PFF says NFC West is no longer a gauntlet (and that benefits 49ers)

Playing in a weaker division is a very good thing for the 49ers.
Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers
Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers / Michael Zagaris/GettyImages

The 49ers should feel happy the NFC West is no longer the powerhouse it used to be, according to the folks at Pro Football Focus.

Back in 2021, many a fan and analyst viewed the NFC West as the NFL's toughest division, and it wasn't hard to find predictions that sent at least three, potentially all four teams to the postseason.

The San Francisco 49ers made the playoffs that year as the No. 3 team within the division, joining the Arizona Cardinals and eventual Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Rams as NFC West postseason representatives.

Entering 2024, however, the division's landscape has changed significantly.

LA, now in the post-defensive tackle Aaron Donald era, is somewhere between fringe contention and a large-scale rebuild, while the Cardinals are looking for improvement in their second year under head coach Jonathan Gannon. The Seattle Seahawks, meanwhile, are ushering in a new era after 14 years under former head coach Pete Carroll, now turning things over to first-year head coach Mike Macdonald.

The Niners, meanwhile, are seeking their third divisional title in as many years and hope to do one better in 2024 by winning that elusive sixth Super Bowl.

Getting there, however, is just as important as winning it all.

Fortunately for San Francisco, the NFC West is no longer the massive challenge it used to be.

Pro Football Focus says NFC West is league's 5th-toughest division (and that's good news for 49ers)

Check out Pro Football Focus' ranking of all eight divisions entering 2024, ranked from toughest to easiest:

  1. AFC North
  2. AFC East
  3. NFC East
  4. NFC North
  5. NFC West
  6. AFC West
  7. AFC South
  8. NFC South

The Rams barely earned a Wild Card berth last season, while both Arizona and the Hawks failed to make the playoffs.

Here's what PFF had to say about the NFC West's prospects for the upcoming season:

"The San Francisco 49ers will be hoping to shake off the rust of losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV by bouncing back with their third-straight NFC West title. There will be no question marks surrounding the quarterback position in San Francisco for the first time in a few years, too. Brock Purdy earned an 88.4 grade in 2023 and looks to be the face of the franchise moving forward.

The Los Angeles Rams start life without Aaron Donald after the eight-time All-Pro defensive tackle retired in the offseason. The breakout of Puka Nacua, who earned an 87.9 grade and set the rookie record for receptions and yards in 2023, as well as the continued play of Matt Stafford and Cooper Kupp, means the Rams will be in the mix once more.

The Seattle Seahawks won nine games in 2023 but missed out on the postseason, and now they’ll have a new head coach for the first time since 2010 after Pete Carroll resigned in the offseason. They’ll be an interesting team with Mike Macdonald at the helm, as he’ll look to improve a defense that earned the second-lowest tackling grade (33.9) in the NFL last season."

It seems as if the Rams could still threaten the 49ers for a division title, albeit from a distance, and neither the Cardinals or Seahawks are talented enough to legitimately overtake the Niners in the pecking order.

That means, as long as San Francisco is able to win its division again, a top-four finish in the conference and a first-round home game in the postseason is within reach.

Unfortunately, the 49ers' current arch nemesis in postseason play, the Kansas City Chiefs, are slated to have an even weaker division than the Niners, meaning San Francisco might have to hope KC gets bumped by some other AFC contender in the playoffs.

But there are a lot of games to play between now and that point.

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