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NFC West Preview

NFC West Preview

NFC West Preview
By Joe Nelson

The NFL draft gets all the attention in the spring but the recent release of the 2014 schedule can be a more telling factor in how a team will fare next season. Take a look at the four teams in the NFC West in this schedule preview. The West was the toughest division in the NFL last season with the four teams going 42-22 combined and the division producing both NFC finalists. The schedules will be challenging across the board in 2014 for the West and it seems inevitable that at least one of the teams in this division will fall from last season’s pace.

Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals went from 5-11 to 10-6 and just missing the playoffs last season led by Bruce Arians in his first season in Glendale and the acquisition of veteran quarterback Carson Palmer. Arizona was +55 in point differential last season with five wins by seven or fewer points but the defense was fierce, led by one of the best run stopping units in the NFL. The Cardinals went just 2-4 in division games and improving that mark will be the key for the Cardinals moving up in this stacked division. Arizona will be the rare 10-win team getting a 3rd place schedule which means drawing Atlanta and Detroit as the West will play all four NFC East teams. The division also draws a very tough AFC West with three of those four opponents being 2013 playoff teams as overall the division will feature challenging schedules. Arizona has to play eight games against 2013 playoff teams and like every team in this division, the Cardinals will face over 10,000 travel miles while facing a top eight schedule in terms of 2013 win percentage. By a small margin Arizona has the weakest schedule in the NFC West in terms of 2013 win percentage and Arizona will get five of the eight games against 2013 playoff teams at home. Arizona will need to carry over its late season momentum from last year into the start of the season as the schedule is a bit front-loaded and back-loaded for the Cardinals with what appear to be the best opportunities in the middle of the season. Home games with San Diego and San Francisco early in the season will be critical and the Cardinals will only face one winning team from 2013 in the first four road games, though that game is against the AFC champion Broncos. Arizona also has home games with Washington, St. Louis, and Detroit in the middle of the season before a tough final month slate. The Cardinals play division foes in each of the final three weeks with two of those three games on the road. Arizona plays both games with Seattle in the final six weeks of the season while also playing four of the final six overall on the road with some substantial travel. With an early week 4 bye week the late season the tough schedule and taxing travel could take a toll on the Cardinals. Arizona is not likely to fall off the map in 2014 but a small step back seems possible unless they can turn things around in the division games.

Arizona Cardinals 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .547 (8/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 8 (five home, three away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 10,852
Back-to-Back road game sets: 1
Primetime Games: 3 (1 Thursday Night, 1 Sunday Night, 1 Monday Night

San Francisco 49ers: With three consecutive NFC championship appearances the 49ers have certainly established themselves as one of the top teams in the NFL and a team that is a Super Bowl threat every season. San Francisco struggled to run the ball effectively last season but despite an ugly 1-2 start to the season the 49ers rallied to win 11 of the last 13 games of the regular season and took Seattle down to the wire in the NFC championship after beating Green Bay and Carolina in the playoffs. Last season San Francisco had to face a 1st place schedule and this season the 49ers get a 2nd place draw which means avoiding Green Bay but having to play New Orleans. San Francisco has tough road games at Dallas, at Denver, and at New Orleans outside of the already tough division road games but the 49ers will play the fewest 2013 playoff teams in the division with just seven of those games, including only three on the road. The 49ers face substantial travel this season and will play three separate sets of back-to-back road games while also getting three short week games with the primetime schedule. San Francisco will play Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday night games on the season. Unlike the rest of the division the 49ers draw a more favorable week 8 bye week that should provide a more centrally placed break. The biggest current rivalry in the league will be saved for late in the season as the games with Seattle are in weeks 13 and 15 and the game in Seattle comes in a second straight road game, though the previous road game is just in Oakland. San Francisco will have an adjustment this season with the new stadium in Santa Clara and the early season home games are challenging with Chicago, Philadelphia, and Kansas City coming into town in the first five weeks. San Francisco looks like an elite team again but this is a very tough schedule and there is little margin for error in this division with four legitimate playoff contenders.

