by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We conclude our TGS previews of each of the NFL division races for 2014 with this look at the NFC West, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2013 straight-up, pointspread, and "over/under" records included...

We are reluctant to simply pick divisions in the same order as the previous season. And we are aware of the Super Bowl hangovers that have inflicted many championship teams over the past decade. But developments elsewhere over the summer in the NFC West make us think the Seattle Seahawks (2013 SUR 16-3; PSR 13-5-1; O/U 7-11-1) have a fighting chance to become the first repeat Super Bowl winner since the Patriots of 2003-04.

The negatives? Not many. There was a bit more outflow than inflow in free agency, which could somewhat impact depth, especially on the DL after rotation pieces Chris Clemons and Red Bryant moved elsewhere. Otherwise we are hard-pressed to note any shortcomings.

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The offense might even have a sharper edge this fall, with QB Russell Wilson now a confident third-year starter with a Super Bowl ring on his finger. Having Percy Harvin available from the outset after an injury-plagued 2013 adds another dimension to the strike force. Colorado rookie WR Paul Richardson flashed big-play potential all through preseason and looks to be an adequate replacement for WR Golden Tate, who was on the end of some of Wilson’s most important passes the past two seasons but moved to the Lions in the offseason. The OL fought through injuries and inconsistencies in 2013 and should improve with a healthy LT Russell Okung and C Max Unger, both Pro Bowlers when healthy in 2012. Marshawn Lynch still runs in beast mode, and mighty-mite 3rd-year RB Robert Turbin from Utah State is eager and able to assume more of the infantry load.

There are no significant issues with the defense other than the possible aforementioned minor depth concerns along the line. The secondary remains arguably the league’s best, with FS Earl Thomas an unsung star. The corners are big and nasty, led by high-profile Richard Sherman, who signed a four-year contract extension in the offseason. Strongside LB Malcolm Smith was only the Super Bowl MVP last February. The platoon also ranked first in total defense last season. Enough said. The special teams units all ranked among the league’s best last season,too, although Tate’s kick and punt return abilities must be replaced, likely by either Harvin or Richardson.

The real key this season will be HC Pete Carroll and his ability to get the Seahawks to play with the sort of sharp edge they have displayed the past two years. Carroll, used to the back-to-back stuff from his days at USC, appears the perfect coach for the challenge, although we expect the Seahawks to hit a few bumps along the way, perhaps more so on the road as they wear a much bigger target in 2014. At Century Link Field, however, where Seattle has lost just once since 2011, expect some more big scorelines.

As was the case last season, however, it’s getting home edge in the playoffs that will key another trip to the Super Bowl. Seattle would rather not play in the postseason at San Francisco, where the Carroll Seahawks have lost the last two years, or at New Orleans, which hasn’t lost at home under Sean Payton almost since the George W. Bush administration. But Seattle looks a good bet to at least defend its NFC West crown before taking its chances in the playoffs again.

The San Francisco 49ers (2013 SUR 14-5; PSR 11-6-2; O/U 8-10-1) did not have an easy offseason, or exhibition slate, for that matter., The problems began late in last January’s NFC title game at Seattle, when star LB NaVorro Bowman was writhing on the ground with a torn ACL. Then the Niners lost a second Super Bowl dream on a failed final drive, and finally getting screamed at by an angry Richard Sherman on national TV. Unfortunately the problems and distractions didn’t end with Sherman hollering into Erin Andrews’ miocrophone before she quickly sent it back to Joe Buck in the broadcast booth.

Already with Bowman on the PUP list, SF’s other star defender, DE Aldon Smith, became involved in diffetent sorts of off-field problems and has found himself suspended for the first nine games of the season. Another lineman, DT Ray McDonald, now has a domestic abuse charge hanging over him as well. And QB Colin Kaepernick had a close shave with the law in the offseason, too, though he appears to have (barely) escaped unscathed.

