NFC West Preview
June 12, 2014
By Joe Nelson
The NFL draft gets all the attention in the spring but the recent release of the 2014 schedule can be a more telling factor in how a team will fare next season. Take a look at the four teams in the NFC West in this schedule preview. The West was the toughest division in the NFL last season with the four teams going 42-22 combined and the division producing both NFC finalists. The schedules will be challenging across the board in 2014 for the West and it seems inevitable that at least one of the teams in this division will fall from last season’s pace.
Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals went from 5-11 to 10-6 and just missing the playoffs last season led by Bruce Arians in his first season in Glendale and the acquisition of veteran quarterback Carson Palmer. Arizona was +55 in point differential last season with five wins by seven or fewer points but the defense was fierce, led by one of the best run stopping units in the NFL. The Cardinals went just 2-4 in division games and improving that mark will be the key for the Cardinals moving up in this stacked division. Arizona will be the rare 10-win team getting a third place schedule, which means drawing Atlanta and Detroit as the West will play all four NFC East teams. The division also draws a very tough AFC West with three of those four opponents being 2013 playoff teams as overall the division will feature challenging schedules. Arizona has to play eight games against 2013 playoff teams and like every team in this division, the Cardinals will face over 10,000 travel miles while facing a top eight schedule in terms of 2013 win percentage. By a small margin, Arizona has the weakest schedule in the NFC West in terms of 2013 win percentage and Arizona will get five of the eight games against 2013 playoff teams at home.
Arizona will need to carry over its late season momentum from last year into the start of the season as the schedule is a bit front-loaded and back-loaded for the Cardinals with what appear to be the best opportunities in the middle of the season. Home games with San Diego and San Francisco early in the season will be critical and the Cardinals will only face one winning team from 2013 in the first four road games, though that game is against the AFC champion Broncos. Arizona also has home games with Washington, St. Louis, and Detroit in the middle of the season before a tough final month slate. The Cardinals play division foes in each of the final three weeks with two of those three games on the road. Arizona plays both games with Seattle in the final six weeks of the season while also playing four of the final six overall on the road with some substantial travel. With an early Week 4 bye, the late season tough schedule and taxing travel could take a toll on the Cardinals. Arizona is not likely to fall off the map in 2014, but a small step back seems possible unless they can turn things around in the division games.
Arizona Cardinals 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .547 (8/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 8 (five home, three away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 10,852
Back-to-Back road game sets: 1
Primetime Games: 3 (1 Thursday Night, 1 Sunday Night, 1 Monday Night
San Francisco 49ers: With three consecutive NFC championship appearances, the 49ers have certainly established themselves as one of the top teams in the NFL and a team that is a Super Bowl threat every season. San Francisco struggled to run the ball effectively last season, but despite an ugly 1-2 start to the season, the 49ers rallied to win 11 of the last 13 games of the regular season and took Seattle down to the wire in the NFC championship after beating Green Bay and Carolina in the playoffs. Last season, San Francisco had to face a first place schedule and this season, the 49ers get a second place draw, which means avoiding Green Bay but having to play New Orleans. San Francisco has tough road games at Dallas, at Denver, and at New Orleans outside of the already tough division road games, but the 49ers will play the fewest 2013 playoff teams in the division with just seven of those games, including only three on the road. The 49ers face substantial travel this season and will play three separate sets of back-to-back road games while also getting three short week games with the primetime schedule. San Francisco will play Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday night games on the season.
Unlike the rest of the division, the 49ers draw a more favorable Week 8 bye that should provide a more centrally placed break. The biggest current rivalry in the league will be saved for late in the season as the games with Seattle are in Weeks 13 and 15 and the game in Seattle comes in a second straight road game, though the previous road game is just in Oakland. San Francisco will have an adjustment this season with the new stadium in Santa Clara and the early season home games are challenging with Chicago, Philadelphia, and Kansas City coming into town in the first five weeks. San Francisco looks like an elite team again, but this is a very tough schedule and there is little margin for error in this division with four legitimate playoff contenders.
