As much as the Patriots and Giants earned the right to compete in the Super Bowl, I thought the two best teams last season were the Ravens in the AFC and the 49ers in the NFC. In one year, the Niners went from six wins to 13. Like many, I will be surprised if they don't win the division again.
The other three teams in the NFC West are exactly that – the other three. Each has major issues at quarterback. Seattle is starting the year with Russell Wilson at quarterback ahead of Matt Flynn, and neither has experienced a 16-game season as a starter. The Rams Sam Bradford is coming off an injury-riddled season and needs to re-establish confidence. And Arizona's Kevin Kolb is in a battle with John Skelton over the Cardinals starting job after failing to live up to expectations after he cashed in on free agency. Alex Smith may not be an Aaron Rodgers in terms of ability, but with the people around him, there is no reason he can't lead the Niners to another NFC West title.
San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers have everything to look forward to this year, with only three real concerns to address from 2011. First, they needed more depth and quality at WR. That problem was solved in free agency with the signings of Mario Mannigham and Randy Moss, plus they used a first round pick on WR A.J. Jenkins. That's three new players, including two veterans, to go with Michael Crabtree as Alex Smith's top outside targets.
A second issue was the offensive line, not so much in overall ability, but strictly in pass blocking consistency. Smith absorbed too many direct shots last year and if he gets hurt, the Niners would have to turn to second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The line is a work in progress but should improve with more experience working together as a unit.
Finally, Smith needs to improve the team's red zone production and generate more touchdown passes. That being said, Smith had only five interceptions, I am sure his ability to avoid mistakes is more important than scoring touchdowns in offensive coordinator Greg Norman's mind.
Why? Because San Francisco might have the best defence in football this year. The most points scored on the 49ers last year was 32, and that was in the divisional playoff game against the Saints, who finished No. 1 in total offence last year. Combine that with an amazing +28 takeaway: giveaway ratio and only three rushing touchdowns allowed, and there is no reason to think they won't have similar success this year.
Game one will say a lot, with San Francisco at Green Bay. A win there would set up another 13-win season. San Francisco will be the best team in the NFC West again this year.
Seattle Seahawks: What was absent is now present in Seattle and what has always present is still an advantage and will always be. I'm talking about new quarterback Matt Flynn and the home field advantage of CenturyLink field.
The Seahawks won five of their last eight and had a chance to win all eight, so they seem like a team on the rise. For Pete Carroll this is an important year as head coach. Year one was an experiment of personnel, but Seattle did finish 7-9 and beat New Orleans in the playoffs as division winners. Last year, they were 7-9 again but with the 49ers in the same division, there was no chance at a playoff repeat. Carroll needs to take the team to the next level this season.
The Seahawks have a good secondary but need pass rushers. This was such a void that they invested a first round pick on Bruce Irwin, who is nothing but a third and long pass rusher. He was the surprise pick of the draft and might only get 15 plays a game, but the defensive staff wants him to be fresh and fast consistently.
On offence, the best player with the ball is RB Marshawn Lynch. With over 1,000 yards last year he was the reason Seattle beat Philadelphia 31-14 back on December 1. The next best player may be primary kick returner Leon Washington. Seven times he has returned a kick-off for a touchdown.
The truth is any of Seattle, Arizona and St. Louis could end up second in the NFC west, even with rookie Russell Wilson at quarterback, I like Seattle to finish second, and yes, they might be 7-9 again.
Arizona Cardinals: All logic says quarterback play will determine the success or failure of the Cardinals in 2012. Kevin Kolb has been very good in bursts, but not game in and game out. The other quarterback, John Skelton, has also not been a dominant player. Both need to drastically improve their touchdown to interception ratio for Arizona to improve.
Despite the quarterback issues, Arizona finished 7-2 to complete the season. Not only did they win seven of those games, the two losses in that span were at San Francisco and at Cincinnati - both good teams. That bodes well for this season.
The Cardinals also made a smart pick in round one of the draft in Michael Floyd out of Notre Dame. He gives them a second big receiver and will allow Larry Fitzgerald just one or two more opportunities to beat one-on-one coverage. Fitzgerald may be the best deep ball receiver in all of football, with a true skill in tracking the ball perfectly in flight.
If Bobby Massie, Arizona's second round pick, can come through as a 16 game starter on the offensive line, that will assist Kolb as much as Floyd will help Fitzgerald.
The schedule for Arizona has three of four at home in September, so it is priority number one to win early to take advantage of that luxury.
Right now head coach Ken Wisenhunt has 40 wins and 40 losses, with a 4-2 mark in the playoffs. Four years ago they represented the NFC in the Super Bowl. Then Kurt Warner retired and it's been downhill ever since. This one has to be a winner for Wisenhunt.
Trying to pick between Seattle and Arizona for second in the division is tough as both have reasons to be successful, but until one of the quarterbacks can prove himself for 16 games, I think Seattle has a slight edge. I'll put Arizona in third in the NFC West.
St. Louis Rams: There is an interesting experiment going on here. If Jeff Fisher can turn the St. Louis Rams around it will say a lot about the ability of a good head coach and a good coaching staff. They are just as important as good players. Fisher will be the Rams third head coach in six years. Scott Linehan, the present offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions, was 11-25 as head coach of the Rams. Steve Spagnuolo, current defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints, was 10-35 as head coach.
And now it is Fisher's time and he brings a record of 142 wins, 120 losses, and a 5-6 playoff record from his previous stint as head coach of the Tennessee Titans. It should be the beginning of something good in St. Louis.
While Fisher's coaching experience will be a great asset, he will be helped by the fact that the Rams will have four first round draft picks in the next two years. The Redskins did well getting Robert Griffin III as a result of the big trade with St. Louis, but the deal gives the Rams a genuine opportunity to find four starters in the next two years.
Sam Bradford should bounce back from difficult 2012 season, and Steven Jackson is still a force going into his ninth year, having logged 1,145 yards rushing last season. The biggest problem for Bradford and the Rams is that they do not have dominant receivers. Not one broke the 700 yard barrier last season.
If James Laurinaitis was on a playoff team, he would be talked about in the same way Patrick Willis gets talked about as the leader of the 49ers defence. While in Tennessee, Fisher always had exceptional defensive lines. Watch for him to use some of those draft picks to help the Rams front four and build a pass rush in St. Louis to help Laurinaitis.
With 12 new free agents and 10 draft picks, this will be a very new Rams team (again), but this time they will be molded by Fisher. If he can find some receivers for Bradford and develop some good pass rushers, who knows? The future is bright with the Rams, but in the present, they still look like a fourth place team. They are improving, but they aren't going to get out of the basement yet.