The new boss in the NFC West is Seattle
By Ken Belson
The scramble among the Kansas City Chiefs, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens for supremacy of the AFC has dominated the headlines as the NFL reaches its halfway point, and for good reason: Combined, they are 19-3, with the Steelers the last remaining undefeated team.
The NFC is a very different picture, with the NFC East composed entirely of losing teams. Across the country, though, the NFC West is the league’s most competitive division, and superiority there has been decisively seized by the Seattle Seahawks, led by quarterback Russell Wilson, who may finally be on track to win his first Most Valuable Player Award.
With a 37-27 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, the defending conference champions, on Sunday, the Seahawks improved to 6-1 for the second time in franchise history, and the first time since 2013, the season they won their only Super Bowl title. The Seahawks are atop the league’s toughest division and have established themselves as the class of the conference.
Despite making it to six Pro Bowls, steering the Seahawks to the postseason seven times in his nine-year career and never missing a game, Wilson has never been in the running for an MVP Award.
This season may be different. His four touchdown passes Sunday gave him 26 for the year, first in the league, ahead of Patrick Mahomes’ 21 and one short of Tom Brady’s record for most passing scores through seven games. Wilson leads the league in quarterback rating, is just behind Mahomes in the key adjusted yards per pass statistic and ranks in the top five in completion percentage and yards passing. His 71.5 percent completion rate and 307 yards passing per game are career highs.
“I just keep swinging,” Wilson said of his bounce-back performance against the 49ers.
Wilson has never had a single vote for the MVP Award in his eight previous seasons. But his 26 touchdown passes are already more than the totals of 10 other quarterbacks who have been named MVP since 1970.
Wilson has been nothing if not consistent. He is 92-42-1 as a starter, 32-8 in games after a loss. After their first loss of the season last week, in which Wilson threw three interceptions against the Arizona Cardinals, the Seahawks seemed eager to come out strong Sunday. Wilson found his new favorite wide receiver, D.K. Metcalf, early and often.
On his first score, a 46-yard catch-and-run, Metcalf showed the speed and elusiveness that have made him one of the league’s best receivers. After catching the ball on the left side, he sliced across the field, raced past 49ers defenders, then sprinted down the right sideline and into the end zone.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll likes his toughness. “When he caught the ball on the crossing route, I was screaming they weren’t going to get him,” he said.
The slick score — Metcalf’s sixth of the year — also got rave reviews from LeBron James, who called the second-year receiver Baby Bron on Instagram. In a caption to a picture, James wrote, “We built different.”
Metcalf is indeed different from most receivers. At 6 feet, 4 inches tall, he is both tall and fast. Several 49ers defensive backs bounced off him Sunday, and two defenders were draped over him in the end zone when he caught his second touchdown of the game.
As for the 49ers, maybe it is the Super Bowl hangover. Maybe the injuries, freakish or otherwise, have thrown them off track. Maybe their opponents have just gotten better at figuring them out. Whatever the reason, the team looks like a shell of the one that dominated the NFC last year. The 49ers slipped to 4-4, good for only last place in the tough NFC West.
The gap between the teams seems to grow by the week. Seattle has the top-ranked offense in the league, which has managed to offset a defense that is giving up the most yards per game in the NFL. Like last year, the 49ers still have a stingy defense. But injuries have hurt the offense, including ones to wide receiver Deebo Samuel and to running backs Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman, who left Sunday’s game with a knee injury.
The Seahawks shut down the 49ers’ run game Sunday and knocked out quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who aggravated an ankle injury, and tight end George Kittle, who left with an injured foot. The 49ers managed just 116 yards in the first half and turned over the ball twice. Most of their points and yardage came in the fourth quarter when Garoppolo’s backup, Nick Mullens, took over with the Seahawks ahead by 23 points.
The 49ers continue an uneven season in which three of their four wins have come against the New York Giants, the New York Jets and the New England Patriots, who have combined for three wins this year. A rash of injuries has made it harder for the 49ers to compete against stronger teams. On defense, they are missing cornerback Richard Sherman, defensive linemen Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Solomon Thomas, and safety Jaquiski Tartt, among others.
Coach Kyle Shanahan said injuries were no excuse. “I don’t think we played good as a group,” he said Sunday. “We’ve missed players a number of times and that’s not a reason to go out there and not play well.”
With the NFL adding one more playoff team in each conference this season, the 49ers are by no means out of the hunt for the postseason. But because they had such a successful season last year, their schedule is harder than in previous years. Their next four games are against the Green Bay Packers, the New Orleans Saints, the Los Angeles Rams and the Buffalo Bills, who are 21-9 collectively.
In what amounts to a silver lining in a difficult season, several 49ers said they were happy to be facing the Packers on Thursday instead of Sunday so they would not have time to dwell on their humbling loss to the Seahawks.
“There’s definitely still a lot of fight left in this team,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said.