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Evaluating the NFC West: Cardinals and Rams target title; Seahawks and 49ers solve QB quandaries

The hype that came with the NFC West was inevitable, really.

It started in the offseason, when the Los Angeles Rams made a blockbuster trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Arizona Cardinals added big names such as defensive end J.J. Watt and wide receiver A.J. Green to a mix that already included quarterback Kyler Murray, receiver DeAndre Hopkins and outside linebacker Chandler Jones.

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Add in the San Francisco 49ers, the 2019 NFC champions, getting healthy over the offseason and the star power of quarterback Russell Wilson and coach Pete Carroll for the defending division champion Seattle Seahawks, and we knew this season had potential. And it has been fun, starting with the division going a combined 7-1 over the first two weeks (the loss was in overtime, by the way) and the Cardinals entering Week 6 as the league’s sole undefeated team.

These storylines prompted FiveThirtyEight to wonder if the NFC West is best division in NFL history. While that will play out eventually, we know that a) the NFC West can ball and b) that it’s shifted 180 degrees from where it was in 2010, when the Seahawks became the first team in NFL history to win a division with a losing record.

ESPN reporters Josh Weinfuss (Arizona Cardinals), Lindsey Thiry (Los Angeles Rams), Nick Wagoner (San Francisco 49ers) and Brady Henderson (Seattle Seahawks) answer the most pressing questions in the division:

Has the NFC West lived up to its preseason billing as the toughest division?

Weinfuss: It’s really good but I’m not sold through five weeks that it’s the toughest division. The 49ers have lost three in a row and haven’t looked good at times, and the Seahawks don’t look like the Seahawks of old. Is the NFC West a great division? Yes. Is it the toughest? The AFC West and NFC South may want a word.

Thiry: FiveThirtyEight’s argument the NFC West could be the best division in NFL history has passed the eyeball test through five weeks, but moving forward it seems disputable given that Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is sidelined indefinitely and 49ers quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance are also dealing with injuries. Nevertheless, all four teams have greater than a 25% chance to make the playoffs, putting the entire division in the postseason ahead of 17 other teams, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

Wagoner: So far, yes. The division was a Seattle late-game meltdown against Tennessee from becoming the first in NFL history to start the season 8-0, proving the strength of the group when playing other NFC divisions and the AFC. The Cardinals are the NFL’s only undefeated team and the Rams have a win against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In addition, the in-division games have mostly been hotly contested. The West already looked tough, but the Cardinals’ emergence has taken it to another level.

Henderson: Well, it’s got more combined wins than any other division, and the league’s lone unbeaten team. So … yeah. We’ll see if the Seahawks can stay afloat and avoid dragging things down. Hard to argue this hasn’t been the best division so far.

How’s your quarterback?

Weinfuss: Murray has been pretty good. That was sarcasm. Murray is one of the best in football right now. He’s the co-favorite with the Buffalo BillsJosh Allen for MVP according to Caesars sportsbook. Statistically, he’s one of the top quarterbacks in the game. He’s a conundrum for defenses because of his ability to run, sidestep, stop, cut, and then throw every type of pass in the book. There isn’t much he can’t do physically. As long as he stays healthy, which was the issue last season during Arizona’s 3-6 finish, Murray will continue being one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

Thiry: Stafford is delivering exactly what was expected when L.A. completed a blockbuster trade for the veteran quarterback during the offseason. Stafford’s arm, understanding of the defense and ability to throw under pressure has enabled coach Sean McVay to open the playbook, including explosive throws downfield the Rams lacked in recent seasons. Through a 4-1 start, Stafford has passed for 1,587 yards, the third-most in the NFL and the fourth-most by any player during his first five games with a team in NFL history. He has completed four passes for 40-plus air yards, despite having five such completions last season with the Detroit Lions. And according to Stafford, even better days lie ahead. “We’d love to be 5-0,” he said after a 26-17 Week 5 win over division rival Seattle. “But we are where we are, and I think the fun thing is being 4-1 and knowing that my best game of football hasn’t been played yet.”

