I haven’t commissioned a Pew Poll nor consulted stats wizard Nate Silver, but if forced to predict the NFC West Division down the stretch, I’m taking the Seahawks by a nose.
With the late bye, the Seahawks have a game in hand, and presumably have their feet up and will be free to comfortably watch their division foes in action this week.
Today, Arizona has to go to Atlanta (8-1) to play the best team in the NFC. St. Louis plays host to the lowly Jets, but the Rams have only three wins to build on.
And division-leading San Francisco goes into a Monday night brawl against the ball-hawking Bears. The Niners face that challenge with a recently concussed quarterback and a head coach who had to go in this week to get his ticker recalibrated.
How this all benefits the 6-4 Sea-hawks will be in evidence soon. In any case, we can anticipate a stretch run that promises more excitement than we’re used to in a division that was the league laughingstock two seasons ago, when the Seahawks limped home a winner at 7-9. Last season, San Francisco ran away with it with 13 wins.
The Seahawks were convincing in their two games before the bye. They won both to close the gap, while San Francisco (6-2-1) ended up with a tie against St. Louis.
The Niners not only have a slightly tougher schedule (remaining opponents have a winning percentage of .532) than the Seahawks (.522), but they also face four road games to the Seahawks’ three. Arizona and St. Louis also have four on the road.
San Francisco is a five-point favorite at home over Chicago (7-2), a team without concussed quarterback Jay Cutler.
But Niners quarterback Alex Smith also went to the bench last week with concussion symptoms, and on Thursday, coach Jim Harbaugh underwent what was labeled a minor procedure to correct an irregular heartbeat. Harbaugh is expected to be well and on the sideline Monday night.
If Chicago wins, that closes the gap further for the Seahawks.
After that, the Seahawks and Niners both play back-to-back on the road – Seattle at Miami (4-5) and Chicago, San Francisco at New Orleans (4-5) and St. Louis (3-5-1).
The big challenge for the Niners is a trip to New Orleans on a short week, especially considering the Saints have won four of their past five, including a 31-27 decision over Atlanta that dropped the Falcons from the unbeaten ranks.
The Saints game starts a stretch for the Niners in which four of the next five are on the road, including St. Louis, the team that just tied them at home, New England (6-3) and Seattle.
If the Seahawks can split on the road against Miami and Chicago, they would be up to seven wins and facing three remaining at home, and another on the road against Buffalo (4-6), which will also be on the road hosting the game in Toronto.
If the Seahawks stay healthy and continue to improve on offense, 10 wins looks reasonable, with 11 not out of the question.
Given the NFL axiom, they’ve got to take them one at a time, but we can look forward to a dramatic showdown with San Francisco at CenturyLink Field on Dec. 23.
At home, the Seahawks are undefeated and have outscored foes by almost 11 points a game.
And here’s perhaps the most convincing argument for the Seahawks as they play their three key division games at home: Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in five games at CenturyLink, has the best “home” passer rating in the NFL (122).
It’s the best by a long shot, too.
Peyton Manning is 115.3 at home in Denver; Josh Freeman is 108.5 at Tampa Bay; Joe Flacco 108.3 at Baltimore; and Ben Roethlisberger is 104.2 at Pittsburgh. But none of the others – not Aaron Rodgers, not Tom Brady, not Drew Brees, not Matt Ryan – are even over 100.
It’s far from a perfect means of measuring a quarterback’s productivity or value, but it makes it clear that if Russell Wilson is taking your snaps at CenturyLink, you’ve got a darn good chance to win.
And that will make this a tight and exciting division race.