The Seahawks have ruled the NFL West – and the entire NFC -- for the past two seasons, and they are favored to make it three division titles in a row.
But things will not be easy. Two consecutive trips to the Super Bowl, especially coming off a heart-breaking loss to the New England Patriots in February, can take its toll on a team both mentally and physically.
The 49ers won the division in 2012 by a half-game. And despite 25 victories in 2013 and ’14, the Seahawks won the NFC West by only one game in both of those seasons. Again, this will be an extremely tight race from beginning to end.
There’s a common thread that runs through the NFC West. Each team figures to rely on its defense. Each team has major issues with its offensive line.
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The division as a whole might take a step backward this season, but that figures to lead to close, low-scoring games and another grouping atop the standings:
1. Seattle (10-6)
The Seahawks swung a blockbuster offseason trade acquiring tight end Jimmy Graham. But they had to give up center Max Unger in the process. With only two starters on the line back in the same spots as last season, the Seahawks' major question is whether they can provide quarterback Russell Wilson with time to throw. Marshawn Lynch does not require much assistance, but he will be hard-pressed to match his 1,300-yard rushing total of last season. The defense, again, should lead the way. Safety Kam Chancellor, a second-team All-NFL selection the past two years, remains in the midst of a contract holdout. If his absence drags into the season, that defensive backfield will look a whole lot different. The Seahawks still have plenty of talent, but they could find themselves in an immediate hole with road games the first two weeks against St. Louis and Green Bay.
2. Arizona (9-7)
The Cardinals’ hopes for the division title are based on their strong defense and a healthy Carson Palmer rebounding from ACL surgery in November. The Cardinals are 16-6 in Palmer’s starts since he arrived after two brutal seasons with the Raiders. The problem is that Palmer is 35 years old and his offensive line does not look good. Palmer has some quality receivers on the outside, namely Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown, but he is going to need time to deliver those passes. Ex-49ers guard Mike Iupati was signed to help bolster the line. He was never known for providing great pass protection, and he is out for approximately a month after undergoing knee surgery.
3. 49ers (8-8)
The 49ers lost a lot of big-name players in the offseason. However, the 49ers also had replacements ready to go at most of those spots, so there does not figure to be major drop-offs across the board. The exceptions are at right tackle, where a healthy Anthony Davis is a lot better than Erik Pears, and outside linebacker, with the loss of Aldon Smith dealing a major blow to the pass rush. The 49ers have not done a good job of developing young players in recent seasons. That is one key to this season. The others variables are whether Jim Tomsula’s common-sense approach impacts the W-L column and if Colin Kaepernick is capable of compensating for an offensive line that might not provide him prolonged protection.
4. St. Louis (7-9)
The Rams were knocking on the door of .500 for a couple of years but slid back to 6-10 last season. A big reason for their inability to reach eight victories was Sam Bradford’s inability to make it through a full season healthy – or even make it to Week 1, for that matter. Nick Foles is the new quarterback after compiling a 15-9 record in 24 starts over three seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. The defense is outstanding, and that will keep the Rams in every game. But, in keeping with the theme of the NFC West, the Rams' offensive line is inexperienced and completely unsettled.