Wagoner: The 49ers have the most complicated quarterback dynamic in the league, not just the division. Coach Kyle Shanahan has stuck by his word that Garoppolo will be the starter, with rookie Lance getting situational snaps. Lance made his first start against Arizona when Garoppolo was dealing with a right calf injury. Lance flashed the dual-threat ability Garoppolo simply doesn’t have, leaving many to wonder if he increases San Francisco’s upside. Barring another injury, it seems Garoppolo will return as starter after the Week 6 bye, but it remains to be seen for how long. If the sagging offensive production (and the accompanying slow starts) continue, Lance’s time will come. That’s especially true if the Niners don’t get their season pointed in the right direction.

Henderson: It’s not good in Seattle. But under the circumstances, it could be much worse. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports there’s a strong chance Wilson can return in as few as four weeks. That stretch includes the Seahawks’ bye as well as two winnable games — Sunday night at the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oct. 31 at home vs. the currently winless Jacksonville Jaguars. A Monday night game against the New Orleans Saints in between will be more difficult. But backup quarterback Geno Smith is competent enough and the schedule is favorable enough to think the Seahawks have a chance at emerging from that three-game stretch at 4-4. They’d need their defense to show up and running back Chris Carson to stay healthy — he missed last week with a neck injury — so the Seahawks can lean on the running game and take the pressure off Smith.

What’s the biggest issue facing each team?

Weinfuss: Injuries for the Cardinals. Through a 5-0 start, Arizona has shown the NFL that it has the offense and defense to win big. This team doesn’t have many, if any, major weaknesses. Until scoring just 17 to squeeze out a win over the 49ers on Sunday, Arizona was averaging 35 points a game. It has been dominant. If the Cardinals can keep up that type of offensive rate, the only thing stopping them this year is staying healthy. If they can do that, the ceiling is really high. If they can’t, an injury to key players could stop the momentum before it really gets going.

Thiry: Inconsistency for the Rams. A week after an emotional 34-24 win over the Buccaneers, the Rams suffered a significant letdown in a 37-20 loss to the Cardinals. At times, the offense, defense and special teams appear to be Super Bowl-caliber units, with Stafford completing highlight-reel throws and the defense standing strong at the goal line, but each phase has also been prone to letdowns and therefore the team has had to grind out what players described as ugly wins in Indianapolis and Seattle. For the Rams to achieve their full potential and forge a deep playoff and Super Bowl run, they must consistently prepare week-to-week and develop the ability to play consistently in all three phases throughout a game.

Wagoner: The 49ers, mired in a three-game losing streak, have had many issues, but most of them seem to fall under the disappointing offensive performance umbrella. The dominant Super Bowl defense of 2019 isn’t around anymore, meaning the offense needs to make up the difference. So far, that hasn’t happened. The Niners are still moving the ball fairly consistently but are lacking big plays (their 15 plays of 20-plus yards are tied for 27th in the league) and have been getting off to painfully slow starts. In the four games after Week 1, the Niners have scored a combined 21 first-half points. No matter who is at quarterback, the Niners need more from everyone on the offense, Garoppolo and Lance included.

Henderson: It’s Wilson’s injury for the Seahawks, but we’ll get to that in a second. Because unless Seattle can fix its broken defense, it won’t matter how long it takes Wilson to get back. The Seahawks have allowed at least 450 yards in four straight games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that’s the longest streak in team history and tied for the longest in NFL history. The issues are across the board: problematic cornerback play, an underperforming pass rush, not enough takeaways and not enough impact plays from Jamal Adams, who isn’t blitzing as often. Seattle’s defense got off to another historically bad start last year, and it lasted longer than this one has before it did a 180 around midseason. The impetus was the pass rush getting going. The Seahawks have as much firepower as last year, which suggests they can pull off another turnaround. But if Smith is going to have any chance at keeping them alive, it can’t wait until midseason. It has to happen now.

How will the division shake out?

Weinfuss order of finish: Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks, Niners. The Cardinals won’t just win the division — they’ll be one of the top two seeds in the NFC.

Thiry order of finish: Cardinals, Rams, 49ers, Seahawks. The Cardinals will win the division. It remains a somewhat risky pick, given Kliff Kingsbury’s squad started hot last season before collapsing through the second half of the schedule. Murray is playing terrific with another season of experience and the defense has tightened up.

Wagoner order of finish: Rams, Cardinals, 49ers, Seahawks. The Rams and Cardinals reach the postseason but don’t be surprised if the third-place finisher here does, too.

Henderson order of finish: Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks, 49ers. The Seahawks will get Wilson back and fix their defense in time to at least make things interesting down the stretch.

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