By Jerrell Richardson
In 2010, the NFC West was the laughing stock of the league. The eventual division winner was the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks who made history by reaching the playoffs despite a losing record. They did silence some critics with their win over the heavily favored New Orleans Saints, but bottom line is that the NFC West was a joke. Since that time the entire division has stepped up their level of play, and although all of the teams have areas in which to improve, they are all showing progression, slowly transforming into and respectable and formidable division.
San Francisco 49ers (5-2)
The 49ers have the most complete team in the NFL. San Francisco’s only real question is the inconsistent play of Alex Smith. Since the start of last year, they have played as well as anyone while going through the typical growing pains as they gain valuable experience. They have a top tier defense, perhaps the best kicker and punter combination in the league, and are led by a coach who has “it.” Their two losses on the season have been to the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants and to a Minnesota Vikings team that is also 5-2, so it’s clear that San Francisco has picked up where they left off last year when they advanced to the NFC Championship Game. However, the division that appeared for the taking all of a sudden got competitive. Still, with a recent win over the Seahawks and a pivotal match-up with the Cardinals up next, San Francisco can put themselves in the drivers seat to claim the NFC West for the second consecutive year.
Arizona Cardinals (4-3)
After starting the season with four straight victories, including wins over both the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, the NFL took notice of the Arizona Cardinals. However, since then they have dropped three straight and could lose another three with the 49ers, Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons up next on their schedule. They are dealing with a mini quarterback controversy, but instead of choosing between two able players, they are trying to figure out which one will win by default. Lost in the chaos is wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who is one of the best at his position, but his numbers have suffered due to the instability at quarterback. While the offense has struggled, the defense has carried the load, ranking 4th in the league against the pass. However, until there is a set starter and quality play out of the quarterback position, they will find themselves looking up in the standings.
Seattle Seahawks (4-3)
The Seahawks are living proof of how tough the NFC West has become. Of their four wins, they can boast that that beat the Patriots, Dallas Cowboys and Packers, all whom have been picked to at least make it to the playoffs, if not win the Super Bowl. On the flip side, all of their losses are more important in terms of playoff position, as the 49ers, St. Louis Rams and Cardinals have beaten them. This puts them on the outside looking in, and will need to sweep their remaining division games to even have a shot at NFC West supremacy. The team does appear to have a bright future with the impressive, albeit inconsistent, play of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson. Right now they are winning games due to their defense and star running back Marshawn Lynch, so they are just waiting for their new passer to catch up. Once Wilson is able to develop into the type of player that his coaches have seen in practice, then the Seahawks will be a worthy opponent for any team.
St. Louis Rams (3-4)
As the only team under .500 in the division, the road to the playoffs for the Rams is a steep one. The problem with the Rams is that they are still learning about themselves and how to win. They have been plagued with inconsistent play, and simply put don’t know how to win on the road. All three of their wins have come at home, but on the road they look like a different team. Like Seattle, they have a young quarterback in Sam Bradford, but his name is rarely mentioned as the team is not relevant. The difference between the Seahawks and Rams is that their star running back, Stephen Jackson, is already 29 and has taken a beating in his career. If the team is unable to add pieces around him quickly then his career will be over and the team will be back to the cellar of the NFC.
No Longer An Easy Win
The division still has a long way to go, and winning is season to season, but the future looks bright for all the teams if they can continue in the direction they are going. All are filled with young talent. This year, NFC West teams have beaten multiple quality teams, showing that they have pieces in place, so now its just a matter or doing it on a consistent basis. In the meantime the teams will let the talent on their respective rosters develop and who knows what the outlook of the NFC West will be at this time next year. What all the teams have in common is a solid defense, but at this time, the class of the NFC West is still San Francisco. Still, the 49ers will need to improve if they wish to remain as the NFC West team to beat.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. His work can be found on Examiner.com.