by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

SAN FRANCISCO (13-3 in 2011; Lost NFC title game in overtime to New York Giants)...In very many respects, the NFC West is the easiest NFL division to rank, with San Francisco clearly in the lead. The effect that Jim Harbaugh’s coaching had on the 49ers in 2011 was fairly remarkable, especially the way he changed Alex Smith from an apparent big-time draft bust into a playoff-winning QB. Forty-niner fans will always remember Smith’s two late, clutch TDs vs. the Saints--one on a 28-yard run down the left sideline, and the other on a 14-yard laser to the well-covered Vernon Davis near the goal with just nine seconds left.

Does that mean Smith (17 TDP vs. only 5 ints.) is the second coming of Joe Montana? Far from it, or San Francisco wouldn’t have made overtures when Peyton Manning was shopping his services in the offseason. But it does mean that the Harbaugh/Smith combo gives the Niners enough QB talent to win this improved division again, and to make a deep run in the playoffs. Moreover, the S.F. brain trust has provided the 49er offense with more weapons this season--veteran WRs Mario Manningham & Randy Moss (appears quick enough after not playing last season), power back Brandon Jacobs, No. 1 pick WR A.J. Jenkins of Illinois and No. 2 pick RB/KR LaMichael James of Oregon. All of those additions might not work out, but S.F. should pass better than last season, should convert more on third down, and should offer much more help for RB Frank Gore (1211 YR) and extra-dimension TE Vernon Davis (67 recs., 6 TDs).

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All of last year’s starters return on defense, which was second only to Pittsburgh in points allowed. That prideful unit was No. 1 vs. the run, allowed only 3 rushing TDs, and tied with Green Bay for the lead with 38 takeaways. OLB Aldon Smith is expected to be even better in his second season after 14 sacks as a rookie.

Much has been made of S.F.’s unusually-rugged schedule (visits to the Packers, Jets, Saints, and Patriots!). And the Niners are not deep at some positions. But Harbaugh has proven to be mighty resourceful (T Joe Staley and NT Isaac Sopoaga hadreceptions on offense in 2011), so be prepared for athletic 6-4, 230 backup QB Colin Kaepernick to exploited in a number of ways. It might be tougher this year, but the Niners should win the West and again challenge for a berth in the Super Bowl.

SEATTLE (7-9 in 2011)...It’s two straight seasons of 7-9 for Pete Carroll in Seattle, but he owns one NFC West title and one Marshawn Lynch-inspired playoff upset of the Saints. Few teams had worse OL luck than the Seahawks last year, when Seattle started umpteen different offensive line combinations due to injury. Meanwhile, QB Tarvaris Jackson had to gut it out despite a torn chest muscle, and Seahawk receivers either couldn’t stay on the field or massively underachieved.

The QB picture has brightened this year with the addition of Green Bay ace backup Matt Flynn (he of the 6-TD game vs. Detroit in the 2011 finale) and smarter-than-his-age and plays-bigger-than-his-size rookie Russell Wilson (is he really 5-11?). Either QB figures to be an improvement, especially since the 2012 OL is now healthier, deeper, and better-seasoned; Carroll has opted for the rookie Wilson as the opening-day starter after an impressive preseason debut. Free agent WR Doug Baldwin (51 recs.) proved to be a revelation last season, while Carroll has gone the diva route (Terrell Owens, Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow Jr.) in an attempt to improve his aerial game. [Insiders are already talking of friction, to no one’s surprise].

It’s more likely that the Seattle defense (7th in points allowed LY) will help keep the Seahawks on the 49ers’ tails, with Carroll developing a hairy front four pass rush (DE Chris Clemons 11 sacks), a deep group of LBs, and a savvy, ball-hawking secondary. But unless Flynn or Wilson break through (in the regular season, not the preseason), it’s likely second place and a battle for a wildcard spot for the Seahawks.

ST. LOUIS (2-14 in 2011)...The Rams have lost an incredible 65 games in the last five years. That’s the most defeats in a five-game span in the history of the NFL, out-awfulling the expansion Buccaneers and the 2006-10 Lions. So 2012 St. Louis can hardly be worse. In some respects the Rams have “earned” that terrible mark with some poor draft selections. But last year’s clusters of injuries at CB, receiver, and OL are unlikely to be duplicated for a while in the NFL. And Sam Bradford, who had demonstrated sufficient maturity along the QB learning curve, was limited most of the year by one of those terrible high-ankle injuries, not to mention by his porous OL.

Proven HC Jeff Fisher thus takes over for the luckless Steve Spagnuolo (now defensive coordinator of the Saints). But Fisher inherits a core of young players, further enhanced by this year’s draft haul (six of the top 96 selections). Bradford and RB Steven Jackson are a potent one-two punch if they can stay healthy. WR Danny Amendola (85 recs. in 2010) appears healthy, and second-round pick Brian Quick (App. State) appears to be a “keeper.” Fisher has helped fix the OL. And the defense has Pro Bowl caliber leaders in DE Chris Long and LB James Laurinitis.

St. Louis might not reach .500 this season. But if Bradford and Jackson (seven straight 1000-yard seasons), stay healthy, they might come close.

ARIZONA (8-8 in 2011)...If there was a dubious 8-8 record in the NFL last season, it was that owned by the Cardinals. Consider. An 89-yard punt return by rookie Patrick Peterson to win the opener. Four victories in OT--one on a 99-yard PR by Peterson, and another after Dallas iced its own kicker! QB juggling due to injuries, with “backup” John Skelton going 5-2 despite season totals of 11 TDs vs. 14 interceptions. It’s likely that without Peterson (4 PR TDs), WR Larry Fitzgerald (80 recs. for 1411 yards), and RB Beanie Wells (1047 YR) the Cardinals would have won four games or fewer.

Going into 2012, the Kevin Kolb & John Skelton QB situation hardly seems settled, LT Levi Brown (triceps) has been lost for the year, and last year’s apparent modest improvement on defense has evaporated.

The Cardinals opened last season with a 1-6 mark before Arizona’s run of good fortune led to a 7-2 finish (which included all four OT victories) and its 8-8 final record. Unless the lights go on soon for either Kolb or Skelton so that they can come close to approximating the production of quick-reading, quick-throwing Kurt Warner in Ken Whisenhunt’s proven offense, it could be a decline--not an advance--for the Cards this season.


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