In the first two weeks, no division had more wins, more points or a higher point differential. And after the NFL expanded the playoff field to 14 teams this season, the NFC West has a chance to become the first division in history to have every team make one postseason.
Before the season, the 49ers had the best chance to win the division, followed by the Seahawks and Rams. Based on the results from Week 1 and Week 2, plus win probabilities based on the weekly preseason point spreads released by BetOnline, all three of those teams are projected to win 10 games. And Arizona is expected to be too far behind with eight.
But San Francisco suffered injuries to defensive end Nick Bosa, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, running back Raheem Mostert and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, blaming “sticky,” “trash” turf in Sunday’s win at the New York Jets. That’s in addition to banged-up tight end George Kittle (knee), who won’t play Sunday at the New York Giants, and cornerback Richard Sherman (calf), who’s on injured reserve. The division is back in play, and Arizona and Los Angeles are the front-runners.
Seattle has a 39 percent chance to win the NFC West, followed by Los Angeles (27 percent), Arizona (19 percent) and San Francisco (15 percent). And nearly all of them have a 50-50 chance or better of making the playoffs. It remains unlikely, however. The chance that all four qualify for the playoffs is 16 percent, or roughly 5-1 odds against.
2020 NFC West
Los Angeles Rams
San Francisco 49ers
Seattle’s next three opponents — the Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings — are a combined 2-5 and feature some of the worst defenses in the league. Dallas has allowed eight more points per game than expected based on the down, distance and field position of each play against it, per data from TruMedia. Minnesota has allowed almost 13 more points per game than expected, and Miami entered Thursday night’s 31-13 win over Jacksonville surrendering nearly 15 more points per game than expected. Look for Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, an early MVP candidate, to feast on these defenses.
The Rams face the unbeaten Buffalo Bills in Week 3 and then take on the Giants (who lost star running back Saquon Barkley for the season in Week 2) and Washington. Los Angeles is the second-best team of 2020 so far, per Pro Football Focus. Buffalo is seventh, New York is 20th, and Washington is 22nd. New York and Washington scored five and eight fewer points per game than expected over the first two weeks, a sign that the Rams’ defense will dominate behind tackle Aaron Donald (13 pressures in two games).
The Cardinals will face winless teams — the Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers and Jets — over the next three weeks and have a quarterback on the rise. Kyler Murray, the No. 1 draft pick in 2019, is one of the most valuable quarterbacks in 2020 (fifth per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating) and has quickly developed chemistry with new wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. They have connected on 22 of 25 targets for 219 yards and a touchdown, resulting in a passer rating of 116.5. Cardinals Coach Kliff Kingsbury thinks that’s just the tip of the iceberg for Murray.
“He’s just made big-time throws and runs when we needed them the most,” Kingsbury told Sports Illustrated. “We haven’t played with a great rhythm yet offensively, but he’s making key plays in big moments to help us find a way to win.”
Luckily for the 49ers, given their recent injuries, their upcoming schedule isn’t loaded with stalwarts, either. San Francisco will face two winless teams — the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles — as well as the 1-2 Dolphins over the next three weeks. But they are the weak link in the quest for four NFC West teams reaching the playoffs. Taking into account injuries, their end-of-season record projects to be 8-8, leaving them as the ninth seed in the NFC. Only the top seven teams qualify for the postseason this year.
To creep into the picture as the No. 7 team and join the other NFC West squads in the postseason, the 49ers will need to flip their projected loss against the Green Bay Packers in Week 9 (46 percent chance of winning) and at least one of their home games against Seattle or Los Angeles. And these games against the Giants, Eagles and Dolphins will be critical. For all four NFC West teams to reach the playoffs, those are must-win games.
Also, the division’s four teams will have to take turns beating one another. By the looks of the NFC projections, it is going to take 10 wins by a non-division winner to make the playoff field. That leaves a slim margin for error for the NFC West teams in division games. For example, in the simulations when an NFC West team won 10 or more games, it had no more than three divisional losses 89 percent of the time. And it had no more than two division losses 58 percent of the time. The takeaway? If an NFC West team gets swept by a division opponent, the odds of all four teams making the playoffs drop significantly.
2020 NFC playoff projection
1. Green Bay Packers
2. Seattle Seahawks
3. New Orleans Saints
4. Dallas Cowboys
5. Los Angeles Rams
6. Arizona Cardinals
7. Chicago Bears
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
9. San Francisco 49ers