Despite being a tale of disparate pairs—the powerhouses that are Arizona and Seattle, juxtaposed to the two rebuilding California teams, the NFC West as a whole is the granddaddy of them all. Simply put, Arizona and Seattle are the crème de la crème of the NFC and their collective strength compensates for deficiencies throughout the 49ers and Rams’ roster. Far from a one-season wonder, the NFC West, not too long ago mocked as the “NFC Worst,” has now sent two teams to the postseason four years running, the longest streak of any division in the NFL.
The stories of this division are redemption, change and hope. The Cardinals must compartmentalize Carson Palmer’s nightmare six-turnover performance in last year’s NFC Championship loss to the Panthers. The Rams must market themselves to new fans, starting with an uptick in an offense that has finished bottom five in the league for three straight seasons. The 49ers went must prove that its bold hiring of Chip Kelly was no mistake and show that a rebuild is indeed underway. And the Seahawks must continue to reinvent their running game after the retirement of megastar Marshawn Lynch.
How does the division break down?
Favorite: Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals enter the season as the most stacked team in the division. Before last year’s playoff meltdown, Carson Palmer was having an MVP-level season that was overshadowed by Cam Newton playing superhero in Carolina. Palmer should be poised for a repeat with an elite trifecta of pocket poise, ability to see the field, a big arm that keeps ticking, not to mention an impressively deep roster of talented receivers. The WR corps features a cascade of skill sets from short speedsters John Brown and J.J. Nelson (my breakout candidate) to physical mainstays Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. Add in powerhouse runner David Johnson, a threat at receiver and adept pass-blocker, plus enviable depth with Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington, a revamped offensive line and the Cardinals’ offense is poised to lead the league once again.
Defensively, GM Steve Keim made improvements to a front that was embarrassed by Newton last January. The Cardinals acquired sack-master Chandler Jones (12.5 in 2015) in a trade with New England, so expect him to spook opposing quarterbacks. They also used their first-round pick on the talented but enigmatic Robert Nkemdiche, a versatile DT who could emerge early. Much like the division, the secondary is a big pile of disparity. Patrick Peterson and the insanely versatile Tyrann Mathieu, if fully healthy, are the gold standards, while no one is sure who will play corner opposite Peterson.
That issue aside, the overriding concern for the Cardinals is whether or not they can stay healthy. When that’s your make-or-break as opposed to questions of talent, you know you have it good.
Dark horse: Seattle Seahawks
Behind a stout defensive line and one of the league’s top-five quarterbacks, the Seahawks are the other contender by design and default. It’s hard to bet against Russell Wilson doing Russell Wilson things at any time, and the Seahawks will need his magical streak to continue.
Despite drafting guard Germain Ifedi, Seattle has the worst offensive line in football, according to Pro Football Focus. Lynch’s replacement Thomas Rawls, led the league with an average 5.6 yards per carry and backup Christine Michael, now in his second stint in Seattle, has impressed this preseason.
The offensive line may be the big x factor as to whether this team returns to a Super Bowl or is one-and-down in the playoffs. But Wilson eclipsing 4,000 passing yards again could make those concerns moot. One connection to watch: Wilson to Jimmy Graham. The two were starting to gel as Graham saw more targets amid Seattle spreading its offense before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 12. His status for the opener is in question but when he does return, it will be fascinating to see if he and Wilson can continue to coalesce. The rest of the division, and league is praying they do not.
Division MVP: Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals
Clearly Wilson could be mentioned here, as well as Mathieu, but Palmer’s ceiling for putting up massive passing numbers is undeniable. Fitzgerald is a model of consistency, and has among the best hands in the league. Brown surpassed 1,000 yards for the first time in his career last season.
Palmer turns 37 in December and there’s a sense of urgency felt throughout the Cardinals organization.
“Do or die. Great team, talented roster and we have some veterans that we feel like really deserve to win a championship, Mathieu told The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas this month. We really want to do it for guys like Carson and Larry. That’s what is really pushing us and driving us. And B.A. We want to win a championship for him.”
If the Cardinals are indeed playing for Lombardi in February it will likely be because Palmer was an offensive powerhouse throughout the season. And stayed healthy.
Rookie to watch: DeForest Buckner, DE, San Francisco 49ers
When it comes to draft day, 49ers G.M. Trent Baalke has collected more failures than successes. But Buckner, a brooding defensive end, looks to be the real deal as he has risen up the depth chart over the last month. Now a projected starter, the 6’7” Buckner has the athleticism to wreak havoc and the 49ers need him to help improve a pass rush that has regressed after some key departures the past two years.
Coach with most to prove: Jeff Fisher
In a league known to have the patience of a five-year-old waiting in line for ice cream, it’s impressive that Fisher, who last coached a team with a winning record in 2008, is still a head coach. But at some point, enough will be enough. Fisher’s recent teams haven’t completely tanked—the Rams have won at least six games a season since he took over for Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. Had the Rams finished 2-14 in any of those seasons, we’d like be likely be watching a coach with much less facial hair on Hard Knocks.
Fisher is a smart, connected NFL mainstay who was ideal for shepherding the Rams through relocation. Now that they’re in glitzy La La Land, though, they must start scoring points or it’s tough to envision the Rams’ justifying his job much longer, despite reports that he may be granted a contract extension any day.
If any NFC West coach is a goner after 2016, it has to be Fisher by default. Pete Carroll and Bruce Arians have rope for days, and 49ers owner Jed York is not going to let Jim Harbaugh truthers get the last laugh with successive one-and-done coaches. So that leaves Fisher as the only candidate with seat warmers in his car
Must-watch divisional game: Cardinals at Seahawks, Week 16
The Cardinals have broken the secret code and won in Seattle’s noise factory, CenturyLink Field, two years running. The season is long and there will be shocking twists and turns we could never drum up (Case Keenum, MVP?), but if all goes according to plan this game could be the one determining home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.