This article is part of The Intermission’s 2018 NFL Preview. Click the link to visit the centralized page that’s home to all related NFL Preview content.
It’s been interesting to watch how the NFC West has transformed and almost completely flipped in recent years. The Rams and Niners used to be the absolute punchlines of the division and are now the juggernaut and sexy sleeper, respectively. On other side, the Seahawks and Cardinals used to battle for supremacy, now they’ll have trouble keeping pace. Oh, how NFL times change like west coast breeze.
1. Los Angeles Rams
2017 record: 11-5
2018 Projection: 13-3
If you happened to have checked out (please do) the previous seven division previews, you’ll have come to the realization that I have the Los Angeles Rams projected as the best regular season with a 13-3 record. They have all the pieces on both sides of the ball and even got a little taste of the playoffs last season, even though they got “upset” in the opening round. Without inducing a proper jinxing here, let’s check on a quick history lesson, scanning each NFL season back to 2003 to see the “success rate” of the team with the best regular season record having made the Super Bowl in that same season:
This is excellent news for the Rams faithful! Of the past 17 Super Bowls, 8 of them featured the team with the best regular season record, including the past FIVE straight. And of those five, the teams with the TWO best records in the league were both in the game. Apparently being good pays off to practically a 50/50 split. Given there’s 32 teams in this damn league, this is very encouraging.
But back to the Rams being absolutely loaded. Todd Gurley is a stud. Jared Goff had a extremely underrated season of 3,804 yards, 28:7 TD/INT ratio and a QB Rating of 100.5, which was good for 5th in the entire league. Then the team added a deep threat in Brandin Cooks in the offseason to give Goff even more help. But the defense! This is where the Rams will dominate opponents. With an already elite core, they went out and swapped solid players like Robert Quinn and Alec Olgetree with Pro Bowl caliber players like Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Aquib Talib. This unit is ridiculous and the numbers (and wins) should prove as much. In just one year, head coach Sean McVay (all of 32 years old) has turned this franchise into not only a contender, but practically a favorite.
Best case scenario: The team operates much like it did last season and reaches the second round of the playoffs, where this time, they capitalize on the opportunity and make it all the way back to the Super Bowl.
Worst case scenario: The division champs will have a major target on their back and the pressure will be massive. Drew Brees, with his Hall of Fame credentials already intact, isn’t getting any younger and will turn 40 in January. It feels like we’ve been waiting for the tank to start emptying for years now, but there is very little symptoms of that happening.
Bottom line: The Saints will easily be a playoff team again in 2018, whether it’s as repeat division champions or locking up a wild card spot. Clearly they’d prefer the former. Brees will have another outstanding season and Alvin Kamara will get the workload of a true starting back (sorry Mark Ingram) and impress in his second season. They are the team to beat in the NFC South.
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2. San Francisco 49ers
2017 record: 6-10
2018 Projection: 9-7
Everyone wants the Niners to be good, including myself. They’re young, have some exciting pieces and are led by a GQ-worthy quarterback (who acknowledges his love for the show Entourage). However, I’m also treating this team with extreme caution as the hype train seems to quickly barreling out of control. Even with Jimmy GQ firing lasers, to flip their record from 6-10 to 10-6 (which a sizable portion of people think will happen) is a very tall order, given the depth of the NFC. Despite the incredible quarterbacking that Garoppolo provided, this team did finish ranked 26th on defense and 19th on offense. Kyle Shanahan’s crew didn’t exactly steamroll a bunch of teams. They did strengthen some spots with the additions with Richard Sherman, Jerick McKinnon (whenever he gets healthy) and Weston Richburg at center. San Fran has a lot of potential, but there’s also plenty of room for failure as well.
Best case scenario: Jimmy Garoppolo ends up being the second coming of Tom Brady and makes everyone around him in this offense better. The running backs on board suffice and produce and they continue to pull out unexpected wins. With that, the Niners find themselves in the playoff hunt in the season’s finishing weeks.
