San Francisco 49ers– Head Coach Jim Harbaugh has made one of the finest starts by a head coach in history, two years in he has 24 regular season wins and has been to two NFC Championships and a Superbowl. All this after inheriting a 6-10 team. The 49ers as a result are many people’s Favourites for the NFC but history is against them. It has been twenty years since a Superbowl loser returned to the showpiece the next year, statistics aside however this team has all the attributes of a championship team.
The offense went from good to great when second year quarterback Colin Kaepernick took the reins in week 11, when Harbaugh left Kaepernick in as the starter after Alex Smith returned he was roundly criticised. A whole humble pie later and he was dubbed a genius for the move as Kaepernick put in two incredible performances en route to the Superbowl. Teams may be more aware of his diverse skill set after those successes but whether they can stop him remains to be seen. The tall wiry Kaepernick is the fastest quarterback since Michael Vick and he also possesses a huge arm and is surrounded with talent. Ninth year battering ram Frank Gore is as good and as punishing as ever but he will split carries with the speedy LaMichael James and big bodied Anthony Dixon. Tight end Vernon Davis, a leader on the field had a disappointing 2012 by his standards and was slow to find chemistry with Kaepernick but a full offseason together should remedy that and Davis can have a bounce back year. Star receiver Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles tendon in OTAs but may return late in the season, Anquan Boldin comes over from Superbowl champions Baltimore and softens the blow, Boldin is a hardnosed, extremely physical receiver but lacks speed. Opposite him the 49ers swapped second year pro AJ Jenkins for Jonathan Baldwin with the Chiefs, Baldwin is a prime breakout candidate now. Mario Manningham also starts the season ailing so early on depth at wide receiver is very limited. The 49ers offensive line is dominant in the running game, guard Mike Iupati in particular is capable of overwhelming numerous defenders on single plays and all five linemen return. With the running ability of Kaepernick and his stable of running backs this team will be top five in rushing. A lack of targets will hurt until Crabtree returns but this unit should still rack up plenty of yards and a top 10 finish isn’t beyond them.
San Francisco’s defense starts and finishes with the best linebacking group in football. Captain and tackling machine Patrick Willis has long been considered the best inside linebacker in football but was outplayed by colleague Navarro Bowman last year, both made the pro bowl. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks in his sophomore year, second most in the league. Smith possesses power, quickness and outstanding speed and is expected to further enhance his claims as the new king of the position. Ahmad Brooks completed the quartet; he hasn’t Smith’s ability but is a relentless, physical presence on the strong side. Upfront Glenn Dorsey, a former first round pick of the Chiefs replaces Isaac Sopoaga inside but the key to this unit is end Justin Smith. Although he enters his thirteenth year Justin Smith is still one of the best linemen in football, his relentless power drives offensive linemen into submission and his teamwork with namesake Aldon is close to unstoppable. Opposite Smith, Ray McDonald starts with Will Tukuafu, Demarcus Dobbs and rookie Cornellius Carradine fighting for snaps. One pro bowler who the 49ers couldn’t retain was safety Dashon Goldson but they drafted rookie Eric Reid in the first round to compensate and he teams with strong safety Donte Whitner who went to the pro bowl in 2012, Whitner is another excellent run defender. Both backups at safety are good enough to start but while corner is the weakness of this defense it would be the strength of other teams. Tarell Brown was the team’s best cornerback last year and starts again, Carlos Rogers was torched a couple of times in the playoffs so Nnamdi Asomugha, once considered the best corner in the league comes in after a nightmare spell in Philadelphia to challenge for the start. It’s hard to envisage anyone running on this defense and the Smith tandem will ensure they are again a force rushing the passer. This unit was third in total yardage and second in points allowed last year but faces a raft of teams capable of putting up big numbers in both columns this year.
2013 Predicted wins– 13-14
Playoff Prediction– To go one better than last year the 49ers will need Michael Crabtree back and at full strength by January, all the pieces are there once he returns and this team is right near the top of the NFC pecking order.
Seattle Seahawks- Pete Carroll’s second spell in the NFL has been more successful than the first and the inspirational head coach believes he has a championship calibre team now, the Seahawks look one of the most talented all round teams in the NFC but unfortunately for them must overcome the mighty 49ers to win the division. Carroll’s bold decision to start rookie Russell Wilson last year paid huge dividends and Wilson was one of many mobile quarterbacks to profit from the read option scheme. Wilson is now the face of the franchise and huge things are expected of him going forward. The Seahawks are building their own hype as major contenders and in doing so have put expectations sky high this year, they simply must win at least one playoff game.