San Francisco 49ers 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .563 (4/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 7 (four home, three away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 11,969
Back-to-Back road game sets: 3
Primetime Games: 5 (1 Thursday Night, 1 Saturday Night, 2 Sunday Night, 1 Monday Night)

Seattle Seahawks: The Super Bowl champions were mostly dominant last season finishing with a 13-3 record and a point differential of +186. Seattle has featured one of the best defenses in the NFL and the offense was very impressive at times last season though not with the same consistency as the defense. Seattle benefitted from a weaker schedule last season with a 2nd place draw and the Seahawks were able to coast late in the season after an 11-1 start, eventually dropping two games late in the season but still earning the top seed in the NFC. Seattle won twice in overtime last season and had three other wins by seven or fewer points and trading the AFC South for the AFC West will upgrade the challenge in 2014. Seattle also draws Carolina and Green Bay in the 1st place draw and Seattle will play eight games in 2014 against 2013 playoff teams. Seattle has incredibly long travel this season going over 16,000 miles for eight road games, more miles than most of the teams heading to London this season will face. Three east coast games are ahead for the Seahawks plus two Central Time games and Seattle has two sets of back-to-back road games with the second of the two games out east in both cases. The Seahawks will need to avoid a Super Bowl hangover in September with a brutal opening trio of games with Green Bay, San Diego, and Denver in the first three weeks before an early week 4 bye week. The schedule softens a bit in October and early November but starting in mid-November the Seahawks will play six straight games against teams that won at least 10 games in 2013 including both games with San Francisco and road games in Kansas City, Philadelphia, and Arizona. Seattle will close with division games in the final three weeks and this season the division race may still be up in the air in December with all four teams looking viable. Seattle did not actually have the best record in the division last season going 4-2 while the 49ers went 5-1 so there is no margin for error and with the taxing travel schedule it would not be a surprise if the Seahawks slipped a game or two from last season despite still looking like a serious threat to repeat. Seattle has won six of the last 10 NFC West titles and if they win the division again in 2014 it will not likely be in convincing fashion.

Seattle Seahawks 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .561 (6/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 8 (five home, three away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 16,028
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 4 (2 Thursday Night, 1 Sunday Night, 1 Monday Night)

St. Louis Rams: This is a talented Rams team that has been building nicely in two seasons under Jeff Fisher and if St. Louis played in any other division they might be considered one of the favorites. As it stands St. Louis will have to try to move up in a division where they went 1-5 last season, while going 6-4 against the rest of the league. St. Louis was also just 2-6 on the road last season and the Rams were only -16 in point differential in a 7-9 campaign where they played with a back-up quarterback much of the way. While St. Louis was very competitive last season they did not lose a lot of close games with only one defeat by fewer than seven points as this was an inconsistent team. The Rams also did not win close games with only one win decided by fewer than 10 points and an average margin of victory of more than 16 points in the seven wins. St. Louis should be a candidate to start the season strong with two games against teams that had losing records and with new coaching staffs this season in the first two weeks. A 2-0 start is paramount for the Rams this season if they hope to contend for a playoff spot. The Rams then host Dallas in week 3 before an early week 4 bye week. St. Louis will then embark on an absolutely brutal stretch of games in October and early November playing seven of eight games against 2013 playoff teams with the lone exception in that run being a game at Arizona who went 10-6 last season. That game comes in a third straight road game for the Rams as well.  While the final game of the season for St. Louis is at Seattle there are winnable games in weeks 13-16 with three of those four games coming at home but surviving the mid-season gauntlet will be a great challenge. St. Louis is talented enough to steal some of those games with upsets but for a team that was incredibly inconsistent last season it is not clear if the Rams are ready to take a step forward this season and the schedule is not doing the team any favors. Five of the eight road games for St. Louis are against 2013 playoff teams and despite being one of the most centrally located franchises in the league the Rams have over 10,000 travel miles ahead. A lot of folks are buyers on the Rams this season for good reason but they will need to start strong and find a way to stay positive and fresh through a very tough slate to have a chance at the playoffs or a first division title since 2003.

