NFC West: Seahawks, Rams, Cardinals and 49ers battling for NFL's strongest division
Watch NFC West divisional clash between Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, live on Sky Sports NFL from 9.05pm; San Francisco 49ers take on Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football, 1.15am, Tuesday
By Cameron Hogwood
Last Updated: 06/12/20 8:46am
The teams of the NFC West look disdainfully across to the carnage in the NFC East and they sigh, knowing a playoff berth would be near-guaranteed were they sat on the opposite coast.
While the NFC West enters Week 13 with a league-best points differential of +138, the NFC East sits with a league-worst at -189, with the last-placed San Francisco 49ers' 5-6 record good enough to claim top spot ahead of the New York Giants, who lead their division at 4-7.
The Seattle Seahawks currently occupy the No 3 seed in the NFC behind the Green Bay Packers and the 9-2 New Orleans Saints, followed by the Los Angeles Rams at No 5 and the Arizona Cardinals at No 7. Looking from the outside in, the 49ers remain in the hunt with a 5-6 record alongside the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings.
While all four teams reaching the postseason in an NFL first looks unlikely, there is a very real opportunity for three to make the cut.
NFC West standings
|Los Angeles Rams||7||4||0||.636|
|San Francisco 49ers||5||6||0||.455|
Seattle Seahawks - 1st (8-3)
Remaining games: Seahawks
|December 6||v New York Giants|
|December 13||v New York Jets|
|December 20||@ Washington Football Team|
|December 27||v Los Angeles Rams|
|January 3||@ San Francisco 49ers|
Monday night's win over the Philadelphia Eagles means Seattle sit top of the division as they close in on their ninth playoff season out of 11 since Pete Carroll's arrival as head coach in 2010.
Russell Wilson and the Seahawks' fifth-ranked offense have largely compensated for glaring deficiencies on defense, for which they are ranked dead-last in the NFL. Barring uncharacteristic mistakes against the Buffalo Bills and the Rams, Wilson has yet again planted himself firmly in the MVP hunt with the second-best completion percentage in the league (70.7) and second-most touchdown passes (31) so far this year.
After a 5-0 start to the campaign, across which Wilson was electric, the Seahawks lost three of their next four, including an overtime defeat to the Cardinals and their quarterback's worst game of the season against the Rams. Back-to-back victories over Arizona and the Eagles have since, however, put them back on track.
D.K. Metcalf has already surpassed 1,000 yards receiving amid a spectacular sophomore year. "There is no more fun connection in football right now," Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio said this week. "Metcalf is one of the most exciting receivers in the NFL."
On the opposite sideline, Tyler Lockett continues to be a perfect match for Wilson's ability to extend plays and the Seahawks have now been boosted by the return of running back Chris Carson. This offense is not a problem.
On the other side, Bobby Wagner has again held up to his side of the deal, Jamal Adams has enhanced his production in recent weeks and Carlos Dunlap has made a difference with four sacks since arriving from the Cincinnati Bengals.
This team will go nowhere in the postseason unless its leaky defense can find some consistency, but PFT's Chris Simms has been encouraged by what he has seen of late, particularly in Monday's win over the Eagles.
"The defense, for the second week in a row, had moments where they were able to smother," he said. "The defensive line was dominant, Adams pops up of course, and they seem to have got it together in the back-end coverage wise the last few weeks. That's encouraging for them in any Super Bowl run."
Los Angeles Rams - 2nd (7-4)
Remaining games: Rams
|December 6||@ Arizona Cardinals|
|December 10||v New England Patriots|
|December 20||v New York Jets|
|December 27||@ Seattle Seahawks|
|January 3||v Arizona Cardinals|
Even if it has come occasionally without reward in the form of wins, Aaron Donald has proven, on more than one occasion this season, his ability to single-handedly impact games.
With 10 sacks - second-most in the NFL - he is the staple of a Rams defense which ranks second overall, third against the pass, fourth against the run and fourth in scoring. And that unit will need to hit such heights in the coming weeks with two crucial match-ups against the Cardinals' second-ranked offense and one versus Wilson and the Seahawks still to come.
The Rams have unearthed valuable support for cornerback Jalen Ramsey in Darious Williams, who has four interceptions and 13 pass defenses, while Michael Brockers and Leonard Floyd have been added disruptions at the line of scrimmage.
This is a team that just needs its quarterback to be efficient in order to be a threat.
"It's the same thing we always say about Jared Goff," said Simms. "We know he can win football games - but we've seen nine out of 10 times that, if they can't run the ball, when all these 'McVay specials' don't work, Goff is below average when it comes to being a drop-back, pocket, franchise quarterback."
