How the NFC West became the NFL’s best

Back when the Seattle Seahawks’ rebuild was in its early stages under head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider; back when Jeff Fisher was still in Tennessee, when Jim Harbaugh was the head coach at Stanford, and when Bruce Arians was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh; Seattle hosted St. Louis in a Week 17 game with a lot at stake.

It was win-or-go-home for both teams in that 2010 clash, and the victor would earn not only an NFC West title, but also the dubious distinction of being one of the worst playoff teams in NFL history.

Consider today’s game, and Week 17 in general, the NFC West coming full circle. Again the Seahawks will host the Rams in a big game to end the regular season, but this time Seattle is playing for the NFC’s No. 1 seed, while the Fisher-led Rams come to CenturyLink Field with the same 7-8 record they had in 2010, only this time the unusual feat at stake is being a .500 team stuck in last place, not a .500 division champion. In Arizona, meanwhile, the 10-5 Cardinals host the 11-4 San Francisco 49ers, and Arizona, in its first season under Arians, could very well end up missing the playoffs with an 11-5 season unless they get some help.

So to recap, three years after the Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7-9 record, a 10- or 11-win team in Arizona might not make the playoffs, and the 7- or 8-win Rams will finish in last place, by a considerable margin.

“It has come a tremendous distance,” Carroll said prior to his team’s game against Arizona. “To have to put up with kind of the yuks about being 7-9 and winning the division years ago, and you know, who’s laughing now? This is a pretty tough division right now. The coaches have come through and everybody has done it. 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; we’re very physical and tough, and I kind of proud to see that change. It’s been kind of fun to watch it.”

This division’s transformation from NFC Worst to NFC Best has been coming for a while now, particularly with Carroll’s Seahawks and Harbaugh’s 49ers both on the rise. But this year, with three double-digit win teams, an NFL-best 40-20 combined record, which is five games better than the next-best division (the AFC West), and two or three teams headed to the playoffs, it’s undisputable that the NFC West is now the NFL’s best division just three years after it was a punch line.

“This division used to be the laughingstock of football, but now everybody that plays this division knows that this is the best division in football,” said safety Earl Thomas, who was a rookie on that 2010 team. “From the Cardinals to the Rams to the 49ers it’s great competition. Every game is hard.”

And every game is tough in the NFC West not just because the teams are all talented, but because all four teams have physical, nasty defenses that make a Sunday in the NFC West feel like a heavyweight bout.

“This is why the division is what it is; we’re similar too,” Carroll said. “All four teams can all bring it on defense, and I think that’s why the reputation around the league has gone up so much is really what’s going on consistently with the defensive play.”

That the league’s best division is getting the job done largely with defense, and in the case of Seattle and San Francisco, with a strong running game, is also validating to a coach like Carroll, who has stuck to what some would call an old-school formula in a new-school era of inflated passing numbers and up-tempo offenses. Yes, teams like the Saints, Patriots and whoever Peyton Manning is playing for have shown that you can win by slinging the football, but what we’re seeing out west is that, even in today’s modern NFL, that old formula of stout defense and a strong running game can get the job done.

“I think it’s kind of cool that there is such a spread in the focus of what’s going on, because everybody would like to talk about speeding up the game and spreading it out and all of that, and there’s a lot of wins in this division right now,” Carroll said. “I guess you would say that it adds to the validity, in my mind, the formula that we go with, and it’s no different for Arizona, San Francisco, and the Rams right now.”

Of course “cool” might not be the word of choice for describing the NFC West if you’re unfortunate to be battling in the trenches in a divisional game.

“By cool you mean, it’s insanely difficult?” quipped Seahawks center Max Unger.

Cool, insanely difficult, whatever your choice of words, there is no debating that the NFC West has changed itself from butt of the joke to pain in the butt in the last three years.

Even worse for the rest of the NFL, that shouldn’t change anytime soon. The Seahawks and 49ers seem set up well for long-term success, while the Cardinals are a few key offensive additions from being a legitimate title contender. And the Rams, despite a somewhat disappointing record, are still going to finish at or near .500 with their starting quarterback on the sideline for much of the season. And the Rams have plenty of reinforcements on the way, including an extra first-round pick near the top of next year’s draft, thanks to the 2012 trade that sent the No. 2 pick to Washington, used to select Robert Griffin III.

“We’re the toughest division in the league,” said Seahawks linebacker O’Brien Schofield, who came into the league with Arizona in 2010. “Even the Rams, their record doesn’t reflect how good they are, but you turn the film on, and man, them boys can play. They’re a tough team. … When you can go 11-5 and not make the playoffs, that’s serious business. And with the rising stars, the young talent, I feel like you’re just going to see it get harder and harder and progress.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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