SEATTLE – When Pete Carroll began poring over film of the Tennessee Titans’ season-opening 38-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, he found himself mesmerized by the team that was having its way with the Titans.
“I was really attracted by Arizona’s play,” Carroll said. “They were spectacular. On offense, they were all over the place and did a million different things. Defensively, they created so many big plays right from the beginning.”
It’s not too early to brace yourself: By all indications, the NFC West is going to be an absolute powerhouse in 2021, four deep with quality teams. Yeah, we already sensed that, but the results of Week 1 forcefully drove home the point that whichever team runs the gantlet to win this division will have earned every bit of it.
All four teams had impressive wins, three of them on the road. Each team covered the spread. Each team featured brilliant quarterback play – even by the 49ers’ beleaguered Jimmy Garoppolo. The average points scored by the NFC West teams (35.3) was the highest of any division. The average of 19 points allowed was the lowest. The average margin of victory (16.3) was the greatest. The NFC West nearly doubled the score of its rivals, 141-76.
In pursuit of the division title – which went to Seattle last year, the 49ers in 2019, and the Rams in 2018 – the margin for error will be minuscule, adding a level of gravity to every game. That includes Sunday’s home opener for the Seahawks against a Tennessee team that was one win from the Super Bowl two years ago and AFC South champs last year. The Titans will be aiming to show they weren’t as bad as the Cardinals made them look.
The Seahawks could hardly have been more impressive last week, kicking off the season with a dominant 28-16 road win over the Indianapolis Colts. Russell Wilson threw four touchdown passes to highlight a diverse and explosive offense, and the defense pressured Colts QB Carson Wentz throughout the game.
Yet at least two other teams could argue plausibly that they, not the Seahawks, had the best first-week showing from the NFC West.
As mentioned, the Cardinals were dazzling in their three-touchdown-plus win over Tennessee. Kyler Murray threw for four TDs and ran for another. Defensive end Chandler Jones was, in Carroll’s words, “unstoppable,” with five sacks, six quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and four tackles for losses.
The Cardinals, who haven’t had a winning season since 2015 (when they took their turn as division champs), were supposed to be the weak links of the NFC West. Yet they jumped ahead 17-0, outgained Tennessee 416-248 and held the formidable Derrick Henry to 58 yards on 17 carries. Underestimate the Cardinals at your own risk.
The Rams, meanwhile, showed in a 34-14 romp over the Bears that newly acquired Matt Stafford might be the catalyst they hoped for when they traded Jared Goff. Stafford threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns, launching a 67-yard TD pass on his second attempt as a Ram. His quarterback rating was a nearly perfect 156.1 (slightly better than Wilson’s 152.3); by comparison, in 12 years and 165 games with Detroit, Stafford’s highest passer rating was 148.6.
The only NFC West team that had to sweat, and just barely, was the 49ers, who held off Detroit 41-33. But that was after building a 38-10 lead midway through the third quarter. The Lions outscored them 23-3 the rest of the way in what could be termed garbage time, as the 49ers went into prevent mode. The 49ers finished with 442 yards of total offense – more than the Cardinals (416), Rams (386) and Seahawks (381). Garoppolo threw for 314 yards, and rookie Trey Lance, the QB heir apparent, was integrated into the game long enough to throw a touchdown pass.
The downside for the 49ers was a season-ending knee injury to cornerback Jason Verrett, exacerbating what was already a position of concern (sound familiar?) and a knee injury to leading rusher Raheem Mostert that also is season-ending.
Health may well turn out to be the deciding factor in determining who emerges at the top of the division. The division games, starting Week 4 (Seattle at San Francisco, Arizona at Los Angeles) will be monumental in all their permutations and combinations.
To which Carroll says: “Bring it on.”
“Oh yeah, it’s going to be really hard,” he said. “The division started on fire – and good. They have to play us, and we have to play them. It’s going to make all of us better. The team that comes out and wins this division is going to be ready for whatever. We’ll be ready, so it’s good for us.”
The NFC West has the best overall record of any division over the past five years. Maybe some of those early games will prove to be mirages. But if not, the Seahawks will have to play at an extraordinary high level to come out alive.