NFC West: 2013 NFC schedule analysis

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
video
Catch us if you can.

That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.

It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.

By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.

It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.

So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?

The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.

First Down

The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?


Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.

Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.

Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.

Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.


Second Down

The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?


Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.

Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.

Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.


Third Down

Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?


Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.

Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.

Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.

Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.


Fourth Down

If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?


Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.

Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.

Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.

Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.

 

St. Louis Rams schedule analysis

April, 18, 2013
4/18/13
9:22
PM ET
NFC schedule analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Breakdown: The Rams drew a Monday night home game against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 8, a huge improvement from last season, when St. Louis spent Week 8 in London absorbing a 45-7 defeat to New England. This game against Seattle will mark the Rams' first Monday nighter at home since the 2006 season. That is clearly progress. The Rams went undefeated at home in the division last season. They were 4-1-1 overall against NFC West opponents. This can become a statement game for the Rams.

The Rams got two prime-time games overall, both at home against division opponents. The San Francisco 49ers visit the Edward Jones Dome in Week 4, a tough trip for the 49ers on a short week after they open against playoff teams Green Bay, Seattle and Indianapolis.

Complaint department: I suppose we could complain about drawing Steven Jackson in the Atlanta Falcons' home opener, when Jackson figures to be fresh as ever. But that would be a stretch. The Rams have no three-game road trips. Their bye falls at a good time. They have two home games on national television for the first time since 2004. They have that Monday night game at home. They bailed from the London trip that could have robbed another home game from fans. All in all, the Rams came out just fine, even if they could do without another Week 17 game at Seattle.

Familiar faces: Jackson, the Rams' career rushing leader, isn't the only familiar face on the schedule. The Rams face former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in Jeff Fisher's return to Tennessee on Nov. 3. That's one to circle on the schedule. Their date with one-time defensive coordinator candidate Rob Ryan falls on Dec. 15.

Rams Regular Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 8, Arizona, 4:25 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 15, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 22, at Dallas, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Thursday, Sept. 26, San Francisco, 8:25 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 6, Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 13, at Houston, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 20, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Monday, Oct. 28, Seattle, 8:30 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 3, Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 10, at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 24, Chicago, 1:00 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 1, at San Francisco, 4:05 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, at Arizona, 4:25 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, New Orleans, 1:00 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 22, Tampa Bay, 1:00 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, at Seattle, 4:25 p.m.

NFC schedule analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Breakdown: There's no easing into the schedule for the 49ers, but that was the case to some degree last season as well. This time, the 49ers open at home against Green Bay before visiting Seattle in a Sunday night game. A home game against Indianapolis follows, meaning the 49ers' first three games are against opponents that were playoff teams last season. A Thursday night game at St. Louis follows, a big challenge after the 49ers failed to defeat the Rams last season.

The opener against Green Bay is a rematch of the 49ers' divisional playoff game from last season. Can the Packers better contain 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who rushed for 181 yards against them last time? That will surely be a prevailing storyline for this one. The 49ers beat Green Bay at Lambeau Field in the opener last season, so this one becomes a double rematch for teams with playoff pedigrees.

The 49ers will spend Week 8 in London for their game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, with a bye to recover the following week. The Jaguars are the home team, which means the 49ers will still play their usual eight regular-season games at Candlestick Park.

The trip to Seattle should be better this year. Last season, the 49ers visited the Seahawks following a draining road game against New England. The teams play at CenturyLink Field in Week 2 this season, with Seattle coming off a cross-country trip to Carolina for that one.

Complaint department: Nothing too egregious here. The 49ers have only one true 10 a.m. PT game on the schedule. (The London game kicks off at 10 a.m. PT, but the 49ers will have been in London for a while). They play in cold-weather markets early enough in the season to avoid frigid weather in most cases. If I had to single out one complaint, I'd point to back-to-back road games against the New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins, the latter one falling on a Monday night.

Lights-out schedule: The 49ers play three of their five prime-time games on the road. It's tough to fault the league for steering clear of additional night games at Candlestick Park, where the lights went out on a Monday night game against Pittsburgh last season.

49ers Regular Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 8, Green Bay, 4:25 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 15, at Seattle, 8:30 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 22, Indianapolis, 4:25 p.m.
Week 4: Thursday, Sept. 26, at St. Louis, 8:25 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 6, Houston, 8:30 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 13, Arizona, 4:25 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 20, at Tennessee, 4:05 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 27, at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 10, Carolina, 4:05 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 17, at New Orleans, 4:25 p.m.
Week 12: Monday, Nov. 25, at Washington, 8:30 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 1, St. Louis, 4:05 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, Seattle, 4:25 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Monday, Dec. 23, Atlanta, 8:30 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, at Arizona, 4:25 p.m.

