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NFC West: How will the West be won?

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  • NFC West: How will the West be won?

    NFC West: How will the West be won?


    Overview
    The NFL West has no place to go but up. Hopefully.

    The division once was so strong during the reign of the 49ers' dynasty and almost always had a good challenger, usually the Rams in the '80s and the Saints in the '90s. But last year it could not have been any weaker.

    Seattle became the first team in a quarter-century to finish in first place in the NFC West without winning at least 10 games. The four NFC West teams finished a combined 14 games under .500, and they were 13-27 in games outside the division.

    The Rams finished second, made the playoffs with a .500 record, and beat the Seahawks three times in three games, including a wild-card playoff game at Seattle. Arizona could have been a factor but for two overtime losses to the 49ers, both by scores of 31-28. Those were San Francisco's only victories.

    Last season seemed to follow form, the teams finishing in the order they generally were predicted in preseason.

    This year, there could be a shakeup; there is at least some transition.

    In Seattle, the Seahawks are counting on another infusion of defensive help to solve a longstanding problem. They need to improve there, and, with a new front-office structure taking over, coach Mike Holmgren may need to win a playoff game to make it to the final year of the eight-year contract he signed before the 1999 season. Seattle has gone 20 years without a playoff victory, the longest streak in the league.

    St. Louis coach Mike Martz believes that, with Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald to back up Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, he finally has a foursome of receivers to match the group the Rams had a few years ago, when Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl filled out a dangerous group. A key could be the development of second-year running back Steven Jackson, who now starts ahead of Marshall Faulk. The Rams believe their offense could approach the 1999 version, when they won the Super Bowl.

    Arizona is being picked by many as a potential surprise because of coach Dennis Green's track record. The Cards were much improved last year on defense, and they are hoping for a similar jump this year on offense if they can protect new quarterback Kurt Warner. A rookie running back, J.J. Arrington, should make Arizona, which already was loaded at wide receiver, better and more balanced on offense.

    San Francisco, which had just two coaches and unprecedented success for nearly two decades ending in 1996, is on its third coach in four seasons. Mike Nolan, whose dad once coached the 49ers, inherited a franchise virtually devoid of talent and offensive threats, and made quarterback Alex Smith the first overall pick in the draft. The 49ers figure to win more than last year's two games, but not many more.

    Movers and shakers
    The 49ers (Smith) and Cardinals (Warner) have new quarterbacks, but Tim Rattay will begin the season as the starter in San Francisco. The Seahawks and Rams are looking for free agents to improve defenses that ranked among the NFL's bottom 11 teams in allowing points in 2004, even as both teams made it to the playoffs. While the 49ers have an almost all-new coaching staff, the Cards made one major change, bringing in Keith Rowen, who figures to pay attention to the running game, as their new offensive coordinator.

    Defensive end Bryce Fisher, linebacker Jamie Sharper and cornerback Andre Dyson should help Seattle at all three levels of defense. St. Louis, which could not stop the run a year ago, counts on new linebackers Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne. The Rams also have rebuilt their offensive line and changed special-teams coaches in hopes of solving a longstanding problem.

    What to expect
    Let's get the Cardinals out of the way first. If Warner can recapture the form that made him a two-time league MVP, Arizona could be the surprise team so many expect. The key here will be the offensive line because Warner's problems in recent years came when he was under pressure. Given time and very good protection, he can still be an accurate passer and terrific deep threat, and the Cardinals have the receivers to exploit those skills.

    But it's still a stretch to imagine the Arizona offense reaching the level of Seattle, which has had the same personnel for several years, or St. Louis, which hasn't lost much on offense since Warner departed and seems to have a handy replacement (Jackson) for Faulk, too.

    Both those teams, however, have struggled on defense, and, until one or both can solve those problems, there is no slam dunk in the division.

    In fact, if the 49ers stay healthy, their new 3-4 alignment could be a good match for any of the defenses in this division. Unfortunately for San Francisco, there is so little offensive firepower that whoever starts at quarterback will struggle, and the team will be unable to produce many points.

    Another issue for teams in this division is how to play away from home. The dome-centric Rams, the desert-weather Cardinals and the inconsistent Seahawks (a former dome team) all struggle on the road (and the 49ers struggle everywhere). Over the last three seasons, St. Louis, Seattle and Arizona were a combined 20-52 on the road (and 48-24 at home).

    Last season, Seattle and St. Louis both ranked among the NFL's top eight teams on offense, but low on defense. That is not entirely a reflection of the fact that Holmgren and Martz are offensive coaches, but it adds to the perception that they struggle to put defenses together.

    Arizona's Green also has a background on offense; into this mix now comes a defensive coach, San Francisco's Nolan.

