For the second straight year, the Arizona Cardinals arrived at the midpoint of the season in control of the NFC West.
And just like a year ago, the preseason favorite Seattle Seahawks will have their chances over the final eight games to play catch-up on the Cardinals.
The division race kicks into gear this week with Seattle hosting the 6-2 Cardinals, the first of two matchups over the final eight weeks. Seattle may be just 4-4, but can win the NFC West by winning out.
St. Louis sits at 4-4 and saw the emergence of running back Todd Gurley in the first half, while San Francisco hopes the change to Blaine Gabbert at quarterback sparks a late charge that started with Sunday’s surprising 17-16 win over Atlanta to get the 49ers to 3-6.
Here’s a look at the division at the halfway mark of the season:
BIRDS OF A FEATHER: Arizona rolled through the first half just as it did in 2014. The Cardinals have a two-game lead on Seattle. They have the best offense in the NFC thanks to Carson Palmer and the resurgence of Chris Johnson on his way to a 1,000-yard season rushing. Arizona is averaging 32.9 points per game, trailing only New England.
While Arizona’s offense has gotten most of the attention, the defense has not taken a step back despite the departure of coordinator Todd Bowles. Arizona has held six of eight opponents under 350 total yards.
Last year the season got away from Arizona because of Palmer’s knee injury that caused him to miss the final seven games and the playoffs. Barring another major injury, the Cardinals have put themselves in position to be in playoff contention into the final weeks.
“I don’t think the identity of our ballclub has been identified yet,” veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “Coach says it all the time: This is our football team. We’re only going to be as good as we decide to be.”
SEATTLE REBOUND: No one in the division rode a bigger roller coaster through eight games than the Seahawks. From holdouts to car crashes to starting 0-2, Seattle rebounded from all those obstacles to get back to .500 at the midway point and control what happens in the division going forward.
The issue in the second half for Seattle will be rectifying problems on the offensive line. Russell Wilson is on pace to be sacked more than 60 times, though there was a glimmer of optimism as Seattle held Dallas without a sack in a 13-12 win before the Seahawks’ bye week.
Seattle gets a rare three-game homestand to begin the second half, starting with the Cardinals. Beat Arizona and the division race will likely remain wide open to the end.
“We have a second half to really go for it,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said.
RUNNING RAMS: Gurley has been the engine behind the Rams, flashing as potentially the next great running back in the league.
St. Louis was smart in bringing along Gurley slowly as he completed the recovery from a torn ACL suffered in college. When he finally debuted, Gurley brought an explosive element previously missing from the offense. Gurley has rushed for at least 100 yards in four of the past five games, but St. Louis still needs other parts of its offense to show up, as evidenced by its loss to Minnesota when Gurley was held to 89 yards.
“”I just do my job, look at my keys, and run,” Gurley said.
The Rams will have a chance to hang around with three straight home games in December, but their only two road tests come at Cincinnati (currently 8-0) and Seattle.
REBUILDING 49ERS: San Francisco took a major step in moving beyond 2015 with the decision to trade tight end Vernon Davis and bench quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It leaves the rest of the season as an experiment for coach Jim Tomsula to figure out who he wants back and prove he deserves to be back.
San Francisco’s first half was defined by inconsistency. The optimism of an opening win over Minnesota was quickly gone after the 49ers lost six of the next seven. Last Sunday’s win over Atlanta could prove a mirage for the 49ers, with games against the Seahawks and Cardinals coming out of their bye.
“Whatever 11 guys we march out on the field we’re going to go up there and expect a victory,” Gabbert said.
SHOWDOWNS TO WATCH: The two games between Seattle and Arizona will obviously impact the division race the most, but watch for a five-day stretch in early December when the Seahawks travel to Minnesota and then the Vikings travel to the Cardinals on a Thursday night. Both Seattle and Arizona could end up fighting with the Vikings for a playoff spot.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Cardinals, Seahawks, Rams, 49ers.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL
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