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It's a two-horse race

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  • It's a two-horse race

    By Ira Miller
    Special to

    (With the NFL regular season set to kick off on Thursday, Sept. 9, has put together an eight-part series previewing each team division by division. Here is the NFC West.)


    Realignment has not been kind to the NFC West. The division produced eight Super Bowl teams in 21 seasons prior to realignment, but in two years since the league went to its eight-division format, the NFC West has failed to even advance a team to the NFC Championship Game.

    St. Louis finished in first place last season with a 12-4 record, and Seattle also reached the playoffs as a wild-card team at 10-6. The Seahawks had a better record within the division -- 5-1 compared to the Rams' 4-2 -- but their poor record outside the division (5-5) and their poor record on the road (2-6) kept them from finishing first. Neither team advanced after their first playoff game.

    The Seahawks lost an overtime thriller at Green Bay, and the Rams, who had won 14 consecutive home games, lost a double-overtime game at home against Carolina.

    Once more, these appear to be the only true playoff contenders in the division. The ***** are in a total rebuilding mode, tearing apart their offense after a 7-9 season. And the Cardinals are starting over with new coach Dennis Green after going 4-12.

    Seattle, which has built a strong offense and is showing signs of improvement on defense, is considered the division favorite. History also favors the Seahawks. No team has repeated as NFC West champion since the ***** won the last of four consecutive titles in 1995.

    Arizona is the only team with a new coach. The ***** will have a new starting quarterback -- Tim Rattay if he is healthy, Ken Dorsey if Rattay is not. The Cards also have a quasi-new starter because Josh McCown started only three games last season.

    Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Rams running back Steven Jackson appear to be the two most eagerly anticipated rookies in the division. Fitzgerald was the third overall pick in the draft and Jackson was 24th. The *****, having dispatched Terrell Owens in the purge of their offense, are hoping that first-round pick Rashaun Woods can pick up the slack. Seattle expects its top two draft picks -- defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs and strong safety Michael Boulware -- to play significant roles in improving its defense.

    Movers and shakers

    Green took his Minnesota teams to the playoffs eight times in 10 years with seven different starting quarterbacks. It would be hard to find a coach more qualified to wade into a long-time chaotic situation. With a new stadium under construction, the Cards are perfectly positioned to begin the kind of turnaround that Tampa Bay made under Tony Dungy about a decade ago.

    There are new defensive coordinators in St. Louis and San Francisco, both of whom take over for men that got head-coaching jobs. Larry Marmie replaces Lovie Smith with the Rams and he is expected to bring a greater variety of coverages to the Edward Jones Dome. In San Francisco, Willy Robinson is expected to make greater use of the 3-4 defense than the ***** did under Jim Mora.

    Both the Rams and ***** are undergoing subtle shifts in their offensive focus, too. With Marc Bulger established as the St. Louis quarterback, taking over for Kurt Warner, the Rams are expected to give more than lip service to the running game. Such a move is two-fold -- it would ease the burden on Bulger and perhaps permit the defense to spend less time on the field. The ***** are going the other way, moving away from their Bill Walsh West Coast offense roots to encompass more spread formations favored by second-year coach Dennis Erickson. They hope to take advantage of Rattay's ability to throw deep from the pocket.

    Grant Wistrom, the defensive end with a nonstop motor, bolted from the Rams to the division rival Seahawks, where he's expected to bring life to a defense that has served as a boat anchor on the Seattle franchise. Green has upgraded his defense in Arizona with several free agents, including former Denver defensive end Bert Berry, who gives the Cards a legitimate pass-rushing threat for the first time in years. The Rams and ***** stayed under the radar in free agency, although St. Louis did sign a new veteran backup quarterback in Chris Chandler.


    It should be a two-team race between Seattle and St. Louis. The Rams and Seahawks were two of only seven teams in the league to score more than 400 points in 2003, with St. Louis tying Indianapolis for second place in the league at 447. Both of them have plenty of firepower again, which will make it tough on the division's defenses. All four teams could stand to improve there -- last year, San Francisco's 13th-place finish in defensive stats was best in the division.

    Seattle clearly appears poised to take control behind Matt Hasselbeck, a maturing quarterback, and an offensive line anchored by Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson. Shaun Alexander might have surpassed aging Marshall Faulk as the best running back in the division. Seattle's starting receivers can't match the Rams' Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, but the Seahawks may have better wideout depth than the Rams.

    Interestingly enough, the two coaches under the most fire will also be the two coaches of the best teams. This is Mike Holmgren's sixth year with the Seahawks, and, while the team appears to be making progress, his five-year winning percentage is exactly .500 (counting two playoff defeats). And as Mike Martz heads into his fifth season with the Rams, his won-lost record is enviable, but the team still has not won a Super Bowl under him. The window of opportunity could be shrinking.

