Well, we’re six weeks into the 2019 NFL season and a few clear trends have started to reveal themselves. From around the league, NFL teams are showing their true intentions and strategies about how they see themselves, their competition, and their potential path to the playoffs and beyond.
For example, the Miami Dolphins are tanking their season to jumpstart a draft-led rebuild, the New England Patriots are dominating their cupcake schedule with defense, and the New Orleans Saints are successfully keeping their heads above water until future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Drew Brees returns from a thumb injury.
But in our home division, the NFC West, where the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams, and Arizona Cardinals are (almost) all fiercely fighting their way through the season, things are more competitive right now than they have been in years.
And it’s awesome. Let’s break it down a bit further.
Fresh off their third road win of the year, defeating the Cleveland Browns 32-28, the Seahawks are hot and tackling their tougher-then-average schedule effectively. Sitting at 5-1, with 2 division wins, the Hawks appear to be clicking as a team at the right time and ready to go on a run.
Led by MVP frontrunner, Russell Wilson has looked nothing short of extraordinary by overcoming an inferior offensive line with quick releases and carving up opposing defenses with short, mid, and long-range attacks. Unlike seasons past, where one or two receivers were involved in the offense beyond the run-first approach, this year we’re seeing a much-more diverse group of pass-catchers playing critical roles each week. Through six games this season, Tyler Lockett, D.K. Metcalf, Jaron Brown, Will Dissly, and Chris Carson have all had at least 10 receptions and two touchdowns.
Defensively, the season started on shaky footing, but as players have developed under real-game experience and newer individuals started playing as a cohesive unit with a singular goal, things have come under greater control over the last few weeks. And as injured players get healthy and rejoin the team, I consider the defense we’ve seen to date as the team’s floor, and the ceiling is yet to be defined.
Coming up, the Seahawks host the Baltimore Ravens, fly to face the Atlanta Falcons, return home for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and head south to face currently undefeated division rivals, the San Francisco 49ers before a week 11 BYE. While each of those teams is dangerous in their own ways, the Hawks look poised to fully unleash their Wilson-powered team and challenge everyone else to try and stop them.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
Oh boy, the Los Angeles Rams are doing some interesting things. Entering this season, it was easy to pick the Rams as a top-three NFC favorite. After a Super Bowl appearance and an entire offseason of praise for head coach, Sean Mcvay’s innovative play-calling, the Rams looked ready to dominate the NFC West, but oh how things have changed.
The Rams gave big contracts to their young quarterback, Jared Goff and star running back, Todd Gurley, but both players have thus far failed to live up to them. It appears now that Goff’s 2018 success were at least partially due to Gurley’s dominance–and unfortunately for the Rams, Gurley’s knee is hurt, his play has suffered, and defenses are focusing on Goff. So, even though the Rams have arguably the best three receivers of any team (except for maybe the Browns), if Goff doesn’t have enough time to make a read, identify an open ball-catcher, and deliver a clean pass, he’s in trouble.
Last weekend, the Rams lost to the San Francisco 49ers in a critical inter-divisional matchup that may have season-long consequences for both teams. For the Rams, this was their second divisional loss (after their week 5 loss to the Hawks), sending their standings to 3-3 on the season.
In reaction, earlier this week, the Rams traded for star cornerback, Jalen Ramsey, significantly boosting their defense against passing attacks. While it’s too early to know exactly how Mcvay will deploy him and how long it’ll take him to fully integrated into the team scheme, his impact will be felt by every team they face moving forward. Even so, Ramsey’s elite talent didn’t come cheap. The Ram’s gave up a 1st round 2020 draft pick as well as 1st round and 4th round 2021 draft picks–and that doesn’t include any sort of long-term contract. To me, this clearly signals the Ram’s commitment to winning now, but perhaps at the cost of the next few years. In a division as competitive as the NFC West, this seems like an oddly desperate move to me.
Rookie Kyler Murray hasn’t taken over the league in the same way that some other #1 overall drafted players do, and that’s a good thing for the Cardinals. Despite only having two wins to show for their efforts this season, there are more positive signs of things to come than negative ones. As a highly mobile quarterback, Murray presents an uncommon talent for an offensive-minded coach to effectively utilize, but they’re taking the time to develop him and a team around him to eventually do just that. They’re running more plays and faster plays, and so far, that combination is demonstrating an ability to score points. Not win games, yet, but score points.
To me, it appears that the Cardinals are astutely aware that this isn’t their season, it never was, but next season and the several after are. And they look ready to construct a contending team hoping to fill the vacuum left by the soon-to-be-financially-strapped Rams.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
And now we turn our eyes to the undefeated 49ers…
While I can’t deny the wins, the defense, or the talented rushing attack, the 49ers haven’t convinced me yet of their divisional dominance. Don’t get me wrong, a team can go far, really far, on a strong defense and running game (sound familiar?), but to excel at the highest levels of the NFL, you’ve got to have a quarterback. And the 49ers have gone all-in on Jimmy Garoppolo.
Now, Jimmy G has been okay this season, maybe even good, but certainly not great. He hasn’t thrown more than 300 yards in a game (twice he hasn’t even cleared 200), he only has 8 touchdowns, and he has committed 7 turnovers. Additionally, the teams the 49ers have faced three very beatable teams this season (Buccaneers, Bengals, Steelers) and they also had their BYE week. Meaning, it’s a long, up-hill road to the playoffs ahead of them.
Not this week, as they face the Washington Redskins. Woof. But after that, they’ll have to beat the Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, and the Seahawks twice. So, while it’s nice they have banked several wins against the easier teams on their schedule, I think there are some reality checks coming their way. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe they’ll surprise everyone in the back half of the year, I’m not buying it yet.
Personally, I’m still penciling the week 10 game in San Francisco against the Hawks (11/11/19) as the most significant game to determine the divisional playoff picture. There’re multiple games between now and then, and things could wildly shift as wins and losses accrue, if things hold close to the path they’re currently on, it should be a game to remember that calls back to the Hawks/49ers rivalry of a few years ago.
That rivalry, if you recall, was the best in the league. And the Seahawks won it. Full stop.
This weekend, there are several things from within the NFC West that I’m looking forward to watching. First, seeing the MVP Wilson led Seahawks pick apart the Ravens. Second, studying how the Rams deploy Ramsey against the Bengals. Third, continuing to see how the Cardinals and Murray grow together against the Saints. And fourth, watching everyone overreact to the 49ers demolish the Redskins, which is all but assured.
Also, for the first time in 5 years I’ll be attending the Seahawks game in person. And I’m looking forward to reporting about the experience from the nosebleeds.