    Worth noting
    No team has finished in first place in the NFC West two years in a row since the 49ers' last run of four straight division titles in 1992-95. Every other division in the league has had a repeat winner more recently.
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  • #2
    Arizona (10-6)
    Seattle (10-6)
    Rams (7-9)
    San Fran (5-11)
    Sketch in STL
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    • #3
      Originally posted by sketch@Aug 26 2005, 04:25 PM
      Arizona (10-6)
      Seattle (10-6)
      Rams (7-9)
      San Fran (5-11)
      Sadly, I can agree with that...

      "Can't buy what I want because it's free...
      Can't buy what I want because it's free..."
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      • #4
        Originally posted by sketch@Aug 26 2005, 02:25 PM
        Arizona (10-6)
        Seattle (10-6)
        Rams (7-9)
        San Fran (5-11)

        I call complete and utter bullshit here.

        No way the Niners win 5 games.
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        • #5
          Rams 11 - 5
          Arizona 8 - 8
          Seattle 7 - 9 and Holmgreen fired
          Frisco 3 - 13
          Turning the other cheek is better than burying the other body.

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          • #6
            Originally posted by Schwahalala@Aug 26 2005, 05:59 PM
            Rams 11 - 5
            Arizona 8 - 8
            Seattle 7 - 9 and Holmgreen fired
            Frisco 3 - 13

            That's almost exactly what I was going to go with. Frisco will get 4, though, I think.

            Rams may end up 10-6 with Arizona at 9-7.
            " Look, forget the myths the media's created about the White House--the truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand."

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            • #7
              Originally posted by _STLfan_in_DFW+Aug 26 2005, 06:14 PM-->
              QUOTE(_STLfan_in_DFW @ Aug 26 2005, 06:14 PM)

            • #8
              I just looked at each teams schedule. It seemed that Arizona had the toughest schedule. I predicted between Stl, AZ, and Seattle --- each would go 1-1 vs each other. I also predicted, which won't happen, that each team would beat SF twice.

              St. Louis 10-6
              Seattle 9-7
              Arizona 8-8

              As for St Louis

              at San Fran--W
              at Arizona--L
              vs Tennesee--W
              at NY Giants--W
              vs Seattle--W
              at Indy--L
              vs New Orleans--W
              vs Jacksonville--W
              at Seattle--L
              vs Washington--W
              at Minnesota--L
              vs Philly--L
              vs San Fran--W
              at Dallas--W

              The big swing games that decide the season are: at NYG, vs Philly, at Dallas. They need to win 2 of those 3.

              Comment


              • #9
                Entire NFC West building for the future


                By Pat Kirwan
                NFL.com Senior Analyst


                (Aug. 26, 2005) -- The NFC West isn't a division that gets a lot of credit in NFL circles because the overall records aren't great. In fact, only one team had a winning record in 2004.

                Despite the won-loss records, the division did have two representatives in the playoffs last year with Seattle and St. Louis. This year, the division has a game in Mexico between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers. It could very well be the most attended game in NFL history.

                Second-year coach Dennis Green has the Cardinals pointed in the right direction, and that's saying a lot for a franchise that has won just 25 games in five years. The glory days of the 49ers are long gone and new head coach Mike Nolan has his hands full trying to right the ship in the Bay Area. For example, I had a caller on my Sirius radio show make a statement that top draft pick, Alex Smith, looks like a bust. The kid has thrown 16 preseason passes and some 49ers fans are nervous he doesn't remind them of Joe Montana or Steve Young. The Rams can still score points, but they give up more than they score, and Seattle is the only division winner in 2004 to give up more points than it scored.

                In the past three years, San Francisco has gone from a 10-6 record to 7-9 to 2-14 last season, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Tim Rattay has already received the nod as the starting quarterback, even though Smith is the highest-paid rookie in the history of the NFL. It makes sense to not put Smith on the field until the offensive line, one that gave up a division-high 52 sacks last year, improves to the point where Smith can perform without risk of injury. Smith isn't ready and neither are his offensive teammates.

                Speaking of sacks given up, most people aren't aware of just how many sacks the NFC West teams surrendered last year. Last season, the four squads gave up 175 combined sacks (43.7 per team). As a point of reference, the four AFC West teams gave up 98 sacks, or 77 less than their NFC counterpart. Part of the reason appears to be questionable line play, immobile quarterbacks and the fact that these four teams play from behind and have to throw the ball more often than not. Last year, the teams put the ball in the air over 2,200 times, and with Kurt Warner taking over as quarterback in Arizona, the number should go up.

