NFC West: NFL schedule analysis 2012
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.
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.
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.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
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.
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.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
1. Atlanta Falcons at Detroit Lions, Week 16. Call this one the Karma Bowl. The Falcons took offense when Ndamukong Suh allegedly celebrated Matt Ryan's ankle injury during an October game between the teams last season. Suh called the injury "karma" for the Falcons' allegedly dirty tactics. Good teams and bad blood should make for good theater.
2. Denver Broncos at Atlanta Falcons, Week 2. Peyton Manning's first post-Indy appearance on "Monday Night Football" takes him to Atlanta for only the third time in his career. The Falcons are a footnote in this matchup. Manning plays only one indoor game during the 2012 regular season. This is it.
3. Carolina Panthers at Philadelphia Eagles, Week 12. Neither team had a winning record last season, but who cares? This game presents a chance to see Cam Newton and Michael Vick on the same night in the same stadium for the first time -- assuming they're both healthy enough to play after running around, into and through defenses for two-plus months.
4. Chicago Bears at San Francisco 49ers, Week 11. Patrick Willis versus Matt Forte. Brian Urlacher versus Frank Gore. Expect a physical game and a big test for Jay Cutler on the road. The 49ers have arguably the NFL's best defense, and they'll be eager to show it in prime time.
5. Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks, Week 3. Two NFC West teams on the list? What is this, the NFC West blog? Yes, but this one's legit. Few venues can approach Seattle for atmosphere, especially in prime time. And this game marks Green Bay's lone appearance on Monday night. The Matt Flynn storyline adds interest.
Arizona, which rallied to 8-8 last season after a 1-6 start, plays three of its first four games at home, beginning with Seattle's visit to University of Phoenix Stadium.
The Seahawks and Cardinals played two close games last season, including a Week 17 matchup in Arizona that went into overtime. The 2012 season picks up where the 2011 season left off, in other words. That's a welcome early development for the division as these teams seek to close ground on the defending NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers.
Playing five of the first eight games at home sounds even better for Arizona knowing that two of the road games during that stretch fall against St. Louis and Minnesota, teams coming off difficult seasons. Of course, this presumes the Cardinals will put forth a more respectable effort in the Metrodome this time around.
Kevin Kolb has to be looking forward to a Week 3 home game against his former team, the Philadelphia Eagles.
Complaint department: The Cardinals drew a division-high five games kicking off at 1 p.m. ET, the earliest possible time slot and one coach Ken Whisenhunt has lamented over the years. While the Cardinals finished strong last season in rallying to 8-8, question marks at quarterback made it tougher for Arizona to command additional prime-time games -- the surest way for a Western team to avoid the early starts. Overall, though, the Cardinals came out OK. They get a Week 10 bye between road trips to Green Bay and Atlanta, but that portion of the schedule does feature four of five games on the road.
Home sweet home: The Cardinals are opening at home for the second consecutive season and only the fourth time since the team relocated to Arizona for the 1988 season. They can thank their new stadium for providing relief from the scorching Arizona sun. More road games late in the season can be tough, but the Cardinals are home against Detroit and Chicago in Weeks 15 and 16, followed by their shortest road trip of the season, albeit to San Francisco, site of arguably their worst 2011 performance.
Cardinals Regular-Season Schedule (All times ET)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, Seattle, 4:15 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, at New England, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, Philadelphia, 4:05 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, Miami, 4:05 PM
Week 5: Thursday, Oct. 4, at St. Louis, 8:20 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, Buffalo, 4:05 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 21, at Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Monday, Oct. 29, San Francisco, 8:30 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, at Green Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 10: BYE
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, at Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, St. Louis, 4:15 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, at NY Jets, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, at Seattle, 4:15 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, Detroit, 4:05 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, Chicago, 4:15 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, at San Francisco, 4:15 PM
Sending the Week 15 game against Buffalo to Toronto could remove a cold-weather game from the schedule (the Bills play at the Rogers Centre, formerly the SkyDome, and the roof has been closed for three of the Bills' four games there). A Week 13 game against Chicago, scheduled for Dec. 2 at 1 p.m. ET, stands as the only likely deep-freeze opportunity. The Seahawks won at Chicago in each of the past two seasons, however, so they should welcome another opportunity.
Opening at Arizona feels right. The Seahawks and Cardinals played into overtime in Week 17 last season, with Arizona prevailing. Both teams were getting better late in the year. We've debated on the blog whether the Seahawks or Cardinals are best positioned to challenge San Francisco in the NFC West. This matchup will give us an early read.
Finishing with three of the final four games at home, all against division opponents, gives the Seahawks control over their divisional destiny late in the season.
Complaint department: The Seahawks play four road games during a five-game stretch beginning in Week 4, and the home game is against AFC champion New England. Time to buckle up, in other words, because the ride could get a little bumpy. The run begins with a trip to St. Louis, where the Seahawks have won consistently in recent years. But their defense faces tough tests at Carolina (Cam Newton), against the Patriots and at Detroit. Oh, and a trip to San Francisco on Oct. 18 falls four days after the New England game.
