Last season’s NFL title chase ultimately played out as many predicted. The Denver Broncos, galvanized by a massive quarterback upgrade, tore through the AFC on their way to the Super Bowl. Over in the NFC, the Seahawks and 49ers saw off all other challengers as they battled it out for the conference crown. But there were still several surprises in store. The Kansas City Chiefs had a miraculous turnaround from the previous season, finishing the regular season 12-4 and locking up a playoff bid despite being in the same division as the Broncos. In spite of the logjam at the top of the NFC West, the Arizona Cardinals came out of nowhere, ending the Seahawks’ record home winning streak and missing the playoffs by the slimmest of margins.
This season, the Broncos and Seahawks remain the odds-on favorites to win their respective conferences, while the 49ers have seen a drop in optimism after injuries and off-field issues. But through two weeks, fans are already seeing the signs of division rivals rising to challenge the favorites. Despite building big leads in the first two games of the year, the Broncos have looked vulnerable in the second half. Although the Broncos won their Week 2 matchup, their opponent, the Chiefs, controlled the ball and time of possession for much of the game. But the team the Broncos really should be mindful of is the San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers gave the Broncos plenty of fight in the playoffs last year, and year two under Mike McCoy is looking even more promising. An 18-17 loss last Monday night to the Cardinals was frustrating given some of the points the Chargers left on the field, but all such disappointment was erased by what the team did Sunday coming off of a short week.
Quarterback Philip Rivers played well, the offensive playcalling was flawless and the Chargers hung 30 points on the Seattle Seahawks and their vaunted “Legion of Boom” secondary. Taking advantage of mismatches at tight end and in the slot, Rivers routinely punished the Seahawks with Antonio Gates and Eddie Royal. He also took time to beat Richard Sherman a few times — something Aaron Rodgers did not even attempt in Week 1. If Rivers continues to blossom under McCoy’s tutelage, the Broncos will have an opponent with the talent and experience to challenge them as equals in the AFC West.
The future looks even more uncertain in the NFC West, where the winner’s perch seems to be in a prolonged state of flux. The 49ers went from a 6-10 record to 13-3. In 2011, they were two botched punts away from the Super Bowl in 2011, and a dynasty looked imminent under new coach Jim Harbaugh. Then the 7-9 Seahawks hired Pete Carroll, and underwent the same overnight rise from sub-par to playoff bound. It took the team two years to usurp the 49ers, but when it did, Super Bowl glory, rather than the pain of finishing second, awaited it.
Now, the Arizona Cardinals look poised to make the same jump. It started, once again, with the introduction of a new coach. After impressing in an interim role with the Indianapolis Colts, Bruce Arians made the jump to full-time head coach with the Cardinals last year. Coming off a 5-11 finish in 2012, and stuck playing the 49ers and Seahawks twice a year, expectations were low. But by midseason, Arians had the defense humming and the offense doing just enough to scrape by, and the team turned a 3-4 start into a 10-6 finish. A last-second loss to the 49ers was all that separated the two teams from an identical record.
With the Seahawks bested in San Diego, and the 49ers overrun by the Bears in the second half last night, the Cardinals are the early leaders in the NFL’s toughest division. Arizona beat San Diego when Seattle could not, and the Cardinals were able to run away from the Giants in Week 2, even after the last-minute scratch of quarterback Carson Palmer from the lineup. Early signs seem encouraging, but is it too soon to wonder if the Cardinals could actually displace the Seahawks? Maybe, but the implications of recent rule changes certainly will benefit the Cardinals going forward.
The Seahawks offense has clicked thus far, which is encouraging, but Pete Carroll and his staff have to be worried about the new emphasis from referees on flagging defensive holding. Many around the league have pointed to the physical brand of football played by the Seahawks’ fabled secondary as the impetus for the meteoric increase in defensive holding calls so far this season. Whether the nature of the rule change is implicitly linked to the Seahawks or not, there are legitimate concerns that the play of Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and the rest of the reigning champions’ secondary will be impacted by the rise of defensive holding calls. Their ability to adapt will determine whether they defend their title or get usurped prematurely like the 49ers before them.
Darius Majd is a senior in the College. The Sporting Life appears every Tuesday.