2021 NFC West Preview

Trying to predict the future is sort of what my blog is all about. I have spent more time this year keeping up with the NFL action than any time before, whether it’s watching The Pat Mcafee Show, listening to the PFF Podcast, or just scanning Twitter for the day-to-day minutia.

I did this exercise last season — the one where I gave a few paragraphs to every team and tried to guess whether they would go over or under their projected win total. I enjoyed it, so I’m doing it again. Being a typical American and working five days a week makes me appreciate the time I have to myself, and I can’t help but spend the overwhelming majority of that time following the sports I love. Everything that follows is the culmination of how I have spent my February (since the Super Bowl) through June (a couple weeks before training camp starts), at least as it relates to my free time.

With that being said, I imagine it will be pretty easy to tell which teams I paid more attention to and which teams I didn’t have much to say about. I also imagine I’ll have a few instant regrets once I get done posting all the divisions, since that’s the nature of betting over/under props — theoretical coin flips — and since the NFL is so unpredictable. For purposes of this, two-plus months before the actual season starts, I consider it to be more of a snapshot of what I feel right this second. So take it all with a grain of salt.

Disclaimer: All over/under win totals are provided courtesy of Bovada.

Part I: NFC East

Part II: NFC North

Part III: NFC South

Part IV: NFC West

Common opponents: NFC North (Bears, Lions, Packers, Vikings), AFC South (Colts, Jaguars, Texans, Titans)

My NFC West record last year: 2 wins (Rams, Seahawks), 2 losses (49ers, Cardinals)

1. Arizona Cardinals

2020 record: 8-8
2021 over (-120)/under (-110): 8.5 wins

The Cardinals are one of those teams that just confuses the shit out of me. They have a coach I like, they have a QB I like, and by signing veterans like J.J. Watt and A.J. Green they are ostensibly “going for it.” On paper their offense should be fine and their defense should be somewhat improved. All of these are good things.

But then you turn over the coin and this team could be extremely average. Their head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, has never won anything and could just be a glorified offensive coordinator. Their QB, Kyler Murray, is like 5’8″ and seems to be injury prone. And there’s a real possibility that Watt and Green are both washed and won’t make that much of an impact. I don’t know how real of a scenario that is, i’m just saying it won’t be the craziest thing in the world if it happens.

The other problem is that they play in the NFC West. There’s a chance the Cardinals go over their projected win total of 8.5 and finish in last place, which is hard to fathom. On Bovada there is a prop bet for every team in this division making the playoffs and it pays out something like 20-to-1. I wouldn’t put my hard-earned greenbacks at risk for such nonsense, but it is an actuality that betting markets see as plausible.

One big thing: At the end of the day everything comes back to Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury. There is a direct correlation between Murray’s success in 2021 and Kingsbury’s ability to keep his job. I’m going to lean under 8.5 wins, if for nothing else that the rest of the division is absolutely stacked and someone is going to have to be on the short end of the stick.

2. Los Angeles Rams

2020 record: 10-6
2021 over (-110)/under (-130): 10.5 wins

More than any other I think the Rams are getting gassed up by the media. There are two reasons for this and both are obvious: (1) head coach Sean McVay is young and good looking and overall just a popular guy, and (2) they replaced the hapless Jared Goff with a respected fan favorite like Matthew Stafford.

I’m ultimately torn on how I should feel about LA’s prospects for the upcoming season, because on the one hand I’m a lot higher on the Stafford/McVay marriage than most (or all) of the smart analytics people I listen to, and on the other I think 10.5 wins is a huge number to reach. Would a 10-7 year be a disappointment? Not really. In the eyes of betting markets, however, it would be.

There is a lot of chatter about how they lost their defensive coordinator to the Chargers, but I see this season having a lot less to do with defense than it does Matt Stafford and his ability to assimilate into Sean McVay’s offense. On the high end this offense could average close to 30 points per game, and at that point it won’t matter how good the defense is. On the low end, this team could be slugging out a lot of 23-20 type games, and if that’s the case then they will probably be victim to a bunch of coin-flips.