Favorable bye placement: The Seahawks' cross-country trip to Miami in Week 12 falls after a three-week stretch featuring two home games and a bye. That is a favorable arrangement for the Seahawks, who usually challenge for the most air miles from year to year. They should be rested, relatively speaking, heading into road games against the Dolphins and Bears in consecutive weeks.
Seahawks Regular-Season Schedule (All times ET)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, at Arizona, 4:15 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, Dallas, 4:05 PM
Week 3: Monday, Sept. 24, Green Bay, 8:30 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, at St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, at Carolina, 4:05 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, New England, 4:05 PM
Week 7: Thursday, Oct. 18, at San Francisco, 8:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, at Detroit, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, Minnesota, 4:05 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, NY Jets, 4:05 PM
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, at Miami, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, at Chicago, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, Arizona, 4:15 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, at Buffalo, 4:05 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, San Francisco, 4:15 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, St. Louis, 4:15 PM
The 49ers drew five prime-time games overall, leaving them only three games kicking off at 10 a.m. PT, a lower number than usual. They're home against Seattle in an Oct. 18 game on NFL Network. Monday night games against Arizona on the road (Oct. 29) and against Chicago at home (Nov. 19) also jump out from the schedule. The final prime-time game, at New England in Week 15, falls on a Sunday night.
San Francisco plays five of six games at home in the middle of the season, with a Week 9 bye falling between games against Arizona (road) and St. Louis (home).
The 49ers made a statement last season by winning back-to-back matchups in the Eastern time zone and remaining in Ohio between those games. They will not have a similar opportunity in 2012, it appears, because their road games against the New York Jets (Week 4) and New England Patriots (Week 15) do not fall in consecutive weeks. Update: The team could conceivably stay on the road for games against Minnesota and the Jets, but no decision has been made, according to the team.
Complaint department: The 49ers played three of their final five games on the road every season from 2008 to 2011. The trend continues and actually gets worse this season. The 49ers play four of their final six games on the road, including games against New Orleans (Week 12), New England (Week 15) and Seattle (Week 16). That was one price to pay for playing so many home games near the middle of the season. Another price, of course, was opening the season with three of the first four on the road.
Bounty watch: The audio tapes that revealed former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams encouraging players to take out certain 49ers during the teams' playoff matchup will be the big story heading into the Nov. 25 rematch, to be played in the Superdome. Bounty-related punishments figure to leave the Saints at their weakest earlier in the season, when interim coach Joe Vitt and (presumably) some defensive players will be serving suspensions. Seems like playing this game earlier in the season would have been more favorable to the 49ers.
49ers Regular-Season Schedule (All times ET)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, at Green Bay, 4:15 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, Detroit, 8:20 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, at Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, at NY Jets, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, Buffalo, 4:15 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, NY Giants, 4:15 PM
Week 7: Thursday, Oct. 18, Seattle, 8:20 PM
Week 8: Monday, Oct. 29, at Arizona, 8:30 PM
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, St. Louis, 4:15 PM
Week 11: Monday, Nov. 19, Chicago, 8:30 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, at New Orleans, 4:15 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, at St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, Miami, 4:05 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, at New England, 8:20 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, at Seattle, 4:15 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, Arizona, 4:15 PM
The Rams open at Detroit, a rough test for them on just about every front, but they return home to face the Washington Redskins -- and, probably, rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III -- in Week 2. Drawing Griffin early in the season, before he's had much seasoning, seems like a welcome development. But with two of the first three games on the road -- a trip to Chicago awaits in Week 3 -- the Rams do faces challenges early.
The NFL gave the Rams a home game against Green Bay on Oct. 21 before the team heads to London. The bye week naturally falls one week later, but then it's off to San Francisco for a tough test against the 49ers' defense on Nov. 11.
Complaint department: The Rams play three of their final four games on the road on opposite coasts, including a Dec. 9 trip to Buffalo and road games against Tampa Bay and Seattle in the final two weeks of the regular season. A Dec. 16 home game against Minnesota interrupts the road trip, but this will be a tough closing stretch for the Rams. They play only three games in the Edward Jones Dome over the final 10 weeks of the season, counting their Week 9 bye. That's the price of playing in London and getting a four-week stretch with three home games beginning in Week 2.
Heading overseas: Agreeing to play a game in London diminishes a favorable stretch of the schedule. The Rams have four home games during a five-game stretch beginning with a Week 4 game against Seattle, but the final game of that stretch falls against New England across the Atlantic. Being the "home" team against the Patriots in London renders no advantage.
Rams Regular-Season Schedule (All times ET)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, at Detroit, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, Washington, 4:05 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, at Chicago, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, Seattle, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Thursday, Oct. 4, Arizona, 8:20 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, at Miami, 1:00 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 21, Green Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, New England, 1:00 PM
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, at San Francisco, 4:15 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, NY Jets, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, at Arizona, 4:15 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, San Francisco, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, at Buffalo, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, at Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, at Seattle, 4:15 PM