” defensive end on the market. However, coupling those offseason pickups with the offseason losses of Jason Jones and Alan Branch, you get a Seattle defensive line that looks drastically different from their squad in 2012. With the recent news of Bruce Irvin’s suspension and the question marks surrounding the return of Chris Clemens from a torn ACL, it will be up to the new defensive end duo of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to compensate for 21 sacks and 23 hits on the quarterback that Clemens and Irvin racked up last season; at least until Irvin returns in Week 5. The Seahawks were able to win for most of last season with a less-than-dynamic offense, mainly due to their domination on the defensive side of the football. These “new” ‘Hawks will be expected to be a factor in both the pass rush and run support games if Seattle hopes to replicate that defensive success. More specifically, against the Rams, if they cannot get consistent pressure on Sam Bradford like they did in Week 17 last season, they might watch St. Louis pull off a 2-0 sweep over them in 2013.