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More ‘proof’ that the NFC West is the toughest division in the NFL

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In a sweeping proclamation that will come as a surprise to exactly no one, ESPN’s Dan Graziano (via ESPN+) recently decreed that the NFC West is the toughest division in the NFL. And, according to him, it’s really not even close.

ESPN’s proprietary Football Power Index (FPI) ratings were used as a starting point, but the rankings themselves are quite subjective. For example, the AFC West has the second-highest FPI score but is ranked 4th. That slight is for them to complain about though as our focus here is on the NFC West, the John Wick of NFL divisions.

Before sharing the entire write-up about the division, let’s look at the Seahawks-specific portion:

Seattle is Seattle — always in contention and armed with the most accomplished coach and quarterback of any team in the division.

I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but that made me smile - especially the “Seattle is Seattle” part.

Here is the rest of the NFC West’s write-up:

It wasn’t particularly close for the top spot. The expected quarterback upgrade from Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford makes the Rams a narrow favorite, but the 49ers are just two seasons removed from an NFC title and can’t possibly suffer the same lousy injury luck as they did last year. Seattle is Seattle — always in contention and armed with the most accomplished coach and quarterback of any team in the division. And the Cardinals, don’t forget, were 6-3 and a strong playoff contender last season following DeAndre Hopkins’ ludicrous game-winning Hail Mary catch against the Bills. I doubt many people are picking them to win this division, but it wouldn’t be the most stunning upset in league history if they did.

There are only nine teams with an FPI rating over 2.0, and the NFC West has three of them. The new postseason format, which adds an additional wild-card team per conference, makes it possible for a division to send all four of its teams to the playoffs. As long as they don’t beat up one another too badly and they make hay in their non-divisional matchups, the NFC West quartet could become the first to pull off that feat.

As good as that sounds, it’s about to get even better.

Here are his rankings:

  1. NFC West (combined FPI rating of 7.3)
  2. AFC North (3.6)
  3. AFC East (2.4)
  4. AFC West (4.0)
  5. NFC South (2.5)
  6. NFC North (minus-3.2)
  7. NFC East (minus-5.8)
  8. AFC South (minus-10.6)

Mr. Graziano started his write-up about the NFC West by saying, “It wasn’t particularly close for the top spot.” No kidding. 2x the #2 division; 3x the #3 division; only one division that wasn’t “lapped.” That’s some serious domination, FPI-wise.

However, it’s what Graziano said at the end of his NFC West write-up that I want to draw attention to; the part where he said that the NFC West could be the first division in league history to field 4 playoff teams if each team can “make hay in their non-divisional matchups”.

This season, not counting divisional games, the NFC West’s 8 “common” opponents are the teams from the NFC North and AFC South. Graziano ranked those divisions #6 and #8, respectively. More to the point though, the NFC North and AFC South are 2 of the 3 divisions with negative FPI scores.

Digging into that a little bit more, here are the FPI scores of the 8 teams in those divisions, listed in order of score:

That’s one top-10 team, 4 middle-of-the-pack teams, and 3 of the bottom 4 teams. Personally, I could see every team in the NFC West going 6-2 or better against those 8 teams ... and 6-2 is a lot of hay (to borrow Graziano’s terminology).

That said, all 4 NFC West teams making the playoffs seems like a stretch goal. Three seems reasonable though.

Go ‘Hawks et al. (except when playing us, of course).