The NFC West should be the most competitive division in football for the 2021-22 NFL season. Even last year, the NFC West finished with the most wins in the conference, 36, and posted three teams with .500 records or better.

This year, the division should be even better. The San Francisco 49ers get back tons of players from injured reserve, including Jimmy Garroppolo and Nick Bosa. Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals will look to build on a season that started with promise last year, and also brought in veteran talent in the form of J.J. Watt and A.J. Green. The Los Angeles Rams may have made the boldest move, trading away Jared Goff for Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. And while the Seattle Seahawks didn’t make as significant moves as their rivals, Peter Carroll and Russell Wilson are still a threat year-in and year-out.

All four teams have loads of talent on both sides of the ball, and in a perfect world, all four could make the playoffs with three wildcard spots available in the conference. However, playing each other will cannibalize their records a bit, which could prevent all four teams from finishing with playoff-worthy records even though they may be better than teams in other divisions with superior records.

If only three NFC West teams make the playoffs, who will be the odd man out? Will the Seattle Seahawks repeat as division champions, or will another team step up to the plate this season? Can Matthew Stafford elevate the Rams offense to new heights, or was trading Goff unnecessary? Read on for my predictions for the most intriguing division in the NFL heading in to the 2021-22 season.

More Predictions

1. Seattle Seahawks (11-6)

Photo: Seahawks Wire/USA Today

The Seattle Seahawks may have not had a flashy offseason like the Los Angeles Rams or Arizona Cardinals, nor are they returning many key players from injury like the San Francisco 49ers. Even Seattle’s defense, long heralded for its stoutness, allowed the third-most points in the division last season (23.2 points per game.)

But the Seahawks have two things no other team in the NFC West or the NFL has: quarterback Russell Wilson and head coach Pete Carroll. To say this tandem has been successful is an understatement: the Seahawks have posted a 98-45-1 record since Wilson entered the league, and in nine seasons, have never posted a losing record. In those nine seasons, the Seahawks have won the division four times and made the playoffs eight times.

Of course, previous success doesn’t make anything guaranteed for the 2021-22 NFL season, but I see the Seahawks as the best team in the division once again. Seattle topped the NFC West last season with a 12-4 record, two games ahead of the Los Angeles Rams.

The Seahawks completed their evolution from a defense-first team to an offensive juggernaut in 2020, scoring the eighth-most points in the league and the fourth-most in the NFC. While the receiving corps is thin after D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett at the top of the depth chart, Wilson has been known to make the most out of lesser known receivers. In the offseason, Seattle nabbed guard Gabe Jackson, which should help keep their elite quarterback upright and throwing touchdowns.

I have Seattle finishing with an 11-6 record, a slight step down from their 12-4 mark last season. Even though I see the Seahawks as the best team in the NFC West, they may not be able to sweep their divisional foes. This record should still be good enough for the second or third seed in the NFC.

T-2. Los Angeles Rams (10-7)

Photo: Fansided.com

The Los Angeles Rams went 10-6 last season, made the playoffs, and even upset the Seahawks in the wildcard round before falling to the Green Bay Packers. Feeling they were just on the cusp of something great, the Rams made an aggressive move, trading Jared Goff for long-time Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.

The numbers don’t lie: Stafford is a more talented NFL passer than Goff. But will it translate to more wins?

The Rams have some flashy talent on offense, including wide receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, and tight end Tyler Higbee. Starting running back Cam Akers was unfortunately lost for the season, and Los Angeles will rely on a group including Darrell Henderson Jr. and Sony Michel. Stafford should be able to put up some points with this offense, but Los Angeles’ bread and butter is their star-studded defense.

In terms of points per game allowed, the Rams had the best defense in the NFL, allowing just 18.5 points per game. Jalen Ramsey, Darious Williams, Jordan Fuller, and Tyler Rapp patrol the secondary, and their job is made easier by a ferocious pass rush headlined by Aaron Donald.

