In the NFL, all divisions are not created equally. The NFC West has been in flux for the last decade without a clear cut champion. Even the 2008 Arizona Cardinals run to Super Bowl XLIII was a season where they were 9-7, and lost a late season game 47-7 to Matt Cassel and the Patriots. Last year’s 7-9 division champion Seahawks was more of a product of a young St. Louis Rams team that came up short in the end than brilliant Seattle play. As we march into 2011, it looks like the Rams will rise from the ashes in this division.
2011 NFC WEST PREDICTION
St Louis Rams 9-7 *
Seattle Seahawks 6-10
Arizona Cardinals 5-11
San Fran 49ers 3-13
St Louis Rams have the best young quarterback in Sam Bradford and another solid season with Stephen Jackson at running back. Last year, Coach Spagnuolo’s team had to learn how to win and did so with a 5 game improvement in the win total. If they can get a significant contribution from WR Austin Pettis, drafted from Boise St to help Bradford further develop. Folks seem to forget that Sam Bradford is only a few years removed from a Heisman trophy season that saw him throw for nearly 50 TDs as a junior. This is no fluke. Now that Chris Long is coming on (last season 8.5 sacks) and James Laurinitis leadership at linebacker, this team is on the rise and should rule the NFC West for the next few years. They have a murderous early schedule but starting with week 9, should run the table the rest of the way. The only notable game to show that they have grown up is the week 16 matchup in Pittsburgh on Christmas Eve. Just don’t be thrown off when they start out slow.
The Seahawks will look like a totally retooled team in the early part of this season and will revert back to the enigmatic bunch we saw through much of last season. Only this time it’s going to be growing pains through breaking in Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback once sorry Tavarris Jackson underwhelms again. The second time is a charm, he helped collapse Minnesota when they kept him and let Sage Rosenfels go. So once Favre got injured…they crash landed with Jackson at the controls and that was a team with the same offensive co-ordinator and new wideout Sidney Rice there as well. Same story, different channel.
They also have to find a leader to take over for Lofa Tatupu who was released. Aaron Curry has to move into that role and now needs to develop into the elite linebacker his draft status calls for. Will Marshawn Lynch blossom into the running back that emerged with the great run in last year’s playoff or will he revert back to the on again, off again runner he was in Buffalo?? This team will win a few games early but will descend to search mode as they need to find out who they are. They still don’t have an identity and the second half of the season will be a struggle for Coach Carroll and his team.
As for the Arizona Cardinals, congratulations on finding a quarterback in Kevin Kolb but you spent too much for him. Should have kept Rodgers-Cromartie and had the division’s best cornerback tandem with he and Patrick Peterson. Yes go ahead and start the rookie and let him take his lumps. The Cardinals are still anemic rushing the football and teams can gang up on Larry Fitzgerald now that Steve Breaston is gone to Kansas City. Early Doucet and Andre Roberts have to have early success at receiver on the other side or this team will have a long season on offense. Kolb will be out to prove that he is a top flight quarterback and he should have kept his job in Philadelphia. Truth is, he played like he was given the job and not one that he earned. Both Mike Vick and Kafka from Northwestern had better statistics in last year’s pre-season.
Yet Kolb will solidify this franchise’s quarterback situation for the first time since Neil Lomax. Yes Kurt Warner was outstanding for 2 years, we mean a quarterback to build a franchise around for a 5-7 year run. He needs one of his other receivers to emerge to begin the process. On defense this team is in a little bit of flux so they need to break out on offense to win games. They just don’t have enough horses to do that at this point.
San Francisco needs to blow the team up and start from scratch. You have Colin Kaepernick as a quarterback, who isn’t ready, and busts Alex Smith and Troy Smith to man the position until he is. The first item up for bids is to trade Frank Gore for several draft picks to an AFC team. The Browns, Bengals, Patriots, Bills, Colts, all need a marquee running back. Several of those teams want to get over the hump and think they are a running back away, capitalize on it and get some draft picks. Especially a team you can expect to underwhelm and get even higher draft picks from the resultant record. With an anemic offense and an underachieving receiving corp in Michael Crabtree and Ted Ginn Jr, expect 8 man fronts to limit Gore’s effectiveness anyway. He wants to be traded and won’t run hard once the team dips out of contention, so alleviate that problem.
Right now go with Vernon Davis as your leader on offense and Patrick Willis on defense. Treat the 2011 campaign as a prolonged preseason and see who will fit Coach Harbaugh’s future roster. Don’t be surprised if former Stanford Cardinal Toby Gerhart doesn’t find his way to the bay to join next year’s draft pick Andrew Luck (Stanford) if the 49ers finish 3-13 as we think they will. The rebirth of the 49ers could just be in it’s beginning phases and this is a glimpse into next year for 49er fans to get excited about.
Next up: NFC South
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