Since the NFL aligned teams into eight divisions in 2002, no division has come under more ridicule than the NFC West.
We have witnessed the decline of the San Francisco 49ers (2003-2010), the rise and fall of the Seattle Seahawks, the most embarrassing five-year stretch in modern NFL history by the St. Louis Rams (2007-2011), and a lot of forgetful action with the Arizona Cardinals outside of that brief window with Kurt Warner at quarterback.
Sure, the 2005 Seahawks and 2008 Cardinals reached the Super Bowl, only to be vanquished by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even though the 2010 Seahawks were just 7-9, they won the division and even knocked the defending champion New Orleans Saints out of the playoffs.
But that is what the division has been known for. Unexpected playoff runs and a lot of losing. Throw in the supposed “East Coast bias”, and you have a division that receives little respect from the media.
That may be changing soon. On Sunday, all four NFC West teams won for only the second time since 2002 , and they each beat an opponent that was 1-0. That includes what could be the upset of the year with the Arizona Cardinals beating the Patriots 20-18 in New England.
What has caused the turnaround, and is it real enough to sustain itself?
San Francisco 49ers
The class of the NFC West may just be the class of the NFC and beyond in 2012 if the first two weeks are any indication. After languishing through eight seasons without a winning record, the San Francisco 49ers finally returned to prominence last season behind their rookie head coach and late-blooming quarterback.
Having built a strong talent core with Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and an offensive line full of high draft picks, the 49ers just needed consistent quarterback play.
Enter a former NFL quarterback in Jim Harbaugh as head coach, and let him provide stability for Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005 who has gone through more offensive coordinators than Terrell Owens has professional teams.
The 49ers play a bit conservative offensively in today’s spread-out, pass-happy era, but they can get away with taking sacks and kicking field goals at record rates because they have one of the league’s best defenses built with smart draft picks and transactions to get players like Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Dashon Goldson, and Carlos Rogers.
Harbaugh took over a 6-10 team and has turned them into a statistical juggernaut in many ways. Last season the 49ers tied the NFL record for the fewest turnovers in a season (10). Smith is still riding a streak of 216 passes without an interception. San Francisco also had the most takeaways (38) to make for an incredible +28 turnover differential.
Thanks to the turnover mastery and special teams, San Francisco dominated field position on both sides of the ball. They set the NFL record for highest net punting average in a season (44.0) behind Andy Lee. David Akers set NFL records with 44 field goals and 52 field goal attempts.
Maybe the most incredible number for Harbaugh’s 49ers is zero: the number of games (including playoffs) in which San Francisco has failed to have at least a fourth-quarter tie.
They have had an outright lead in the fourth quarter in 19 of 20 games (16-3 record). The only time they did not was on Thanksgiving in Baltimore against John Harbaugh’s team. That final quarter started with a 6-6 tie before the Ravens pulled away.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
After adding more talent at wide receiver and returning most of last year’s starters, the 49ers look to get even better this season and have had impressive eight-point wins over Green Bay and Detroit so far.
Smith is still just 28 years old, so there is no reason he cannot continue to improve. He is an excellent fit for how the 49ers play. Thought to be holding the team back, he can now become an asset as they look towards returning to the Super Bowl.
The window is wide open for this team.
When Arizona beat New England on Sunday, they tied the Patriots with a 9-2 record in their last 11 regular season games. That’s right. Their record has been just as good as New England’s, and they even have the head-to-head tie-breaker.
Of course, the Cardinals have been riding an odyssey of close wins in the process. Their last eight games have each been decided by no more than seven points. Last season Arizona tied a NFL record with eight wins in a season as a result of a game-winning score in the fourth quarter or overtime. They tied the NFL record with four overtime wins.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt has done this with the often injured, often inconsistent duo of Kevin Kolb and John Skelton at quarterback, with the only given being Larry Fitzgerald is going to catch a lot of passes. Except for Sunday in New England, when Fitzgerald had just one reception for four yards. The Cardinals still won 20-18.
Consider the Cardinals the NFC version of the 2011 Denver Broncos. There is no Tim Tebow, but there is John Skelton, who incredibly has an 8-1 record in his opportunities for a win in the fourth quarter or overtime. That is better than Tebow (7-4), and Skelton’s wild passing surges late in games after dreadful starts are just as hard to fathom.
Skelton’s injured now, and Kolb has stepped in well the last two weeks to secure this unpredictable 2-0 start. After such a horrid offseason performance, the Cardinals have done just enough on offense while the defense has carried the team.
Patrick Peterson is a better return man than a young cover corner, but he is solid enough in a secondary with safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes. Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell lead the defensive line and have only yielded 34 points to teams who scored 61 points in Week 1.
There is a big test with Philadelphia this week, but if Arizona can get past that, it is not impossible for a 7-0 start before hosting San Francisco on October 29th. Yes, I really did just say the Cardinals could start 7-0, which would make them 14-2 in their last “season” of games. Of course they may not win another game in their schedule’s back nine, but 2-0 is already putting them two games ahead of most pundits’ predictions.
Arizona will have to find a way to play better early in games, as hanging on for dear life at the end will backfire eventually. New England just needed a 42-yard field goal on Sunday, and under Bill Belichick (since 2000), their kickers had been 29 out of 31 (93.5 percent) at clutch kicks. This time it was wide left.
The next time it may be good, which is why the Cardinals need more from their overpaid quarterback and pair of highly-drafted running backs.
PFT: Defensive end finally finds a new team in San Diego — and for a honey of a deal that would be worth a max of $13.35 million.
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