Balanced 49ers, Rams vs. Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray will decide NFC West

Josh Schrock
·5 min read

NFC West title will come down to balance vs. star QBs originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

We're almost halfway through the NFL season, and the NFC West is far and away the best division in football.

The Seattle Seahawks currently lead the division at 5-1, with the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams (5-2) nipping at their heels. The 49ers currently are in last place at 4-3, but a win Sunday in Seattle would leave them just a half-game out of first place.

At 19-8, the NFC West has the second-highest winning percentage (.704) through seven weeks since the 1970 merger. Combined, the 49ers, Rams, Seahawks and Cardinals have a plus-171 point differential.

Put plain and simple: The battle for the division crown promises to be a blood bath to the bitter end.

That crown very well could be won by the team that patches up its weaknesses in a quick and effective manner.

All four NFC West teams currently rank in the top 11 in DVOA, with the Rams clocking at No. 7, the 49ers at No. 8, the Seahawks at No. 9 and the Cardinals at No. 11. On the offensive side of the ball, all teams rank in the top 11 in DVOA as well, with the Seahawks leading the pack at No. 2. (Russ has been cooking.) Defensively is where we start to see a little separation, with the 49ers (No. 8), Cardinals (No. 9) and Rams (No. 11) outpacing the Seahawks, whose ghastly defense has them down at No. 28.

The Cardinals' defensive DVOA numbers are more impressive than you'd think given that the Cardinals are giving up 378.4 yards per game. That's not great, but it is 100 yards (!) better than the Seahawks' defense allows per game. They are giving up nearly 500 yards per game. That's 50 yards per game more than the Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons, the next worse teams.

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The 49ers (309.1) and Rams (312.3) both rank in the top six of the NFL in yards allowed per game and points allowed per game, with only the Baltimore Ravens allowed fewer points per game than the Rams.

Kyle Shanahan's team doesn't have the suffocating defense it did a year ago, as injuries have left them without Nick Bosa, Richard Sherman and Solomon Thomas for most of the season. Bosa and Thomas are out of the season with knee injuries. Cornerbacks Emmanuel Moseley and Ahkello Witherspoon, as well as safeties Jaquaski Tartt and Jimmie Ward, also have missed time. And yet, while the 49ers aren't squeezing the life out of teams on defense, that unit has, with the exception of the loss to the Miami Dolphins, been very good.

Offensively, the Seahawks and Cardinals are tied atop the NFL with 203 points scored in the first seven weeks. But the Seahawks have done so in one fewer game. Seattle and Arizona rank one and two in yards per game, while the Rams and 49ers come in at No. 10 and 12, respectively.

The Seahawks and Cardinals have two of the top offenses in the league led by two of the NFL's most dynamic signal-callers. Wilson and Kyler Murray are going to put points every Sunday unless they beat themselves, as Wilson did Sunday when he threw three picks in a loss at Arizona.

The 49ers have had injuries on the offensive side of the ball as well. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo missed two games with a high ankle sprain and was ineffective against the Dolphins before being yanked at halftime. He's been solid the past two weeks as Shanahan tailors the offense toward his strengths. The loss of Deebo Samuel and Raheem Mostert will hamper the 49ers as they try to rediscover the offensive balance they had last year en route to the Super Bowl.

The Rams have shown a balanced attack all year, one that has been effective against the NFC East and was relatively unsuccessful in a Week 7 loss to the 49ers.

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The NFC West race is going to be about two balanced teams -- the 49ers and Rams -- trying to conquer two teams with prolific offenses and questionable defenses. Yes, the Cardinals' DVOA numbers say their defense is decent, but I have questions about them without Chandler Jones.

The 49ers have to find a way to get Garoppolo settled and comfortable testing teams down the field. With Mostert and Samuel out, it's hard to see San Francisco continuing to win with a bruising running game and short, efficient passes the way it has the past two weeks. Samuel plays a unique role in the offense, one that can't be duplicated and Mostert is a big-play threat they will miss dearly out of the backfield.

It'll be a clash of styles down the stretch in the NFC West. The Cardinals already have shown they can outscore the Seahawks and give the 49ers fits. The 49ers have bottled up Jared Goff and moved the ball easily against a good Rams defense.

We'll find out a lot more about the division Sunday when Shanahan and Garoppolo go against a league-worst defense while defensive coordinator Robert Saleh prepares to contain Wilson.

Can the Seahawks' defense improve to the level of semi-respectability? Will Jimmy Garoppolo be able to carry a banged-up 49ers offense? Do the Cardinals have enough playmakers on defense to win when the games really start to matter? Is Jared Goff good enough to outduel Wilson, Murray and Garoppolo if needed?

The NFC West very well could have three or even four teams make the playoffs this season. And the clash for the division title undoubtedly will take many twists and turns before January.

The next one comes Sunday when the 49ers look to climb closer to the top with a win in Seattle.