As the 2011 NFL season winds down, with only a few weeks of football left, the NFC West is still represented in the race for the trophy. This year it is the San Francisco 49ers who earned a bye week with a very respectable 13 - 3 regular season record. Behind the QB skill set of the once punch lined Alex Smith. Under the guidance of a first year head coach.
Hit the jump to see what the NFC West division is shaping up to be for 2012.
I'm predicting it now, a Juggernaut. This is in all reality a great things for Arizona Cardinals fans. Competition breeds betterment.
Let's break down the teams this year and what they did through the season, and how that projects to 2012.
- San Francisco 49ers (13 - 3) regular season
As I mentioned above, they brought in a new head coach, Jim Harbaugh. And he has the team performing as one. If there was any doubt in your mind that the 49ers weren't for real, it should have been dispelled when Alex Smith and Vernon Davis connected twice two put the 49ers up over the New Orleans Saints with under a minute to go. Scary. They put up 36 points.
The defense is benchmark. Rated first against the rush, second it points allowed per game, and fourth in total yards per game. Patrick Willis is All Pro material every year. NaVarro Bowman (Who was there when we picked Andre Roberts, and who I begged them to take. I'm on record a few places about it) seems to be the second coming of Patrick Willis.
Frank Gore was a thousand yard plus rusher this season, and his backup Kendall Hunter shows flashes of brilliance with the time he gets. Vernon Davis is another All Pro player at tight end. He is a match up problem for many teams. The offensive line is young, but solid in both run and pass schemes.
Could the 49ers repeat or better this record in 2012? Yes. This team has a good core and few free agents that they need to lock up. Harbaugh seems to be poised to capture the second coming of the gold rush. Smart off season moves, and the emergence of young stars that flashed this year will keep them contenders.
- Arizona Cardinals (8-8) regular season
The Cardinals struggled this year with the off season lockout. Newly acquired QB Kevin Kolb didn't have the benefit of working with the team, and then he suffered a few inquires that sidelined him for half the season. The team also transitioned to a new defensive coordinator in Ray Horton, who instituted a defense with a steep learning curve.
On the offense, John Skelton was the man operating the huddle when the Cardinals had the majority of the season's wins. Even so, QB play is an area of concern. The off season should allow the Cards to work with Kolb/Skelton to determine the best plan of attack. The good news is that Beanie Wells was a thousand yard rusher this season, and Ryan Williams is on the mend. Larrry Fitzgerald once agains shows why the Card's made a wise investment in this man. He out up fourteen hundred plus yards. On shaky QB play. The TE unit is vastly improved, and with an off season to work together as a unit, and with certain free agent acquisitions, the offense should blossom.
On defense, the Cards struggled early, but towards the second half of the season it clicked. Sam Acho replaced Joey Porter at OLB, and notched seven sacks and four forced fumbles, proving himself to be a steal in the fourth round of the draft. (Have I mentioned his brother Emmanuel is available in the draft this year?) O'Brien Schofield shows the ability at times to once again make him a fourth round steal, but could benefit from an off season working within the new scheme. Calais Campbell earned a new contract, as has Richard Marshall.
Could the Cards repeat or better this record in 2012? An off season will benefit this team greatly on both sides of the ball, along with a smart draft. Injuries stole some of the show, and newness other parts. The Cards flashed at the year, showing improvement. Improvement is the best way to enter a new season. This is Ken's year. 8 - 8 isn't saving grace. Playoff is. However, that means that the Cards have to better the 13 - 3 I see the 49ers posting, or being a wild card contender. Draft well, and make smart shopping decisions in the free agent bazaar folks, it's a competition.
- Seattle Seahawks (7 - 9) regular season
7 - 9 was good enough in the 2010 season for the NFC West crown and a spot in the playoffs. Sorry Pete, 2011 was a new season, and 7 - 9 made your team third best. The caveat. Your team is young. Very good. And you have them hungry.
On offense, injuries hurt this team. OT Russell Okung, WR Sidney Rice, QB Tavaris Jackson all spent time injured. The offensive line was a musical chair production. Despite all this, Marshawn Lynch was another thousand yard plus rusher in the division. Rookie WR Doug Baldwin had a respectable showing for his first season, and can only get better.
On the defensive side, the Seahawks are a young, physical team. The front four of their D line all play no nonsense, run stuffing football. Hard hitting, that's the secondary's mindset, and they are imposing specimens. Pete Carroll has a defensive mantra, and it shows in the players he suits up. Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, SS and FS respectively. They blanket the backfield, securing a pass defense that was 11th in the league. Chancellor is build like one of the Cards' own, Adrian Wilson. And the entire secondary is second season or less.
Can the Seahawks repeat or better this record in 2012? Most certainly. 7 - 9 two years in a row has to light a fire under Carroll and the players. They played the 49ers close this season once the team found it's stride, and beat the New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens as well. If the team can solve the QB quandary they share along with the Cards, re-sign their key free agents, and Pete manages another solid draft they will be a team to contend.
- St. Louis Rams (2 - 14) regular season
The Rams you say? How do they feature into talks of a Juggernaut division? They were bad this year, that's for certain. Injuries had some hand in that badness though, claiming the like of OT Rodger Saffold, CB Al Harris, and even QB Sam Bradford at times. Speaking of Bradford, he did add to the Rams' woes by slumping in his sophomore year. But there are positives to be had. Firstly, 2 - 14 as a record is hard to repeat, which means forward traction into next year. They have the 2nd pick in the draft and can either take an outstanding OT in Matt Kalil, or find someone willing to trade with them so they can load up a few more picks, and still get an offensive threat and need in WR Justin Blackmon. Another reason for optimism? The Rams cleaned coaching house and brought in Jeff Fisher.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Rams are still an unknown as an OC and play caller has yet to be named. Whoever is, will have quite the responsibility. I have heard rumor it will be Hue Jackson, who is a dynamic mind that gets the most out of his players. Sam Bradford will have the off season to break out of his slump. Injured players should be healed and ready to pick up the game. Steven Jackson in another thousand plus yards rusher in the division. Did I mention he is backed up by Jerious Norwood and Carnell 'Cadillac' Williams, two very physical backs in their own right?
And adding a defensive minded coach like Fisher to the Rams' defense, along with Greg Williams as the defensive coordinator, freshly plucked from New Orleans will bring positive results. Fisher will bring a punch you in the mouth mindset to this defense that has some standouts on the roster. OLB James Laurinaitis and DE Chris Long will continue to dominat And I expect that rookie Robert Quinn will show his first round talent next year.
Can the Rams equal or better this record in 2012? 2 - 14, easy enough. Honestly, Jeff Fisher will need to be proactive in free agency and find a legitimate #1 WR for Sam Bradford to throw to, or draft one in Justin Blackmon. Fix the weakness in the defensive run game, address the lack of depth on the offensive line, and help your young QB regain his composure.
And there you have it folks. Why I feel the NFC West is about to take a step up in toughness department. Expect to see some hard hitting, defensive football and smash mouth running. The talent is building, the coaching staffs are coming into existence, and the days of 7 - 9 or 8 - 8 will still exist, but those records will be saved for the team with the worst record in the division, not the best.
Am I right or wrong? Let me know in the poll below.