NFC West Preview

SAN FRANCISCO AND SEATTLE WILL BE CHALLENGED IN TOUGHER NFC WEST

The NFC West turned into a power division in 2012, with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks arguably having the two highest Power Ratings in the whole NFL late in the playoff brackets. While New England and Denver of the AFC were exposed as pretenders by tougher Baltimore, San Francisco and Seattle went deeper than expected with smash mouth defenses and versatile offenses.

Given the youth of the two team’s quarterbacks, you would assume the same thing is likely to happen in 2013. San Francisco wants to go back to the Super Bowl…this time to WIN it! Seattle surely sees itself as a Super Bowl team after peaking late last season. The problem: the other two teams in the NFC West quartet could be legitimately improved:

  • St. Louis is convinced they’ve finally surrounded Sam Bradford with complementary talent down-field and on the offensive line. The Rams went 7-8-1 last year against a tough schedule, as the new coaching regime continues to have a positive impact. Adjust for schedule strength, and they were arguably a Wildcard caliber team last year.

  • Arizona changed head coaches and quarterbacks, and is clearly responding well so far given their road win at Green Bay to start the exhibition slate. Last year’s outclassed team still managed a 5-11 record against what some considered the toughest schedule in the NFL. Improve off that, and they’re ALSO in the mix for relevancy in 2013.

With San Francisco visiting Kansas City, and the other three NFC West teams in marquee action Saturday, let’s crunch some numbers to get a better sense of the division in the stats that matter most.

2012 NFC West Standings (turnover differential/strength of schedule)

S. Francisco: 11-4-1 (+9 turnovers, #3 schedule)

Seattle: 11-5 (+13 turnovers, #5 schedule)

St. Louis: 7-8-1 (-1 turnover, #2 schedule)

Arizona: 5-11 (-1 turnover, #1 schedule)

You can see this group played a brutal schedule last year. They had to play each other, and had unlucky draws against outside divisions. Once the playoffs began, San Francisco and Seattle were more like 13-3 teams…and played to that level for the most part. The media is used to knee-jerking to the NFC East being the toughest division in the conference (and league) because of past history. It may be time to give the guys out West that respect.

2012 Yards-per-Play

S. Francisco: 6.0 on offense, 4.7 on defense

Seattle: 5.8 on offense, 5.1 on defense

St. Louis: 5.3 on offense, 5.3 on defense

Arizona: 4.1 on offense, 5.2 on defense

Wow…AMAZING number for the top two considering the schedules, and the Rams maintain their identity as a “hidden” Wildcard contender given a break-even differential against a brutal slate. Have the Rams on your short list for surprises this season. Arizona falls well off the pace in this stat, looking like they were pretty lucky to go 5-11. That’s a very poor differential even after you tweak for context.

2012 Third Down Conversions

S. Francisco: 35% on offense, 33% on defense

Seattle: 40% on offense, 38% on defense

St. Louis: 32% on offense, 38% on defense

Arizona: 25% on offense, 33% on defense

Interesting that all the defenses grade out well on third downs, but only Seattle could move the chains when they had the ball. The 49ers tend to be conservative on third downs…preferring to settle for a punt rather than risk a turnover. Bradford of St. Louis continues to struggle on big plays. If the Rams AREN’T destined to make a move this year, it’s because the young man from Oklahoma just isn’t a top-notch quarterback. No excuses any more. The coaching and quarterback changes should help Arizona at least regain respectability from last year’s disaster on offensive third downs.

2013 Projected Win Totals in Las Vegas

S. Francisco: 11 wins

Seattle: 10.5 wins

St. Louis: 7.5 wins

Arizona: 5.5 wins

The market basically penciled in last year’s records. If the schedule gets easier outside the division, those will all be too short. But, given that everyone has to play six games against each other, it’s going to be tough for any one single team to post a huge number without catching some breaks. Injuries could also play a role in “disqualifying” one of the four from playing to expectations. San Francisco is already dealing with some headaches at the receiver position.

Games to monitor this week in this division:

  • San Francisco visits Kansas City Friday Night

  • Arizona hosts Dallas Saturday afternoon live on the NFL Network

  • St. Louis hosts Green Bay Saturday Night

  • Seattle hosts Denver late Saturday Night in a game that will be picked up by NFLN

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Our eighth and final NFL Divisional preview runs tomorrow, with the NFC North. Please check the archives if you missed our other reports.

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