NFL division preview: NFC West

Tyler Dragon
USA TODAY Sports Plus

Seattle is the frontrunner to repeat as division champs, but the NFC West has had a different division winner for three consecutive seasons.

USA TODAY Sports+ examines each division prior to kickoff of the 2021 NFL season. And there's plenty of intrigue surrounding this unique year, which features 17 games after the NFL expanded its regular season for the first time since 1978.

The playoffs will begin the weekend of Jan. 15 and Los Angeles will host Super Bowl LVI Feb. 13, 2022.

Now, let's get into it.

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NFC West

Team to beat? Seattle Seahawks

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) greets wide receiver DK Metcalf (14) during warmups before the team's NFL football preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Russell Wilson is one of the best quarterbacks in the league and DK Metcalf is an emerging star at wide receiver. The Seahawks also bolstered their offensive line by acquiring guard Gabe Jackson via trade.

Wilson and the Seahawks offense specialize in improvisation, which gives opposing defenses fits. Yet, there are times when the Seahawks are too reliant on Wilson.

HIGH EXPECTATIONS: Seahawks face pivotal season with Super Bowl aspirations

On defense, the club re-signed strong safety Jamal Adams to a mega deal. Adams along with do-everything linebacker Bobby Wagner gives Seattle two standout playmakers on the second and third level of the defense.

The NFC West is one of the most competitive divisions in football. Seattle has the best top-tier talent.

Team on the rise? San Francisco 49ers

Injuries severely hampered the 49ers last year. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (ankle) was limited to six games and defensive end Nick Bosa (knee) was injured in Week 2.

The Niners have the talent to be a serious contender. They are not too far removed from representing the NFC in Super Bowl LIV.

DOUBLE TAKE: Could the 49ers quarterback tandem provide big returns this season?

The arrival of rookie QB Trey Lance could light a fire under Garoppolo, who heads into the season as the starter. Lance is viewed as the team’s future franchise quarterback. 

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan has one of the brightest offensive minds in the NFL and San Francisco boasts one of the best defensive front sevens in the league.

Injuries caused the 49ers to limp to a 6-10 finish a year ago. The club has a good opportunity to rebound from a disappointing 2020 season if key players can stay away from the injured reserve list.

Team with some intrigue? Los Angeles Rams

Rams coach Sean McVay is hoping his offense will be rejuvenated with the arrivals of QB Matthew Stafford, RB Sony Michel and WR DeSean Jackson.

McVay’s offense was handicapped at times last year because of inconsistent play at quarterback. That was a major reason the team decided to ship Jared Goff to Detroit in exchange for Stafford in what was a blockbuster trade.

Defensive tackle Aaron Donald is arguably the most dominant player in all of football and the Rams also have the best cornerback in the NFL in Jalen Ramsey. Together they led the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL last year.

The Rams, 49ers and Seahawks could all earn playoff berths.

Team with the most ground to make up? Arizona Cardinals

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray looks to the sideline after failing to convert a third down during the first half of the preseason game against the Chiefs at State Farm Stadium in Glendale on August 20, 2021.

After starting last season 5-2, the Cardinals closed out the year losing six of their final nine games.

Arizona had an active offseason, acquiring defensive end J.J. Watt and wide receiver A.J. Green, while trading for center Rodney Hudson.

The veteran acquisitions should serve the Cardinals well as they attempt to earn their first playoff berth since 2015.

Two NFC West teams (Seahawks and Rams) made the postseason in 2020. The Cardinals currently have the longest playoff drought in the division.