Wilson’s success was based on his passing accuracy and the danger he presents when he leaves the pocket. Written off due to his size, Wilson quickly proved that doesn’t matter once you’re outside the pocket and his ability to remain accurate on the move or tuck it and run for sizable gains turned the Seahawks offense into a dynamic unit. Running back Marshawn Lynch has found home, he coined the term ‘beast mode’ a few years ago and in a career year was in such throughout 2012, his violent running style causes mayhem once he gets to the second level and in rookie Christine Michael the Seahawks added a like for like player to continue the pounding on defenses. Percy Harvin became the highest paid player in Seattle as he transferred from the Vikings but starts the season injured and is likely to be out for around half the season. That is a blow but Sidney Rice and controversial Golden Tate both played well enough last year though neither has nearly Harvin’s explosiveness. Former raider Zach Miller isn’t a big part of the offense but will still hope for improved numbers in 2013. The line came good with better health last year and is now considered one of the league’s most solid units. Former first rounder Russell Okung at left tackle and Max Unger at center went to the pro bowl, Okung is a huge talent with his running ability extremely rare for a man of his size. Right tackle Bruno Giacomini must cut down his penalties and left guard James Carpenter struggles to stay healthy but both are talented and sophomore J.R. Sweezy will likely complete the starting group. Harvin’s injury hurts a team that needs to win a lot of games to keep pace but with Wilson and Lynch healthy this offense will be better than the 17th overall of a year ago.
The defense is continually adding players to improve the unit and looks as daunting an opponent as the 49ers defense after another offseason emphasising improving weaknesses in an uncompromising manner. The secondary of the Seahawks is the league’s scariest, cornerback Richard Sherman is on the verge of being the next great shutdown corner in the NFL. He routinely nullified the opposition’s best receiver last year whilst reeling in eight picks and twice finding the endzone, he talks a lot of trash but backs it up. Brandon Browner took time to become a quality corner but is now one of the league’s best himself and the fact that the starters are 6 foot 3 and 6 4 respectively helps nullify the size advantage many receivers boast over their defensive cover in modern football. Fifteen year veteran Antoine Winfield joined to man the slot and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas return; they are both elite game changers. Free safety Thomas has quickly become the best in the game, his speed, range, instincts and ball skills serve notice to opposing quarterbacks thinking about taking a deep shot at the Seahawks. Chancellor meanwhile is a brutal hitter who quickly puts receivers off the idea of trying to come inside to make catches. Second round pick Bobby Wagner had an incredible season and quickly became the dominant linebacker the Seahawks needed, his instincts belie his age and he looks set to be a very good player for a very long time. Speed is the name of the game for K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith who sandwich Wagner. Upfront the Seahawks spent big to get better and look to have succeeded. Cliff Avril is a consistent presence in opposing backfields and joins massive Red Bryant, and pass rushing specialists Michael Bennett and Bruce Irvin in a deep rotation expected to hugely improve a previously middle of the road pass rush. Tackle Brandon Mebane will start but rookies Jordan Hill and Jesse Williams will push free agent signee Tony McDaniel a journeyman signed from Miami. A defense which ranked fourth overall last year looks improved upfront and is as youthful as it is talented in the secondary, this could well be the best defense in football.
2013 Predicted wins– 10-11
Playoff Prediction– The Seahawks will win the majority of their games to make the playoffs but they could easily do so as division runners up. A road playoff schedule could see them travelling thousands of miles so the two games with San Francisco are vital and will be unmissable.
St Louis Rams– The Rams rebounded from 2011s aberration to win seven games in this most brutal of divisions. They are making steady progress under Jeff Fisher but competing in this division will be extremely difficult. Sam Bradford stayed healthy last year and if he can do again this offense can start to make progress. The Rams defense is underrated, it may not match San Francisco or Seattle’s much vaunted units but under Fisher has become a physical, well drilled unit. Next step for the Rams is climbing a rung closer to their divisional rivals ahead of becoming contenders in the future.
