With the NFL season kicking off this Thursday with the Philadelphia Eagles opening up the defense of their Super Bowl LII title against the Atlanta Falcons, what better time to preview the season, especially now that rosters are mostly set after a mostly ignored preseason.
These previews are going to feature a quick look back at last season, any major personnel moves that may affect the upcoming season, and a prediction for how we think each division is going to play out. At the end of the week, we’ll post a separate post that combines them all and predicts the playoff participants, as well as who we think will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on February 3, 2019.
We are to the last division in the NFC (the others can be found here, here, and here), and it may be the hardest division to figure out for various reasons. The NFC West had a run in the recent past where it was dominated by the Seattle Seahawks – who won a Super Bowl and lost another in a back-to-back seasons – only for them to lose a lot of their “Legion of Boom” defense over the offseason. The resurgent Rams moved back to Los Angeles a couple of years ago, and surprised a lot of people by winning the division last year. The Cardinals haven’t been to the Super Bowl in nearly a decade, though it feels much closer than that. And the 49ers, a dominant team through much of the ’80s and ’90s, has struggled a bit in the meantime, though they also have a Super Bowl loss to their credit this century, and are led now by an unproven quarterback, although one with a champion mentor. But let’s run through the division like we’ve done with the others.
The aforementioned defending division champions Los Angeles Rams improved on 2016 by seven wins, finishing the season at 11-5, their second back in Los Angeles since returning from St. Louis. It was their first winning season since 2003, and they went on to lose to the defending NFC Champions Atlanta Falcons during the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. They are led by Sean McVay, the youngest coach in the league, who took over the team last season after the middling run for the team under Jeff Fisher.
The Seattle Seahawks finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011. They were 8-4 after a Week 13 win against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles, and were in position to compete for a playoff spot, if not another division title. However, a 1-3 finish to the season, including a Week 17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals kept them out of the playoffs.
The Arizona Cardinals were dealt a blow during Week 1, losing star running back David Johnson for the remainder of the season due to a broken wrist. They were never able to recover from the loss of his production, and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season at 8-8. A bright spot in an otherwise dull season was yet another Pro Bowl season from wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who went over 100 receptions in a season for the fifth time in his career, moving him to third all-time in that category (behind only Jerry Rice and Tony Gonzalez). Three more seasons at the same level of production could move him ahead of Jerry Rice, but another 92 catches would give him sole possession of second place, which would be a remarkable career.
Finally, the San Francisco 49ers had a tale of two seasons last year. The first season under coach Kyle Shanahan started bleakly, with the team starting the season 0-9. A Week 10 win over the equally as hapless Giants allowed them to avoid the ignominy of going winless on the season, and after a Week 12 loss against the Seahawks, the insertion of Jimmy Garoppolo – who came to the club in a trade from the New England Patriots – into the starting lineup during Week 13 changed the fortune of the team for last season and beyond. Jimmy G led the 49ers to victories in the last five games of the season, including a season ending game against the division champion Rams, and the team finished 6-10, giving Niners fans a hope for the future that they hadn’t felt for quite some time.
Major Personnel Moves
The Cardinals are replacing their quarterback after the retirement of Carson Palmer after an up and down career with the team. Sam Bradford was signed as a free agent from the Minnesota Vikings, and has been named as the starter to begin the season, but first round pick Josh Rosen should remain ready in case Bradford again misses time with an injury, something that has happened a lot in his career. The Cardinals will also be led by a new coach, with former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks taking over for the retired Bruce Arians.
The 49ers had some changes to their stable of running backs, with Carlos Hyde leaving for the Cleveland Browns and Jerick McKinnon (Vikings) and Alfred Morris (Cowboys) joining the team as free agents. Unfortunately, McKinnon was lost for the season with a knee injury during the last week of the preseason, leaving Morris as the default starter.
The “Legion of Boom” of the Seahawks also underwent some changes this offseason, with safety Kam Chancellor retiring due to injury and Richard Sherman signing with the 49ers. Earl Thomas also held out for most of the preseason, finally joining the team this week despite not signing a new contract with the team.
The Rams will be playing a first place schedule, so they may not be able to match their performance from last season, though I have them doing so primarily because of their schedule outside of the division. Jimmy Garoppolo should also continue to build on the end of last season, especially with Seattle in a mild transition year, and the Cardinals are a little hard to read with the reliance on Sam Bradford, but I admit I might be underestimating them a bit here.
1. Los Angeles Rams – 11-5 (4-2 division)
2. San Francisco 49ers – 10-6 (3-3 division)
3. Seattle Seahawks – 8-8 (3-3 division)
4. Arizona Cardinals – 3-13 (2-4 division)