One big thing: Can Matthew Stafford be the savior people like me have always thought of him as? I have spent most of my adult life viewing him as a top 5-ish QB in the NFL, yet the analytics people see him more in the 10-15 range. If my instincts are correct then the Rams are a legit Super Bowl contender and will cover the large 10.5 number. If they are wrong, then expect something closer to average. I’m taking the leap of faith and taking this team to go over, but I realize how tentative a proposition that may end up being.

3. San Francisco 49ers

2020 record: 6-10
2021 over (-105)/under (-125): 10.5 wins

As a Chiefs fan, the 49ers are the only organization I have respect for. They aren’t in the business of buying championships. They are an old school, build-it-from-the-ground-up franchise. Over the course of the 2021 season head coach Kyle Shanahan is going to dial up a half dozen touchdown calls for players you’ve never heard of, who went undrafted, who the opposing team wasn’t planning on touching the ball.

Sometimes, football is simple. Even though everything in Shanahan’s offense is complicated — and all the time — at the end of the day he’s going to run the ball, and he’s going to have a defense that stops the opposition from scoring. The 49ers are going to have a top-5 defensive unit and, somehow, some way, they are going to run the ball 25 times or more and take the soul of the opposition.

I was a big fan of the 49ers drafting QB Trey Lance #3 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, but I thought at the time (and still think) that it only made sense if they planned on starting Jimmy Garoppolo this season. I believe Lance is a stud, but San Francisco’s roster is ready to win right now and handing over the keys to a rookie would be a mistake. At least from my outside perspective. If ever there was a coach and a team who could pull off such a bold move and end up successful, it would be Kyle Shanahan and it would be the 2021 49ers. I’m just saying I’d doubt it.

One big thing: How aligned are the 49ers interests with mine? Recent history suggests drafting a QB in the first round brings out the best in that team’s starter if the organization chooses to throw a redshirt on the rookie. Last year the Packers traded up to draft Jordan Love in the first round, and Aaron Rodgers went on to win MVP. In 2017 the Chiefs traded up and drafted Patrick Mahomes, and that year Alex Smith went on to have the most productive regular season of his career. The 49ers are the most recent team to test this theory, and I have a strong feeling like Jimmy G will follow in the footsteps of Rodgers and Smith and lead this San Francisco squad to go over its lofty 10.5-win expectation.

4. Seattle Seahawks

2020 record: 12-4
2021 over (-160)/under (+120): 9.5 wins

One of the major plot lines of the NFL offseason was Russell Wilson showing how frustrated he was with the Seahawks organization, and he and/or his agent went so far as to leak to insiders that his preferred trade destinations were the Saints, Bears and Raiders. There were a couple weeks there in March or April where it looked like there was a real chance he would get moved. But then the story got dropped and Wilson was again all-in with Seattle.

I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about any of that, but one way or another I am selling my stock in the Seahawks’ future. It’s just a thin team. Beyond Wilson, his running back Chris Carson, and his two stud wide receivers — DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett — this team feels like it’s stars and scrubs. They had only three draft picks, total, in the 2021 NFL Draft, and they already shipped next year’s first rounder to the Jets for safety Jamal Adams. Their head coach, Pete Carroll, is at this point one of the dinosaurs in the coaching ranks, a guy who believes in a strong running game and defense even though Wilson and the WRs are the stars of the show and their defense hasn’t been much to write home about since, like, 2015.

Last year I threw up my hands and said fuck it, I’m not betting against Russell Wilson. I was rewarded for that assumption because they ended up going way over their season win total, and even won the NFC West while they were at it. This year, however, I’m not so sure. I think there’s a good chance that even Wilson won’t be able to overcome the rest of the roster’s deficiencies.

One big thing: Does Pete Carroll want to play 1990’s football, or does he want to adapt and let Russell Wilson and the passing attack take over? I have a feeling like Carroll wants to go down sticking to his guns, and if that’s the case then I see a lot of internal friction here. And I’m skeptical that the Seahawks will be able to make it to double-digit wins in a very competitive division.

NFC West Prediction:

  1. 49ers: 12-5
  2. Rams: 11-6
  3. Cardinals: 8-9
  4. Seahawks: 7-10