NFC West propping up others
Those who don't believe the schedule is everything haven't been following the NFC West the past several years.
Even though the NFC West has produced two Super Bowl teams in the past six years, the division has done more to pump up other divisions than itself. And with quarterback questions in Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona, it's hard to believe the NFC West drought will end anytime soon.
If that's the case, expect teams in the NFC East and AFC North (those divisions go head-to-head with the NFC West) to have bloated records and statistics in 2011.
The cycle started four years ago. The Rams were down. The Seahawks had lost their Super Bowl luster. Mike Nolan's transformation of the 49ers wasn't working. Only the Arizona Cardinals -- once Kurt Warner took over at quarterback -- were on the rise.
Over the past four years, the NFC West averaged a staggering 19 games below .500 per season in nondivision games. The NFC West was 12-28 in 2007, 10-30 in 2008, 12-28 in 2009 and 13-27 in 2010.
Don't get overly excited about the division's improvement to 13 wins last year, a mark bolstered by a 7-9 record against the weak AFC West. The NFC West went 6-18 against everyone else.
In 2011, NFC East teams will be licking their chops to get another shot at the NFC West. In 2008, the NFC East went 12-4 against the NFC West, and the Giants and Eagles had their highest-scoring offensive teams in the past 10 years, thanks, in part, to the NFC West.
One of my new tricks in figuring out schedule-related trends is seeing where a down division such as the NFC West can help good teams achieve a 7-3 record in nondivision games. The way the schedule is planned, teams get four games against a division within their conference and another four games against a division in the other conference.
If playing a bad division can give a team a 3-1 or 4-0 record in those games, bingo. That's why it was easy to forecast that the winner of the NFC South in 2010 was going to be the No. 1 seed (the Falcons) and the runner-up (the Saints) would be the highest-seeded wild-card team. The NFC West went 3-13 against the NFC South last season.
Thanks to those wins, the Bucs and Saints went 7-3 in nondivision games and the Falcons went 8-2, giving the division three teams with 10 or more victories.
The NFC West Factor really came into focus in 2008, with a huge assist from the AFC West. That year, the AFC East had the perfect storm of scheduling success, drawing the NFC West and AFC West.
The AFC West bottomed out in 2008. The Chargers won the division with an 8-8 record, and the division went 11-29 in nondivision games. Thanks to playing both western conferences, AFC East teams had inflated records.
I remember projecting before that season that all four AFC East teams could go 7-3 in nondivision games because of the western scheduling draw. The Bills, Dolphins and Patriots all cooperated by doing just that. The Jets went 5-5, partially because of road losses to the 49ers and Seahawks in December, when Brett Favre's biceps injury robbed him of his throwing accuracy.
A healthy Favre would have pulled off those two wins and put the Jets at 7-3.
Better days might ahead for the NFC West. The Rams should be a budding power with Sam Bradford at quarterback. Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll have come out of the college ranks to rescue the 49ers and Seahawks. If the Cardinals can get any kind of quarterback play, Ken Whisenhunt has shown he knows how to win games, after taking the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in the 2008 season.
But the NFC West's inability to win on the road can't be overcome in one season. The four-year cycle of road futility bottomed out in 2010, when the four NFC West teams combined for a 6-26 road record.
In 2007, 2008 and 2010, the NFC West teams had only seven nondivisional road wins -- combined -- over those three seasons.
An elite quarterback can be the difference in winning those nondivision road games. Warner pulled off a 6-2 road record during the Cardinals' Super Bowl run in 2008. Other than that one run, no NFC West team has done better than 3-5 on the road in the past four years, and there are more 2-6s and 1-7s than you can imagine.
Bradford may be one of the league's next elite quarterbacks, but he was a rookie last year in a division that didn't produce a team with a winning record. With three other teams in quarterback transition, the NFC West drought should continue.
The last time the NFC West had a winning record in nondivision games was 2003. Until that changes, divisions drawing the NFC West will often get higher seeds in the playoffs.
Keep that in mind when looking at the fortunes of the NFC East and AFC North.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.