Predicting the NFC West: How the Standings Will Look at Season's End
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The San Francisco 49ers had the talent to be a playoff team a couple years ago. They just didn’t have the quarterback play to get them over the hump.
That changed last year when Alex Smith turned in the best season of his seven-year career and led the 49ers to the NFC West crown and the NFC Championship Game.
The Niners, largely because of Smith’s lackluster play in previous seasons, were not the favorites to win the division last year.
That distinction fell to the St. Louis Rams, who appeared to be on the upswing after going 7-9 and falling just one game shy of winning the division. The seven wins were a plus-six from the season before. The Rams laid an egg with the division on the line in a season-ending loss at Seattle. The Seahawks also went 7-9, but won the division on a tiebreaker to become the first team with a losing record to win a division.
Seattle again went 7-9 last year while the Rams suffered through an injury-plagued season to a 2-14 record. The Arizona Cardinals finished strong to end the year at 8-8. Do the Cardinals have enough to usurp the crown away from the 49ers? Have the Seahawks done enough in the offseason to reclaim their title. Can the Rams return to greatness under new coach Jeff Fisher?
First Place: San Francisco 49ers (12-4)
Vernon Davis helped the Niners run away with the division last year.
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The Niners just have too much. While the other teams in the division have improved, if San Francisco gets the same consistent play from quarterback Alex Smith, it will be hard to beat them.
The 49ers have a great defense with rising stars in outside linebacker Aldon Smith and inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman to go with Patrick Willis, who may be the best middle linebacker in the game. On the other side of the ball, running back Frank Gore is among the league’s best and Vernon Davis is an elite tight end. Wideout Michael Crabtree has big-play ability and San Francisco has the best offensive line in the division.
The Niners have the league’s best kicking tandem in punter Andy Lee and kicker David Akers and a dangerous returner in Ted Ginn Jr.
Rookie LaMichael James should only help Gore and Ginn by spelling them and keeping them fresh.
Second Place: Seattle Seahawks (8-8)
Can Sidney Rice stay healthy this season?
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New quarterback Matt Flynn, assuming he wins the job, will help the Seahawks improve a little from 7-9. Seattle has question marks with the health of wide receiver Sidney Rice and a possible suspension of running back Marshawn Lynch, and the Seahawks have to sort out their guards.
The defense is rock solid, but could be on the field for extended periods of time if the offense struggles on third down.
Seattle has a tough opening to the season with Dallas, Green Bay and New England all within the first six weeks. All of those games are at home, which will help, but trips to Arizona, St. Louis and Carolina won’t be easy. Coming out of that initial stretch at 3-3 would be optimistic. Week 7 has a trip to reigning division champion San Francisco.
Third Place: St. Louis Rams (6-10)
Jeff Fisher will have the Rams improved in 2012.
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The Rams will improve under new coach Jeff Fisher and have more talent than their 2-14 record from a season ago. Injuries were a huge reason the Rams fell flat following a promising 7-9 campaign in 2010.
The Rams placed 11 cornerbacks on injured reserve, lost both starting offensive tackles, their starting left guard and top wide receiver. As long as the injuries are kept to a minimum, the Rams can again become competitive. They have core players in place with quarterback Sam Bradford, running back Steven Jackson, linebacker James Laurinaitis and defensive end Chris Long.
The league’s fourth-toughest schedule won’t help them reach the postseason, but the team will definitely take a step in the right direction.
Fourth Place: Arizona Cardinals (5-11)
The Cardinals must get better quarterback play in 2012 if they expect to contend.
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The Cardinals got terrible quarterback play last season and both Kevin Kolb and John Skelton are back this season. The Cardinals ended the season strong, winning four of their last five to go 8-8. But the Cardinals didn’t do enough this offseason to keep up with the other teams in the division.
They lost starting guard Deuce Lutui to Seattle and guard Rex Hadnot went to San Diego. The Cardinals have rising stars in cornerback Patrick Peterson and outside linebacker O’Brien Schofield to go with a very good safety tandem and solid defensive line. It’s offensively where Arizona could struggle. Its defense will keep games close, where Peterson could be a difference maker on special teams like he was last year, but look for the Cardinals to take a step back from last season.
The Cardinals also go on the road to play the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons. It’s hard to see a victory in any of those four.