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Evaluating the NFC West — Cardinals and Rams goal title; Seahawks and 49ers clear up QB quandaries

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The hype that came with NFC West was really inevitable.

It started in the off-season when the Los Angeles Rams made a blockbuster trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Arizona Cardinals added big names like defensive end JJ Watt and wide receiver AJ Green to a mix that already included quarterback Kyler Murray and receiver DeAndre Hopkins included and outside linebacker Chandler Jones.

Add in the San Francisco 49ers, 2019 NFC champions getting well in the off-season, and star power of quarterback Russell Wilson and coach Pete Carroll for defending champion Seattle Seahawks, and we knew this season had potential. And it was fun, starting with the division hitting a combined 7-1 in the first two weeks (the loss was in overtime, by the way) and the Cardinals entered the league as the only undefeated team in week 6.

These storylines led FiveThirtyEight to wonder if NFC West is the best league in NFL history. That will happen at some point, but we know that a) NFC West can shoot and b) it is 180 degrees out of the way from 2010 when the Seahawks were the first team in NFL history to do a division won with a record loss.

ESPN reporters Josh Weinfuss (Arizona Cardinals), Lindsey Thiry (Los Angeles Rams), Nick Wagoner (San Francisco 49ers) and Brady Henderson (Seattle Seahawks) answer the division’s most pressing questions:

Did NFC West live up to its preseason as the toughest league?

Weinfuss: It’s really good, but I haven’t been convinced for five weeks that it’s the toughest division. The 49ers have lost three in a row and sometimes didn’t look good, and the Seahawks don’t look like the Seahawks they used to. Is NFC West a great division? Yes sir. Is it the hardest The AFC West and NFC South might want a word.

Thiry: FiveThirtyEight’s argument that NFC West could be the best league in NFL history has passed the eyeball test for over five weeks, but in the future it seems questionable as Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is indefinitely sidelined and the 49ers quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance are also struggling with injuries. That said, all four teams have a greater than 25% chance of making the playoffs, putting the entire division ahead of 17 other teams in the postseason, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

Wagon driver: So far, yes. The division was a collapse in Seattle against Tennessee that started the season 8-0 first in NFL history, proving the strength of the group in the game against other NFC divisions and the AFC. The Cardinals are the only undefeated team in the NFL and the Rams have a win against reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In addition, the games within the division are usually hotly contested. The west looked tough already, but the rise of the Cardinals has taken it to another level.

Henderson: Well it has more combined wins than any other league and the only undefeated team in the league. So yes. We’ll see if the Seahawks stay afloat and avoid dragging things down. It’s hard to argue that this hasn’t been the best division yet.

How is your quarterback doing?

Weinfuss: Murray was pretty good. That was sarcasm. Murray is one of the best in football right now. According to Caesar’s Sportsbook, he’s co-favorite with Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen as the MVP. Statistically, he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the game. He is a mystery to the defense as he can run, dodge, stop, cut off and then throw any type of pass out of the book. There isn’t much that he cannot physically do. As long as he stays healthy, which was the problem in Arizona 3-6 last season, Murray will continue to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

Thiry: Stafford delivers exactly what was expected when LA struck a blockbuster trade for the veteran quarterback during the off-season. Stafford’s arm, understanding of defense, and ability to throw under pressure have allowed coach Sean McVay to open the game book, including explosive field throws that the Rams have lacked in recent seasons. With a 4-1 start, Stafford has passed 1,587 yards, the third most in the NFL and the fourth most by any player in his first five games with a team in NFL history. He has completed four passes for over 40 air yards, despite having five such degrees with the Detroit Lions last season. And better days are ahead, according to Stafford. “We’d love to be 5-0,” he said after beating league rivals Seattle 26-17 in Week 5. “But we’re where we are and I think it’s fun to play 4-1 and know that my best football game hasn’t been played yet.”

