NFL

NFL 2020: NFC West - Could the league's toughest division provide four playoff teams?

By Sports Desk September 11, 2020

The new NFL playoff format will see seven teams from each conference reach the postseason, and that presents the division widely regarded as the league's best with an opportunity for history.

A realignment of divisions following the addition of the Houston Texans to the league in 2002 had made it impossible for four teams from the same division to reach the playoffs.

That is no longer the case in the wake of playoff expansion, though, providing the NFC West with the chance to do what the five-team AFC East last did back in 1998.

With division champions the San Francisco 49ers still considered the class of the NFC by many and the Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals all likely to be competitive, there is a clear possibility all four could be playing postseason football come January.

How likely is that? Here we look at each team to assess the chances of the NFC West having three wild card teams to go with its division winner.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers are attempting to avenge their Super Bowl LIV agony. Kyle Shanahan's team were minutes away from lifting the Lombardi Trophy before Patrick Mahomes propelled the Kansas City Chiefs to glory.

It is typically usual for great defensive teams as the 49ers were in 2019 to experience some kind of regression and San Francisco traded All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts in the offseason.

However, the Niners still have a ferocious pass rush and a dynamic offense overseen by arguably the league's premier play-caller in Shanahan. The addition of seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams as a replacement for the retired Joe Staley could see a devastating running game get even better while tight end George Kittle is the most versatile offensive weapon in the game.

The question surrounds quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo – maligned by some after the Super Bowl loss – and whether he can take the step forward to keep the Niners atop the conference. With Shanahan calling the plays, the smart money is on Garoppolo and the 49ers silencing the doubters.

Seattle Seahawks

On offense, the Seahawks are the inverse of the 49ers. There are no doubts about their quarterback but there are plenty around the coaching staff's ability to maximize his MVP skill set.

Despite Seattle's bizarre focus on running the ball rather than putting the game in the hands of Russell Wilson, they have missed the playoffs only twice in Pete Carroll's 10 seasons as head coach and the Seahawks were inches away from beating the 49ers in Week 17 and winning the division last year.

There are concerns about the pass rush after Jadeveon Clowney was not re-signed but an underrated secondary was significantly bolstered by the acquisition of All-Pro safety Jamal Adams in a blockbuster trade.

The hope will be that Adams can slow down Kittle and the 49ers. That may be wishful thinking but, as long as Wilson is around to perform his trademark late-game heroics, there appears little chance of Seattle missing out on an expanded postseason.

Los Angeles Rams

Had playoff expansion happened before last season, the Rams would have made the postseason in 2019, a fact that serves as evidence their 'Super Bowl hangover' was not as bad as perceived.

Head coach Sean McVay was overshadowed by Shanahan last year but he remains among the league's best in terms of play-calling acumen. He should continue to put Jared Goff in favourable positions in 2020 but the success of the Rams' quest to get back to the playoffs hinges on two things: their offensive line and their defensive coordinator.

Injuries and a decline in performance from the O-Line was a significant factor in a disappointing 2019 for Los Angeles. They chose to bring back veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth and the hope is that better continuity up front will fuel a committee group of runners to production the departed Todd Gurley was unable to deliver last year.

Brandon Staley is a relative unknown that has the huge responsibility of replacing legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. To his advantage is that he gets to coach perennial Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and the new highest-paid cornerback in football Jalen Ramsey.

If he delivers a resurgence on that side of the ball, expect the Rams to again be a force in the NFC.

Arizona Cardinals

After an Offensive Rookie of the Year season from 2019 first overall pick Kyler Murray, the Cardinals have been the darlings of the offseason.

The stunning trade for All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins won them more admirers who anticipate an exciting offense helping Arizona challenge in the division.

While the NFL is an offense-first league, there is not enough on defense in Arizona to provide the support needed for the Cardinals to contend for the division title.

