The NFC West entered 2021 as the best division in football, yet had a few surprises through the first 10 weeks of the season. The Arizona Cardinals were the last unbeaten team in the league and have been in first place in the division throughout the year, the team everyone in the NFC West has been chasing (Arizona is just one win away from its first winning season in six years).
The Los Angeles Rams have been a Super Bowl contender in the NFC until the last two weeks, getting blown out by the Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers in back-to-back games. They haven't been able to gain any ground on the Cardinals in the NFC West, instead losing a game on the division leaders. The San Francisco 49ers have been disappointing through 10 weeks, but appear to be getting ready for a playoff push by winning two of their last three games -- one against the Rams to emerge in the playoff picture for the final wild-card spot.
The Seattle Seahawks have been incredibly disappointing throughout the year. Even the return of Russell Wilson couldn't snap Seattle's skid, one which the Seahawks lost four of five and appear bound for their first losing season in 10 years. Seattle could emerge as a player in the division race if it can find a way to upset Arizona Sunday, so all hope is not lost on their NFC West chances.
Despite Arizona and Los Angeles controlling the division, the NFC West could still get all four teams in the playoffs with the way the conference has played out. The division race is distanced for now, even though there's plenty of games that can change the course over the next eight weeks.
Here's how each team can still win the NFC West -- even the Seahawks, who currently are 4.5 games back of the division lead with eight games left.
Arizona Cardinals: Figure out how to stop the run without J.J. Watt
The Cardinals' struggles against the run have really impacted a top-five defense. Prior to Watt's injury, the Cardinals allowed just 115.7 yards per game on the ground. In the three full games since Watt's been hurt, the average increased to 118.7 with a major outlier. Arizona allowed 151 and 166 rushing yards in the two losses to Green Bay and Carolina, more of an indicator of their run defense instead of the 39 rushing yards the Cardinals allowed in a win over the 49ers.
The Cardinals have allowed 150 rushing yards five times this season, sporting a 3-2 record in those games (0-2 on the last two occasions). When Arizona allows less than 150 yards rushing, the Cardinals are 5-0. Facing the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams to start December will be a good indicator where the Cardinals run defense stands as they enter the stretch run.
Los Angeles Rams: Get the most out of the offensive line
The Rams offensive line has its issues, which have played a role in their two-game skid. The unit was much better against the San Francisco 49ers, yet are still struggling in pass protection on the interior. David Edwards has had his struggles at left guard in pass protection, specifically against Tennessee and San Francisco.
How do the Rams counter their pass protection issues on the interior? Head coach Sean McVay has to call more than nine run plays and stay away from getting pass happy, especially with Robert Woods being done for the season. Odell Beckham is going to get his opportunities in this offense with the way McVay schemes his receivers open.
The Rams have thrown the ball 68.04% of the time over the last three games, third-most in the NFL. McVay has to keep the run game honest and improve the 23rd-ranked attack on the ground. The offensive line showed they can create holes against San Francisco -- now it's up to McVay to keep the ball on the ground and let the offensive line bully defensive linemen up front.
This will take the pressure off Stafford and the receivers in the process, making the Rams more dangerous on offense.
San Francisco 49ers: Play Jimmy Garoppolo the rest of the year
Trey Lance is San Francisco's quarterback of the future, but he clearly isn't ready to take the reins as the 49ers' starting quarterback. The 49ers are 4-5 and are in contention for a playoff spot in the NFC with a win over the Rams, as Garoppolo gives them their best chance to win at this time.
Whether Garoppolo is good enough to get San Francisco the division title remains to be seen. He's completed 66.5% of his passes for 1,936 yards with 10 touchdowns to five interceptions (97.6 rating), and getting even better with George Kittle back into the offense. Garoppolo has completed 43 of 59 passes (72.9%) for 508 yards with four touchdowns to just one interception (114.2 rating) since Kittle returned two weeks ago (Kittle has caught two touchdowns).
Garoppolo knows how to find his top playmakers -- Kittle and Deebo Samuel -- and is the best signal caller to run head coach Kyle Shanahan's complex offense. The 49ers are going to need Garoppolo with all their injuries at running back, as his arm is their best option to win games and salvage their season.
Lance can start in 2022. The 49ers falling out of playoff contention is unlikely this year.
Seattle Seahawks: Establish a run game to help Russell Wilson out
The Seahawks run game has been a mess since Chris Carson went down with a neck injury. Carson has played only four games and the Seahawks have averaged 107 rushing yards per game in his starts. That number isn't great, but it's much better than the 94 rushing yards per game the team has averaged in his absence.
Alex Collins has averaged 4.1 yards per carry this year, yet has averaged just 10 carries over the last two games. That number isn't good enough, putting more pressure on Russell Wilson to perform (and he's coming off a finger injury). When Carson was in the lineup, his average carries per game is at 13.5 -- another number that's too low for Seattle's offense to function.
Seattle doesn't have the best collection of running backs, but Carson and Collins can be a solid one-two punch if the Seahawks actually run the ball. Averaging 23.6 carries a game (25th in NFL) isn't good enough with Wilson still on the mend.
"Let Russ Cook" has become a thing in Seattle. The Seahawks need to take some food off his plate.