Head coach Sean McVay has generally done an outstanding job of putting Goff in a position to succeed, deploying an effective scheme built on versatility out of the back field through Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown, the yards after catch prowess of Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, and constant motioning to set up the play-action.
But, as with the Seahawks on defense, the Rams' concern down the stretch will be the play of Goff and finding some consistency on offense.
Arizona Cardinals - 3rd (6-5)
Remaining games: Cardinals
|December 6||v Los Angeles Rams|
|December 13||@ New York Giants|
|December 20||v Philadelphia Eagles|
|December 26||v San Francisco 49ers|
|January 3||@ Los Angeles Rams|
Kliff Kingsbury's Cardinals are a lot of fun and a team that most would love to see in the playoffs for the Kyler Murray factor, but there is an aura of uncertainty about them amid a run of just one win in their last four.
It comes as no surprise that the Cardinals have been at their most explosive when Murray has been productive on the ground, which has not been the case against the Patriots (five carries, 31 yards) or the Seahawks (five carries, 15 yards) over the last two weeks.
"Murray's production has dropped - teams are figuring out how to defend him," Florio said on PFT. "They have found a way to maybe minimise the damage he can do - force him to stay in the pocket.
"This team is now 6-5; you take away the 'Hail Murray', they're 5-6 and struggling to stay in the playoff field. It's not going to be an easy road for the Cardinals the rest of the way."
Murray's 650 rushing yards for 10 touchdowns reflect just how explosive he has been with his legs and, while his passing figures do not jump off the page, there has actually been improvement on the accuracy issues he had heading into the season.
The Cardinals are ranked fourth in rushing offense, although they have not necessarily had a lot of success on the ground outside of Murray, with neither Chase Edmonds or Kenyan Drake convincing as legitimate lead backs.
DeAndre Hopkins, while being one part of that sensational 'Hail Murray' touchdown in the dying seconds of the win over the Bills a few weeks back, has actually had a few quieter games than Kingsbury would have liked, and he would have expected to have more than four touchdown catches by Week 13.
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph's unit has been okay, nothing more. The Cards currently rank 15th on defense overall, a worry being that they have allowed a combined 146 points over their last five games.
There is a lot of talent on this team, but how far are they capable of going at this early stage in the Kingsbury tenure?
San Francisco 49ers - 4th (5-6)
Remaining games: 49ers
|December 7||v Buffalo Bills|
|December 13||v Washington Football Team|
|December 20||@ Dallas Cowboys|
|December 26||@ Arizona Cardinals|
|January 3||v Seattle Seahawks|
"The 49ers, their year - wow," said Simms. "There's Covid, the Super Bowl loss, a record-breaking number of injuries - we've never really seen that, especially a defending NFC champion, have to deal with that.
"Now they've got to deal with this [moving their home games to Arizona] too. That is some curveball to have to throw into an organisation.
"I'm amazed at all of the obstacles the 49ers have had to overcome this year. They're still a good-looking football team."
Despite some torrid luck with injuries early on in the season, the 49ers have been resilient in avoiding drifting too far, to the point where playoff talk remains justified.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has been a significant factor behind that, ahead of an offseason in which he will no doubt be a candidate for multiple head coach vacancies.
The Niners are ranked sixth overall on total defense, fourth against the pass, 10th against the run and 11th in scoring. Not bad considering they traded away DeForest Buckner in the offseason, before losing 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa and Dee Ford to injury, along with their free agent replacement Ziggy Ansah, as well as spending time without veteran cornerback Richard Sherman.
Linebacker Fred Warner has continued his ascent as one of the best, if not the best, in his position in the NFL, Kerry Hyder Jr. is a surprise figure in the top 10 for sacks, with 7.5, and rookie defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw has seen his role expand as the season has progressed.
Injuries have also hampered Kyle Shanahan's offense, which has had to fare for significant periods without starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, elite tight end George Kittle, multi-purpose weapon Deebo Samuel and last season's team-leader in rushing yards Raheem Mostert.
That is without also mentioning the likes of running backs Tevin Coleman and Jeff Wilson, tight end Jordan Reed and rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who have all been sidelined at some stage.
The importance of Samuel to Shanahan's scheme was reminded in Week 12 as he made 11 catches for 133 yards in the win over the Rams in his first game since October 25. His pre-snap motion and jet sweeps, usually in tandem with the blocking of Kittle and full-back Kyle Juszczyk, completely opens up this offense.
"They're a team to where I go, 'watch out!' If they get in the playoffs," added Simms. "You don't want to see them coming to town - not with that run game, and Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and company."
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