4:40 PM EDT, September 29, 2012
Two years ago, the NFC West was a joke.
Four teams, four losing records. The Seattle Seahawks became the first team in history to win a division and reach the postseason at 7-9.
Fast forward to today, and the NFC West is, top to bottom, the best division in football.
Undefeated Arizona won at New England and stomped Philadelphia.
Before losing to Minnesota last Sunday, San Francisco had convincing wins at Green Bay and over Detroit.
Seattle crushed Dallas, then edged Green Bay — with an asterisk for that Hail Mary, yes, but the Seahawks had eight sacks in the first half, plus their share of calls and noncalls go against them.
And, even though it's coming off a 17-point loss at Chicago, St. Louis is much improved under Jeff Fisher. The Rams are rich with first-round picks to come too, as part of the deal that sent the Robert Griffin III pick to Washington. Rams-Bears was close for three quarters before Chicago capitalized on some key mistakes in the fourth.
It's no surprise that, as a group, NFC West teams have spent more on coaching than any division, with each coach making more than $5 million a year. Three of those coaches are former NFL players, with Seattle's Pete Carroll being the exception. Each of the teams has a young, dynamic, respected personnel director. And everyone can play defense.
"All four teams have very similar blueprints," said Kevin Demoff, chief operating officer of the Rams. "It starts with them being well coached, efficient quarterback play, strong running games and aggressive defenses."
Typically, the NFC West is one strong team and three also-rans. As the first quarter of the season comes to a close, this looks like it could be an intriguing division race, the Left Coast finally getting something right.
That surgically reconstructed Pro Bowl quarterback who left the Eastern time zone to finish his career in the AFC West isn't doing so bad through the first three weeks.
Not Peyton Manning, the Raiders' Carson Palmer.
Palmer has been a bright spot for the Raiders, and his stats and passer rating are slightly better than Manning's heading into Sunday's Raiders-Broncos game.
A few weeks ago, some people were circling New Orleans at Green Bay as a possible preview to the NFC championship game. Who would have dreamed those teams would be a combined 1-5, and both would be so desperate for a win?
Barring an epic turnaround, the Saints are done. The Packers are surprisingly deficient in a lot of areas. They can't stop the run, don't protect Aaron Rodgers well and drop far too many passes.
The Packers need to shake off the victory-that-wasn't in Seattle, and begin the process of salvaging a season that has gone sideways so quickly.
Brees approaches Unitas record
Even though the Saints are circling the drain, quarterback Drew Brees has a chance to tie a remarkable record Sunday. Should he throw a touchdown pass against the Packers, it would be his 47th consecutive game with one, tying the mark of Hall-of-Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas.
Incredible as that feat is, it's even more unbelievable that Unitas achieved it in the first place, back when the NFL was all about moving the ball on the ground.
Over the last two seasons, Brees has averaged 41 passes per game. Unitas threw 41 passes in only two of those 47 games, and in one game he threw only nine times.
"When you say that name, Johnny Unitas, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, certainly his accomplishments speak for themselves," Brees said. "It's humbling."
The record is impressive now but was more impressive then.
There's no question the undefeated Atlanta Falcons are an elite team, but because of a scheduling quirk, they haven't played anyone outside of the AFC West. Their three wins have come against Kansas City, Denver and San Diego. They play host to the Raiders in two weeks.
The Falcons, you might say, are well on their way to an AFC West crown.