Wednesday, September 9, 2009

NFC West Preview

Once the NFC West belonged to Seattle, with the Seahawks winning four consecutive titles and reaching the playoffs five seasons in a row. But their run ended with Arizona's unexpected ascension in 2008, and now it's the Cardinals, not the Seahawks, who are the neighborhood bullies. Most persons have them winning the division again, but I'll pass, thank you very much. Arizona is loaded, particularly on offense, but I believe in the Super Bowl jinx that almost annually bites the losers of the championship game. The Cardinals were that team, so I make them second here. Seattle is my favorite, mostly because Matt Hasselbeck is back, healthy and determined to get his team to the top again. The Seahawks have talent, but they have holes, too -- especially on the offensive line. If they avoid the injuries that crippled them last year, they can overcome them.
Of course, Arizona will be there, too, and they might reach the top again -- but pay attention to your history, class. New England lost the Super Bowl two seasons ago, and look what happened in 2008.
San Francisco is a dark horse to sneak in, but there's too much bad karma around this team, with the Michael Crabtree negotiations the latest blow.
The only thing I am certain of in this division is that St. Louis will finish last. There's just too much work to do with this team to expect it to be anything other than a doormat.

Seattle Seahawks
Significant additions: LB Aaron Curry, RB Edgerrin James, WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, CB Ken Lucas, DT Colin Cole, DL Cory Redding, TE John Owen.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Seahawks
2008 standings: 4-12

Pts Scored: 294
Pts Allowed: 392
Off. Yds/G: 274.1
Def. Yds/G: 378.0
2. Cardinals
2008 standings: 9-7

Pts Scored: 427
Pts Allowed: 426
Off. Yds/G: 365.8
Def. Yds/G: 331.5
3. 49ers
2008 standings: 7-9

Pts Scored: 339
Pts Allowed: 381
Off. Yds/G: 311.1
Def. Yds/G: 326.0
4. Rams
2008 standings: 2-14

Pts Scored: 232
Pts Allowed: 465
Off. Yds/G: 287.2
Def. Yds/G: 371.9
Significant losses: LB Julian Peterson, RB T.J. Duckett, G Mike Wahle, WR Bobby Engram, T Floyd Womack, FB Leonard Weaver, RB Maurice Morris, TE Will Heller, DT Rocky Bernard, S Brian Russell.
Biggest offseason move: Jim Mora succeeding Mike Holmgren. The transition had been in the works for a year, with Mora the coach-in-waiting last season. Holmgren will be missed, but in Mora's first season as head coach of Atlanta Falcons, he took the Falcons to the top of the division. There's no reason he can't do the same here.
Will make the playoffs if ... Matt Hasselbeck and his offensive line stay healthy. The Seahawks lost a zillion wide receivers last year, but they lost their quarterback and most of their offensive line, too. If they can avoid the injuries, the talent is here to go places.
Rookie to watch: It has to be Curry. He was the most complete player in the draft, and he was a load in OTAs and mini-camps. OK, so he tailed off this summer as he battled nagging injuries. He still can be a contributor.
Overview: I like this club, and it's because there is a raft of talent. The one concern I have is the Seahawks' ability to run the ball. Edgerrin James and Julius Jones is not my idea of a formidable combination, and the offensive line always seems to be an issue. But Hasselbeck looks good, and the defense should be ... better be ... improved. It ranked dead last against the pass, and that's not good when you share a division with Arizona.

