2016 NFC West Previews & Predictions

Michael Bennett & Cliff Avril sandwich Drew Brees amid the din of Qwest Field.

Michael Bennett & Cliff Avril sandwich Drew Brees amid the din of Qwest Field.

If you go back to last year’s NFC Divisional Round, the Seattle Seahawks learned the hard way how valuable the homefield advantage was they had enjoyed the previous two seasons. After having traveled 8,931 miles in round trips to Phoenix, Minnesota in the Wildcard, then taking the field in Carolina, they were an exhausted team. Falling behind 31-0 by halftime to the eventual NFC Champion Panthers. Their season came to a close with a 31-24 defeat at the hands of Cam Newton and company.

In an attempt to make it to their 3rd Super Bowl in 4 years, Seattle needs to draw teams up to the Pacific Northwest. Let them fatigue with the travel. Yet a question remains: So who are they?? The team that fell behind big in Carolina or the team that came roaring back outscoring them 24-0 in the 2nd half??

seahawksalt22016 NFC West Predictions

Seattle Seahawks 12-4**

Arizona Cardinals 10-6*

San Francisco 49ers 6-10

LA Rams 4-12

The first question that will arise from the desert will invariably be: “What about the Arizona Cardinals? They won the NFC West last year?”

Which is 100% true. Yet let’s take you back to week 17 of the 2016 campaign and offer the genesis why they aren’t favored.

In week 10 the Cardinals had knocked off the Seahawks in a rousing 39-32 road win to become the media darling of the NFC West. National sports shows and pundits flocked to the desert to interview this team. Some even waxed philosophical about Carson Palmer for league MVP, he was having that good of a season. Yet a date with an old bully loomed in the last week of the season.

There was an outside chance the Cardinals had a shot at homefield advantage, and more important could knock the Seahawks from the playoffs. Just as important to the Cardinals psyche was the chance to sweep their nemesis and prove to themselves the first win was no fluke. They had become the heavy in the NFC West and this would cement that notion to both teams…to everyone.

carsonpalmerWell the Seahawks punched the Cardinals right in the mouth as Palmer deteriorated (12 of 25 for 129 yards 1 TD / 1 int) into his worst performance of the year. He was pulled in the 2nd quarter in the middle of being routed 30-6 by intermission, finally falling 36-6. His spotty play continued against Green Bay in the divisional round of the playoffs, as the offense struggled for continuity in a 26-20 overtime win.

The only reason they won that game was Larry Fitzgerald early in overtime caught an intermediate route, cleared Clay Matthews, and in normal circumstances runs out of bounds with a 1st down. However Fitzgerald knew he had to take matters into his own hands and turned upfield instead of going out of bounds. He ran like the Cardinal’s playoff life depended on it going 75 yards to the Green Bay 3. Winning the game with a shovel pass 2 plays later.

Then comes the 4 interception and 2 fumble meltdown 49-15 loss to the Panthers in the NFC Championship Game. Palmer finished with 3 poor games when the stakes were the highest and has to prove he’s not a shot fighter. He hasn’t had a good postseason outing since the 2002 Orange Bowl in college. Only problem is Pete Carroll was his coach then and not the division rival as he is now. Much like a boxer after a vicious knockout loss, the Arizona Cardinals need to win the battle with themselves psychologically. Starting with Palmer. That is why they aren’t favored.

Bruce Arians and the window for the Arizona Cardinals is going to close after this season. Its now or never to make it to the Super Bowl with Palmer (37 yrs of age) and Larry Fitzgerald (33 yrs of age) leading the charge. David Johnson is coming into his own at RB and should rush for 1,300 yards this season.

The Cardinals had the 5th best defense in football and pulled off a coup of a trade picking up OLB Chandler Jones from New England. However his addition is offset by Tyrann Mathieu rehabbing another blown out knee. Can Defensive Coordinator James Bettcher get enough out of top pick DT Robert Nkimdiche and Jones in the rush to keep from his exotic blitz packages?? Mathieu had CB like coverage skills when 100% healthy. This season he could get exposed by those blitzes so they need the front seven to get after opposing QBs.

rams.takingfield.losangeles

The L.A. Rams taking the field for the 1st time in the 21st century.

In Los Angeles we had 90,000 come out to the LA Coliseum to witness the Rams returning to Southern California, and we are in the honeymoon stage. Lets not forget this was the 32nd or dead last offense in the NFL last season, and 1st pick Jared Goff needs a lot of work.  Despite RB Todd Gurley’s 1,106 yd 10 TD debut season, this is a team that had to take a QB#1 overall after tossing an anemic 11 TDs last season. It looks like journeyman Case Keenum will start as the prized rookie (Goff) learns the pro game from the sidelines. The question that arises… Can Coach Jeff Fisher and QB Coach Chris Weinke get Goff ready to be an NFL signal caller?? Maybe they will…but not this season.

The 49ers could be the surprise of the season with Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick leading a new charge under Chip Kelly. Carlos Hyde will have to become the every down back Frank Gore used to be and rush for 1,200 or better. Kaepernick and an improved Gabbert will win 6 games this year as the 49ers build back to respectability.

Now Russell is as big a threat in the pocket as outside of it.

Now Russell is as big a threat in the pocket as outside of it.

