Commentary: With the NFC West as the NFL's best division, showdowns should separate playoff teams

Sam Farmer
·4 min read
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) dives in for a touchdown against Seattle Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (54) during an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. The Arizona Cardinals won in overtime. (AP Photo/Jennifer Stewart)
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) dives past Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner for a touchdown last Sunday in a shootout that went into overtime before Arizona won. (Jennifer Stewart / Associated Press)

What a weird season for the NFC West.

It’s the NFL’s only division with four winning teams, and it’s mathematically possible — though highly unlikely — for all four to make the playoffs, now that the league has added a third wild-card team to the mix.

Imagine that. The Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, and San Francisco 49ers all winding up in the same postseason.

Football Outsiders puts the odds of that happening at 4.8%, but has the odds of all four finishing the regular season with a winning record at a far more reasonable 38.4%.

Getting all four teams from the same division in the playoffs would not only require those teams to mostly split their matchups, but also the utter collapse of Chicago or Green Bay, along with New Orleans or Tampa Bay.

So far, the NFC West is excellent.

But will it stay that way?

We really won’t have a clear picture of how good this division is, or its pecking order, until the second half of the season when these teams start playing each other.

You play who’s on your schedule, so it’s not entirely fair to poke holes in teams just because they have faced inferior opponents. But four of the Rams’ five wins came against the NFC East, composed of four losing teams and topped by Philadelphia at 2-4-1.

Victories against the NFC East have all the gravitas of packing peanuts. And while the Rams have collected all four of their "gimmes," every other NFC West team has at least two such games remaining. Seattle has three left — Philadelphia, the New York Giants, and Washington — plus a home game against the New York Jets, currently 0-7.

The Rams have a tough finish, including a trip to Tampa to face the Tom Brady-led Buccaneers, but they catch a break, too, with home games against the struggling New England Patriots and Jets in consecutive weeks.

San Francisco's Raheem Moster is tackled by a slew of Ram defenders during their battle won by the 49ers on Oct. 18.
San Francisco's Raheem Moster is tackled by a slew of Ram defenders during their battle won by the 49ers on Oct. 18. (Tony Aelar / Associated Press)

Losing at San Francisco was a significant setback for the Rams, who play their remaining five division games in the second half of the season. The 49ers are the only NFC West team with a winning record against McVay, having won four of seven matchups, although one of those was a meaningless finale when the Rams were resting their starters for the playoffs.

Under McVay, the Rams are 4-2 against Seattle, with those two losses decided by a combined seven points, and 6-0 against Arizona, with the Rams never scoring fewer than 31 points against the Cardinals.

Every season is different, with new players, injuries, coaches, and circumstances, so results in one season are not necessarily predictive of the next. But there’s nothing to suggest the Rams won’t do well in their division.

In a sense, the NFC West is a division divided. In one bucket, there are the Seahawks and Cardinals, who are led by shortstop-type quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray, whose creative and sometimes rub-your-eyes playmaking skills keep their teams in virtually every game. Neither team has a good defense, with Seattle ranked last in yards allowed (479.2), and Arizona 20th (378.4).

In the other bucket are the Rams and San Francisco. McVay and the 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan came from the branches of the Bill Walsh coaching tree, and lean on a reliable running game and play-action fakes to set up their passing attacks. Both teams have solid defenses, with the Rams ranked second in points allowed (17.7) and the 49ers fifth (19.2).

In Sunday night games the past two weeks, we got a look at the division’s similar teams facing each other. First, the 49ers beat the Rams in a 24-16 slugfest, and a week later, the Cardinals beat the Seahawks in an overtime shootout, 37-34.

On Sunday, we will get a glimpse at how the contrasting styles match up when San Francisco plays at Seattle.

With winners across the board, how good is the NFC West?

More will be revealed.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.