Well, I hope you guys appreciated the days when eight or nine (seven?) wins were enough to win the division, because that era has passed like gas. Once considered the tag-along little brother of the NFL, the NFC West has gone from "We got snacks now" Casey Affleck to kill-Brad-Pitt-and-get-an-Oscar-nod Casey Affleck. The division that the 3-2 Seahawks currently reside in the basement of is 11-3 against teams from other divisions (14-6 overall) and have allowed the first, second, fifth, and ninth-fewest points/game in the entire league, respectively.
With the usual caveat that it's still early, I still think five games is enough to start drawing some reasonable conclusions and one reasonable conclusion is that the NFC West has been playing the best football in the league. On top of having the best combined record in the NFL, the NFCW is redefining home-field advantage, as the 49ers, Cardinals, Rams, and 'Hawks are a combined 10-0 in their own yards. For reference, the rest of the league is 37-30.
For years, we've always taken solace in the fact that Seattle is an incredibly tough place to play, feeling nigh-invincible in the fortress of SeaQwesturyLink Fieldium. Just split the road games and we'll be fine, we've told ourselves. Well, now it seems that Seattle's not the only team entitled to those feelings, and the wins that many assumed the 'Hawks would get at Arizona and St Louis became losses that have moved Seattle to the back of what has become a very rowdy bus.
I still consider the Niners to be the drivers of this hypothetical bus and while I'm still inclined to think that Arizona and St Louis will falter before the season's done, I didn't expect them to be anywhere near the 7-3 combined record they sport, either. There's no secret that the new bullies on the block are doing it with defense, and while most of the NFCW offenses are giant gooey casseroles of silliness (6th, 27th, 29th, and 31st in yards/game), the ferocity with which they play D has been enough to overcome it. And it's not like these are numbers built upon the shriveled meat of the league's sick and old, either; in games against presumed offensive mavens like the Patriots, Packers, Cowboys, Panthers, and Eagles, the NFC Best is 6-0, holding those teams and all of their Pro-Bowlers to just 12.8 points per game.
As exciting as a 3-2 start is, remember that the Seahawks' road to the postseason is still a difficult and obstacle-laden one. As the only 0-2 squad in the division, the remaining four games against the SF, STL, and AZ are paramount, as Seattle is currently losing just about every available tie-breaker. With that in mind, let's take a look at how each team in our once-overlooked sector of the NFL has gotten to where they're at.
San Francisco 49ers (#1 Overall DVOA)
I know a lot of us expected some regression from the reigning divisional champs, but they've yet to show any of it. Their defense (#1 in scoring, #2 in YPG, #2 vs run, #7 vs pass, #10 in takeaways, #4 in DVOA) has been every bit as good as it was last year and their offense has taken a big step forward, improving from 26th in YPG last year to 5th through five games in 2012. Helmed by the highest-rated QB in the game, Harbaugh's crew is scoring 29.8/game, ranking 1st (by a country mile) in rush yards and holding the 3rd best Offensive DVOA in the league.
This team is for real for real, and while it's true that their four wins have come against teams with losing records, they've won those games by an average score of 34-11 and their only loss came on the road to what appears to be a very good Vikings team (4-1). With Vernon Davis playing like the best tight end in the world and Frank Gore going used-car salesman on his odometer, the offense is forcing opponents' game plans to get abandoned like movie warehouses.
This is still the 49ers' division to lose, but it's certain that their path to the NFCW crown won't be as smooth and gilded as it was last year.
Arizona Cardinals (#14 Overall DVOA)
For a team with no running backs and the Jabroni Circus at quarterback, this team has been playing pretty damn well. The Cards' journey to 4-1 has been a little less dominant than the Niners' has, but it's not all smoke and mirrors, either. Like every other team in this division, Arizona relies on their defense to control the game and shorten the field for the O. For their part, the defense has logged a pretty impressive resume, holding opponents to 15.6 points per game and ranking well across the board (#5 in scoring, #11 in YPG, #14 vs run, #18 vs pass, #5 in takeaways, #7 in DVOA). AZ's defense is predicated on up-front mayhem, generating relentless pressure on the interior line and allowing their advantageous secondary t pounce on passes that have to come out quicker than most offensive coordinators would like.
Now, the Cardinals' offense has been doing their best to make the defense work for everything, ranking second to last in yards/game and 27th in Offensive DVOA. Despite above-expected performance from their QBs (oh hey there, Kevin Kolb), this is still a team that is four yards, a missed field goal, and an overtime away from being 1-4. The relative impotence from Ken Whisenhunt's offensive unit is the main reason I expect Arizona's record to level out some, but there's no erasing the four wins from their ledger. The Week 14 game in the Emerald City will be paramount to the playoff aspirations of both teams involved.
