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Rams return to Super Bowl helps NFC West flex conference muscles once again

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NFC Championship - Los Angeles Rams v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

They can’t fully celebrate quite yet, but the Rams are one win away from their first Super Bowl championship since 1999, a two-decades long wait that few expected to take this long considering the dominant play of Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace and many others during that historic season. In the 17 seasons since their last conference championship, the Rams have endured:

  • A 12-year playoff drought
  • An NFL-record 65 losses over a five-year span
  • A move from St. Louis back to Los Angeles
  • Jeff Fisher
  • Jason Smith, Sam Bradford, Tavon Austin, and Greg Robinson
  • Five seasons of 12 or more losses

That trend finally turned around after the risky move to trade up for Jared Goff (which came four years after trading down with Washington when they wanted Robert Griffin III, a move that yielded the Rams virtually nothing in return) and the acquisition of Sean McVay as the football phenom who has set trends in motion league-wide that could end up being spread and shared for years and years.

Two seasons after finishing 4-12 as the lowest scoring team in the NFL, LA has ranked first and second in scoring over the last two years and they’re now one win away from a championship. They’re setup to be a powerhouse in the division, the conference, and the league for potentially many years to come. While the Rams often acted as the doormat, or at least a cozy 7-9 foyer for the rest of the NFC West for most of the last two decades, their NFC West rivals have also enjoyed varying levels of success. That seems likely to continue as well, as the division has possibly been the most consistently successful over the last 10 years and is poised to continue that run for the foreseeable future.

Los Angeles winning the NFC on Sunday now makes it that four of the last seven conference winners have come from their division: the Seattle Seahawks in 2013 and 2014, and the San Francisco 49ers in 2012. As far as NFC Championship games go, you have the 49ers in 2011, 2012, and 2013, the Seahawks in 2013 and 2014, and the Arizona Cardinals in 2015.

That means that along with the Rams, there have been seven NFC West teams in the NFC Championship game over the last eight years.

Compare that to the other divisions:

Since 2011, the NFC East has sent two teams (Eagles, Giants), the NFC North has sent three (Packers twice, Vikings), and the NFC South has sent four (Falcons twice, Panthers, Saints). Compare that to three trips for San Francisco alone, two for Seattle, and one each for Arizona and Los Angeles.

On the flipside to the argument that the NFC West is “the best division right now” is of course that the Cardinals and 49ers are picking first and second in the draft this year after flopping to perhaps the two worst teams in football. However, even those teams have something to hope for in the next two to three years.

San Francisco is going into year three of the Kyle Shanahan-John Lynch movement and are hoping that the return of Jimmy Garoppolo gives them the potent offense that Shanahan envisioned or pitched when he signed there. The 49ers also still have a ton of money to spend in free agency and good young players like DeForest Buckner. Mike McGlinchey, and the not-so-young but still effective Richard Sherman.

The Niners and Cardinals are virtually tied for most effective cap space in the NFC. Arizona has a new head coach/philosophy with Kliff Kingsbury and a soon-to-be 22-year-old Josh Rosen at quarterback. They also hold the most power in a draft that may be more loaded on defensive talent than any we’ve seen in years. So loaded in fact that the Cardinals could probably trade down if a team falls in love with a quarterback and still land an elite defensive player while adding more valuable draft picks.

Arizona had the worst offense in the NFL this year, but so did the Rams two years ago.

Of course, that just leaves the Seahawks, who are coming off of a 10-6 season and a seventh trip to the postseason in nine years under Pete Carroll. They’ve got a perennial MVP candidate in Russell Wilson, a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Bobby Wagner, and the third-most cap space in the conference. I expect Seattle to use most of that money to retain their own guys (Frank Clark the highest priority among them) but they could be one offensive lineman and one defensive lineman away from getting back to the Super Bowl. (This is just an opinion I have and it’s not one I’d be willing to stake much on, just a thought.)

Whether it’s the Rams this year or the Seahawks in 2013, the NFC West has produced championship teams despite their often being two to three championship-caliber teams within the division at any given time. LA’s opponent, the New England Patriots, can’t say the same.

In the 19 seasons since their first Super Bowl win, which as you know happened against the Rams and ultimately became their last good year until McVay arrived, the Patriots have seen the Buffalo Bills make the playoffs just once, the Miami Dolphins go three times, and the New York Jets make it six times; the Bills and Dolphins have ZERO playoff wins in that time, while the Jets have six, but none since 2010.

The AFC North has produced the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, but the Cincinnati Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990 and the Cleveland Browns haven’t done that since 1994 and haven’t appeared in the postseason since 2002.

The AFC South notoriously produced a 14 or 15-loss team for several years, including stretches of seasons by the Jacksonville Jaguars that rivaled those of the Rams. The Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, and Houston Texans have no championships and their only Super Bowl appearance at all was the Titans ‘99 loss to those Rams. The Indianapolis Colts have the lone two titles of those four franchises, including just one in the Peyton Manning era.

The Denver Broncos brought a Super Bowl title to the AFC West in 2015, but the disappointments continue for the Kansas City Chiefs, LA Chargers, and Oakland-soon-to-be-Vegas Raiders.

Unless you count the Patriots just completely dominating the AFC over the last 18 years (winning the conference in half of those seasons), no division has been as consistently-involved in the Super Bowl than the NFC West. Going back to 2005, you have the Seahawks also making the Super Bowl that season, and the Arizona Cardinals giving the Steelers a run in 2008. On the flipside, the NFC East has won the Super Bowl in 2007, 2011, and 2017, which has meant more actual wins than the NFC West, since the Seahawks are still the only team in the division to actually close it out.

That could change in two weeks for the Rams, but either way, the division seems ready to continue the “arms race” in 2019, it’s just a matter of which team those arms belong to. You never know who could get next.