In the recent past, the NFC West has been the weakest division in the entire league and the 2010 season was a perfect example. The division winning team, the Seattle Seahawks, went to the playoffs with a whopping 7-9 record. Because of the way the NFL playoffs are set up, the Seahawks hosted the New Orleans Saints, who finished the regular season with an 11-5 record. While this undoubtedly upset fans of logic and reason, the Seahawks pulled off an upset only to be knocked out of the playoffs the next week by the Chicago Bears. The main point of this paragraph is that only the NFC West could produce a division winner have a losing record.
Last year, the Seahawks won the division with a 7-9 record and the only reason they won the division instead of the St. Louis Rams, who also finished with a 7-9 record, was because they had a 4-2 division record -- the Rams only had a 3-3 division record. In third place were the San Francisco 49ers, who finished the season with a 6-10 record, and at 5-11 were the Arizona Cardinals, who finished in last place in the division.
Things are going to be different in the NFC West this season.
1. Arizona Cardinals (2010 Record: 5-11)
The 2011 season for the Arizona Cardinals is full of optimism. After one of the most miserable years in recent history for the team, they went out and got Kevin Kolb, who they believe is their franchise quarterback for the next many years. They drafted players that look like will be able to contribute now and for years. Larry Fitzgerald has a new contract that looks like will take him to the end of his career with Arizona. Because of all this, everything looks hopeful.
Does this translate into success? There is no certainty, but this team, based on its schedule, should not think that nine wins and an NFC West championship is out of the question.
Their schedule is, on paper, the weakest in football. Part of that is because of the NFC West. They play teams that are expected to struggle outside of the division (Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals), team that are in transition but are not expected to be good (Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins, Minnesota Vikings) and most of their most challenging games are at home (Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers). I expect nine wins, but anywhere between seven and 10 is completely possible.
What I Think:
Quarterback was the missing link for this team in 2010. A receiver as talented as Larry Fitzgerald is completely wasted when you have a terrible quarterback throwing the ball to him. Signing Kevin Kolb was the biggest move this team could have made. True, he doesn't have a ton of experience, but he has more experience than a rookie had they drafted one and he's got the talent of a franchise quarterback. Fitzgerald should be pleased. The addition of Todd Heap will also help the passing game, giving Kolb an intermediate target. The improved passing game should also open things up for running back Beanie Wells, who could have his first 1,000-yard season after a disappointing 2010 campaign. Defensively, the Cardinals gave up the team's best cornerback, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, to get Kolb but they more than made up for it by selecting Patrick Peterson in the first round of the draft. All-in-all, the Cardinals will be a completely different team in 2011 and that's a good thing.
Record Prediction: 10-6 -- Division Winners
2. St. Louis Rams (2010 Record: 7-9)
Pundits feel charitable this year, typically giving the Rams an 8-8 in their season previews. It certainly passes the eyeball test in a weak division and with a schedule front loaded with the NFC East and AFC North. Season predictions should be so easy. Any given fan knows that on any given Sunday in any given season things change. The Rams will pull off an upset or two on the way to a 9-7 record.
What I Think:
The combination of Josh McDaniels and Sam Bradford could be scary. McDaniels has proven to be one of the best offensive coordinators in the league and Bradford, coming off an impressive rookie season, is the real deal. Unfortunately, Bradford still doesn't have a top-tier No. 1 receiver but as long as his receiving corps doesn't drop everything thrown their way (both Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola were in the top-10 in dropped passes in 2010), they could help Bradford look even better. An improved passing game could help Stephen Jackson by taking a little pressure off of the talented running back. On the other side of the ball, coordinator Steve Spagnuolo helped improve the defense from one of the worst in the NFL into one a top-15 unit in the league. If they can build off of the 43 sacks they racked up in 2010, they could make it into the top-10.
Record Prediction: 9-7
3. San Francisco 49ers (2010 Record: 6-10)
9-7. I'm a fairly optimistic fan and while anything is possible, I think 9-7 is about as optimistic as I can get. The team is dealing with a ton of turnover both in terms of on-field talent and the brand new coaching staff. They've got the talent to win some ball games and the coaching staff would appear to be the most competent 49ers staff of the last six or seven years. The issue for the 49ers will be putting it all together sooner rather than later. I would anticipate a slow start to the season in part because a truncated offseason means a slower implementation of offensive and defensive schemes. The best preseason performance came in the final game and that was limited to one quarter on offense and a couple quarters on defense. It's simply going to take time and patience.
What I Think:
While I doubt that the 49ers are going to have an amazing season this year, they're going to be better than they were last year, even if the record doesn't necessarily show it. The biggest problem is obviously at quarterback, where Alex Smith is set to start the season. He hasn't ever lived up to being a No. 1 overall pick, but that doesn't mean that, in the right circumstances, he never will. If Frank Gore can stay healthy throughout the entire season and if the offensive line can pass protect, Smith could have his best year under new head coach Jim Harbaugh. Defensively, new coordinator Vic Fangio had an extremely short offseason to make the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4, so they may be a little shaky on that side of the ball. I'm not expecting anything big, but I do expect some improvement from last year.
Record Prediction: 7-9
3. Seattle Seahawks: (2010 Record: 7-9)
The Seahawks face an uphill battle in 2011 after eking their way into the playoffs last season with a 7-9 record. They managed to beat the defending world champ Saints in the Wild Card round but with that opportunity they bought themselves a division winner's schedule. The Seahawks travel to Pittsburgh , Dallas, Chicago and to New York to take on the Giants and they also host Atlanta, Baltimore and Philadelphia in 2011. Yeesh.
If I had to guess on an overall record, I'd probably put my money on 5-11. I'd love to see the Seahawks surprise some people this season like they did last year against the Chargers and Saints, to name a few, but that is my conservative guess. Let's see if they prove me wrong.
What I Think:
A year after winning the division with a losing record, I'm thinking the Seahawks are going to be one of the worst teams in the league. Tarvaris Jackson is going to be the starting quarterback and he's just not very good. Behind him is Marshawn Lynch, and even though he busted out a Madden '12 style run in the playoffs last year against the Saints, the Bills let him go for a reason and I think he's going to show that reason in 2011. Jackson doesn't have an overabundance of talent at the receiver positions to help him move the ball either. Defensively the Seahawks are better but not good enough to offset a terrible offense. A tough schedule isn't going to help anything. It's not going to be a good year in Seattle.
Record Prediction: 5-11