Over the past couple weeks, the NFC West has captured the nation’s attention, first with the thrilling Cardinals-49ers Thursday night game in Week 9, then with the wild 49ers-Seahawks tilt on Monday Night Football last week. And the hits keep coming, with the Redbirds-Niners rematch and the Rams hosting the Bears in the Sunday night game this week.
Not only is this division an exciting one, it’s also a winning one. The 49ers are tied for the best record in the league at 8-1, and the Seahawks are right behind them at 8-2. The Rams, last season’s NFC champion, are flagging a bit, but they’re still a competitive 5-4. And we already know about the Cardinals matching last season’s win total already—we’re pulling up the rear at 3-6-1.
Add it all up and this has been the best division in football so far this season, with the most total wins (24) and the highest winning percentage (.632) out of the league’s eight divisions.
With that in mind—and the fact that four out of the Redbirds’ final six games are within the division—I thought I’d briefly survey the NFC West landscape, both in 2019 and beyond. Let’s start with the division leader and our opponent on Sunday.
San Francisco 49ers – 8-1, 1st place
2019: It’s a year later than they were hoping due to Jimmy Garoppolo’s ACL tear last season, but the rebuild is officially complete. This is a team built from the inside out, with dominant lines on both sides of the ball and whose physicality can match up with any team in the league. The defense was historically great to start the season, although it has shown some cracks recently as injuries have set in and opposing coaches have more film to go on. They have built a strong running game out of mostly spare parts, and the passing game has been able to make big plays when needed. Garoppolo hasn’t put up gaudy numbers (2,054 yards, 14:8 TD:INT ratio), but he’s #12 in the league in QBR (58.4), so he’s played better than the surface numbers indicate. Health permitting (and that’s a big issue for them right now), this team is a Super Bowl contender.
Future Outlook: You obviously never know what is going to happen in the NFL, but this team looks like it’s built to compete for years to come. Head coach Kyle Shanahan isn’t even 40 yet, Garoppolo is just 28, George Kittle is just 26, and the D-line is full of recent 1st-round picks (like Nick Bosa). They’ll need to replace veterans like Joe Staley, Emmanuel Sanders, and Richard Sherman at some point, but they’ve drafted well in recent years and shouldn’t have any problem luring free agents to the Bay Area. The only question is if Jimmy Garoppolo is truly The Guy. He’ll need to prove it in the postseason—where he has two more Super Bowl rings (as a backup) than passing attempts. Barring a monumental collapse, he’ll get his chance this season.
Seattle Seahawks – 8-2, 2nd place
2019: Reports of the Seahawks’ demise have been greatly exaggerated for a few years now. Widely predicted to slide into mediocrity after the “retirement” of Beast Mode and the breakup of the Legion of Boom, the Seahawks have steadfastly refused to do so, remaining competitive in the NFC (although they did miss the playoffs in 2017—by one game). They key, of course, is Russell Wilson, who could be heading to his first league MVP award. He leads the league in TD passes and is second in QBR despite playing in a nominally run-first offense. Said running game and the defense have been good-not-great, but this team will fly as high as Wilson can take it—which could easily mean a second Super Bowl title.
Future Outlook: It should be clear by now that this team will be a playoff contender at the minimum for as long as the Pete Carroll/Russell Wilson pairing is in place. But despite his youthful façade, Carroll is pushing 70—how much longer will he be around? Still, the pieces are in place for sustained success on offense—Wilson is only 30, Tyler Lockett is 28, DK Metcalf is just 21(!), and they have two RBs under 26 (Chris Carson at 25 and Rashaad Penny at 23). The foundation is there for a solid defense moving forward—Jadeveon Clowney and Jarran Reed are both just 26, and the secondary has some promising young-ish players—but the linebacking corps is the strength of the unit and they’re all pushing 30 or already there. They’ll need to add some young pieces on that side of the ball in the coming drafts. But as long as Wilson is the QB, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with the in NFC West.