St. Louis Rams 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .564 (3/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 8 (three home, five away)
Miles Traveled for 78road/neutral games: 10,575
Back-to-Back road game sets: 1 back-to-back-to-back
Primetime Games: 2 (1 Thursday Night, 1 Monday Night)

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Re: NFC West Preview

NFC West Preview
By: The Linemakers

LAS VEGAS -- With the NFL season gradually approaching, The Linemakers take a division-by-division look at what fans can expect in 2014. First up is the NFC West.

Odds to win NFC West Division

Seattle Seahawks 11-10
San Francisco 49ers 5-4
Arizona Cardinals 8-1
St. Louis Rams 8-1

AFC Opponents

Last season the NFC West played the AFC South, and buried them with a 13-3 record. Things might not be as easy in 2014 as they'll face the AFC West, a division that sent three teams to the playoffs last season.

Cover Kings

The NFC West housed three of the top four cover teams in the NFL last season with Seattle (11-5 ATS), San Francisco (10-5-1) and Arizona (10-5-1 ATS). The common thread in the trio's success was being exceptional against the spread on the road where they combined to go 17-5-2.

Did you know?

The NFC is a 3-point favorite over the AFC in the early Super Bowl line offered by the LVH SuperBook primarily because of the expectation that either Seattle or San Francisco will represent the NFC.

What the books are seeing with Futures

"We've seen the most money wagered on our Super Bowl futures so far on Seattle," said MGM Resorts VP of race and sports Jay Rood, who has them now posted at 4-to-1. "The 49ers are the fourth most in ticket counts right behind Seattle, Green Bay and Denver. The Rams drew quite a bit of early action when we had them 75-to-1, and we're down to 35-to-1 now, and it's the same story with Arizona. Action on both have slowed considerably at the lower prices."

Arizona Cardinals

Season win total: 7.5 OV -160

Super Bowl odds: 50-1

Key acquisitions: Jared Veldheer (OT), Jonathan Dwyer (RB), Ted Ginn (WR), Ted Larsen (C), Antonio Cromartie (CB), John Carlson (TE)

Key losses: Antoine Cason (CB), Javier Arenas (CB), Karlos Dansby (LB), Andre Roberts (WR), Jim Dray (TE) 2013 record: 10-6

LM Outlook: They finished last season on a 7-2 run and barely missed the playoffs. Best of all, they got 16 games out of Carson Palmer. Is it too much to ask for another 16 games from him in 2014, and maybe more if counting the playoffs? Yes, we're talking playoffs! Their defense is one of the best in the league, and that shouldn't change. Getting eight wins seems like a certainty. Getting 10 wins and a playoff birth is still definitely an underdog to happen.

San Francisco 49ers

Season win total: 10.5 OV -135

Super Bowl odds: 6-1

Key acquisitions: Antoine Bethea (S), Chris Cook (CB), Perrish Cox (CB), Stevie Johnson (WR)

Key losses: Tarell Brown (CB), Donte Whitner (S), Carlos Rogers (CB), Jonathan Goodwin (C), Mario Manningham (WR)

2013 record: 12-4, lost to Seattle in NFC Championship

LM Outlook: They have matched or exceeded 11 wins in each of Jim Harbaugh's first three seasons (36-11-1), and while we don't like them losing so many key players in the secondary, we do like the make-up of this team -- especially their road mentality where they went 6-1-1 ATS last season. Playing well on the road is what it's all about. Ultimately, their fate rests with how they do against the Seahawks and the early line has them priced -2.5 at home and +3.5 at Seattle. They look to have 12 wins and the division title on the horizon.

