In general, the NFC West had a tough go of it last season. The division won fewer regular-season games (23) than any other, and it wasn’t particularly close. The bottom two teams — the San Francisco 49ers (2-14) and L.A. Rams (4-12) — both fired their head coaches, while the Arizona Cardinals (7-8-1) saw their win total fall by a whopping six games. The Seahawks (10-5-1) had a decent year, winning the division crown for the third time in four years, but were routed by the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round of the playoffs (36-20).
Is 2017 the start of a turnaround for the once vaunted West? While there’s some reason for optimism in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, the balance of power still lies in the Pacific Northwest. Looking at the projected win totals for 2017, we’re faced with really tight lines, and there’s little obvious value here; but we have some information to go on.
Seattle Seahawks: under 10.5
With a daunting schedule and a high number to clear, the Seattle Seahawks are going to have a tough time hitting the over. Their out-of-conference road schedule pits them against Green Bay and Dallas, arguably the two best teams in the NFC, plus Tennessee and Jacksonville, two teams that could make a jump this season. They’ve also lost three of their last four games against the Rams (I don’t know why or how, either) so it’s not like those are guaranteed wins.
This a good team, most likely the best in the division, but I’m not betting on them winning 11 games against this schedule.
The Seahawks were 10th in passing yards last year but 25th in rushing. While the NFL has undoubtedly become a passing league, Seattle’s at its best when it can pound the rock. (They led the league at 172.6 rushing yards per game in 2014, when they won the division with a 12-4 record.) Pairing Eddie Lacy — and his weight-loss incentives — with Thomas Rawls was a good move; it will help restore the power run game and give a sense of balance to an offense that became too dependent on Russell Wilson’s arm last year.
If the Seahawks can establish a run game, this bet becomes a lot more attractive. But relying on a man from Louisiana to establish healthy eating habits is asking a little much from my attraction to risk.
Arizona Cardinals: over 8.0
After a 13-win season in 2015, the Cardinals had a disappointing 2016. Their most blatant deficiency was in special teams — missing game-winning field goals twice will drastically change your fortunes in a 16-game season — but across the board this team is showing signs of difficulty. Carson Palmer thought about retiring this offseason. The front office had to make a franchise-tag decision and ended up losing defensive stalwart Calais Campbell. Their draft strategy of selecting versatile defensive players and their signing of veteran free agents indicates that the Cardinals still want to compete at the highest level in 2017, but it’s tough to tell if that window is still open. Carson Palmer is 37 years old. Larry Fitzgerald is 33. Those two facts are obviously motivating the front office, which has done everything it can to make this a winning team in 2017.
Add in some truly elite talent, namely David Johnson, arguably the best running back in the NFL, plus a defense that’s anchored by All-Pros Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, and it’s possible to find eight wins on this schedule.
It’s likely that this team is undervalued by some tight and improbable losses in 2016. With the team in full win-now mode, the over is more attractive to me. But your bet here is a measure of your confidence in Bruce Arians and the Cardinals front office.
LA Rams: under 5.5
With a (really) young new head coach, a big investment at quarterback, and some promising free agents and draftees, the Rams are looking to improve on the four-win season that finally got Jeff Fisher fired. Getting to six wins could prove troublesome for 31-year-old Sean McVay, however; except for the 49ers, the Rams don’t play a team all season with a lower win/loss projection than themselves. Those games against the 49ers won’t be a cupcake either, what with their new head coach and the possibility of some offensive verve.
Obviously a big determinant of the Rams’ success this season will be the development of quarterback Jared Goff. After being selected first overall in the draft last year, Goff posted a miserable 22.9 QBR in seven starts. Granted, being a rookie QB on a team that’s on its way to firing its head coach, has no real threats at receiver, and an offensive line that’s questionable at best is a tough task, but we’re still not sure how much better Goff will be in his second year, even with veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth coming to help anchor the offensive line. The future of the franchise is bound up with the future of Goff. Trading up to take a quarterback with the #1 pick will do that to a team. His improvement from year one to year two will be the best look into that future.
The Rams are in a tough place as a franchise, and looking for them to win six games against a schedule of visibly better teams is a big ask.
San Francisco 49ers: over 4.5
The 49ers are coming back from one of the worst seasons in franchise history, winning only two games and looking generally lost throughout. Hiring Kyle Shanahan from the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons to serve as head coach and offensive coordinator has been a broadly popular move. The Falcon offense thrived (for 75 quarters) under Shanahan’s control and Chip Kelly left something to be desired in San Francisco. The team appeared to fare well in its first draft under the new regime (which features John Lynch as GM), getting defensive lineman Solomon Thomas with the third pick and stealing linebacker Reuben Foster with the 31st, so they’ll at least have some help on the defensive side of the ball.
The 49ers are at the start of a rebuild — hiring Brian Hoyer is generally a sign of that — and maximizing 2017 wins won’t be at the top of Shanahan’s list of priorities. That said, this team will probably take a step forward from the 2016 squad — it’s hard not to be — and there’s no reason they can’t find a way to win five games in one of the weakest divisions in football. Betting the over here is kind of a flyer, but with new defensive talent and proven offensive leadership, this team could plausibly improve just enough to clear a pretty low bar.