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NFL Report Notebook: The West is no longer the worst in the NFC

BY STEVE DeSHAZO

Remember two years ago, when the Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7–9 record? Some critics called for a change in the format that guarantees a home playoff game for division champions.

That’s still a discussion worth having, but chances are the NFC West won’t be the catalyst for any tinkering—at least, not any time soon. Its teams’ combined 6–2 record is the best of any division, and they are 5–1 against outside competition.

The season’s second weekend was one of the best ever for a division that can’t be called the “NFC Worst” anymore:

The San Francisco 49ers (2–0) bolstered their claim as the league’s best team by shutting down Detroit’s potent offense.

Arizona (2–0) pulled off the young season’s biggest upset, a 20–18 stunner at New England.

Seattle (1–1) dominated the same Dallas team that had beaten the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the opener.

And St. Louis (1–1) rallied from a 21–6 deficit to hand Washington and Robert Griffin III their first loss.

Of the four, only the 49ers look like a genuine playoff team. They came within two mishandled punts of knocking off the Giants in January’s NFC title game, and they have arguably the best mix of offense, defense and coaching in the game.

If former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith continues his career renaissance under second-year coach Jim Harbaugh, Joe Montana and Steve Young may eventually have company when the 49ers’ elite quarterbacks convene.

NFC West teams have spent a lot of high draft picks on offensive skill-position players: Smith (No. 1 overall in 2005), Rams quarterback Sam Bradford (No. 1 in 2010), Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald (No. 3 in 2004).

Still, the division’s calling card in Week 2 was defense. The 49ers, Cardinals and Seahawks each held their opponents to one touchdown. And those rivals (the Lions, Patriots and Cowboys, respectively) had each scored at least three TDs in their openers.

The Rams allowed Griffin to run for two touchdowns and throw for one, but they came up with big stops when they needed them. And they defended Griffin better than the Saints had a week earlier—thanks to a better pass rush and a week’s worth of tape to study.

Few observers expect multiple playoff teams to emerge from the NFC West. The Seahawks have a rookie quarterback in Russell Wilson; the Cardinals are fluctuating between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton; and the Rams are coming off a 2–14 season.

And the tests keep coming this weekend: Arizona hosts the unbeaten Eagles, Seattle entertains the Packers and the Rams visit the Bears.

Still, it doesn’t appear the West is a pushover anymore.

“It’s a very aggressive division,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll told Seahawks.com. “Our style, San Francisco’s style, the way the Cardinals are playing defense. I don’t know much about the Rams; haven’t seen them much, yet. But what else is Jeff [Fisher] going to do? He’s going to bring it.

“So it’s shaping up to be a really cool division. And I think people are going to look at it a lot differently than they have, say, a couple years ago.”

UPSET PICK

Without Darrelle Revis, the Jets fell flat against the Steelers—as did the Pick’s opening salvo. This week, we’ll take the Bengals (4-point road underdogs) to spoil the hobbled Redskins’ home opener.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

  • COUNTING DOWN
  • 1. 49ers (2–0)

    Defense quiets elite QBs.

    2. Falcons (2–0)

    Defense confused Manning.

    3. Texans (2–0)

    Denver offers first real test.

    4. Packers (1–1)

    Rookies making an impact.

    5. Eagles (2–0)

    Better to be lucky

    6. Ravens (1–1)

    Abandoned running game.

    7. Cardinals (2–0)

    Even they are surprised.

    8. Patriots (1–1)

    Losing TE Hernandez hurts.

    9. Broncos (1–1)

    Dug too big a hole.

    10. Steelers (1–1)

    Steel Curtain returned.

    11. Chargers (2–0)

    Not used to early success.

    12. Lions (1–1)

    Still can’t beat the elite.

    13. Seahawks (1–1)

    Rookie QB Wilson a keeper.

    14. Cowboys (1–1)

    Consistently inconsistent.

    15. Bears (1–1)

    Blocking issues re-emerge.

    16. Giants (1–1)

    Eli to the rescue again.

    17. Jets (1–1)

    Is it Tebow time yet?

    18. Rams (1–1)

    Fisher gets quick results.

    19. Buccaneers (1–1)

    Schiano making enemies

    20. Panthers (1–1)

    Giants will target Newton.

    21. Redskins (1–1)

    Serious blow to defense.

    22. Colts (1–1)

    Way ahead of 2011 pace.

    23. Vikings (1–1)

    Defense fails to finish.

    24. Bengals (1–1)

    Porous defense an issue.

    25. Bills (1–1)

    C.J. is running like O.J.

    26. Dolphins (1–1)

    Bush relishes feature role.

    27. Saints (0–2)

    Shredded by mobile QBs.

    28. Browns (0–2)

    Not as bad as they look.

    29. Chiefs (0–2)

    RB Charles is hurt again.

    30. Raiders (0–2)

    Ground game is anemic.

    31. Jaguars (0–2)

    117 total yards vs. Texans.

    32. Titans (0–2)

    Defense can’t get off field.

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