The preseason began bumpy and stayed that way for much of August, with Kaepernick and the first-string offense failing to score a TD. The OL, hampered by holdouts, finally appears to be near full-strength with RG Alex Boone back in the fold with a new contract. For some of the most-sophisticated run-block schemes in the league, the OL needs to be at or near full strength to take some of the pressure off of Kaepernick and provide room to rumble for ageless RB Frank Gore, who has shown few signs of slowing down. Remember, the Niners ranked third in rush offense last season, and keeping the infantry humming is offensive priority one for HC Jim Harbaugh.

More consistency from the receiving corps will be key, with a focus on Michael Crabtree, who was recovering from injury for the first half of 2013 before making contributions later in the campaign. With a healthy Crabtree, re-signed Anquan Boldin, and newly-added Stevie Johnson from Buffalo, Harbaugh believes he has the receiving weapons to cope with the Seahawk DBs. An intriguing X-factor is South Carolina rookie Bruce Ellington, who figures to be used in a variety of roles in Greg Roman’s offense.

On the other side of the ball, Bowman’s aforementioned injury, and his likely absence until at least the second half of the season, will force Patrick Willis to move from the outside to the inside at the LB spots which have been critical for the rock-ribbed nature of recent 49er stop units. And when Aldon Smith was absent last season (as he will be until November this term), Dan Skuta and Ahmad Brooks were more than adequate in rushing the passer.

If there are issues with the “D” it will be in the secondary, which did a lot of personnel juggling in the offseason and has a most;ly-different look this fall, with ex-Colt S Antoine Bethea a key addition. But Vic Fangio’s platoon could use a playmaker or two to emerge; if there has been a different between San Francisco and Seattle lately, it has been the ability of the Seahawk DBs to make more big plays.

We’ll also see how the 49ers adapt to their sparkling new Levi’s Stadium home in Santa Clara, 45 minutes south and several climate zones away from dank Candlestick Park. For all of the Stick’s faults, however, it provided the Niners a nasty home-field edge. Whether the clean-scrubbed new surroundings in the Silicon Valley prove a similar edge remains to be seen.

We expect the Niners to get back to the playoffs, at least as long as the remarkably durable Kaepernick stays healthy, though a tough-looking 2014 slate will be a challenge. Getting to the Super Bowl, however, will be like a trek through a mine field if that road is via New Orleans or Seattle.

We are a bit perplexed about the forecast for the Arizona Cardinals (2013 SUR 10-6, PSR 11-5, O/U 7-8-1) after HC Bruce Arians rallied the Big Red in his debut season a year ago. The Cards charged down the stretch last fall to win 7 of their last 9, including a rousing upset at Seattle in the penultimate week of the campaign, and very nearly qualified for the playoffs after a slowish 3-4 break from the gate.

Popular opinion around the league seems to suggest to Arians to “prove it” again this fall after the first-year coach squeezed about everything he possibly could out of vet QB Carson Palmer, who provided the first real on-field leadership for the franchise since Kurt Warner retired after the 2009 campaign. Does Palmer (who passed for a whopping 4274 yards last season) have enough left in his tank for an encore?

Perhaps. An upgrade of Palmer's infantry would be nice, although it won’t be Rashard Mendenhall (who retired in the offseason) leading any ground-based resurgence. Much focus is thus on RB Andre Ellington, who performed with plenty of flair as a rookie in 2012 when gaining 5.5 yards per carry. Non-pareil WR Larry Fitzgerald (82 catches LY) is on his way to Canton, but has a bit more help than in past years with ex-Notre Dame star Michael Floyd (65 catches in 2013) drawing some attention on the other side. Ted Ginn, Jr. also arrives from the Panthers and provides Arians with another receiving and kick return option. The wild card in the mix is Pittsburg State (KS) rookie WR John Brown, a smurf-sized third-round pick who has hinted at serious big-play ability in preseason. The line, which kept Palmer upright last season, still must upgrade after contributing to the "O" bogging down a bit too often in the red zone last season.

