The NFC West has been the deepest and toughest division the past two years, and while I do not believe that to be the case in 2015, this is still a very good division filled with three of the best defensive teams the NFL has to offer. The Bengals will face off against each of these teams this season, with the Seahawks up first in Week 5.
2015 Prediction: 11-5
2014 Record: 11-5; 2nd Place
Confidence in Pick: 40%
Why they win the division:
Offensive Talent - If you aren't familiar with the Cardinals offensive talent, you will be in 2015. Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown make up what could be the best trio of receivers in the NFL and are all capable of eclipsing 1,000 yards. Andre Ellington, assuming health (a big assumption with Ellington), is one of the more explosive backs in the NFL and equally as dangerous in the passing game. Jermaine Gresham, once healthy, is a 2x Pro Bowl tight end and though Chris Johnson is no longer the player he once was, can you think of a more dangerous situational weapon?
Carson Palmer - I can hear my fellow Bengals fans groaning, but, like it or not, Palmer is still a good QB. Would I want him on my team? No. Do I trust him to lead a team to a championship? No. Do I trust he won't quit on his teammates in Arizona like he did in Oakland and Cincinnati? Again, no. However, the guy can, and will, put up numbers. Prior to tearing his ACL in 2015, Palmer was 6-0, had 11 touchdowns to just three interceptions and a rating of 95.6, his highest rating sin his Pro Bowl season of 2005. Extrapolate those numbers out over the course of a season and Palmer was on pace for 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions...behind a shaking offensive line. If he returns to form, this is a championship caliber team.
Defense - While the loss of Todd Bowles to the Jets will hurt, this is still a very good defense whose 2014 numbers are deceiving. The Cardinals as a whole, but particularly their defense, were decimated by injuries in 2014 and as a result, the defenses numbers were around the middle of the pack. With a healthy unit and explosiveness of their offense, this should be a top 10 unit in 2015.
Improved OL -The Cardinals line was disappointing in 2014 and losing their 2014 first round pick (guard - Jonathan Cooper) prior to the start of the season, did not help. With the return of Cooper, the signing of 3x Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati, the drafting of first round tackle D.J. Humphries and the signing of a solid blocking tight end (Gresham). This unit will be able to open holes for the Cardinals small and speedy backs and protect Palmer, giving him time to find his dangerous receivers.
Bruce Arians - Watch an interview with Arians and you will see why players love playing for him and why he is one of my favorite coaches in the NFL. He is a smart, yet aggressive coach and one of the most progressive thinkers in the NFL (the 2015 Cardinals became the first team in NFL history to hire a female coach). In his two seasons in Arizona, a place not known for a lot of winning, Arians is 21-11 and in his three seasons as an NFL head coach (interim head coach for the 2012 Colts), Arians has won the AP Coach of the Year award two times (2012, 2014). In 2012, Arians went 9-3 filling in for Chuck Pagano, the most wins ever by an interim coach. The loss of Bowles will hurt, but as Arians has proven time and time again since 2012, no coach is better at dealing with losses and difficult distractions like Bruce Arians.
Reasons they may not win the division:
Injuries - As I mentioned above, no team suffered more injuries in 2014 than the Cardinals and while most of those players will return in 2015, whether or not they will be back at their pre-injury level is yet to be seen. Most importantly is Palmer who will be returning from his second ACL injury and has shown some jitteriness in the past when returning from other significant injuries. If Palmer doesn't trust his knee - or his line's ability to protect him and his knee - my lofty predictions for this team go out the window.
NFC West - As I mentioned above, the NFC West is not as good or deep as it was in 2013 and 2014, but it is still one of the toughest and most physical divisions in the league. In 2013, the Cardinals went 10-6 and missed the playoffs and in 2014, their 11-5 mark was only good enough for a wildcard birth. The NFC West has been the most dominant division in the NFC over the past few years, has accounted for the last three NFC Super Bowl representatives and has featured a team in the NFC Championship in each of the last four years.
While most will see this as my most asinine pick, I am no "Johnny come lately" when it comes to the Cardinals. I predicted them to win the NFC West in 2014, and after starting 6-0, it looked like a solid pick until the injuries piled up. Call me crazy, but I look at this team and see the most talented and complete team in the division. Your 2015 shocker pick - Cardinals win the NFC West and make it to the NFC Conference Championship game - making it five straight years the NFC West will be represented in the Conference Championship.
