The NFC West has been the toughest division in the NFL for some time. Even though the Carolina Panthers led the way in the NFC with their bruising defense, it was the NFC West who many experts felt had the strongest chance to win the Super Bowl when the Playoffs began. The division boasted two of the most bruising defenses in the NFL and two potent offenses to go with them.
It was not to be for the division in 2015, however. Unlike the previous couple of seasons, the NFC West looked dysfunctional in the playoffs. The Seattle Seahawks left themselves too much to do on the road and the Arizona Cardinals played like a team with minimal experience, but the table was set for 2016 to be an even more hectic season in the division and that was before the Rams moved to Los Angeles or the San Francisco 49ers hired Chip Kelly.
Now the NFL schedules are out and it is no surprise that the NFC West will lead the way once again in 2016, per CBS Sports article earlier today. The San Francisco 49ers have the league's toughest pre-season schedule, but the Los Angeles Rams are right on their heels at No. 3. Just behind the Rams are the Seahawks tied for 5th and the Cardinals tied for 7th. In all, the entire division is looking at having to play an NFL schedule ranked the 7th toughest or better, a daunting task that will likely get tougher.
The NFC South made a run at the toughest division. The Atlanta Falcons are actually tied with the Niners for the league's toughest record. The New Orlean Saints check in just behind the Rams at No. 4 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are tied for 5th along with the Seattle Seahawks. Had the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers not ended up with the 13th toughest schedule, the division may have had at least a decent claim to the crown of hardest division.
It was likely always going to be this way for the NFC West. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the division has been a metaphorical war zone for the past couple seasons. The table was likely set for this when the Seattle Seahawks held off the St. Louis Rams in 2010 for the perceived title of "weakest playoff opponent." The New Orlean Saints didn't find their game against the 7-9 Seahawks all that enjoyable and the world became familiar with a phrase that would dominate headlines for the next four years -- Beast Mode. 2010 would be the last time the NFC West did not at least make the NFC Championship this decade, a streak that continues to this day.
The thing about the type of success the division is having is that it doesn't last forever. In fact, it usually ends up being short-lived in the world of sports. There are notable exceptions to this, but the ginormous bullseye usually has an effect in sports and even if a team can build a dynasty, it is extremely and increasingly rare for a lone division to create dominance for an extended period of time. Even in college football, the SEC's continued success in the BCS was ultimately one of the more documented reasons for sweeping changes to the post-season format of college football.
Five straight conference championship appearances will get you everyone’s best shot. That’s exactly what the Rams are going to be facing this season. This is also the part where it’s worth mentioning that the NFC West and NFC South will be playing one another this year. For added measure, the Rams also get the AFC East and a pair of unpredictable opponents in the Detroit Lions and NY Giants. Though technically a home game, the Rams get to travel to London for that one, which means they only play seven actual home games in their inaugural Los Angeles season.
CBS’ toughest schedule metrics do not account for the placement of these games, as only opponents were released today. There may be some shuffling within those toughest schedules when the actual byes are listed and teams know when they’ll have time to get healthy. The Rams’ trip to London occurs in Week 7 and their bye could come a disadvantageous time, though usually teams are usually given a bye following any trip overseas. This means the Rams will likely have their bye at the halfway point of the 2016 season on the 30th of October.
Neither the best nor the worst time to get healthy, the one advantage this will give the Rams is an extra week without game prep to look at free agent needs before the November 3rd trade deadline. Depending on where the division stacks up by that point, the timing could present the Rams with a minor respite and thought-collecting period. If nothing else, it’s a great chance to evaluate your head coach’s performance after four and a half seasons. If head coach Jeff Fisher doesn’t have the ship righted by then, he may not be given the chance to see out the remainder of the season.
This would just add to the list of the Rams’ worries and stresses in 2016. Excuses like this are overrated in sports but teams that move have historically not have great years the following season. In fact, since 1982 -- the year I was born -- only three teams have improved their record after moving -- the 1982 Los Angeles Raiders, the 1995 St. Louis Rams, and the 1997 Tennessee Oilers coached by Jeff Fisher. The Oilers actually finished with the same overall record of 8-8, but Fisher finished 3rd in the division as opposed to 4th like the previous season. It’s a big ask for a team likely already struggling or they wouldn’t be moving.
It should at least be a small comfort that both the Rams and their current head coach have both been in this situation before. The schedule will be anything but forgiving. The media is likely to be anything but forgiving, and the fans will only tolerate minimalistic offense for so long before they turn on the team via social media. The odds are going to be stacked against the Rams and Fisher.
Can they pull off this difficult task together once more?