While there are still 14 games to play, one thing about the NFC West has been made clear: a team truly separating itself from the rest of the division isn’t likely to happen.
Instead of a race to 10 or 11 wins in order to capture the division crown, it could be a race to eight or nine.
Seattle Seahawks (1-1, first place in NFC West)
The Pete Carroll era started off with a bang and then it came crashing back down to earth.
In Seattle’s 31-6 Week One upset victory over San Francisco, the Seahawks kept a potent 49ers offense at bay thanks to unrelenting pressure on the quarterback. Two sacks and 11 total hits on Alex Smith didn’t allow the San Francisco signal caller time to get comfortable in the pocket. Miscues between Smith and his receivers thanks to the pressure and solid play from the Seattle secondary resulted in two interceptions and a defensive touchdown.
That same defensive pressure couldn’t be found the following week in Denver. Against the Broncos, the Seahawks got to quarterback Kyle Orton just once. Not being able to disrupt Orton’s timing proved to be costly. The second-year Bronco connected with seven different receivers en route to throwing for over 300 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-14 victory for Denver.
Seattle’s bugaboo last year was the team’s inability to get to the quarterback and that problem could very well be what limits the Seahawks’ ascendance in 2010.
Arizona Cardinals (1-1, first place in NFC West)
Just before the start of the season Arizona rid itself of its starting quarterback, but now it’s more than just the team’s former signal caller that the Cardinals are without.
Chris “Beanie” Wells hasn’t seen time thus far due to a knee injury. Without the team’s starting running back, the Cardinals have had to rely on their pass-catching threat out of the backfield to shoulder the load. While averaging seven yards per carry after two games, Tim Hightower hasn’t been the bruising, every-down back that Arizona has needed to help alleviate pressure from quarterback Derek Anderson and the team’s passing game. Anderson’s completed just 54.2 percent of his passes, good for 26th in the National Football League.
It isn’t known for sure how much more action Wells will miss, but if it’s for much longer Arizona will have reason to worry as it tries to capture its third consecutive division championship.
San Francisco 49ers (0-2, third place in NFC West)
It was believed that the 49ers would be in the division’s penthouse thanks to one of the league’s premier running backs, an overall formidable offense and a punishing defense with a penchant for getting to opposing quarterbacks.
Instead, San Francisco’s in the division’s basement.
After the team’s Week One road loss in Seattle, San Francisco faltered at home against the defending Super Bowl champions. San Francisco managed to rough up quarterback Drew Brees just three times, two of which were sacks, giving the Saints’ signal caller time to go through his progressions. Brees completed 28 passes in the game, with his four biggest coming on the game’s final drive as he led the New Orleans offense on a seven-play, 54-yard march down the field that was capped off with a game-winning 37-yard boot from Garrett Hartley.
The inability to sack opposing quarterbacks wasn’t a one-week anomaly. San Francisco was able to penetrate the Seattle offensive line and bring down quarterback Matt Hasselbeck once in the team’s 31-6 opening-week loss. The team’s three sacks so far this year places the 49ers in a nine-way tie for 18th in the league. This is a big area of concern for a team that finished last season tied for third in the league’s sack totals.
St. Louis Rams (0-2, third place in NFC West)
Despite losing its first two games of the season by a combined six points, St. Louis hasn’t done much on either side of the ball is facing what could be a long season.
With rookie Sam Bradford under center, the Rams and Bradford rank 23rd in the NFL in total passing yards and completion percentage, respectively.
Without an effective aerial attack, opposing defenses have been able to key in on the one aspect of the Rams that produces fear, St. Louis’ ground game. Coming off his second Pro Bowl trip in his six-year pro career, Steven Jackson has been held in check thus far in 2010. His 3.8 yards per carry average on the season is his worst ever and is over half a yard less than his mark from last year.
Without many points on the scoreboard, the team’s defense has felt the pressure of trying to keep its team in ballgames. Although allowing 16.5 points per game this season, the team’s opponents haven’t been the kind that will strike fear in the hearts of many. With that in mind, St. Louis’ opponents still have been successful in moving the ball down field. Arizona amassed 378 total yards of offense in Week One while Oakland totaled 404 last week.
How the West Will Be Won
While it’s still early and much can happen over the next 14 games, the NFC West looks to be a two-team division between San Francisco and Seattle.
For the 49ers to win, the team’s defense has to regain its dominant ways of 2009. Quarterback Alex Smith should be serviceable, but that’s contingent on the play of an offensive line that features to rookies as starters. If Smith falters, teams will only have to worry about San Francisco’s running game and, while Frank Gore is a perennial power at the position, a one-headed offensive attack is much more manageable for opposing defenses.
Should Seattle walk away from the division with the championship banner in hand, it will be because of its ability to play well at home. The Seahawks feed off their fan base. Behind the vociferous bellowing of the “12th Man”, Seattle leads the NFL in recent years in opposing team false start penalties. The crowd noise and false start penalties further fuel a Seattle defensive unit that showed in Week One that it not only loves to play at home, but can play at a high level within the confines of Qwest Field.
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