On January 2, 2011, the Seattle Seahawks, playing at home, battled the St. Louis Rams on Sunday Night Football. At stake was the NFC West Championship and a spot in the postseason. On that night, the Seahawks were the better team, winning a mostly uneventful game with a final score of 16-6.
The Seahawks won that night and currently sit in first place in the NFC West. So what changed?
When it was all said and done, both the Rams and the Seahawks finished the season with seven wins and nine losses.
The NFC West became a league-wide punch line. Satirical news outlet The Onion chose to empathize, albeit by describing the division as a disaster area. One journalist used math to determine that the NFC West was by far the worst division in the league.
Then again, some things stay the same. Six days after Seattle took care of the Rams, they beat an 11-5 New Orleans Saints team at CenturyLink Field. The massive upset (Seattle was +10.5) helped to establish two important narratives. No. 1: Marshawn Lynch would forever be known as "Beast Mode" after running over Saints defenders like naive ants attempting to cross a dance floor, and No. 2: It's rough sledding trying to win a meaningful game in Seattle.
As for the rest of the NFC West, the San Francisco 49ers finished 6-10. Mike Singletary was fired before the final game, Jim Harbaugh took the reigns, and the 49ers climbed into the "are they or aren't they elite" conversation. The Cardinals, two years removed from Kurt Warner leading Arizona to a Super Bowl appearance, finished at 5-11. Warner retired before the season began.
The laughter and jokes surrounding the NFC West, however, died off long ago. The NFC East, where the Cowboys are currently leading the division at 5-4, might get a few chuckles. But the West is plenty competitive. Here's a look at the division as it stands today, with a brief look at the rest of the NFC as well.
Seattle Seahawks (8-1, 4-0)
If the season ended today, Seattle would finish as the best team in the NFC, locking up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. But the 12th man isn't the only thing that should strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. The Seahawks' pass defense ranks third in yards allowed. The two teams that Seattle currently trails, Houston and Pittsburgh, already had their byes. The Seahawks get their break in week 12.
The Seahawks run game is consistently efficient as well. They're currently ranked third, after piling up 1,125 yards on the ground. The passing game could use some love, as they're currently 8 spots above the last-place Oakland Raiders, but the impending return of Percy Harvin will give Russell Wilson a dynamic playmaker to target. It also wouldn't be a surprise to see Harvin get some work out of the backfield in certain offensive sets.
Seattle fell behind big in the first half to the winless Buccaneers Sunday, but came back from a 21-point deficit to win 27-24. Playing down to their opposition has been an ongoing theme so far this season for the Seahawks, but it hasn't hurt their record, yet. They have narrowly escaped with victories against Carolina, Houston, Tennessee, St. Louis and now Tampa Bay.
Of the remaining teams on their schedule, a home game against the Saints and an away game against the 49ers in early December should prove to be the most challenging. The other five teams on their schedule currently have losing records. Assuming that they take care of business against the Falcons, Vikings, Giants, Cardinals and Rams, the upcoming battles against New Orleans and San Francisco could go a long way in determining who winds up with the No. 1 seed. The Saints, at 6-2, and the 49ers at 6-2 are currently tied for second in the NFC standings.
San Francisco 49ers (6-2, 2-1)
As an unbiased observer of teams in the NFC, I have to admit that I was surprised when Harbaugh decided to bench Alex Smith in favor of Colin Kaepernick last season. Smith was accurate and rarely made mistakes. I argued that Smith was just good enough, when paired with that menacing 49ers defense, to make a Super Bowl run. The fact that I prefaced his name with "just good enough" should have been a red flag, but even after watching Kaepernick lead San Francisco to the Super Bowl, I stood firm in my belief that Smith was capable of doing it too.
I suppose Smith should feel vindicated, or at the least more confident in his abilities, considering he's currently the starting QB on an undefeated Kansas City Chiefs (9-0) team. But that's not the whole story. A certain unfortunate fantasy draft selection helped me to understand why Harbaugh made the right choice in selecting Kaepernick.
