It’s been a wild year at the top of the NFC West. Coming into the season, many considered the defending NFC champion Rams to be the division favorites. Instead, Sean McVay and his team have fallen back to earth, and two old rivals have been happy to fill the void. The 49ers and Seahawks entered 2019 with meager expectations, but now they’ve emerged as legitimate title contenders, and their battle for the division could determine how the NFC ultimately shakes out.
A week removed from a thrilling win over the Saints in New Orleans, San Francisco suffered a letdown against a Falcons team that came into the contest with just four wins. This season has been an adventure with Jimmy Garoppolo under center, and Sunday’s outing put Niners fans back on a roller coaster they thought they’d hopped off of after his showing against New Orleans. His scattershot accuracy and questionable decision-making against an objectively bad Falcons defense played a central role in San Francisco’s 29-22 loss. If Garoppolo wasn’t dumping the ball off to George Kittle, he wasn’t accomplishing much of anything. And Richard Sherman’s absence on defense certainly didn’t help matters. The veteran cornerback was one of six key Niners defenders to miss Sunday’s game because of injury, and as a result, Julio Jones tore up San Francisco’s depleted secondary for 13 catches, 134 yards, and a pair of touchdowns.
The Seahawks were also shorthanded on defense this week, as Jadeveon Clowney sat out Sunday’s game with an illness, but it didn’t seem to matter. Russell Wilson lit up the Panthers in a 30-24 win, finishing with 286 yards and two touchdowns on 20-of-26 passing; it was the sixth time this season that he’s had six or fewer incompletions in a game—which is absolutely ridiculous. Seattle’s offense remains one of the most efficient units in football, in part due to Chris Carson’s work on the ground. The third-year back racked up another 133 yards rushing on Sunday, bringing his season total to 1,190—the fourth-highest mark in the league.
Seattle’s win and San Francisco’s surprising loss brings both teams’ records to 11-3. If the Niners can take care of the Rams next week and the Seahawks beat the Cardinals, then their Week 17 clash could determine the NFC West champ—and cause reverberations throughout the conference.
The Saints were big winners on Sunday, and they didn’t even play. San Francisco’s loss gives New Orleans new life in the fight for home-field advantage; if the 10-3 Saints win out and the Seahawks knock off the Niners at home in Week 17, New Orleans would earn the NFC’s no. 1 seed by virtue of its Week 3 win over Seattle. Alvin Kamara’s production has declined a bit in recent weeks, but his 12 broken tackles against the Seahawks could eventually be the difference between the Saints hosting the NFC championship game and schlepping to Seattle. Playing a crucial game in the comfort of your own home is an advantage for any team, but the Superdome and CenturyLink Field are particularly brutal environments for visitors. If the final game of the NFC playoffs happens in New Orleans or Seattle, one of those buildings is going to be shaking clear off its foundation; the Saints would much prefer it be theirs.
In this scenario, the road to the Super Bowl wouldn’t go through Seattle. But winning the division would at least prevent the Seahawks from having to travel to Philadelphia or Dallas on wild-card weekend. Those are the margins in the NFC West right now: One loss could determine whether you land a first-round bye or have to board a flight to face an NFC East champion that needed luck to get to nine wins. And for the Niners, a single game could be what separates them from a wild-card matchup and the no. 1 seed in the NFC.
If San Francisco takes care of business against the Rams and the Seahawks, the Niners will be 13-3 and own the conference’s top spot. That would mean avoiding a talented if flawed Dallas team, or an Eagles squad that, despite its shortcomings, still has players like Fletcher Cox. And it would also mean getting to skip a return date with the Saints in the divisional round (if the Saints claim the no. 2 seed).
The way things are shaping up, whichever team eventually takes home the NFC West title will be two games away from the Super Bowl, with a week off and a chance to sleep in their own beds through at least January 19. The other will be living out of a suitcase starting New Year’s Day, until their slog of a playoff run comes to an end. That discrepancy is the reason that Week 17’s showdown might not just determine the fate of these two teams, but also who gets the privilege of representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.
It’s not often that arguably the two best teams in a conference are deadlocked in one division, but that’s where we are 15 games into this season. Sunday’s egg-laying aside, when healthy the Niners have a case as the most well-rounded team in football. Their win over the Saints last week might have been the most impressive showing of the season. Their three losses have come in overtime against the Seahawks without Kittle, in a rainstorm on the road against the presumptive MVP and the league’s best team, and in Sunday’s clunker against the Falcons (few teams escape a season without a loss like this). The thought of traveling to Santa Clara, California, to face this team won’t be pleasant for anyone. And the same goes for Seattle.
The Seahawks roster might not stack up to San Francisco’s from top to bottom, but no one—and I mean no one—wants to face Wilson and the deafening noise in Seattle with a ticket to the Super Bowl on the line. Lamar Jackson has owned this season, and he’ll be taking home the MVP hardware to prove it. But Wilson’s 2019 campaign would earn him the award in most years. Seattle is no. 1 in Football Outsiders’ passing DVOA, and that ranking isn’t likely to change after Wilson’s nearly flawless performance against Carolina. Seattle still has holes along its offensive line and some concerns in its secondary, but any team with the best passer in football is a Super Bowl threat.
With Wilson playing like a man possessed, the Seahawks are as good a bet as any to play in Miami this February—if they can win their next two games. And at this point, there’s a lot riding on that caveat. If Seattle wins out and earns the bye, this team could absolutely handle the third-seeded Packers in the divisional round and ride a red-hot Wilson to a win in New Orleans. If the Niners win out and snag the no. 1 seed, it’s not difficult to imagine them beating the Seahawks at home in the divisional round and then knocking off the Saints for the right to play in the Super Bowl. But for the team that ultimately falls short in the division, the road becomes much more treacherous. The NFC West crown might not just mean the right to hang a division title banner—it might mean everything.