Just few short years ago the NFC West was horrific. The Seattle Seahawks took the division crown in 2010 with a 7-9 record, edging the St. Louis Rams through a tiebreaker. The San Francisco 49ers finished 6-10 and the Arizona Cardinals were 5-11. That’s a combined 25-39 record for all of you mathematicians out there.
Shortly after that 2010 regular season, two things happened which changed the fortunes for this division forever: the epic Marshawn Lynch “beast-mode” run against the New Orleans Saints in the 2010 Divisional Round; and the 49ers hiring Jim Harbaugh during the 2011 off-season.
Since those two-moves, the NFC West has transformed into the toughest division in the NFL. The 49ers represented the NFC in Super Bowl XLVII and the Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII, not to mention the Cardinals boasted a 10-6 record last season as they were the top team in the league to miss the playoffs.
Here is our preview and predictions for the NFC West in 2014.
San Francisco 49ers (13-3):
Quite probably the best way to describe the 49ers attitude for 2014 is one of rage. Revenge is on their minds after their bitter loss to the Seahawks in last January’s NFC Championship game. Since Richard Sherman swatted away Colin Kaepernick’s pass, Harbaugh and the 49ers have been gearing up this off-season to get back to that exact spot in 2014.
While the NFC West crown might simply go to the team that remains healthiest (between the 49ers and Seahawks), we’ll give the edge to the 49ers for now based on the simple fact that hunger cannot be underestimated.
Bringing in veteran WR Stevie Johnson from Buffalo will help QB Colin Kaepernick, and adds another weapon to the deliberate and methodic offense Harbaugh loves so much. All-Pro TE Vernon Davis held-out from camp for a nanosecond, but has since reported. 31-year-old RB Frank Gore is still chugging along as he’s coming off another great season posting 1,128 rushing yards and nine TD’s, according to ProFootballReference.com.
While the offense has great talent, the defense is where this team makes their mark and is still one of the top two-units in the game.
The 49ers top pass-rusher, OLB Aldon Smith, will be back after missing the final five-games of the 2013 season due to substance-abuse related issues. Very few faces have changed on defense, but a familiar face in MLB Navarro Bowman will have all eyes on him as he attempts to come back from a gruesome leg injury in the NFC Championship game.
As long as Kaepernick does not take a step back, and the season-ending injuries to RB’s LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter do not come back to haunt them, the 49ers are in store for another great season.
Seattle Seahawks (12-4):
The defending champions finished 13-3 last season, and hosted the best game of the year as they knocked off the aforementioned 49ers in the NFC Title game 23-16. The game had everything. It showcased hard-hits, trash-talk, marvelous skill and perfect execution from the top-two teams in the league.
The question for the Seahawks is this: are they hungry enough to get back there this season? All of the 31 other teams in this league will be gunning for the champs. Can they handle it? If the evidence lies in parallel with their poised leader, QB Russell Wilson, then the obvious answer is of course they can.
Only entering his third NFL season, Wilson is as cool as they come at the position. While he does not tear up the box score, he leads his team in a fashion that any coach can dream of, and head coach Pete Carroll is thankful. Not only is he thankful for Wilson, but he still believes the youngster hasn’t even come close to his ceiling.
“Russell’s just a young guy figuring it out. Of course, he applies himself so well that you think that he’s OK. I think that would be a tragic mistake. He’s just developing. He’s just coming on. He needs work fundamentally. He needs work on the principles of what we’re doing,” Carroll said to TheMMQB.com’s Peter King this past March, according to NFL.com.
With DB’s Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas now locked up through the year 2018 and most of the roster still very youthful, there aren’t many issues or holes to consider on this team. RB Marshawn Lynch is now 28 and continues to receive headlines for all the wrong reasons off the field. No worries there however, as they are loaded at the position with Christine Michael and Robert Turbin waiting in the wings.
Speedy WR Percy Harvin was the Seahawks star-acquisition of the 2013 off-season. He missed all but one regular season game. So, now in 2014, the Seahawks star-acquisition is once again Harvin as if they receive any production from the oft-injured star, it will add-on to an already loaded roster and help Wilson’s development.
Arizona Cardinals (8-8):
The Cardinals were one of the bigger surprises in the league last season as they won double-digit games under first-year head coach Bruce Arians. QB Carson Palmer came in and added much-needed stability as he tossed 24 TD’s and threw for 4,274 yards.
WR Larry Fitzgerald is back, and will be Palmer’s top target once again. What has Arizona fans in a tizzy though is the further development of RB Andre Ellington. Ellington split time with starter Rashard Mendenhall in 2013. Now though Mendenhall is gone and the elusive Ellington will be heavily featured in both the running and passing attack.
Rookie WR John Brown has created a nice buzz this summer and Arians will surely squeeze him into the offensive game-plan as well. Second-year FS Tyrann Mathieu is ahead of schedule as he comes back from a late-season knee injury. All indications are that he is way ahead of schedule.
The schedule gets a little tougher in 2014, and this is where the Cardinals could take a step back from their 10-6 record in 2013. Last season the NFC West played the AFC South division, where the Cards cleaned house and went 4-0 in those games. In 2014, the West will face their counterparts in the AFC West which includes defending the AFC Champion Denver Broncos; the very tough Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers.
St. Louis Rams (8-8):
The Rodney Dangerfield of the NFC West is most definitely the St. Louis Rams. As of right now, they do not get “any respect” and most write them off as a young and upcoming team. For a team that has won 7 games the past two-seasons could “now” finally be their time?
Head coach Jeff Fisher is one of the best in the business. He is entering his third-season as Rams coach and will look upon QB Sam Bradford to take that leap and lead the Rams to a winning season, which would be their first since 2003.
Since being taken first-overall in the 2010 Draft, Bradford has done one thing exceptionally well in this league: getting injured. In 2011 he only played 10 games and last season only suited up for seven-games after an ACL-injury against the Carolina Panthers ended his season. The fact that Bradford cannot develop if he’s off the field is a simple fact, yet harsh.
Second-year best RB Zac Stacy returns to assume the role of work-horse for the offense. Stacy rumbled for seven TD’s and 973 yards last season. He returns to an offense that will love to run the ball behind a very strong offensive line.
Rookie first-round pick Greg Robinson and free-agent acquisition all-pro T Jake Long will create a left side of the line that will be second-to-none in this league. It will allow for a great rushing attack and for Bradford to feel comfortable. The nagging question all year will be whether Bradford will come through or not.
While by overall record, the NFC West takes a step back in 2014, no team in the division will finish with a losing record.
Both the 49ers and Seahawks will once again meet in the playoffs, but this time it will take place in San Francisco as they’ll get a chance to knock off the defending champs without the help from their famed “12th Man.”