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NFC West Preview: Season Wins Projections
by Al McMordie - 08/11/2017
NFC West Division Preview
Arizona Cardinals (2016: 7-8-1 SU, 6-10 ATS, 10-6 O/U)
Odds to win division: +299
Season win total: Over 8, -154/Under 8, +131
Why to bet the Cardinals: Arizona was 7-8-1 last season, but its failures could largely be chalked up to losing close games. In games decided by seven points or less, the Cardinals were 2-5-1. In 2015, when Arizona went 13-3, it was 4-1 in games decided by seven or less points. A major factor in this decline was the performance of place kicker Chandler Catanzaro, who succeeded on just 75 percent of his attempts (after converting 90.3% in 2015). Management replaced Catanzaro with 42-year-old veteran Phil Dawson, who has missed just three field goals each of the past two seasons. Otherwise, Arizona chose to not over-react to its disappointing season. The well-respected coaching staff remains largely in place. Bruce Arians heads the unit, and he’s 51-27-1 in his career when in charge of a staff. The Cards also boast one of the best talents in the league in running back David Johnson, who gained 100+ yards from scrimmage in each of his first 15 games last season. And, of course, veterans Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald provide both skill and leadership to a talented offensive unit.
Why not to bet the Cardinals: The defense has question marks following the free agency departure of five starters, including DE Calais Campbell, who had 56 pressures last season. Arizona hopes former 1st Round Pick Robert Nkemdiche will step up in the place of Campbell, but he failed to contribute much last season. It’s also worrisome that the Cards will heavily rely on older players like Palmer (37 years old), Fitzgerald (34 years old) and Dawson (42 years old). Last season, Palmer took a league-high 117 hits, and his QB rating declined from 104.6 in 2015 to 87.2. And, even though Fitzgerald still plays at an exceptionally high level, beyond him, the receiving corps is thin. Arizona hopes that John Brown will be fully healthy this season after struggling with symptoms related to sickle-cell disease, but there’s no guarantee that will be the case.
Season win total pick: Over 8
Los Angeles Rams (2016: 4-12 SU, 4-11-1 ATS, 7-9 O/U)
Odds to win division: +2337
Season win total: Over 6, +123/Under 6, -144
Why to bet the Rams: Last season, the Rams went 4-12 and coach Jeff Fisher was fired in December. In his place this season will be Sean McVay, who was 30 years old at the time of his hiring (the youngest head coach in modern NFL history). The Rams never had a winning season under Fisher, and his message grew stale. McVay’s passion and enthusiasm will be key in turning around this franchise. Additionally, Wade Phillips is the new defensive coordinator. Though the Rams ranked #9 in total defense last season, Phillips is arguably the best defensive coordinator in the NFL, and can make the unit even better. The coaching staff’s primary goal this past offseason was to upgrade the talent around 2nd-year QB Jared Goff, who had a disastrous rookie season. A key signing was veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Goff also should benefit from a change in scheme, as McVay favors more of a spread offense, which is what Goff succeeded in at Cal-Berkeley. Finally, running back Todd Gurley should have a bounce-back campaign following a season in which he rushed for just 885 yards (the fewest in NFL history by a back with 275+ carries). Last year, defenses were able to stack the box against him, but that will be less the case this season.
Why not to bet the Rams: Sean McVay was hired largely on the basis of his accomplishments as the offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins. Under his tutelage, QB Kirk Cousins set the Redskins’ franchise passing yardage record two years in a row. But he may be unable to transform Goff into a respectable starting quarterback. It certainly doesn’t help matters any that Los Angeles doesn’t have a “go-to” No. 1 receiver on its roster. And, should Goff (and a relatively weak group of receivers) fail to develop, then that will not relax the defensive pressure other teams place on Gurley, who had only two runs of 20+ yards last season.
Season win total pick: Over 6
San Francisco 49ers (2016: 2-14 SU, 4-11-1 ATS, 10-6 O/U)
Odds to win division: +3758
Season win total: Over 4.5, -162/Under 4.5, +138
Why to bet the 49ers: Erstwhile head coach Chip Kelly lasted just one season in San Francisco. The 49ers went just 2-14, in no small measure due to the fact that the players didn’t fit Kelly’s system. Enter rookie head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. They’ve overhauled much of the roster (50 of the team’s players on its offseason roster were new), with an eye toward acquiring talent (e.g., FB Kyle Juszczyk, TE George Kittle) that will allow Shanahan to create an offense founded on personnel groups equally adept at running and passing the football. To help with the transition, the 49ers have also brought in players like QB Brian Hoyer and WR Pierre Garcon, who have worked under Shanahan in the past.
Why not to bet the 49ers: There is enormous inexperience throughout the coaching staff. This, of course, is Shanahan’s first job as head coach. It’s true he had tremendous success in Atlanta, but he also benefited from working with superb talent, like QB Matt Ryan. Now, in San Francisco, his signal caller will be Hoyer, who is playing for his 6th team in seven years. Robert Saleh also is a first-year defensive coordinator, and he will be implementing a new 4-3 scheme. Unfortunately, former top draft picks Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, were both drafted to fit a different defense. And linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who is a perfect fit, is coming off his second major injury in three seasons. Finally, there’s a big question mark in San Francisco’s kicking game. The Niners chose to not bring back their place kicker Dawson (who signed with Arizona), even though he was a career 84.5% FG kicker. Instead, the duties will fall to Robbie Gould, who was ineffective last season.
Season win total pick: Over 4.5
Seattle Seahawks (2016: 10-5-1 SU, 7-8-1 ATS, 9-7 O/U)
Odds to win division: -301
Season win total: Over 10.5, -123/Under 10.5, +105
Why to bet the Seahawks: Seattle won 10 games last season — its fifth straight season it reached double-digit wins — a hallmark of consistency under coach Pete Carroll. And, but for injuries to key personnel, Seattle likely would have won more than it did. Indeed, free safety Earl Thomas suffered a broken leg in a December game vs. Carolina, after which Seattle’s defense gave up 30+ points in three of its final six games (losing those three). Additionally, CB Richard Sherman was bothered by an MCL injury, while QB Russell Wilson battled knee and ankle injuries the entire season. Wilson’s rushing productivity was greatly affected, as he ran for a career-low 259 yards. The good news is that all of Seattle’s key players are feeling fit, so it’s a reasonable expectation that it will once again find the form which allowed it to reach the Super Bowl in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. But management isn’t just relying on a return to health. It also looked to shore up the running game by signing Eddie Lacy to a 1-year contract (laden with weight incentives). Finally, the Seahawks play in a weak division, and get to play two of the worst teams in football (Rams, 49ers) twice each.
Why not to bet the Seahawks: It’s true that the Seahawks have long had one of the best defenses in football. After all, it has allowed the fewest points in the league in four of the past five seasons. But it’s also a unit which is aging. Defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin, and ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, are all on the wrong side of 30. With age, of course, can come injuries, or even just a decline in play. Seattle also did nothing to bolster a below-average offensive line. Last season, Seattle’s QB was sacked 42 times, which was sixth-worst in the NFL. Last, but not least, there’s always a risk that Sherman will once again cause distractions by voicing displeasure with the coaching staff. For a team which badly wants to get back to the Super Bowl, it can ill-afford that sort of a headache.
Season win total pick: Over 10.5