                The NFC West only produced one 1,000-yard rusher. Shaun Alexander led the NFC with 1,696 yards, but the next-best rusher was Emmitt Smith with 937 yards, and he retired. Eighteen players cracked the 1,000-yard mark in the NFL last year, and most divisions had multiple candidates. For example, the AFC East had Curtis Martin, Corey Dillon and Willis McGahee. Can Steven Jackson (Rams), J.J. Arrington (Cardinals) or Kevan Barlow (49ers) help keep this division on the ground?

                The next big area of concern for the division members is their penchant for coughing up the football. The worst two teams in the NFL last season were St. Louis and San Francisco, who combined for a minus-43 turnover ratio. There's no way an NFL team can be taken seriously if it has a minus-22 turnover ratio. Once again, Seattle had the best ball-security ratio with a plus-8. Over the past three seasons combined, the NFC West did not have one team in the top 10 in preventing giveaways. St. Louis is dead last with 123 giveaways from 2002-04; Arizona is 27th with 100; Seattle is ranked 14th, surrendering the ball 84 times; the 49ers are 13th with 82. It's hard to win a lot of games if the opponent has the ball more than you do. For example, the NFC West had a combined record of 3-13 against AFC opponents last season.

                What is in store for 2005?

                St. Louis says the team is going to run the ball more and has switched from an aging Marshall Faulk to Jackson. It sounds good but the temptation to get the ball in the hands of wide receivers Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and the other receivers is still very tempting. I would be surprised if the Rams didn't put the ball in the air over 550 times this season. The defense got a face lift during free agency, but it will still come down to former first-round selections Jimmy Kennedy, Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett playing up to their potential. They were 29th against the run last year and it may be time for new linebackers Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley to challenge those defensive linemen. For a team that has won 51 regular-season games in the past five years, they don't have a lot to show for it.

                Seattle seems like the most balanced team once again. The Seahawks can run the ball, quarterbackB Matt Hasselbeck is a solid player, and they got rid of receiver Koren Robinson, who was a headache to say the least. The defense will have close to five new starters, but that doesn't guarantee it will be better on the field. The Arizona receivers and the Rams offense still have to be slowed down. Last year, Seattle went 1-3 in those four games and gave up 102 points.

                Arizona may be the most interesting team in the division. Green has dumped players who just don't do things the way he wants them done. Warner gets to work with Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson, which will produce points. Last year, the Cards gave up the fewest points in the division. The unit went from 2003, when the Cardinals gave up 452 points, to 2004, when they tightened the defense to 322 points allowed. A 130-point improvement is a big step in the right direction, and rising star defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will soon be a hot head-coach candidate. Newcomers Chike Okeafor, Robert Griffith, and top draft pick Antrel Rolle make a good unit even better in 2005. I'm not sure the Cardinals are ready to win the division, but I'm sure they will be playing meaningful games in late December.

                The 49ers are rebuilding and it will take time. They had 11 games last year when they couldn't generate 20 points. In five of those games, they scored seven points or less. There will be times that things could look that bad again, but Nolan has the patience and the personality to fix the 49ers as long as ownership and the fans understand how far they have to go.

                Finally, getting two teams into the playoffs seems like a reach this season. Too many strong teams in the other NFC divisions are going to finish in second place with better records than the 8-8 record the Rams had last year. Right now, it looks like Seattle has enough to win the division, but the Cardinals could be the team everyone is cheering for down the stretch.
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                • #10
                  St Louis has a really weak schedule on paper

                  They could win 8-10 games while still being crappy
                  Go Cards ...12 in 13.


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                  • #11
                    It'll be a dogfight between the Rams and Seattle.

                    I'm not jumping on the Big Dead bandwagon with the rest of the Warnerites.
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                    You'll never be forgotten.

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                    • #12
                      If the Cardinals get anything positive from Warner this season they should have a good shot at winning the division. They now have talent at all the other skill positions on offense and the best defense in the division.
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                      • #13
                        Originally posted by JWB@Aug 27 2005, 03:13 PM
                        It'll be a dogfight between the Rams and Seattle.

                        I'm not jumping on the Big Dead bandwagon with the rest of the Warnerites.
                        The Cardinals are getting a lot of positive press nationally ...more so due to Green, am emerging young D and good off season than the acquistition of Warner though.
                        Go Cards ...12 in 13.


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                        • #14
                          Originally posted by TTB+Aug 27 2005, 03:20 PM-->
                          QUOTE(TTB @ Aug 27 2005, 03:20 PM)

                        • #15
                          Originally posted by JWB+Aug 27 2005, 03:21 PM-->
                          QUOTE(JWB @ Aug 27 2005, 03:21 PM)
                          Originally posted by [email protected] 27 2005, 03:20 PM
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