Los Angeles Rams – 5-4, 3rd place
2019: This team is suffering from a Super Bowl hangover—you really have to squint to recognize this group as the same franchise that dominated the NFC last season. Statistically, both the offense and defense have slid back toward the middle of the pack, ranking between #10 and #15 in yards and points on both sides of the ball. Competitive, yes, but a far cry from the powerhouse we saw last season—as their mediocre record indicates. Aaron Donald is still a bad, bad man on the D-line, but the two other major franchise pieces look nothing like the players we’re used to seeing. Todd Gurley clearly isn’t the same player anymore as he deals with knee issues, and Jared Goff has regressed badly. He’s all the way down at #28 in QBR and has thrown just 11 TDs (compared to 9 INTs) despite throwing the third-most passes in the league. At 5-4, the Rams are two games behind the Vikings for the last wild card spot in the NFC and will face an uphill battle to make it back to the postseason.
Future Outlook: The Rams’ outlook is as hazy as the Los Angeles skyline on a high-smog day. The core of Sean McVay (33), Goff (25), Gurley (25), and Donald (28) once looked like the envy of the league, but now there are serious questions about the QB and RB. Other key contributors like Cooper Kupp (26) and the recently acquired Jalen Ramsey (25) are nice pieces, but there are major issues on the offensive line and questions at CB opposite Ramsey. More critically, this team is going to face a salary cap reckoning sooner rather than later as the bloated contracts of Goff and Gurley start to far exceed their production—unless McVay can get Goff to turn it around (not sure there’s anything to be done about Gurley’s knees). Even then, $30M+ per year for a QB who might only be average could be a death sentence. But there is a huge range of possible outcomes here—they could play in another couple Super Bowls or be rebuilding in a couple years. Neither would surprise me.
Arizona Cardinals – 3-6-1, 4th place
2019: We all know where this team is at. But in case you just woke up from a coma, yesterday’s column aptly sums up this team’s 2019 season.
Future Outlook: The arrow is pointing up—at least offensively—courtesy of Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray. The offense is unrecognizable from last season, despite bringing back most of the same skill position players and playing behind an O-line that only a handful of other teams would envy. Kyler is already on the precipice of stardom and should only put up gaudier and gaudier numbers as more pieces are added to the offense around him. Questions remain about David Johnson (and his contract) and how much longer Larry Fitzgerald will play, but those are relatively minor concerns (it sounds strange, but it’s true). Except GM Steve Keim to go shopping in the O-line and WR aisles this offseason. The defense is a different story—it seems clear that Vance Joseph isn’t the answer at defensive coordinator, and it’s anyone’s guess where Patrick Peterson will be playing in 2020. The D-line is nondescript around an aging Corey Peters, and the jury is out on whether Jordan Hicks can play up to the big contact he signed in the offseason. And who knows who will be playing alongside him next season. Chandler Jones is obviously a franchise cornerstone, but he’s the only consistent threat in the pass rush. Byron Murphy and hopefully Budda Baker are keepers in the secondary, and the Thompson Twins have shown promise, but there are not guarantees about either of them. This defense will likely need a complete overhaul within the next year or two. But the biggest question about the future of the team remains the man tasked with overseeing it—is Steve Keim the right man to build a winning team around the quarterback he more or less lucked into? This team’s future revolves around the answer to that question.
Looking around the division, one thing is clear: it’s going to be a fun one to watch for years to come. The NFC West has come a long way since 2016, when the Seahawks and Cardinals were both on the downswing from franchise high points and the Rams and 49ers were rebuilding.
But that also means the Cardinals are going to have their work cut out for them to get back to the playoffs anytime soon, even with (what looks to be) a franchise QB at the helm. Russell Wilson, Kyle Shanahan, and Sean McVay aren’t going away anytime soon—and they won’t be pushed aside easily.
Your turn, Cardinals fans. What do you see when you look around this division? How do you think things play out in the next few years? Let’s talk NFC West in the comments.