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Fearless Rick's 2009 NFL Preview - NFC WEST

Rick Gagliano | 8/6/2009

NFC WEST - Predicted order of finish and (predicted record)

Arizona Cardinals (11-5): Following their miracle run to the Super Bowl, only to lose in the final seconds to the Steelers, the Cardinals are clearly the class of a sub-par division. Arizona should dominate NFC West opponents as they did last year (6-0 in their division in 2008) and wrap up the title by the first week of December.

After compiling a 9-7 record in 2008, the Cardinals should be better this year. In 2008, they limped into the playoffs with losses in four of their final six games - to the Giants, Eagles, Vikings and Patriots. The losses were ugly, and nobody expected Arizona to compete in the post-season.

But, Kurt Warner and the offense led the team to three straight playoff wins, scoring 30 or more in each game, on their route to the Super Bowl. In the process, Larry Fitzgerald emerged as one of the top three wideouts in the league and the Cardinal defense actually showed some muscle and resolve. With the loss in the Super Bowl, the Cardinals will come back in 2009 even more hungry, now that they have tasted the thrill of the ultimate game.

Arizona drafted well, getting Ohio state running back Chris Wells in the first round. He is expected to provide the kind of hard, inside rushing that the Cardinals sorely needed last season. He'll fit right into a backfield which features another youngster, Tim Hightower, a rookie in 2008, who proved his grit in short-yardage and goal line situations. Veteran Eggerin James was released after the Cardinals drafted Wells.

In the second and third rounds, Arizona picked up Cody Brown, a hard-rushing defensive end from Connecticut who the Cards hope will provide more of a pass rush. Arizona finished about in the middle of the league in sacks in '08 and they'd like to improve in that department. Rashad Johnson, a defensive back from Alabama, was chosen in the third round and he could be a nice addition, though the secondary is pretty solid, with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Bryant McFadden - a free agent from Pittsburgh - capable at the corners and Antrel Rolle fitting in nicely at safety.

While the defense almost certainly will get better, the offense is the focus of attention in Arizona. The Cardinals possess the best trio of receivers in the league, hands down, with Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston working the slot. They were virtually unstoppable in '08, as Warner distributed the ball well enough for each to crack the 1000-yard mark. If that's not enough, they have Early Doucet, a star at LSU, waiting for his chance to shine.

The schedule is about as demanding as last year's, with the NFC West matching up with the AFC South. Of the Cardinals' first four games, three of them are against AFC teams - Jacksonville, Indy and Houston. There are games at New York, Chicago and Tennessee sprinkled in, but the Cards catch Minnesota at home in week 13, and close out at San Francisco, at Detroit, and home against St. Louis and Green Bay. It doesn't get much easier than that down the stretch and even if the Cardinals are an unlikely 6-6 after that December 6 game hosting the Vikings, they're capable of running the table to get to 10-6. Besides, there isn't another team in their division which looks better than .500, though the 49ers could improve upon their 7-9 mark in 2008.

The Cardinals, barring key injuries, especially to Kurt Warner, should reach the playoffs and make considerable noise in the post-season.

San Francisco 49ers (7-9): Mike Singletary took over as head coach mid-seaon and crafted a 5-4 record, with the 5 wins coming in the final 7 games. For that, he received a full time contract and should eventually bring toughness and attitude to the 49ers. However, Singletary may have a hard time coaching what is a team lacking in some key areas.

First, the offense, which put up only 21 points per game in '08, is unsure which untested quarterback will be starting: Shawn Hill or Alex Smith. This will be determined, hopefully, during preseason, though it's possible that both will get starts in 2009. Whichever QB lines up behind center, the options at wide receiver are limited. Isaac Bruce is aging and their top draft pick, Michael Crabtree, has yet to be signed. Even if he does get the starting nod, rookie wideouts have much to learn about play in the NFL, though Bruce might provide some hints.

Frank Gore returns at running back and he's sure to get plenty of carries in Singletary's scheme, but his backups are very green.

The defense is weak up front, which is problematic for a 3-4 set-up, the linebackers are just average, but the secondary is pretty good, with Dre' Bly and Nate Clements at the corners and Michael Lewis at strong safety. After that, there just isn't much to like about the 49ers, except that they have a direction: up. Getting there is going to be difficult and they're unlikely to challenge Arizona in the division. Finishing over .500 would be a mean feat, though that seems unlikely with some tough road games on the schedule.

The 49ers have travel dates in Arizona (season opener), Minnesota, Houston and Indianapolis back-to-back in weeks 7 and 8, and Philadelphia in week 15. Should the Niners actually win all four games against Seattle and St. Louis, they still are likely to be looking up at .500 though finishing out at home against the Lions and at St. Louis could help.

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Seattle Seahawks (5-11): The wheels fell off completely last season in Seattle as Mike Holmgren did the team no favors announcing his retirement prior to the 2008 campaign. Injuries also didn't halp, but the team just seemed to be going through the motions for much of the season, finishing with a 4-12 record.

Jim Mora takes the reigns as Holgren's successor, and he's got some talent with which to work, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Matt Hasselbeck is a proven commodity at QB and the running game may improve with the addition of T.J. Duckett to complement Julius Jones. With Nate Burleson and T.J Houshmandzadeh the main receivers, Hasselbeck has experience he con count on, and tight end John Carlson continues to improve.

The front four, anchored by defensive end Patrick Kerney, needs to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, as the Seahawks were dead last in passing defense last season. The secondary is loaded with capable cover guys like Marcus Trufant, Josh Wilson, Ken Lucas and Jordan Babineaux, but the safeties are a deficiency. Aaron Curry (1st round pick from Wake Forest) and Lofa Tatupu are quality linebackers, but the weakness on the front line puts these guys into too many coverage situations.

The draft wasn't much help after Curry and tackle Max Unger from Oregon. Wide receiver Deon Butler (Penn State) may be a surprise.

The offense will have to carry this squad to wins in '09, because the defense simply is still undermanned. Three straight road games in weeks 10-12 at Arizona, Minnesota and St. Louis will probably be the team's undoing, if they're even competitive at the start. There's plenty of upside in Seattle, but the mix just isn't right with aging veterans on offense and a good deal of retooling needed just to get the defense competitive. 5-11 may actually be a reach.

St. Louis Rams (4-12): Like the other three also-rans in this division, the Rams are in rebuilding mode, and mostly on defense, where their 29.1 points allowed per game last year was better than only Detroit. The Rams will be trying to fill some gaps with three of their first four players drafted, all of whom may get starting roles.

Top pick Jason Smith from Baylor is expected to start at offensive tackle, filling the void left by perennial all-pro Orlando Pace. The Rams took Ohio State's James Laurinaitis in the second round and he almost certainly will start at middle linebacker, which should be a plus.

Defensive back Bradley Fletcher (Iowa) and Clemson defensive tackle Dorell Scott should also get plenty of playing time.

To say the Rams are young and inexperienced would be putting it lightly. They continue to hope Marc Bulger returns to all-pro form, but he has little with which to work, especially since the offense is being designed to feature running back Steven Jackson.

The combination of a bad defense, a shaky offense and 6 nearly-guaranteed losses against Arizona and the four AFC South foes, doesn't provide much confidence going into 2009. The Rams will struggle, but won't improve much, if at all.

Copyright 2008, 2009, Rick Gagliano, Downtown Magazine. All rights reserved. Downtown Magazine is located in the Uinted States of America and is not affiliated with the National Football League or the NCAA. For more information, contact us here. Use of this site is for entertainment purposes only.


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