Although it was an unexpected route to get there, the NFC West standings after eight weeks look the way many assumed they would when the season started.
The San Francisco 49ers, many people’s’ choice to represent the division in the postseason, are at the top with a 6-2 record. They got off to a bit of a slow start – they beat the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions by a single score before losing to the Minnesota Vikings in week three – but have picked it up in recent weeks.
They’re doing it with the same stifling defense and conservative offense that helped them reach the NFC Championship game last season. QB Alex Smith manages the offense with high-percentage throws, and RB Frank Gore is still effective at the age of 29.
On defense, the playmakers are endless. Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman, Aldon Smith…and that’s just the front seven. The Rams will get a taste of the NFL’s best defense in the first game out of the bye.
The Arizona Cardinals performed a Jekyll and Hyde routine through the first eight games. They were the surprise of the NFL through the first quarter of the season, jumping out to a 4-0 start behind a defense that ranked near the top of the league. The Cardinals pulled the upset of the first half when they went into Gillette Stadium and beat the New England Patriots 20-18.
The next four games were marked by atrocious offensive line play that saw starting QB Kevin Kolb get injured and backup QB John Skelton often without time to throw. The Cardinals haven’t scored over 16 points in any of their four losses. Where the 49ers have only gotten stronger as the year’s gone on, the Cardinals are headed in the opposite direction.
Also at 4-4 are the Seattle Seahawks. As in years past, the Seahawks are different team at home than they are on the road. The Seahawks are 1-4 on the road but 3-0 in Seattle. They’ve beaten league elites Green Bay and New England at CenturyLink Field.
They do it on the strength of a physical defense and an offense that is equally as physical. RB Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch terrorizes opposing defenses, while rookie QB Russell Wilson has done enough to move the ball through the air.
The Seahawks’ trademark in recent years has been a big, physical defense. This year is no exception. Their cornerbacks are among the most physically imposing in the league, as is the rotating cast of defensive linemen. It’s a reason the Seahawks are the fifth-best defense in rushing and total yards after the first half of the season.
The Rams were able to get the better of the Seahawks and the Cardinals when the teams visited the Edward Jones Dome earlier in the year, as they own 2-0 record within the division at the break. They’ll play four more division games of the last eight, and at 3-5 they’ll need to win more than a few of those if they hope to win the NFC West for the first time since 2003.