2015 NFL Preview: NFC West

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At one point the NFC West was looking to be the best division in football with teams continuing to get better and challenge for the division title.

The rivalry between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks continued to grow as both teams fought hard for the division.

The Arizona Cardinals continued to develop into a contender despite the holes that they were facing.

The St. Louis Rams seemed only a healthy year from their quarterback away from truly competing with the rest of them.

Then 2014 hit and the division was thrown into a massive shift with the Niners falling off of the map and the Rams once again seeing their hopes fall with the injury to Sam Bradford.

The Seahawks and Cardinals were left alone to fight it out for the division and for another year the Seahawks took the division title.

The division enters another season where they adjustments will need to be done in order to compete and make this division great again.

Whether that can happen is the big question as the division that was, only a few years ago, considered the best in the NFC and one of the best in the NFL has taken a beating in the off-season.

Still one team emerged in the last two years as the best team in the division but more than that one of the best teams in the league,

The Seahawks made the Super Bowl in the last two years and this year come into the season as a Super Bowl favourite for the third year in a row.

They have solidified themselves as constant contenders as they are a team built to win Super Bowls and although they only have one in the last two years more could be on the way.

That in itself has made this a division to watch as many wonder who could possibly knock them off of the top.

With one of the best teams in football the division becomes much tougher but they are not invincible.

The Cardinals challenged them all of last year only finishing one win away from taking the division title themselves.

The 49ers were one of the top teams not so long ago and are hoping that 2014 was an anomaly rather than the beginning of a pattern.football-sidebar

Meanwhile amid rumours of them leaving for Los Angeles, the Rams have retooled and are hoping that the new members of the team will help them challenge the Seahawks.

After all when a division winds up in the place that the West is in there is only one goal for every team and only one focus from outside of the division.

Who can beat the Seahawks and who will be the first team to take a division title other than the Seahawks have become the focus of the west.

The Seahawks have a massive target on their backs this year and will continue to have that target if they can continue to win the division and compete for the Super Bowl.

Every year that the Seahawks win the pressure gets greater to continue that while the rest of the teams get more motivated to beat them.

Teams will begin to build a roster that is geared towards beating one team and taking a division title away from them becomes the main goal.

Seattle has not reached that point quite yet but they are heading there very fast with plenty of teams, not only in the division, looking at them as the measuring stick.

If a team can beat the Seahawks they are on the right track to becoming a contender or winning a Super Bowl.

With that target the Seahawks enter the 2015 season after a devastating loss in the Super Bowl looking to regroup and once again rule the division.

If they can repeat their performances they will quickly become one of the best teams of the decade but it will be easier said than done.

They are not going to walk through the division much like they did last year as there will be new challenges to overcome.

While the other teams in the division all have one goal in mind, unseat the champions, the Seahawks are taking it to a new level.

They don’t want to just be a three-peat NFC West champion they want to be dominant and considered one of the best teams of the decade, a quest that all starts this season.

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The 2014 season was a rough one for the Cardinals as they seemed to be on their way to truly challenging for the division and making a deep run into the playoffs. Then the injuries started to pile up and they lost a number of their best players including both of their quarterbacks. The injury issues seemed to end their hopes of the playoffs but somehow they found a way into the playoffs with the franchises’ best season since the 1970s. With all of their major injured players returning the Cardinals will get to play with everyone on a talented roster for the first time in a long time. On offence the main focus this off-season was to upgrade the offensive lines after both Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton suffered season-ending knee injuries last year. Bringing in Mike Iupati and A.Q. Shipley brought an immediate improvement. Palmer will have a full complement of receivers to work with as well. Larry Fitzgerald returns as the veteran leader of the group alongside Michael Floyd to create a good starting pair while John Brown filling out the trio. Fitzgerald is the leader of the group but under Bruce Arians his role has been diminished and will try to have a resurgent year in 2015. The running game will be led by Andre Ellington who tries to play for the full year and the addition of Chris Johnson, who has plenty to prove this year, could be a boost if he can return to his old ways. The Cardinals offence has plenty of talent but if they lose more players due to injuries they won’t be able to climb to the top of the division. The defence will see some of the biggest changes this year with many leaders leaving the team. Darnell Dockett and Dan Williams will hurt but one of the leaders remains as Calais Campbell is coming off of his first Pro Bowl season. Campbell is the unquestioned leader on the line now and he will hope to help Frostee Rucker and Rodney Gunter fill the holes left. In the linebacking corps a lot of the depth guys are gone but have been replaced by some veterans. The Cardinals brought in Sean Weatherspoon and LaMarr Woodley to handle the strong side while they hope to find the same production from a young pair in Kevin Minter and Alex Okafor. The secondary will need to move on from the loss of Antonio Cromartie as they didn’t do anything to replace him. That might be the one weak spot as Jarraud Powers fills the hole but Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, and Tony Jefferson are good enough to make up a great secondary. The cardinals are trying to stay healthy this year and although they have some losses to overcome they have the talent to compete for the division if they stay healthy.

