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Rams’ potential roadblock to postseason is NFC West, toughest division in NFL

Rams head coach Sean McVay instructs quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Rams are hoping a quarterback Matthew Stafford-coach Sean McVay combination will lead to super results.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The Rams aim to play in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium — a home date that can be achieved more easily by securing home-field advantage for the playoffs.

The first step entails winning the NFC West.

That won’t be easy.

The division is regarded as one of NFL’s toughest, with the Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals all regarded as contenders.

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“Selfishly, wish it was easier,” Rams general manager Les Snead said. “But realistically, well aware that, man, we play six games that are — doesn’t matter how good you are. It’s going to be a battle.”

The Rams won the division twice in four seasons under coach Sean McVay.

With a new quarterback in Matthew Stafford and a deep threat in DeSean Jackson, the Rams’ offense is expected to be super this season.

In 2017, the Rams became division champions for the first time since 2003, and then lost a home NFC wild-card game against the Atlanta Falcons. In 2018, a 13-3 record earned the Rams a bye into the divisional round. They defeated the Dallas Cowboys in a home game before beating the New Orleans Saints in overtime on the road in the NFC championship game. The New England Patriots beat them 13-3 in the Super Bowl.

The Rams finished third in 2019 and missed the playoffs. Last season, they were second behind the Seahawks, forcing them to win a wild-card game at Seattle before advancing to play a divisional-round game at Green Bay, where the season ended.

With new quarterback Matthew Stafford and a defense led by defensive tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the Rams appear primed to win another division title.

The 49ers, under coach Kyle Shanahan, are attempting to rebound from last season’s injury-related nosedive and return to 2019 form, when they won the division and advanced to the Super Bowl.

Rams coach Sean McVay has his quarterback in Matthew Stafford. All the pieces are assembled. Time for a Super Bowl finish at SoFi Stadium.

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The Seahawks’ division title last season was their first since 2016. The Cardinals have not won the division since 2015, when they advanced to the NFC championship game.

A look at the division:

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance avoids Chargers defensive back Tevaughn Campbell during a preseason game.
Will San Francisco’s Lance (5) be in the 49ers’ quarterback picture this season?
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

49ers

How they can win the division: If quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo comes back strong from an ankle injury — and Shanahan also effectively works rookie quarterback Trey Lance into an offense that features tight end George Kittle — the 49ers could be formidable. Defensive lineman Nick Bosa has returned from a knee injury, making an outstanding front seven even better.

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Why they wouldn’t: Injuries. That’s true for every NFL team but the 49ers last season turned it into an art form. If Garoppolo struggles and Shanahan is slow to replace him, that also could set them back. DeMeco Ryans was promoted to defensive coordinator from within, but can he get as much out of his players as Robert Saleh did before leaving to become coach of the Jets?

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson reacts on the field.
Will all the offseason trade rumors have an effect Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson?
(Jennifer Stewart / Associated Press)

Seahawks

How they can win the division: Russell Wilson displayed MVP form through the first five games last season, cooled some the rest of the way and the Seahawks still finished first. If running back Chris Carson stays physically sound and Wilson goes to the next level with receivers Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf and Freddie Swain, the Seahawks could repeat, especially with a defense featuring linebacker Bobby Wagner and safety Jamal Adams.

Here’s how every team in the NFC is set to finish over the course of the 2021 NFL season.

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Why they wouldn’t: Wilson, upset by offseason speculation that he was close to being traded, strays from his trademark laser focus and falters. Carson is sidelined by injury. Coach Pete Carroll loses a handle on how to produce 10th consecutive winning season.

Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt runs during drills.
Can new Arizona defensive end J.J. Watt help lift the Cardinals to another level?
(Matt York / Associated Press)

Cardinals

How they can win the division: Kyler Murray, in his third season, puts it all together as a passer and runner and finds a way to help end Sean McVay’s domination of the Cardinals. Three-time NFL defensive player of the year J.J. Watt injects a new attitude that lifts the entire roster.

Why they wouldn’t: Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the Rams are built for a Super Bowl run, the Seahawks are a perennial winner under Carroll and the 49ers are one year removed from playing in the Super Bowl. The Cardinals need to prove they can make more than occasional clutch plays.


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