NFL power tilts toward the NFC West


ARNIE STAPLETON

Associated Press

Just two years ago, the wild and wretched NFC West produced a champion with a 7-9 record. Now, it’s the NFL’s biggest bully.

The 49ers, Cardinals, Rams and Seahawks are a combined 14-6, including 11-3 against outsiders.

“It’s like we’re the new NFC East right now,” said Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill, who has spent all eight of his seasons in Seattle and watched the NFC West struggle over the years to keep up with the beasts back East.

“I guess people are adjusting to the road games to the East Coast and the miles of travel,” Hill said. “Those used to be big factors, and now when you’re playing defense and this new age of football and everything, the power has shifted out here, and I’m enjoying it. I like it, I love it.”

And just like Tim McGraw, he wants some more of it.

Built around dogged defenses, the formula followed by this fabulous foursome is a throwback to another epoch where three yards and a cloud of dust and three-and-outs were more common. Before the ever more brilliant aerial fireworks shows took over the league and the linebackers celebrating stops gave way to the tight ends dancing in the end zone.

From doormat to dominant, the NFC West is now the NFL’s best.

“I wish it was just us that got this good this fast, but I think every team in this division is extremely talented,” St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford said. “I think it was only a matter of time before everyone started to click and started to play at a higher level.”

Off to a second straight strong start, San Francisco (4-1) has company this time around as Arizona (4-1) handed New England its first opening loss ever at Gillette Stadium on its way to its first 4-0 start in nearly 40 years.

Things have bounced the NFC West’s way, too.

Seattle (3-2) beat Green Bay on a gift touchdown that hastened the return of the regular officials, and while not exactly a reprise of the “Greatest Show on Turf,” the Rams (3-2) got out of the gates quickly under new coach Jeff Fisher and rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein, the “Greatest Toe on Turf.”

Thanks to Zuerlein, perfect on 12 field goal attempts and the first player in NFL history to make a 60-yard field goal and a 50-plus yarder in the same game, the Rams have already surpassed last year’s win total of two.

No longer the dregs of a dreadful division, the Rams are 3-0 at home for the first time since 2003, when they were unbeaten in the Edward Jones Dome during the reign of Kurt Warner & Co. They’re above .500 for the first time since they were 4-3 on Nov. 4, 2006.

“I think there certainly is outstanding football being played and you have teams that have really adjusted their philosophies and are playing very, very well,” said Tom Coughlin, whose New York Giants visit the 49ers Sunday in a rematch of the NFC championship game. “I don’t know that it’s a surprise, you’ve been able to see it coming with outstanding coaching and that type of thing.”

Jim Harbaugh is 18-5 as head coach of the Niners, whom he guided to a 13-3 record and their first playoff berth since 2002 last year in his first season. That season ended with a 20-17 overtime loss to the Giants in the NFC title game.

The Cardinals started out 4-0 for the first time since 1974, when they were still in St. Louis. That’s where their unbeaten season came to an end Sunday with a 17-3 loss to the Rams, just their third defeat in 14 games since starting the 2011 season 1-6.

Pete Carroll is 17-20 in two-plus seasons in Seattle, beginning with that 7-9 season in 2010 that won the middling division. But the Seahawks, outscored by almost 100 points in the regular season, thumped the defending champion New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs, the spark that ignited the NFC West’s renaissance.

None of the NFL’s other divisions is even close to the NFC West right now. Not one of the AFC’s four divisions even has an overall winning record, and through five weeks, none of the league’s other seven divisions had more than two teams with winning records.

No team has left an NFC West stadium this season with a victory, either, a perfect mark that will be tested Sunday when the Giants visit the 49ers and the Seahawks host the Patriots (3-2) in a matchup between New England’s top-ranked offense and Seattle’s No. 1 ranked defense.

The 49ers own the NFL’s second-best defense, Arizona is 11th and St. Louis 14th. That’s a far cry from the old days where offenses ran over, around and through the NFC West’s matador defenses.

It’s a refreshing change for a division that’s been much maligned over the last decade, Hill said.

“Early in my career it used to be an offensive division,” Hill said. “So, to be in the NFC West my whole career and to see the change from offensive powers to defensive powers and see the records improve … it just shows the flip-flop of the league.”

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt called it “a physically tough division,” and his quarterback noted it was mentally taxing, too.

“You see as hard as St. Louis is playing, the way we’ve started, San Francisco is following last year this way, and Seattle always has had a tough defense,” Kevin Kolb said. “It makes it tough when you’re playing them twice a year, but it’s nice to see our division stepping up and making plays.”

The NFC West has its share of passing prowess now, too.

The usually defense-oriented 49ers whipped the Buffalo Bills 45-3 last week by gaining a franchise-record 621 yards. San Francisco also became the first team in NFL history with 300 yards passing and 300 yards rushing in the same game.

Niners quarterback Alex Smith is enjoying the turnaround.

Almost two years since 49ers fans booed him relentlessly at Candlestick Park and cheered for backup David Carr in a 27-24 loss to Philadelphia, Smith’s passer rating is the NFL’s best. Going into Week 6, Smith (108.7) was ahead of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (106.1), Houston’s Matt Schaub (105.3), New England’s Tom Brady (102.8) and Denver’s Peyton Manning (101.2), who the 49ers pursued in the offseason before re-signing Smith to a three-year deal.

The western championship drought might very well come to an end this season, too. The last NFC West team to win the Super Bowl was St. Louis in 2000, and the Broncos are the last AFC West team to hoist the trophy, in 1999, while John Elway was running Denver’s offense and not the front office.

It doesn’t look like the 49ers will run away with the division like they did last year, either. That could make the survivor of this race a tougher, more tested team in the playoffs and the biggest beneficiary of the league’s shift in power.

“It helps,” Harbaugh said. “It’s every team you play, everybody’s strong, everybody wants to play their best and yeah, it keeps us on our toes, keeps us playing strong.”

 

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