So why aren’t the Rams atop this list? While I think the trade for Stafford is an upgrade, I’m not sure it will put Los Angeles over the top. The Rams are still a safe bet to be a playoff team in 2021-22, and conceivably could win the NFC West as I only have them one game behind the Seahawks. In a best-case scenario, Stafford pushes the Rams offense to new heights and they go 12-5. Worst-case scenario, Stafford is too aggressive, turns the ball over, and the Rams finish 9-8 or 8-9 and narrowly miss the postseason.

T-2. Arizona Cardinals (10-7)

Photo: Ron Jenkins/AP

In Kyler Murray’s rookie season in 2019, the Arizona Cardinals went 5-10-1. Last season, things appeared to be looking up, as Arizona broke their win total from the previous year just nine games in, starting 6-3. Many around the NFL, including myself, were becoming sold on Murray and the Cardinals as the next big thing. But Arizona collapsed, finishing 8-8 and failing to win a Week 17 matchup with the Rams that could have propelled them to the postseason.

I still see the Cardinals as a team on the rise, and this year, I think Arizona takes the next step and qualifies for the postseason as a wildcard team.

First of all, I still love Murray at quarterback, especially in today’s NFL. Entering his third season, Murray should be able to improve even more as a passer. Last season, Murray improved his yards per attempt, quarterback rating, and touchdown rate, kept his interception rate steady, but most importantly, cut his number of sacks taken nearly in half. In his rookie season, Murray was taken down an NFL-high 48 times, or three times per game. Last year, he cut that number down to 27 times, a product of both better offensive line play and also smarter decisions on Murray’s part.

Murray won’t have future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald at his disposal anymore, but DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, and Andy Isabella should certainly suffice. Offseason pickups for Arizona include center Rodney Hudson, who can shore up the offensive line even more, running back James Conner, who can provide valuable carries and some depth at the position, and defensive superstar J.J. Watt. While Watt may not be full-go for Week 1 and hasn’t been in Pro Bowl-form since the 2018-19 season, if he’s even operating at half of his normal production rate, the Cardinals will be in for a treat.

As last season’s second-half failures showed, there’s a lot that can go wrong for this team. But the Cardinals ceiling is sky high: they could win the NFC West, and are even a darkhorse candidate to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. I’ll temper expectations a bit with a respectable 10-7 record and a ticket to the postseason.

4. San Francisco 49ers (9-8)

Photo: NBC Sports

The fact the San Francisco 49ers finished 6-10 last year is actually pretty impressive considering their circumstances. Starting quarterback Jimmy Garroppolo was limited to just six games, and starters on both sides of the ball were lost to injury over the course of the season including Nick Bosa, Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Solomon Thomas. San Francisco finished the year with an NFL-high 18 players on injured reserve, and just to add to the challenge, weren’t allowed to play home games in Santa Clara due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With star players returning to the field, can the 49ers invoke the spirit of the 13-3 season they had two years ago, which culminated in a Super Bowl appearance?

San Francisco will definitely be a lot better, and should at least contend for a playoff spot. But in a crowded NFC West, and with six games against the Seahawks, Rams, and Cardinals, the 49ers will have to find their groove quickly if they want to keep up.

The 49ers defense was integral to their 13-3 season and Super Bowl run, but many players on the defensive side of the ball are already appearing on the injury list ahead of Week 1. If the defense is even just good but not great, will the offense be able to compensate?

Garroppolo is a solid quarterback, but his return alone may not make the 49ers a playoff team once again. There’s also uncertainty at the position, as teams with playoff aspirations don’t necessarily draft a quarterback third overall when they’re on the cusp of contention.

Trey Lance could prove to be an upgrade over Garroppolo, a situation that is definitely the 49ers X-factor for this season. Many see San Francisco returning the playoffs in 2021-22, and while it’s certainly possible, I have the 49ers finishing one game out of a playoff spot. But remember, I only have the 49ers finishing with two wins less than the first-place Seahawks. I’m not saying the 49ers will be a bad team this season, despite their last place finish. The NFC West will be very tough and competitive, and with just a couple breaks, the 49ers could go from a 9-8 non-playoff team to an 11-6 or 12-5 division winner.

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