Pass rusher Chandler Jones is frequently in the Defensive Player of the Year mix and Budda Baker is a versatile playmaker at safety, but a lack of talent elsewhere on defense should stymie their hopes of an NFC West crown.

The offense could be productive enough to keep them in the mix for a wild card berth, however, in a loaded conference, Arizona's shortcomings when Murray is not on the field may just be what stops the entire NFC West from going to the playoffs in 2020.

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    The Seattle Seahawks' flawless start to the NFL season came to an end in dramatic fashion against the Arizona Cardinals, while Tom Brady made history in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' crushing win over the Las Vegas Raiders.

    Arizona converted a field goal with only seconds remaining in overtime as the Cardinals completed a thrilling 37-34 comeback win over the previously unbeaten Seahawks on Sunday.

    Brady surpassed New Orleans Saints counterpart Drew Brees for a league record, while Super Bowl champions the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers also won.

     

    CARDINALS SOAR AS SEAHAWKS FALL

    In one of the games of the season, the Cardinals triumphed thanks to Zane Gonzalez's field goal with 15 seconds remaining in Arizona.

    The Seahawks – led by MVP candidate Russell Wilson – appeared on track to improve to 6-0, having led 27-17 at half-time and 34-24 heading into the final three minutes of regulation.

    But the Cardinals rallied – Kyler Murray's eight-yard pass to Christian Kirk reducing the deficit to three points before Gonzalez converted a 44-yard field goal to force OT.

    Gonzalez had the chance to settle the contest with a field goal early in OT but missed, however, the Cardinals kicker redeemed himself at the death.

    Murray finished 34-of-48 for 360 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, while Wilson was 33-of-50 for 388 yards, three TDs and as many interceptions.

    In a remarkable showdown, Seattle wide receiver DK Metcalf produced a sensational chase-down, delivering a touchdown-saving tackle on Budda Baker's 90-yard interception return in the second quarter.

     

    RECORD-SETTING BRADY INSPIRES BUCS

    Bucs quarterback Brady moved top of the NFL's all-time list for touchdown passes after leading Tampa Bay to a 45-20 rout of the Raiders.

    Brady replaced Brees for the most TD passes in league history with his throw to Tyler Johnson in the fourth quarter.

    A six-time Super Bowl champion, Brady eclipsed Brees' record with his 559th career touchdown pass, one ahead of his Saints counterpart.

    Brady completed 33 of 45 passes for 369 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions or sacks against the Raiders (3-3) as NFC South leaders the Buccaneers improved to 5-2 for the season.

    Rob Gronkowski, Scotty Miller – who finished with 109 yards – Chris Godwin and Johnson all connected with Brady for TDs, while Raiders QB Derek Carr was 24-of-36 for 284 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and three sacks.

     

    CHIEFS TAKE DOWN BRONCOS, 49ERS THRASH NEWTON'S PATS

    Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs were too good for the Broncos, winning 43-16 on the road.

    Played in snow, the Chiefs (6-1) led 24-9 at half-time and never looked back as they claimed their 10th consecutive victory over AFC West rivals the Broncos (2-4).

    Mahomes extended his NFL-leading streak to 17 successive games with a touchdown throw, finishing 15-of-23 for 200 yards and a touchdown, while Le'Veon Bell impressed on debut after rushing for 39 yards on six carries.

    It was a forgettable outing for Cam Newton and the New England Patriots, who were easily beaten 33-6 by the 49ers in Foxborough.

    Newton – who was nine-of-15 for 98 yards – threw three interceptions and was replaced in the fourth quarter as the Patriots slumped to their third consecutive loss.

    Former Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo enjoyed his return to New England, where the 49ers star was 20-of-25 for 277 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.

    "It was a cool week," Garoppolo said. "Just a lot of emotions, a lot of memories. Especially coming back here, seeing the same stadium, hearing the same songs they used to play, a lot of memories came back ... But it was a fun night.

    "Couldn't imagine it going any better than this."

