Sea (10-6). Despite questions re the o-line, I think Seattle management has done a nice job of replenishing a weakened receiving corps – and it will make a big difference. The addition of TJ Housh from Cincy was very smart – big year for him this year, Nate Burleson is back and healthy and importantly, rookie Deon Butler could be a sneaky good additional option for Hasselbeck. One guy I’m high on is TE John Carlson – Hasselbeck loves him and so do the coaches. Jim Mora used the **** out of TE Alge Crumpler when HC in Atlanta and I expect Carlson to get similar attention in this offense. I’m not sure re the running game headed by Julius Jones, but the passing attack should be good. The Seattle defense may surprise some this year. They still have some quality LBs and secondary guys, the question may be if their d-line can step up to the challenge. I like Jim Mora as a coach generally and expect this team to be good.
AZ (9-7). I like Ken Whisenhunt as a coach too and even think the departure of former OC Todd Haley could help this team. While Whisenhunt would be foolish to alter the offensive game plan a ton (because AZ was so dominant in the air), I’m pretty sure he will push harder than they did last year to establish the run. RB Beanie Wells may help them do just that – as Tim Hightower just didn’t seem to be the answer last year. I don’t see AZ being bad this year or having the post Super Bowl slump – I just see them being outplayed by division rival Seattle.
SF (7-9). Tough team to figure. At one point this summer, I considered making SF my darkhorse team – the team that would cruise through their division en route to a playoff run. But I can’t fully trust the volatile Mike Singletary yet, nor can I trust QB Shaun Hill (though I think he’s the best QB there – though rookie QB Nate Davis has shown well this summer). Still, their offense has weapons in Frank Gore, now back-up RB Glen Coffee, WRs Isaac Bruce and Josh Morgan and yes, I still think Vernon Davis can be good. But it’s their defense that could do real damage this year. As a defensive-minded coach, I can see Singletary most effectively leading the resurgence of this D – led by Patrick Willis who is the real deal. If the D starts playing out of its mind and the offense controls game tempo by running it effectively, perhaps SF may end up as that sleeper team yet.
St L(5-11). I still think Marc Bulger is good and with Steven Jackson healthy and the likelihood that the defense at least won’t be an afterthought anymore (because of HC Steve Spagnuolo), this team could be a bit more competitive this year. Still, they are probably 2-3 years away from contending for the division. Funny to think that the Rams, the Bucs and the Raiders have all been to the Super Bowl more recently than the Packers.
As someone who sees (or at least, has the opportunity to see) many, many games featuring NFC West teams*, I can tell you Singletary made a big difference on the 49ers when he took over (they went 5-4 with him as HC last year).
The Cardinals were awful in the preseason, mostly because of turnovers. If that continues in the regular season, I think the 49ers could have a real shot at winning the NFC West this year.
(*) And guess what other division they like to show out here–the AFC West. Wee. Ha.