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TNF Preview: How’d the NFC West Get This Bad This Fast?

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After a highly entertaining and meaningful Thursday night affair last week between two AFC West rivals fighting for the top spot in the division, we turn our attention back to the NFC and a matchup that looks to be another Thursday night dud.

The Seattle Seahawks welcome the Los Angeles Rams to CenturyLink Field, where a Seattle team that has been beaten soundly in two of their last three games has the opportunity to clinch the division title anyway against a reeling Rams team that just fired its head coach at the beginning of a short week.

It’s hard to imagine a great game coming out of these two teams.

The Seahawks sit a full three games clear of the second-place Arizona Cardinals in the West, with three games to play, which barring just an epic collapse by Seattle or an incredible run by an Arizona team that has been mediocre at best all year, makes the Seahawks’ claim to the division crown essentially a foregone conclusion.

That’s where this thing starts to unravel. Over the last four years as Seattle set up shop near the top of the division they’ve always been rivaled by somebody, which made the division more of a powerhouse than a one-team show. In fact, the Seahawks have only won the NFC West in two of the last four years.

First, it was the San Francisco 49ers, who won the division by half a game over Seattle in 2012 on their way to an NFC Championship and a Super Bowl loss. San Francisco was strong again the following year, challenging the Seahawks for the division title all year, before falling a game short. The two then met in an epic NFC Championship game that sent Seattle to the Super Bowl, where they won handily. That season established the NFC West as one of the best divisions in the league.

It remained that way even as the 49ers fell off in the years that followed because the Arizona Cardinals stepped right in to become the foil to the run of the Seahawks. The teams battled for the division title in 2014 with Seattle coming out on top by a game, en route to another NFC title and Super Bowl appearance. Then last season Arizona stripped Seattle of the crown, beating the Seahawks by three full games. But Seattle still made the playoffs, marking the fourth straight year the West had put two teams in the postseason. That streak ends this season.

The strength of the division begins and ends this season with a Seattle team that’s as flawed as they’ve ever been in the last five years. Injuries and an inability to continue to cultivate depth and talent while their young players came due for big contracts have sapped Seattle of some of the things that have made them great in the past. They’re still a team no one wants to play at home, especially in the postseason, but get them on the road and it’s a completely different story.

The Seahawks do hold a win on the road in New England, over Tom Brady and the Patriots, in their pocket from this season, a trump card no other team can boast. However, they also have losses at Los Angeles, where they only scored three points, at Tampa Bay, where they only scored five, and most recently a blowout loss at Green Bay at the hands of a Packers team that is far from at their best. Those losses each exposed some major flaws in Seattle this season that aren’t likely to be fixed soon.

On defense, the team clearly misses the heart and soul of their secondary, Earl Thomas. The perennial All-Pro is the glue that holds not only that defensive backfield, but the entire defense together. He can make plays on the backend that few, if any, others can, which mitigate errors in coverage and at times the deficiency of the pass rush. They’ve also seen their front seven diminished by the departure of key players like Bruce Irvin and Brandon Mebane, as well as injuries to top remaining talents like Michael Bennett. Bobby Wagner and Richard Sherman remain stalwarts, and Kam Chancellor provides a big boost when healthy, but there simply isn’t as much talent on that defense as their once was.

Things are even worse on offense where, at least in part because the defense isn’t performing at the same insanely high level they once did, the team’s overall lack of talent has been exposed this year in particular. Outside of quarterback Russell Wilson and tight end Jimmy Graham, the Seahawks have very little skill position talent on offense. For years they’ve been trotting out a receiving corps that’s loaded with No. 2 and No. 3 receivers with no clear go-to-guy, and it’s finally caught up to them this season. They also watched one of the best running backs in the league walk away before the season and while Thomas Rawls has proven capable at times, he’s also proven fairly prone to injury. That’s left the load squarely on the shoulders of Wilson, trying to do it all behind arguably the worst offensive line in the league. We saw firsthand last week what the results of that look like.

