On paper, it’ll take a miracle for Patrick Willis and the 49ers not to walk away with the NFC West title for a second straight season. Is paper right? (Yeah, probably.)
1. San Francisco 49ers
I tried to think of a realistic scenario in which the 49ers don’t win the NFC West. Alex Smith reverting to his pre-2011 self seems like an obvious choice. However, even an awful season from Smith wouldn’t ruin the 49ers chances of winning the division. The Cardinals quarterback situation is in disarray. The Seahawks just named a rookie their starting QB after splurging on a free agent quarterback in the offseason (think Matt Flynn wishes he chose Miami now?). In St. Louis, Sam Bradford is coming off a horrendous sophomore campaign and the Rams are still learning how to walk. So again, who exactly is supposed to challenge the 49ers in this division? Unless Randy Moss can elevate his “team cancer” talents to unforeseen levels, the 49ers will repeat as champs, and it won’t even be close.
DWC’s Take: 49ers – How does a 13-3 team get the 24th hardest schedule? I have no idea, but I am fairly confident it means another playoff run for the gold diggers. The defense is still nasty, the team has a more veteran approach after being one possession away from the Superbowl, and Jim Harbaugh is a coach guys want to play for. I also like the security blanket of Brandon Jacobs in case something should happen to Frank Gore. It also helps that the rest of the division is still wandering in the land of mediocrity and appears stuck on that path for the foreseeable future.
2. Arizona Cardinals
I’d rather not pick a second place team but since I have to I’ll take the Arizona Cardinals for one reason and one reason only; Ken Whisenhunt. You know how the Steelers are almost always competitive? Regardless of injury, talent shortage or even a glaring weakness, the Steelers always stay within reach of the playoffs. Whisenhunt has brought that same consistency to Arizona. After a brutal start in 2011, the Cardinals rallied to a 7-2 finish and were lurking in the wildcard hunt had Detroit or New Orleans stumbled. And you know what? The Cardinals had quarterback drama last year too, so I’m not completely tossing them into the trash heap. I mean really, how hard can it be to throw the ball downfield if Larry Fitzgerald is on the other end?
DWC’s Take: Seahawks – This is not a vote of confidence for Seattle as much as it is a lack of faith in the other teams. Marshawn Lynch should have another productive season and the team now has options at QB with the signing of Matt Flynn and drafting Russell Wilson. Hopefully new blood under center will help develop some offense (bottom 10 in rushing and passing in 2011) to go along with the serviceable defense Pete Carroll has built. Playing the Cardinals and Rams twice and matchups against the Dolphins and Vikings should inflate Seattle’s otherwise lousy record.
3. Seattle Seahawks
Despite a superb 2011, Marshawn Lynch can’t carry Seattle’s offense. Sidney Rice needs to earn all that dough the Seahawks are paying him. Having a capable quarterback wouldn’t hurt either. Can Russell Wilson or Matt Flynn be that guy? It appears Wilson will have the first crack at it and you know what? I like his chances. What Wilson lacks in experience and pedigree he’ll make up for with poise and athleticism. Though, unfortunately for the Seahawks, a stellar rookie campaign by a quarterback doesn’t equate to victories. Just ask Cam Newton.
DWC’s Take: Cardinals – As the trade moves further into the background, I grow more and more convinced that Andy Reid is an evil genius. He somehow kept Kevin Kolb’s stock extremely high despite injuries and a general lack of production. Then he got the Cardinals to bite and sign Kolb to a big contract. And now Kevin Kolb won’t even win the starting job. This is sad, because with a good quarterback the Cardinals could threaten the 49ers for the division. Sad to say Whisenhunt will probably be out of a job by season’s end.
4. St. Louis Rams
Simply put, I’m a Sam Bradford believer. It was a perfect storm of issues that plagued Bradford’s sophomore season after a promising rookie campaign. Injuries to his most trusted receivers, a lousy offensive line, his own nagging injuries and a lame duck coach all contributed to Bradford’s struggles. Expect Bradford to bounce back this season and the Rams to be less awful than everyone expects. I have nothing else to say about the Rams.
DWC’s Take: Rams – I really hope Sam Bradford shakes the slump and injuries that tarnished his second season, but I am afraid it might simply be who he is. The defense can stop the pass but then gets mutilated on the ground, making it even harder on the Rams subpar offense. I like Jeff Fisher as the coach, but I am afraid there are too few pieces to work with for the 2012 season.
For those keeping score, last season’s NFC West predictions:
Me: AZ, STL, SF, SEA
DWC: STL, AZ, SF, SEA
Actual Results: SF, AZ, SEA, STL
Score: DWC 0, Me 0 **Again, no point awarded. This is getting embarrassing.