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NFC West: 2015 NFL Divisional Preview

To wrap up our divisional previews, today we have the NFC West, only one of two divisions in the NFL that had all of its teams win at least 6 games in 2014. In fact, the most recent stretch in the West has been one of success, as it has produced seven 11+ win teams since 2011, along with a Super Bowl champion and two runner-ups. And yet, things are starting to look different heading into 2015. While the top of the division probably will stay the same, the other 3 franchises are trending into different directions from where they stood a year ago.

As the West is bound to face the AFC North and NFC North as its divisional rivals, its teams will get some of the tougher schedules in the NFL, which could be a big problem for anyone not named the Seahawks. Realistically, Seattle is at a different place to begin the season, while the rest of the West can only see the division title from a distance and instead vie for a wild card. Does anybody stand a chance in the very competitive NFC?

Standings predictions are carried from worst to best, and include over/under picks using the latest odds posted by Bovada Online.

San Francisco 49ers
Odds to Win Division: +1600
Over/Under Wins: 7

In terms of a traditional talent cycle, the 49ers are looking at the tail end of what has been its most successful stretch since the 90’s. After all, they made three straight NFC Championship appearances, narrowly lost a Super Bowl, and had one of the best coaches in the league in Jim Harbaugh. However, problems started to pile up, from player indiscipline, to injuries, to regression, and led up to a disappointing 8-8 season in 2014 that prompted Harbaugh’s exit. That was then followed by a whopping exodus of talent that has left San Francisco in a very curious spot.

Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree are gone, and so are Mike Iupati, Patrick Willis, Aldon and Justin Smith. Even 2014’s most promising rookie, linebacker Chris Borland, decided to retire from football over health concerns. Despite all of these losses, the biggest hit has to come from Harbaugh’s return to the college ranks, as a coach of his caliber is usually worth at least a couple of extra wins per season. The new regime is headed by Jim Tomsula, who was part of Harbaugh’s coaching staff and is familiar with the franchise. However, it will be interesting to see how he can transition from his previous job and try to solve the mystery that is Colin Kaepernick. The erratic QB is coming off his worst season as a pro, and now has to build around a new offense with the likes of Reggie Bush and Torrey Smith. If the preseason is any indication, the transition will not be easy.

San Francisco owns the third-hardest schedule in the NFL, including a brutal 7-game opening stretch that includes games versus the Steelers, Packers, Ravens, and Seahawks. It is hard to envision a scenario in which they fare better than 3-4 and are able to make a strong push in the second half of the year. Tomsula has a lot to prove, as does Kaepernick, which could make 2015 a tough but promising year by the Bay. While the 49ers won’t bottom out completely, a 6-10 season would be perfectly reasonable. Play the Under.

Arizona Cardinals
Odds to Win Division: +500
Over/Under Wins: 8.5

At one point in 2014, the Cardinals looked like the best team in football. They started 9-1 while allowing 20 or fewer points in each of their wins, and seemed almost a lock to win their first division title since 2009. That’s when the injuries started to pile up, highlighted by QB Carson Palmer going down for the rest of the season after tearing his ACL. This led the Cardinals to Drew Stanton (who also got injured), and finally to Ryan Lindley, who performed as well as could be expected from a third-string QB. Arizona hobbled to the playoffs at 11-5 and was easily dispatched by the 7-8-1 Panthers, who weren’t really good either.

The promise for Arizona entering a new season is that the team is finally healthy and boasting one of the best defensive units in the NFL. The secondary is especially scary now that Patrick Peterson is reportedly at full strength, joining forces with Tyrann Mathieu to discourage even the best QB’s in the league to throw at their direction. However, the team is full of injury or suspension concerns that could derail Arizona’s season in a hurry. Palmer is back, but he still plays behind a suspect offensive line that will struggle to protect him; if 2014 is any indication, there is a severe drop-off from Palmer to his backups. Elsewhere, the Cardinals are trusting running back-by-committee approach, but they lack a clear #1 option, while they also get to face a tough front-loaded calendar that could create a lot of trouble if Arizona is trying to build momentum.

Despite its 11-win total, the Cardinals barely produced a +11 point differential, more consistent with an 8.5-win team. Even as Coach Bruce Arians has been known to outperform his peripherals, there has to be some kind of pullback after this level of good fortune. If everything breaks right, the Cardinals could very well be a wild card contender, but I don’t like their chances that much. Take the Under as the Cardinals begin their search for a quarterback that can push them over the top.

St. Louis Rams
Odds to Win Division: +700
Over/Under Wins: 8

There is a big gulf between the positive and negative public perceptions of the Rams heading into 2015. While some experts tab them as a breakout team that could make the playoffs, others are calling them to fall back after a mildly surprising 2014 in which they won 7 games. So which version of the Rams are we actually going to see?

The offseason started quickly for St. Louis, as they completed the rare NFL challenge trade by sending former #1 pick Sam Bradford to the Eagles in exchange for another enigmatic quarterback in Nick Foles. That was followed by drafting the oft-injured but potential star running back Todd Gurley, who in turn will be available after the season has already begun. The message is clear: the Rams need offense. Despite some key absences, the 2014 Rams showed flashed of brilliance in their defensive line, becoming one of the best units at rushing the passer. Impressive wins versus the Seahawks and Broncos serve as the bullet point for anyone who thinks that the Rams can produce that kind of play at a consistent level in 2015, especially now that the promise of an above-average quarterback is in play. Coach Jeff Fisher has been more solid than spectacular in his long tenures in the NFL, but he could be the right leader for a team that is trending in the right direction.

The Rams have the easiest schedule among NFC West teams, but they’ll need to make their home stadium a strength a year after going only 3-5 at the Edward Jones Dome. Every year, a team comes out of nowhere to nab a surprise playoff spot, and I think the Rams can certainly become such team, even in the tough NFC. At the very least, they are a .500 team. Go with the Over.

Seattle Seahawks
Odds to Win Division: -300
Over/Under Wins: 11

At this point, it is hard to nitpick with what the Seahawks have accomplished over the past 3 seasons. They’ve won 36 regular-season games, established an all-time great defense, won a Super Bowl, and came a yard short of winning a second one. And now, they have secured their franchise quarterback to a long-term deal that will keep them in Seattle for a while. Even as Russell Wilson’s deal will probably have after-effects on the rest of the roster down the road, the window is still open in 2015 for the Seahawks to make another deep playoff run.

Once Seattle got at full strength in 2014, they produced a brutally dominant stretch to finish the season, with a 6-0 mark and only 39 total points allowed. The playoffs were not as smooth, with a miracle onside kick needed to win the NFC Championship game, and then the heartbreaking interception to close the Super Bowl, but the message is still clear: just a few teams can match up well against Seattle. Even with a suspect offensive line protecting Wilson, the team added a real weapon with tight end/receiver hybrid Jimmy Graham, and the defense remains almost untouched. With Pete Carroll developing into one of the best head coaches in the game, the Seahawks are probably on par with the Packers as the best-rounded rosters in the NFC.

Seattle’s path in the regular season will be difficult, with out-of-slate games versus the Cowboys and Panthers rounding the usual NFC West calendar. However, with their own division falling a step below, the Seahawks should coast to a third straight division title. It is hard to predict a win total for a team that can prepare for the playoffs weeks in advance, but I just don’t see a way in which the Seahawks are worse than 11-5 (with 13-3 or better being a good bet). Trust Wilson, Pete, and the Over.

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