Posted 07/25/2011 at 04:18 PM
With the NFL lockout negotiations almost wrapped up it is time to start dissecting the upcoming season. Many personnel moves will be coming in the next week but the schedules are set in stone. Here is a look at the schedules for the NFC West teams, which many expect to again be the weakest division in football. The schedules have not been created equally and those advantages and disadvantages will shape the final standings.
Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals had an ugly 2010 season with a 5-11 record while being out-scored by 145 points. Arizona went 1-7 on the road and allowed over 27 points per game, just two years removed from the Super Bowl. Even with the ugly numbers the Cardinals finished only two games back in the division standings and with a likely QB acquisition the Cardinals can quickly become a threat to win the division again. The NFC West has to play the AFC North and the NFC East teams so all four teams in this division will face difficult schedules and 7-9 could certainly be enough to earn the playoff spot again this year. Arizona benefits from drawing Carolina and Minnesota, possibly two of the weakest teams in the NFC which should provide a few more opportunities for wins. The Cardinals also have a very favorable closing schedule with four of the final five games at home and each of the last seven opponents being teams that had losing records in 2010. A midseason stretch with tough games from week 7 to week 12 with four road games in five weeks will be difficult but overall the Cardinals have to be pleased with the slate ahead and this looks like a team that could be poised for a great turnaround season should they make a few positive additions in the upcoming free agency and trade rush.
Seattle Seahawks: With a 7-9 record the Seahawks certainly entered the playoffs as a questioned squad and that mentality may have helped Seattle pull off a stunning upset over New Orleans. The Seahawks were crushed in Chicago the following week but it was a promising year to build on for Coach Pete Carroll. Despite only being marginally superior to the other teams in this division last year, the Seahawks will draw a first place schedule, meaning games with Chicago and Atlanta. Seattle has to play tough road games with Pittsburgh, New York, and Dallas and as usual there will be a lot of miles traveled. Seattle was only 2-6 in road games last season and few of the out of division games look winnable. The first five weeks of the season will likely make or break the Seahawks as they will play three of five on the road with two east coast trips and three of the five games will be against teams that won at least ten games last season. The Seahawks have a week 6 bye week and it could also be a long second half of the season. Overall Seattleís schedule will make it difficult to deliver a winning season but another similar 7-9 year would be possible and that may just be enough in the NFC West.
San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers were the overwhelming favorites in the NFC West last season but a 0-5 start derailed any of those possibilities. The 49ers were more competitive than its 6-10 record suggests so this is another team that could show great improvement. It will be a transition season however, as the only team in the division with a coaching change and the prolonged lockout will likely hurt transition teams harder. San Francisco has the schedule to get off to a much better start this season and the third place draw will bring in a few more favorable match-ups. Only two of the first eight games will be against teams that had winning records in 2010 but the 49ers will face a difficult closing slate in the final six weeks. San Francisco will have to play Baltimore and Pittsburgh in that span of six weeks as well as all three division road games in the final four games of the season. Overall the road schedule will be challenging especially with all five out of division road games in the Eastern Time zone. It will be tough for San Francisco to make a big move this season but being just a game out last season means that only modest improvement could lead to a division title. The 49ers are a team to keep an eye on but ultimately Arizona and Seattle appear to have more favorable schedules.
St. Louis Rams: The Rams were a great story last season behind rookie Sam Bradford and while it would be great to see this team take another step forward the 2011 schedule is daunting. St. Louis is going to have a very tough time getting off to a good start this season as five of the fist seven games are against teams that had winning records in 2010. The Rams will play all four NFC East teams in the first six games of the season with tough games with Baltimore and Green Bay mixed in between and a game with the Saints in week 8 for good measure. The second place finish last year means the Rams are the only team in the NFC West that has to play the Super Bowl champions of the last two years. The second half of the season features much more manageable opposition but there are three sets of back-to-back road games on the schedule this year including back-to-back division games at San Francisco and at Seattle late in the season and then a week 16 trip to Pittsburgh that will likely feature cold weather. While the Rams have a nice team in place and appear to be heading in the right direction, 2011 looks like it will be a bump in that road as 1-6 looks to be the most likely scenario through the opening gauntlet. The Rams will likely have a worse record in 2011 than in 2010 even though they probably will be a better team.