San Francisco 49ers: 13-3 (Division Champs)
Even since Colin Kaepernick took over the offense in week 10 of last season, the 9ers have been the best team in the NFC. If they would have just stood pat with their roster, I still would’ve had them as slight favorites over the Seahawks. Add Anquan Boldin and Nnamdi Asomugha to the mix and things start getting dangerous.
The big “if” surrounding the 9ers this season is going to be whether or not Kaepernick can avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. I think he’s going to (literally) stay one step ahead of the defenders who are spending hours planning against his double-barreled attack.
The 9ers ran the option offense so well last season that it looked like defenders were trying to tackle ghosts. I expect that to continue, and I also expect a heavy dose of LaMichael James in that option attack this season. He was literally bred for the role of option running back from his days at Oregon under Chip Kelly.
A rotation of James, Frank Gore and newcomer Marcus Lattimore would throw defenses for all kinds of loops, and we haven’t even started talking about the passing game yet.
Michael Crabtree really came on strong at the end of last year’s breakout campaign, and he’ll get plenty of support from uber tight end Vernon Davis and former Raven Anquan Boldin.
The defense is just as multifaceted as the offense. Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman are as solid of a linebacking combo you will ever find. Rookie defensive end Cornellius Carradine will provide a nice pass rushing compliment to the Smith brothers. Aldon Smith is my early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year in the NFC.
Dashon Golson signed with Tampa Bay in the offseason, but he’s been replaced by LSU product Eric Reid. And lest we forget Nnamdi Asomugha, who ended up securing the No. 3 cornerback spot heading into the season.
The fact that a three time Pro Bowler has been relegated to nickel duties for this defense should tell you just how loaded this unit really is.
Even though there are superstars up and down this roster, the 9ers are likely the most complete team in all of football. The team’s success doesn’t rest squarely on any one player’s shoulders. Success is easier to maintain when you have multiple people to call on week after week to step up and win you games.
The 9ers are my pick not only to make it to the Super Bowl, but to win it. I’ve been saying this since they lost to the Saints in the Conference Championship in 2011: they’ll make the Super Bowl in 2012; they’ll win it in 2013. I’ve been right so far.
Seattle Seahawks: 10-6 (Wildcard)
Much like the 9ers, the Seahawks are a team without any glaring weaknesses. This would have been especially true if their prized free agent signing Percy Harvin could have stayed healthy this preseason. Even without Harvin, the Seahawks seem to be a lock to return to the playoffs.
The Hawks defense was incredibly stingy last year, especially against the pass. Richard Sherman is widely considered to be the NFL’s best cornerback following an eight-interception campaign and a Pro Bowl invite.
His running mates Brandon Browner, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor aren’t exactly slouches either. Actually, they’re probably all within the top five in the league at their given position.
The team also fortified their pass rush by signing rush ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. Linebacker K.J. Wright and tackle Brandon Mebane round out an incredibly young and talented unit that will likely only get better with time.
On offense, the Seahawks fall one check mark short of meeting every requirement for having a dominant offense.
Dual threat quarterback? Russell Wilson. Top tier running back? Marshawn Lynch. Smothering offensive line? Russell Okung anchors that unit.
The only thing missing is a true No. 1 receiver. He’s on the roster, and his name is Percy Harvin. Well, actually, he’s on the PUP List thanks to a hip injury.
In his absence, the Hawks will have to rely on some combination of Golden Tate, Sidney Rice and tight end Zach Miller to shoulder the passing load.
If Harvin was healthy, the Seahawks could give the 49ers a serious run for best team in the NFC. They still can if some of the receivers step up unexpectedly. Their defense may even be better than the 9ers, especially in pass protection. Any way it shakes out, the Seahawks are in for a return trip to the playoffs.
Arizona Cardinals: 7-9
An aggressive offseason will propel the Cardinals out of the cellar in the NFC West; a buzzsaw of a schedule will temper any other expectations the team may have for 2013.
The Cardinals used the free agency period to shore up a lot of holes on offense. Even in the twilight of his career, Carson Palmer is the best talent the Cardinals have run out under center since Kurt Warner called it quits.
Former Steeler Rashard Mendenhall will provide Arizona with a legitimate running threat, and I feel like Pittsburgh gave up on him way too early.
I don’t expect an Adrian Peterson-like return from his ACL injury; after all, Mendenhall is a mere mortal. But there’s no reason why he can’t return to his 1,000+ yard/10 TD production from a few years back with a rebuilt offensive line in front of him and a passing game to work off of.
Larry Fitzgerald would find a way to produce with me throwing passes to him. In addition, Michael Floyd is ready to take the next step to becoming a bonafide No. 2 option.
An interesting development to watch on defense will be how the Cardinals handle Tyrann Mathieu. There’s no shortage of personal and legal issues that faced the Honey Badger in college, but he has worked incredibly hard to put that all behind him and let his immense talent do the talking.
Other than Patrick Peterson, who is now his pseudo-mentor, the Cardinals don’t have too much other talent in the secondary. I can see Mathieu finding his way into the starting lineup early on in the season and not relinquishing those duties.
Rookie linebacker Kevin Minter and defensive end Alex Okafor will provide modest improvements to a defense that lost a lot of leadership in the offseason.
Passing defense may go from a strong point to a weak point with the departure of safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes. Peterson and Mathieu can only cover so much ground at any given time, and the defense is pretty porous outside of those two.
St. Louis Rams: 7-9
That brings us to the basement of the West. The Rams commonly occupy this spot, and it looks like they’ll be clawing it out with the Cardinals to avoid another last place finish.
Given the immense amount of talent in this division, even a fourth place finish isn’t all that bad. The Rams will likely finish with a similar record to last season, but that doesn’t mean they won’t improve in their game performances.
Tavon Austin was the banner addition to the offense, and he finally provides Sam Bradford with a reliable deep threat in the passing game. There’s just something sketchy about making the focal point of your offense a 175 pound speedster that I can’t fully agree with.
I don’t dislike Austin, I just feel like he’s more of a nice addition to an offense and not a true No. 1 receiver. I hope he proves me wrong.
The question on offense will be how the running back committee can shore up the production lost by parting with Steven Jackson. It’s looking like Daryl Richardson will get the nod at starter, with Isaiah Pead getting the bulk of the remaining carries.
The two combined for 529 yards on 108 carries last season. Even behind a consistently great offensive line like the one in St. Louis, the duo of 23 year olds will have a tough time of combining to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark. Steven Jackson left some huge shoes to fill, and I don’t feel like Richardson or Pead are the heir apparent.
Again, I hope I’m wrong. I’ve been secretly pulling for the Rams to succeed for years now, it just hasn’t been in the cards.
The defense is quietly turning into one of the league’s best, and the addition of rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree will continue that process. But it always seems like the Rams are one step away, and that step seems to change every season.
One day everything will fall in place for the Rams, just not this season.