NFC West Preview: Over/Under Win Projections
By Brandon Burnett
Cold, Hard Football Facts Wizard of the NFC West
Think you've got the NFC West figured out? Vegas does.
Three of the division's four teams exceeded their projected win total for 2011, meaning the over/under for the 49ers, Seahawks and Cardinals have increased this time around. Each squad believes they've made substantial improvements to the roster, but few things in the NFL go according to plan.
Let's look at this year's over/under for every NFC West team.
Arizona (Over/under: 7)
Last year: O/U 6.5 (Over, 8-8)
THE CASE FOR OVER
A healthy finish to 2011 breeds optimism in the desert.
The Cardinals closed out their 2011 campaign on a 7-2 run after getting off to a horrid 1-6 start.
Oddly enough, it was John Skelton, not Kevin Kolb (who missed final nine games with injury), leading the Cards' offense during that 7-2 stretch.
If Ken Wisenhunt can cut his losses with Kolb and move forward with Skelton at the helm, this unit has the potential to complement a solid defense very nicely.
Let's face it, though, neither Kolb nor Skelton are desirable options at QB. The two combined to give Arizona a ranking of 29th overall (64.96) in Cold, Hard Football Facts' Real Quarterback Rating.
Real QBR is one of CHFF's Quality Stats (check it out here), and eight of the top ten finishers in this stat qualified for the playoffs last year. In fact, Real QBR may be the most important stat in football, according to the Correlation to Victory charts at CHFF Insider: teams that won the Real QBR battle went an astonishing 223-33 (.871) in 2011.
However, keep in mind that Skelton has proven something of a miracle worker, with five fourth-quarter comebacks and six game-winning drives in 11 NFL starts, a pace simply unheard of compared with his peers. For a little perspective, Aaron Rodgers boasts just three fourth-quarter comebacks and six game-winning drives in 62 starts.
Barring another season of miracle finishes, it's likely going to be another rough year for Cardinals' signal-callers. But a healthy Ryan Williams at RB and the arrival of WR Michael Floyd (first-round pick) alongside Larry Fitzgerald should mask the weakness to some extent.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
The Offensive line could be the NFL's worst.
In defense of the Cards' duo of underwhelming quarterbacks, the O-line hasn't been doing them any favors.
Arizona finished tied with the lowly Rams last year for dead last on the Offensive Hog Index, including 31st at protecting the passer.
After allowing the second-most sacks (54) in the NFL in 2011, left tackle Levi Brown is now out for the year. On the right side of the line, you have Adam Snyder, who the 49ers let go after a sub-par performance a year ago, slotted at guard and rookie Bobby Massie is slated to start at the tackle spot.
If this make-shift O-line crumbles, there won't be much to keep this team from sinking to the depths of the NFC in a hurry.
The defense finished the 2011 season on a high note, giving up no more than 23 points in any of the Cardinals' final nine contests. But the lack of a serviceable QB and presence an extremely shaky O-line will prove to be disastrous for this youthful group. There is talent to be found on this roster, just not nearly enough to cover up its glaring holes that exist. UNDER 7.
Seattle (Over, under 7.5)
Last year: O/U 6.5 (Over, 7-9)
THE CASE FOR OVER
The Hawks' could feature a top-five defense in 2012.
Look no further than the Cold, Hard Football Facts Defensive Passer Rating rankings for confirmation that this defense is not one to be overlooked. Seattle’s D ranked sixth overall in DPR a year ago, behind only the Ravens, Texans, Jets, Steelers and 49ers—in order from first to fifth.
With one of the league’s better defensive fronts, the linebackers remain the only question mark for this unit. David Hawthorne—the team’s leading tackler a year ago, is now in New Orleans—but the additions of Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner through the draft should help ease the pain of his departure.
Russell Wilson just might solve the everlasting QB dilemma.
Declaring Wilson the No. 1 QB in Seattle was a move Pete Carroll had no other choice to make after the rookie signal-caller dazzled spectators all summer long.
Nonetheless, it doesn't look good that you poured $19.5 million over three years into free-agent Matt Flynn, who couldn't beat out a third-round draft pick for a spot he fully expected have locked down.
Foolish or not, wins are all that matters. Wilson has played like a veteran since he came to Seattle, making sound decisions and accurate throws. He can move the chains with his feet, too.
If the preseason success translates to games that count, those wins will come. And no one will care how much Matt Flynn is making as a backup in the NFL, either.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
Where is Wilson going to throw the ball?
No matter how well the rookie QB performs in 2012, he may not be able to overcome the lack of legitimate weapons in the passing game.