Seattle Seahawks

Season win total: 11 OV -130

Super Bowl odds: 5-1

Key acquisitions: Phillip Adams (CB), Taylor Price (WR)

Key losses: Golden Tate (WR), Clinton McDaniel (DT), Walter Thurmond (CB), Red Bryant (DE), Chris Clemons (DE), Brandon Browner (S), Breno Giacomini (OT), Perrish Cox (CB)2013 record: 13-3, beat Denver in Super Bowl

LM Outlook: Coming back strong the year after winning a Super Bowl is a tall task. Over the past 12 seasons, it's been a coin flip with six returning to the playoffs, and six missing, including the past two winners. Seattle looks a little too sound defensively, despite losing some key personnel, to misfire in 2014, but their schedule is more difficult and the division is also improved. Should be playoff bound, but more than 11 wins seems tough.

St. Louis Rams

Season win total: 7.5 OV -150

Super Bowl odds: 50-1

Key acquisitions: Alex Carrington (DE), Kenny Britt (WR), Jo-Lonn Dunbar (LB), Shaun Hill (QB)

Key losses: Chris Williams (DE), Kellen Clemens (QB), Shelley Smith (G), Cortland Finnegan (CB) 2013 record: 7-9

LM Outlook: If you keep playing the best, along the way, your team should morph into playing like the best, and the NFC West is certainly the best division in football. We love Coach Jeff Fisher and we also think Sam Bradford can evolve into being a big time player, but he has to stay healthy and that's been a lot to ask for. The pass rush is nasty and will keep them in games, but the division is just too tough for a playoff birth. Eight wins might be on horizon though, which would be their most since 2006 (8-8).

LM Best NFC West Bets:

Kenny White: "I think complacency sets in when you win the Super Bowl. The Seahawks will be one team that I'm definitely going to play UNDER the 11 wins because the schedule that they have. It's a very tough schedule for Seattle. Even with the 49ers, I have a problem going OVER 11 wins or more. It's almost like you have to have a perfect season and can't have any injuries to go 12-4."

Micah Roberts: "I like the hungry 49ers to get over the hump this season and take advantage of a Super Bowl hangover that might occur with Seattle, which includes winning the division, getting OVER the season win total and representing the NFC in the Super Bowl."

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Re: NFC West Preview

NFC West Outlook
By Tony Mejia

Division winner

There's clearly not a lot separating Seattle and San Francisco. Since Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh took over their respective teams, they've split a pair of NFC West titles. To be fair, Carroll's 2010 conquest came against Mike Singletary with a 7-9 record that won a brutal division, but he certainly got his licks in on Harbaugh and the 49ers last season. Not only did the Seahawks end their rival's two-year reign atop the division, they captured the first playoff duel between these star head coaches, earning a Super Bowl berth and trash-talking rights. That's history, though.

With both teams loaded, there isn't much between them again. Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick should continue their emergence and friendly rivalry. Both stables of running backs look tremendous and deep. The defenses are truly formidable. They should remain among the NFC's elite and may decide matters with another winner-take-all date in 2015. As for the division, the team that's healthiest for their showdowns on Thanksgiving night (November 27 in S.F.) and Dec. 14 will have an edge, but there is one variable worth remembering when the time comes. It's about the challenge sandwiched in between their meetings.

Seattle, while home for Game 2, will have played in Philadelphia the week prior. Meanwhile, San Francisco gets to hang in the Bay area for a road game against the Raiders, probably lightening the mental and physical load. Added to the revenge factor, that forces a slight nod to the hungrier 49ers, blessed by the schedule fairy.