San Francisco 49ers 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .563 (4/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 7 (four home, three away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 11,969
Back-to-Back road game sets: 3
Primetime Games: 5 (1 Thursday Night, 1 Saturday Night, 2 Sunday Night, 1 Monday Night)
Seattle Seahawks: The Super Bowl champions were mostly dominant last season finishing with a 13-3 record and a point differential of +186. Seattle has featured one of the best defenses in the NFL and the offense was very impressive at times last season, though not with the same consistency as the defense. Seattle benefitted from a weaker schedule last season with a second place draw and the Seahawks were able to coast late in the season after an 11-1 start, eventually dropping two games late in the season but still earning the top seed in the NFC. Seattle won twice in overtime last season and had three other wins by seven or fewer points and trading the AFC South for the AFC West will upgrade the challenge in 2014. Seattle also draws Carolina and Green Bay in the first place draw and Seattle will play eight games in 2014 against 2013 playoff teams. Seattle has incredibly long travel this season going over 16,000 miles for eight road games, more miles than most of the teams heading to London this season will face. Three east coast games are ahead for the Seahawks, plus two Central Time games and Seattle has two sets of back-to-back road games with the second of the two games out east in both cases.
The Seahawks will need to avoid a Super Bowl hangover in September with a brutal opening trio of games with Green Bay, San Diego, and Denver in the first three weeks before an early Week 4 bye. The schedule softens a bit in October and early November but starting in mid-November, the Seahawks will play six straight games against teams that won at least 10 games in 2013 including both games with San Francisco and road games in Kansas City, Philadelphia, and Arizona. Seattle will close with division games in the final three weeks and this season the division race may still be up in the air in December with all four teams looking viable. Seattle did not actually have the best record in the division last season, going 4-2 while the 49ers went 5-1, so there is no margin for error and with the taxing travel schedule it would not be a surprise if the Seahawks slipped a game or two from last season despite still looking like a serious threat to repeat. Seattle has won six of the last 10 NFC West titles and if they win the division again in 2014, it will not likely be in convincing fashion.
Seattle Seahawks 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .561 (6/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 8 (five home, three away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 16,028
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 4 (2 Thursday Night, 1 Sunday Night, 1 Monday Night)
St. Louis Rams: This is a talented Rams team that has been building nicely in two seasons under Jeff Fisher and if St. Louis played in any other division, they might be considered one of the favorites. As it stands, St. Louis will have to try to move up in a division where they went 1-5 last season, while going 6-4 against the rest of the league. St. Louis was also just 2-6 on the road last season and the Rams were only -16 in point differential in a 7-9 campaign where they played with a back-up quarterback much of the way. While St. Louis was very competitive last season, they did not lose a lot of close games with only one defeat by fewer than seven points as this was an inconsistent team. The Rams also did not win close games with only one win decided by fewer than 10 points and an average margin of victory of more than 16 points in the seven wins. St. Louis should be a candidate to start the season strong with two games against teams that had losing records and with new coaching staffs this season in the first two weeks. A 2-0 start is paramount for the Rams this season if they hope to contend for a playoff spot. The Rams then host Dallas in Week 3 before an early Week 4 bye.
St. Louis will then embark on an absolutely brutal stretch of games in October and early November playing seven of eight games against 2013 playoff teams with the lone exception in that run being a game at Arizona who went 10-6 last season. That game comes in a third straight road game for the Rams as well. While the final game of the season for St. Louis is at Seattle, there are winnable games in Weeks 13-16 with three of those four games coming at home, but surviving the mid-season gauntlet will be a great challenge. St. Louis is talented enough to steal some of those games with upsets, but for a team that was incredibly inconsistent last season, it is not clear if the Rams are ready to take a step forward this season and the schedule is not doing the team any favors. Five of the eight road games for St. Louis are against 2013 playoff teams and despite being one of the most centrally located franchises in the league, the Rams have over 10,000 travel miles ahead. A lot of folks are buyers on the Rams this season for good reason but they will need to start strong and find a way to stay positive and fresh through a very tough slate to have a chance at the playoffs or a first division title since 2003.
St. Louis Rams 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .564 (3/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 8 (three home, five away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 10,575
Back-to-Back road game sets: 1 back-to-back-to-back
Primetime Games: 2 (1 Thursday Night, 1 Monday Night)
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