Think back to the first game of the 2011 season between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. What happens if Ted Ginn doesn't return that punt and kickoff for two touchdowns? Would the 49ers have still rolled to a 13-3 record? Or would it have been the Seahawks who grabbed the early momentum and cruised to an NFC West title?
The past is the past and the future is unknown. Fans want to combine optimism with realism so that they can experience hope while avoiding too much disappointment. That said, could the Hawks take down the 49ers and grab the NFC West crown?
It wasn't so long ago that rookie quarterbacks simply did not start the season. They were clipboard-toting projects and they were going to watch and learn until they were ready. For some signal-callers this took several years. Today's NFL is quite different as multiple teams will roll out freshly minted draft picks and put them straight onto the field.
The Seahawks are one of those teams and their overall success may be specifically tied to the performance of Russell Wilson. Wilson looked very good in the preseason, but throwing TDs against the third-stringers is not exactly a measure of future success.
Everyone seems to like Wilson, but this isn't about a popularity contest. Seattle hopes that Wilson will put up numbers that are more Cam Newton (2011: 4,051 yards, 21 TDs) and less Blaine Gabbert (2011: 2,214 yards, 12 TDs). If Russell Wilson is a top 10 quarterback, the Seahawks make the playoffs. However, if Wilson replicates Tarvaris Jackson numbers, the Hawks are probably looking at an 8-8 season. In terms of QB rating, Jackson was 21st in the NFL in 2011.
Apply the same logic to the 49ers. Will Alex Smith come crashing back to the Earth? Time will tell if Smith overachieved in 2011 or if he finally figured out how to play QB in the NFL. The fact that San Francisco allegedly joined many other teams in courting Peyton Manning suggests that the Niners do not have an unshakable faith in Smith.
If you look at the numbers, Smith had a career year that included a QB rating of 90.7. Granted, 2011 was the first season where he played 16 games since 2006. Therefore, Smith may have trouble replicating the success from last season.
Who will win the NFC West in 2012?
Following sports is a lot about feel, and predicting the results of the season is about forecasting momentum. The Seahawks have all the tools to be generally described as on the rise. San Francisco had a great season in 2011, but can they get any better? If they did indeed peak, the gap between the two teams may not be as large as it seems.
The 49ers went 13-3, but let's say they drop to 10-6 in 2012. They might still win the division and arguably have another successful year. Expecting the Seahawks to go from 7-9 to 13-3 might be a stretch, but is 11-5 unreasonable? After all, San Francisco went from 6-10 to 13-3 in one year. Why can't Seattle do the same with a bruising running back, a more mature defense and an exciting young quarterback?
On paper, the Seahawks did just about everything right in the offseason. They re-signed key players, they made bold move in the draft and they may have picked up a gem at quarterback. The pessimist will say that Seattle missed on free-agent upgrades, made a "reach" pick with Bruce Irvin in the first round and are pinning their hopes on an undersized rookie quarterback.
Fans will stay optimistic for now. Maybe after a few weeks they will be singing a different tune.