After an impressive run to their sixth Super Bowl appearance, the San Francisco 49ers look like the early favorites to represent the National Football Conference in the 2014 Super Bowl. The road to New York is going to a tough test for the Niners, as they have one of the toughest schedules in the NFL for the upcoming season. The toughest test they will face is in their own division.
In just a few seasons, the NFC West division has gone from the worst division in football, which saw Seattle make the playoffs with a sub .500 winning percentage, to one of the toughest divisions in the entire league. The NFC West boasts two of the top five teams in the league with San Francisco and Seattle. The bottom of the division has two young and talented teams in Arizona and St. Louis.
San Francisco is lauded by many experts as having the most complete roster in the league. They possess a dynamic offense that leans heavily on the ground attack. The offense gained an extra dimension with the implementation of Colin Kaepernick as the starting quarterback midway through the season. Kaepernick proved to be an impact player as he rolled the Niners into the Super Bowl and then almost completing the miraculous comeback to win. The future is very bright for the Niners’ offense as Kaepernick continues to grow behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. The only real need for the Niners’ offense is some more impact weapons on the outside to help make the passing attack even more dangerous.
The Niners’ defense is the strength of the team. They were the number one unit in yards allowed per game and yards allowed per play. The also allowed the second fewest average points per game with just 17.1 points. The Niners’ front seven is one of the best in the league with several superstars in the mix. The defensive line is led by defensive end Justin Smith, who ranked as Football Outsider’s second best player in the league in 2011. The linebacker core is extremely explosive with team leader Patrick Willis, tackle leader Navarro Bowman, and sack master Aldon Smith. The weak point of this unit is the secondary, especially with the loss of free safety Dashon Goldson. The Niners addressed the position by drafting Eric Reid from LSU as the player to step in and replace Goldson, while they added Nnamdi Asomugha to add depth on the outside. If the secondary improves the play on the back-end, then the defensive will truly be considered among the best in NFL history and help lead this team another shot at the Lombardi Trophy.
The team with the best chance to knock the Niners from the top is the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle is a team that has risen quickly under the supervision of Pete Carroll. The Seattle roster is built similar to the Niners, as power and strength are emphasized by the personnel department.
The offense is led by Marshawn Lynch at the running back position. “Beast Mode” Lynch is the cog that drives the Seattle offense. He is strong runner that can run over tacklers on the inside or on the outside, while showcasing impressive skills as a receiver. Last season, the Seahawks found themselves a gem at the quarterback position with Russell Wilson. Wilson is an athletic quarterback that likes to make plays with his arm, but has the skills to burn opposing defenses with his feet, as well.
Much like the Niners, the Seahawks needs to supply their young star quarterback with more weapons on the outside, which they attempting to do by bringing in Percy Harvin through a trade with Minnesota. If Wilson continues to improve during next season, then look for the Seahawks’ offense to be among the league’s elite.
The Seahawks have an interesting spin on their defense. They like to be aggressive and attack teams with a heavy pass rush, while showing press coverage on the outside. They do this by having a front seven that is undersized, but extremely explosive and athletic. The pass rush was led by Chris Clemons and rookie Bruce Irvin, whose impressive speed and burst off the edge accounted for 19.5 sacks. The secondary is the opposite build, as they favor players with great size and a physical edge to their game. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner stand at 6’3” and 191 pounds and 6’4” and 221 pounds, respectively. These two players excel in press coverage. They get their hands on opposing receivers and dominate them inside the five yard window. The aggressive nature of the defense is looking to create turnovers, which they lean upon heavily as a team.
The St. Louis Rams have been on the verge of making some serious noise for several seasons with Sam Bradford at the helm. Bradford has looked promising, when healthy, and seems poised to make a breakthrough at any moment. What holds Bradford from making that next step is his lack of options on offense and his offensive line. They were much improved last year, as they only allowed 34 sacks as a team. They made a huge coup when they landed Jake Long in free agency to lock down Bradford’s blindside. They also tried to give Bradford some more weapons by drafting wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. Austin is expected to come in and replace the departed Danny Amendola.
The Rams’ defense is strong up front with a young, impressive front seven led by defensive end Chris Long. Long is a do it all defensive end that is strong as a pass rusher and a run stopper. He has been at the forefront of the Rams’ resurgence on defense, that leans heavily on the pass rush. The Rams’ secondary is the weak link of their defense. They have strong corner backs in Cortland Finnegan and a potential star in Janoris Jenkins, but their safety play has been horrid. They did not do much to improve their back-end and that could lead to their downfall, as the other teams in the division have improved their passing attacks.
The Arizona Cardinals have fallen the farthest, since their appearance in Super Bowl XLIII. Arizona has not had a stable quarterback since Kurt Warner was leading the offense. A lot of their struggles are due to the lack of production from the quarterback position. The Cardinals added Carson Palmer by trade in the offseason. Palmer should come in and provide Arizona with much more consistent play at the quarterback position, if the offensive line can improve in their pass protection.
Last season, the Cardinals finished tied for second for the most sacks allowed in the conference. They made a change at the interior of the line by adding two guards in their first five picks of the 2013 NFL Draft. Either player should provide an improvement over guard Adam Synder. An improvement in pass protection could prove to be interesting, as Carson Palmer should give Larry Fitzgerald a legitimate quarterback since Kurt Warner.
The Cardinals’ defense was not as bad as they seemed last season. They struggled against the run, as the linebacker corp other than Daryl Washington failed to make an impact. They defensive line also possesses two solid players in defensive ends Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett. Adding Karlos Dansby to the mix should help to shore up the run defense that was porous at best last season.
The secondary was very strong last season, but lost several key members during this offseason. Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson provided Arizona with a solid safety duo, but both players were not retained as free agents. The lone remaining bright spot of the unit is Patrick Peterson. Peterson is a solid corner that is still growing as a player and should be the cornerstone of the secondary for years to come. The Cardinals decided to address the secondary by taking a chance on the troubled star from LSU, Tyrann Mathieu. If the Honey Badger can keep his nose clean, and fulfill his potential it could help to fill the void left by Wilson and Rhodes.
Three of the four teams have a legitimate chance to take the division. The Niners and Seahawks seem ready to rise as the cream of the crop, but the Rams could be a surprise team with Bradford taking that next step in his potential. The Cardinals have too many question marks to be considered a serious threat, but they have a enough talent that could upset the balance a bit, if it all comes together for them. The division schedule is going to be a grind, as the best team could come out with at the least two or three losses in the division. I think the Niners will take the division, but that is due to them being the current champion and the champ has to fall before a new one is crowned.