2009 NFC West Preview: Was Arizona a Fluke?
You would think that unseating the division winner who finished 9-7 would be an easy task, right?
After all, all you need to do is go 10-6 or 11-5 to win the division, right?
Well, for the rest of the NFC West, your reigning 9-7 division champion also happens to be the defending conference champion, the Arizona Cardinals.
The once moribund Cardinals, whom every team loved picking on is now the team everyone is gunning for in the NFC. All roads to the NFC West crown and NFC title goes through the desert.
But with both coordinators gone, no "Edge" at running back, and some contract disputes, will Arizona become a one-year wonder?
The rest of the division improved themselves through coaching changes, high-caliber draft picks, free agency and may also benefit from easy scheduling.
Here's a look into the NFC West in alphabetical order:
Last Season: 9-7, 1st NFC West, NFC Champion
GOOD THING GOING: Kurt Warner is back after flirting with the 49ers. He had his best season a year ago that was reminiscent of when he was part of the "Greatest Show on Turf" in St. Louis. Larry Fitzgerald gives the Cardinals some swagger on the offense, knowing that if they throw the ball up, they know Fitzgerald will come down with it.
Chris "Beanie" Wells (photo) is a suitable replacement for Edgerrin James at running back. He has the inside punishing running ability that coach Ken Whisenhunt desires.
PRESENTABLE PROBLEMS: Anquan Boldin is unhappy, Darnell Dockett wants a new deal, and both coordinators who were instrumental in Arizona's conference title run are now in Kansas City.
The Cards also have nine games this year with teams that finished with seven or more victories last season.
CRUCIAL GAME(S): The week 14 road trip to San Francisco could ultimately decide the NFC West.
WHAT TO BELIEVE IN 2009: Arizona had too much negative off-season news to start off 2009. Even if Boldin and Dockett comes back, the Cards may fall victim to the Super Bowl runner-up jinx.
THE PICK FOR '09: 7-9
St. Louis Rams
Last Season: 2-14, 4th NFC West
GOOD THING GOING: Steve Spagnuolo gives the Rams a fresh wave of intensity, especially on defense.
He will find ways to let loose his defensive lineman especially Leonard Little and second-year pro Chris Long. Spagnuolo was known for bringing a pass-rush while in New York with mostly four down lineman, which was evident in the Giants' Super Bowl upset a couple of years ago.
The schedule may also play a role in improving early. The Rams play against just four teams who made the playoffs.
First-round pick Jason Smith (photo) has the athleticism to play left tackle on the offensive line, good news for Marc Bulger.
PRESENTABLE PROBLEMS: The injury bug has affected St. Louis in the past two seasons. One of two remaining stars from the Rams' Super Bowl teams Torry Holt and Orlando Pace are also gone.
The pressure is once again on Marc Bulger and Steven Jackson to help carry an even younger offense.
CRUCIAL GAME(S): The first four games have three road trips for the Rams. Their home game during that span is against Green Bay. The Rams will need to win at least two of those games if they want to be competitve early.
WHAT TO BELIEVE IN 2009: The Rams are clearly far removed form their "Greatest Show on Turf" days, but the good news is, Spagnuolo brings in Super Bowl experience plus the rest of the division is going through some drastic changes. This team is still a work in progress though.
THE PICK FOR '09: 5-11
San Francisco 49ers
Last Season: 7-9, 2nd NFC West
GOOD THING GOING; Even though Arizona won the division and ultimately the NFC title, no team in the NFC West played better than the 49ers towards the end of the year.
The Niners finished 2009 winning four of their final five games. Three of those wins came against the Jets, Bills and Redskins.
Two new additons that should upgrade the offense will be new coordinator Jimmy Raye and first-round choice Michael Crabtree. Raye should develop a more balanced offense, with a stronger emphasis in the running game and find ways to get Crabtree the football, especially in the play-action.
PRESENTABLE PROBLEMS: Walt Harris' injury puts a damper on leadership and veteran play in the secondary. Dre' Bly is a solid replacement with his credentials (two pro bowls, a Super Bowl victory), but he was burned too often in Denver.
The Niners have also struggled with finding an identity for the offense over the years. If the offense struggles early, it will not be a good sign for the defense as they could get worn down in games.
CRUCIAL GAME(S): The season opener with Arizona will determine if the 49ers will be an early favorite in the NFC West. The week 14 matchup with the Cards could determine the division. Depending on how well the niners hold up in December, their week 15 contest at Philadelphia could have playoff implications.
WHAT TO BELIEVE IN 2009; There is excitement in the Bay Area. That hasn't happened in a while, not since Steve Young and Jerry Rice wore the red and gold. Mike Singletary has found ways to make his team believe, which became evident towards the end of 2008. If that carries over in 2009, the glory days could be back for the Bay Area.
THE PICK FOR '09: 11-5
Last Season: 4-12, 3rd NFC West
GOOD THING GOING: Aaron Curry will benefit this defense, especially with being alongside Leroy Hill and pro bowler Lofa Tatupu. He has the speed and athleticism to play in the 4-3 scheme and will be a suitable replacement for Julian Peterson.
If Matt Hasslebeck and newcomer T.J Houshmandzadeh (photo) connect on offense, the Seahawks will put up a lot of points.
PRESENTABLE PROBLEMS; Much like the Rams, injuries have also decimated the Seahawks over the past few years. Health is paramount for the Seahawks to rebound from being 4-12, because there is not much depth at many key positions, especially quarterback.
CRUCIAL GAME(S): The first six games before the bye week has just two road trips. Week two is at San Francisco and week four is at Indianapolis. Their home games are with St. Louis, Chicago, Jacksonville and Arizona. The Seahawks have an opportunity to start 5-1 before their bye week.
WHAT TO BELIEVE IN 2009: Even with no Mike Holmgren, Seattle should be better from a year ago. It all depends on how they start the season and if they can remain healthy.
THE PICK FOR '09: 7-9