Last season, both the AFC and NFC West divisions were not given much respect. Yes, the Chiefs won 10 games and made the playoffs, but they were just 2-4 in their own division and didn’t have many believers, while the Raiders went undefeated in the division yet finished just 8-8.
On the other side, the NFC West became a laughingstock, with Seattle winning the division despite a losing record (7-9). So what has taken place on the West Coast through the first six weeks of the 2011 season is remarkable.
As it stands, the 49ers, who were just 6-10 last year and fired their coach, just handed the Lions their first loss and are tied with the second-best record in the NFL at 5-1. New coach Jim Harbaugh, who did finally give the Niners some pub due to his postgame controversy with Jim Schwartz, has infused new life into a once proud franchise. They’ve beaten the Eagles, a preseason favorite in the NFC. They’ve beaten 4-2 Cincinnati. And they embarrassed the 4-2 Bucs.
Alex Smith suddenly looks like a competent starting NFL quarterback. Frank Gore is healthy and running all over people. Vernon Davis is opening things up for everyone else. And the defense, led by one of the leagues best linebacker duos in Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, is intimidating and dominant. The 49ers are for real.
The Raiders, who also got rid of their coach last season, lost their best defensive player to Philadelphia, had question marks at receiver and were breaking in a new coach. All they’ve done is go 4-2, beating the Jets and Texans in the process while hanging with the Bills and Patriots, and established themselves as a contender in the West.
Darren McFadden is proving he’s the back everyone thought he’d be coming out of Arkansas. Denarius Moore has emerged as a deep threat, and Darius Heyward-Bey is even showing signs of life. And it’s all thanks to Jason Campbell’s understated and underrated work under center.
Campbell’s always been a guy who’s never gotten he credit he deserves. This year, he was finally beginning to as the Raiders started to resemble the franchise the late Al Davis created from scratch. Then he goes down with a broken collar bone, seemingly deflating Oakland’s season. But the Raiders see how far this team has come in a short time, see that Richard Seymour is back playing at a high level and that Rolando McClain is bringing the nasty.
So the Raiders are going for it. First they brought in former number four overall pick Aaron Curry to line up next to McClain, and now they’ve added veteran Carson Palmer to take over for Campbell, reuniting him with Hugh Jackson, the man who recruited him and coached him at USC, then again in Cincinnati. The Raiders want to go all in to honor their recently deceased legend of an owner, and I’m not about to doubt them.
And waiting in the wings as always, flying under the radar, are the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers had a disappointing 2010, finishing just 9-7 as they watched the Chiefs pass them. But this year they’re off to a fast start, leading the West with a 4-1 record, the beneficiaries of a generous early-season schedule.
However, we all know how the Chargers have been notoriously slow starters under Norv Turner, something that did them in last season. Not this year. Ryan Mathews is showing he can play, and Mike Tolbert is continuing his high level of play. The defense has held opponents to 17 points or less in three of the five games. And Phillip Rivers hasn’t even hit his stride yet.
Given their track record, you have to think the Chargers are only going to get better. So maybe now is the time to look west and pay attention to what those teams in California are doing.