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We’re at the halfway point and things are not as clear as some may have thought in the NFC West. First place Arizona has not pocketed the division as yet, St. Louis has a new and intriguing weapon in their arsenal, and the team that has mostly dominated the division the past few seasons has not quite reclaimed their dominant form despite the return of defensive leader, Kam Chancellor, and the addition of the previously-documented second best tight end in the game. One thing that was extremely predictable is, however, becoming crystal clear; San Francisco is now third-world ugly.

By mid-season, we get a rough idea of the who’s who in the NFL, and I, like everyone else, have my opinions on the teams that will be left standing when the regular-season dust settles. Here’s my first 2015 list of the best NFC teams (1 through 5) based only on play and potential so far this season:

My NFC Top 5: #1 Carolina Panthers, #2 Arizona Cardinals, #3 Green Bay Packers, #4 Atlanta Falcons, and #5 St. Louis Rams

The Panthers are currently playing the most consistent on both sides of the ball. You may be shocked at the Packers’ position but try this on for size; they are 0-and-6 in their last six games against formidable defenses. Of course, this could possibly change if Green Bay beats Carolina week 9.

Arizona is not quite the NFC powerhouse they appeared to be potentially headed for, but they’re not exactly a fall from grace either. They simply set the bar high early in their season, the softer half of their season. The second half for them gets a bit brutal, and the NFC West’s best chance for Super Bowl representation so far will surely be battle tested come post-season. Long term, they are still ahead of who I now consider the worst of the best top teams with 6 or more wins, the Atlanta Falcons, who have lost two of their last three and are 0-and-2 in their division to teams not named [division-leading] Carolina Panthers.

Call me a Rams homer for placing St. Louis in the 5th spot if you must, but I selected the Seattle Seahawks as the top team at the start of the season, then the Rams beat’em, and although Chancellor returned to improve the defense, they haven’t done enough since to make me think the Rams can’t beat them again week 16. Seattle also leads the entire NFL in sacks on quarterback allowed so they would have to do a lot more to deserve post-season consideration over the others.

As it stands now, the NFC West is as advertised — the most competitive division in the NFL — and the second half of the season sends the message, “There will be blood.”

Arizona Cardinals

And now, we’re about to find out what the Cardinals are really made of. In the first eight weeks, (knowing what we know now about the Saints) the hardest teams Arizona has faced has been the two teams that beat them; the Rams and Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger. The next eight weeks promises no such vacation. The remaining schedule includes: Seattle twice (next at Seattle, after the bye, then week 17), Cincinnati (who should still be undefeated after beating the Browns and facing the Texans), St. Louis again (at St. Louis), Minnesota, Philadelphia (in Philly), and Green Bay. Only the 49ers can be considered a sure thing.

Things to consider:

Chris Johnson is second in the NFL with 676 yards and has emerged as the preferred starter over Andre Ellington, rightfully so, but judging by the gas (or lack of) left in his tank during some of his runs, he won’t be the constant workhorse down the stretch. Receiver John Brown is the go-to receiver I thought he’d be, but the NFL is letting him know success comes at a price when little dogs play with big dogs. He may play hurt or sore the rest of the season.

Carson Palmer is tied (with Brady) for the league lead with 20 touchdown passes, first in yards-per-attempt, and fourth in total passing yards. The Arizona offense is first in the league in total points with 263, and second in the NFL in average points scored per game, at 32.9, and third in total yards. Larry Fitzgerald is on pace to surpass career bests in his 12th season, with 55 receptions for 706 yards.

The defense is tied for the league lead (with the Giants…Go figure!), with 13 INTs, and third in FFs (forced fumbles) with 12.

The Bottom Line:

The defense will need to step it up in the second half as they have given up total points of 23, 22, and 20 to the offenses of Chicago, St. Louis and Cleveland. It is not a top-half unit in sacks, but their next opponent (Seattle) may get them going in the right direction. Worse case scenario, I have them losing up five of their last eight. With a current game-and-a-half lead over the Rams and two full games over Seattle, holding on to that lead will be a challenge but doable.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams are particular interesting because they probably have the most upside of all the top NFC teams. If you’ve seen their games, you get the feeling that they are just one more receiver stepping up, and three or four less penalties and away from being a play-off team. With rookie rushing sensation Todd Gurley now in gear and giving them a dangerous 1-2 punch, the offense grows ever so close, while so far away from being taken seriously as anything more than a team in the “spoiler” role.

