Arizona (10-6). The Cards don’t have the most difficult schedule this year. Yes they do see Philly @ Philly and Balt @ Balt and Pitt @ home – but outside of that their schedule is not too challenging. Arizona will be good with Kevin Kolb. His ability to get the ball to WRs, especially to Fitz downfield, will open up the running game nicely. And Beanie Wells is ready to grab this opportunity. The guy is talented. He has a rare combination of power and shiftiness that, barring injury, will make him a top-notch RB for the next few years. And he’s only 23. The AZ defense may not be stellar but it probably won’t have to be, again, given the schedule.
St. Louis (9-7). Hard not to take the Rams to win the division because they should be more competitive than they were last year. But interestingly, their schedule, though not too much different than AZ’s schedule w/respect to opponents – sets up to be more difficult. Their first 6 games are: Phil, @NYG, Balt, Wash, @Pack, @Dallas, Saints. They easily could start 1-6 or 2-5. The schedule does get much easier after that, but it’s a tough way to start the season. I like Steven Jackson to have a big year this year in part because Sam Bradford’s ability to pass effectively will take pressure off the running game. Bradford himself should have a big year as well. (Also, keep an eye on Wisconsin TE Lance Kendricks who will start at TE for the Rams – he’s a guy Bradford and the team are really excited about.)
SF (7-9). I believe it was just last year that Mike Greenberg from Mike and Mike in the morning picked SF to win the Super Bowl. Wow. Even though I want to be careful not to underestimate Jim Harbaugh (a guy I think will be a decent NFL coach), I just don’t see it happening this year for SF. Yes, they’ve added Braylon Edwards, have Vernon Davis and Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree has serious potential. But they still have the uneven Alex Smith and a defense that lost a key guy in NT Aubrayo Franklin. Their schedule, however, is somewhat lucky in that most of the tougher games on the schedule (in fact, all but one of the tougher games) will be at home. Still, SF struggles this year.
Sea (7-9). Lots of questions surrounding the 2011 Seahawks. Can the reinforced O-Line provide enough protection for Tarvaris Jackson? Will Tarvaris show off some of his skills with a fresh start or will he continue with inconsistent performances that lead to calls for Whitehurst? Will T-Jack being named captain and Pete Carroll being firmly in his corner bolster his shaky confidence? Can Sidney Rice get past his shoulder problems? Can WR Mike Williams continue his amazing comeback? Will TE Zach Miller play like Zach Miller and be a welcome bailout option for T-Jack? Will Marshawn Lynch run wild like he did in the playoff game last year? Can the defense rise up to at least average (they ranked #27 in total defense last year)? If even a few of these questions can be answered with a “yes”, there is an outside chance this team could really surprise. But in the end, I think the 2011 season will essentially mirror the 2010 season – the team probably will do OK at home but really struggle on the road.
My general impression is that you’ve got three of these teams winning too many games.
–AZ: they do look a lot better with Kolb at quarterback, and I think they’ll be good for 8 or 9 wins this year. But I don’t see them sweeping the division, and I don’t really see 6 wins outside the division.
–STL: I agree that with Bradford now having a year’s experience, the Rams could easily take the NFCW. They should make it to at least 8 wins, and the Cardinals will be the only team that could keep them from being division champs.
–SF: with a whole new coaching staff, and Alex Smith still at starting QB, 7 wins seems like a lot for these guys. They’ve also been terrible on the road: since 2002, they’ve won 4(!) road games outside the division.
–SEA: if the Seahawks make it anywhere near 7 wins, it will be because they bench TJax, and Charlie Whitehurst has a breakout year.