ST. LOUIS -- It's not breaking news to note that the NFC West division has elevated from being mocked as the "NFC Worst" to touted as the "NFC Best."
With the Seattle Seahawks representing the division in the Super Bowl after knocking off rival San Francisco in the NFC championship game and Arizona finishing 10-6, the division was hands down the toughest in the NFL in 2013.
The St. Louis Rams lagged behind in 2013, finishing fourth at 7-9 with a 1-5 record in NFC West play. That disappointing divisional performance came a year after the team went 4-1-1 in the division.
On Wednesday afternoon, Seattle defensive tackle Brandon Mebane credited the NFC West competition for hardening the Seahawks.
“I’d definitely have to say it makes us a better team," Mebane said. "We’ve got three of the best teams in the league: the Cardinals, the Rams and the 49ers. All three of those teams, on Sunday, you know what type of game it’s going to be. Very physical games. Both teams are going to be beat up afterwards. I definitely feel like playing in that division, winning it, really set the stage for us to make this playoff run.”
We've documented in this space how difficult it was for the Rams against Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona in 2013. Yes, they played four of those games without the services of quarterback Sam Bradford and they nearly beat Seattle at the Edward Jones Dome without him. But the Rams were essentially blown out in three road losses to those teams to close the season. It's hard to say how Bradford's presence would have altered those outcomes but the Rams seemed further behind than before in those contests.
During and after the season, Rams coach Jeff Fisher repeatedly insisted that his team had closed the gap on its NFC West brethren. Plenty of people -- myself included -- have reservations on just how true that is.
But Mebane's comments Wednesday would seem to indicate his feelings fall in line with Fisher.
Asked whether he sees the Rams as a team on the rise, here's what Mebane said: “No question about it. Coach Fisher’s doing a great job over there. Our first outing against those guys, I feel like they physically beat us up up front. They were able to control the line of scrimmage, run for 200 yards. They’ve got a great defense. They’ve got all the things in place to continue to progress. Like I said, our division…and it’s even special to me because when I came into the league, our division was viewed as the worst in the league. So to be viewed as the best and probably one of the most physical divisions in the league is a testament to what the coaches can actually do.”
The Rams gave the Seahawks all they wanted in that 14-9 loss and likely would have beaten Seattle with the services of Bradford. For Mebane to acknowledge the Rams as a team on the rise is nice but it's not like they have much of a choice in the matter. If the Rams want to keep up with the likes of the Seahawks, Niners and Cardinals, they better reach heights unseen in the past decade.