|Through two weeks, the NFC West is 5-1 against teams outside the division. (US Presswire)|
When the National Football League restructured its divisions in time for the 2002 season, the change made sense. The league removed New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta from the NFC West, while San Francisco and St. Louis welcomed Seattle and Arizona into the division.
Since then, it's been one pillow fight after the next.
Over the last decade, there has been just one season (2003) when the NFC West combined for a winning record outside the division (27-25) and, during the same span, the teams have combined to win just 37.7 percent of their out-of-division games (151-249). The Seahawks lead the division with five winning seasons, while the 49ers (2 winning seasons), Cardinals (2) and Rams (1) have been mainstays among the league's worst.
The low point might have come in 2010 when Seattle advanced to the playoffs with a losing record -- although it proceeded to pull a divisional-round upset of New Orleans that year in a game aided by an undeserved home-field advantage.
San Francisco brought some respectability to the division with a 13-3 record a year ago, but there was a school of thought that inferred the 49ers' record was mostly the product of a weak schedule. The same can't be said about the 49ers' 2-0 start this season as they opened the year with convincing wins at Green Bay and at home against Detroit, a pair of playoff teams from a year ago.
Through two weeks this year, it's not just the 49ers.
After a win at New England, the Cardinals remain one of the league's six undefeated teams, while Seattle and St. Louis also had good showings over the weekend. The four teams have combined to go 5-1 outside the division against teams that won a combined 63.5 percent of their games last year.
"Everybody's talking up San Francisco right now, and they should," Arizona DE Calais Campbell said, "but I think Seattle's a good team, I think we can be a good team and St. Louis played really good last week, too."
It doesn't compare to conference loyalty at the college level, but San Francisco RB Anthony Dixon said teams can take pride coming out of a strong division in the NFL and is in no way surprised at the rise of the NFC West.
"We're always aware of our opponents, we study them," Dixon said. "We see they're improving, but I'm not surprised. The games we play with those guys are always tough. I'm not surprised to see them winning at all."
It's too early to proclaim the division the best in football, but it has certainly vaulted into the discussion. It's out-of-division winning percentage (.833) and point differential (+37) are the best in the NFL.
The biggest surprise?
Take your pick: Seattle (+3), St. Louis (+13.5) and Arizona (+3) were all underdogs in Week 2 but came away with victories.
Campbell has a theory for the sudden turnaround:
"When teams are down for a long time they get a lot of high first-round and second-round picks and I think you're finally starting to see the product of that with these teams coming around," he said. "I don't think this year will go how it's typically gone in this division the last few years. It's going to be a lot different and you've seen that the first couple weeks."
The teams have also shown -- contrary to popular opinion -- that it doesn't take 50 passes a game to be successful in the NFL. All four teams rank in the bottom half of the league in passing offense: St. Louis (18), San Francisco (25), Arizona (30) and Seattle (32).
San Francisco QB Alex Smith made a point in the offseason to note how passing yards per game don't necessarily equate to wins.
"I think that is a totally overblown stat because if you're losing games in the second half, guess what? You're like the Carolina Panthers and you're going no-huddle the entire second half," Smith said in May. "Yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games, that's great. You're not winning, though."
While San Francisco (20.5 ppg) has been praised for having arguably the league's best defense, Seattle (13.5) and Arizona (17.0) have shown signs they will be tough to score on as well.
"There are some good defenses, some good defensive players in this division," Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett said. "You don't need numbers to tell you that. You can see it when you play."
After 10 years of struggles, it'd be fair to write off two weeks of success as an aberration, but it'll become more clear this week when Arizona hosts Philadelphia (2-0), Seattle hosts Green Bay (1-1), St. Louis travels to Chicago (1-1) and San Francisco goes to Minnesota (1-1).
Among the four games, only San Francisco is favored by oddsmakers. No change there.