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The Rams have built a contender and have had that contender for the last few years but they have been missing that one point. The quarterback position has haunted them but not like the other teams they have had a quarterback with the ability to lead them to the playoffs. Sam Bradford was a first overall pick in 2010 and was set to lead the Rams as their future quarterback. After a promising rookie year where he won the Rookie of the Year the troubles began to start. His rookie year was the only year where he played every game of the season as injuries cut his season short for the last three years. As much promise as Bradford had in leading the Rams to the playoffs for the Rams it was time to move on and try to find a more durable pivot. So they traded Bradford to the Philadelphia Eagles and in exchange received another promising young quarterback in Nick Foles. He was part of a QB battle in Philadelphia but now he takes on the starting role without any competition as this is his offence. He will have a young receiver group to work with as Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey will be two good targets while Kenny Britt provides the veteran leadership. The running game will also feature a young group as Tre Mason leads the way while Todd Gurley could see plenty of time in his rookie year. The defence is also a young group but one that has been surprisingly good over the last few years. The defensive line is extremely deep as the rotation system they use requires plenty of great players. That group will now include Nick Fairley who signed after leaving Detroit last year while Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Aaron Donald, and Michael Brockers all return. None are big, aside from the new addition Fairley, but all are quick and set the tone for the defence. The linebacking corps is led by James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree who have continued to compete for the lead in team tackles. Both are not the most known but are some f the best in the league. The secondary is led by safeties Rodney McLeod and T.J. MacDonald while Janoris Jenkins tries to be more consistent and Trumaine Johnson returns from a knee injury. Once again they are not the big names but are a good group that put together a good defence last year. The Rams are a team that has had so many years where they seemed to be set up to win and this year is no different as they now look to Nick Foles as their solution. They will improve with the consistency under centre as they move up the rankings but the playoffs might be a stretch in a tough division.

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The San Francisco 49ers were in turmoil in 2014 and that turmoil was all about the head coach Jim Harbaugh against the front office. It was a massive distraction for the team and led it eventually led to the architect of their turnaround, Harbaugh, leaving to coach his alma mater at Michigan. Jim Tomsula takes over for Harbaugh as the head coach without offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Tomsula has a lot to work through especially on defence where defensive leaders Patrick Willis and Justin Smith leaving the game and 24-year-old linebacker Chris Borland leaving football to preserve his body for his future. On the line Smith is going to be a massive hole to fill but add that Ray McDonald was cut due to his off-field issues and the Niners are in rebuild mode. They will go into the season with a rotation between some very young talent in Tank Carradine and Arik Armstead along with new arrival Darnell Dockett who will be the veteran leadership of the group. The linebacking corps has a massive hole to fill without Willis but NaVarro Bowman returns to the lineup after missing most of 2013 and all of 2014. He will step in to lead a group that still includes Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. The secondary saw both of their starting cornerbacks leave in free agency requiring yet another group having to take over. They believe in Tramaine Brock to cover the best guys while new addition Shareece Wright patrols the other side. Luckily they didn’t lose their safeties this off-season as Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid provide some stability. The changes don’t end on the defensive side though as another young and promising star left the league early as 25-year-old Anthony Davis left due to concerns over his future health. Not only did Davis lead but the pillar of the offence Frank Gore walker away. Without Gore the Niners lost a massive part of their offence and they will try to replace him with Carlos Hyde and new addition Reggie Bush. They will look to make Colin Kaepernick go deeper more often this year and he has the arm for it but his performance last year did not provide much confidence. He will need to return to his 2012 ways to lead this team that has given him some extra weapons to work with. Anquan Boldin has been the leader for this group in his last two years but adding Torrey Smith provides a great deep threat as they also look for more production from Vernon Davis. The Niners are a team that likes to claim that they are “retooling” but in reality they are rebuilding and the loss of so many leaders is going to hurt them. Don’t expect much from them this year as they will miss the playoffs again and could end up at the bottom of the division.

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The Seattle Seahawks all believe they are set for another Super Bowl win but that is how they have been since they began to become one of the best teams in the NFL. Last year was their second trip to the Super Bowl in two years and for all intents and purposes their self-belief has been proven right. The question this year is whether a team as intense and fiery as them can overcome the Super Bowl decision to pass instead of run, a decision that lost them the game, to get back to the Super Bowl. There is no talking about the Seahawks without talking about the defence first and that defence is anchored by the “Legion of Boom.” They had the best pass defence in the league last year and it was thanks to one of the most physical group in the league. That group will see one member leave for a second year in a row as Byron Maxwell took his great year and signed a big deal with Philadelphia. Instead of going with the next man up the Seahawks signed Cary Williams who joins Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, and Richard Sherman in the game’s best secondary. The linebacking corps remains relatively intact as the majority of losses came at the expense of their depth. Byron Maxwell, 2011 Super Bowl MVP, is the biggest name to leave but K.J. Wright, bobby Wagner, and Bruce Irvin all returning. The line remains strong as well but like the linebacking corps lacks the depth they may need. Michael Bennett, Brandon Mebane, and Cliff Avril were a strong part of the starting four while new signing Ahtyba Rubin looks to make an impact after Tony McDaniel was cut in training camp. The defence is once again solid and the offence is not far behind especially with the new target they brought in during the off-season. Russell Wilson will have loved this off-season as the young BQ who is on the edge of being considered one of the best in the league got a brand new toy. Jimmy Graham will join the passing attack that was one of the worst last year. Wilson is a great young QB with plenty of talent but has rarely had many people to through to and now Graham provides that top target. He will be added to the group that includes Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin, who led the team with over 800 yards last year. During their success they have been a power run team and Marshawn Lynch is back to lead that run game again as the steady back they have depended on, at least in the regular season. The Seahawks are once again a strong team but their issues may be more mental than physical this year as they try to overcome a devastating Super Bowl loss. Despite that they will still win this division and make a playoff run but another Super Bowl appearance will be tough.

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Prediction:
The NFC West was once one of the best division but is no longer there and despite improvements by some teams it still remains a one horse race. The Seattle Seahawks are just too put together to lose the division this year with a great defence and a better offence. They will take the division and have a shot at another Super Bowl but it is far from a guarantee. The Arizona Cardinals are a good team but just not as good as the Seahawks as they finish second and fight for a wild card spot. The Rams are a better team but still not good enough as the offence needs more weapons to compete with the best in the division. They are still better than the Niners though who will have plenty of growing pains after the veterans and leadership on the team left as they head to the basement this year.

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