The NFC West has quickly become one of the toughest divisions in football. The 2013 version will showcase arguably the league’s two best teams in the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks as well as the up and coming St. Louis Rams. While the Arizona Cardinals still appear to be a ways away, there is renewed optimism in the desert with new head coach Bruce Arians and new quarterback Carson Palmer. As training camp nears, here is a look at how the division might play out.
1. San Francisco 49ers: 12-4
Even though they will be without Michael Crabtree for most of the season, the 49ers are still the team to beat in the division. The Niners will rely on a strong running game and stout defense to define what they want to do week to week. The big play ability of Colin Kaepernick will keep opposing defenses honest and an improved special teams unit will keep the 49ers balanced in all phases of the game.
Week 1 vs. Green Bay Packers: I’m circling the first game of the season as a key matchup for the 49ers because of what looms the following week. The Packers lost twice to the 49ers last season and will be looking for revenge. Green Bay will be pumped up to prove they can contain Colin Kaepernick after he shredded their defense for 444 total yards in the divisional playoff round last season. The 49ers have to focus on the task at hand because they travel to Seattle in Week 2. If they look past the Pack, 0-2 is a real possibility.
Week 2 @ Seattle/Week 14 vs. Seattle: Given how close to each other the teams are, any 49ers/Seahawks match-up will be big. The 49ers have a chance to make a major statement if they can beat the Seahawks at Qwest Field so early in the season. If not, the second meeting could mean the difference between a wild card and the division for the Niners.
Week 16 vs. Atlanta Falcons: This will not only be a rematch of the NFC Championship game, it will also be the final regular season game played at Candlestick before the team moves into their new stadium. Whether the outcome of the contest still holds significance this late in the season is unknown, but the it will be a history making game regardless in San Francisco.
Possible trap game:
Week 10 vs. Carolina Panthers: The Rams would be an easy choice here because of the fits they gave the 49ers last season, but the Panthers could catch the San Francisco off guard. The Niners will be in London to play the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 8, and even though they have a bye in week 9, they could find themselves starting out slowly against an up and coming Panthers team.
2. Seattle Seahawks: 11-5
The Seahawks may have been the best team in football during their final eight games in 2012 as the team finished 7-1. Seattle ran the ball effectively and were tough on defense all year, but the difference was the emergence of quarterback Russell Wilson. The Seahawks gave Wilson another weapon in Percy Harvin, but they need the second-year signal caller to continue to develop. If he takes a step back, so do the Seahawks. Seattle was undefeated at home last year, a trend that is likely to end (even if it’s just one hiccup along the way). The team must improve on their 3-5 record on the road to challenge the 49ers for division supremacy.
Week 2 vs. 49ers/Week 14 @ 49ers: For the same reasons listed above, these games are huge for Seattle. They have to take care of business in Week 2 at home or run the the risk of starting out in a hole within the division. Two losses to the 49ers would most likely derail any chances of winning the NFC West.
Week 10 @Atlanta Falcons/Week 15 @ New York Giants: The Seahawks must prove that they can not only win on the road, but beat good teams. They will be tested when they visit Atlanta and New York. The Giants game could be especially important since the team will be in San Francisco the week before. Two straight losses late in the year could put the Seahawks in a tough spot.
Possible trap game:
Week 5 @ Indianapolis Colts: The Seahwaks will be playing back to back road games (the first of three times this season that will happen) and face the Colts after visiting the Houston Texans in Week 4. Despite their 2012 record of 11-5, the Colts are still a team that is building. After a tough game in Houston though, Seattle could be in a for a let down the following week, especially considering how much trouble the team has on the road.
3. St. Louis Rams: 7-9
The Rams are close to being a good team, they just don’t have enough fire power on the offensive side of the football to keep up. Adding rookie Tavon Austin will bring some big play ability to the group, but overall the unit is still developing. The Rams will have to rely on their defense to keep them in games and head coach Jeff Fisher to come up with solid game plans. The early schedule is daunting, with four of the first six games against the Falcons, 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, and Texans. That could put the Rams in too big a hole to climb out of.
Week 3 @ Cowboys: The Rams were outstanding within the division last season going 4-1-1 but still finished with only seven wins. It’s unlikely they find that much success within the NFC West again in 2013 so it will be important to improve on their 3-7 record outside of the division. The Cowboys could be a swing game for the Rams as they will be coming off a game against Falcons in week 2 and looking ahead to the 49ers in Week 4. A loss here could have them looking at a three-game losing streak
Possible trap game:
Week 1 vs. Arizona: Upsets tend to happen early in the season when teams are still establishing an identity. If the Rams are looking ahead to the gauntlet we mentioned above, the Cards could upset them to start the season.
4. Arizona Cardinals: 4-12
The Cardinals are a team in transition with a new coach (Arians) and quarterback (Palmer). Neither come with many guarantees. Arians was NFL Coach of the Year last season due the job he did with Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts while Chuck Pagano was recovering from cancer. It’s unknown how he’ll perform now that he is the one in complete control. Palmer’s best days are behind him and Arians’ down the field passing attack may not be the best mix with an immobile quarterback behind a suspect offensive line.
Division games (all of them): In order to make any kind of noise this season, the Cardinals are going to have to win games they are not supposed to within the division. That means stealing a couple of wins from the 49ers and Seahawks.
Possible trap game:
Week 11 @ Jacksonville Jaguars: It’s tough to look at Arizona’s schedule and find many games they should win. One game that does stand out is when the team travels to Jacksonville. The Jaguars aren’t on anyone’s radar to come close to contending and should be penciled in as a win on most team’s schedules.
Photo Credit: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
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