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Originally published Saturday, December 21, 2013 at 8:07 PM

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NFC West enjoying its quick turnaround

Division was laughed at three years ago, but now is mostly feared


Seattle Times staff reporter

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In case you haven’t looked closely lately, the banner that hangs above CenturyLink Field commemorating Seattle’s 2010 NFC West title doesn’t have an asterisk attached.

Many around the league, though, might protest that it should.

Seattle won the division that year by beating the St. Louis Rams in a final-game “showdown’’ when each team was 6-9. Seattle’s 7-9 record, in Pete Carroll’s first year as Seahawks coach, remains the only time an NFL team has won a division with a losing record in a non-strike year (it also remains Charlie Whitehurt’s only victory as a Seattle quarterback, but that’s another story).

Fast forward three years, and 7-9 might not be good enough to earn last place in the NFC West.

With two games remaining, the Seahawks (12-2), 49ers (10-4) and Cardinals (9-5) are all assured of winning records. And the Rams, at 6-8, could still finish .500 (though they’ll have a tough time getting there, playing host to Tampa Bay this week before finishing the season at CenturyLink Field a week from Sunday). Right now, the NFC West has a combined record of 37-19.

No division has had all of its teams finish with a .500 record or better since 2008, when it happened in both the NFC East and South.

“It’s come a tremendous distance,’’ Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of the NFC West. “To have to put up with kind of the yucks about being 7-9 and winning the division years ago and, you know, who’s laughing now?’’

The NFC West’s emergence this year wasn’t unexpected — many pundits tabbed the division as potentially the best in the NFL during the offseason.

But those lofty predictions appeared a little off course in October when the 49ers, Rams and Cardinals all stumbled out of the gate a little bit (relative to expectations).

Recall that at the end of September, the NFC West was a combined 9-7, thanks mostly to Seattle’s 4-0 mark.

Since the beginning of October, though, the NFC West is a combined 28-12.

And along with winning, the NFC West can also claim to be a modern-day version of the old Black and Blue Division. It features three of the top-seven-ranked defenses in the NFL — Seahawks (first), 49ers (third) and Cardinals (seventh).

“It’s a pretty tough division right now,’’ Carroll said. “That takes all phases — the acquisition of the personnel and then the style (of play), and there’s also kind of an attitude about our division, too. A very physical and tough (division) and a kind of pride to see that change. It’s been kind of fun to watch it.”

Carroll might have a different word for it in the future, though, if this resurgence continues.

Seattle, of course, remains well positioned to be competitive at a high level for a long time. That’s not only due to the presence of elite young talent such as quarterback Russell Wilson, safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman, but also the Carroll-John Schneider duo at the top that has earned the benefit of the doubt that it’ll figure out a way to adequately fill whatever holes develop.

Each of the other three NFC West teams, though, also can claim hope for the future.

The 49ers have more of a mixture of younger and older talent, not to mention the sudden rumblings of Jim Harbaugh’s potential wanderlust. But as much as Seahawk fans might wish, there’s little reason to think the 49ers are disappearing anytime soon.

San Francisco could have as many as 13 draft choices in 2014, six in the first three rounds.

The Rams, meanwhile, rank as the youngest team in the NFL (27 players on their 53-man roster last week were second-year players or younger) and also might be able to clean up in the 2014 draft. Thanks to the Robert Griffin III trade, the Rams could have one of the top two choices in the draft as well as their own in the middle.

Arizona’s roster is a little harder read — quarterback Carson Palmer is 33, for instance, and linebacker and sackman extraordinaire John Abraham is 35.

But the most important revelation in the desert this year might be that Bruce Arians can really coach. Arians went 9-3 in an interim role with the Colts last year, and now has a Cardinals team that lost 11 of its last 12 games in 2012 harboring legitimate playoff hopes with two games left.

So figure the NFC West to keep laughing a little while longer.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @bcondotta.



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