Richard Sherman may not be a favorite of football fans in the Bay Area, but after his Seahawks destroyed the Broncos in Sunday’s Super Bowl, he acknowledged that the real Super Bowl had been played two weeks before.
“The NFC Championship was the Super Bowl,” said the Seahawks All-Pro cornerback. “The 49ers were the second-best team in the NFL.”
And the NFC West is beyond a doubt the toughest division in the league, with the Seahawks and 49ers at the top of the pack and the Cardinals and Rams just steps behind.
The Seahawks went 13-3 and the 49ers were 12-4 in the regular season to both gain playoff spots, but Arizona, too, could have advanced through the postseason the way it was playing at the end of the season. The Cardinals finished 10-6, had the league’s sixth-ranked defense and, over the final weeks of the season, beat Seattle in Seattle and almost toppled the 49ers in Arizona.
The Rams, meanwhile, finished just a game below .500 at 7-9 while having to play the Seahawks, 49ers and Cardinals six times. They went 1-5 against their division mates – meaning they were 6-4 against the rest of the NFL.
As Don Banks of Sports Illustrated noted this week, the NFC West clearly was the crucible that molded the Seahawks into Super Bowl champions.
“In retrospect, surviving and conquering the rugged and highly competitive NFC West clearly left Seattle well-prepared for a successful Super Bowl run in a way Denver was not, coming out of the less-powerful AFC West,” Banks wrote. “The outclassed Broncos simply looked as if they had never seen a team quite as complete and dominant as the NFC-champion Seahawks with their young, athletic and aggressive defense and that efficient, mistake-free offense.”
Added Banks: “Seattle owes at least a word of things to the rest of the NFC West for its readiness.”
As Banks points out, the four teams in the NFC West combined to go 42-22, five games better than the next division, the AFC West (37-27), and the NFC West was the only division in which three teams won at least 10 games.
And the style of play in the NFC West is more focused on defense and strong run games. All four teams ranked in the top 10 on defense against the run and all four were in the top 13 in scoring defense.
It’s possible the Seahawks and 49ers, both with young rosters, proven general managers and coaches and owners willing to spend money, could be in for several years of trading places atop the division and the league – pushed by the Cardinals and Rams, as well.
“Luckily for NFL fans, the two top teams in the NFC West appear to be built for the long haul,” wrote Ari Liljienwall of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer this week. “Both have fantastically athletic young quarterbacks and elite-level defenses. This should only mean more hard-nosed battles and entertaining football for years to come.”