Projected order of finish

1) San Francisco
2) Seattle
3) St. Louis
4) Arizona

Go over with

It's likely going to take at least 11 wins to take the NFC West, so I'd sign off on the 49ers, since has their total available at 10.5, favoring the Seahawks (11). The best option, however, is counting on Jeff Fisher's rebuilding project in St. Louis to produce at least a .500 record for the first time. After going 7-9 in 2013, the Rams should be ready to make a serious at the playoffs in spite of their loaded division. Gregg Williams returns to a defensive coordinator role for the first time since Bountygate and knows what he's doing. He's got excellent weapons, particularly up front. If rookie Aaron Donald keeps developing fast, a unit already featuring First Team All-Pro Robert Quinn and fellow first-rounders Chris Long and Michael Brockers could become the NFL's top defensive line. QB Sam Bradford will need to be slightly more than a game manager without putting his team in bad spots with turnovers, but he's at the point where things should click, especially if he can make better use of Tavon Austin's game-changing speed. The Rams will surpass the 7.5 available at most shops.

Go under with

This is definitely the strongest division in the sport, but someone has to bring up the rear and likely won't get to .500 in doing so. Looking at you, Arizona. Carson Palmer improved the offense in the first year of the Bruce Arians regime, completing over 63 percent of his passes for a career-high 4,274 yards. If he can do it again, it would merit applause but would be surprising. Andre Ellington, Jonathan Dwyer and Stepfan Taylor have to prove they can handle the load at tailback, while the addition of burner Ted Ginn must translate into a suitable replacement for reliable threat Andre Roberts. Defensively, suspended linebacker Daryl Washington will be greatly missed, while talented defensive back Tyrann Mathieu will spend at least the first month of the season getting back in a flow. After missing out on the playoffs despite 10 wins, the Cardinals are set to slip given their difficult schedule and likely regression in key spots.

Games to watch - September

Sept. 4 - Green Bay at Seattle: The Thursday night season opener sees these powers meet for the second time in three years at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks won on that awful "touchception" call that ended up helping to bring an end to the 2012 referee strike, but will be in a favorite role this time around, hoping to take care of business without the need for such a dramatic ending.

Sept. 8 - San Diego at Arizona: The second half of Week 1's now annual Monday night doubleheader header will decide pools and fantasy leagues, but will likely also be worth tuning into just for the actual game. Palmer vs. Philip Rivers slinging it around sounds like fun.

Sept. 14 - Arizona at N.Y. Giants: Palmer will likely continue in gunslinger mode against Eli Manning, hoping to capitalize against New York's vulnerable secondary. If the Cardinals are going to be a playoff contender again, they'll have to capture their share of winnable road games like this one, especially since NYG will be performing on a short week, too.

Sept 14 - Chicago at San Francisco: The Week 2 Sunday night game will be a massive hurdle for Jay Cutler and a Bears offensive line that returns intact after starting all 16 games together last season. If they keep making significant progress, they'll be a factor in the NFC. This will be a great opportunity to see where they stand.

Sept. 21 - Dallas at St. Louis: The Cowboys won last year's meeting 31-7 and need to capture winnable road games like these if they're going to truly contend. Of course, the Rams have their own aspirations and their fan base will view this as a marquee matchup whether the Cowboys stink or turn things around. Count on Gregg Williams sending a ton of pressure Tony Romo's way.

Sept. 21 - San Francisco at Arizona: The first intra division game of 2014 is vital to the confidence of both, since the Cardinals want to prove at home that they'll again be a factor and the 49ers want to stomp out their fire. Don't forget, last time these teams met, Phil Dawson snuffed out Arizona's postseason dreams with a Week 17 game-winning field goal as time expired.

Sept. 21- Denver at Seattle: The Broncos held off a Terrelle Pryor-led rally late in the preseason opener, riding top backup Brock Osweiler for the duration after he relieved Peyton Manning. That should tell you how much they wanted to wash the taste of the Super Bowl rout out of their mouths. Something tells me the Seahawks will be OK letting Denver end their nine-game winning streak in exhibition play if they can hold serve at home here.

Sept. 28 - Philadelphia at San Francisco: A truly difficult first month for the Eagles ends in the Bay area, bu they'll get no sympathy from the host 49ers. After a challenging month of their own, Harbaugh's team is the only NFC West team playing to close September. Chip Kelly's projected top 5 offense visits Vic Fangio's elite defense in Week 4's marquee matchup.

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