    As for the ***** and Cards, their measurement will be strictly on player development. The coaches may talk about the playoffs for those teams, but that goal is not realistic.


    Dennis Erickson, on quarterbacks Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey: "Their ability to run with the football is not the same as Jeff's (Garcia). I think it's going to be a little more of a timing thing with our offense running the football. Jeff made a lot of plays after he gave himself a second chance. That'll happen, not in steps -- they can move around, Jeff just ran. He's got an innate ability. Both Tim and Ken slide the pockets, step up, slide out; they'll make some things happen."

    Dennis Green, on getting the most out of his players: "One of the problems I've always had as I've looked at the offensive lines here is that you have to be able to play with that tempo and intensity all the time. That's what I've not seen probably the last 12 years maybe. We're going to try to address that."

    Mike Martz, talking about Marshall Faulk: "He looks like the Marshall of old out here, but we'll see. We're really cautious with him. He feels so good and when he's like that we try not to put a damper on it, but we also just want him to be cautious and take this thing in stride."

    Mike Holmgren, on the difficult schedule: "We play six of the first nine on the road, and we were not very good on the road last year. That'll probably tell the tale a little bit, our start. But we know that and our team will know that, certainly.

Related Topics


  • MauiRam
    NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West ..
    by MauiRam
    By staff |

    The NFC West had three teams that won at least 10 games last season, two teams in the NFC Championship Game and a team that won the Super Bowl by 35 points.

    Consequently, there is no lack of confidence about the 2014 season for the teams in this division. Three of them -- the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco ***** and Arizona Cardinals -- can make a legitimate argument for winning the division title.

    But until the ***** or the Cardinals prove otherwise, the Seahawks are the clear favorites, not only to win the division crown but to return to the Super Bowl.

    The Seahawks, however, realize the biggest obstacle to repeating as Super Bowl winners lies within their own division. The NFC West is widely regarded as the best division in the NFL. It's also the most physical division in the league, which means the division rivals tend to beat up on each other.

    Here's how Seahawks reporter Terry Blount, St. Louis Rams reporter Nick Wagoner, Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and ***** reporter Bill Williamson see each team finishing in 2014:

    First Down
    What will the *****' record be and why?

    Terry Blount: 12-4. The ***** have a shiny new stadium, which I see them taking full advantage of and probably going unbeaten at home. Their home game against the Seahawks comes on Thanksgiving night, which likely will be a frenzied holiday crowd in front of a national TV audience. However, I don't see things going quite as smoothly on the road. I have the ***** losing at Arizona, Denver, New Orleans and Seattle. The key for San Francisco is how the team performs in a five-game midseason stretch that includes four road games -- St. Louis, Denver, New Orleans and the New York Giants. The ***** do have a bye week in that stretch, but how they get through the middle part of the schedule will determine their fate.
    Nick Wagoner: 11-5. It's awfully tempting to elevate the ***** above the Seahawks, especially after a productive offseason in which San Francisco bolstered its offense by retaining Anquan Boldin, trading for Stevie Johnson and drafting talented young playmakers Bruce Ellington and Carlos Hyde. Not to mention Michael Crabtree is healthy. It wouldn't surprise anyone to see Colin Kaepernick take a big step forward with all of those weapons at his disposal. However, it's fair to wonder if the Niners' defense can continue its dominance. They'll certainly miss NaVorro Bowman early and they have some pieces to replace in the secondary. Mostly, it's picking nits when it comes to the Niners, and I see no reason to believe this team isn't going to be a serious Super Bowl contender again.

    Josh Weinfuss: 10-6. This may be a bit on the nice side, considering the run of injuries to running backs since training camp started, but I think the *****' passing game and Colin Kaepernick's feet will make up for at least one game...
    -08-01-2014, 09:41 AM
  • RamWraith
    Showdown in NFC West is parity party
    by RamWraith
    By Bryan Burwell

    For all this fancy talk about heated division rivalries, inflammatory bulletin-board quotations, vengeful rematches and delicious psychological warfare, the true essence of this ongoing Rams-Seahawks football feud can be found right there at the top of the NFL standings.

    This might be a brawl for it all in the NFC West, but for the time being, let's just say that we ought to hold back on any breathless banter about postseason implications and championship possibilities. What we're about to witness inside the sold-out Edward Jones Dome is nothing more exciting than a grudge match between two rather flawed 2-2 teams wrestling for supremacy in a division that lacks any true powerhouse legitimacy.

    We are still waiting for someone in this division to define themselves as worthy championship contenders. We are still waiting for someone in this division to start flexing their muscles and act like they deserve being mentioned in the same breath among the NFC power elite.

    Right now, the NFC West's greatest claim to fame is its consistent ability to produce underachieving, disappointing pretenders. Wasn't 2005 supposed to be the Year of the Arizona Cardinals? Oooops, that hasn't worked out so well so far. Wasn't 2005 supposed to be the season of the great rejuvenation of the Rams offense and redemption of the rebuilt defense?

    Again, ooooops.

    And how long have we been waiting for the Seahawks to live up to their promise as a team on the rise? Weren't they supposed to be the "It Team" of 2003, or was it 2004? Haven't they been labeled for the past three years as one of those promising young teams just on the verge of a breakout season? Weren't they supposed to be ready to make some serious noise?

    But now look at them. The only noise they're making is "ouch!!!!" The 2-2 Seahawks are playing just as unevenly as the 2-2 Rams, and Sunday their top two wide receivers (Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram) won't play because of knee and rib injuries. That's 75 percent of their passing offense that's going to be back in Seattle. And if they're battered physically, imagine the damage that's been done to their psyches whenever they see those gold and blue Rams helmets coming toward them.

    So now the team of the future looks a whole lot more like a team whose time may have passed them by. You think things are rough for the Rams and Mike Martz? Well get a load of the popularity of Seattle's Mike Holmgren, who got a pass for a long time about the merits of his offensive "genius" tag. Lately, however, Holmgren's struggled to live up to the reputation.

    So what's the biggest beef about Holmgren in Seattle? They think he's too conservative, too tightly wound, too boring and predictable late in games when victory or defeat is being decided.

    -10-09-2005, 06:32 AM
  • RamWraith
    Rams are the best pick among a weak west
    by RamWraith
    AP Football Writer

    The fashionable pick in the NFC West these days seems to be Arizona.
    We're not going to be fashionable, although the Cardinals are improved
    and should reach the .500 mark for the first time since 1998, when
    they were 9-7.

    And an 8-8 record could sneak off with this weak division, where only
    the ***** aren't good enough to contend.

    Still, the Rams should have plenty of offense and just enough defense
    to overcome any challenges - and overcome coach Mike Martz's sometimes
    strange sideline decisions.

    Seattle seems too fragile and must prove it can beat the Rams, who
    swept three meetings with the Seahawks last year.

    These are not quite the Rams who dominated the early decade with a
    scintillating passing attack and the magical Marshall Faulk. Steven
    Jackson has usurped Faulk as the starting running back, and Marc
    Bulger long ago took over for Kurt Warner, who is now with the

    "When he has that adrenaline going, he's tough to bring down," Bulger
    says of Jackson, in his second pro season. "You give him a little bit
    of a crease, his legs are so big and he's so strong that he's tough to
    bring down."

    The receiving corps remains dynamic as long as Torry Holt and Isaac
    Bruce are around, and Rams fans are excited about Kevin Curtis and
    Shaun McDonald. Bulger could have more options than Warner did -if
    Jackson is as good as advertised and Faulk still has some of his touch
    - and the line is one of the NFL's best.

    For St. Louis to do better than the 8-8 that got it into the playoffs
    as a wild card, it needs a less-charitable defense. The Rams yielded
    an ugly 392 points last season, 12th in the NFC.

    That prompted a bunch of moves, particularly at linebacker (Dexter
    Coakley and Chris Claiborne) and in the secondary, where starting CB
    Jerametrius Butler already is gone with a wrecked knee. If the Rams
    can cover people and get the usual pass rush from end Leonard Little,
    plus improved performances from the LBs, they should be the class of
    the division.

    Watch for DT Jimmy Kennedy and end Anthony Hargrove to support Little,
    which should help the so-so secondary.

    "We played pretty well on the defensive line last year and I felt like
    our linebacker play wasn't what it needed to be," Martz said. "We've
    made the personnel changes, and it was significant. This is as excited
    as I've been about a defense here."

    They're excited about defense in the desert, too. Indeed, the
    Cardinals are showing more signs of life in all areas than at any time
    recently, and if the Rams remain a .500 team,...
    -08-30-2005, 04:40 PM
  • Rambos
    Well, somebody has to win the NFC West
    by Rambos
    There is an increasingly strong possibility that the champion will have a losing record.

    Not only that, a 7-9 St. Louis or Seattle or San Francisco team could wind up hosting a first-round playoff game against a team that has won 10 or 11 games, maybe more.

    That potentially embarrassing scenario results from an NFL rule that guarantees each division champion a home playoff game.

    With five weeks to go, Seattle and St. Louis are tied for first at 5-6, with San Francisco 4-7 and Arizona 3-8.

    As Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck put it, "Yeah, it's weird."

    In games outside their division, NFC West teams are 10-20. Only St. Louis is respectable at 4-4. The division has played a big role in Kansas City's revival. The AFC West-leading Chiefs have beaten San Francisco 31-10, Arizona 31-13 and Seattle 42-24.

    The coaches of the four NFC West teams don't like to talk about the sorry state of their division. They're understandably consumed by trying to right their respective ships.

    "I don't know. It's hard for me to speculate on that," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said on Tuesday when asked if he thought the division winner would have a losing record.

    Whisenhunt's Cardinals, winners of the NFC West the past two seasons, are mired in a six-game losing streak and were embarrassed on national television in a 27-6 home loss to San Francisco on Monday night.

    "My focus right now is really worrying about what we do. As a Cardinal answer to a non-Cardinal question, I'm really worried about what we're going to do," Whisenhunt said. "I'm not worried about that right now. We have played all the three teams in our division and to me they have all been good football teams."

    To him maybe.

    Here is a look at the "contenders" and what they face to try to finish at least at .500.

    —The Rams: St. Louis could have the best shot. After going 6-42 the past three seasons and 1-15 last year, the Rams are on the rise under second-year coach Steve Spagnuolo and rookie quarterback Sam Bradford. They play three of their last five against NFC West opponents. A sweep there and St. Louis could lose to Kansas City and New Orleans and still finish 8-8. It could come down to the regular-season finale at Seattle on Jan 2.

    —The Seahawks: Seattle has allowed 76 points in its last two games, losses at New Orleans and at home against Kansas City. On the positive side, the Seahawks have a home game against the Carolina Panthers, whose only win this season was against, of course, an NFC West foe — 23-20 over San Francisco. But the Seahawks have Atlanta at home and are at Tampa Bay. Seattle might have to sweep San Francisco and St. Louis to climb to .500.

    —The *****: San Francisco was the preseason favorite but started 0-5. The ***** have won...
    -11-30-2010, 06:03 PM
  • RamWraith
    Rams, Hawks Rivalry Heating Up
    by RamWraith
    Wednesday, October 5, 2005

    By Nick Wagoner
    Senior Writer

    While the Seattle Seahawks were off winning the NFC West Division last year, something just didn’t quite feel right.

    Maybe it was that their 9-7 regular season record wasn’t as good as many thought it would be. Or maybe it was the lingering aftereffects of three straight losses to the team that they had been trying so desperately to dethrone.

    “We have been the team in NFC West for awhile and Seattle has made all the right moves to dethrone us,” receiver Torry Holt said. “They are supposed to be the new team on the block in the division.”

    And the Seahawks certainly were the new team in town last year, claiming the division for the first time since they joined with realignment in 2002. The Rams had worn that division crown more often than not other wise, winning it in 2003 and before Seattle joined in 2001 and 1999.

    Still, though the Seahawks were able to claim a divisional crown last year, the biggest obstacle that stood in their way, the Rams, certainly wasn’t moved out of the way. St. Louis defeated Seattle three times, including the most important game of all, an NFC Wild Card game at Qwest Field.

    But there was nary a game played in the NFL at all last year that was more memorable than what happened in Seattle on Oct. 10. The Rams trailed that game 27-10 with less than eight minutes to go.

    It appeared that the changing of the guard in the NFC West was happening on Qwest Field that day and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Seattle running back Shaun Alexander was running at will and the Rams couldn’t get much of anything going against the Seahawks’ defense.

    Then, out of nowhere, Seattle was struck by lightning, not once or twice, but three times. It started with tight end Brandon Manumaleuna’s unbelievable catch in traffic for and 8-yard touchdown. Kevin Curtis followed that with a quick-strike 41-yard touchdown grab down the middle of the field and Shaun McDonald capped it with the ultimate lightning bolt in the form of his game-winning 52-yard touchdown grab.

    “Some of the games we have had with them over the past couple of years have been some good battles,” center Andy McCollum said. “Obviously last year we went up there and anyone involved with it is going to remember that. I think that’s just it. When you have two teams battling for the division every year it turns out to be war out there.”

    But it didn’t used to be that way. In fact, the Seahawks at one time were considered the team most likely to be the perennial doormats in the NFC West. But then they began to start spending money on improving the team, signing high-priced free agent and committing to drafting well.

    Seattle also has apparently bought into the theory that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em by signing defensive ends Grant Wistrom...
    -10-05-2005, 01:15 PM