St Louis Rams (#13 Overall DVOA)
The Rams are the only team that can claim a 2-0 divisional mark and there's no denying the leg up that gives them. Continuing with the defense-first approach, the influence of new head coach Jeff Fisher (and the totally unmentioned blessing of not having the savagely over-rated Gregg Williams as their defensive coordinator) has turned around a unit that ranked 31st in Defensive DVOA in 2011. Through five games, the Rams D has shown some horns (see what I did there?), catapulting into the top ten. Currently sitting 8th in Defensive DVOA, St Louis ranks 9th in points allowed, 14th in YPG allowed, 18th against the run, 12th against the pass, and 12th in takeaways.
Like Seattle and Arizona, St Louis' offense has been the beneficiary of their better half. It's not often you see a team with a winning record sport the 28th best offense (by DVOA), but they've taken advantage of consistently good field position and a tremendous amount of credit has to go to rookie kicking wunderkind Greg Zuerlein, who has converted all 13 of his field goal attempts, including all four of his 50+ kicks. The Rams have only mustered seven touchdowns in five games, but have Houdini'd that into a respectable 19.2 PPG. I really don't expect the Rams to stick around in this race until season's end, but the rest of the division has learned that St Louis is more than just a speedbump.
Seattle Seahawks (#10 Overall DVOA)
About a third of the way through the 2012 campaign, the team we obsess over has developed a defense the case for whom can be made as the best in the league. In fact, Kenneth made that case right HERE, so I suggest you go read that, if you haven't already for some reason. You've all seen how the 'Hawks D has done it so far. One touchdown allowed to Arizona in the opener, one to Dallas, one to Green Bay, and none to either St Louis or Carolina (yes, I know those teams scored a TD each, but they didn't come against the defense). Look at that list: offenses headed by Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, and Cam Newton have amassed just three (!) total TDs against the Legion of Boom. Welcome to Hell, Brady.
You want rankings? I've got rankings -- Gus Bradley's guys are #2 in scoring defense, #1 in YPG allowed, #3 against the run, #5 vs the pass, #17 in takeaways, and #3 in DVOA. These are staggering numbers. If you're not staggered, you're either comatose or leaning against something. This defense is everything we've been hoping it can be, and that's without them forcing many turnovers. If the 'Hawks are able to start taking the ball out of the opponent's hands as well as continuing their five-week strangulation, we may be looking at the best defense in team history and one of the best in recent league history.
I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about the offense here -- there will be plenty of that, including, I'm sure, a number of QB-related discussions/arguments in the comments section -- but suffice it to say that it needs to get better. There are bright spots: Marshawn Lynch is earning every penny of his new contract, the O-line is slowly coagulating, and Russell Wilson seems to be getting more comfortable with each new week. Still, aside from Lynch, nothing about Seattle's offense is anything that would scare an opposing defense, meaning the 'Hawks D will likely have to continue walking the tightrope in order for the team to make the playoffs.
To put numbers to the assertion that the Seahawks offense is almost as bad as the defense is good, the 'Hawks rank 28th in scoring, 27th in YPG, 31st in passing YPG, and 20th in turnovers committed. There is a long way to go before this offense can legitimately threaten a team like San Francisco.
Unfortunately, Seattle has started 0-2 in the division and that's a bigger deal than most of us realize. In the fairly likely even that Seattle will be relying on tiebreakers to emerge from this closely-bunched group, losing the first two divisional games has placed them squarely behind the eight-ball*.
*Is this a billiards reference or a drug reference? I'm not very street smart. Or pool smart.
A playoff run is still very, very plausible for Seattle, but the days of slightly-above-average performance being adequate to win this division are long gone. I anticipate that the 'hawks offense will improve, and I don't think the defense will regress much, if at all, but it's worth noting that fans of every other team in our division is thinking the exact same things about their guys, too.
In four days, the New England Patriots will try to become the first team to win a road game against the NFC West. That's a real statement, and one that would've seemed completely absurd five weeks ago. Then again, so does the idea of an NFC West with a .786 OOD winning percentage. It's a new age that we're entering, and the next three months are gonna show us if the Seahawks have the mettle to hold their blade in this new, hot fire. If they can, they'll be wielding a formidable weapon come playoff time.