Wednesday, August 6, 2014

NFC WEST PREVIEW AND PREDICTIONS


        By: Connor Glowacki

     With football season right around the corner, it's time to go and make predictions on how well each team will fare during the regular season. Today we will be focusing on the NFC West, which has been called by many the best division in the NFL. The two best teams in the NFC last year were both from this division as the Seattle Swahawks would defeat the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game, en-route to the organization's first ever Super Bowl title. The Arizona Cardinals had a resurgent year led by quarterback Carson Palmer that found the team finishing the season with a 10-6 record, but just missing out on a playoff berth. Even the St. Louis Rams made some nice strides in head coach Jeff Fisher's second season with the team ending with a 7-9 record Let's take an early look at where these teams could finish up based upon their offseason losses and acquisitions.
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1.) Seattle Seahawks: You can't have a better season than the Seahawks had throughout 2013-2014. A 13-3 overall record and only losing ONE game all season at home allowed Seattle to edge out San Francisco both in the division and in the playoffs. Their defense was absolutely dominating in 2013 as the now infamous "Legion of Boom" led the NFL in pass defense by giving up only 172 yards per game and were 7th in rushing defense, giving up an average of just over 100 yards per game. 
        The dynamic defense returns almost all starters from the Super Bowl team, led by free safety Earl Thomas, defensive end Cliff Avril and cornerback Richard Sherman. The duo of Sherman and Thomas combined for 13 interceptions a year ago while Avril and defensive end Michael Bennett combined for over 16 sacks. Add in the returns of safety Kam Chancellor, cornerback Byron Maxwell, and linebackers Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvin and Seattle could have the best defense again this season. On the offensive side of the ball, the Seahawks will continue to rely on a ground attack that ranked 4th in the NFL with 136 yards per game, led by running back Marshawn Lynch who had one of his best professional seasons yet running for 1257 yards on 301 carries and 12 touchdowns.

Big Questions: Can the passing game, led by third year quarterback Russell Wilson, improve this season? The Seahawks were only 26th in the NFL in passing last season, averaging 202.3 yards per game. They have an incredible defense and a great running game, which makes Wilson's job a lot easier in allowing him to be more of a game manager at this point in his career. But give him credit, when he had to make a big play at a big moment in the playoffs, Wilson delivered. He completed over 63 percent of his passes and threw for 3357 yards and 26 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. Will he expand his game this year to be more than just a game manager, where you can win a game solely on his passing ability?

Bottom Line: Seattle's defense returns and will be its driving force once again. Sherman recently signed a four year extension worth 56 million dollars, while Thomas signed a four year extension worth 40 million dollars. While that will leave some salary cap questions in a few years, the front office can relax knowing they have two of the best secondary playmakers locked up in Seattle for years to come. They also bring back a solid receiving corps led by wide receiver Doug Baldwin (50 catches, 778 yards, 5TDs), and tight end Zach Miller (33 catches, 387 yards, 5TDs) while also drafting wideout Paul Richardson in the second round out of Colorado. Add all of that to a stacked offensive line led by tackle Russell Okung and the Seahawks have almost brought back everybody from their Super Bowl run.

Prediction: (13-3) Seattle has three tough games to start out the season, but two of the games are at home where they rarely lose (Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos) and on the road against the San Diego Chargers. If they can make it through that portion unscathed, they have a favorable remainder of the schedule. That is of course excluding the games against San Francisco, which should be epic battles. Seattle will win the division again this year and are right now the best NFL team coming into this season.


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2.) San Francisco 49ers: The Niners were one touchdown catch away fromdefeating their hated rivals, the Seattle Seahawks, on the road and moving onto the Super Bowl. And then Richard Sherman knocked away the pass that was intended for wide receiver Michael Crabtree and he has not let the public forget about it since. San Francisco went 12-4 last season finishing just one win behind Seattle for the division title and losing home-field advantage in the playoffs. 
      Quarterback Colin Kapernick had a solid 2013 season throwing for 3,197 yards and 21 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions. He also ran for over 500 yards on the ground with four touchdowns. But he only completed 58 percent of his passes while leading a Niners team that was ranked 30th in the league in total passing yards last season.     Running back Frank Gore continues to be the workhorse back for this team as he led the Niners with 1,128 rushing yards on 276 carries and nine touchdowns. But he did lose three fumbles on the season and with reserve running back Kendall Hunter out for the season after an injury during training camp, the Niners will have to find a consistent second rusher to take the pressure off of Gore. The defense was once again among one of the best in the NFL last season ranking 7th against the pass (221 yards per game) and 4th against the run (95.9 yards per game).