Wagon driver: The 49ers have the most complicated quarterback dynamic in the league, not just the division. Trainer Kyle Shanahan has kept his word that Garoppolo will be the starter, with rookie Lance getting situational snaps. Lance made his first start against Arizona when Garoppolo was struggling with a right calf injury. Lance displayed the dual threat ability Garoppolo just doesn’t have, and many wonder if he’ll increase San Francisco’s edge. Another injury aside, Garoppolo appears to be returning as a starter after seeing them again in Week 6 but it remains to be seen how long. If the sluggish offensive production (and the accompanying slow start) continues, Lance’s time will come. This is especially true if the Niners aren’t pointing their season in the right direction.

Henderson: It’s not good in Seattle. But under the circumstances, it could be a lot worse. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports that Wilson can be back in just four weeks. This stretch includes the Seahawks goodbye and two winnable games – Sunday night at the Pittsburgh Steelers and October 31 at home against the currently winless Jacksonville Jaguars. A Monday night game in between against the New Orleans Saints will be more difficult. But backup quarterback Geno Smith is knowledgeable enough and the timeline is favorable enough to believe the Seahawks have a chance of getting out of this three-game stretch at 4-4. They would need their defenses to show up and run back to Chris Carson to stay sane – he missed a neck injury last week – so the Seahawks can lean on the running game and Smith take the pressure off.

What’s the biggest problem for every team?

Weinfuss: Injuries to the cardinals. By starting 5-0, Arizona showed the NFL that it has the offense and defense to win big. This team doesn’t have many, if any, major weaknesses. Until he scored just 17 points on Sunday to claim a win over the 49ers, Arizona was averaging 35 points per game. It was dominant. If the Cardinals can hold that kind of attacking rate, the only thing stopping them from staying healthy this year is. If they can do that, the ceiling is really high. If this is not possible, an injury to important players could stop the swing before it really gets going.

Thiry: Inconsistency for the rams. A week after an emotional 34-24 win over the Buccaneers, the Rams suffered significant disappointment in a 37-20 loss to the Cardinals. Sometimes the attacking, defense and specialty teams appear to be Super Bowl-sized units, with Stafford completing highlights roll throws and defense being strong on the goal line, but every stage has also been prone to disappointment and so the team has had to go in Indianapolis and Seattle dragging out what the players called ugly wins. In order for the Rams to reach their full potential and get a deep playoff and Super Bowl run, they need to prepare consistently from week to week and develop the ability to play consistently in all three phases during a game.

Wagon driver: On a three-game losing streak, the 49ers have faced many problems, but most of them appear to be falling under the disappointing screen of offensive performance. The dominant Super Bowl defense of 2019 no longer exists, which means the offense has to make up the difference. So far this has not happened. The Niners still move the ball fairly consistently, but lack big games (their 15 games over 20 yards tied for 27th place in the league) and have painfully slow starts. In the four games after week 1, the Niners have a total of 21 points in the first half. No matter who’s quarterback, the Niners need more of everyone on offense, including Garoppolo and Lance.

Henderson: It’s Wilson’s injury to the Seahawks, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Because if Seattle can’t fix its broken defenses, it doesn’t matter how long it takes Wilson to get back. The Seahawks have allowed at least 450 yards in four straight games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, this is the longest streak in team history and the longest in NFL history. The problems are all along the line: problematic cornerback game, an underperforming pass rush, too few takeaways and too few impact plays from Jamal Adams, who doesn’t flash as often. Seattle’s defense got off to another historically bad start last year, and it took longer than this to hit a 180 mid-season. The impetus was the impending pass frenzy. The Seahawks have as much firepower as they did last year, which suggests they can take another turnaround. But if Smith has a chance to keep her alive, it can’t wait until mid-season. It has to happen now.

How will the division prevail?

Weinfuss processing order: Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks, Niners. Not only will the Cardinals win the division – they will also be one of the top two seeds in the NFC.

Triple order of completion: Cardinals, Rams, 49ers, Seahawks. The cardinals will win the division. It remains a bit of a risky choice as the Kliff Kingsbury squad got off to a hot start last season before collapsing in the second half of the game plan. Murray is playing great with one more season of experience and the defense has tightened.

Car order of completion: Rams, Cardinals, 49ers, Seahawks. The Rams and Cardinals make the postseason, but don’t be surprised if the third-place finisher does too.

Henderson order: Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks, 49ers. The Seahawks will get Wilson back and fix their defenses in time to at least keep things interesting on the track.



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