2011 NFC West Division Preview and Predictions

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By Mike Ivcic

1) Arizona Cardinals
For the record, I don’t think Kevin Kolb is going to have any sort of spectacular season. He’s a solid quarterback that has been average when he’s been given the chance to play at the NFL level. He is, however, an upgrade over Derek Anderson and Matt Leinart, so the Cardinals offense should improve. Also, as good as Larry Fitzgerald is (worth every penny they just paid him), Arizona underestimated how much they would miss a legitimate receiver on the other side of the ball when Anquan Boldin left. Now that Steve Breaston has also departed, the Cardinals will only be able to succeed if they can develop a second receiver to allow at least some semblance of breathing room for Fitzgerald.

The other aspect where Arizona needs to improve is on defense. They barely won their playoff game two years ago as Aaron Rogers and Green Bay torched the Cardinals before the defense finally made a play in overtime to win the game. The defense was no better last year, and with a less explosive offense, the team had no shot. In order to fix their offensive struggles, they traded for Kevin Kolb in the offseason, but had to give up Dominic Rogers-Cromartie in order to do it, so it’s not as if this unit is going to make a push for top five status. What they need to do is be serviceable enough to keep the offense within striking distance and hope Kolb can become a clutch quarterback in late-game, come-from-behind situations. That has to be the Cardinals game plan heading into this year.

Even for the NFC West, the Cardinals benefit from an easy start to the season, as the schedule sees them open at home against Carolina and then head to Washington and Seattle. They also close with four of their final five at home, with only a trip to Cincinnati on Christmas Eve away from University of Phoenix Stadium – and those four home games are Dallas, San Francisco, Cleveland, and Seattle to end the year. Yes, there’s that four week stretch in the middle where this team will really be tested, facing the Steelers, Ravens, and Eagles between weeks 7 and 10, but if Arizona can take even one of those games and beat the other teams they’re supposed to beat, they’ll return to the top of the weakest division in sports.

2) Saint Louis Rams
Up until the Kevin Kolb trade, I had this team penciled in as the division champ. I like what Steve Spagnulo has done with the Rams, and Sam Bradford will very soon become an elite quarterback in this league. Again, Buffalo Bills front office, pay attention – this is how it’s done. Young coach, first job with success as a coordinator, and a young, up and coming star at QB. Think of all of the other teams that have won recently – Saints, Packers, Steelers, Jets, and Ravens are the five that come to mind, since the Colts and Patriots were established more at the beginning part of this decade – but both of their coaches (Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick) were in their second stints as head coaches and hadn’t won at the previous level. Even the team above when Kurt Warner was still healthy was a prime example of the first-team head coach and top flight QB. So it’s pretty obvious what wins in this league at this point – smart young head coaches and good QB play. Who knew?

Well, apparently the Rams did, because one season removed from having the top overall pick, they were one game away from going to the playoffs. Sure they play in a terrible division, but that team was putrid in 2009 and improved dramatically with just those two big changes in 2010. I still wouldn’t be surprised if they win the division, and hold your breath for this one – if they don’t win the division, I think they will have a very good shot at a wild card berth. Hear me out here – Arizona and St. Louis both schedules with a good amount of potential wins. Seattle will stink, and San Francisco won’t be much better, if at all. Let’s just say both teams go 4-0 in those games and split with each other. Now, both teams also get the AFC North, and I know in that division preview I said Cleveland would be 8-3 at the end of November, but let’s just imagine one of those three losses is to the Rams (Cardinals and Browns play week 15, so they’re exempt from this). Now both teams are 7-3 with losses to the Steelers and Ravens. The remaining schedule is filled out with the NFC East (both teams beat the Redskins and lose to the Eagles) and the other two conference games (Arizona beats the Panthers and Vikings, the Rams lose to the Packers and Saints). That puts Arizona at 10-4 and St. Louis at 8-6. The two games I haven’t counted are against the other two wild card contenders from the East in Dallas and New York. Is it absurd to think that both the Rams and Cardinals could each split those games? That would give Arizona the division at 11-5 and put St. Louis right in the thick of the wild card at 9-7, and I think the second wild card will have that record. The Giants, Cowboys, Rams, Lions, Bears, and Buccaneers are all flawed teams that do some things very well and other things poorly, so it could all come down to who beats who for that final playoff spot.