Arizona Cardinals schedule analysis

April, 18, 2013
4/18/13
8:31
PM ET
NFC schedule analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Breakdown: The Arizona Cardinals were the only NFC team left off the "Monday Night Football" schedule. That was understandable after Arizona lost 11 of its final 12 games last season. The Cardinals did draw a prime-time home game against the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 17, a Thursday night matchup on NFL Network. That's the only night game on the schedule.

The Cardinals open at the St. Louis Rams before playing their home opener against the Detroit Lions. The Rams have a young team that could still be finding its way offensively that early in the season. The presence of a new coaching staff in Arizona will make it tougher for the Rams to prepare, a potential plus after Rams coach Jeff Fisher and staff proved to be well prepared for division opponents in 2012.

Having a bye week between home games in the middle of the season should let the Cardinals recover from a difficult start to the season.

Complaint department: The Cardinals play four of their first six games on the road, including three of their first four. Once the damage is likely done, Arizona returns home for games against Seattle, Atlanta and Houston. That's a brutal start to the season for first-year coach Bruce Arians. The Cardinals will not play a road game between Oct. 14 and Nov. 16. They get eight home dates, same as everyone else. But that start is rough. The Cardinals also play three of five December games on the road.

Circled on the calendar: The 58-0 defeat Arizona suffered at Seattle in last December rocked the organization. General manager Steve Keim pointed to that game as an experience that will stick with him in a "never again" way. You can bet the Cardinals will play a much more competitive game when they visit Seattle on Dec. 22 this season. That one should be circled on the calendar. It's important for the Cardinals to put forth a respectable effort this time around, win or lose.

Cardinals Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 8, at St. Louis, 4:25 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 15, Detroit, 4:05 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 22, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 29, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 6, Carolina, 4:05 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 13, at San Francisco, 4:25 p.m.
Week 7: Thursday, Oct. 17, Seattle, 8:25 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 27, Atlanta, 4:25 p.m.
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 10, Houston, 4:25 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 17, at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 24, Indianapolis, 4:05 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 1, at Philadelphia, 1:00 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, St. Louis, 4:25 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, at Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 22, at Seattle, 4:05 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, San Francisco, 4:25 p.m.

Seattle Seahawks schedule analysis

April, 18, 2013
4/18/13
8:19
PM ET
NFC schedule analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Breakdown: The Seahawks' games against the San Francisco 49ers are of paramount interest for both teams. The teams play in Seattle on Sept. 15 in Week 2, in the Sunday night game on NBC. They play again at Candlestick Park on Dec. 8 in a Fox game. That one could be attractive for flexing into prime time. The Seahawks play twice on Monday night, first at St. Louis in Week 8 and later at home against New Orleans in Week 13. But neither game against the 49ers is a Monday nighter, a mild surprise.

Seattle played its 2012 divisional road schedule early in the season. The team plays three of its first four division games on the road this season before finishing with Arizona and St. Louis at home.

The Seahawks finished 11-5 last season and have been hyped considerably since making high-profile offseason acquisitions. The league gave Seattle four prime-time games. Three of those four fall against NFC West opponents, perhaps a sign of divisional strength. The prime-time schedule features the San Francisco game in Week 2 on NBC, and back-to-back road games against Arizona (Oct. 17) and St. Louis (Oct. 28), with the Cardinals game on a Thursday night. Seattle also faces New Orleans at home on ESPN (Dec. 2).

Complaint department: The Seahawks play five games scheduled to kick off at 10 a.m. PT, but at least they are good enough now to handle the time change more respectably. Still, five of the six games eligible for a 10 a.m. PT kickoff are kicking off at that early hour, a challenge for any West Coast team. The Monday night matchup against the Rams is the lone exception. Seattle plays at 10 a.m. PT three times in its first five games, including in successive games against Houston and Indianapolis beginning in Week 4. The other early games are against Carolina in the opener, at Atlanta and at the New York Giants.

Finishing kick: Seattle plays four of its final six games at home, with one of the road games taking the Seahawks on their shortest trip, to San Francisco. There's also a bye week during that stretch. That means the Seahawks should be in good position to finish strong for a second consecutive season.

Seahawks Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 8, at Carolina, 1: p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 15, San Francisco, 8:30 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 22, Jacksonville, 4:25 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 29, at Houston, 1:00 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 6, at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 13, Tennessee, 4:05 p.m.
Week 7: Thursday, Oct. 17, at Arizona, 8:25 p.m.
Week 8: Monday, Oct. 28, at St. Louis, 8:40 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 3, Tampa Bay, 4:05 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 10, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 17, Minnesota, 4:25 p.m.
Week 12: BYE
Week 13: Monday, Dec. 2, New Orleans, 8:40 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, at San Francisco, 4:25 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, at N.Y. Giants, 1:00 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 22, Arizona, 4:05 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, St. Louis, 4:25 p.m.

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