Posted December 20, 2013

Formerly a target of derision, the NFC West is now the NFL’s best division

Arizona Cardinals, NFC West, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams
(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The Cardinals could finish 11-5 and still miss the playoffs due in part to the 49ers. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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.

Cover-Two: Who poses the biggest threat to the Seahawks in the playoffs?

“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.

BANKS: Seattle will be too much for the up-start Cardinals; more Week 16 picks

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).

BURKE: The Seahawks and 49ers ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the NFL Power Rankings

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.

42 comments
TimStanley1
TimStanley1

I have been a fan of Big Red since mid 70s and Coryell's Cardiac Cards.   I cant count the number of times Bidwill's team has been promising and he takes it a part for financial reasons.   Some will say that has changed with his son now officially in charge although I suspect the old man is pulling strings behind the scene.  You want proof nothing has changed?     Warner as a FA was allowed to talk to division rival SF after he dragged them to a Super Bowl as Bidwill tried to haggle him down a few bucks.  I think that was a part in Warner retiring the next year.   Also the year before Warner who had incentive clauses in his contract because he was not supposed to be the starter so was working cheap missed one goal by .05 and Bidwill would not pay him the 500K.    Cheap, cheap, cheap.     I always said Bidwill looked at his team as a circus and all he cares about is getting people into the seats.   He knows to do that he has to put a decent team on the field every 10-15 years.    Consistent good football has never been a goal.

AlbinoRhino
AlbinoRhino

Who will "Snivel" Sherman blame the loss on this week???

jeffswhite
jeffswhite

A note to SI editors: The headline of this article on your landing page said, "Rising Up." The word "up" is redundant. It's the only direction in which one can "rise." Otherwise, a good article.

StephenGrafton
StephenGrafton

Lost in all of this reseeding talk, which pops up every few years and is always a bad idea, is the current level of parity in the league. Any slight advantage given to certain teams can and will tip the balance in their favor. And so it goes this year. The NFC West's Non-divisional schedule feature the AFC and NFC South, starring such juggernaut's as the Titans, the Jags and the shockingly horrendous Falcons. That's not a dig at the NFC West teams, all of whom are solid, that's just meant to point out that sometimes the stars align for certain divisions schedule-wise. The NFL is raking in BILLIONS. Why do they insist on greedily pushing for changes, such as the watered down 16 team playoff field or the changing of seeding? Yeah, sometimes an 11-5 gets screwed. Thats lfe isn't it? Go 12-4, take the division and that won't happen. YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME...HELLO?!

TheDistrict
TheDistrict

This is how the NFL works. As long as you have competent management a team should be able to go from very bad to very good in 2-3 years. So teams like the Lions, Cowboys, Redskins and Browns are products of their bad owners.

radioactivez0r
radioactivez0r

How can Arizona and SF be fighting for pole position when neither one will be the #1 seed?

kdaly
kdaly

Not sure of the point of this sentence: "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." 

Divisional opponents have met before in the playoffs, e.g., 1980 AFC Championship game was Chargers v. Raiders (both AFC West). The fact that this particular matchup (SF v. Seattle) hasn't happened is not that surprising, is it? Especially since the Seahawks were in the AFC West from 1977-2001 (after one previous NFC year). Maybe I'm missing something ... (won't be the first time)

duckfan59
duckfan59

These things run in cycles as teams rise and fall and the former lower-tier teams get better draft picks. Look at the NFC East this year. Pitiful. And NFC Central ain't much better.

What this article fails to mention in those 7-9 division winning Seahawks beat the Saints in the wild card game that year. It was at Seattle, which also created quite the fuss at the time since the Saints had the better record but had to hit the road 'cause the Hawks were division winners.

Just relax, people, and don't mess with what's working. It will all even out eventually.

RickDesper
RickDesper

"trailing only the 1991 Washington Redskins and New England Patriots."

Those would be the 2007 Patriots for anybody wondering.  


anon76
anon76

@SI_DougFarrar


The AFC West was nearly as bad in 2011 as the NFC West was in 2010.  They (2011 AFC West) had 3 teams knotted at 8-8, with the Tebow-led Broncos taking the Division on tie breakers.


Now they have two 11-3 teams in Denver and KC, an on-the-mend San Diego team that is four blown 4th quarter leads away from being 11-3 itself, and a Raiders team on the cusp of emerging from a very dark period of mismanagement.  If KC & Denver keep their nucleus, San Diego gets some upgrades on defense, and Oakland finally has some cap space to pick up talent, then this division might be threatening the NFC West next year as the best division in football.


Best of all:  in 2014 the AFC West & NFC West draw each other for the inter-conference games.  Should be fun!

WCoastPro
WCoastPro

The re-seeding garbage needs to die. 20 years ago we were treated to nothing but blowout super bowls with NFC stomping AFC every year (for 13 straight!) There was a motion to re-seed the entire field!  


How stupid would that have been?


Rickapolis
Rickapolis

A couple of years ago the AFC north was so good that both wild cards came out of that division. This year, not so much.  These things change every year or two and that is fine.  That teams, and even whole divisions, can change so quickly (even the NFC east may be respectable again) is what give fans hope. Let it be.

