NFC West games above the rest but sustainability in question

Right now the NFC West possesses the best composite record and it’s not even close. Long, long gone are the days of 6-9 Seattle and 7-8 St. Louis battling for the division crown — but are they suddenly the NFL’s best division?

The NFC West currently sits at 11-5 and next closest is the 9-7 mark shared by the NFC East and NFC North, if any more reason was needed to confirm blue as the best conference currently.

While composite division records do not tell even close to the whole story and neither do records compiled solely from September, this narrative still has some clarity to it. The question is whether the West’s key weakness is fatal.

Before the word “quarterback” pops in your head you might have thought about the dominant defensive lines across the division, the slew of underrated secondaries, San Francisco’s wrecking crew of backers and the recent revelation (well, more primetime publicizing than revelation) that the NFC West has become the NFL’s preeminent hotbed for young defensive talent.

It can be quite comfortably argued that each team has the league’s best “something” on defense: San Francisco (linebackers with Wills/Bowman/Smith/Brooks and 34 ends with Smith/McDonald), Seattle (quality line depth and also starting secondary with Thomas/Chancellor/Sherman/Marshall), Cardinals (34 ends with Campbell/Dockett and rising shutdown corner with Patrick Peterson), and even the Rams (most versatile elite corner in Cortland Finnegan and young starting 43 bookends with Quinn/Long).

And with the most defensively savvy head coach in the division in Jeff Fisher, the rapid ascent if this Rams unit should only continue on this young season’s promising course. Thursday night’s matchup with the Cardinals shouldn’t be lacking in punts, throwaways, sacks and backfield penetration.

And these are the very reasons the NFC West holds a two-game lead for the NFL’s best record, including wins at Green Bay, vs. Green Bay, vs. Washington, vs. Dallas, vs. Philly and at New England. But there’s worry as to whether they possess the formula to make late-season noise or a playoff push.

San Francisco rolled into the season as the Vegas darling for a Super Bowl shot, but I believe they may too have the fatal flaw of the 2012 NFC West — quarterback play. It cost San Fran the NFC title last year far more than Kyle Williams as that game doesn’t even go to overtime if Alex Smith showed remotely capable of hitting a receiver downfield in that day’s inclement conditions. There were plays to be made, field to be stretched, aggression to be asserted and a game to be won, and Smith couldn’t do it despite an embarrassment of chances.

Russell Wilson has proved completely in over his head and, despite being propped up with a conservative approach even by Carroll-era Seahawks standards, is proving to be a quarterback Seattle just can’t score enough to win consistently with right now. You won’t close many tight games without hitting at least two bills through the air.

In Arizona, despite my support of Kevin Kolb over John Skelton both here and in USA Today, I think it’s safe to say the jury is out on whether his two fourth-quarter comebacks are more indicative than the rest of his Cardinals resume, though between Kolb and Skelton Arizona has gone a mind-boggling 10-1 in their last 11 one-score games.

The biggest reservation for Kolb is basically the same for Bradford, as over the past two years these two have received arguably the NFL’s worst pass protection (Eli Manning’s pass pro has gotten better this year so he may drop to third in that regard). And for two quarterbacks that still had plenty of developing to do coming into 2011, the sheer lack of talent and health up front has more than hindered.

It’s my theory — and I’m sure many others subscribe or have come to this conclusion on their own — that teams with stellar defenses, good coaching and at least a few good pieces can rack up regular season wins with anyone but that the playing field is handicapped by elite quarterbacking in the postseason.

Think about every Super Bowl in recent years: Eli vs. Brady, Rodgers vs. Roethlisberger, Brees vs. Peyton, Roethlisberger vs. Warner and Eli vs. Brady Part I (remember Eli Manning’s coming out party was that playoff run).

Sure, you can get through the wild-card or maybe a divisional round game at home with defense, ground game and conservative-to-mediocre quarterback play, but stringing together postseason wins in that fashion has been unheard of for a long time.

At this point, the only team in this division widely being given a chance at a deep playoff run is San Francisco. While this group as a whole is playing at a very high level, there’s trepidation about jumping on bandwagons for the Cards, Seahawks and Rams, and understandably so.

But as implied my preseason predictions and decision to omit NFC East and South squads in favor of a West wild-card, I’ve been on that bandwagon for a few months and believe it will carry this quartet to the NFL’s best composite record this year. But unless Alex Smith, Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Sam Bradford, Russell Wilson or Matt Flynn takes a major leap by January, I plan on leaping from that bandwagon just as it crashes into the postseason.

By the way @ThomasEmerick, you can say you followed him before he got too mainstream!


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