The cauldron of competition that is the NFC West produced the Super Bowl winner last season, and, at least from an internal perspective, the Rams’ biggest obstacle to repeating may be their age, given that their best players on both sides of the ball (quarterback Matthew Stafford, 34, and defensive lineman Aaron Donald, 32) are on the wrong side of 30.
But Los Angeles, as it has shown, is resilient as well as talented. Last year the Rams withstood a devastating midseason injury to receiver Robert Woods and the mid–Super Bowl loss of his replacement, Odell Beckham Jr. They had to wrangle safety Eric Weddle out of retirement for the playoffs. But led by coach Sean McVay, they made it work.
This offseason, L.A. brought in some fresh, if not necessarily young, reinforcements. It poached Bobby Wagner, 32, a six-time All-Pro at linebacker, from the Seahawks, and signed former Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson, a 29-year-old contested-catch specialist who could thrive with Stafford, as Kenny Golladay did in Detroit. With Cooper Kupp frequently drawing double coverage, Robinson could feast now that he’s a complementary receiver for the first time in his career.
The Rams’ biggest external obstacle is the 49ers, who had beaten them six straight times until L.A. won the NFC title game, 20–17. San Francisco was once again Super Bowl–caliber on the defensive side of the ball last year, with DeMeco Ryans unveiling a more aggressive scheme in his first year as coordinator. This year’s addition of former Chiefs cover artist Charvarius Ward should solidify the cornerback group, a must given Ryans’s tendency to blitz in big moments. On offense the Niners’ unique rushing attack, keyed by all-world left tackle Trent Williams, and a bevy of catch-and-run receivers, should have Kyle Shanahan’s scheme humming—but the wild card is the quarterback. Trey Lance’s big arm and mobility are prototypical for the modern NFL, and the reason that the Niners traded up to take him third in the 2021 draft. But is Shanahan ready to put his trust—and his realistic Super Bowl hopes—in the hands of the 22-year-old. Jimmy Garoppolo, who was part of two deep postseason runs with the Niners, is waiting in the wings.
The Cardinals, despite making the playoffs last season, seem shaky. Arizona flew out to a 7–0 start in 2021 but was playing with an efficiency that it couldn’t sustain. After a 4–6 finish, it looked overmatched in a 34–11 wild-card loss to the Rams. In an offense that uses the most four-receiver sets in the NFL, it’s a particular problem that All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins will be serving a six-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, while Christian Kirk left for Jacksonville, with Marquise Brown the only notable addition to the receiving corps. And how will a defense that lost its most important player, edge rusher Chandler Jones, to free agency recapture its early-season dominance?
For almost a decade, the Seahawks could bank on the trio of coach Pete Carroll, quarterback Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner to keep them in contention. Now only 71-year-old Carroll remains. Veteran Geno Smith will get the first crack at replacing Wilson under center, while on defense, Seattle will be lining up a number of unproven and mismatched parts where the Legion of Boom crews smothered opponents. Especially in this division, the going for the Seahawks will be awfully tough.
SI’S PROJECTED STANDINGS
1. San Francisco 49ers: 12–5
Best Case: All the hand-wringing over Lance’s inexperience seems silly in retrospect. His ability to stress defenses downfield and his threat to run open up new possibilities for the offense. With a defense that’s more than stout enough, the 49ers make it to the Super Bowl.
Worst Case: Lance struggles at times, and Shanahan decides he can’t afford to be patient, putting his young prodigy back on the bench. Shanahan’s system creates enough offense to get back to the postseason, but the Niners can’t score points like the other NFC bluebloods.
2. Los Angeles Rams: 11–6
Best Case: Things pick up right where they left off—except the Rams are healthier across the board and stay that way in 2022. Kupp and Robinson each top 1,000 yards and 10 TDs, Donald is still Donald and the Rams throw another February parade in Los Angeles.
Worst Case: They call it a Super Bowl hangover, but it’s more a combination of age, injuries and signs of burnout on the coaching staff. The Rams turn it on just enough in December to sneak into the playoffs as a wild card but go out with a one-and-done whimper.
3. Arizona Cardinals: 9–8
Best Case: Kliff Kingsbury updates his offense with some Shanahan-like concepts, helping Kyler Murray catch opponents off guard early. Hopkins’s midseason return gives the team another shot in the arm, as the Cards finally finish strong en route to a surprise division title.
Worst Case: The Air Raid–style offense continues to look stale, especially with a dearth of quality receivers. The defense is unremarkable without Jones. Murray unfollows the team’s social media accounts on Thanksgiving, though in a way it’s a welcome distraction from the subpar jokes about the team’s ill-fated “homework clause,” since removed from Murray’s contract.
4. Seattle Seahawks: 3–14
Best Case: Carroll built this program around competition, and the Seahawks take on a scrappy personality as they did in his early years in Seattle. There’s no postseason berth, but they avoid 10 losses and the franchise is reinvigorated heading into 2023.
Worst Case: The overmatched Seahawks don’t just lose often; they lose ugly. The Island of Misfit Toys that makes up the defensive roster allows the most points in the NFL. Carroll, after 12 seasons in Seattle, won’t be back to decide on the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft.
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