One week after the Los Angeles Rams humbled the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Arizona Cardinals walked into SoFi Stadium and humbled the Rams. Four weeks after starting the season projected for the NFC West’s basement, the Cardinals stand undefeated atop the division (and the league).
The Cardinals don’t look strong just because they happened to have the most points at the end of their games against the Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings and Tennessee Titans. They have the league’s No. 1 yardage and scoring offense and rank third in Football Outsiders’ total Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) and fifth in Pro Football Focus’s power rankings. They’re currently fifth in FiveThirtyEight’s quarterback-adjusted Elo ratings, with a 52 percent shot to win their division.
But the Cardinals’ surprise success doesn’t mean their division rivals are any weaker. All four teams are in our top 14 — and the squad least likely to make the playoffs still has a 42 percent chance.
Many advanced team-strength metrics tell the same story: The entire division is in the top half of the NFL, if not in the top 14, in most of the systems. Jeff Sagarin’s USA Today rankings have the 49ers just outside the top half, at 18th, while Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System ranks the Niners down at 21st. But while Football Outsiders’ DAVE metric, which blends its DVOA with preseason projections, drops the Cardinals to 10th and the Rams to sixth, it boosts the other two teams into the top 12. To borrow a phrase from international soccer tournaments, the NFC West is the NFL’s Group of Death:
|Los Angeles Rams||6||5||6||9||9||9|
|San Francisco 49ers||13||13||12||11||18||21|
And “top 14” is significant because that’s how many teams make the NFL playoffs. In just the second season since the league added a third wild-card berth to each conference, the NFC West could be the first division in NFL history to have all of its teams qualify for the postseason.
In fact, this year’s NFC West could be the strongest division since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002 and settled into its current alignment.
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Through four games, according to Football Outsiders’ total DVOA, the average NFC West team has been 20.1 percent more efficient than the average NFL team. It’s well ahead of the second-place AFC North, at 12.6 percent, and far ahead of the third-place AFC West, at 5.9 percent. If that holds up over the next 13 games (and 14 weeks) of the NFL regular season, the 2021 NFC West would be the strongest DVOA division of the 32-team era.
But not all the numbers agree that the NFC West is that far ahead of the rest of the league. SRS and Sagarin’s rankings take dimmer views of the Niners and Seattle Seahawks than FiveThirtyEight and PFF do. In fact, Sagarin doesn’t even rank the NFC West as the best conference this year. Its average divisional rating is 22.51, behind the top dog AFC West (23.81).
At this point in the season, any way of ranking NFL team strength will either be leaning heavily on preseason expectations or extrapolating based on less than a quarter of a season’s results. No matter what system or rankings you used, though, the NFC West was expected to be a very strong division, and the results so far have borne that out.
The Cardinals’ surprising 4-0 start has boosted their Elo rating to a third-best 1607, and we give them an 87 percent chance of making the playoffs. Despite falling to the Cardinals, the Rams still have a 73 percent chance of qualifying for postseason, and the Seahawks also have better-than-even odds to make it. At 42 percent, the 49ers are the NFC West team least likely to qualify from here on out — but they’ve still got brighter hopes than 14 other NFL teams.
It’s still early in what will be the longest NFL season ever, though, and almost every scenario for these four teams is still on the table. In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s model projects a 5 percent chance that all four teams from the NFL’s Group of Death make it out alive for the playoffs. And on Thursday night, our predictions will get a very valuable data point when the Rams face the Seahawks in the Emerald City.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.