At the mid point of the 2011 NFL season, the 49ers have turned the NFC West race into a laugher. A division infamous for nail-biting, down to the wire drama among dog-poo teams abruptly has no drama whatsoever and half of the season still left to play.
Come Sunday night, the 49ers will be either 7-2 or 8-1, while the rest of the division will most likely be tied for second — or last — at 2-7. A five or six game lead with seven to play might still represent a challenge to the Boston Red Sox or the Atlanta Braves, but in football it’s pretty much a slam dunk sure thing.
How the 49ers got so good so fast has been studied extensively, but how did the rest of the division all suddenly go from mediocre to horrible?
The Rams were early season favorites to win the division, but they have instead fallen apart. Their offensive line has collapsed and their defense has regressed. Arizona traded for Kevin Kolb and he was supposed to turn them into a contender, but he hasn’t and they aren’t. Seattle’s improbable limp to a title last year was not expected to carry over into this season, and it didn’t. That is the only prognostication that has been accurate about the NFC West this year.
In a schedule anomaly, the NFC West teams have almost all their intra-division games yet to come in the second half of the season. To date, Arizona and Seattle have played two NFC West games, while the Rams and 49ers have played only one apiece. It is the 4-0 east coast run by the 49ers that has skewed the division. In past years, the Niners would have lost all four games and be sitting at 3-5 right now, one game ahead of the competition.
Still, division games are always intense and the second half will have drama because of this. The 49ers have exhibited superiority outside the division, but have yet to do so within the division. Five of their remaining eight games are division games.
These games will represent all the Rams, Seahawks, and Cardinals have to play for this year. A victory over the 49ers will salvage some self-respect out of an otherwise rancid year. You can bet Pete Carroll will be desperate to beat his nemesis Jim Harbaugh at Qwest Field on Christmas Eve. Pink Slip in the mail coach Steve Spagnuolo cannot afford to see his Rams lose both games to the Niners, especially the last one, in St. Louis at season’s end. And Ken Whisenhunt had better not see his team blown off the field by the Niners for the third year in a row.
For the 49ers, these division games are vital if the team hopes to gain a first round bye in the playoffs. If they sweep all five remaining division games, and they should, it would guarantee a record of no worse than 12-4. No team in the NFC East or South is going to be able to top that record.
Back to the present, a victory Sunday over the Giants would have the 49ers looking realistically at a record no worse than 13-3. That’s some serious cheese, fellas. It’s also the same record as that achieved by the miracle 1981 49ers. Goose bumps.