Formerly a target of derision, the NFC West is now the NFL’s best division
RENTON, Wash. — In 2010, Pete Carroll’s first year with the Seattle Seahawks, the franchise did something no NFL team had ever done before — they won their division with a losing record. The 7-9 Seahawks fell up to the NFC West title while the 10-6 New York Giants and the 10-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers each failed to make the postseason because their divisions were so much stronger. The Bucs had particular reason to be offended, as they had creamed the Seahawks 38-15 in Week 16 of that season. It was the nadir of a multi-year campaign in which the NFC West would have been headed for relegation as a division were the NFL playing under some modified European soccer rules.
Before the Seahawks even clinched the division that year, several big shooters were talking about re-seeding the playoffs by record, so that more deserving teams would get in.
“I hope so,” said Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, also co-chair of the league’s Competition Committee, said during the NFL’s mid-December meetings in 2010. “I’ve brought it up twice and never had real success getting it passed. I think it’s something we should consider.”
John Mara, whose Giants suffered through the vagaries of the division-leading system that year, talked about McKay’s idea that seeds 3-6 of the playoffs in each division should be based on record first versus the traditional format, which ostensibly keeps divisional rivalries alive. Mara said he understood the logic behind the current system, “though I don’t necessarily agree with it.”
Well, he certainly didn’t agree with it then. Fast-forward to the now, and the NFC West’s misfortunes have reversed completely. The 12-2 Seahawks need one win in their last two games to wrap up the division and grab home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, while the 9-5 Arizona Cardinals and 10-4 San Francisco 49ers are fighting for pole position in a postseason that may only have room for one of them. The Cardinals have won six of their last seven games, and the 49ers have triumphed in their last four contests by a total of 104-50. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Rams could win out and wind up last in the division — with a record of 8-8. That’s how much things have changed in this division in four short years.
Advanced metrics agree with the win-loss records. The Seahawks rank first in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics in overall team efficiency, and they’re the third-best team in those metrics through 14 games since 1989, trailing only the 1991 Washington Redskins and New England Patriots. The 49ers rank fifth in those same metrics for this season while the Cardinals are 10th, and the Rams are 15th. No other division can boast all four teams in the top half of overall team efficiency, and defense is the specific strength of this division now — only the Rams rank outside the top 10, and they’re 13th.
“It’s come a tremendous distance from having to put up with the yuks about being 7-9 and winning the division years ago,” Carroll said Wednesday. “You know, who’s laughing now? It’s a pretty tough division right now, and the coaches have come through, and everybody has done so. That takes all phases — the acquisition of the personnel and then the style, and there’s also kind of an attitude about or division, too, a very physical and tough style and kind of pride. It’s been fun to watch it.”
Moreover, all four teams appear to be set up for long-term success. The Seahawks have parlayed their preference for freakish athleticism and a constricting defense into a long thread of undervalued gems in the draft. Arizona has one of the NFL’s best young defenses, and they might be a young quarterback and a few offensive linemen away from legitimate Super Bowl hopes. The Rams are coming along with their own young talent, enhanced by Washington’s bevy of first-round picks in the Robert Griffin III trade. Right now, they’d hold the second-overall pick in the 2014 draft, thanks to Washington’s epic collapse this season. And though the 49ers have experienced two straight drafts with middling returns, they’ve got more than enough star power when healthy to make a major dent for years to come.
So now, it’s the West that could ask for relegation from other divisions. The Cardinals are 9-5, but will miss the playoffs unless they win out … against the Seahawks and 49ers. And even that doesn’t guarantee them a postseason beth. The Rams have beaten the Saints and Bears, the leaders of the NFC North and NFC South. The 49ers were busy getting healthy when Seattle went nuts on a seven-game winning streak mid-season, but San Francisco brought that streak to a halt with a 19-17 win at Candlestick Park on Dec. 8.
Arizona has one more win than the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles and the aforementioned Bears and the same number of wins as the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts, leaders of the AFC North and AFC South, respectively. If only Arizona hadn’t fallen to the Eagles on Dec. 1 by a 24-21 score … then things could be all kinds of wacky in the West.
“No, we can’t afford to,” Cards head coach Bruce Arians said, when I asked him about scoreboard-watching. “We slipped up in Philadelphia in a close game, and we don’t have our destiny in our hands right now. We have to go out and just take care of business day-to-day and win a football game, see what happens next week and then try to win that football game.”
The Cards and Rams are intriguing entrants, but it’s really been the rivalry between the Seahawks and 49ers that has defined this division. Both teams play defense as a combination art form and boxing match, both teams use the run to set up the pass with veteran backs (Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore) and exciting young quarterbacks (Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick), and both teams have head coaches poached from the Pac-10 (back when it was the Pac-10).
It’s no secret that Carroll and Jim Harbaugh don’t exchange Christmas cards. That back-and-forth started when Harbaugh’s Stanford Cardinal invaded Carroll’s conference domination at USC, and that process repeated itself in the NFL. Harbaugh came to San Francisco a year after Carroll escaped the USC scandals, and it’s been nearly neck-and-neck ever since. The two teams have split their last four contests, with the home team taking each one. There have been two blowouts at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, and two tight, brutally-fought games at the ‘Stick.
Were it not for the Atlanta Falcons’ divisional playoff win over Seattle last season, we may have seen a playoff game between the Seahawks and 49ers, a event that hasn’t yet happened in league history. But perhaps this season, the NFL’s road to the Super Bowl will be decided by a denouement of this year-long demolition derby that’s left some very tough survivors.