Here is a guide to how each team in the NFC West can win the division:
How: In 2013, the Cardinals had the misfortunate of having the best record among teams that did not qualify for the playoffs. Their 10-6 record last year was good enough to win two of the other divisions in the NFC, but unfortunately Arizona finds themselves in the crazy competitive NFC West. The division projects to be just as good this year, if not better, so the Cardinals are going to have to improve upon their impressive 2013 campaign. The areas of change are almost entirely on offense, and they begin with the most important player on the field. Carson Palmer was surprisingly solid in 2013, throwing for over 4,200 yards and 24 touchdowns. He still made plenty of his characteristic mistakes though, as he finished second in the NFL with 22 interceptions. Palmer could have placed a lot of the blame on his offensive line for his turnovers last season, and with very good reason. The unit was one of the worst in the league, but the free agent signing of Jared Veldheer and return from injury of former first rounder Jonathan Cooper should bring more stability. Palmer should also receive more help from his running backs, as Andre Ellington has been handed the keys to the starting job. Ellington led the league with 5.5 yards per carry last season, and he is dynamic as a receiver out of the backfield. If Palmer can cut down on his mistakes and utilize his improved supporting cast, then he will give his team its best chance at winning the NFC West.
Outlook: Asking Carson Palmer to cut down on his mistakes is like asking Justin Bieber to fly under the radar: it’s just not going to happen. Palmer is 34 years old and his arm is only losing power, which is not a good combination with his gunslinger mentality. His receiving duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd will bail him out of a lot of dicey situations, but they will not always be able to save the day. Also, we don’t know if Andre Ellington can handle the full workload or how the offensive line will mesh together. The defense should be just as solid, especially with an improved secondary that already featured Patrick Peterson. However, they have gaping holes at inside linebackers and might have trouble pressuring the quarterback. I think this Cardinals team will finish above .500, but I’m only giving them a 10% chance of winning the division. A Wild Card berth is a more realistic goal.
San Francisco 49ers
How: Colin Kaepernick has to improve as a passer, and the defense needs to return to its dominant ways. Kaepernick does not even have two full years of experience as an NFL starting quarterback, but the 49ers gave him a massive contract worth up to $126 million. For someone who only finished 20th in the league in passing yards, that might seem like a ridiculous amount of money. But anyone who has ever watched Kaepernick knows that his game depends on his legs, although he can still kill you with his arm if he wants to. In 2014, that is going to have to be the case. His receivers are not going to let him down again this year, as Michael Crabtree is healthy and Stevie Johnson was brought in from Buffalo. Kaepernick’s arm talent is undeniable, and I think that this is going to be the year where he puts it all together.
The 49ers defense was very good in 2013, but not as great as years past. They suffered from numerous injuries, Aldon Smith was suspended, and the secondary was inconsistent almost all year long. They addressed the issues in the secondary by signing Antoine Bethea and drafting Jimmie Ward with their first round pick. The absence of All-Pro NaVorro Bowman for the first half of the season will hurt, but Patrick Willis should be able to carry the load until Bowman is able to return.
Outlook: The 49ers will be one of the premier teams in the league once again, especially if Kaepernick is able to take the next step. The running game and offensive line are both rock solid, and the receivers should be leaps and bounds better than they were last year. The defense has minor issues here and there, but at the end of the day they are so tough and talented that they will prevail. The biggest obstacle standing in the way of the 49ers winning the division is not even within their organization: it’s the Seahawks. The reigning Super Bowl champs and their bitter rivals have to be the favorites to win the division once again in 2014. Still, the 49ers are out for revenge and do not plan on falling to Seattle again. For now, I’ll give them a 40% chance of winning the division.
How: When you are on top of the pedestal, everyone is going to try to knock you off. But most champions are not these Seattle Seahawks, the loud and in-your-face crew who are confident that they will repeat in 2014. First, they must aim to win their division. It might be easier said than done, but the best way for them to lift the NFC West crown again is to stick to the script of last season. Russell Wilson can beat defenses through the air, especially with Percy Harvin at his disposal for a full season. But he does not have to, because he has some guy named Marshawn Lynch in the backfield. Still, let’s not pretend that the offense is the key to the Seahawks success. It’s all about the “Legion of Boom” and the rest of the defense. Essentially the entire unit is back, and they are bringing all of their swagger with them. Being an NFL quarterback definitely has its perks, but facing this defense is certainly not one of them.
Outlook: The Super Bowl hangover has been real for many of the league’s champions, but I do not think it will affect this bunch whatsoever. They are young, athletic, and determined to solidify their place as an all-time great team. All they should do for now is circle November 27 and December 14 on their calendars, because those are their two games against San Francisco. These are probably the two games that are going to decide the fate of the NFC West. If the Seahawks can win one of these games, they should feel good about their odds of winning the division. If they can win both, it can basically be considered a lock. But since the 49ers cannot be overlooked, I’ll put Seattle’s odds of repeating as NFC West champs at 45%.
St. Louis Rams
How: The poor, poor Rams. They haven’t had a winning season in ten years, and it does not appear like 2014 will be any different. There is no doubt that the Rams roster is improving every year, but they are still not even close to competing for the NFC West title. Here’s how it could happen, and you are a Rams fan you might want to grab some Kleenex before you read it. Sam Bradford would have to stay healthy for a full season, and he would have to bring his A-game for all 16 games. Zac Stacy will have to improve upon his impressive rookie season, and one of the young receivers on the team will have to play at a Pro Bowl level. The secondary will somehow have to find a way to remain competent, and the front seven will have to dominate every single game.
Outlook: The scenario presented above might be possible for some teams to accomplish. But Sam Bradford is a twig and remarkably inconsistent, the receiving corps is full of underachievers, and the secondary might be the worst in the league this season. Yeah, it’s a long shot for the Rams. Still, fans have some things to look forward to. Bradford is in his contract year, so he might finally make the most out of his arm talent. Stacy is one of the best young runners in the league, it he might only get better now with a stronger offensive line in front of him. The real strength of the Rams, though, is their defensive line. Robert Quinn and Chris Long are both among the ten best defensive ends in the league, and Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald are rising stars at defensive tackle. Still, that group alone is not going to win the Rams the division. I’ll give them a generous 5% chance.