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In today’s FOX Sports Insider with Martin Rogers: NFL fans will be treated to a pair of must-see NFC West games this week, which should help things fall nicely into focus ... we take a look at how Chris Taylor’s home run propelled the defending champs into an epic NLDS showdown ... we are wish Charles Woodson a happy birthday.
The most impressive thing about the Arizona Cardinals right now might not be that they are the last remaining undefeated team in the National Football League and the only holder of 4-0 status.
Or that Kyler Murray is threatening to establish himself as a genuine MVP candidate with one poised-yet-dynamic performance after another at the quarterback position.
The factor the Cardinals might be proudest of – or should be? That they are on top of the NFC West.
The title of football’s most loaded division currently isn’t up for debate. The NFC West is a brutal gauntlet, with the Cardinals, the Los Angeles Rams, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers trying their darnedest to smash each other up between now and year’s end.
With a combined record of 11-5, the division has the same collective mark as the AFC West and is just one ahead of the 10-6 AFC North. In real terms, however, the NFC West wins hands down and the race for its finish line is going to be a compelling struggle.
It would be no great shock to see three of its teams reach the postseason, provided they don’t inflict too much damage upon each other along the way. Things will come to a head plenty of times throughout the campaign but they fall nicely into focus this week.
On Thursday night, (8:20 p.m. ET on FOX) the Seahawks (+133 with FOX Bet) and the Rams (-115) get at it at Lumen Field, a repeat of last year’s wild-card weekend tussle, where the newly-discarded Jared Goff came in for injured replacement John Wolford, Russell Wilson threw a pick six, and the Rams ran away with a 30-20 triumph.
Then, on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET on FOX), the Cardinals and 49ers meet up in the desert, in another clash with major repercussions for how the standings will shape up. Arizona is favored in this matchup (-225 with FOX Bet), but it wouldn’t take much of a shift for that to feel like a tenuous hold, no matter how good they’ve been so far.
But the fact is that there is strength everywhere you look in the NFC West, and four remaining games against divisional opposition will ensure the Cardinals are thoroughly tested. Arizona got bountiful credit for coming to L.A. and toppling the Rams by a convincing margin of 37-20, Murray deserves his plaudits and head coach Kliff Kingsbury is turning heads.
Yet a week earlier it was the Rams themselves that were national flavor of the moment, having thumped the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at SoFi Stadium.
The 49ers hold intrigue and the sniff of potential, with rookie QB Trey Lance possibly about to get his first real shot, with Jimmy Garoppolo nursing a calf injury. If Aaron Rodgers hadn’t wielded magic in his paw for about 30 seconds two weeks ago, the division would have just two losses to outsiders on its chalkboard.
And while the Seahawks defense being known as a mind-bending force is a long-forgotten notion, Wilson is still motivated as ever to keep the team firmly in this divisional race.
“You have to keep your mind right,” Wilson told reporters. “You have to keep your language right, and I always tell you guys that I have to remain neutral. It’s supposed to be a challenge. Every year will have some challenges that we have to face, and it is what it is.”
The NFC West totaled 36 wins last year and 38 the year before. It’s far from inconceivable that a similarly high standard could be posted this time around.
The cross-divisional rotation on the schedule will see them play each team from the NFC North (currently 6-10 combined) and the AFC South (4-12). FiveThirtyEight has the NFC West representatives as the second (Arizona), fifth (Rams), sixth (Seahawks) and ninth (49ers) most likely teams to reach the playoffs in the NFC.
Of that group, the Rams have the shortest Super Bowl odds, at +850.
Talk like that is for later because there are immediate things to focus on now, with this week figuring to send some serious messages as to where the division’s immediate future may trend.
As if that wasn’t enough there will be some inherent spice, given that the Rams-Seahawks playoff matchup last year wasn’t exactly full of hugs and humor, and plenty of trash talk has flown from both sides ever since.
“When we see them, Week 5?” Seahawks safety Jamal Adams said before the start of the season. “Yeah, we’ll see them.”
However, when you’re in a grouping like this, you have to see everybody, and everybody sees you. In the NFL’s toughest division the battle for supremacy is on already, and it’s real.
Here’s what others have said ...
Skip Bayless, Undisputed: “This is the question of the moment, maybe the biggest question of the NFC: are you sure Matthew Stafford is THAT guy? Because I'm not convinced.”
Ty Schalter, FiveThirtyEight.com: “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.”
Sam Farmer, LA Times: “We’re four weeks into a 17-game season. So three teams from the NFC West is certainly possible. What’s clear is the NFC and AFC West are the toughest divisions, top to bottom.”
Happy Birthday, Charles Woodson! Considered one of the greatest defensive backs in both college football and NFL history, Woodson’s career accolades include being named a nine-time Pro Bowler, a four-time first-team All-Pro, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year, and a Super Bowl champion. Woodson led the NFL in interceptions on two separate occasions in 2009 and ’11 and is one of only four cornerbacks to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the past 30 years. During his time at Michigan, Woodson was a two-time All-American, the Big Ten Player of the Year, and to this day, is the first and only defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. Wishing you a happy, healthy 45th birthday, Charles!
Chicago White Sox at Houston Astros (FS1, 4 p.m. ET) Lance Lynn takes the mound for the Chicago White Sox, who go up against Lance McCullers Jr. and the Houston Astros in Game 1 of this American League Division Series.
Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays (FS1, 8 p.m. ET) Xander Bogaerts and the Boston Red Sox take on Randy Arozarena and the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of this ALDS matchup.
Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks (FOX, 8:20 p.m. ET) Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Ram take on Russell Wilson and the Seahawks on Thursday Night Football.
Odds provided by FOX Bet Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks: Rams -2.5
Per FOX Sports’ Jason McIntyre:
Russell Wilson has struggled in his last four matchups against this aggressive Rams defense, absorbing 21 sacks and throwing just three TDs and four INTs, and losing three games. Seattle’s defense has looked solid against bad or average QBs (Carson Wentz and rookie Trey Lance) but was torched for 6.4 yards per play by Ryan Tannehill and 6.2 yards per play by Kirk Cousins. Matt Stafford’s offense is better than both of those and will have plenty of success. I usually like to grab a divisional home dog in a prime time spot like this, but Seattle’s defense remains a mess, and the offense has been herky-jerky - punchless in the second half of both losses, and opening the game with five three-and-outs in S.F.
“I can honestly tell you that I would play this game for free.” — Troy Polamalu