NFC Worst: Someone has to win NFL's weakest division

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- The question hung in the air longer than expected -- like a Max Hall pass.

Kerry Rhodes, how would you characterize the NFC West?

"I'm trying to think of the right word," the Cardinals free safety said. "A nice word."

"Let's just say it's wide open."

Let's just say it stinks.

Can Lawyer Milloy (left) and the 5-5 Seahawks hang on to win the West? (Getty Images)  
Can Lawyer Milloy (left) and the 5-5 Seahawks hang on to win the West? (Getty Images)  
Before 2008, a division had produced an inter-divisional winning percentage as low as .325 just seven times since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

Four divisions achieved that dubious distinction the past two seasons. The 2008 NFC North went 13-27 (.325) against the rest of the league, the 2009 NFC West went 12-28 (.300), the 2008 AFC West went 11-29 (.275) and the 2008 NFC West went 10-30 (.250).

Can you spot the trend?

The worst football in the NFL is being played out west these days and the NFC version is trying to corner the market.

With a 9-19 (.321) mark outside the division, the 2010 NFC West probably won't break its own mark for futility, but if the remainder of the season pans out the way the first 11 weeks have, the NFC West will have posted three of the five worst inter-divisional records in the modern NFL era -- all in the past three seasons!

"We're not going to focus on the two 'S' words -- standings and statistics," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "We're going to focus on the prize we set out to accomplish at the beginning of the year -- the NFC West -- and that is still there." Thanks to the division's 0-4 mark in Week 11, the prize is still there for all four teams, including the 3-7 Cardinals and 49ers, who meet on Monday night.

"We have a lot of room to make things happen," 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said. "It's just up to us whether we want it or not."

Both the Cards and 49ers have significant ground to make up. Despite dropping three of their last four games and getting outscored 108-29 in the three losses, Seattle is in the division driver's seat with a 5-5 overall record and a 3-1 division record.

"That's the one positive going into the end of the year," Seahawks safety Lawyer Milloy said. "Still being on top of the division (and) having four of the last six games at home."

It would be impossible to outline the myriad reasons for the division's struggles. All four teams have played in Super Bowls, and San Francisco and St. Louis have won titles, so it's not as if the division is filled with perennially bad teams, especially since Ken Whisenhunt became the Cardinals coach and turned around the one NFC West franchise that had owned that loser's label.

It's more a case of the perfect storm. The Seahawks and Rams are still in rebuilding mode, the 49ers have either underachieved or were overestimated, depending on whom you ask. The Cardinals, the team that has won this division the past two seasons, are still sorting through life after quarterback Kurt Warner, the future Hall of Famer who masked a mountain of deficiencies.

And yet the numbers are still staggering when viewed en masse.

NFC West teams have been outscored by a combined 232 points. The division has gone winless in three weeks this season and won just one game in two additional weeks only because two of its teams were playing each other.

A look at the statistical rankings of each club's offense and defense offers little relief. All four teams rank in the league's bottom quarter in total offense while Arizona and Seattle also rank in the bottom quarter in defense.

The possibility of a losing team making the playoffs has been bandied about for years, but it's never happened in a 16-game season.

The 2008 San Diego Chargers and the 1985 Cleveland Browns are the only teams to win their divisions with 8-8 records and the Chargers even won their home playoff game, beating the Indianapolis Colts.

Is this the first season a 7-9 record might get the job done? It's certainly possible when you consider Seattle still must face Kansas City, Atlanta and Tampa Bay -- teams with a combined 21-9 record -- along with a road game at San Francisco.

St. Louis (4-6) plays four of its final six games on the road as does San Francisco. The Cardinals have the easiest schedule with four of their final six at home and all of their remaining games against teams with losing records. But San Francisco and Arizona would have to go 5-1 just to finish .500.

"This game is about momentum -- it's about confidence, and we don't have a lot to base positive things going on here lately," said Whisenhunt, who could just as well have been speaking for his NFC West comrades. "I really believe that we're going to come out of it. We're going to still have our opportunities to win divisions and go to playoff games and that's what our focus is.

"If we have to go through some tough times to get back to that point, that's what we have to do."

CBS correspondents Michael Erler, Ron Clements and John Boyle contributed to this report

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