The new NFL playoff format will see seven teams from each conference reach the postseason, and that presents the division widely regarded as the league’s best with an opportunity for history.
A realignment of divisions following the addition of the Houston Texans to the league in 2002 had made it impossible for four teams from the same division to reach the playoffs.
That is no longer the case in the wake of playoff expansion, though, providing the NFC West with the chance to do what the five-team AFC East last did back in 1998.
With division champions the San Francisco 49ers still considered the class of the NFC by many and the Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals all likely to be competitive, there is a clear possibility all four could be playing postseason football come January.
How likely is that? Here we look at each team to assess the chances of the NFC West having three wild card teams to go with its division winner.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are attempting to avenge their Super Bowl LIV agony. Kyle Shanahan’s team were minutes away from lifting the Lombardi Trophy before Patrick Mahomes propelled the Kansas City Chiefs to glory.
It is typically usual for great defensive teams as the 49ers were in 2019 to experience some kind of regression and San Francisco traded All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts in the offseason.
However, the Niners still have a ferocious pass rush and a dynamic offense overseen by arguably the league’s premier play-caller in Shanahan. The addition of seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams as a replacement for the retired Joe Staley could see a devastating running game get even better while tight end George Kittle is the most versatile offensive weapon in the game.
The question surrounds quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo – maligned by some after the Super Bowl loss – and whether he can take the step forward to keep the Niners atop the conference. With Shanahan calling the plays, the smart money is on Garoppolo and the 49ers silencing the doubters.
Game Week! pic.twitter.com/5Sg5FgzjFA
— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) September 8, 2020
On offense, the Seahawks are the inverse of the 49ers. There are no doubts about their quarterback but there are plenty around the coaching staff’s ability to maximize his MVP skill set.
Despite Seattle’s bizarre focus on running the ball rather than putting the game in the hands of Russell Wilson, they have missed the playoffs only twice in Pete Carroll’s 10 seasons as head coach and the Seahawks were inches away from beating the 49ers in Week 17 and winning the division last year.
There are concerns about the pass rush after Jadeveon Clowney was not re-signed but an underrated secondary was significantly bolstered by the acquisition of All-Pro safety Jamal Adams in a blockbuster trade.
The hope will be that Adams can slow down Kittle and the 49ers. That may be wishful thinking but, as long as Wilson is around to perform his trademark late-game heroics, there appears little chance of Seattle missing out on an expanded postseason.
Los Angeles Rams
Had playoff expansion happened before last season, the Rams would have made the postseason in 2019, a fact that serves as evidence their ‘Super Bowl hangover’ was not as bad as perceived.
Head coach Sean McVay was overshadowed by Shanahan last year but he remains among the league’s best in terms of play-calling acumen. He should continue to put Jared Goff in favourable positions in 2020 but the success of the Rams’ quest to get back to the playoffs hinges on two things: their offensive line and their defensive coordinator.
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) September 10, 2020
Injuries and a decline in performance from the O-Line was a significant factor in a disappointing 2019 for Los Angeles. They chose to bring back veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth and the hope is that better continuity up front will fuel a committee group of runners to production the departed Todd Gurley was unable to deliver last year.
Brandon Staley is a relative unknown that has the huge responsibility of replacing legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. To his advantage is that he gets to coach perennial Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and the new highest-paid cornerback in football Jalen Ramsey.
If he delivers a resurgence on that side of the ball, expect the Rams to again be a force in the NFC.
After an Offensive Rookie of the Year season from 2019 first overall pick Kyler Murray, the Cardinals have been the darlings of the offseason.
The stunning trade for All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins won them more admirers who anticipate an exciting offense helping Arizona challenge in the division.
While the NFL is an offense-first league, there is not enough on defense in Arizona to provide the support needed for the Cardinals to contend for the division title.
Pass rusher Chandler Jones is frequently in the Defensive Player of the Year mix and Budda Baker is a versatile playmaker at safety, but a lack of talent elsewhere on defense should stymie their hopes of an NFC West crown.
The offense could be productive enough to keep them in the mix for a wild card berth, however, in a loaded conference, Arizona’s shortcomings when Murray is not on the field may just be what stops the entire NFC West from going to the playoffs in 2020.