The best division in football rolls into 2014 as the only division with two teams who have double digits win totals. Not surprising, after three teams posted 10+ wins last year and 4th place St Louis went a very respectable 7-9. Seattle edged out the 49ers by a game to take the division crown, and then the two met in the NFC Championship Game; a slug fest that Seattle would narrowly win. Led by their ferocious defenses, these two teams were clearly the best of the NFL last year as Seattle obliterated Denver in the Super Bowl.
Arizona drew the short straw in the NFC last year, as their 10-6 record left them out of the playoffs. The last place Rams bring back a stout defense, but lost QB Sam Bradford for the year this preseason.
The West is a division that sent a 7-9 champ to the playoffs in 2010; now it’s the best division in football. You could chalk that up to parody, but all four teams have drafted exceptionally well.
The NFC West draws the NFC East and the AFC West in the schedule rotation. Can San Francisco or Seattle represent the NFC in the Super Bowl again? Can St. Louis or Arizona crack into the top two? Let’s take a look.
Win totals are from www.scoresandodds.com. Win total posted with juice on the over and under, respectively.
St. Louis Rams 6.5 wins (-115/-105): The clear winners of the RG3 trade are now loaded on defense, which is why many like them as a sleeper this season. Their front seven is stacked with pass rushers, including Robert Quinn (19 sacks last season) and former UVa standout Chris Long. The Rams had 53 sacks last season and added 1st round pick Aaron Donald from Pitt in the 2014 draft, who had 29.5 sacks during his All-American college career. The secondary is a weak link, but Janoris Jenkins has shown promise.
The big story with the Rams is the season ending injury to Sam Bradford. While many felt this was a crippling blow to the team, if you look back last year the Rams went 3-4 with Bradford and 4-5 with Kellen Clemens, a very underwhelming alternative. This season the reigns of the offense will be handed to Shaun Hill, a pretty competent NFL QB. Hill is an eight year veteran with 26 career starts; the past three seasons he spent backing up Matthew Stafford in Detroit. Bradford has been underwhelming as a pro, and the team has shown it can win without him. Tavon Austin and Zac Stacy are a pair of promising skill players that could help Hill get his sea legs back. Jared Cook is a key guy who really needs to step up. The tight end teases Rams fans with flashes of brilliance, followed by mediocre efforts. His emergence would be a huge lift for the offense that also features Kenny Britt and Austin Pettis.
The offensive line is pretty solid, another reason to like St. Louis. Jake Long is recovering from surgery, but guys like Roger Saffold and 1st round pick (another RG3 pick) Greg Robinson make up a formidable OLine.
Jeff Fisher has guided the Rams to seven wins in each of his two seasons with the Rams. He’s one of the more highly regarded coaches in the league, and in year three of his regime he will have even more of his own guys suiting up. The Rams were the best last place team in football last year, which still gives them the benefit of a last place schedule (Vikings & @Redskins). They also play the rest of the tepid NFC East. After a week four bye, they have a killer six game stretch that will make or break the season, that features four out of six road games, two games against the 49ers and a game against the Seahawks.
Gun to head: Over. This definitely seems like a low number. They also get both 49ers games out of the way before Aldon Smith and NaVarro Bowman return.
Our own free will: Over, lock it up. This is a talented team with a pretty manageable schedule. Don’t stress the Bradford injury.
Arizona Cardinals 7.5 wins (-160/+140): A ten win team from a year ago gets pegged at 7.5 wins the following season and everyone bites on the over. Looks like a sucker bet to us, especially when the over relies on 34 year old Carson Palmer and a defense that had its heart ripped out during the off season.
It was an off season of suspensions and the Cardinals weren’t immune. Linebacker Daryl Washington, one of the best defensive players in the league, was suspended for the 2014 season due to a failed drug test for Marijuana. This news came after Karlos Dansby left via free agency. The final blow came in August when Darnell Dockett blew his knee out, costing him the season. Dockett had regressed, but is still a driving force of that defense who will be missed. Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson form one of the most dynamic and electrifying corner back tandems in the league, but the other losses on defense are a huge blow. Calais Campbell continues to be one of the most underrated players in the league, coming off a nine sack season.
On offense, Palmer is joined by some talented skill players including All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald and running back Andre Ellington, who looks poised for a break out year. The offensive line is solid and picked up Jared Veldheer from Oakland. Still, Palmer better get a lot of protection from that line and production from Ellington, because the rest of the division brings a ton of pressure on the QB.
The Cardinals were impressive last season and should have been in the playoffs if it weren’t for the current playoff structure that rewards division champs, regardless of record (the 8-7-1 Packers took Arizona’s spot since they won the North). Bruce Arians has done a great job with this team and the desert has always been a tough place to play. It seems like every season they pull a couple big upsets there. Last season, they won at Seattle week 16 and lost at home to San Francisco week 17 in a very close OT game. Still, those loses on defense are huge and Palmer is another year older and slower. It seems highly unlikely he starts close to 16 games this season with all those defenses he has to face within the division. The back end of the schedule gets tough, with a back to back road trip that includes a trip to Seattle as well as a trip to St. Louis on a Thursday night.
Gun to head: Under, and at +140 to boot. This will be a one season blip for the Cardinals as that last stretch of the schedule will do them in. This is a team on the right path, just in the wrong division right now.