Whatever
Whatever

The playoffs need to keep automatic berths for division winners. We have seen it in the past with the NFC East where three good teams beat up on each other, and we have seen it before where a division has two awful teams that the top two teams get an easy 4 wins off of. Keeping division winners receiving playoff berths keeps the importance of division wins alive and makes for a very interesting last two weeks of the season where you're playing division opponents.

SupplyingEventualConvicts
SupplyingEventualConvicts

Let's ignore the fact that we're 2 years removed from this division posting ONE team with a winning record.

RandallAllen
RandallAllen

Had the Cardinals beaten the Rams on Opening Day, they would have a better shot at the playoffs than they do now.

StephenGrange
StephenGrange

Things will change...right now the Hawks and 9'ers both "underpay" for their QB's ...That will change and all that talent will have to be paid for reducing the $$ that can be spent on others...That depth will have to be thinned somewhat...BUT we have 4 teams (Cards fan here) that have smart GM's and top of the line coaching..It's going to be brutal for a decade in this division...

John64
John64

@jeffswhite Yeah, but "eye of the tiger" by Survivor is still a good song...

unitcaptain11
unitcaptain11

@kdaly  

It should have been "would" instead of "may" since the Niners and Seahawks would have played a playoff game if the Seahawks had beat the Falcons.


Those two franchises have never played a playoff game against each other.  That is the point.

RickKetchem
RickKetchem

@kdaly You are correct. And don't forget the NFC West 1989/90 Conference Championship game between the 49er's and Rams

Nathan16
Nathan16

@duckfan59 Don't forget that Arizona was called the worst playoff team of all time when they won their first NFC West championship. They had been hammered by 40 in Foxborough in week 16 and limped into the playoffs. Of course they also were about 90 seconds from a trophy at the end of the year.

WCoastPro
WCoastPro

@Whatever Yes agreed. Team can tell its fans that if we win the division we host a playoff game. It's an easy sell. Forcing the wildcard to play on the road puts even more emphasis on winning the division. Playoff format need not change. It works fine. 

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

@SupplyingEventualConvicts don't forget the year when the division winner was 7 & 9, meaning EVERY team was BELOW .500


There were NO winning records and even NO .500 records that year.

southaustin
southaustin

@StephenGrangeThis is a league wide problem. I see a pattern developing -  as soon as the QB gets the big bucks,  the teams tank. Patriots, Saints, Falcons, Ravens are some  teams that are facing huge cap hits next year because of their QBs. Some of them have avoided this by backloading the contracts up to now  but eventually it catches up with you . Bottom line is that with a 120 something million salary cap paying one player upwards of 20million leaves you with precious little for the other 52. Niners and Hawks found really good QBs in the later rounds of the draft but once their rookie contracts are up they'll have to pay them and the death spiral will begin.

Nathan16
Nathan16

@StephenGrange It's way beyond the QB in Seattle. They have to pay or replace Sherman, Thomas, Tate, and Wagner in addition to Wilson in the next two seasons. Their GM has been good, but he's also been extremely lucky with late round picks.

RickDesper
RickDesper

@StephenGrange The goal for fans of the 49ers and Seahawks will be to convince their respective QBs to follow the Brady example instead of the Flacco path.  The key is to get the franchise QB married to a internationally famous, incredibly rich supermodel.  

modsuperstar
modsuperstar

@StephenGrange As a Niners fan it definitely is a big fear at this point. The Niners are definitely in a Super Bowl or bust type season. Really Kap, Crabtree and Aldon Smith(legal issue dependent) need to get paid. Boldin is a luxury at this point that simply won't happen next year.

John64
John64

@CodyStephenson  To simple-minded NFL fans, it was an abject failure.  To any NFL fan with an open-mind and a shred of intelligence, it was an extremely successful campaign. 

zonkeriah
zonkeriah

@CodyStephenson @RickDesper The only undefeated 16 game regular season in NFL history, the AFC Championship, and one insanely improbably helmet catch away from a perfect season and a Super Bowl victory?  All in all I would call that a decent year.

John Schneck
John Schneck

@Sportsfan18 @SupplyingEventualConvicts 

Yes, and the Seahawks thumped the 'World Champion' NO Saints that year, with that 7-9 record as Beastmode set-off the 'Quake' run to win the game.


So, what does this all prove?  Nothing!   Keep it the way it is.  It's been working just fine.


js

SupplyingEventualConvicts
SupplyingEventualConvicts

I apologize for not spelling it out to the comprehension-challenged west coast dope fiends...

I'm inferring that one good year does not make this the "Best Division" in the NFL and am implying that it takes consistency to achieve this moniker

TheDistrict
TheDistrict

@southaustin @StephenGrange One solution might be to add at least one extra franchise tag and and only have a portion of the player's salary count against the cap. That way teams can pay their quarterbacks, keep another star player and allow more money to go to the rest of the roster. 

TrevorJones1
TrevorJones1

@Nathan16At some point your luck runs out, and we all just realize the Seahawks can scout extremely well. Hopefully they can keep Sherman, Thomas, & Wilson. Wagner & Tate can walk. I personally don't think Tate has produced at the level people seem to put over his head. Plus, Harvin will be healthy next season, and we've all seen an old man throwing to those two up and down the field. The Seahawks will be fine.

John64
John64

@SupplyingEventualConvicts  No, actually one good year DOES make it the best division in the NFL.  Because the subject is regarding one year: the 2013 season.  Not sure what's so difficult to understand about that.