Arizona was minutes away from winning their first Lombardi Trophy last season, and some are expecting them to have a chance again this year.
Last year was a magical run that saw QB Kurt Warner revive his career, while WR Larry Fitzgerald put his in the spotlight. Fitzgerald teams with Anquan Boldin to give the Cardinals the best WR duo in the NFL, and Steve Breaston is a spectacular third receiver who makes them even better.
A big reason for their playoff run in 2008 was the emergence of the offensive line. If they can improve even more, the offense becomes more deadly. They will need to, because an injury to Warner could prove to be catastrophic. His backup, Matt Leinart, has been a huge flop. Warner will hope to remain healthy, while attempting to defy age. He appeared to be nearly out of the league until he resurrected his career last year.
The defense is led by DT Darnell Dockett and an above average secondary. Dockett is one of the more underrated players in the NFL. Arizona's defense won games last season, most notably a victory over the Dallas Cowboys on national television. If they can be as good as last year, the Cardinals will be in good shape.
The big question will be the running game. Tim Hightower was a nice surprise in his 2008 rookie season, and he might have to carry the bulk of the workload this year. Arizona drafted a talented runner in Beanie Wells this year, but Wells has shown to be injury prone in college and even in his first professional training camp.
The pieces are in place for another Super Bowl run on paper. Injuries weren't a big factor last year for the Cardinals. If they can't avoid them again this year, their luck may run out.
SAINT LOUIS RAMS
It wasn't all that long ago the Rams offense was dubbed "The Greatest Show On Turf". They could pile up point in bunches over a short time. The Rams of today are anything but that.
This is a team built on winning in the trenches and controlling the clock. Led by a deep and talented offensive line, Steven Jackson could be primed for a big season rushing the football. The problem is if Jackson misses time, because there is a serious drop off in the depth chart.
The passing game is full of questions. Quarterback Marc Bulger has had injury issues the past few seasons, and TE Randy McMichael is trying to return from an injury that ended his 2008 season early. The wide receivers are very young, and are led by second year pro Donnie Avery.
The defense is led by an up and coming line that features two young and versatile studs in Adam Carriker and Chris Long. The unit, though not very deep, is god against the run and pass. They could allow MLB James Laurinaitis to become a star. Factor in OLB Chris Draft, CB Tye Hill, and FS Oshiomogho Atogwe, and the Rams defense is better than some may expect.
Another big weapon for the Rams is kicker Josh Brown. He is consistent and has a strong leg, the type you want when the game is on the line.
Every year, a team surprises NFL fans. This could be the year of the Rams.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The Niners have been stuck in muddle the last many years. They are never the worst team, but they often fall short with rosters full of players not fulfilling their potentials.
One player most spotlighted, in this regard, is quarterback Alex Smith. Smith spent last year injured, and might be getting his last shot to prove why he was the first player selected in the 2005 draft. If he can't, Shaun Hill will get the call. One player to watch is talented rookie Nate Davis.
The woes at quarterback also has cost their skilled players from excelling. They rely on RB Frank Gore and his surgically repaired knees to carry the team much too often.The blocking has been so subpar, they have wasted the immense talents of TE Vernon Davis so far. Davis is an amazing athlete who works best in the slot, but he is forced to stay in and help block, squandering his abilities.
Michael Crabtree was drafted this year to provide another weapon, but a wide receiver can only excel if the quarterback can get him the ball. Crabtree's ego, however, may say otherwise.
The defense may be the best in the division, led by tackling machine Patrick Willis. They got even better with the acquisition of Dre Bly. This is the unit that gives the 49ers the best chance at winning.
Mike Singletary was a hard nosed player who achieved his potential, and inspired his teammates to fulfill theirs. It is a lot different trying to convey passion from the sideline rather than the huddle, so it will be interesting to see what Singletary does with his roster.
Getting guys like Smith, Crabtree, and Vern Davis to realize their potentials could get the Niners out of the perpetual muddle, and into the playoffs.
Seattle is trying to remain competitive while turning over their roster. The hardest thing to do is expect to win your division in the process.
With the impending retirements of future Hall Of Fame OT Walter Jones and QB Matt Hasselbeck on the horizon, there appears to be no solid contingency plan in place.
Seattle relies on their passing game. Hasselbeck is dealing with a chronic back problem, so his playing a full season is crucial to their success.
The offense is veteran and savvy. They got better by acquiring TJ Houshmanzadeh, who should team up with TE John Carlson to give Seattle two solid possession type threats. If Nate Burleson or rookie Deon Butler can get deep, it will open many options up. Deion Branch also needs to show why he was given a big contract several seasons ago.
The running game scares no one, and is led by two veterans who haven't excelled in years. Julius Jones and TJ Duckett are the guys Seattle is gambling on, and these are a risk few would take.
The defense is solid, and led by a deep linebacking unit. Julian Peterson was sent packing so first round draft choice Aaron Curry could start. The secondary is veteran, and is boosted by the return of CB Ken Lucas. Lucas had spent the last four years in Carolina. The defensive line rotates players constantly, except for DE Patrick Kerney.
The special teams are a unit worth watching. Seattle needs to decide if they will keep Orlindo Mare or Brandon Coutu at kicker, or carry both on the roster. Also, they have a battle between Josh Wilson, Justin Forsett, and Devin Moore for the return duties.
Seattle should be in a lot of games this year, mainly because of their defense. If they can get some semblance of a running game to balance the offense, then guys like Jones and Hasselbeck can try to get one last NFC West crown.
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