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The NFC West Will Come Down to the Wire

With the Seahawks, Cardinals, and Rams all at 6-3, this is the most competitive division in football. Who has the inside track to claiming the divisional crown?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Somehow, the NFC West is a bigger gauntlet than most predicted it would be this year. More than halfway into the 2020 NFL season, there’s a three-way tie atop the division between the Cardinals, Rams, and Seahawks, who all sit at 6-3. Injuries have depleted the defending NFC champion 49ers, otherwise they might squarely be in the mix, too. (And, technically, San Francisco isn’t out of it at 4-6, only 2.5 games back of the leaders.) The 2020 NFC West is the NFL’s best division, an antithesis to the hapless NFC East. If the season ended today, each of the West’s top three squads would be in the playoffs; the Cardinals would be the NFC’s no. 3 seed, the Rams no. 6, and the Seahawks taking this season’s new wild-card spot at no. 7. FiveThirtyEight currently projects all three teams winning 10 games or more.

Since the 2002-03 season, when the NFL expanded to four divisions per conference and began allotting two wild-card playoff spots per conference, there have been seven instances when three teams from the same division advanced to the postseason. The last occurrence was after the 2017 season, when the NFC South sent the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons; New Orleans (division winner) and Carolina both finished 11-5, and Atlanta went 10-6. This season marks the first in which the NFL expanded the playoffs to 14 teams, which means a division sending three representatives is likely to occur again in the future. What makes this year’s NFC West race special, however, is that each of its best squads are within reach of the conference’s no. 1 seed, which the 7-2 Saints and Packers are currently tied for. Thursday night’s rematch between the Cardinals and Seahawks, therefore, will not only have massive implications on the NFC West, but the entire conference’s playoff picture. Which club has the most viable path toward winning the division? Here’s how each team stacks up the rest of the way.

Arizona Cardinals (6-3, 2-0 vs. NFC West)

Remaining games: at Seahawks; at Patriots; vs. Rams; at Giants; vs. Eagles; vs. 49ers; at Rams

One of the lasting images from the 2020 season will be DeAndre Hopkins soaring above three Bills defenders to snag a game-winning Kyler Murray touchdown pass in Week 10. The miraculous score was the latest proof that the Murray-Hopkins connection has lived up to expectations, and it’s a major reason why the Cardinals are surprisingly in pole position atop the NFC West standings at this stage in the season. (Arizona owns a tiebreaker over Los Angeles because of record vs. division opponents, and over Seattle because of head-to-head record.) Murray has not made the type of astronomical leap as a passer this season some projected, but his improvements are tangible—he’s increased his completion percentage, touchdown rate, yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, and QBR, while significantly lowering his sack rate. Additionally, he’s been the NFL’s most effective scrambling quarterback this season, using his legs to create yards, keep plays alive, and find receivers downfield, and he’s picking up crucial first downs and scoring rushing touchdowns at a rate unprecedented for his position.

According to Football Outsiders, Arizona ranks 12th in offensive DVOA, including 13th in passing and fourth in rushing. Murray is not one of the NFL’s most aggressive passers (12.2 percent of his attempts occur with a defender within 1 yard of an intended target, which ranks seventh lowest among passers, per Next Gen Stats), and coach Kliff Kingsbury isn’t so hot on passing either. Kingsbury’s background as an Air Raid college coach might lead one to believe he’d direct one of the NFL’s most aggressive offenses, but the Cardinals entered Week 11 with the seventh-lowest pass rate (53 percent, per Warren Sharp’s database) and ranked 16th in fourth-down attempts (converting on 81.8 percent, second among teams with at least five tries). But the Cardinals offense is still ranked fourth in expected points added this year, and they’ve also seen their defense show legitimate improvements this year (no. 9 in defensive DVOA), after being a below-average unit last season.

The second half of the Cardinals schedule is much more daunting than the first. Through two games since its bye, Arizona is 1-1, splitting results against the Dolphins (a three-point loss) and Bills (a two-point win). Both opponents are considered playoff contenders, and the Cardinals were competitive against each. Four of Arizona’s remaining opponents—yes, including the Eagles—would be in the playoffs if the season ended today; only one of its first seven opponents would.

