NFC West heading for December duels

The St. Louis Rams' 2011 schedule features no division games until Week 9.

This struck me as odd, and it is. Every other team in the NFL plays between one and three division games before then. But the Rams' schedule does fit into the broader league emphasis to make late-season games more meaningful.

2011 NFC West Division Games

The subject arose Tuesday during an NFC West discussion on my Facebook wall. One of our regular contributors to the blog, Al Vaden, planted the seed by asking whether the lockout might give the Arizona Cardinals' new defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, an advantage over the three new offensive coordinators he'll face in the NFC West.

"Offenses always seem to take more time to come together given their complexity and timing issues," Al suggested.

At this point, I checked the Cardinals' schedule and found only one NFC West game in the first eight weeks of the season, at Seattle in Week 3. I then checked the totals for the other teams in the league. The Rams were the only team with zero division games in the first eight weeks. The Seahawks (two) and San Francisco 49ers (one) also had relatively few. Nine teams had three. None had more.

Overall, there were twice as many division games from Week 9 to Week 17 than in the first eight weeks.

The offensive coordinators for Horton's division rivals will have played a significant number of games before facing Arizona in five of the Cardinals' six NFC West matchups this season.

This season marks the first since divisional realignment in 2002 without at least one Rams game against an NFC West opponent in the first eight weeks. The team played two in 2010 and two in 2009. The 49ers played only one last season after playing at least three in the first eight weeks of the 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons. Seattle had played three in 2009 and in 2010. Arizona has played one or two in each of the past four seasons.

We can go back and forth debating advantages and disadvantages associated with having more or fewer division games early in a season. If the NFC West remains weak this season, teams from the division feeling more confident about their readiness might have been better off playing unsettled division opponents earlier, while new coordinators were getting players up to speed following the lockout.

The lockout is giving coaching staffs extra time to study their opponents, but some rosters will change significantly once the signing period opens.

I'm looking forward to a division race that should remain competitive deep into the season. Only the AFC North plays as many division games as the NFC West after Week 8. The AFC West features only three division matchups after Week 12, half as many as in the NFC West, AFC North and NFC South.

The chart shows how many division games each NFL team plays at various points during the season.

2011 NFL Division Games