Were one forced to name pro football’s strongest division heading into Week 1 of this season, the NFC West would undoubtedly be the choice.
That starts with the Rams, who made the biggest move of the offseason when they acquired Matthew Stafford from the Lions. With Jared Goff under center the past three seasons, coach Sean McVay had to limit his play designs, last year relying on horizontal misdirection concepts and short passes that made it difficult for Los Angeles to score points quickly when necessary. Enter Stafford, whose elite arm talent and natural feel for out-of-structure playmaking open up all kinds of possibilities. On defense the challenge will be to remain elite after losing whiz kid coordinator Brandon Staley, who took the Chargers’ head-coaching job. This unit, led by Aaron Donald at tackle and fellow All-Pro Jalen Ramsey at cornerback, surrendered the fewest points and yards in the NFL last season. If new DC Raheem Morris can maintain anything close to that level—and health will be key with such a star-reliant roster—the Rams will be as good as anyone in the NFC.
The 49ers know all about how important staying healthy is. The team that led in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV the previous year fell to 6–10 after a blizzard of injuries in 2020. The return of game-changing edge rusher Nick Bosa from a torn left ACL is obviously good news, but the San Francisco defense lost its coordinator, Robert Saleh, to the Jets, and will be playing under a new boss, rookie coordinator DeMeco Ryans. The offense gets back Jimmy Garoppolo, who didn’t play particularly well during San Francisco’s Super Bowl run and will be challenged by rookie QB Trey Lance, whom the Niners traded up nine spots to choose at No. 3 in April. The 6' 4", 224-pound Lance played only one game last year (and at the FCS level), but comes from a North Dakota State program that has been effective in preparing its quarterbacks for the pros. If nothing else, his elite mobility would add a terrifying element to an already potent rushing attack.
The Seahawks’ legendary Legion of Boom defenses were built around a world-class secondary playing behind a dominant pass rush, but this year’s team has neither. Coach Pete Carroll and coordinator Ken Norton Jr. will have to find a way to apply pressure, perhaps with the help of safety Jamal Adams, who struggled in coverage but thrived as a blitzer last year. Russell Wilson will work with new coordinator Shane Waldron, poached from the Rams. Seattle embraced the “Let Russ Cook” mantra early last season, only to abandon it after a run of ugly turnovers by Wilson. Waldron’s challenge will be to maximize a unique quarterback who hasn’t thrived outside of an attack that is run-first and heavy on play-action.
With the Cardinals, despite a trade for all-world receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense looked stale last season. There will be little margin for error for the coach in 2021, considering how heavily Arizona has invested in a win-now roster while third-year QB Kyler Murray is still on his inexpensive rookie contract. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph did an admirable job with a shorthanded roster a year ago, and now that group has been fortified with the additions of free-agent end J.J. Watt and first-round inside linebacker Zaven Collins from Tulsa.
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Predicted Order of Finish
1. RAMS (13–4)
Best Case: Stafford proves to be everything L.A. hoped for, allowing McVay to craft his most prolific attack ever. Donald and Ramsey stay healthy through 17 games and the defense is one of the league’s five best units, even after losing Staley. It all adds up to a Super Bowl appearance in their home stadium.
Worst Case: Stafford’s ability to make plays late in the down is what had McVay pining for him, but too often the 33-year-old QB ends up taking big hits in the process. He limps through the stretch run, and the defense isn’t as dominant without Staley calling the shots; the Rams make the playoffs but go out with a whimper.
2. 49ERS (11–6, Wild-Card)
Best Case: Health is the difference here, as the defense recaptures its 2019 form and Garoppolo even plays well enough to hold off Lance. Not only do the 49ers make a Super Bowl return, but they also get a torrent of trade offers for both of their QBs next winter.
Worst Case: The injury bug doesn’t bite them as badly as it did a year ago, but the defense just isn’t the same without Saleh. Garoppolo underwhelms and gives way to Lance, whose performance reflects his inexperience. The Niners go into the New Year fighting for their playoff lives.
3. SEAHAWKS (9–8)
Best Case: The Seahawks' defense isn’t exactly a force, but it is good enough. That’s mostly true with Wilson and new coordinator Waldron clicking, putting Seattle back in the Super Bowl hunt.
Worst Case: Seattle still has no pass rush, which places a burden on the revamped secondary that can’t handle it. Wilson does his thing, but shootouts aren’t what the Seahawks do best. They miss the playoffs, setting up an offseason of questions about Wilson’s future in Seattle.
4. CARDINALS (5–12)
Best Case: Kingsbury and Murray turn the Cardinals’ offense into something beyond the college-style Air Raid it has been. Meanwhile, Watt leads a dominant pass rush that consistently closes out opponents, putting Arizona back in the playoffs.
Worst Case: It turns out the late-season struggles of 2020 were a harbinger of things to come. Murray can’t create magic often enough to carry an offense that is quickly becoming outdated. On defense, the pass rush looks its age. Come January, the Cards head back to the drawing board again.
More Division Previews:
AFC East: Can the Bills Hold Off the New-Look Pats?
AFC North: Cleveland's Time Has Arrived
AFC South: Titans and Colts Rise to the Top
AFC West: The Chiefs, and Then What?
NFC East: It Can Only Get Better
NFC North: Leaders Are the Pack, Again
NFC South: The Champs Have Room to Improve