OSN Column: The NFC West Has Been Re-Established As The Best Division In NFL. Can Seattle Keep Up?

By: Casey Mabbott/Oregon Sports News

In the last eleven years, a team from the NFC West has made it to the conference championship eight times. The only seasons the NFC west was not represented occurred in 2016-17 and 2020. Two teams from the NFC West have appeared in the NFC Championship game twice in the last decade, while no other division in the league has accomplished the same feat once.

The NFC West trails only the AFC East in total appearances over the same span, however since the West has had two teams appear in the conference championship twice, they technically own the current active streak with ten appearances against nine from the AFC East.

The Super Bowl is another story, as the NFC West has appeared in the Super Bowl six times in the last eleven years, winning once.

2008 is the last time two teams from the same division appeared in the AFC Championship Game. It was between Pittsburgh and Baltimore; Pittsburgh beat Baltimore to advance to the Super Bowl and then defeated Arizona to win the Super Bowl.

2010 is the last time two teams from the same division other than the NFC West appeared in the NFC Championship game. Green Bay defeated Chicago to advance to the Super and defeated Pittsburgh to win the Super Bowl.

In 2013, Seattle faced San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game, defeating the 49ers to advance to the Super Bowl, where they defeated Denver for their first Super Bowl championship.

Before the 2021 season, these were the only examples of a division sending two teams to the conference championship game going back to 2002, when the current divisions were assigned. The winner of all three matchups has won the Super Bowl.

Los Angeles and San Francisco faced off in the NFC Championship this past weekend, with LA defeating San Francisco to advance to the Super Bowl. LA will face the Cincinnati Bengals, who are making their first appearance since 1988. Only three players on the Rams (Matthew Stafford, Eric Weddle, and Andrew Whitworth) and only two players on the Bengals (Clark Harris and Kevin Huber) were alive the last time the Bengals made it to the Super Bowl. Rams head coach Sean McVay was two years old at the time, and Bengals head coach Zac Taylor was four years old.

But we’re not on to Cincinnati just yet. In the table below, you can see how the entire league fares over the last eleven years, and it’s not even close. The NFC West has sent 10 teams to the conference championship, and 6 of those teams have gone on to the Super Bowl. Seattle’s championship in 2013 remains the lone hardware to date, but that doesn’t make the feat any less significant. It’s not just one team going, they have sent three teams at least twice in that span, and all four teams from the division have been to at least one conference championship. No division in the league can make the same claim.

Something Seattle should take note of is that the other teams in the division have all been to the conference championship since their last appearance in 2014, and two of them have been to the Super Bowl in the last four years. That’s a steep level of competition, and Arizona is the only team other than Seattle to not appear in the Super Bowl since at least 2014. LA and San Francisco are not on another level from their division rivals, but they play like they are.

Many are making a big deal about Stafford helping the Rams get their offense to another level, but the simple truth is that Jared Goff had that team cruising in 2018, and it wasn’t until he met Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl that someone finally made a blueprint of how to beat him. Goff hasn’t been the same player since, eventually losing favor with McVay and being traded for Stafford. Stafford has been everything they expected and more, but it hasn’t been a perfect season.

The Rams struggled in the middle of the year as Stafford had multiple games with multiple interceptions, tying his career-high of 17. He offset that number by tossing 41 touchdowns, nine more than he had ever thrown in a single season before. He also passed for 4886 yards, the third-most in his career, while attempting 31 fewer passes than his career-high and completing 67.2 percent of them, the highest in his career. It would appear the Rams got a more efficient Stafford than the league had seen previously. If Stafford can lead the Rams to victory over the Bengals, no one will remember what it cost to bring him to LA; they will only remember what LA got in return. If the Rams lose, it might ignite some of the questions the 2019 Rams faced when they went 9-7 and missed the playoffs.

