You could argue that the NFC West is football’s best division. It includes the conference’s past two champions, San Francisco and L.A. Seattle is led by an MVP front-runner who has already won a ring, and Arizona has the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year. For the Niners, the competition from within the division will make the climb back to the Super Bowl all the more steep.
A pessimist could point out that San Francisco depended on narrow escapes last season, with five of its wins by five points or fewer. But an optimist would counter that the team’s four losses were a three-pointer in Baltimore that turned on a failed fourth-and-inches attempt, an overtime defeat to Seattle that could have been avoided if a fill-in kicker had made a 47-yard field goal, a defeat on the final play from scrimmage against a red-hot Atlanta team, and their Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs. This team is talented, tested and impeccably coached by Kyle Shanahan. Their defense, led by second-year end Nick Bosa, will only get better. But the major question is QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who struggled with ball placement last year and shrunk in the second half of Super Bowl LIV. While his struggles might have been due to his recovery from a torn ACL in 2018, the Niners need him to play like a franchise quarterback.
The Rams would have made the postseason last year under 2020’s new 14-team playoff (or if Greg Zuerlein had connected on a late 44-yarder in a Week 5 loss at Seattle). But while their NFC title defense fell flat, the year wasn’t a total loss. A young offensive line came into its own later on and, after a shaky first two thirds of the season, Jared Goff and Sean McVay found their groove, averaging 29.0 points over the final five games with Goff looking particularly sharp. The departure of hobbled running back Todd Gurley won’t hurt, though some changeover on defense might. First-year coordinator Brandon Staley has elite stars in tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but his linebacking corps is unproven.
Meanwhile, Seattle keeps finding ways to win. Two years ago they returned to a run-heavy offense with Russell Wilson sprinkling in big throws off play-action. They don’t pile up points, but that formula allows them to hang around every week, and last season they went 11–3 in one-possession games. While the Seahawks acquired star safety Jamal Adams from the Jets, they didn’t address their lack of traditional pass rushers. Turnovers are typically created by pressure; that’s why it’s hard to envision Seattle duplicating last year’s 32 takeaways (third most in the league). Sixteen of those were fumble recoveries over the season’s first 12 games. Then Seattle failed to get a single fumble takeaway over the final six (including playoffs), when they went 2–4 (the wins coming over the hapless Panthers and the Josh McCown–led Eagles).
The Cardinals are a popular breakout candidate, with Kyler Murray coming off an impressive rookie year in Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense. Murray’s biggest flaw was on intermediate-level passes: He had a league-low 47.2 completion percentage on throws that traveled 11 to 20 yards. Did his height limit his ability to see downfield, or were his receivers not open? If it was the latter, the acquisition of All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins from the Texans will serve as an instant remedy.
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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
PROJECTED RECORD: 11-5
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Shanahan continues to be the NFL’s best play-caller, and Garoppolo is sharper in his second season back from a torn ACL. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh once again oversees a dominating unit that loads up on takeaways; after the season he takes the Jaguars’ head-coaching job. The Niners go back to the Super Bowl, and this time they finish the job.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Injuries test the team’s depth, and age catches up to CB Richard Sherman and LT Trent Williams, both 32. Garoppolo underwhelms again, and with the Rams revived, Wilson magical and a rising Cardinals team in the division, the Niners become the fourth NFC champion in five years to miss the playoffs the following season.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
PROJECTED RECORD: 10-6
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: All the Rams needed was some stability on the offensive line. Goff picks up where he left off last December, second-round rookie RB Cam Akers fills in ably for the departed Gurley and a steadier kicking game flips a couple of close games. McVay regains golden boy status as the Rams christen SoFi Stadium in style and make it back to the Super Bowl.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Goff has another up-and-down season despite McVay’s play-calling wizardry. The bigger problem: a defense that changed coordinators and is relying on a new group of linebackers. Not even Donald and Ramsey can keep L.A.’s defense from being picked apart by athletic tight ends and running backs.
PROJECTED RECORD: 8-8
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: When you have Wilson, LB Bobby Wagner and coach Pete Carroll, you’re always in the hunt. The running game keeps the chains moving, and the Seahawks continue their charmed run in close games. But what lifts them into title contention is the pass rush, sparked by 2019 first-round pick L.J. Collier, whose rookie season was marred by an ankle injury.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The one-score games that Seattle won so often last year go the other way, and, without as many recovered fumbles bouncing their way as happened in 2019, not even Adams can keep the defense from having a disappointing year. It all adds up to the first sub-.500 season of the Wilson era.
PROJECTED RECORD: 7-9
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Hopkins gives Murray the intermediate-level threat he lacked as a rookie, and Arizona’s young receivers take a step forward. On defense a smoke-and-mirrors approach works to perfection. Murray ascends to dark-horse MVP candidate status, and Kingsbury earns Coach of the Year honors.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The defense, which struggled to slow down opposing passing games last season, again struggles to make stops. On offense, the shortened offseason prevents Murray and Hopkins from creating the necessary chemistry to thrive. Pundits begin pushing the storyline of whether Kingsbury’s offense is fit for the NFL.