Worst case scenario: The Jimmy G buzz gets rained on and he shows signs of regression during a season-long tilt with the NFC powers. The defense, despite having some star power, doesn’t mature as a unit and doesn’t improve on their below average ranking a year ago.
Bottom line: The Niners could be an exciting team to watch and have the potential to be solid, but I’m not appointing them to the playoffs just yet. Often mentioned in the same breath, “exciting” and “good” doesn’t always necessarily equate. I think 9-7 might even be a bit generous, but I’ll stick with the cautiously optimistic outlook.
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3. Arizona Cardinals
2017 record: 8-8
2018 Projection: 6-10
This team is ALL over the place in terms of projections. I’ve seen some outlets project them as bad as 3-13! I’m not seeing it. While I don’t think the Cards are going to be in the thick of the playoff chase, I don’t think they’re quite that bad either. The Cardinals were another team (like the Vikings) that completely wiped the depth chart clean at the quarterback position, in an attempt to bring in some new, effective blood. Departing was Carson Palmer, Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton, replaced with Sam Bradford, Mike Glennon and #10 overall pick Josh Rosen. Frankly, I like this group better, so the Cards are moving in the right direction. Incredibly, the ageless Larry Fitzgerald (turned 35 in August) is still occupying the top receiver spot on the depth chart, but after him, the group gets fairly thin, or at least unproven. Larry finished last season with 109 catches (2nd) and 1,156 yards (8th). He’ll be approaching some long-standing records sooner rather than later. On the ground, with a full season of star running back David Johnson (who broke his write and missed all of last season), the offense could be underrated. The Cards defense ranked exceptionally last season, finishing with the 4th highest DVOA. Chandler Jones, who led the NFL in sacks with 17, and Patrick Peterson, arguably the best corner in the game, lead the way. With a couple of key departures (most notably Tryonn Mathieu), those rankings might come back to a more realistic ranking in 2018.
Best case scenario: With Bradford playing inspired on a one-year deal and flanked by Johnson, the offense is more than adequate. If Fitzgerald puts up another 90 and 1,000, that’s gravy. The defense doesn’t skip a beat from last year and the Cardinals are a tough out each week and are poking around the wild card spots come late December.
Worst case scenario: The offense doesn’t evolve with Bradford quickly enough (or, he gets hurt) and we see Mike Glennon and/or Josh Rosen far too early. The defense shows those holes from the offseason departures and the Cards get buried within the division early.
Bottom line: Like the Vikings last season and to a much lesser degree, the Cards have insurance at quarterback with Bradford and Glennon, with Rosen looking on. This is a problem that most teams haven’t quite figured out yet. I think the Cards will be stuck between “average, with some flashes” and “not embarrassing,” which to me, you wind up at about 6-10.
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4. Seattle Seahawks
2017 record: 9-7
2018 Projection: 6-10
Not to shortcut you, but most of how I feel about the Seahawks this upcoming season is documented here. Of course, just yesterday, Earl Thomas announced he would be back with the team this season (though he’s not happy), so that will improve the defense. Clearly the Seahawks believe in Tyler Lockett as a legitimate number two receiver, giving him an extension of $30M+. I still don’t think this team will have enough offense and Russell Wilson had better hope the offensive line is improved, or else he’s going to get hurt, badly. And selfishly, Chris Carson better be incredible running the ball this season, since I own him in 4,718 fantasy leagues.
Best case scenario: Wilson puts up numbers similar to last season and the offense comes together, leaving the Seahawks to compete for a wild card spot. Bobby Wagner and Thomas lead a rejuvenated defense, pleasing Pete Carroll to no end and allowing him to keep his job.
Worst case scenario: Defensively, this team is broken down and the homefield advantage that once swung ball games, seems to have vaporized over past seasons. Teams go into Seattle with little fear and pound the Seahawks down to a second 4-4 season at home. That spells disaster.
Bottom line: I’m sorry, but I just can’t get onside with this being a good team in 2018. Where they were once a powerhouse, much of that has been reduced to an average roster. I don’t think the Seahawks have what it takes to keep pace with the good teams in the NFC. And somewhere, Russell Wilson is crying about it.