Who will win the NFC West?
By: Andy Davies
The NFC West is the NFL’s best division. All four teams are seen as playoff contenders, with some media personalities having all four teams in the postseason according to their predictions.
Here is a preview of the most stacked NFL division.
Arizona Cardinals (2020 Record: 8-8. Missed out on playoffs)
The Cardinals struggled for consistency, going 6-3 before a 2-5 run down the stretch. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury is under some pressure this season after failing to make the playoffs in his first two seasons.
Kyler Murray is also under some pressure, albeit not a tremendous amount. He is a walking highlight reel when it comes to the ground game. However, his arm talent still needs work. With wide receiver Deandre Hopkins and Christian Kirk to throw to as well as 2021 second-round selection Rondale Moore, he is not short of options. The Cardinals acquired long-time Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, but is the aging wideout enough to transform this offense? Franchise icon Larry Fitzgerald departed in Free Agency, with a 38-year old still without a team. He has spoken of how he “doesn’t have the urge to play right now”, which is almost announcing your retirement without actually doing so. He may still join a team late into the season and the playoffs, which may give him the best chance he’s had since losing to the Steelers in Super Bowl 43.
Murray excels in the run game, but he can’t do it all by himself. Kenyan Drake departed in Free Agency, giving Chase Edmunds the chance to become the number one back. James Conner has arrived as a free agent this summer to provide depth to this running back room.
Their biggest headline offseason addition came on the defensive side of the ball, with Houston Texans great J.J. Watt arriving in Arizona. This came to the surprise of most who saw the defensive end suiting up for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers or Cleveland Browns. Linebacker Haason Reddick has left during the offseason after a brilliant 2020 season. Linebacker Zaven Collins was drafted sixteenth overall in 2021 as his replacement. Fellow linebacker Isaiah Simmons will want to improve on his anti-climatic rookie season after being seen by many as the steal of the 2020 draft. Their defensive x-factor is safety Budda Baker, who is one of the best in the entire league.
A tough opening six games sees them face the Tennessee Titans, Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Rams, 49ers, and Browns. This could easily be a 2-4 or 1-5 start. They then face the Houston Texans, Packers,49ers, Carolina Panthers, and Seahawks, which will only give Arizona 2 more wins. This will leave them either 3-8 or 4-7 before a final 5 games versus the Chicago Bears, Rams, Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, and Seahawks. I can only see two wins here, leaving the Cardinals finishing the 2021 season either 5-12 or 6-11.
When the two biggest headline offseason acquisitions for a team who finished 8-8 last season are two players at the end of their careers, this is never a good thing. With a head coach on the hot seat and with a tough schedule, expect Arizona to really disappoint this season.
Prediction: 4th in NFC West.
Los Angeles Rams (2020 Record: 10-6. Lost in Divisional Round)
The Rams go into this season as the NFC West team with the most hype after the trade for Matthew Stafford. This saw their first overall pick from 2016 in Jared Goff go the other way as part of the trade. Head coach Sean McVay has a new QB to work with and will be excited to work with another former first overall pick.
Stafford was drafted in 2009 and has thrown for 45,109 yards, 282 touchdowns and interceptions in the 165 games he has played. This includes eight 4,000 yard seasons, one even stretching to 5,038 along with 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. This amounts to 273.4 yards per game and with 3,898 completed passes, he has a career average of 11.6 yards per completed pass and a touchdown per every 13.8 completed passes.
Stafford has an immediate upgrade when it comes to receivers. Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp represent an immediate upgrade at the receiver position. The running back room is the one area of the Rams’ offense that could let them down. Cam Akers was expected to be the lead back, before injury put a stop to his season before it even started. Darrell Henderson and offseason signing Sony Michel will be the two running backs to take Akers’ place.
The Rams will also be aided by the number one defense from last season. Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris is now the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers and could be a big miss. Under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry, they will still be a force, thanks to Aaron Donald who is one of the best players in the entire NFL, with 85.5 career sacks in the regular season. Using a 3-4 scheme, the defensive end is the undisputed star of the defensive line. Behind him is linebacker Leonard Floyd, who recorded 10.5 sacks in 2020. Their secondary is one of the best in the league, with shutdown corner Jalen Ramsey the best cornerback in the league. Alongside Darius Williams, this represents arguably the best cornerback tandem in the league. Jordan Fuller and Taylor Rapp are both young and exciting players. John Johnson will be a big miss in the safety position.
It remains to be seen if Matt Stafford is the difference between the Rams winning a Super Bowl or not. It also remains to be seen if the Rams can be a great defensive unit without Staley. Either way, we will soon find out.
Their schedule sees five almost guaranteed wins, as they face the Bears, Lions, Giants, Texans and Jaguars. Matchups against the Vikings and Colts as well as two games against the Cardinals sees the Rams are favorites whereas their divisional home and away games against the 49ers and Seahawks represent four tough games that are very much 50/50. The Ravens, Buccaneers and Packers games are also very even affairs for the Rams. Winning those “easy games” plus winning half of the 50/50 games would have the Rams finishing 12-5. This could be enough to take them to the division title.
Prediction: 1st in NFC West.
San Francisco 49ers (2020 Record: 6-10. Missed out on playoffs)
There have been no real significant incomings or outgoings this offseason in San Francisco but they will be buoyed by the return of many starters. The 49ers reached Super Bowl 54 in the 2019 season but only managed six wins in 2020. George Kittle, Nick Bosa and Raheem Mostert were just three of the big-name players to spend last season on the sidelines.
Running back Trey Sermon was drafted in the second round, with quarterback Trey Lance taken third overall. The 49ers traded up for him, giving multiple draft picks to the Miami Dolphins in the process. This sends immediate pressure on Lance’s way. Nobody knows who will start out of Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo. There is talk of head coach Kyle Shanahan using a two-quarterback system, something that has a lot of NFL fans really intrigued. With the amount of draft picks the 49ers used to trade up, Lance will eventually start. It is wise for the 49ers to slowly bring him in, especially considering the strength of the division.
With all their big names back, this will put the 49ers at full strength on both sides of the ball despite the loss of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. They will make a return to the playoffs but the quarterback situation may just prevent them from reclaiming the division title.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC West.
Seattle Seahawks (2020 Record: 12-4. Missed out on playoffs)
The Seahawks are in that group alongside the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens in that they are the perfect example of consistency. Head coach Pete Carroll always has this team in contention but can they once again make the postseason despite no major additions and just three draft picks.
Safety Jamal Adams signed a new deal and quarterback Russell Wilson decided to stay after some offseason unrest. With receivers such as D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett at his disposal, he won’t be short of options. He will hope for better protection in 2021, being one of the most sacked quarterbacks in recent years.
With defensive studs such as Adams and linebacker Bobby Wagner, they have two legitimate game changers in a defensive unit that improved throughout the 2020 season.
The Seahawks should expect another appearance in the postseason but their lack of activity this offseason might hinder their chances of going far in the postseason.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC West.