NFC West: From worst to first


The Seahawks elicited laughs in 2010 when they won the NFC West with a 7-9 record. Sunday, they can wrap up the title in what has become the best division in the NFL with a victory over the St. Louis Rams.

When the Seahawks and Rams met in their regular-season finale in 2010, it was for the NFC West title.

The winner of that Jan. 2 game at CenturyLink Field would advance to the playoffs, with a 7-9 record and the guffaws and snickers that went with being the first team to win a division with a losing record. But it was a better fate than what awaited the loser.

Oh how the NFC West has changed.

Sunday, the 12-3 Seahawks can again clinch the division title with a victory over the Rams in their regular-season finale at CenturyLink Field; or a loss by the 11-4 49ers to the 10-5 Cardinals in Arizona.

And winning this division in this season would indeed be an accomplishment, rather than an embarrassment.

“It’s come a tremendous distance from having to put up with the kind of yucks about being 7-9 and winning the division and, you know, who’s laughing now?” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.

Not the opponents who have faced the Seahawks, 49ers, Cardinals and Rams this season. And definitely not the other three teams in the division that have been chasing the Seahawks all season after they started 4-0 and 11-1.

“It’s a pretty tough division now and the coaches have come through and everybody has done well,” Carroll said recently.

In only his fourth season, Carroll is the dean of NFC West coaches. Jim Harbaugh joined the 49ers in 2011 and led them to back-to-back division titles. Jeff Fisher came to the Rams in 2012 and has them on the verge of finishing .500 for the first time since 2006. Bruce Arians was named the Cardinals coach this year and has directed them to more victories than any of the other six first-year coaches in the league.

“That takes all phases – the acquisition of the personnel and then the style, and there’s also kind of an attitude about our division, too; a very physical and tough and kind of pride to see that change,” Carroll said. “It’s been kind of fun to watch it.”

All four teams have followed the same pattern. They run the ball on offense, to not only setup the play-action passing game but also underline the physical style of play that begins on defense and continues on special teams. Only the Buffalo Bills have run the ball more (511 times) than the 49ers (482). And only the Bills and 49ers have run it more than the Seahawks (473). And the Rams (408) and Cardinals (400) also are among teams with at least 400 rushing attempts.

And boy is the tempo in this division set by the defenses.

The Seahawks rank No. 1 in average yards (281.3) and average passing yards (173.8) allowed and also lead the league in turnovers (37), interceptions (26) and opposing QB passer rating (63.3). They’re No. 2 in points allowed (222), one point behind the Carolina Panthers. The Cardinals lead the league in average rushing yards allowed (84.5) and the Rams share the lead in forced fumbles (15). The 49ers? They rank among the Top 10 in seven key defensive categories (see chart).

And this division also features the NFL leaders in interceptions – Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, with eight; and sacks – Rams end Robert Quinn, with 18.

Not surprisingly, the division also includes three of the five teams in the conference with double-digit victories heading into the final Sunday of the regular season; already has two of the three teams that have clinched playoff spots – the Seahawks and 49ers, along with the Panthers; and could add a third if things fall right for the Cardinals on Sunday.

“The things that they have in common are that they all rush the passer; they have really good linebackers; and a good secondary that can cover and run,” Fisher said this week during a conference-call interview. “I guess what happens is that when it was lean, they took advantage and drafted well with the high picks.

“Now it’s become a challenge for everybody.”

Great point. The Seahawks were 5-11 in 2009, but added All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft; not to mention Pro Bowl strong safety Kam Chancellor in the fifth. After winning the division with that 7-9 record in 2010, the 2011 NFL Draft delivered linebackers K.J. Wright (fourth round) and Malcolm Smith (seventh), Sherman (fifth) and cornerback Byron Maxwell (sixth). In 2012, they added middle linebacker and leading tackler Bobby Wagner (second) and rush-end-turned-linebacker Bruce Irvin (first).

The other teams in the once-struggling division followed suit. The 49ers added Pro Bowl linebackers Aldon Smith (first round 2011) and NoVarro Bowman (third round 2010); the Cardinals added Pro Bowl corner Patrick Peterson (first round 2011), nose tackle Dan Williams (first round 2010) and linebacker Daryl Washington (second round 2010); and the Rams added Quinn (first round 2011) and tackle Michael Brockers and corners Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson (first three rounds in 2012).

“This division used to be the laughing stock of football,” Thomas said. “But now everybody that plays this division knows that this is the best division in football.”

And that it’s one built on defense.

NFC West: From worst to first.