Tuesday, September 8, 2015

2015 NFL Preview: NFC West

This is my 18th season projecting NFL regular season and playoff results.  As per my tradition, I select the two teams I expect to win each division and conference after I preview all teams.  Only two times (Super Bowl 34 and Super Bowl 38) was I unable to project at least one of the teams that end up in the Super Bowl.  But on the flip side, the last eleven straight seasons has had a team that has gone from Worst to First to make the playoffs in the NFL and I only projected 4 of those.  So my formula is flawed but oh well, no one is perfect.

Quick cheat sheet to my system

*“Projections” – My resulting win/loss record after going through the full team’s schedule.

*“Plus/Minus Win/Loss differential” – The “plus” is how many more wins they could get, minus being how many fewer wins they could get.  These are based on what I label as “swing” games that could go either way.

Here is my preview of the NFC West:

Arizona Cardinals
2015 Projected Record: 10-6
Win/Loss Plus-Minus Variable: +2/-2
Make or Break Games: 9/13 vs Saints; 10/11 @ Lions; 10/18 @ Steelers; 11/15 @ Seahawks; 12/20 @ Eagles

Synopsis: The Cardinals have one of the most well-rounded rosters in the NFL and they are poised to make it back to the playoffs for the second straight year.  Their defense is loaded with talent such as Cornerback Patrick Peterson, Linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Kevin Minter, along with Defensive Lineman Calais Campbell; the Cardinals will be a challenge for many offenses in 2015.  So then we turn to the offense, where the dubious question remains if starting Quarterback Carson Palmer can stay healthy for the entire season.  When Palmer went out last year, the Cardinals played three different QBs down the stretch as they made the playoffs despite underwhelming play at the Quarterback position.  If Palmer stays healthy, this team can make a playoff run.

San Francisco 49ers
2015 Projected Record: 5-11
Win/Loss Plus-Minus Variable: +2/-2   
Make or Break Games: 9/14 vs Vikings; 11/8 vs Falcons; 12/6 @ Bears; 12/20 vs Bengals

Synopsis: The 49ers have a depleted roster thanks to retirements and free agency.  Trying to replace two all-Pro defensive stalwarts like Patrick Willis and Justin Smith is no easy task.  The defense is a shell of the dominant force it was just a couple years ago and that will be the stumbling stone that puts the 49ers into the 2016 NFL Draft lottery.  Their offense has weapons around starting Quarterback Colin Kaepernick so they will be able to put up points this season.  Free agency acquisitions such as Wide Receiver Torrey Smith and Running Back Reggie Bush add to an offense with dependable veterans like WR Anquan Boldin and Tight End Vernon Davis.  With a brutal schedule that includes playing at Pittsburgh, Arizona, and New York early on will potentially put the 49ers in a win-loss hole they may not have the ammunition to dig themselves out from. 

Seattle Seahawks
2015 Projected Record: 12-4
Win/Loss Plus-Minus Variable: +1/-3
Make or Break Games: 9/13 @ Rams; 9/20 @ Packers; 11/1 @ Cowboys; 12/13 @ Ravens; 1/3 @ Cardinals

Synopsis: The Seattle Seahawks have the opportunity to make another Super Bowl run and reach their third consecutive appearance in the big game.  In 2015 the Seahawks have two major obstacles to overcome. Their Pro Bowl Safety Kam Chancellor has been holding out for a new contract and that hold out has no end in sight.  Chancellor is one of most important players on the “Legion of Boom” defense and having to play without him puts the Seahawks in a vulnerable position.  Next, the Seahawks have to overcome a schedule in which they have to play five games on the road against potential playoff teams (Packers, Bengals, Cowboys, Ravens, and Cardinals).

Adding Pro Bowl Tight End Jimmy Graham to their offense will help the Seahawks reach the playoffs but ultimately this team is built around their defensive success.  How long Chancellor holds out will affect where this team will finish at the end of the season.  A big key to Seattle’s playoff success is having the best home field advantage in the NFC. If they do not finished the regular season with one of the top two records in the conference, they will have to play at least one playoff game on the road.  While I am not assuming they can’t win on the road, I am saying it hurts their chances of success for sure.

St. Louis Rams
2015 Projected Record: 8-8
Win/Loss Plus-Minus Variable: +2/-2
Make or Break Games: 9/13 vs Seahawks; 10/4 @ Cardinals; 11/8 @ Vikings; 11/22 @ Ravens; 11/29 @ Bengals; 12/13 vs Lions

Synopsis: Thanks to great coaching and personal decisions, 2015 will be another year for the Rams with a top 15 defense.  With talent such as Cornerback Janoris Jenkins, Defensive End Chris Long, and Linebacker James Laurinaitis the St. Louis Rams will be keeping many games close.  On the offensive side of the ball, they have a new starting Quarterback Nick Foles who was acquired in the offseason from the Philadelphia Eagles.  Foles joins a team with some good offensive weapons around him; it will be interesting to see how he plays for a head coach who is not an offensive guru.  Jeff Fisher comes from a defensive coaching background and has historically had his team’s offense be centered round the running game instead of high powered passing offense.  We will have to see how the backgrounds of Jeff Fisher and Nick Foles mesh in 2015.  This team has potential to make a playoff run, the question will be how they handle tough road matchups with teams such as the Cardinals, Vikings, Ravens and Bengals.

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