Two years ago, the NFC West was the laughing stock of the NFL. The 7-9 Seahawks won the division, becoming the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a losing record. Looking at the division heading into 2013, 2010 feels like a decade ago.
Not only will the 2013 NFC West winner have a winning record, they could very well be the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. The 49ers are fresh off a Super Bowl appearance and are one of the favorites to win the Lombardi Trophy this season. Seattle is neck-and-neck with the 49ers according to oddsmakers.
That's without mentioning the St. Louis Rams, who are one of the rising teams in the NFL. The NFC Worst no more.
Fresh off back-to-back division titles, the 49ers are favored to make it three straight NFC West crowns this season. Who knew a combination of being really good on defense and really good on offense would cause people to predict you to win things? Colin Kaepernick's rapid accession up the quarterback hierarchy was a sight to behold last year. He went from the No. 2 quarterback who ran occasional situational packages to a nearly unstoppable force and one of the best young quarterbacks in the league.
His ability as both a runner and a passer makes him a nightmare for defensive coordinators, even if he will be without his top target for most of the season. Losing Michael Crabtree for most, if not all, of the season was a major blow, but one San Francisco should be able to overcome. Anquan Boldin will help fill the void. After being an afterthought during the Kaepernick transition last year, Vernon Davis is reportedly a much bigger part of the offense this season.
Defensively, the 49ers have all the pieces to once again be one of the top units in football. If there is a question about their chances to contend, not only in the NFC West but beyond, it will be about age. Several key players on the roster are older. While San Francisco has plenty of youth, key veterans like Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Carlos Rogers will need to stay healthy. San Francisco's defense, especially the pass rush, took a step back without Smith last season. Willis is already dealing with an injured hand, although he's played through worse before.
San Franciso's biggest advantage over its division counterparts is along the offensive line. The unit was one of, if not the best, offensive lines in football last season. The starters are back and should again be the cog that makes the 49ers offense go.
If San Francisco is the favorite, Seattle is not far behind. Some prognosticators even have the Seahawks above the 49ers heading into the season. There are plenty of reasons for optimism after the Seahawks took a major step forward last season. The defense has steadily improved since Pete Carroll took over, but it was the offense and the addition of Russell Wilson which helped Seattle take the next step last season.
With one of the youngest and most-talented rosters in the NFL, it's not out of line to think the Seahawks could be considerably better than they were last year. Wilson started slowly, only to catch fire the second half of the season when Seattle opened up the playbook. From midseason on, including the playoffs, Wilson averaged 9.1 yards per attempt while racking up 24 total touchdowns to just three interceptions. If he's able to produce at anywhere near that level over an entire season, how do you stop the Seahawks?
Even if Wilson regresses some from the end of last season, Seattle still has this guy named Marshawn Lynch. Lynch has developed into a dominant force for Seattle, and the Seahawks bolstered the rushing attack with Christine Michael. No matter how Wilson develops, Seattle's foundation will be on running the football and playing stout defense, two things they did exceptionally well season and are poised to do well again in 2013.
This is all without mentioning Percy Harvin, Seattle's big acquisition of the offseason. Harvin is out for the foreseeable future because of hip surgery. Seattle isn't sure when or if he will be able to return this season. The Seahawks will be OK without him, but his potential return is a massive wild card. If Harvin returns for the last month of the season and the postseason, it could be enough to put Seattle over the top.
St. Louis Rams
With Seattle and San Francisco battling at the top, it's easy to overlook the Rams. Just two years removed from a 2-14 season, St. Louis took a significant step forward in Jeff Fisher's first season. Offensively, the Rams improved by nearly a touchdown per game in 2012. Although Steven Jackson is no longer in St. Louis, the Rams could be even better offensively with the additions of a few weapons. St. Louis signed Jared Cook and the early indications are he could be one of Sam Bradford's top targets. First-round pick Tavon Austin joins a young receiver corps which also includes rising second-year star Chris Givens.
Offensive line issues have been a theme of recent seasons. The Rams signed Jake Long to help protect Sam Bradford, and he should be an improvement at left tackle. The development of Bradford will be a key for the Rams. He hasn't had the best protection or weapons to throw to early in his career. Both should be improved this season, and it's now up to him to take the next step. Wilson and Kaepernick were difference-makers for Seattle and San Francisco, and St. Louis will need Bradford to do the same if it is going to contend in the division.
St. Louis also made strides defensively last season. Chris Long leads the way and is joined along the defensive line by Robert Quinn. The two combined for 22 sacks last year and that may only be the start. Rookies Alec Ogletree and T.J. McDonald also will add to a defense that was surprisingly solid a year ago. In another division, St. Louis would be a legitimate division contender. It would likely need both Seattle and San Francisco to falter this season, but should at worst play those teams close and contend for a wild card berth.
Carson Palmer isn't the player he was in Cincinnati, but there is no question he will be a major upgrade for Arizona. The offense should be better and Larry Fitzgerald is likely in line for a strong bounce back season. Hiring Bruce Arians as the new head was considered to be one of the better coaching moves of the offseason. His vertical attacking style matches well with Palmer's talent.
The defense carried the Cardinals to a 5-0 start last season. Fortunately for Arizona, the core of that group is still in tact, despite losing coordinator Ray Horton. Patrick Peterson leads a secondary that could be sneaky good, especially with the addition of another LSU alum, Tyrann Mathieu.
In another division, the Cardinals could be a sleeper team, but it's hard to contend in the NFC West.