Which brings us to Seattle. The Seahawks had a dress rehearsal of the upcoming year without Marshawn Lynch in 2015.  Wilson became the focal point of the offense and developed as a total signal caller. In completing 329 of 483 for 4,024 yds 34 TDs to just 8 ints, Wilson graduated from being the resourceful scrambler to a bonafide elite QB add MVP candidate.

With so much attention on Wilson, Rawls (830 yds / 4 TDs) was able to settle into the RB position along with Christine Michael. The defense is still one of the NFL’s best although they lost LB Bruce Irvin to the Raiders. Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, and Richard Sherman are still patrolling the secondary with LBs Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright eating up the passing lanes underneath. The Seahawks have to get more from Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett up front this year. At times the pass rush wasn’t there last year and exposed the back 7 some.

Seattle is the class of this division and should challenge for homefield advantage.

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2015 NFC West Predictions

The 2015 NFL season is upon us! The first thing we have to do is get to the season after a tumultuous offseason for what had been the best division in football.  The Seahawks were reeling from a shocking Super Bowl defeat when holdouts and contracts threatened team chemistry. The St Louis Rams traded often injured Sam Bradford for Nick Foles at QB. However the story of the division was the devastating fallout from retirements, suspensions, and player defections after Jim Harbaugh’s dismissal. Easily the worst off-season for one team in NFL history.

Seattle Seahawks alternate logo.

Seattle Seahawks alternate logo.

2015 NFC West

1. Seattle Seahawks 13-3 **

2. St Louis Rams 10-6

3. Arizona Cardinals 7-9

4. San Francisco 49ers 6-10

After spending time in the spring with Kurt Warner, it doesn’t seem as if Colin Kaepernick’s mechanics have changed that much. He is still holding on to the football and taking to long to get through his progressions. Now he has to find chemistry with new receiver Torrey Smith with Michael Crabtree’s defection to Oakland. After the worst off-season in NFL history, this was the least of their worries.

Bowman is back and his knee looked good in the preseason.

Bowman is back and his knee looked good in the preseason.

Now another off-field issue could cause a suspension for LB Ahmad Brooks. Along with Aldon Smith’s latest transgression, the notable defenders that didn’t leave or retire wont be on the field much of the season. Navorrro Bowman is back to provide toughness and leadership. It will be a season of growing pains as the 49ers need new leaders to emerge with the loss of Justin Smith and Patrick Willis.

Carson Palmer has come back healthy as has scatback Andre Ellington. As was the case last year, they still can’t run the football. The Cardinals signed former Titan RB Chris Johnson to bolster their anemic running game. We have yet to see much from rookie runner David Johnson, and the offensive line is having problems. Free agent signee G Mike Iupati could be gone until week 7 due to injury. RT Bobbie Massey faces suspension after a DUI arrest and LT Jared Veldheer was terrorized by the Raiders Kahlil Mack in the 3rd preseason game. Mack looked like the second coming of the late Derrick Thomas, but Veldheer has to be able to hold his own.

Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu lead a reamped defense. How will they fare without DC Todd Bowles?

Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu lead a reamped defense. How will they fare without DC Todd Bowles?

An offensive line needs cohesion and missing two of the five starters projected will set back an offense that already can’t run. Now this puts more onus on the Cardinal’s passing attack. Palmer, who is returning from a knee reconstruction, has to go to work behind this patchwork line?? This is not a recipe for returning to the playoffs.

In St. Louis, not only did Jeff Fisher rid the Rams of the team’s former face in Sam Bradford, but he may have forged their new identity in drafting RB Todd Gurley. At 6’1 and 231 lbs. the team has a game controlling back whose been brought along slowly this summer. Fisher has already gone on record saying he would be better than Eddie George.  You remember George was the power source for Tennessee’s offense during Fisher’s tenure there.

Now Tre Mason can be used as the change of pace, 3rd down back type, he’s more suited for. After being pounded by Gurley, defenders are going to hate Mason darting in and out of holes when they’re exhausted. Especially if they interchange both backs from the same formations. New quarterback Nick Foles should have a great year in his new surroundings. He will be able to ease into his passing rhythm as this team will not fall behind in many games.

Alec Ogletree will be a Pro Bowl performer in 2015

Alec Ogletree will be a Pro Bowl performer in 2015

With DE Robert Quinn, DT Aaron Donald, and a healthy Chris Long, this defensive line will be dangerous playing with leads. Although many pundits have lauded the play of Linebacker James Laurinitis, it will be Alec Ogletree who will emerge as the new NFC super backer. Last year he forced 4 fumbles, gathered 2 interceptions to go with his 110 combined tackles and is a favorite for Taylor Blitz Times NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

The Rams will make the playoffs this year as a wildcard.

Yet still on top of the division and the NFC for that matter are the Seattle Seahawks. The team is being chipped away as players like Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner are being rewarded with lucrative deals. SS Kam Chancellor is holding out and could affect the play of the defense at the start of the season. With Marshawn Lynch back to punish defenses it will mask early offensive line struggles. In the preseason teams didn’t honor the read option and just teed off on Wilson. That won’t happen with Lynch on the field. Now we add in the intermediate play of new TE Jimmy Graham and you see why they are the odds on favorite to make a 3rd straight trip to the Super Bowl.

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