There is no common thread that connects the Cardinals’ three losses. Against Detroit in Week 3, Murray threw three interceptions, struggling with accuracy against a Lions defense that relied heavily on man coverage. In Week 4 against the Panthers, the offense struggled to get going and fell behind early. Against the Dolphins in Week 9, a field goal that fell short (after an earlier failed fourth-down try) spoiled an otherwise strong showing—one of Arizona’s best of the season.

Still, while Arizona’s offense has been impressive, its defense has been suspect in recent games. The Cardinals have allowed 30 points in each of the past three games (Seahawks, Dolphins, and Bills). As a result, Arizona could resemble Seattle as a team that must rely on its offense to do just enough each week. Another shootout against the Seahawks on Thursday night seems inevitable.

Russell Wilson had a memorable performance against New England’s defense, but since then Bill Belichick’s unit has neutralized both Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson. While the Patriots’ limiting of Jackson was significantly influenced by weather, there’s precedent to suggest that it could also limit a mobile quarterback with comparable skill sets to Murray. Last season, the Rams had success impacting Murray, who threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles across their two meetings. Murray tallied four carries for 28 yards and one touchdown in the first matchup against Los Angeles, but didn’t log any rushing yards in the second. The Murray-led Cardinals went 0-2 against the Rams last season. Exorcising those demons will be crucial to Arizona remaining in the NFC West race, regardless of how Thursday’s contest goes.

Seattle Seahawks (6-3, 1-2 vs. NFC West)

Remaining games: vs. Cardinals; at Eagles; vs. Giants; vs. Jets; at Washington Football Team; vs. Rams; at 49ers

The Seahawks’ descent has been sharp. After starting the season 5-0, Seattle is 1-3 in its past four games. The winning formula at the start of the year seemed simple: Have Russell Wilson play lights-out ball and bail out one of the NFL’s worst-ever statistical defensive units. The holes in that blueprint were evident early on (Seattle has gone 4-2 in one-possession games this season), and have made for a rude awakening in the past few weeks, which included a prime-time loss to Arizona and last week’s defeat against the Rams. The bad news for Seattle is that it has already lost to each of the two contending teams in the NFC West, which will hurt the team when it comes to potential tiebreaker scenarios. The good news is that the Seahawks are capable of beating them, and they have the most favorable schedule of the bunch. Seattle plays three NFC East teams down the stretch, plus the Jets.

Seattle’s pass defense must find its way during the second half of the regular season. Jamal Adams’s addition to the Seahawks secondary hasn’t helped the group improve—Seattle ranks 26th in passing defense DVOA—and the injuries the unit has suffered have been brutal. Add to the mix an underwhelming pass rush, and the Seahawks haven’t been able to slow anyone down. The most confounding element, though, might be the play-calling:

According to Pro Football Reference, the Seahawks blitz on 34.2 percent of snaps (the NFL’s ninth-highest rate), but hurry opposing passers on only 8.6 percent of dropbacks (20th) and generate pressure on 20.3 percent of dropbacks (21st). Pro Football Focus ranks the Seahawks defense 17th in its coverage grades, but the miscues have been costly—Seattle has given up 41 explosive pass plays (second most), which is an “explosive” play on 10 percent of pass attempts (tied for the fourth-highest frequency). This doomed the Seahawks in their losses against the Cardinals, Bills, and Rams. The encouraging note for Seattle is that last week, its secondary wasn’t too leaky; however, the offense suffered its most disappointing outing of the year.

Wilson started the year on fire, but following Seattle’s bye in Week 6, he hasn’t been the same player. Wilson has turned the ball over 10 times since Week 7, the most in the NFL during that span. Wilson threw two interceptions against the Rams and was sacked a season-high six times. Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey completely neutralized DK Metcalf, and the Seahawks scored a season-low 16 points.

