If the Seattle Seahawks are to defend their Super Bowl title in 2014, they will have to overcome a rugged task — navigating a loaded NFC West.
The division sent two teams to the playoffs in 2013 and just missed out on a third. All four teams will be in playoff contention this season and will be led by outstanding defenses.
Seattle lost some pieces during the offseason, most notably Golden Tate, but also continues to build through the draft and a sophomore class that is ready to step up. But with the rest of the teams in the NFC West improving rapidly, it’s fair to ask if the Seahawks are still the team to beat in the NFC West.
Until the teams actually take the field, the answer is still yes. But it’s not going to come easily.
The San Francisco 49ers, Seattle’s closet competition and biggest rival, will be just as tough as ever. Jim Harbaugh and company made some important additions on the offensive side of the ball and it wouldn’t come as a shock if they were to reach their fourth consecutive NFC Championship Game.
Steve Johnson and a full season of a healthy Michael Crabtree will help Colin Kaepernick continue to progress after the 49ers struggled with depth at the wide receiver position last season. San Francisco also has a rotation of promising young running backs that could provide a spark should Frank Gore decline sharply due to age.
The 49ers are also going to boast one of the league’s best defenses, although they will miss NaVorro Bowman for the majority of the season. Even if the Seahawks are the favorites to win the division coming in, there is only a slight margin between the two teams.
While the Seahawks and 49ers look to be a step ahead in the NFC West, the other two teams in the division will be competitive and figure to finish above .500. Both the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams have outstanding defenses and some interesting options on offense. The key for the two teams will be quarterback play.
In particular, 2014 could be the year the Rams finally break out and challenge for a postseason spot. St. Louis likely has the best defensive line in the NFL and will give the Seahawks two extremely competitive games in the upcoming season.
The core of the Seahawks remains intact, but they did suffer some losses during the free agency period. Tate’s departure is the most notable, but Seattle will also have to replace the depth of Red Bryant, Chris Clemens and Clinton McDonald along the defensive line.
However the Seahawks have the pieces to replace what they lost, both through the draft and in-house options that have been waiting their turn to climb up the depth chart. Seattle made its Super Bowl run with little contribution from the two most explosive offensive players on the roster: Percy Harvin and Christine Michael.
Harvin’s health (as well as Paul Richardson’s) will be one of the biggest keys to retaining the NFC West division title. The Seahawks have the pieces to replace Tate, but not much depth at the position should one or both go down for an extended period of time.
The biggest question will again be the offensive line. Seattle will need someone, whether it be Justin Britt, James Carpenter, Michael Bowie or Garry Gilliam among others, to play well and lock down a starting spot. If that happens, the Seahawks will be in good shape.
One more factor the Seahawks will have to deal with is a tough schedule. The Seahawks kick off a brutal six-game stretch of opposing defenses Week 11 with a trip to Kansas City that also includes two games against San Francisco and Arizona as well as a home date with St. Louis. The only break from top defenses comes with a road date in Philadelphia in between the two 49ers games.
That stretch will be a serious test of Seattle’s depth. If any team is equipped to handle such a schedule, it’s the Seahawks, but it will be a struggle at times.
The Seahawks are still the team to beat in the NFC West, but the division race promises to be close and intense right through the last week of the season.
Photo Credit: Kyle Terade / USA Today Sports
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