Those who discount the Big Red are probably overlooking a “”D” that was legitimately robust last season when it lde the league against the rush and absolutely stonewalled the Seahawks in that late-December win at Century Link Field. There are some concerns in the front seven, especially with DT Darnell Dockett going down with a knee injury during the preseason, and LB Karlos Dansby departed in free agency for the Browns. But adding CB Antonio Cromartie from the Jets in free agency to play opposite Patrick Peterson gives d.c. Todd Bowles a couple of shutdown corners, and first-round draftee Deone Buchanan is an in-the-box safety who should play a role in the Cards’ nickel looks and blitz packages.

Worryingly, however, the window might be closing fast in Arizona with one of the league's odlest rosters that didn't get any younger in the offseason with several roster additions on the far side of 30.

Arizona was a playoff-caliber team for the second half of last season. The Cards’ problem, like last year, remains those two blockades ahead of them in the NFC West. Unfortunately, the Big Red is not in its old NFC East haunt, where it might be the co-favorite with the Eagles to win the division. In the West, however, we can’t see Arizona climbing above third.

If it weren’t for bad luck, the St. Louis Rams (2013 SUR 7-9, PSR 7-9, O/U 9-7) might not have any luck at all. Or, more specifically, perhaps we should say QB Sam Bradford, who has battled numerous injuries since his senior year in college at Oklahoma. Given one more chance to prove he is the QB of the future with the Rams this season, Bradford went out and injured a knee in the third week of the preseason vs. the Browns, lost for the entire season.

That hissing sound you might have heard in the distance was the air leaving the Rams’ balloon in the aftermath of Bradford’s injury.

Losing Bradford is nothing new for the Rams, who still slogged their way to a 7-9 finish last season with Kellen Clemens at the controls of the offense for the last half of the campaign. Clemens, a serviceable backup, moved to San Diego in the offseason, with ex-Lion Shaun Hill now the main option out of the bullpen. With Bradford’s injury, however, Hill now moves into the starting rotation. Ex-Texan Case Keenum was recently added after the final exhibition games to provide extra cover at the position, but it appears as if the Rams are already entering 2014 with one hand tied behind their back.

Don’t expect St. Louis to become roadkill, however, as HC Jeff Fisher’s team has proven competitive even in games without Bradford the past couple of seasons. And when Bradford went down last fall, a plus would emerge elsewhere in ex-Vandy star RB Zac Stacy, one of the surprise packages in all of the NFL during 2013 when providing a much-needed ground diversion, gaining an unexpected, but very welcome, 973 YR.

The concern, however, is that o.c. Brian Schottenheimer was forced into an ultra-conservative scheme minus Bradford last season, and now without Sam for the entire way in 2014, it is doubtful the Rams look any more potent on “O” with Hill or Keenum at the controls than they did with Clemens a year ago. The Rams ranked 30th on offense last season and it is difficult to envision much improvement this fall minus Bradford from the outset, though newcomers such as ex-Titans WR Kenny Britt and Auburn rookie RB Tre Mason could provide a sharper edge to the weaponry.

With d.c. Gregg Williams now beyond his “Bounty-gate” suspension from days with the Saints, the “D” should continue to harass opposing passers, as Williams is renowned for creative ways to pressure QBs with his aggressive, blitz-oriented schemes. Williams also has a pair of DEs in Chris Long and Robert Quinn who generate plenty of pass-rush pressure on their own after the Rams ranked third in the league in sacks in 2013.

Generating this sort of pressure up front is crucial, because the Rams lack quickness in their secondary. But anyone who watched the Rams in 2013 knows that the defense (which manhandled Seattle in a midseason game at Edward Jones Dome in a bitter 14-9 loss) isn’t a problem. Rather, it’s the offense, and with questions at QB before the regular season kicks off, the St. Louis prospects in this toughest of divisions are rather bleak.


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