The San Francisco 49ers are the class of the NFC West. After finishing the season at 13-3 last season, and returning virtually their entire team, not to mention some very strong offseason additions, everybody in this division is chasing the Niners.
That seems like a good enough place to start our discussion.
If you believe everything you read or hear, then the Niners "came out of nowhere" last year. People who actually watch football know otherwise. The Niners were building something pretty special as early as 2008 or 2009, but injuries, coaching changes, and inconsistent quarterback play were holding that team back.
In 2009, the Niners finished the season 8-8. They lost six of those games by a touchdown or less, four by four points or less. They had the second best defense in the NFC, only allowing 281 points. Their offense was above average, scoring 330 points on the season.
Frank Gore averaged 4.9 yards per carry. Alex Smith completed over 60 percent of his passes, when he was healthy—he missed six games due to injury. Vernon Davis caught 78 passes for 965 yards, and he looked every bit like a young stud at tight end. Patrick Willis was leading a ferocious young defense.
The Niners were this close to being a powerhouse.
Then 2010 rolled around. Alex Smith got hurt again, Frank Gore got hurt, the defense fell apart, and Mike Singletary couldn't get the team pointed in the right direction. The Niners flat out underachieved, allowing the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks to tie for the division lead with a 7-9 record.
So where am I going with this history lesson?
The Niners had talent, but for several reasons (health, coaching, too many young players,) they couldn't put all of the pieces together. That's the way things generally work in the NFL. Sometimes you are one year away, one draft away, one free agent class away, one coaching change away, or just one piece away from being a really good football team.
Once again, the Niners are the class of the NFC West. Where does that leave the rest of the teams in this division? Here is how I see it.
1. San Francisco 49ers - After finishing 13-3 last season, the Niners added Randy Moss, Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James, and A.J. Jenkins on offense. So the team with the best defense in the NFL gets a lot more explosive on offense. More importantly, they are probably the deepest team in the NFC West, meaning they will be able to better absorb the inevitable injuries that every NFL team has to deal with. Prediction: The Niners will fall just short of last year's win total, finishing 12-4. They are one of a handful of teams in the NFL with a real shot at winning the Super Bowl.
2. St. Louis Rams - Looking at our history lesson, the Rams have a very similar background to the Niners. They have a young QB that was the No. 1 overall pick who is already playing for his third head coach. They have a talented young defense. They've slowly added pieces on offense, and have an offensive line that has undeniable talent, but hasn't put it all together yet. Bottom line, no team in the division added more talent this offseason than the Rams - through the draft, free agency, and getting their own players healthy. Like the Niners, they were a team on the verge two years ago, only to take a step back last year. Expect Jeff Fisher's philosophy to take full advantage of the personnel on this roster. Prediction: The Rams could go as high as 10-6, but I'm going to dial the expectations back a little bit and call for a 9-7 finish. The Rams, behind a terrific secondary and the best pass rush in the division, will be knocking on the door for a wild card playoff spot.
3. Seattle Seahawks - The Seahawks finished 7-9 last year, and had four losses of four points or less. Their defense ranked seventh in the NFL in points allowed. Their offense was the weak spot on this team, and they brought in Matt Flynn as the new starting QB to fix that. With arguably the best secondary in the division, I think this team has a lot of potential. However, I think the reaches in the draft will finally catch up to this team. So many luxury picks will leave this team exposed to injury. They are a talented team, but they're also an injury or two away from playing street free agents in some positions. Prediction: The Seahawks, winners of the division in five of the last eight seasons, will finish 6-10, give or take a game. This is basically the same spot they've finished in for the last three or four years.
4. Arizona Cardinals - After finishing 8-8 last season, this team could honestly go either way. On one hand, they lost four games by four points or less last season, they didn't have their best running back all season, and their starting QB missed six games. So it wouldn't shock me at all if they finished 9-7 or 10-6. However, their 17th ranked scoring defense looks very average on paper, and they have the worst offensive line in the division. Prediction: The Cardinals look like a team stuck in neutral, and with the rest of the division getting better, I'm predicting a 5-11 finish, and one very hot seat for head coach Ken Wisenhunt.
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