It is really astounding how fast the two divisions in the west have transformed. The AFC West and NFC West each contain multiple playoff representatives. The AFC West has three and the NFC West has two. Each of the last three seasons teams in both divisions have come from nowhere. It was not too long ago these divisions were the pushover divisions of the NFL. Now they are both to be reckoned with.
Let’s begin with the NFC West. It was just three seasons ago when the Seattle Seahawks won the division with a record of 7-9. It was outrageous that they had a home playoff game against the 11-5 defending champion New Orleans Saints. Little by little the division has improved. In 2011 the San Francisco 49ers surprised everyone with a record of 13-3 and the number two ranked defense in the NFL. If not for a couple of mistakes on special teams they would have made the Super Bowl. Although they lost in the NFC Championship game every expert had the notion that they would be around for a very long time.
The following season the Seattle Seahawks shocked every NFL fan with a record of 11-5, and going undefeated at home. They made the gutsy decision to start 5’11 quarterback Russell Wilson over Matt Flynn. The decision turned out to be a great one as the Seahawks finished the season strong powered by a solid defense. The Seahawks would not just make the playoffs, but they would also win a playoff game, overcoming a 14-0 deficit against the Redskins. The Seahawks nearly completed a shocking fourth quarter comeback against the top seeded Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round; scoring twenty unanswered points to take a one point lead with just seconds left. However the Falcons were somehow able to get into field goal range to kick the game winning field goal. This led to a heart breaking end for the Seahawks in 2012, but like the 49ers a season ago experts and football fans believed that they were another team that would be around for a very long time.
Speaking of the 49ers in that same season the 49ers would defeat the Falcons in the NFC title game; making it to the Super Bowl for the first time in eighteen years. So the 49ers took the next step in their quest for a championship. In the Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens they fell behind 28-6 until a long delay caused the momentum to shift. With the legs and arm of Colin Kaepernick the 49ers outscored the Ravens 23-3 to pull to within two. Following a Justin Tucker field goal they were down by just five with the ball. The 49ers would get as close as the goal line but would not get any closer as a Colin Kaepernick pass intended for Michael Crabtree was incomplete. It was another near miss for the 49ers but they still had the makings of a championship contender.
So entering the 2013 campaign the NFC west was no longer a division to be overlooked. The Seahawks and 49ers were two teams expected to be powerhouses in the NFC. The 49ers and Seahawks did exactly what was expected of them. The Seahawks are currently 13-3 with a first round bye and home field advantage throughout the postseason. The 49ers went 12-4 and will take on the Green Bay Packers next Sunday at Lambeau field. Yes even with a record of 12-4 they will start the postseason on the road against a team that went 8-7-1. It shows how strong the NFC west has become and how weak the NFC North is. Once again NFL fans and experts were shocked by this division as the Arizona Cardinals were the next team to come from nowhere. The Cardinals are the biggest example of how strong the NFC West is for a couple of reasons. The Cardinals managed to win 10 games but still missed the playoffs because of the potency of the Seahawks and 49ers. It is crazy how a team with ten wins missed the playoffs in the NFC West, when just three seasons ago the Seahawks won the division with seven wins. Today the team with seven wins finished last in the NFC West. Also the St. Louis Rams showed flashes of improvement with victories over the Colts and Saints. Their defense seems to be getting better and better with Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Robert Quinn finished second in sacks with 19; missing the lead by half a sack behind Robert Mathis. So the St. Louis Rams may not make the playoffs for a while because of the strength of the NFC West, but whoever has them on their schedule next season should not overlook them.
So let’s talk about the transformation of the AFC West. Just two seasons ago the AFC West was a big joke of a division. In 2011 the Denver Broncos won the division with a record of 8-8. As we all know that was the year Tim Tebow took over for the struggling Kyle Orton and led the Broncos to a shocking six game win streak. The Broncos finished that season losing the last three games, but made the playoffs because the Raiders lost to the Chargers. Tim Tebow and Broncos were the brunt of jokes as a postseason team. However the Broncos shocked everyone by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime. What was really shocking was Tim Tebow throwing for 316 yards against the number one defense in the NFL. The following playoff game showed who the Broncos really were as they were destroyed by Tom Brady and the Patriots 45-10. It really exposed how big of a joke the Broncos and AFC West was.
In the offseason Tim Tebow went to the Jets and the Broncos pounced on the opportunity when Peyton Manning was released by the Indianapolis Colts. Peyton Manning already had the reputation as one of the greatest regular season quarterbacks but many were uncertain if he would be the same guy after a serious neck injury. However Peyton Manning had another great regular season as he threw 37 touchdowns as well as 4,659 passing yards. The Broncos had a record of 13-3 including eleven straight wins entering the postseason.
In spite of the success of the Denver Broncos the rest of the AFC West was still mediocre. The team with the second best record was the San Diego Chargers at 7-9. The Raiders were 4-12 and the Kansas City Chiefs were 2-14. In 2013 many people thought the results in the AFC West would be the same. Those people were sadly mistaken as the Kansas City Chiefs caught everybody off guard jumping out to a record of 9-0. The Chiefs were sixth in points allowed and finished the season with a record of 11-5; setting up a postseason matchup against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday afternoon. It would be their first postseason appearance since 2010. They were also tied with the 49ers for pro bowl selections with 8.
Also the San Diego Chargers took everyone by surprise by making the postseason for the first time since 2009. The Chargers ended the season winning five of their last six games. Three of those wins came against their division rivals Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos. They defeated the Denver Broncos by keeping Peyton Manning off the field for 40 minutes. The Chargers have a good young running back in Ryan Matthews and a good rookie receiver in Keenan Allen. They travel to Cincinnati on Sunday to take on the three seeded Cincinnati Bengals.
So both divisions have transformed themselves pretty quickly. Coming into this season nobody believed that the NFC West and AFC West would have a combined five teams in the postseason. There is a great chance one of these teams will be hoisting up the Lombardi trophy especially the Seattle Seahawks who have home field advantage throughout the playoffs. It should be really interesting.