2016 NFL Preview: NFC West

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The AFC West is a division that has gotten used to winning as they have quickly become one of the best divisions in the game.

It wasn’t always that way though as the west used to be the joke of the NFL with teams that could barely scrape together a few wins every year.

They were teams constantly looking to find a way to win and like most bad teams they continued to struggle to find that right way.

Through firings and hirings and drafts, these teams always got a playoff spot and immediately were eliminated.

At one point their champion had a losing record and still made the postseason causing many to wonder if the playoff rules should be adjusted to make sure it never happened again.

A lot has changed since that time though as the west has finally figured things out and they are continuing to rise and become the division to beat in the league.

The division champion is no longer an afterthought as they have often become favourites to make the Super Bowl.

Although the Cardinals have been the team with the more consistent play over the last few years there is one team that brought this division to the forefront.

The Seattle Seahawks put the west on the map even though the Cardinals had been good before their rise.

The Seahawks were a team with swagger and the loudest stadium in the game.

They made people pay attention as they talked more trash than anyone else in the league and backed it up with strong play.

The Legion of Boom began to gain prominence and led a solid defence to the Supre Bowl for two straight years.football-sidebar

The Seahawks were the team to beat in the division and eventually in the league and they made sure everyone knew it.

That attitude brought plenty of fans but also brought plenty of haters as they quickly became the bad boys of the league.

That only helped the west as more people paid attention whether it was to see the Seahawks win or to see them lose.

As the Seahawks built their brand in the NFL the rest of the division began to find what they needed to compete at the highest level.

The San Francisco 49ers began to push the Seahawks and together they created one of the best modern rivalries in the game.

The Cardinals always remained near the top the entire time even if they fell behind the new top teams.

Meanwhile, the Rams slowly built a beast on defence that was always going to be great.

The division has gone through even more changes recently as the face of the division has begun to shift.

The Niners fell into old habits and dropped off while the Cardinals began to climb back to the top.

The Seahawks have had some rough seasons recently but still manage to find the playoffs at the end of the day.

The Rams’ beast has started to change how they are perceived. Heading into a new season the west is still one of the best divisions but the biggest question surrounds the winner of the division as it is harder to predict than ever.

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The Arizona Cardinals have been one of the most consistent teams in the west even if that didn’t always mean they got a playoff spot. They have had periods where they have dropped a little lower than they would like but they always come back. Last season was one of their better years, in fact, it was the best year in franchise history. They took a potent offence and stingy defence to the best record in the history of the team. That couldn’t translate into playoff success though as they just missed a Super Bowl appearance. They head into a new season looking to take that final step with much of the same team that was around last year. Leading the way again on offence is Carson Palmer who is rarely mentioned among the best in the league but has fit in perfectly to this system. He seems like the perfect quarterback for the Cards but he did have a big drop-off in performance when it came to the playoffs. He hopes to correct that this year as he remains the leader of the team. He has a lot of weapons to work with in the passing game as Larry Fitzgerald is still one of the most sure-handed pass catchers in the game who has another receiver to take the pressure off in Michael Floyd. In the backfield, David Johnson tries to prove he belongs in his second year after a solid rookie season. The defence is just as important to this team and they went about trying to correct some of the small holes they had last year. One of the bigger issues was that they didn’t have any true pass rushers throughout the team. They were alright without it as Bruce Arians loves to pressure by bringing more players but some key additions could really help them. The addition of Chandler Jones could be really big for their pass rush as the Cards will move him to outside linebacker where his primary role will be to get to the QB, which his did 12.5 times last year. Jones will be the star in a linebacking group that is still fairly young with Kevin Minter being the elder statesmen in his fourth year. Up front, the Cards are a strong group against the run led by Calais Campbell and Frostee Rucker but they lack that pass rush ability which is why first round pick, Robert Nkemdiche, could be seen this year. In the secondary, the Cards are still young but have two of the best young backs in the league. Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson lock down the defensive backfield and make life tough on even the best passing games. The Cardinals are a team that brings back a lot of their best players while adding some key pieces. That is sure to put them in the running for the division title again this year.

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The Rams are a team that has been building a contender but taking the long road to doing that and they are just getting noticed now. When 2016 starts they will have nowhere to hide as everyone will be watching Los Angeles’ newest team. The Rams moved in the off-season and the L.A. fans may have gotten a best case scenario. The Rams are a young team but a team that has more young talent than anyone else in the game. As the years go on that young talent is getting better and better and they are just starting to be recognised for being a top talent. They will hope that their top talent can make the jump this year and bring playoff football back to Los Angeles. It all starts on the line for the Rams as they have spent a lot of time building one of the best groups in the league. The best of the group is Aaron Donald who plugs up the middle of the line and gets to the quarterback. He is underrated but people are starting to recognise the impact he has on this team. William Hayes, Michael Brockers, and Robert Quin fill out a group that is far deeper than the starting four. The linebackers will miss their leader in James Laurinaitis as Alec Ogletree tries to take over in the middle while Akeem Ayers provides some veteran leadership. The secondary could be an issue this year as the Rams lost some of their best players to free agency. That leaves a slightly more inexperienced group that will need some help from their great line if they want to be successful. The offence has also been built slowly as the Rams have continued to add piece by piece to create a fairly good group. The biggest piece missing was always quarterback but they hope to have solved that issue. Drafting Jared Goff was a big move and he needs to pan out although he might not get a look unless Case Keenum starts to struggle. Whoever does end up playing most of the snaps there will be some good targets to throw to this year. Kenny Britt is no longer a break-out receiver but he still has enough to be a solid secondary target to Tavon Austin who has the speed to break any tackle as long as he gets the ball. There will be plenty of help in the backfield as well with the Rookie of the Year winner Todd Gurley hoping to avoid a sophomore slump and play up to the level that everyone knows he can. The rams are changing a lot but on the field, their strategy remains the same as they continue the build. It might not get them to the playoffs this year but they will be a better team than a year ago.

