The NFC West will be a much more competitive division in 2012.
While the San Francisco 49ers are undeniable favorites, don’t expect them to secure the division title by Week 13 as they had done last year.
The Seahawks and Cardinals are within legitimate striking distance after noteworthy free=agent moves and draft-day acquisitions. Even the 2-14 St. Louis Rams of last season will prove fits for the other NFC West teams with a bolstered offense and defense and new coaching staff.
Moreover, one cannot deny that inter-divisional matchups are some of the toughest for all NFL squads. These respective opponents are simply more familiar with each other, as they play twice during every season.
Let’s examine the NFC West teams and highlight the key factors for each to win the division crown.
Note: All four teams ranked in the bottom 8 in the NFL in sacks allowed. Each clearly needs to improve at protecting its quarterback in 2012.
San Francisco 49ers (13-3; 1st in 2011)
Coming off a 13-win regular season and nearly reaching the Super Bowl, the 49ers are poised to repeat that success in 2012.
It is fair to say that they’ll fall short of reaching that same impressive win total, but Jim Harbaugh’s squad is surely one of the SB favorites coming out of the NFC.
Why is that?
For starters, the 49ers retained all 11 defensive starters and added pieces at linebacker, cornerback and safety to a defense that was already tops in the league last year. Up-and-coming D-linemen Demarcus Dobbs and Will Tukuafu will also provide depth in that area.
There is every reason to believe that the defense will continue its dominance. Expect their phenomenal special teams unit to pin opponents deep and create great field position for themselves as well.
The offense, though, is the reason the Niners will capture the NFC West. They acquired Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins at wide receiver, and Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James at running back. This increased offensive firepower will provide Alex Smith and the team everything it needs to improve its third-down and red-zone efficiency, two areas of deficiency in 2011.
Harbaugh’s boys will field a top-10 offense (at least in scoring) to complement their NFL-leading defense and special teams, all combining to counteract a really tough schedule. This will amount to an NFC West title.
Seattle Seahawks (7-9; 3rd in 2011)
The Seahawks have the best chance of supplanting the 49ers as NFC West champs.
Their most glaring shortcoming last season was the quarterback play by Tarvaris Jackson. They addressed that by adding marquee free-agent Matt Flynn and even Russell Wilson through the draft.
Although some might deem him a risk as somewhat of a one-hit wonder (myself included), Flynn is undoubtedly an upgrade over Jackson. He played exceptionally well in his two career starts, notably his Packers franchise record-breaking six-TD, 480-yard, 136.4 QB rating-performance against the Lions last year. Jackson could never sniff those numbers.
Flynn learned under the tutelage of Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and is familiar with the offensive system as well.
The Seahawks will also return their powerful rushing attack under Beast Mode Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin (acquired in the draft). Lynch was the first back to reach the end zone against the 49ers in 2011, ending a record-setting streak for fewest rushing TDs allowed in a season.
The improvement at QB, bolstered rushing game, added sack artists (Bruce Irvin in particular) and return of one of the best secondaries in the business are the keys for the ‘Hawks to win the NFC West in 2012.
Arizona Cardinals (8-8; 2nd in 2011)
The greatest rivalry in this division exists between the 49ers and Cardinals. There is no denying the mutual enmity.
It is difficult to answer in the affirmative if this will prove sufficient for the Cards to emerge atop the NFC West. I can say, however, that the fact that they beat the Niners once last year will give them plenty of confidence to so again in 2012.
As will the added draft picks and continuity under a coaching staff that led its club to a 7-2 finish after a 1-6 start.
Like Seattle, Arizona must see consistent, injury-free play from its quarterback. Big-time acquisition Kevin Kolb (with exorbitant contract in tow) was a relative bust. He posted just a 2-6 record and essentially played in only eight games, missing the entire month of November.
He may have compiled superior overall numbers than John Skelton, but the latter won the much more important battle in the win-loss column, going 6-2. So, the Cardinals must decide who will be its quarterback in 2012. The safe bet is Kolb, but Skelton outperformed him in the most significant category.
What we do know is that—Harbaugh’s love of competition aside—having said competition at the QB position is rarely a good thing.
Having the starting QB solidified is paramount for a positive connection to be established with the Cardinals collection of wideouts that includes, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts, Early Doucet and first-round draft choice Michael Floyd.
To capture the division, Arizona must capitalize on their greatest strengths, those being the passing offense and defense that improved mightily down the stretch in 2011. Producing another top-7 sack effort and seeing development with the secondary are big keys for that defense.
St. Louis Rams (2-14; 4th in 2011)
Under new head coach Jeff Fisher, Rams fans should be excited over its prospects for improvement this season. The defensively-inclined coach will bring a measure of toughness, accountability and winning pedigree. New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer should be a better fit for quarterback Sam Bradford as well.
With that said, transforming a two-win squad into a division-winning one is simply unattainable. What will be is four more W’s in the win column—certainly nothing to scoff at when considering the team’s anemic performance in 2011.
The Rams must produce something on the offensive side of the ball. Doing this requires a healthy Bradford (who missed six games last year), an O-line to protect him (one that surrendered an NFL-worst 55 sacks) and production out of first-year WRs Brian Quick and Chris Givens and RB Isaiah Pead.
Additionally, first-rounder DT Michael Brockers must create a formidable presence on the inside of the line against the run. Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, both lauded corners coming out of the draft, must team up with Cortland Finnegan to form a top-ranked secondary against the bevy of accomplished receivers in the NFC West.
Perennial 1,000-yard back Stephen Jackson needs to do the same to take pressure off Bradford in the passing game.
Will the Rams win this division in 2012? No, but they will certainly win more games. Don’t be surprised if they post record as good as 3-3 against their NFC West counterparts.