Seattle is in trouble, and it’s only likely to get worse from here in the years to come, as more over their stars come due for big contracts and more of their second tier talents exit for greener pastures. They’ll have to draft really well and find some more diamonds in the rough to have any hope of getting back to the dominant form they once had. They’ll get in the playoffs this year and will be a tough out for whatever Wild Card team has to go to Seattle, but that’s about the ceiling for the Seahawks as currently constructed.

However, Seattle isn’t even the biggest reason the NFC West is underachieving this season. That honor can be placed squarely on the Arizona Cardinals. A Super Bowl favorite after last year’s run to the NFC Championship Game, the Cardinals have been woeful all season, perhaps the biggest disappointment in the league. Unlike Seattle, which has shown some serious flaws on defense this season, the Cardinals remain great on defense, allowing the fewest total yards per game in the league. So the blame for their terrible 5-7-1 trek back to mediocrity falls on the offense.

They do happen to have a superstar running back in David Johnson, but little else to get them going in the right direction. After a career renaissance year in 2015, Carson Palmer is having one of his worst seasons and he’s not getting much help from his receiving corps. Left for dead just a few years ago, the ageless Larry Fitzgerald is once again far and away Arizona’s best receiver. They just cut ties with their second best, Michael Floyd, because of some combination of a lack of production and recent DUI arrest. And none of the trio of J.J. Nelson, John Brown and Jaron Brown have performed much better. Palmer has been especially bad throwing the ball deep, one of the prime focuses of Coach Bruce Arians’ passing game. Perhaps putting so much of the responsibility for your team’s success on Palmer wasn’t the best idea. Look how well it worked for the Bengals all those years. Either way, the Cardinals are in the throes of the mediocre now, and their prime issue is at the quarterback position, the last place you want to be searching for answers as a potential contender.

Then there is tonight’s opponent for Seattle, the Rams. No one expected a playoff run out of the Rams this year, not with a rookie No. 1 pick quarterback just getting his feet wet. But expectations were higher than what we’ve seen. The good news is the level to which Los Angeles has underperformed this year finally cost Jeff Fisher a job he should have been relieved of while the team was still in St. Louis. But that’s about the extent of the good for the Rams right now. The early returns on Goff haven’t been great, but they do have time to develop him. They just have to make the right call on who to bring in to do that. Todd Gurley flashed as potentially one of the best running backs in the league last year, but his sophomore slump has spanned the whole season and the Rams need to figure out if it’s him or the blocking. It’s likely the blocking, and that’s where they need to start building something better for the long term on offense. Some talent at wide receiver would help too.

Los Angeles has the foundation for a solid defense, but the production from their key players hasn’t been there. Aaron Donald is a star but he hasn’t gotten much help from guys like Michael Brockers and Robert Quinn. They also have to fear they franchised the wrong cornerback last offseason as Trumaine Johnson has regressed after a star-making 2015 season while Janoris Jenkins has continued to flourish with the New York Giants. They’ll have to make a big decision this offseason on what, if anything, to invest in Johnson going forward. Still, the Rams do have talent and potential on both sides of the ball and it’s worth watching if finally turning the page on the Fisher era will be enough to get them back into contention soon.

(We won’t get into how far away from being in a similar position the 49ers are. They have about as little talent as anyone in the league, the Browns included, and rebuilding that thing is going to take a while. Good luck, Chip Kelly.)

The state of its four teams leaves the NFC West in a state of flux that it hasn’t been in since the days of a 7-9 Seattle team backing into the playoffs and then improbably knocking off the Saints in the first round. In terms of power conferences, they’ve been passed by all three in the NFC. But the revival of the NFC East this season goes to show how quickly things can be turned on their head in the NFL. The NFC West will bounce back eventually, but for now, the talent isn’t what it once was and the matchups, like the one we’re looking at on Thursday night, won’t be either.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys