One of the most surprising division in the NFL, the NFC West has not disappointed this season with many close finishes. With defending Super Bowl champion Seattle sitting in second place, we start with the team who is currently two games ahead of them in the standings.
1. Arizona Cardinals (9-1)
Overall Grade: A
Offense: It has been a dramatic season to say the least when it comes to the Cardinals quarterback position. Starting quarterback Carson Palmer missed three games early in the season, and then returned for weeks 6-9 and won the Cardinals four straight games, earning him a brand new 50 million dollar contract. Just two days after signing said contract, Palmer tore his ACL against the St. Louis Rams, ending his season. Backup Drew Stanton has not disappointed for the Cardinals, doing enough to win back-to-back starts in weeks 2 and 3. Stanton relieved Palmer after his knee injury to throw a 48 yard touchdown pass to give the Cardinals the lead in the fourth quarter.
No real surprise that Larry Fitzgerald leads the Cardinals with 625 yards receiving. The surprise of the receiving unit has been John Brown, who leads the team with five touchdowns and has seven catches of over 20 yards this season.
The backfield is led by starter Andre Ellington who has been more of a dual threat this season. Ellington has rushed for a respectable 582 yards, while also coming out of the backfield to catch 37 passes for 332 yards.
On defense, the Cardinals rank 10th in the league, and have exceled against the run, only giving up an average of 78.6 yards per game on the ground (3rd in the NFL). Pro-bowl defensive lineman Calias Campbell is tied for the team lead in sacks with three, and cornerback Antonio Cromartie has been rejuvenated; leading the team with 10 passes defended and three interceptions. Cromartie also returned a fumble for a touchdown to seal the win last week against the Rams.
Looking ahead for the Cardinals, they will definitely have to earn their first division title since 2009. They will start off by hosting the 7-2 Detroit Lions, and will follow that with a road trip to Seattle to play the Seahawks, a team they will play twice in their second half of the season.
2. Seattle Seahawks (6-4)
Overall Grade: B+
Offense: Lead by quarterback Russell Wilson, the Seahawks passing game ranks 31st in the NFL, with Wilson only throwing for 1841 yards this season (11 TD, 5 INT). Seattle has became a run first team, with Wilson even running for 500 yards this season. The ground game is as good as it is because of Marshawn Lynch. Lynch has been a dual threat power back this season: rushing for 689 yards and nine touchdowns this season, while also catching 23 passes for 246 yards and a team-high three touchdown snags.
Seattle sent shock waves through their organization and the entire NFL when they traded explosive wide receiver Percy Harvin to the last place New York Jets in early October, and since then the receiving corps has lacked. Doug Baldwin remains the teams leading receiver with 38 receptions for 440 yards.
It’s been called the “Legion of Boom” and it is the Seattle defense. Ranked third overall in the NFL, this defense hasn’t been as good as last year, as they rank eight in the NFL against the pass. Seattle has only 12 takeaways this season, ranked 26th in the NFL.
It’s hard to mention the Seattle defense without bringing up Richard Sherman. The pro-bowl lockdown corner has defended four passes this year, and is one of six Seahawk defenders to have an interception this year.
Seattle is playing good football, there schedule down the road is based on the division, where they will have five matchups in the final seven weeks.
3. San Francisco 49ers (6-4)
Overall Grade: B
Offense: Quarterback Collin Kaepernick has played good ball so far this year, but not great. Ranked as the 21st offense overall, Kaepernick has had a good stat line, throwing for 2,166 yards, 13 touchdowns and just five interceptions. The problem for Kaepernick has been protection, the 49ers have given up 31 sacks already this season and it has limited Kaepernick’s running ability. He has rushed for 298 yards this season. Veteran running back Frank Gore leads the team once again on the ground, rushing for 553 yards and a pair of touchdowns this season. Rookie running back Carlos Hyde has been a good spark plug off the bench when Gore needs a breather, averaging four yards per carry and leading the team with three rushing touchdowns.
The 49ers have a barrage of weapons through the air, starting with veteran Anquan Boldin, who leads the team 51 receptions for 635 yards and three touchdowns. Other receivers like Michael Crabtree and first-year 49er Stevie Johnson each have three touchdown catches this year as well. Tight end Vernon Davis has battled injuries all season, catching just 17 passes so far this year and his two touchdowns were both in a week one win over the Dallas Cowboys.
The 49ers currently hold the leagues 2nd best defense, ranking 5th against the pass and 7th vs. the run. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks is playing at his highest level, leading the team in sacks with four. Brooks stripped Saints quarterback Drew Brees in overtime last week that set the 49ers up for a game winning Phil Dawson field goal. Justin Smith has also played well this year, recording three sacks.
For the 49ers, it’s really the same as the rest of the division, you have to win your remaining divisional games. The 49ers still have two remaining matchups against the Seahawks and the Cardinals, if they want to return to the playoffs, it’s going to come down to if they can win in their division.
4. St. Louis Rams (4-6)
Overall Grade: C-
Offense: The Rams currently rank 30th in the NFL in overall offense, with the quarterback position being a constant headache. Sam Bradford was injured before the season even started, and backup Austin Davis has taken over. Davis overall hasn’t looked bad, throwing 12 touchdowns to nine interceptions; but lately has struggled, throwing for less than 160 yards in three of the last four games. Now it will be third string signal caller Shaun Hill starting for the Rams this week, he started opening day for the Rams but only completed eight passes in a loss to the Minnesota Vikings which led to his benching.
Speaking of headaches, this was the year Zac Stacy was going to do big things in the St. Louis backfield. So far, that has not been the case as he has been out gained by rookie Tre Mason, 270-257 so far this season. Tight end Jared Cook leads the team in receiving, catching 31 passes for 427 yards.
Defensively, the Rams are middle of the pack, ranked 13th overall. Robert Quinn has been as good as advertised, leading the team with six sacks. EJ Gaines leads the secondary with 10 passes defended. What has hurt the Rams defense has been lack of takeaways. They have only forced 11 turnovers, ranked 28th in the NFL. The one big turnover the defense did get was a fumble recovery on the last play of the game against the 49ers, on a sneak attempt by Collin Kaepernick. The Rams recovered and held at the goal line to hold on to a 13-10 win.
Looking ahead for the Rams, they still have division games against the Seahawks and 49ers, but have back-to-back tough games starting this week against the Denver Broncos, followed by a matchup against the San Diego Chargers. The Rams playoff hopes are slim to none as of right now, and in the offseason they will have to discuss their quarterback situation and determine if Sam Bradford is still the quarterback they can build a winning team around.
Offensive MVP of the First Half: SEA, RB Marshawn Lynch
With the departure of Percy Harvin, Lynch has had to carry the entire offense in the recent weeks. Lynch has ran for six touchdowns in the last two games, and has scored 12 touchdowns total this season, leading all running backs in the NFL.
Defensive MVP of the First Half: STL, DE Robert Quinn
Six sacks this season and is constantly disrupting opposing quarterbacks, Quinn is a no-doubter.
Comeback Player of the First Half: ARI, CB Antonio Cromartie
After reports said Cromartie was “washed” as a member of the New York Jets, he has found a new home in the desert and continues to heat up, leading the team in passes defended and scoring a defensive touchdown.
Letdown of the First Half: STL, RB Zac Stacy
This was going to be the year that Stacy broke out and put up big numbers. Instead, he has missed three games due to injury, and only averages 43 yards per game when healthy. He has been surpassed by Tre Mason as the team’s leading rusher, and Benny Cunningham is starting to get more reps as Stacy remains hurt.
Cover Photo: Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
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