NFC West: Down Years in Rear-View Mirror

Anthony DionContributor IMay 18, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Larry Fitzgerald #11 of the Arizona Cardinals celebrates after scoring on a 64-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Steelers won 27-23. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

When talking about the perennial powerhouse divisions within the NFL, the NFC West isn't usually the first one named, nor the second or even the third.

OK, so it's not uncommon for the division to be named last or just completely ignored altogether. With the Arizona Cardinals reaching the Super Bowl last year it is clear that it is a division on the rise.

After the league transformed from three divisions to four with a 32nd team introduced (Houston Texans) in 2002, the NFC West was largely a two team division led by the St. Louis Rams and the Seattle Seahawks.

In seven years of its reformed existence, the Seahawks have won the division four times ('04-'07), the 49ers once ('02), the Rams once ('03) and the Cardinals once ('08). It has been a division largely of mediocrity outside of its champion. Just twice the division has sent more than its champion to the playoffs, in 2003 and 2004 when the Rams and Seahawks both went. And with the Cardinals recent Super Bowl berth, that gives the reformed division a total of two in seven years.

Entering the 2009 season it would be easy to write off the NFC West as a mediocre, one team league once again but you would be mistaken.

The NFC West is a division on the rise. For whatever reason—whether it was poor quarterback play, constant coaching changes, young teams, etc—the division was in a rut. If there was ever a sign of change it was watching the Cardinals win the division and reach the Super Bowl for the first time in its existence.

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The Cardinals in the Super Bowl? That defines change.

Taking a quick overview of the division's prospects for 2009, it's easy to see three of the four teams being rather formidable.

Arizona still has the parts that took them to the Super Bowl—Kurt Warner and wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin not to mention a young, aggressive defense.

Then there's the previously four-time division winners, the Seattle Seahawks, whom after a year of devastation through injuries should be back in form a year later.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers could once again be a candidate for most improved team.

A team that finished strong under new Head Coach Mike Singletary in '08 to reach 7-9 should benefit from having their first offseason under Singletary, in which the former Hall-of-Fame linebacker can instill his identity into the team. For it to take the next step though, it will need a quarterback—whether it be Alex Smith, Shuan Hill or newly acquired free agent Damon Huard—to step up and be consistent for an entire season.

With an improving offense and strong defense and a no-nonsense team under Singletary, the 49ers are close to being a playoff team.

The St. Louis Rams may be the one team of the division that could be considered weak. Last year injuries to key offensive line starters like Orlando Pace (who was released in the offseason) really hurt QB Marc Bulger and, in turn, the team. But another year holding the second overall pick in the draft, a new coach, and the team is progressing in its rebuilding phase.

The NFC West may not be the AFC South or NFC East's of the world but it should be fairly competitive in 2009. Certainly, it will be more top heavy than it has been in recent years when only one team was any good.

How that affects Seattle's chances or that of any of the other three teams is simply that it is a division in which three teams have a legit shot to win and reach the playoffs.

As one of the favorites going in, winning the division will be the first goal of the Seattle Seahawks in 2009.

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