    Meanwhile, Justin Herbert threw three touchdowns as the Los Angeles Chargers defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars 39-29.

     

    Week 7 scores:

    Philadelphia Eagles 22-21 New York Giants
    Pittsburgh Steelers 27-24 Tennessee Titans
    Washington Football Team 25-3 Dallas Cowboys
    Buffalo Bills 18-10 New York Jets
    New Orleans Saints 27-24 Carolina Panthers
    Green Bay Packers 35-20 Houston Texans
    Cleveland Browns 37-34 Cincinnati Bengals
    Detroit Lions 23-22 Atlanta Falcons
    Tampa Bay Buccaneers 45-20 Las Vegas Raiders
    San Francisco 49ers 33-6 New England Patriots
    Kansas City Chiefs 43-16 Denver Broncos
    Los Angeles Chargers 39-29 Jacksonville Jaguars
    Arizona Cardinals 37-34 Seattle Seahawks (OT)

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    Tom Brady said he excited to reunite with former New England Patriots team-mate Antonio Brown at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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    Brown only made one appearance for the Patriots, having been previously released by the Las Vegas Raiders, recording 56 yards and a touchdown as he briefly teamed up with Brady.

    Brady has since joined the Buccaneers – who he has guided to a 5-2 record this season – and the six-time Super Bowl champion is relishing the opportunity to work with Brown again.

    "He's a tremendous football player. I played with him for a brief period of time. Looking forward to working with him again, to see what role he can come in [and play]," Brady told reporters after completing 33 of 45 passes for 369 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-20 win against the Raiders, while he moved top of the NFL's all-time list for TD passes.

    "He's a very hard-working guy ... We're all gonna go out there on the practice field and do the best we can do. And we're gonna see how it all fits together. There's a lot of hard work ahead. None of it just magically happens. I think we realised that early in the season, we put a lot of new people together, and we've gotta figure a lot of things out in a short period of time.

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    Having entered the league with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010, Brown has amassed 11,263 receiving yards and caught 75 touchdowns in his career.

    Bruce Arians previously said Brown "was not a fit" for the Buccaneers and when asked about the change in stance regarding the 32-year-old, the Tampa Bay head coach told reporters: "I think he's matured, and I believe in second chances.

    "Everybody wants to say that Tom picked him. Tom didn't have anything to do with it. This was something Jason [Licht, Buccaneers general manager] and I had been talking [about] for a couple weeks, ever since the injuries to our other guys.

    "When the time was right, would we see if we could pull the trigger and fit him in to what we want to get done? And we'll see. If Antonio does what I think he's gonna do, I think he's gonna be fine."

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    The Cowboys fell to a 2-5 record after Sunday's 25-3 defeat at FedExField, where quarterback Andy Dalton was hurt following a dirty late hit by Jon Bostic.

    Cowboys head coach McCarthy was unhappy with his team's performance as they slipped to third in the NFC East.

    "We're not doing the basics. Let's quit candy coating it," he told reporters.

    "I can't stand up here and keep talking about taking care of the football, taking the ball away and just the fundamentals.

    "Whether we haven't had enough time together or whatever the case is, at the end of the day, the schedule is set and we need to continue to work because we need improvement each day, each week especially before we go to Philadelphia."

    McCarthy, who coached the Green Bay Packers for 13 seasons before being fired in 2018, took charge of the Cowboys earlier this year.

    The 56-year-old believes his players are still responding to him despite a slow start to the season.

    "Definitely. I can only tell you what goes on every day as far as the preparation, the daily communication, interaction with the players throughout the program, McCarthy said.

    "We knew there would be adjustments throughout as a football team, we've been hit with a number of challenges that we're just not pushing through right now.

    "We need to continue to work and I believe we'll push through the other end."

    With the Philadelphia Eagles (2-4-1) topping the NFC East, it is the first time in NFL history that each team in a division has had fewer than three wins through Week 7 (excluding strike seasons), as per NFL Research.

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