Marshawn Lynch and rookie RB Robert Turbin could make for a dynamic and powerful duo in the backfield, but the fact that Seattle signed WR Braylon Edwards and experimented with Terrell Owens is a sign that this coaching staff is not confident in its receiving corps.
2011 undrafted free-agent WR Doug Baldwin led the team in receiving yards a year ago, and he's been hampered by a bad hamstring much of the offseason. Returning an offensive line that allowed 50 sacks in 2011, Wilson could be running for his life much of the year.
The defense has the potential to be one of the league's best, but the lack of firepower on offense will stunt this team's growth and keep them out of the postseason. I can see an 8-9 win season in the cards, but a tough schedule will keep double-digits just out of reach. OVER 7.5.
St. Louis (Over, under 6)
Last year: O/U 7.5 (Under, 2-14)
THE CASE FOR OVER
They've done it before.
From 2003 until now, only one team that finished a 16-game season with two or less victories wound up better than 6-10 the following season.
However, that team was none other than the 2010 St. Louis Rams, who finished 7-9.
Third-year QB Sam Bradford was bit by the sophomore slump, but he's still a talented signal-caller. Equipped with a new head coach in Jeff Fisher and an impressive incoming draft class, this team is sure to head in the only direction they really can go: up, of course.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
No experience necessary.
An extremely young squad with a brand new head coach means there will be many speed bumps on the winding road out of the NFL's cellar. Believe it or not, though, "extremely young" is an absolute understatement for this crowd of newbies.
St. Louis heads into the season with a handful of starters who are 25 and under, and the offensive line allowed a league-worst 55 sacks in 2011. Pro Bowl RB Steven Jackson brings a veteran presence to this youth-laden squad, but it's going to take a considerable amount of time for any real chemistry to develop on either side of the ball.
The pieces are in place for the Rams to find success, but not without their fair share of growing pains along the way. This team was at or near the bottom of almost every CHFF Quality Stat in 2011, including No. 31 in our Quality Stats Power Rankings, a convincing sign that there's simply too much to overcome in one season. UNDER 6.
San Francisco (Over, under 10)
Last year: 7.5 (Over, 13-3)
THE CASE FOR OVER
In Harbaugh they trust.
49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh grabbed his team's attention quickly upon his arrival to the Bay Area in January, 2011, and his grip grows tighter by the day. Everything came together for the 49ers all year until it all fell apart in the NFC championship overtime loss to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Giants.
Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke responded to the heartbreaking loss by upgrading the skill positions on offense and retaining all eleven starters from an absolutely dominant defensive unit.
Stocked full of hungry, well-coached All-Pro talent and ample depth across the board, the sky is the limit for the Red and Gold in 2012.
Alex Smith's progression is clear.
After six comeback wins a year ago (playoff win vs. Saints included), No 11's confidence is soaring. He enters the season with a much clearer understanding of offensive coordinator Greg Roman's playbook. Smith spent some much-needed time improving his mechanics this summer, too.
A unique ability to limit turnovers is what made the QB so valuable in 2011, but the additions of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to go along with TE Vernon Davis and WR Michael Crabtree should help Harbaugh and Roman run a more balanced offense in year two. Particularly one that isn't quite as dependent on the running game, though it will remain the team's staple.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
Unforgiving schedule offers no solace.
The 49ers get their season started Week 1 against reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field. It will conclude with two divisional matchups that follow a Week 15 visit to Foxborough to face off against Tom Brady and the Patriots.
In between, the Niners get Stafford and Megatron Week 2, the world-champion Giants Week 6 and Drew Brees' Saints at the Superdome Week 12.
San Fran's All-Pro laden defense will have little opportunity for rest, as they'll face test after test throughout the year. This unit forced 38 turnovers a year ago, but the odds of repeating that rare total are not high.
Also, rookie phenom Aldon Smith graduates from third-down pass-rush specialist to full-time outside linebacker. The Defensive Rookie of the Year runner-up tallied 14 sacks in 2011, but he's raw in terms of stopping the run and dropping into coverage, so the possibility of a sophomore slump does exist.
If Aldon struggles to disrupt the backfield, it will be much easier for the NFL's top passers to pick the 49ers secondary apart.
The tough schedule, combined with the idea that the 49ers will fall back to earth in 2012, have made picking 10 wins or less a popular theme around the football world.I tend to disagree. Inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman center a 3-4 defense with unlimited potential, and the front office made solid moves over the offseason to prevent 2011's weaknesses from carrying over into 2012. This is a dangerous team with their sights set squarely on Super Bowl XLVII. OVER 10.
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