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The San Francisco 49ers are one of the most frustrating teams in the league as they had all of the talent they needed to be great. Yet they always seemed to ignore some big problems, including an ageing defence and saw some interference at the top level. That is what led to the departure of Jim Harbaugh who was a major reason for the turnaround of the Niners. Disagreements with management allowed him to look elsewhere and when his alma mater called he jumped at the chance. With Harbaugh in Michigan, the Niners scrambled for a coach and settled on a member of the former staff. The whole season seemed to be defined by that off-season and they fell to the bottom of the league with a team that seemed disjointed all year. The Niners tried to change that this offseason when they hired Chip Kelly to lead their team as the hope was that another college coaching star could recapture some of the magic. So far his tenure has been rough with the biggest issue coming under centre as Colin Kaepernick wanted out of San Francisco but was convinced to stay only to be benched. Blaine Gabbert took the starting role and he will not have the targets that were once there for the Niners. Torrey Smith is a true deep threat but nobody targeted him last year while Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington are good but very raw. In the backfield, the Niners look to Carlos Hyde to take over full-time after the departure of Reggie Bush in the off-season. On defence, things don’t look a lot better as the team continues to fill holes of veterans and unexpected retirees. They have started to build front the front as Arik Armstead gets his chance to prove that the flashes he showed in his rookie year were no fluke and first round pick DeForest Bucknor hopes to get his chance as the season goes on. The linebackers are led by one of the few holdovers in NaVarro Bowman alongside Ahmad Brooks and Ray-Ray Armstrong. They form a good group but not one like they used to have that could take over games. The secondary was a small bright spot for the Niners last year and the return of Antoine Bethea should only help to solidify a good group. They will enter the season with a decent defence and an offence that needs a lot of work which is never a great recipe for a winning team. Expect them to sit at the bottom of the league this year as another playoff berth seems out of reach before Kelly asks to clean house and start over with more input on who gets drafted and signed for the near future.

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The Seahawks were always the team with the most swagger in the NFL they let everyone know that they thought they were the best team. That confidence helped to carry the Seahawks to two straight Super Bowls and to being one of the toughest teams in the NFC. Last year the confidence seemed to be lost at the start of the year with the Seahawks looking nothing like themselves. They were losing bad games and finding themselves at the bottom of the division as an easy win. Eventually, the team rallied though and the confidence returned which helped to launch them into the playoffs. They couldn’t finish the season how they did two years before but they still found themselves in the playoffs after a rough start. In 2016 they hope to change that and begin their season strong while they carry it through to the Super Bowl. The strength of this team for a long time has been their defence and it remains their strength this year. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril provide a scary one-two punch for the pass rush that can get to the quarterback with the best teams in the league. At linebacker, K.J. Wright only adds to that pass rush while Bobby Wagner holds down the middle. The Legion of Boom is not what they once were but they are still a good group led by Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. The defence is one of the top in the league with a great pass rush and good over men that make life tough for every opponent. The offence usually is ignored in Seattle but they are a good group with some big playmakers. What they need to figure out is their line as the addition of Germain Ifedi can help protect their best asset on offence. Russell Wilson at least has the ability to get out of the pocket and make something happen if he needs to but more time will only help him find his receivers. They are a good group too as Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse can find the ball anywhere on the field. They will likely hope to use Jimmy Graham more this year as he can be a breakout target in the middle but wasn’t utilised in his first year at tight end for Seattle. The running back is where the biggest change will happen as the Seahawks look to Christine Michael and Thomas Rawls to make up for the loss of Marshawn Lynch who retired in the offseason. It is hard to replace someone like Lynch but they will try and hopefully, they can manage as the run game is important for this team to keep teams from taking advantage of poor pass protection. The Seahawks are still one of the best in the league and if they start right from the beginning of the season they could challenge for the division title.

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Prediction:
The west is still a tough division and although one of the formerly tough teams won’t be a part of the title race it will still be a tough one to win. The Niners simply have too much going on to be considered a contender in the division this year as they need a real reset to get back to that point. They will sit at the bottom as they try to figure out their offence with plenty of decisions to be made. The Rams are going to have a lot of pressure this year with their move but they seem ready to take it one. They still are missing one key piece and as a result, they will likely not be able to get a top two but a playoff spot isn’t out of the realm of possibility for a very good young team. The Seahawks need to start strong this year or they will not be competing for the division as much as just a wild card. If they can they will make this battle that much better as they are a team that can challenge for the Super Bowl. In Arizona, things seem to just be fitting right now as they have found a good defence and offence and although neither is dominant together they form a very tough team. They will take the division crown again and hope that their regular season can translate to the playoffs.

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