There’s still time for the Seahawks to rebound, and their schedule lends to them doing so. The NFC West has, in part, succeeded thanks to scheduling the NFC East this year, but Seattle hasn’t had the same opportunity to boost their record the way their divisional peers have. The Seahawks have yet to face the Eagles (21st in pass defense DVOA) and Giants (27th), whom Wilson and Co. (fourth in pass offense DVOA) should feast against. The Seahawks will also face Washington, which does have a strong pass defense (fifth), but has been mightily inconsistent offensively (30th in offensive DVOA). Seattle will also play the winless Jets, who on track to land the 2021 NFL draft’s no. 1 pick. Those four matchups are sandwiched between Thursday’s rematch against the Cardinals and season-concluding matchups against the Rams and Niners.

The Seahawks’ light schedule factors into why they are Football Outsiders’s projected division winner entering the week with a 38.5 percent chance to notch their first NFC West crown since 2016. If Wilson’s play improves, then those odds are strong, even if Seattle looks shaky against division rivals down the stretch.

Los Angeles Rams (6-3, 1-1 vs. NFC West)

Remaining games: at Buccaneers; vs. 49ers; at Cardinals; vs. Patriots; vs. Jets; at Seahawks; vs. Cardinals

Prior to their win against the Seahawks, there wasn’t much being said about the Rams. While Russell Wilson certainly committed some self-inflicted errors against Los Angeles last week, Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley deserves more credit for not only the job he did on Sunday, but throughout the season so far. Los Angeles ranks eighth in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA metrics after holding their opponents to 17 points or fewer in five of their last six games.

The Rams defense has been solid all season. All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald is putting together another MVP-caliber campaign, leading the NFL in total pressures (56)—as an interior lineman in a season in which offensive holding calls are down—and is tied with Myles Garrett (a defensive end) for the most sacks in the league (10). As if Donald’s game-wrecking abilities weren’t enough, the Rams have also enjoyed deploying one-time All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Last week, Ramsey covered Seattle’s DK Metcalf on 30 routes and allowed just two catches for 28 yards.

Staley has found creative ways to deploy Ramsey throughout the year, and the former Jaguar has been almost as impactful as Donald:

Having two dynamic players to anchor the defense has aided Los Angeles in games when the offense struggles to manufacture points. The Rams defense leads the NFL in EPA (31.09) by a wide margin this season, generating multiple turnovers in five of nine games. For all of the defense’s success, Sean McVay’s offense has quietly been very efficient this season. Los Angeles boasts the fifth-ranked offense in DVOA, including the no. 1 rushing offense. The Rams passing game, however, ranks only 17th in DVOA. The unit has underperformed at times, including in defeats to the 49ers and Dolphins, and turned the ball over four times against the latter. Fifth-year quarterback Jared Goff struggled processing plays presnap against Miami’s unit, in particular.

The Rams offense doesn’t always need Goff to be spectacular—they’ve lost each of his two highest-passing yardage games this year—but they need him to be efficient. McVay has done his best to aid his signal-caller, as Goff leads the league in play-action attempts (123) thus far. Even against teams with talented pass rushers, that strategy has proved effective.

Of the three teams contending for the NFC West crown, Los Angeles has perhaps the most difficult remaining schedule. A Monday Night Football matchup against the Buccaneers—ranked the no. 8 offense and no. 1 defense in DVOA—will be the Rams’ best litmus test to prove whether or not they should be considered title contenders. After that, it doesn’t get much easier, with matchups against the Niners (who they lost to in Week 6), Cardinals, and Patriots preceding a meeting with the Jets. Los Angeles then finishes the year against the Seahawks and Cardinals in contests that will impact the playoff picture in a massive way.

The Rams have already defeated the Seahawks, and have had success in the past facing Wilson. They also defeated Kyler Murray and the Cardinals in each of their two meetings last season. There’s reason to believe that McVay can replicate previous success again. But the rest of the Rams’ contests—aside from New York—could be competitive, and will give them the most difficult path toward winning the division.