NFL
January 6, 2022

3 Key Factors That Will Decide The NFC West's Fascinating Finish

The NFC West has long since been viewed as the best, and by extension, most interesting division in the NFL. In Week 18, it will deliver the most fascinating division-wide finish to the league's longest regular season.

For three of the four teams, their regular-season finale carries playoff implications. If the Los Angeles Rams beat the San Francisco 49ers, they will win the division. Should the 49ers prevail, they will secure a playoff place, but a defeat would open the door for the New Orleans Saints to knock them out.

A Niners win would give the Arizona Cardinals the chance to steal the division from the Rams with victory over a Seattle Seahawks team that would surely love to play spoiler having endured a desperately disappointing year.

It's all lined up to be an engrossing end to the season in the NFC West, and there are several factors that will decide how the league's premier division shakes out.

Stafford's Turnover Woes

The Rams were stomped 31-10 by the Niners in their last meeting at Levi's Stadium in Week 10. San Francisco took command in part thanks to two interceptions from Matthew Stafford, including a pick-six by Jimmie Ward.

While he has unquestionably raised the ceiling of the Rams' offense, turnovers have been a near-constant for Stafford over the second half of the season. He has 11 interceptions since Week 9 and has avoided throwing a pick in only two of his last eight games.

Theoretically, Stafford may have an easier task protecting the ball this week with San Francisco's secondary hit hard by COVID-19. Josh Norman is the only cornerback on the Niners' active roster not on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Yet, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, per The San Francisco Chronicle, is optimistic those on the list will be able to return in time to play on Sunday, while Emmanuel Moseley could make his comeback from an ankle injury.

With the Niners' pass rush enjoying consistent success rushing four and with well-designed blitzes, Stafford will be tested by a defense that has improved throughout the season. If his response to that challenge is to turn the ball over, he could doom the Rams' hopes of winning the division.

The Trey Lance Question

While the Rams have some cause for concern over the volatility of their quarterback, the Niners are not revealing who their signal-caller will be for their most important game since Super Bowl LIV.

Trey Lance guided the 49ers to victory over the Houston Texans in Week 17 and, after a shaky start, looked good doing so in the second half, displaying the downfield upside he offers San Francisco's offense. 

Despite offering a glimpse of a potentially exciting future, the dual-threat rookie could give way to a Jimmy Garoppolo return, with the 49ers' starter practicing in a limited capacity on Wednesday as he bids to get back on the field even with a torn ligament in his thumb.

Shanahan has made it clear Garoppolo does not need to be 100 percent to play and indicated he keep the identity of the starter hidden for as long as possible.

Both options represent risks. Starting a rookie for only the third time in his career against Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey is not an enticing scenario, yet neither is entrusting your playoff hopes to an injured quarterback whose previous attempts to play hurt have not been successful.

Shanahan must decide on the safest route, and it is a call that could have a huge bearing on the NFC playoff picture.

Seattle's Offensive Surge

Most of the attention in the Cardinals' finale will be focused on Kyler Murray as he bids to ensure Arizona wrests the division title from the hands of the Rams, with some help from the Niners.

The Cards will be hopeful the return of the Murray magic is sustained after his performance in Week 17 against the Dallas Cowboys. Last week, Murray was the fourth-best quarterback in the NFL by NextGen Stats' completion percentage over expected.

Yet, just as important as Murray's ability to elevate an offense missing its best weapon in DeAndre Hopkins will be the success of the Cards' defense in slowing down what has been an efficient Seahawks attack as of late.

Seattle has won three of its last five games and, across that span, the Seahawks are fifth in Expected Points Added per play on offense, according to rbsdm.com.

In what could be Russell Wilson's swan song, the Seahawks will be determined to maintain their strong finish on that side of the ball.

The Cardinals rank fourth in EPA per play allowed on defense this season. Seattle's offensive surge makes this something of a strength-on-strength matchup, and an Arizona defense that did an excellent job of stymieing Dak Prescott must prevail if the Cards are to have a chance of overtaking the Rams at the final hurdle.

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