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West is One: Behind 49ers, rise of Cardinals, Seahawks boosts division

The SportsXchange

The butt of jokes for many years, the NFC West is suddenly emerging as the best division, top to bottom, in the NFL.

Don't laugh; these aren't words of heresy from a division once dubbed as the NFC Worst.

It might be difficult to convince those in the East who consistently believe NFL football doesn't exist west of the Mississippi River, but the evidence is there in the first three weeks of the season: the West is One.

The jokes were apt in 2010 when Seattle and St. Louis tied for the division crown with embarrassing 7-9 records. But San Francisco won the division going away last season with a 13-3 record, and now the others are letting the 49ers know in no uncertain terms that it won't be a runaway in 2012.

Arizona has the best record in football over the last 12 games (10-2). The Cardinals won seven of their last nine games last season, and enter Sunday's game against Miami as one of only three undefeated teams in the league. One of those wins this past Sunday was a dismantling of the Eagles.

San Francisco slipped in Minnesota last week, but opened the season with impressive wins over Green Bay and Detroit. Seattle, whether you accept their win Monday night or not, also stopped Dallas dead in its tracks. The Seahawks' only loss is to Arizona.

The Rams are admittedly a question mark. They defeated Washington, while losing to Detroit on a last-second touchdown and at Chicago after entering the fourth quarter down 10-6.

What is eye-opening about the NFC West's early-season success is that in what is always described as a passing league, the division has no elite quarterbacks. In this division, the way to make a name is with defense.

Care to name the top two teams in the NFL in points allowed? That would be Seattle with 39 and Arizona with 40. The next three are Houston (42), Atlanta (48) and Chicago (50).

For some reason, those that cite rankings usually refer to total yards. Maybe it's because the NFL provides a neat little chart that shows where every team ranks, so it's too easy to look at that and nothing more. Makes no sense.

The last we looked, no team has ever been awarded a victory based on yards.

Not only are Arizona and Seattle first and second in points allowed, but the division is head and shoulders above the rest of the divisions. The entire NFC West has allowed 222 points, the fewest by 35 points. That translates to just 13.9 points per team per game. The NFC North is next at 257, followed by the AFC East, 284; NFC East, 286, NFC South, 296; AFC South, 308; AFC West, 315 and AFC North, 319.

Even looking at yardage totals, the NFC West also shines. Seattle is fourth, Arizona 10th, San Francisco 11th and St. Louis 19th, for a total of 44. The only division lower is the NFC North with a cumulative total of 32. That division is the best argument against the NFC West, especially if Minnesota continues to be better than anyone expected.

After the NFC North is the NFC East, 54; AFC West, 60; AFC East, 74; AFC South, 81; AFC North, 88; and NFC South, 95.

Meanwhile, in 10 different defensive categories, the NFC West has teams in the top nine 17 times. Only two other divisions are in double figures: the NFC East with 17 and the NFC North with 22.

The legitimate question for the West is whether this can hold up for the rest of the season, especially considering the offensive issues they face. The division is last in points scored with 254, and the highest-ranked team in yards is the 49ers at 21. St. Louis is 28, Seattle 29 and Arizona 31.

The NFC North has the Packers and the NFC East the Giants.

As a sum of its parts, the West has an argument it is the best. But to get that recognition, one of its teams -- San Francisco, Arizona or Seattle being the most likely to emerge -- must show it belongs in the conversation with the league's heavyweights.

Who will step forward?

Arizona (3-0): The defense came on in the second half of last season, once there was comfort with the new defense installed by coordinator Ray Horton. Defensive end Calais Campbell is emerging as a Pro-Bowl caliber player, and the Cardinals shut down Philadelphia Sunday without safety Adrian Wilson. Opponents have averaged just 2.8 yards per rushing play. On offense, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald always has to be accounted for, but the quarterback spot remains a question, unless Kevin Kolb can prove he can stay healthy.

San Francisco (2-1): The 49ers were looking like the class of the NFC after two weeks until they stubbed their toe in Minnesota. But, they remain the team to beat as long as quarterback Alex Smith avoids the turnover bug that can turn an efficient signal-caller into an average one. With defenders like lineman Justin Smith and linebacker Patrick Willis, the defense will always be a handful for any offense.

Seattle (2-1): Put an asterisk on the Monday victory if you like, but the Seahawks also have a stifling defense centered around a line that is close to being an immovable force. End Chris Clemons already has five sacks, including four in the second quarter against Green Bay Monday night. Rookie end Bruce Irvin has 2.5 sacks, and has scary explosiveness. In three games, the run defense has allowed 58.7 yards per game and 3.1 per attempt. With Marshawn Lynch, they run the ball well, taking the heat off rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.

St. Louis (1-2): The Rams are improving under new coach Jeff Fisher, but the offense and quarterback Sam Bradford are adjusting to their third offense in as many years. The defense is solid, anchored by ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. Led by cornerback Cortland Finnegan, there is an edge to their play, and rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins is learning from Finnegan, who has an interception in three consecutive games, the first Rams defensive back to accomplish that since safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (four) in 2007.
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