The Stafford situation is especially important as two of the teams in the division face an offseason filled with questions for their star QB. San Francisco is all but certain to move on from Jimmy Garoppolo after he led them to the conference championship game and held a 10 point lead in the fourth quarter. This comes a couple of years after Jimmy had the ball and a 10 point lead in the Super Bowl, eventually losing both games. The truth is that for all of the chatter about his winning percentage, Jimmy struggles when the chips are down, especially in big games. 49ers fans and coaches may not want to admit it publicly, but when you watch the film, you can tell this offense does their best to hide him from being needed in a big moment. Most teams would be insane to move on from a player that led them to a Super Bowl and a conference championship game in the last three years, but with Trey Lance waiting in the wings and Jimmy’s best moments possibly behind him, it might be time to move on, especially since he has just one year remaining on his contract.

No one can deny that Jimmy helped the 49ers skyrocket back to NFL relevance after a few tough years in the basement, but he didn’t do it alone. One of the top running games and defensive units certainly helped, and there are concerns about his health that cannot be ignored—not knowing if your most valuable player can stay healthy or win you the most important games are not questions you want when you are paying them more than any other player on the roster.

Jimmy isn’t the only big-name QB unsure of his immediate and long-term future. Seattle QB Russell Wilson made plenty of headlines last year when he either didn’t or definitely did make some trade demands. Whether those demands were real or not, they did the job. Seattle was very aggressive in putting together a competitive roster and traded away a lot of draft capital to do so – draft picks they probably will need if Wilson were to leave. The good news is that Wilson is under contract through the 2023 season, so he will need to force his way out or sit out to avoid playing in Seattle. Wilson stated he wants to compete for and win Super Bowls and prefers to do so in Seattle. But he implied that he would be willing to play elsewhere if the team around him is not a championship roster.

Whether or not the team in Seattle can win a championship is open to debate, but there is no debate that they are one of the most talented teams, on paper at least. They have all the weapons needed on offense, a solid defense, and a coaching staff willing to go old school or new school at the flip of a switch. Sometimes that’s a great tool to have; other times, it makes this team look like one without an identity. Russ seems to play best when he can balance the running and passing games, but he, like a lot of other QBs, prefers to throw the ball. Most veteran QBs will tell you they don’t care how many pass attempts they get as long as the team wins, but we’ve all heard that before from a player obviously troubled by the current offensive output. When you’re winning, no one complains. When you lose more than half your games after a 12-4 season, you start to question many things around you. Regardless of who the front office puts on the roster for next season, Russ has to believe this is a team he can win it all with. If he doesn’t believe that, he should make it clear to the front office and tell them to get everything they can for him while he’s still a big deal. If they wait too long or he has another serious injury, the clock might strike midnight on a blockbuster trade, especially if interested parties think they can just wait to sign him at the end of next year.

It’s not likely Seattle will be out of the playoffs next year, but it’s a lot of unknowns. The Rams failed to make the playoffs in 2019, got back to the dance in 2020, but decided they needed an upgrade at QB to get back to the big game. It helped they had the assets Detroit was looking for and that Stafford wanted to play in LA. If Seattle makes a change at QB, they are more likely to get something like what Detroit received, not what LA received. They would overnight go from being a competitive team to one that might be good in a few years. A comparable trade would send Wilson to Indianapolis in exchange for Carson Wentz and a package of picks and players. Wilson to Denver for a package built around Drew Lock would be another option. It would raise many eyebrows, but it might not be the worst thing. If the front office does it right, they could be right back in contention in 3-4 years. That’s the last thing a ticket sales agent wants to hear, and the same goes for the fans. But it might work best in the long run. Sooner or later, this team will have to move on from Wilson. I’m certainly not advocating for it, but I’m also not denying it.

The rest of the NFC West is built to be competitive now and in a few years, while Seattle is built to be competitive now. If they can get at least one more deep playoff run out of Wilson, it will all be worth it. But if their now seven-year absence from the Conference Championship game extends to 8, 9, or even 10 years – fans are going to wonder why they didn’t make a change back when they had the chance and the chips. There are plenty of ways to go all in, but you can’t keep folding. Sooner or later, Seattle needs to put all their chips on the table and make a big bet and just see what happens. Their division rivals are going all-in. It’s time they also did.

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