NFL Preview 2012: Predicting the NFC West
For a long time, the NFC West has been considered the weakest division in football. Just two seasons ago, the Seattle Seahawks limped into the playoffs with a 7-9 record which made it the first sub-.500 division winner in NFL History.
In other words, this division has been just plain awful.
However, some teams have made significant strides to help change that perception. The San Francisco 49ers made the first move by becoming one of the NFL's elite teams in 2012 and could have been a muffed punt or two away from going to the Super Bowl.
Other solid seeds have been planted in the division in the form of Jeff Fisher's arrival in St. Louis and Russel Wilson's starter status over Matt Flynn in Seattle.
There's an unpredictability in the air for this division. It could surprise people as the season gets deeper, but here's a look at how the NFC West could stack up in 2012.
4. Arizona Cardinals
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Though three three other teams in the NFC West have made strides to better their programs, the Arizona Cardinals have done nothing to help their cause.
The Cardinals came into the preseason with lukewarm hopes after a 7-2 finish to 2011. The hope was that Kevin Kolb, who is currently under contract for a $10 million cap hit, could take hold of the starting quarterback job and help build off of that momentum.
That didn't happen. John Skelton will take control of the offense.
While he was at the controls for most of the final nine games of 2011, there just isn't much to like about the guy, especially considering the holes elsewhere on this team.
Levi Brown, the Cardinals' starting left tackle, is lost for the season with a torn left bicep. Running backs Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells are both coming off of knee surgeries and could take a while to come back to form (especially with the offensive line they're running behind).
Other than Larry Fitzgerald, this team has nothing offensively at the moment, and their defense may be worse.
Patrick Peterson has not panned out like the team expected when they selected him fifth overall in the 2010 NFL Draft. They sorely need a playmaker other than Calais Campbell to make this unit effective, which seems to be absent right now.
The good news is that as bad as the Cardinals' season will most likely be, they should be in the mix to select Matt Barkley with the first overall pick next April.
The bad news is that Cardinal fans will have to suffer through this train wreck in order to get the franchise quarterback they haven't had since Kurt Warner retired.
3. St. Louis Rams
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It looked like the St. Louis Rams were in position to dominate the NFC West for years to come heading into 2011. But the wheels fell off under Steve Spagnuolo and they stumbled to a 2-14 record.
The Rams made a change and got the hottest name on the coaching market when Jeff Fisher agreed to become their coach. While Fisher has his detractors (with nicknames like "Coach .500"), the Rams got a guy who can build a solid foundation for the franchise.
Nobody has more to gain from this than quarterback Sam Bradford. Bradford took a step back in 2011 (six TD, six INT in 10 games) after a solid rookie season (18 TD, 15 INT in 16 games) due to a high ankle sprain. The offense didn't really suit his strengths either.
The Rams don't have many receiving weapons, but they look to run their offense through Steven Jackson. That could be a problem considering Jackson's age as well as his 2,138 career carries. He's a year away from 30, a plateau that has claimed older running backs in the past.
On defense, the Rams added defensive tackle Michael Brockers (out four-to-six weeks with an ankle sprain) in the draft to give Fisher his new version of Albert Haynesworth.
The Rams also were able to scoop up cornerback Janoris Jenkins in the second round, who slid to them due to character concerns that got him kicked out of Florida.
The system is starting to be put in place for the Rams to be a successful team under Fisher, but the results will not be immediate. Expect the Rams to finish in the bottom half of the division.
2. Seattle Seahawks
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Pete Carroll has preached competition throughout his time at USC and he brought that over to the NFL by naming Russell Wilson as his starting quarterback over the highly-paid Matt Flynn.
Wilson won the job despite sliding to the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft because of his height. But the guy simply gets the job done. If Wilson were 6'3", he would have been a first-round draft pick because of his accuracy and scrambling ability.
While Wilson will have ups and downs, he should be solid enough to make the Seahawks' power rushing game (lead by Marshawn Lynch) even more dangerous.
Wilson is a nice addition, but the Seahawk defense will be the reason why they could be one of the sleeper teams not only in the NFC West, but the entire NFL.
Their secondary has great potential to shut down opposing teams as Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are two up-and-coming safeties in the league. They also have a solid defender in Marcus Trufant to help out on the outside as well.
Their defensive line could also be a strength as Bruce Irvin could prove himself worthy of being a first-round pick. If Irvin can get to the quarterback along with Chris Clemons, the Seahawks could have an intimidating defense with which to deal.
It's possible that the Seahawks could be 2012's version of the San Francisco 49ers.
1. San Francisco 49ers
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The 49ers will be led by their defense. With Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman leading the way, the defense alone will be strong enough to lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl this February.
However, the 49ers are different from other contenders in that they have a lot more question marks than their peers.
It starts with the quarterback position. Alex Smith is coming off a career season (17 TD, five INT). Prior to last season, Smith never performed up to his 2005 No. 1-overall pick status. There could be a regression especially since last season was only the second time in his career that Smith played in all 16 games.
There are also questions at the skill positions as Frank Gore is getting close to hitting the same wall Steven Jackson is in St. Louis. The 49ers are loaded at the tailback position, but they'll need everybody (including Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Brandon Jacobs) to contribute.
Perhaps the biggest question is what version of Randy Moss the 49ers are getting after signing him as a free agent. Unlike Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson, Moss survived the preseason with the 49ers and should be an efficient target for Smith.
If the 49ers can get the New England Patriots version of Moss, they could have a ridiculous steal on their hands. If Moss doesn't like the catering in San Francisco, coach Jim Harbaugh could give him the pink slip faster than you can say "I wouldn't feed that stuff to my dog."
The defense will lead the way, but if the offense can hit its stride and become more dangerous, the 49ers could be the best team in the NFC.