In the last ten years, the NFC West has produced the team representing the NFC in five of those seasons, including three consecutive from 2012-14. The next closest division has sent a team just twice this decade. The Rams and the 49ers were the NFC champions the last two years, can the West send a third consecutive team for a second time this decade? And while that would be a great accomplishment, the teams need to do more than just get back, they need to work on their 1-4 combined record in the Super Bowl since 2012 after going 6-4 from 1979-2008. Regardless of their recent Super Bowl record, we know this is the most competitive division in the league, and this year, they are definitely living up to their reputation.
The challenge becomes, year over year, who do you bank on when the season’s end is nearing? Seattle can’t beat the Rams, the Rams can’t beat the 49ers, and every team struggles with Arizona, who usually shoots themselves in the foot. While many praised the 49ers for being a juggernaut in the playoffs last year, those same folks tend to forget that San Francisco was a botched goal line series away from ending last year as the 5 seed in the NFC, while Seattle would have won the division and been the 2 seed. Sure it’s possible the 49ers could have been just as dominant playing an extra game and going on the road the entirety of the playoffs, but who knows. This is not to take anything away from what the 49ers were last year, merely to demonstrate how tight the division race was.
The year prior, the 49ers had to deal with key players getting hurt and the Seahawks were beginning to figure out who they were after departing from their identity as the legion of boom plus Russ, and the Cardinals had no identity at all. The 49ers and Cardinals combined to win 7 games that season, while LA and Seattle won 13 and 10 respectively. Not the West’s finest season, but far from their worst. LA earned everything they got in 2018, again this in no way takes anything away from a marvelous season, it’s just tough to say what might have happened if they had a little more competition from their division rivals. By comparison, the worst team in the division last year won five games, and the other three combined for 33 wins, and the Rams barely missed out on making the playoffs. The 2013 season might be the finest the division has ever had, as all four teams finished with at least seven wins, and the four teams combined for 42 wins and just 22 losses, with the Seahawks and 49ers meeting in the NFC Championship, and the Seahawks advancing and winning the Super Bowl. Hard to top that, but we’ll see what happens in the years to come.
This year, the four teams have combined for 26 wins and just 18 losses, and are on pace to finish with 40 wins against 24 losses – their best combined totals since 2013. And if they stay on pace, all four teams could finish with winning records, and that could be a record in itself. Even with at least seven playoff spots it’s not likely three or even four teams make the postseason, but it will take a small miracle for them to send fewer than two at the rate they are at versus the rest of the conference. If the season ended today, Seattle would be the division winner and the #3 seed, LA would be the #5 seed, and Arizona would be #7 seed. Depending on how the tiebreakers shake out the 49ers could be out of the playoffs or get in by a hair. 6-5 Arizona is narrowly in front of the 5-6 49ers, Vikings and Bears, so there is not a lot of wiggle room no matter where you look. The North and South divisions are nearly wrapped up unless the Packers or Saints stumble down the stretch, but the West and East hang by a thread and anything can happen with six weeks remaining. Whoever wins the East is likely to become just the third team in the Super Bowl era to win their division with a losing record, joining the 2010 Seahawks and 2014 Panthers.
This week, the chance for the team interested in winning the division to present themselves is very real, but due to some bizarre circumstances, the opportunity also exists for the whole division to turn into one giant logjam. The Rams will play the Cardinals, while the Seahawks host the Giants and the 49ers host Buffalo – kind of. Due to Covid-19 restrictions in Santa Clara, San Francisco and Arizona will share the same stadium for at least the next couple of games, and depending on how the situation shakes out it could be until the end of the season, including a head to head game on Boxing Day of all days.
The San Francisco/Santa Clara/Glendale 49ers don’t play until Monday Night, so they have a few days to get comfortable in their new facilities before trying to become the second team to beat the Bills in State Farm Stadium, after Arizona beat the visiting Bills on a last second “hail Murray” last month. The Bills embarrassed the Rams and Seahawks for large portions of their two games in Buffalo, but looked mortal against the Cardinals, so who knows what we’ll see this week. The 49ers defense looked great last week against the Rams, shutting down the LA offense on their home turf and doing just enough on offense to escape with a win on a last minute field goal. Josh Allen has a lot of tools that Jared Goff will never have though, so don’t expect a repeat performance. I have more faith in Buffalo’s skill players than LA’s, so this could be a lot for the 49ers to handle no matter which stadium the game is played in. San Francisco is 2-1 in primetime games this season, so this is a chance for them to move to 3-1 or for Buffalo to bring them back down to earth.
If you think the 49ers playing in Arizona on Monday night sounds strange, well then how about the Rams and Cardinals playing there on Sunday afternoon? That’s right, just about 24 hours prior to the 49ers first home game in Arizona, the Cardinals will host the Rams with a chance to even their records in the division standings and close the gap between them and Seattle with no more head to head matchups remaining. The two teams will face off this weekend and then again in week 17, and with Seattle and San Francisco facing off also in week 17, we may not know who is the division winner until the end of the season.
Arizona narrowly lost on the road to New England last week, also on a field goal in the closing minute. Arizona has an elite offense, but an average defense. LA has an average offense but an elite defense, so which strength will prevail, or which weakness will ruin the other team’s chances? Both teams have had amazing performances, but both looked mortal a week ago, so who knows which version of each we’ll get when they face each other. Hopefully there will be fireworks and a high scoring game, but this could also be a slugfest, it will really depend on the attitude both teams arrive with. If it becomes a matchup of who is tougher, those games rarely produce a lot of points. But if both teams let the other play well on offense, this could be one of the highest scoring games of the season. I would expect the slugfest, but hope for the shootout. Shootouts produce more attention, but most eyes regionally will be on the Seahawks due to broadcast agreements with FOX, but for those of you with Sunday Ticket or Redzone access, this might be the game to keep an eye on regardless of your team allegiance.
Seattle hosts the Giants this Sunday in the first of three consecutive games against NFC East teams before ending the season with back to back showdowns with the Rams and 49ers. The Giants this week, the Jets next week, and the Washington Football Team in two weeks. The Giants and Jets are essentially circled wins, but Washington could prove to be trouble as they have shown new life since Alex Smith took over at QB. The Giants are without starting QB Daniel Jones this week, but their defense is legit and could be more trouble than expected. The Jets have nothing going for them, they have a struggling player at just about every spot on both sides of the ball. They are 0-11 and can’t seem to get anything going week to week. The game will be at Metlife stadium where the 49ers’ season fell apart due to injuries, let’s hope Seattle escapes with nothing more than bumps and bruises.
With Seattle in the division lead at 8-3 and the 49ers last at 5-6, there is absolutely no wiggle room in this division, regardless of where the teams stand today. LA stands at 7-4 and the Cardinals at 6-5, and if the Cardinals win this week they would leap over LA for 2nd with a half game lead and sit just a game or two behind Seattle with just four games left. If LA beats Arizona, they would remain a half game behind Seattle, or take over the lead outright if Seattle happens to flounder against the Giants.
For a season many of us wondered if it would actually happen, here we are in week 13, and there are very few weeks remaining in the regular season. So much can happen in so little time, and one thing we know about the Wild NFC West – there won’t be any boring weeks – there never are.