Big Questions: Like Russell Wilson in Seattle, Kapernick has helped usher in a new hybrid style of quarterback play where a mobile passer can make plays with his legs and not just his arm. But Kapernick ranked near the bottom of the NFL starter pack in passing yards per game last season. Can he improve as a passer to take pressure off the running game? Also, can the defense continue the success that they have had in recent years under head coach Jim Harbaugh?

Bottom Line: San Francisco returns many star players on defense, including all-pro linebacker Patrick Willis, linebacker Ahmad Brooks, defensive end Justin Smith, and free safety Eric Reid. All-pro linebacker Navarro Bowman should return later this season after an injury suffered during the NFC Championship game against Seattle, but the status of talented linebacker Aldon Smith remains up in the air after serving several weeks in jail from DUI and weapons charges. The Niners second round draft pick, running back Carlos Hyde from Ohio State, should have an immediate impact and fill in nicely as Gore's backup. Kapernick will also have solid receiving weapons returning this season, such as wide receiver Anquan Boldin (85 catches, 1179 yards, 7TDs), tight end Vernon Davis (52 catches, 850 yards, 13TDs), Crabtree (19 catches, 284 yards, and 1TD in limited play), and newcomer Stevie Johnson from the Buffalo Bills (52 catches, 1597 yards, 3TDs last season). 

Prediction: (11-5). Until the Niners can beat the Seahawks in Seattle, they're going to be the second best team in this division. They also have tough road games this year against the Broncos, New Orleans Saints, and Arizona Cardinals as well as home games against playoff teams from a year ago, like the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Niners have a chance to take a big step forward this season though, if Kapernick can develop into a more legitimate and efficient passer.


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T-3.) Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals were one of the surprise successes of the NFL last season. After acquiring quarterback Carson Palmer from the Oakland Raiders, Arizona finally had a quarterback to get the ball to it's dynamic duo of receivers, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. Add that to the best rushing defense in the league and Arizona finished with a 10-6 record on the season and just missing out on a playoff berth. 
      On offense, the Cardinals were 13th in passing (250.1 yards per game) and 23rd in rushing (96.3 yards per game). Despite throwing for over 4,000 yards and 24 touchdowns with a 63 percent complete percentage, Palmer had a very uneven season where he also threw a whopping 22 interceptions and was sacked 41 times. Floyd (65 catches, 1041 yards, 5TDs) and Fitzgerald (82 catches, 954 yards, 11TDs) were big threats in the passing game for Palmer, but with slot receiver Andre Roberts leaving in free agency, there isn't much depth left remaining at the wide receiver position. 
      The Cardinals defense could be one of the best units in the league this season as they finished FIRST in rushing defense a year ago (84.4 yards per game) and 14th against the pass (233 yards per game). Cornerback Patrick Peterson is making a case for being the best cornerback in the league with three interceptions and 13 passes deflected last season and defensive end John Abraham is coming off a strong year with 11.5 sacks.

Big Questions: With leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall making the surprise announcement to retire earlier in the offseason, the Cardinals don't have many options with the running game. Running back Andre Ellington now becomes the feature back after rushing for 652 yards and three touchdowns on 118 carries last season. Can Ellington. second year running back Stepfan Taylor and veteran free agent Jonathan Dwyer create a consistent running core? Will Palmer be forced to throw the ball a lot like last season and be make plays that can lead to easy interceptions? Can the Cardinals defense succeed again and overcome the departure of linebacker Karlos Dansby, who led the team with four interceptions and became a free agent? Finally, can the Cardinals find a consistent third receiver to take pressure off of Fitzgerald and Floyd?

