TEMPE, Ariz. — While the Cardinals were still at training camp in Flagstaff last month, coach Ken Whisenhunt spent a portion of one noon-time press conference talking about the improved NFC West.
Reporters noted the assertion, nodded their heads to keep from falling asleep then dismissed it as the ramblings of a lunatic.
Every pro and college football coach will try to convince you his division or conference is tough, that there are no easy games. It’s a built-in method for justifying unexpected losses or pumping up less-than impressive wins.
The NFC West has been the league’s doormat for years, posting record lows for winning percentage outside the division. The division hasn’t seen more than one team with a better than .500 record since 2003; it was only two seasons ago that Seattle earned a division title and playoff berth at 7-9.
Was Whisenhunt serious?
We’re only in Week 2, so the sample size is far too small to pass judgment, but the early returns suggest he was.
The division is a combined 6-2 (5-1 outside the division) and went 4-0 on Sunday with impressive wins across the board. Aside from the Cards’ stunning 20-18 win at New England, Seattle crushed Dallas 27-7, St. Louis rallied for a 31-28 win over the Washington Redskins and Robert Griffin III, and San Francisco, having already won at Green Bay, made an early argument that it is the most complete team in the NFL with a 27-19 victory over the Detroit Lions.
“Our first game against Seattle was a slugfest,” Whisenhunt said. “There are some very good defensive teams in this division, and they play a physical style of football.”
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford was impressive in leading his team from behind on Sunday. San Francisco QB Alex Smith seems to be quieting suggestions that 2011 was a fluke with continued efficiency and lack of turnovers. But defense does appear to be the division’s calling card.
Seattle (No. 6), San Francisco (11) and Arizona (13) all rank among the league’s top half in fewest yards allowed per game. But the picture look even better for scoring defense, the stats coaches care most about. Seattle ranks No. 3 at 13.5 points per game, Arizona ranks No. 5 (17 ppg) and the 49ers are 10th (20.5 ppg).
It’s early – too early to tell if these numbers will hold up. But to the naked eye, the division appears to have turned a corner.
“There are some good defenses, some good defensive players in this division,” said Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, who is one of them. “You don’t need numbers to tell you that. You can see it when you play.”