3) San Francisco Giants
Alex Smith didn’t work with Mike Nolan. Alex Smith didn’t work with Mike Singletary. If Alex Smith doesn’t work with Jim Harbaugh, can we all agree that the common denominator, and thus the shoulders upon which most of the blame should fall, is therefore Alex Smith? Remember that Smith and Aaron Rodgers came into the league from the same draft, and their careers could not have taken more different paths. I’m not buying into the “third time’s a charm” idea here, either, so this will likely be the last shot for Smith. It is extremely rare that a quarterback flounders in one city and then suddenly becomes a star in another, so it’s probably safe to say Smith will never be an elite QB in the NFL. Where the 49’ers have had their issues is not building enough on the defensive side of the ball to take some of the pressure off whoever it is under center. Young quarterbacks that land with teams that have a solid-to-spectacular defense – Roethlisberger and the Steelers, Ryan with the Falcons, Flacco with the Ravens, Sanchez with the Jets, and the biggest example of Brady with the Patriots – all do well because as they’re learning to play in the league, they’re not being asked to “win” games. They’re being asked to “manage” the game, i.e. short throws, move the chains, field position, and most importantly no turnovers. It’s a lot less pressure for a rookie or sophomore player who’s already trying to read a defense and remember the entire playbook with all of the audibles and checkdowns if he feels like 14-20 points will be enough to win most games. It’s when a QB steps in and is forced – or even just feels like he’s forced – to score 25-30 points per game that he then tries to do too much and winds up worse off than the “game managers.”

For Harbaugh, he does have an absolute beast to build around on defense in Patrick Willis, but the Niners will need to do more than just get stops, they’ll have to make plays in order to be successful. This is not a division stacked with talent, so winning 6-8 games shouldn’t be that tall of an order for this team, and they will have a chance to win the division late in the season regardless of how well they start. That’s because they play five of their six division games in the final seven weeks of the season – the only exception being the home opener against Seattle in week one. Yes, that means the 49’ers will go from September 11 to November 20 without a division game. Gotta love the NFL schedule makers.

4) Seattle Seahawks
Pete Carroll did a fantastic job of taking the Seahawks to the playoffs last season, but the same probably won’t be the case this year. For starters, his two main quarterback options are Tavaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst. Jackson struggled so much in his time with the Vikings that the organization pleaded with a 40-year-old Brett Favre to play not one, but two seasons just to try to make the playoffs. Whitehurst, meanwhile, did lead Seattle to a win in the regular season finale last year against the Rams, but has a losing record as a starter and is much more qualified as a back-up in the NFL. When those are your two quarterback options, as has been stated here before many times, it’s going to be tough to win games against quality NFL opponents.

Coupled with the lack of solid quarterback play, the Seahawks will also have to deal with a first place schedule from last season, meaning they draw the Falcons and Bears as their in-conference crossover opponents. Like everyone else in this division, Seattle does play six games against the other three division teams, so there are chances for wins on the schedule. The issue with those games is that there is a loser for every winner, meaning someone has to lose. Given the holes on both the offensive and defensive side of the football, the Seahawks will likely lose more of those division games than they’ll win, making it extremely difficult with that first place schedule to duplicate their performance from last season.

Coming tomorrow: Playoff and Super Bowl predictions

Monday, September 5: AFC North
Monday, September 5: NFC North
Tuesday, September 6: AFC South
Tuesday, September 6: NFC South
Wednesday, September 7: AFC East
Wednesday, September 7: NFC East
Thursday, September 8: AFC West
Thursday, September 8: NFC West
Friday, September 9: Playoffs and Super Bowl

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