Our own free will: Under. This number stinks. 6-10 team
San Francisco 49ers 10.5 wins (+150/-175): The soap opera of the 49ers offseason keeps on spinning. Ray McDonald is the latest entrant into the chaotic summer as he was arrested over the weekend under the suspicion of domestic violence. This happened after Aldon Smith was suspended for the first nine games of the season, Alex Boone ended a hold out after sitting out the off season, Kendall Hunter and Glenn Dorsey both went down with season ending injuries, their new stadium already had its turf ripped up due to unsafe playing conditions and Jim Harbaugh was involved in a rumored trade to the Browns. Other than that, not much happened this summer.
On the plus side this is still a loaded roster, one of the best in the league. The 49ers have consistently loaded up on draft picks and let most free agents walk over the past few seasons, leaving them with a very deep roster of relatively cheap talent. Offensively, they should improve on last year. Colin Kaepernick has another season under his belt and a new contract. Getting paid can adversely effect a players performance, but there is such a veteran presence on this team it doesn’t seem like a place where a guy can get paid and then get away with loafing. Michael Crabtree should be fully recovered now from his Achilles tear that cost him a lot of the 2013 season. Stevie Johnson came over in a trade from Buffalo to serve as a #3 WR and Anquan Boldin showed no signs of slowing down last year. Vernon Davis is still a productive tight end and full back Bruce Miller will be back to serve as the Swiss Army Knife of the offense, a role Delanie Walker flourished in before leaving for more money in Tennessee. The loss of Miller late last season was a huge blow to the offense, as Greg Roman can use him in the passing game and running game. The offensive line is still very solid, led by Joe Staley, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis. The Niners dodged another injury bullet when Marcus Martin hurt his knee in preseason. He will miss time, but not the entire season. Martin is a rookie from USC who will most likely end the season as the starting center. Frank Gore keeps ticking, and Carlos Hyde had a fantastic preseason. The rookie from Ohio State is clearly the #2 RB for the Niners, as Hunter, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore deal with injuries.
On defense, the Smith, Dorsey and NoVarro Bowman losses are definitely huge. Ray McDonald could also miss games once more details emerge on his case. The Niners are so deep on the front seven, that they may actually be able to survive the loss of all those players. Guys like Michael Wilhoite, Corey Lemonier and Tony Jerod-Eddy definitely aren’t house hold names, but they have been in the system for a few seasons and will get a chance to contribute. All have shown promise in limited action, and there’s no reason to believe Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio won’t have them ready to play. Someone to watch for out of the rookie class is Linebacker Aaron Lynch. A 5th round selection out of South Florida, Lynch started his career at Notre Dame. He has the talent to be a big time play maker, but had conditioning and motivation issues in college. With a veteran coaching staff and team around him, Lynch could flourish. He looked like an animal in preseason. The secondary lost Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, but added 1st round pick Jimmie Ward and free agent Antoine Bethea. Tramaine Brock will start now, and is actually an upgrade from Rogers.
The Niners schedule is back loaded with home games. Both Seattle games are near the end of the season, so Aldon Smith won’t miss either of them. Back to back trips to New Orleans and New York to face the Giants will no doubt be sandwiched around a week long stay in Youngstown, Ohio, where they have stayed before when met with back to back east coast trips. They keep their body clocks normal rather than facing the dreaded east coast flight two weeks in a row. A Monday night trip to St. Louis followed by a Sunday night trip to Denver is daunting, but gets followed by their bye week.
If you read the headlines, and look at the price for the under bet, you’d think the sky is falling in San Francisco. They didn’t look sharp in the preseason, but Harbaugh and the staff treat the exhibition games as nothing more than a walk through. With three consecutive deep playoff runs, the Niners have been to keep their coaching staff intact. This will help them greatly with all the new faces coming into the lineup this season. There are some young and talented guys on defense ready to take advantage of their new found playing time and a veteran offense led by Kaepernick that is thirsty for a trip back to the Super Bowl.
Gun to head: Over. Everyone’s down on this team. Great opportunity to take advantage of a +150 price tag.
Our own free will: Strong lean over. Concern would be the strength of the division. 10-6 would be a very respectable year, but a loser for our purposes.
Seattle Seahawks 11.5 wins (+120/-140): We won’t spend much time on Seattle, as the nation got to see last night how loaded they are this year. After last night, people would be all over that +120 price on the over. Virginia Beach’s own Percy Harvin is obviously a huge difference maker, after missing most of last season. The defense didn’t seem to miss Brandon Browner, Chris Clemons or Red Bryant much, although Green Bay’s OLine suffered a huge first half loss when Bryan Bulaga went down. An already thin line was a disaster after that injury and the Packer offense never really got going. The Earl Thomas punt return experiment might already be over, as he looked totally lost fielding punts. His fumble set up a Packer TD. Two games in three weeks near the end of the season versus the 49ers will be the obvious highlights of the schedule. Denver gets a Super Bowl rematch in Seattle in a couple weekends in what could be the highest rated game of the season. The Seahawks look good, but we still think this number is just too high.
Gun to head: Under. Everyone’s drinking the Kool-Aid, but 11.5 is a crazy high number in the NFC West.
Our own free will: Moot point, since the season started. We posted on our Facebook page last night Seattle was a pass for us.