Still, Kaepernick isn't exactly lighting the world on fire in the passing game either. But they do share three things in common with their Seattle rivals. First, they have a dominant running game. Coming into week 9, the Niners were the best team on the ground, amassing 1,224 yards. That's partly due to the fact that Frank Gore is having a terrific season, but the recent use of Kaepernick in the option formation helps.
Also, like Seattle, they play the Saints in two weeks, but they also have a tough game at home against the Panthers next. The Niners' offense will gain some receiving threats off of the injury wire when Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham return. When it's all said and done, the showdown against the Seahawks in week 14 could decide the division.
Arizona Cardinals (4-4, 0-3)
The Cardinals are ranked in the bottom half of the league in passing and rushing. They have a tough defense to run against, but their passing defense is below average. Two of their wins came against seemingly good teams, the Lions (5-3) and the Panthers (5-3). The other two came against the winless Buccaneers (0-8) and the struggling Falcons (2-6).
Betting against the Cardinals to make the playoffs is a safe proposition. For one thing, I don't think three teams wind up making it to the postseason from this division. Secondly, they have some difficult games coming up against the Colts (6-2), possibly the Eagles (4-5), the Titans (4-4), the Seahawks and the 49ers. Add to that, the Larry Fitzgerald trade rumors and overall ceiling with Carson Palmer behind center leave me skeptical that this team is close to cracking the postseason given its current makeup.
The Cardinals were also on a bye Sunday and come back to host the Texans next week. Houston failed put the Colts away Sunday night, losing 27-24 thanks to Indy's 15-0 fourth quarter and another great second-half performance from Andrew Luck.
St. Louis Rams (3-6, 1-2)
Back to that 2010-11 season. The prevailing thought about the Rams, even with a losing record, was that they could be turning the proverbial corner. Sam Bradford was having a promising rookie season. I spoke to James Laurinaitis that year about the team's improved defensive play.
Unfortunately, the success didn't follow. They won nine games combined over the last two seasons, including going 2-14 in 2011. Now, Bradford is hurt again and the Rams find themselves in familiar territory, looking up at their division rivals. It's been another disappointing season for a team that beat and tied the eventual NFC champs in 2012.
With that being the case, St. Louis fans have to wonder about Bradford and his future. He was on pace for his best season as a pro. He also has two years remaining on a big rookie deal. Best-case scenario, he stays healthy next season, Zac Stacy is legit, Tavon Austin starts to realize some of his potential and Jared Cook is more consistent. Worst case? Probably best not to wonder.
It's not all bad news though. St. Louis does own the Redskins first round pick in the 2014 draft. (Washington traded up to get Robert Griffin III in 2012) The Redskins aren't playing very well this season. That's a good thing, right?
The NFC Playoff Picture
New Orleans, Green Bay (5-2) and Dallas currently lead the NFC South, North and East, respectively. Carolina has a slim hold on the second wild-card berth after the 49ers. The Panthers and the Packers have the Lions nipping at their heels, but other than maybe the Bears (4-3) and the Eagles (4-5), no other team appears to be too threatening.
Philadelphia has some winnable games on its schedule. They play Washington and Arizona at home, then go on the road to play Minnesota in Week 15. If they win all three of those games, a postseason run isn't inconceivable, though a loss to Dallas in Week 7 didn't help.
The second half of Detroit's schedule reveals only two teams that currently have winning records: the Bears and Packers. Meanwhile, Carolina has 6 games left against teams that are .500 or better. They play the Saints twice, the Patriots (7-2), the Jets (5-4), the Dolphins (4-4) and the Niners. Detroit has an easier path to the sixth seed, but the Lions wouldn't be the Lions if they rode smoothly into the playoffs.
Circling back to the NFC West, the Seahawks and the 49ers should both make the postseason for the second straight year. Whether or not they play each other is anybody's guess. What is certain however is this: no one is laughing about the Seahawks' or the Niners' chances of winning the Super Bowl. Perhaps it's not so funny how things change.
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