As the preseason comes to an end, we continue our NFL preview and preseason power rankings with perhaps the best division in football, the NFC West.
1A. San Francisco – Who knows what could have happened if a power outage in the Super Dome didn’t steal momentum away from the 49ers in last year’s Super Bowl, but regardless, San Francisco is a leading favorite to get back to the Super Bowl out of the NFC. With injuries to key receivers, quarterback Colin Kaepernick will be challenged to do even more this season, although he still has Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis at his disposal, as well a reliable power back in Frank Gore to hand the ball off to.
Kaepernick is also a multi-dimensional player that can also be a handful for opposing defenses when he uses his legs to make plays, and if he continues to improve upon what he did last season he should be able to carry the 49ers a long way. Defensively, San Francisco’s biggest problem last season was in the secondary, but they did plenty to address that issue during the offseason, while also bringing in plenty of reinforcements in the front-7 to make them an even deeper team on the defensive side of the ball. With one of the most talented rosters and one of the best coaches in the NFL, there aren’t a lot of teams that will be able to stand in the way of San Francisco returning to the Super Bowl this season.
1B. Seattle – There’s little that can be said about the 49ers that can’t also be said about the Seahawks, and little that separate the two teams heading into the regular season. They have a smart and talented mobile quarterback in Russell Wilson, as well as a powerful running back in Marshawn Lynch leading the offense. Seattle still isn’t overly impressive at wide receiver, at least not after the loss of Percy Harvin to hip surgery, but a quarterback like Wilson doesn’t necessarily need Pro-Bowl wide receivers to be effective. What will help Wilson more than anything this season will be Seattle’s defense, which was good last season and could be even better this year, especially up front. They may be meaningless games, but the Seahawk’s defense shutdown some impressive offenses during the preseason, and they look like they could be in mid-season form when the regular season gets underway. With a strong defense and a young quarterback that’s only going to get better, Seattle is not far from where San Francisco is atop the West division or atop the NFC in general.
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3. St. Louis – The Rams are a distant third in the NFC West, but in almost any other division they’d be no worse than second, if not first, in the preseason power rankings. After losing Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola in free agency, the Rams have a new-look offense predicated on speed with the addition of rookies Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey to go along with Chris Givens. The addition of speed is nice, but the Rams also need quarterback Sam Bradford to step his game up, and they’ll also be relying on Daryl Richardson and a group of unproven running backs to carry their rushing game. Defensively, St. Louis will be average, no better and no worse, and it should be enough to make them an average team. But if the Rams want to stay close to San Francisco and Seattle and compete for a playoff spot, their offense needs to utilize its speed and become explosive; otherwise, they’ll remain a distant third in the NFC West.
4. Arizona – The Cardinals have one of the bleakest outlooks in the NFL, as they play in a division with three other teams that are head and shoulders better than them. Replacing quarterback Kevin Kolb with Carson Palmer should be a significant upgrade, especially with a nice trio of wide receivers led by veteran Larry Fitzgerald. However, they’re relying on Rashard Mendenhall, who is still trying to prove he’s healthy after his ACL injury, to lead their rushing attack along with some late-round draft picks. Defensively, there are plenty of interesting players, including Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary and a unique blend of rookies and veterans at linebacker, but the unit may not be able to stand out. In most other divisions, Arizona could be an interesting team to watch and might be capable of making some noise this season, but until they can prove otherwise, they’ll enter the 2013 season at the bottom of the NFC West.