Bottom Line: The Cardinals defensive line should be elite once again as Abraham, defensive end Darnell Dockett, nose tackle Dan Williams, and linebacker Kevin Minter all return to start and make immediate impacts. Peterson will joined by talented cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who had three interceptions last season with the New York Jets. And don't forget about second year safety Tyrann (Honey Badger) Mathieu who had a sucessful rookie season with two interceptions. The Cardinals did pick up wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and tight end Jake Ballard in free agency, but if the running game struggles like last season, too much pressure will be put on Palmer to make plays with his arm. And if that happens, more mistakes will be made over the course of the season. 

Prediction: (8-8). The Cardinals have a very tough four game start to the season with home games against San Francisco and San Diego as well as road games against Denver and the New York Giants. If they end that stretch either winless at 0-4 or at 1-3, it could be a long season for Arizona. Later road games at Seattle, Atlanta and San Francisco don't help the cause. Unless a running game develops, the offense will revolve around Palmer, which means it will be an offense that has potential to make big plays and big mistakes. That won't cut in a division as tough as the NFC West.


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T-3.) St.Louis Rams: The St. Louis Rams improved by five wins from the previous season and finished the 2013-2014 campaign with a 7-9 record. While that may not seem impressive, especially with the rest of the teams dominating the NFC West, the Rams posted this record without their starting quarterback Sam Bradford available for most of the season, due to injury. Not only that, but after star running back Steven Jackson joined the Atlanta Falcons during free agency a year ago, the Rams had an unreliable and inexperienced crew led by tailback Zac Stacy. 
       In just seven games last season, Bradford was putting up solid numbers, which included passing for 1,687 yards in that span as well as 14 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions on 60.7 percent completed passes. Backup quarterback Kellen Clemens had to fill in for the rest of the season and threw for 1,673 yards and eight touchdowns compared to seven interceptions. But it was clear to see that with Bradford, the Rams offense was able to run more smoothly. The Rams finished 27th in passing last season (195.3 yards per game), while the 19th ranked rushing attack (109.5 yards per game, was led by Stacy who became the feature runner for St. Louis after rushing for 973 yards on 250 carries and seven touchdowns. 
      Defense was the strength for St. Louis last season. Led by defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn, the Rams finished 9th against the run (102.9 yards per game) and 19th against the pass (242.1 yards per game). It helps immensely when Quinn developed into one of the best pass rushers in the game last year with 19 sacks.





Big Question: The main questions are: Can Bradford stay healthy enough for a whole season and can this offense score enough points to prevent their defense from being stuck on the field and tired by the second half?

Bottom Line: In the last few off-seasons of the Jeff Fisher era, St. Louis has committed to building this team from the inside-out. With their first two picks in the 2014 draft, the Rams selected offensive lineman Greg Robinson, out of Auburn, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, out of the University of Pittsburgh. Draft experts praised the Rams for these early first round selections and both will make an immediate impact to this team in the trenches. By also acquiring former number one pick, offensive tackle Jake Long in free agency, the offensive line of St. Louis should be able to provide numerous running lanes for Stacy and provide additional protection for Bradford in the pocket, The defense is stacked, like all other defenses in this division. Quinn and Long both return from a successful 2013-2014 season as well as linebacker James Laurinaitis, linebacker Alec Ogletree, and cornerback Trumaine Johnson. The offensive and defensive lines will be the strength for this Rams team and will provide physicality and toughness, but will the skill positions on the offensive side of the ball be able to make enough plays and score enough points to prevent the defense from tiring out in the second half?

Prediction: (8-8). YES, it will be a tie for third with the Arizona Cardinals this season. The Rams first three games of the season give them an excellent opportunity to get off to a 3-0 start. These include home games against the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys as well as a road game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The big test will come with a following four game stretch that includes home games against San Francisco and Seattle and raod games at Kansas City and Philadelphia. The Rams are heading on the right track and their offensive and defensive lines this season could be dominant enough to get victories. If they were in another division, they could have more of a chance at a playoff berth, but as it stands they're in the NFC West and the other three teams each had at least 10 wins last season. If Sam Bradford and the offense can find a way to stay healthy and put up some points, this could be a team to watch out for.



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