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Who Wants to Win: The NFC West

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 21: Quarterback Derek Anderson  of the Arizona Cardinals sits on the field after failing to make a first down during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs on November 21, 2010 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Arizona Cardinals last won a game on October 10th.  They beat the New Orleans Saints on that day, to match the champs at 3-2 and to take the lead in the NFC West as the first team to three wins.

Five losses in a row later, the Cardinals aren’t very far out of it.  They sit two games behind the Seahawks for the division and only seem out of the playoff race because 1) those Seahawks will hold the season tiebreaker, and 2) its hard to imagine a way the Cardinals could win another game this season.  Well, at least until they play the Panthers (December 19th), right?  The fact that the Cardinals are “in” any race is a testament to the weakness of the NFC West division.

There’s a number of investigative predictions I want to make in this space.  First: who will be good enough to lose few enough games to win this division and play in the NFC playoffs.  Second: How many wins will the last place team have?  8? 7? Fewer?

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks have five wins and five losses, which puts them in excellent position in the NFC West ten games in: comfortably in first place.  Unfortunately, they do not play the hapless Cardinals anymore.  They’ll have to settle for the Carolina Panthers for their sixth win.  They will host the Kansas City Chiefs this week with an opportunity to separate from the rest of their division.  They have a quality victory over a struggling Bears team who has recovered to go 3-1 since that game, and they beat a Chargers team with two special teams touchdowns when the Chargers were handing those out like Halloween candy.

The Seahawks play well when their defense plays well.  Unfortunately, in the last month, that appears to be just when the are playing the Cardinals.  Early season performance by that defense against the 49ers, Chargers, and Bears suggests that they might have some chance of finding that defensive rhythm, but that offense has been poor all season, and while the Seahawks are able to generate some points through special teams, it usually hasn’t been enough points.  A realistic range of wins from the Seahawks is anywhere between 6 and 8 depending on games with the Rams and the 49ers.  6 or 7 wins is a likelihood for this team.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams may be in the best position to take this division, unfortunately, in a division where the most opportunistic team might win it, their opening day loss to the Cardinals looms large now that the Seahawks have swept Arizona.  The advantage for the Rams is that they have already beaten the Seahawks once head to head.  The Rams have the most difficult remaining schedule of any NFC West team.  They still play: the Broncos, the Saints, the Chiefs.  All of those games, they will be the underdog in.  They can probably expect at least one win from those three.  They will likely beat the Cardinals, but at best, we’re looking at a 6-8 team in Week 16.

That’s a point where the Rams could conceivably take over the division, and beat division foes San Francisco and Seattle to take the division outright.  For the Rams, the outcome of their next four games don’t much matter to them.  Back to back wins at the end of the year put them in the postseason.

I don’t like their chances to win back to back games to conclude.  I’ll project a split after a 1-3 next month, and say that this is a 6 win team at the end of the season.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers have two games remaining against the Cardinals.  While it would be nice for their fans to be able to check both of those games off as wins thanks to talent discrepancy, this is the team that didn’t even beat the Panthers when they played.  Such an assertion would be foolhardy.  Four of their remaining six games will be played inside the NFC West.  The other two games are nearly unwinnable based on their skill: at Green Bay, and at San Diego.

They would be the favorites to win the division if they were to go 4-0 from here on out against the NFC West, and while the 49ers may be the nominal “best” team in this mess, lets say they fail to win one of the divisional games, and make it to just 3-1 against the division, for a 6-10 finish.


Along with the expectation that 5-11 is an absolute ceiling for this Cardinals team, that puts a 3-way tie atop the NFC West: the 6-10 Seahawks, the 6-10 49ers, and the 6-10 Rams.  If everything holds as above, that would make the 6-10 49ers the champion based on both head to head (3-1) and divisional (4-2) tiebreakers.  In most cases where the above doesn’t hold, the 49ers would hold tiebreakers in any situation where they got back into it in the last month.  The lone exception would be a Seahawks victory over the 49ers on December 12, which could propel the 7-win Seahawks to the playoffs.  That game is their super bowl, right now.

The NFC West is difficult to forecast because every team is so bad, and that prevents analysts from writing off a bad team like the Cardinals, because the bar for the division is so very low.  The reason I like the 49ers despite the two toughest remaining assignments (near certain road losses) is because the rest of their remaining schedule is played in controlled weather conditions (road games: STL, ARI), and because they are the best team.  Sure, the 49ers are fortunate to be in a division where 3-7 isn’t a death sentence, but if they come back to win it, it’s because they will have improved as a team in the second half of the year.

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