2015 Prediction: 11-5
2014 Record: 12-4, 1st Place
Confidence in Pick: 33%
How they win the division:
Russell Wilson - I like this kid. He is not your prototypical QB in terms of size, but what he lacks in size, he makes up for in heart and determination. I am a big Wilson fan and his combination of mobility and accuracy make him extremely difficult to game plan for. Lastly, he is a winner. In three seasons, Wilson is 36-12, with three playoff appearances, two Super Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl ring.
The Defense - The Seahawks have had the most dominant defense the past two years and while injuries and free agency have thinned the defense out a bit, this is still a very good group.
The 12th Man - From all accounts, the loudest stadium in all of the NFL is Seattle's Century Link Field and it seems to have an effect. Since drafting Wilson in 2012, the Seahawks are 26-2 at home (playoffs included).
Why they won't win the division:
Receivers - Seattle's leading receiver, Doug Baldwin, had only 66 receptions, 825 yards and 3 touchdowns. I know they signed Jimmy Graham and I like the pick of Tyler Lockett, but Graham has had issues staying healthy in a much less physical division and both will take some time to establish chemistry with Wilson. If the defense and/or Marshawn Lynch take a step back, I don't think this passing attack can carry this team.
Marshawn Lynch's Running Style - This is a love/hate relationship. I love his violent running style, but he is 29 years old, has 8 years in the league and has 1,570 carries in the last five years (314 per year).Throw in the fact that he has spent the last 4.5 seasons running in the physical NFC West, it is only a matter of time until he breaks down. I hope he does not, but common sense says he will (at some point). NFL history is not kind to backs that carry the ball that much and take the amount of contact Lynch does.
Pete Carroll and the egos - The guy has one Super Bowl, nearly had another and looks like a fun coach to play for, but I am still not sold on his coaching style being sustainable in the NFL and after the worst play call in Super Bowl history, might he lose a locker room already overflowing with egos? Only time will tell, but his coaching style does not instill discipline and allows egos to blossom, something I believe we are beginning to see this offseason with the holdout of Kam Chancellor, the public outbursts by Bruce Irivin regarding his contract and the constant piping off of Michael Bennett.
The Super Bowl runner-up curse - Generally speaking, the team that loses the Super Bowl has a bit of a hangover the following season, but the Seahawks lost last year in the most heart-breaking way possible. Moments from securing back-to-back championships, the Seahawks elected to throw on the goal line instead of handing off to the toughest back in the NFL. All offseason long, the play call has been questioned, but most importantly, it has been questioned by those inside the locker room. If that play caused any lack of trust/respect of Carroll by the players, that could have a huge impact on their 2015 season.
The Seahawks should still be a very good team and they won't be letting go of the division title without a fight, but I think their run of division titles and Super Bowl appearances comes to an end in 2015.
3) Saint Louis Rams
2015 Prediction: 7-9
2014 Record: 6-10; 4th Place
Confidence in Pick: 30%
How they win the division:
Defense - I have argued this offseason that this may be the best defense in the NFL...if the offense can allow them to spend less time on the field. The Rams front seven is made of off five first round picks, all drafted since 2008. The only two player drafted outside of the first round? Starting middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and starting outside linebacker Akeem Ayers...both drafted in the second round with the 35th and 39th picks respectively. In fact, nine of the Rams 11 defensive starters have been drafted in the first 39 picks all within the last seven years.
Improved offensive weapons - There are no skill players on this team that are going to jump out, and questions still remain with Nick Foles, but there is enough talent on this team to win if the defense plays as well as they are capable of playing. If Todd Gurley can come back healthy at some point, the Rams might be able to make some noise in the division.
Why they won't win the division:
The quarterback position - After a breakout 2013 season - 27 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions in 10 starts - Nick Foles came back to reality in 2014 and found himself outside Chip Kelly's seemingly non-existant circle of trust. Though it may sound odd to say about a quarterback with a career 15-9 record and 46 touchdowns to just 17 interceptions, I believe the jury is still out on Foles. If he is the Foles from 2013, this Rams team can compete for the division. If he is the Foles from 2012 or 2014, I can't see the Rams getting above third in the division.
The division - This is a tough division with a lot of talent and while I believe the Rams defensive talent stacks up, their offensive talent is still at or near the bottom of the list.
Jeff Fisher - Though he has a career winning percentage of .524 (162-147-1),Fisher hasn't had a winning record since 2008 and has just two winning seasons in his last 10 seasons (2007 and 2008). In fact, in his 20 seasons as head coach in the NFL, Fisher only has six winning seasons and six playoff appearances to his name. He actually has more losing seasons (9) than winning seasons (6). In fact, 14 of his 20 seasons (70%) have been at or below .500 and his winning percentage is a bit deceptive. In his six winning seasons, Fisher has a winning percentage of .750. In his 14 non-winning seasons - or 70% of his seasons - his winning percentage is a putrid .421. In other words, if the stats hold true, the Rams have a 30% chance of winning 12 games and a 70% chance of winning less than seven.
In two or three divisions, I would actually pick the Rams to finish second or compete for the division. Not in the NFC West. Their defense can compete with anyone in the NFL, but their offense is still not capable of getting the Rams over the .500 mark.
4) San Francisco 49ers
2015 Prediction: 5-11
2014 Record: 8-8; 3rd Place
Confidence in Pick: 75%
How they win the division:
A miracle and lots of prayers - The 49ers had a historically bad offseason. Between the firing of one of the best coaches in football, combined with the mass exodus of starters on both sides of the ball via free agency and retirement, I don't see any way this team finishes anything bu last in the west.
Why they won't win the division:
Mass exodus of talent - In one offseason, the 49ers managed to lose their leading rusher (Frank Gore), their Pro Bowl offensive guard (Mike Iupati), their 2nd, 3rd and 4th receivers (Michael Crabtree, Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd), their leading tackler (Chris Borland), their best defensive player (Patrick Willis), probably their three best pass rushers (Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Aldon Smith) and another starting linebacker (Ahmad Brooks) has been charged with sexual battery. If those losses weren't bad enough, they fired one of the best coaches in the NFL and replaced him with an unknown (Jim Tomsula).
Firing Jim Harbaugh - Here is what I had to say about Jim Harbaugh in this preview last year: "[t]he 49ers quick and amazing turnaround are likely a direct result of Harbaugh's high intensity, but that sort of intensity can wear on players in the long run (especially if the team is not winning). I am not saying this will happen, but it has already happened with the front office. If things don't go as well as they have in Harbaugh's first 3 seasons, this could be something to keep an eye on." Well, it happened and despite his 44-19-1 record, two division titles and one Super Bowl appearance, the 49ers felt they could no longer work with Harbaugh. While I can't imagine how hard it is to work with that guy, I would think his success would be worth it, but I think egos were in play here. Maybe Tomsula will be a great hire, but on the cover, it looks like a significant downgrade.
Colin Kaepernick - Sure, he has tons of athletic ability, but he also has issues with accuracy and decision making (2 of the biggest questions you don't want to have about a QB). Despite playing in a pass friendly league where completion percentages, touchdowns and yards are out of control, Kaepernick struggles to get to 60% completion (career 60.1%), and has averaged just 3,283 yards and 20 touchdowns in his two full seasons as a starter. Kaepernick struggles reading defenses and needs a dominant run game and defense in order to succeed - he will have neither in 2015.
I predicted the 49ers to go 9-7 and miss the playoffs in 2014. Most thought I was crazy, but they dropped all the way to 8-8. Given the losses they had this offseason, eight wins is a pipedream for this team. The 49ers are the worst defense in the NFC West and their offense may be the worst as well. That is not a recipe for divisional success and unfortunately for 49ers fans, this franchise looks like it is heading back to where it was before Harbaugh - which was eight straight non-winning seasons.
Final division analysis:
The NFC West is not the division it has been the past two or three years, but it is still the second or third toughest division in the NFL. The top two teams can compete with any team in the NFL and the Rams have one of the best defenses in the league. Whomever comes out of this division has a good chance of making it five straight years with the NFC West represented in the NFC Championship Game.