Arizona Cardinals
Significant additions: RB Chris Wells, TE Anthony Becht, FB Dan Kreider, CB Bryant McFadden, RB Jason Wright.
Significant losses: RB J.J. Arrington, RB Edgerrin James, LB Monty Beisel, DE Antonio Smith, S Aaron Francisco, TE Leonard Pope.
Biggest offseason move: Losing offensive coordinator Todd Haley to Kansas City. The Cards have two new coordinators, but Haley is the guy who oversaw one of the league's most dangerous offenses. The good news: The Cards might have found a franchise back in Chris Wells. Haley and the Cards had been looking for one the past two years.
Will make the playoffs if ... They don't succumb to the dreaded Super Bowl jinx. Super Bowl losers typically don't return to the playoffs, and New England was supposed to buck that trend last year. It didn't.
Rookie to watch: Wells. The Cards haven't had a solid running game since Ken Whisenhunt took over in 2007, and that's not his fault. He preached the strength of a solid running game from the day he was hired; he just didn't have the personnel to pull it off. He might now. Wells gained 5.7 yards per carry and scored twice in preseason.
Overview: Most people make these guys the favorite in the division, and they have the personnel -- and coaching staff -- to do it. But for some reason, Super Bowl losers suffer the following seasons, with most of them failing to get to .500. Normally, I would back the Cards, but not when they lost a Super Bowl. I'm sticking to that formula.

San Francisco 49ers
Significant additions: WR Michael Crabtree (unsigned), DE Demetric Evans, WR Brandon Jones, FB Moran Norris, Tony Pashos.
Significant losses: LB Tully Banta-Cain, RB DeShaun Foster, T Jonas Jennings, WR Bryant Johnson, QB J.T. O'Sullivan, CB Donald Strickland.
Biggest offseason move: Keeping Mike Singletary as the club's head coach. Singletary replaced Mike Nolan seven games into the 2008 season and made an impact, winning four of his last five starts and finishing with a winning record. He made an impact in training camp, too, with the 49ers holding one of the most physical and most demanding camps anywhere, and let's see what impact that has on the club in November and December.
Will make the playoffs if ... They get their offense untracked. The 49ers failed to score more than 17 points in seven of their games and dropped five of them. Rookie to watch: Forget Crabtree. By staying out of camp, he's a non-factor for the season. So let's concentrate on who's here, like running back Glen Coffee. The 49ers will run the ball and run it a lot, which means a lot of Frank Gore with glimpses of Coffee. The rookie from Alabama led the team in rushing this summer and figures to give Gore time off when he needs a break.
Overview: The 49ers haven't had a winning season since 2002, but this might be their chance. First of all, the NFC West is wide open. Second, Shaun Hill gives them stability at the most important position. Third, Singletary had the club playing hard at the end of last season. If it can start as it finished a year ago, anything is possible.

St. Louis Rams
Significant additions: T Jason Smith, LB James Laurinaitis, C Jason Brown, QB Kyle Boller, S James Butler, FB Michael Karney, WR Laurent Robinson, S Anthony Smith, DT LaJuan Ramsey.
Significant losses: TE Anthony Becht, WR Drew Bennett, CB Fakhir Brown, CB Tye Hill, S Corey Chavous, QB Trent Green, WR Dante Hall, WR Torry Holt, FB Dan Kreider, C Nick Leckey, T Orlando Pace, C Brett Romberg.
Biggest offseason move: Hiring Steve Spagnuolo. The previous two head coaches were successful offensive coordinators, which was OK ... except the Rams' defense suffered. Now comes the architect of the defense that buried Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLII, and there's hope that the 31st-ranked unit in points allowed starts improving.
Will make the playoffs if ... it's a one-team division, and that's not happening, folks.
Rookie to watch: Tackle Jason Smith was the second player in the draft for a reason: The Rams must start protecting their quarterbacks and opening holes for their running backs. The offensive line stunk a year ago; now it's a brand-spanking-new unit, with Smith and Brown the cornerstones of a massive makeover.
Overview: The team that was horrible a year ago might not be a whole lot better, but that's not grim news. The Rams have the right idea tearing the place apart from top to bottom, and give GM Billy Devaney time: He will get this thing turned around. It might take years, but the Rams are right to rebuild from the inside out. A year ago they took defensive end Chris Long with their first pick; now, it's Smith. So they play in a weak division. They still will have trouble keeping up.

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