Things to consider:

Brian Quick…Remember him? Has anyone seen him? He was suppose to be returning from a severe shoulder injury to take the role of lead receiver a relatively easy thing to do given his competition. Tavon Austin is most effective as a slot guy and best used as a utility (or flex) player so the path to WR1 for Quick was clear and simple…at least, on the outside looking in. Coach Fisher, when asked, gives vague replies as to why Quick can’t seem to reclaim his status as the Rams “best receiver” and it’s getting downright frustrating to Rams fans, especially now when Austin and Gurley’s danger is screaming for a deep threat to stretch the field. The Rams offense is simply too easy to game plan against…and opponents still can’t seem to stop Gurley completely. Imagine the fright induced with a consistent deep threat. Quick appears to be in the same spot former Rams receiver Chris Givens was in until his trade to Baltimore a month ago.

The defense is another story; third in points total allowed, tied for second in sacks, fourth in forced fumbles, and they haven’t given up an offensive touchdown since the Green Bay game, week 5. It’s not just play-off worthy, but championship-caliber.

The Bottom Line:

Foles needs to look sharper and make quicker decisions. The team overall has a huge upside, but after eight weeks one is inclined to believe that offensively they just won’t be good enough through the next eight weeks to matter at the next level. The defense will carry them as far as possible, then comes post-season television watching if they can’t add points to their per-game average. My worse case scenario, however, has them losing up to four of eight, so a winning season is within their grasp, and there’s still hope for a wild-card spot.

Seattle Seahawks

It’s really unfortunate that this teams appears to have the worst O-line in the league because the Seahawks still rank 10th in total offensive yards. Somewhat surprising that no moves were made before the trade deadline, as young draftees next year take a while to develop and their championship-capable window already appears to be on the downslide.

Things to consider:

Beyond the offensive line, the grumblings in Seattle have been directed towards cornerback Cary Williams to the point of a change in tactics; Richard Sherman is now asked to play both sides of the field instead of his customary 1-side coverage because Cary (ranked 81st of 106 corners according to Pro Football Focus) was the known target for opposing game plans. Though not a bad move, it’s not nearly enough of an answer for three games (Arizona twice, and Pittsburgh) in which multiple receivers are extremely dangerous. Breaking even with the Cardinals is not an option when you are two games behind with eight games to go, especially when three other games are no walk in the park (Steelers, Vikings, and Rams).

The Bottom Line:

The Seahawks are fighting for a wild-card spot with teams that include the rejuvenated Saints (4-4), who’ve won 4 of their last 5 games and still trail the Falcons and Panthers in their division by at least two games, plus the entire NFC East division with Romo returning soon to the last-place 2-and-5 Cowboys, who could win this weekend and be just one game behind the ‘hawks. Worse case scenario here has them at losing up to five of eight games left. An uphill climb for sure.

San Francisco 49ers

Not sure what I can type here that you don’t already know; The ‘niners are a wreck with no repairs on the horizon. They won’t make the play-offs, they won’t make a move upward in their division at all, and they’ve just benched the only chance to beat the games left that they can possibly win (with plenty of prayer and wishes upon many stars), Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit.

Things to consider:

The holiday season? Next year’s draft, perhaps…and fans should hope they don’t screw that up, along with the off-season in general. I, for one, don’t think they need a quarterback as much as they need Jim Harbaugh to return — They have a better chance at signing coach Saban.

By an equally slim chance this article reaches coach Tomsula (or anyone above him), in the words made famous by Clint Eastwood, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Meaning in this case, if you don’t know what you’re doing, hire people that do and get out of their way. Kaepernick has talent, but he’s not Brady or Manning and can’t see two scenes ahead like them. He’s from the same mode most other run-based QBs are from coming out of college. He’s a scrappy street mutt that should be and needs to be free. Let him do what he does, game plan around his talents, and if you then decide to keep him, put freshed-legged speedsters around him.

The Bottom Line:

There’s no hope here, really, and I don’t do candy-coatings well. Still, I do foresee Blaine Gabbert unable to take advantage of his opportunity and Kaep returning to his starting role. But the 49ers go into the second half of the season banged up at running back and receiver. ‘Niner fans may not want to hear it, but NaVorro Bowman has value heading into the off-season. It’s obviously a rebuilding time and they need many pieces. Worse case scenario has them losing eight straight, and coach Tomsula loses his job.



About Author

Tony Lopez

Tony Lopez is a die-hard Rams fan and Rams representing writer at Fanosis, as well as an avid fantasy football player that has won championships at Yahoo, ESPN, NFL(dot)com and FOX. An ex-employment specialist at Goodwill of Southern California's main headquarters, he has work with prison programs and has L.A. certified training to aid people with disabilities. He is also a poet and ghostwriter.