NFC West Preview

By The Rex Factor

NFC West preview: Palmer’s health dictates the division, Rams heading upward

In his last 16 starts with the Cardinals, quarterback Carson Palmer is 14-2. The main flaw in that statistic is that it goes back to Week 8 of the 2013 season. Palmer has had a nasty habit of being unable to stay healthy, but he’s rehabbed his way back from his second major knee injury (the first game in the 2005 AFC wild-card game, after Palmer had led the woebegone Bengals to a rare playoff game).

Palmer thinks this Cardinals team is the best they’ve had in his time there and considering they were forced to start a third-string quarterback for much of the second half of the season yet lost the division by just a game to eventual NFC champ Seattle, that’s scary. Yet the cause for optimism is real, even though Palmer has remained healthy for a full season just three times in the last seven years.

The Cards have invested in some help up front to keep him upright, and running backs Andre Ellington and rookie David Johnson could put up solid numbers with a healthy Palmer. The defense is as good as anyone’s in the league, and a big reason why I’m calling for Arizona to win the division. Oh, and a healthy Palmer.

Jeff Fisher enters his fourth season as the St. Louis coach, and this will finally be the season the Rams turn the corner and make the playoffs. Or, at the very least, move up the totem pole in what has been the league’s toughest division since he came to town in 2012. From 2007-2011, the Rams won a total of 15 games, so management has been patient as Fisher has steadily built a team that wants to punish you up front on both sides of the ball.

The Rams haven’t been able to keep a quality quarterback healthy, so the front office traded for Philadelphia’s Nick Foles in hopes that he can find some of the explosive players on the outside and feed two talented, young SEC running backs (though second-year back Tre Mason of Auburn and rookie Todd Gurley of Georgia will both miss the season opener recovering from injuries). The O-line has been a concern since Fisher arrived and is still the weakness on paper, though there have been upgrades again in this offseason.

No team has made the Super Bowl three straight times since the Bills went to four straight in the mid-1990s. I don’t think the trend will be snapped this season. Seattle has had a protracted run of brilliance the last few years under Pete Carroll but salary cap woes, free agent departures and general luck (see the NFC Championship last season) eventually running out are all fair reasons to fade the Seahawks.

The secondary lost Byron Maxwell in the offseason and as of the season opener, is also missing holdout Kam Chancellor. Most football insiders believe Chancellor is the key to the entire punishing Seahawks defense. The longer he’s gone, the worse the defense will be. But he’s only played through two years of a five-year deal and Seattle can’t really afford to re-sign him without putting themselves in salary cap jail. It’s a nightmare situation that the front office faces.

Jimmy Graham comes in from New Orleans to give quarterback Russell Wilson another target on offense, but the line will be weaker this season. The re-shuffling up front could take time, and the Seahawks open with a tough test at St. Louis before facing four 2014 playoff teams in their next five games. Could the Seahawks miss the playoffs entirely? Don’t be surprised.

San Francisco lost its head coach toward the end of last season. Then the dominoes really started to fall. Jim Harbaugh’s departure to Michigan was just a harbinger of things to come. Jim Tomsula was promoted from a line coach to head coach, having never even served as a coordinator in his NFL career. Many around the league felt he is just a “yes man” for the front office, which seems as intent as ever in trying to run the franchise into the ground.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick hasn’t figured out how to pass from the pocket; the read-option fad lasted all of several weeks into 2014 before things turned pear-shaped. On offense the Niners lost their starting running back, three wideouts, two O-linemen, and things only got worse on the other side. Two potential Hall-of-Famers retired and a 24-year old linebacker also retired amid long-term health concerns of the game. Shockingly enough, the hits kept coming. Defensive end Ray McDonald and linebacker Aldon Smith both got released because of off-field issues, and two corners and another linebacker left in free agency. Who’s going to tackle people in 2015? Carlos Hyde could be a bright spot carrying the load at running back, but this team seems destined for the basement in this meat-grinder of a division.

The Rex Factor NFC West predictions

1. Arizona

2. St. Louis

3. Seattle

4. San Francisco

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