Can the 49ers or Cardinals Overtake the Seahawks in the NFC West?

The NFC West is the best division in football, and it's shaping up to have quite the finish with three very similar teams.

Entering the 2014 season, the Seattle Seahawks were seen as an obvious pick to win the NFC West and make a deep playoff run again, as the team seemed not to decline but rather to improve over the summer as a result of an incredible preseason.

But through 5 games, the defending Super Bowl champions are third in the division, sitting at 3-2. Already, doubts have begun to emerge about the "elite" status of the team and its hold on the NFC West and a playoff berth.

So is there reason for concern for Seattle? If so, can either of the leading division rivals overtake them and make a run of their own? Let's take a look at the numbers.

Concerning Comparisons

Here at numberFire we use historical data to find comparable players and teams to help us better project how the future will play out when juxtaposed with similar situations in the past. Our data has determined that the teams most similar to the 2014 Seahawks are the 2002 San Francisco 49ers, 2007 Minnesota Vikings, 2003 Denver Broncos, and 2005 Kansas City Chiefs.

The Niners, Broncos, and Chiefs were all 10-6, while the Vikings were 8-8. San Francisco was the only team among them to win a playoff game, and they were then soundly beaten by the Buccaneers, who were on their way to a Super Bowl.

Those are hardly encouraging comparables for a team thought to be the class of the NFL and well on its way to another Lombardi Trophy. But they have plenty of excuses for currently comparing to such "slightly above average" teams.

Through 5 games, the Seahawks have played the Packers (our 12th best team, according to our team rankings), the Chargers (11th), Cowboys (3rd) and Broncos (1st). That's as tough of a schedule as you'll find in the NFL, and even the slightest slip-ups can lead to losses against that level of competition.

But "elite" teams are supposed to emerge victorious in those situations, and the Seahawks failed to do that twice so far this season. So can anyone else in the NFC West take advantage?

All in the Same Boat

Below is a chart showing the current rankings for all three NFC West contenders using our rankings. The first column, nERD, is our overall team ranking calculation that determines an expected margin of victory against a league average team. The second and third are team ranks using our Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) data for offense and defense.

TeamnERD RankOffense RankDefense Rank
San Francisco101714

The Arizona defense is the only unit to stand out on the list, and it's been hampered by injuries lately and does look vulnerable from time to time. That Cardinal defense is also paired with the Arizona offense, the weakest of the six ranks listed above.

But the return of Carson Palmer will help bring that offense closer to the top of the ranks, as he's currently 11th among quarterbacks with more than 50 drop backs in our NEP per drop back metric. (That puts him right ahead of Drew Brees on the season.)

So can the Cardinals overcome their injury issues on defense, shore up their pass coverage issues that have shown up from time to time, and become a balanced team capable of knocking off Seattle? Can Carson Palmer continue to lead the offense efficiently and avoid mistakes while fighting off a shoulder that's worn down from years of throwing in the NFL?

These are significant questions that need to be answered if the Cardinals want to overtake the division.

The 49ers currently have a very similar ranking profile as the Seahawks, as they're near the middle of the pack on both sides of the ball after a tough opening slate of games. The Niners have also played the Cowboys, but have also faced off against the Eagles (our 7th best team) and the Chiefs (9th).

In other words, all of these teams have faced tough opponents so far, and come through with winning records and mediocre overall rankings according to our metrics. So who will stand out as the season rolls along?

Play It Out

These 3 teams will play each other twice over the final 11 weeks of the NFL's regular season, meaning any questions we have about which team will take the division crown will be answered on the field. This isn't like college football, where we may never know who would win in a battle of a top team from the Pac-12 and SEC if they don't meet in the National Championship. The NFC West will sort itself out on the field.

And according to our rankings, the Seahawks are still the team to beat, as their performance this season and the historical data we have still favors them over their divisional foes. But if one of the two other contenders does overtake Seattle, don't be surprised if it's Arizona.

Carson Palmer's continued effectiveness and health will be key, but if the Cards can raise their offensive efficiency in time for key games against the Niners and Seahawks, they could definitely take down the division despite a brutal schedule ahead. They currently have the best defense in the division, and that says a lot considering the wealth of talent and good coaching for the other two top teams.

This will be the most compelling drama in the NFL as the season unfolds because these three teams are all capable of beating one another, and that means rather than a Seattle runaway like some expected, we'll have a fight to the finish in one of the best divisions in football.