As it stands right now the NFC West division title goes through San Francisco. While I don't envision another 13-3 season for the 49ers, they clearly remain the division favorites. Here's three keys I see to being the surprise team in the division in 2012.
Tie the best, beat the rest:
The Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks and St Louis Rams all have solid upsides but major question marks heading into the season. If one of these teams are to emerge to challenge San Francisco, they are going to have to do so first by sweeping the other two then playing the Niners to a 1-1 season series. In my estimation, this will get you half way to the ten win mark needed to win the NFC West. Five wins against division opponents is a great start if you're going rise up in any NFL division.
Protect the Nest:
I know this should go without saying, but you get eight games at home — lose more than two and it's a rough climb from there. Let's break it down like this, if you can go 6-2 on your home field and 5-1 in your division you're win total stands at eight. Picking up two wins against teams like the Miami Dolphins, the Buffalo Bills or the Minnesota Vikings is very achievable.
Discipline, Discipline, Discipline:
Whether it's off-season workouts and conditioning that helps take care of a players body or avoiding costly penalties that can make or break you in close games, it also goes without saying that teams that practice the most discipline tend to be the ones playing in January. While the first two keys are critical, they can only be finally executed by teams that maintain discipline. It may sound clicheé, but staying healthy as well as avoiding penalties and turnovers is the ultimate way for any team to put themselves in position for a division title run at the end of the season.