By Jerrell Richardson
If the NFC West was on the stock market, their value would be plummeting. Early in the season, it was the only division that had every team above .500. However, as the season has progressed and San Francisco continued their winning ways, the rest of the division has looked more like pretenders then contenders. This is good news for the 49ers, who have already beaten the best their division has to offer and would welcome as little resistance as possible on their way to the playoffs. However, despite the mid-season collapse of the rest of the division, two of them are actually trending upward and could turn the NFC West into a two-team or even three-team race very soon.
Seattle Seahawks (4-4)
The Seahawks have already made huge strides, and although they are a more-than-worthy opponent for San Francisco, the two teams are not close in talent across the board. Seattle is a relatively young team that is still figuring out how to win, while San Francisco is the team that has been there and done that. Seattle has trusted their team to a rookie quarterback in Russell Wilson, so it’s to be expected that the team will struggle at times.
Even with these factors, in this year’s first meeting that was played in San Francisco, the Seahawks gave the 49ers all they could handle. It will be interesting when the two meet in Seattle to see if the first game was a fluke or not. With their defense leading the way, and running back Marshawn Lynch showing that he can have success against the 49ers rush defense, the Seahawks don’t figure to be going away anytime soon. With their physical style of play, they will be a thorn in the side of San Francisco twice a year for a while. Thankfully, the 49ers have running back Frank Gore, who has torched Seattle in his career.
Arizona Cardinals (4-4)
The Cardinals will never be able to compete in the division until they can not only figure out who they want to start under center, and how to protect him. They have a good team, but they are unable to make up for the lack of offensive production from the quarterback position. With deficiencies in two key components of the offense, it’s hard to figure out whom to point the blame at. Is it the quarterback play, or the fact that they have no time to pass the ball? The bigger problem is how do you find a solution?
The problem has spread to the rest of the offense, as there is no reason that Larry Fitzgerald is not leading the league or near the top in every receiving category. The only saving grace for Arizona is that their defense has continued to get better and is now one of the best in the league. In fact, before the whole quarterback issue emerged, the team won five out of their last six games last year, and four straight to start this year, so they are not to be ignored. This year appears a lost cause, but with a stout defense and such a talented receiver, and based on their play just last year, this team should be able to develop into a threat to the 49ers.
St. Louis Rams (3-5)
The Rams are stuck in no-man’s land. They have pieces on both sides of the ball, but they have an injury prone quarterback, underachieving receivers and a running back that can’t continue to take on the entire offensive load before he wears down. They are currently undefeated within the division, but they have yet to face San Francisco, and they got to play the Cardinals and Seahawks in their dome.
They have been one of the worst teams in the NFL recently and they don’t seem to have a clear idea or direction of how to build the team. They do have a quarterback in Sam Bradford, who has shown the ability to be successful, but something is still missing and if he can’t stay healthy, then the team is really in trouble. It could just be time and experience that the teams lacks, but chances are that they will be looking up at the rest of the division for years to come
The quality of the rest of the teams in the NFC West can be a blessing or a curse for the 49ers. To be the best you must beat the best, and if the rest of the division continues to struggle to put all their pieces together, then that takes away six games for them to play a team that can challenge them to get better. However, at the end of the day they want to make the playoffs. If the rest of the division is around the .500 mark and San Francisco can clinch the division with their eyes closed, then it’s not really a bad thing. The NFL will fill the rest of the schedule to even out the balance of power next year, and San Francisco can be certain that despite the level of competition in the division they will have multiple tests throughout the year to make sure that when they hit the playoffs they are ready to make a statement.
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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.