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The NFC West has gone from joke to juggernaut...

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Bill Barnwell of Grantland talks about the NFC West's spectacular fall and rise...

Last night the NFL was actually able to air a game between two NFC West teams on national television without anybody decrying what a terrible live matchup it was. Remember: People were upset that the Rams and Seahawks were bumped into Sunday Night Football in Week 17 of the 2009 season, and that was essentially a play-in game for a playoff spot. The NFC West has come a long way, baby. In fact, only two-plus years after sending a 7-9 team to the playoffs for the first time in the history of the NFL, the NFC West might actually be close to the best division in football.

At the moment, the numbers bear out that possibility. In an admittedly small sample of 18 out-of-division games, the NFC West is 12-6. That .667 winning percentage is the best of any division in football, finishing just ahead of the NFC North. (The AFC South is at the bottom, having started 4-11.) Even if the NFC West doesn't finish atop the out-of-division leaderboard this season, it's clearly full of teams thave raised their games and become competitive NFL franchises. And figuring out how they got there should give hope (and a blueprint) to some of the league's newer cellar-dwellers.

First, though, it's worth realizing just how bad the NFC West has been. The NFC West has not been your standard-issue subpar division, in the way that the AFC South or NL Central or Atlantic Division of the NBA have been. The NFC West, for virtually its entire existence under the league's current organization, has been truly wretched in ways that "worst" doesn't capture. Numbers never tell the whole story, but here, it's impossible to get the whole story without them.

When the NFL realigned itself in 2002 and stuck the 49ers, Cardinals, Rams, and Seahawks in the same division, there was no reason to think that the division would become a league laughingstock. The Rams were a 14-2 team that had just lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl; the Niners, a perennial contender, had gone 12-4 before losing in the wild-card round to the Packers. The 9-7 Seahawks came over from the AFC West, and the 7-9 Cardinals were transported to their rightful locale after serving as one of the NFC East's anachronisms. And over its first two seasons, the NFC West really was competitive, delivering three over-10-win teams to the playoffs while producing a respectable 38-42 record in non-divisional matchups.

In 2004, though, the wheels came off....

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How the 49ers became so damned good:

The 2011 49ers weren't even clear favorites to win their division before the season, but they ran away with it, finishing 13-3 with an 8-2 record outside of the West.

The sudden emergence of that 49ers team is commonly attributed to their head coaching change, in which they replaced the overwhelmed and often embarrassing Mike Singletary with Jim Harbaugh, who was almost instantly the league's best game manager. That undoubtedly had a heck of a lot to do with the improvement, but there were other factors worth considering. The Niners followed one plan that virtually every team in football should emulate on one side of the ball; on the other, they followed a plan that is almost always set up for failure but somehow found success pulling it off.

On offense, the Niners followed the conventional maxim and built through the line outward. Since the organization cleaned house after the 2004 season and selected Alex Smith with the first pick of the 2005 draft, they've used three first-round picks on offensive linemen, including both of their first-rounders in the 2010 draft. A fourth first-rounder was used on Vernon Davis, who is widely regarded as the best blocking tight end in football. It took some time for the likes of Anthony Davis and Joe Staley to develop into their roles, but they've emerged as the league's best run-blocking line, a unit capable of running on and through even the stoutest of run defenses. Including wideout Michael Crabtree, the Niners will usually start six homegrown first-round picks on offense, all of whom are either in their prime or approaching it. Harbaugh's brilliance has helped mold that offense, but he's been aided by players who were improving even before he got there.

Defensively, on the other hand, the Niners have followed a game plan that often leads to failure. The two first-rounders left starting for them on defense are truly dynamic, as Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith represent two of the best players in football at their respective linebacker roles. The Niners have also found key contributors in later rounds, adding Dashon Goldson and NaVorro Bowman with ESPN2 draft picks.1 Otherwise? They've built their dominant defense through adding veterans in free agency, which is often a way for teams to spend themselves into oblivion without making themselves any better. The 49ers were unsuccessful with this tactic at first, as the record contract they gave cornerback Nate Clements didn't offer much return. Next, though, they threw a big deal at Justin Smith. That one worked. Smith is one of the best defensive linemen in football, regardless of what Kevin Gilbride might suggest about the legality of his tactics. Then, last year, they shored up a struggling secondary by signing cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Donte Whitner; Whitner became a key run stopper and defensive enforcer, while Rogers suddenly learned how to pick off passes and went to the Pro Bowl. Beyond the Clements move, the Niners have been able to sign free agents who were known quantities and get more out of them after they arrived. That's extremely uncommon.

Justin Smith is amazing. Great pickup; between him and Patrick Willis that whole defense is a machine.

I didn't get the game on TV in PA fwiw.

You didn't get the game in Palo Alto?!?!?!

Haha. Pennsylvania.

Again. They used to be great! What's old is new. :)

In football, there's always a way to improve the team.

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