The Rams offense looks like a copycat version of New England’s scheme. Brian Schottenheimer is planning lots of up tempo, no huddle plays for Sam Bradford and the Rams have a pair of dangerous tight ends like the Patriots did until Aaron Hernandez went crazy and Rob Gronkowski became injury prone. New signing Jared Cook is a Hernandez style player, a pure receiver who can line up in the slot, out wide or in the backfield; he is more a tall wide receiver than a tight end with his blazing speed. Third year pro Lance Kendricks came on last year and should again improve, he is a more traditional style tight end. A pair of second year receivers, big possession receiver Brian Quick and deep threat Chris Given are joined by rookie Tavon Austin who like Jared Cook can be moved around and is an electrifying playmaker in the Percy Harvin mould. Long time standout Steven Jackson departs after carrying this offense for most of his tenure, Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson will form a committee to replace his consistent production. Upfront former number one overall pick and regular pro bowler Jake Long arrived via trade to finally give Bradford a quality blind side protector. Rodger Saffold swings to the right side where he could excel and former Packer Scott Wells is a consistent veteran center on a line finally looking capable of protecting its highly paid quarterback. An offense filled with speed will look to edge into the top 20 under Sam Bradford, getting production from unproven running backs will be vital to progression.
The Rams were tied for most quarterback sacks last year, starting defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn tallied 20 sacks and their chief backup Will Hayes had seven. Former Dolphin Kendall Langford and second year man Michael Brockers start inside, Brockers is a very powerful player who could easily have a breakout campaign in 2013. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis has long been the Rams most reliable defender and he continues to be, rookie Alec Ogletree is an intriguing prospect at outside backer. The former Bulldog has rare size and athleticism for his position and the Rams are counting on him becoming a sideline to sideline playmaker. Jo-Lonn Dunbar completes the starting group; he was a find last tear in free agency and showed a real nose for the ball. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins slid into the second round last year due to a host of red flags but he had four picks and four touchdowns as a rookie and has a young Asante Samuel about him. Physical presence Cortland Finnegan followed Jeff Fisher to St Louis and remains a solid corner also. Rookie T.J. McDonald is the latest Trojan safety to make it to the NFL and steps in as starting free safety. Fourth year pro Darian Stewart battled injuries last year but now healthy can retake his role as strong safety. This defense is built around the rush that the two former first round ends Quinn and Long provide. Alec Ogletree could take the linebacking corps to the next level but depth is the lingering concern throughout a defense that should again be in the top half of most statistics at season end.
2013 Predicted wins– 6-7
Playoff Prediction– The Rams need to become consistent before they can entertain a playoff run. To compete in the NFC West right now you have to be a Superbowl contender.
Arizona Cardinals– The Cardinals have been a mess ever since Kurt Warner retired after the 2008 Superbowl. Ken Whisenhunt was regarded as a top coach back then but his inability to stop the decline in Phoenix saw his tenure halted after a 5-11 2012 season. In comes Bruce Arians who was interim head coach in Indianapolis when Chuck Pagano was ill to steady the ship during one of the heaviest rebuilds in the NFL. The Cardinals could be in for some real whippings from their elite neighbours this year.
Quarterbacking this team has been a poisoned chalice ever since Warner departed. They have tried rookies, free agents, backups, the lot, each has resulted in failure. To steady the ship comes Carson Palmer, a veteran who will at least be an upgrade over the four players who started games under center a year ago. Arians likes a vertical, stretch the field offense, so Palmer will use his strong arm regularly. The Cardinals signed running back Rashard Mendenhall from Pittsburgh, he and injury prone Ryan Williams will split carries but both have to prove they can stay on the field. Larry Fitzgerald has stuck with the organisation through thick and thin and thinner. He remains a top drawer receiver but constant double teams and woeful quarterbacks have hurt his numbers in recent years. Michael Floyd who they drafted in the first round a year ago was raw but should improve in his second season and provide a second viable target for Palmer. The depth at receiver is thin and journeyman tight end Jeff King is unlikely to achieve much from the tight end so it’s all on Fitzgerald and Floyd to produce. Drafting highly talented guard Jonathan Cooper in the first round was meant to help a woeful defensive line but he is on IR and will miss his rookie season. Left tackle Levi Brown is back healthy again at least, he is the Cardinals best lineman but with Cooper down the remainder of this woeful unit return, Palmer isn’t the most mobile and you have to fear for him. The NFL’s worst offense a year ago and only Palmer looks a significant upgrade, a bottom 5 ranking for the second year running looks likely.
The Cardinals defense kept fighting until it finally drowned under the weight of the offense in a 58-0 annihilation in Seattle. There is talent on this side of the ball, Former first round pick Dan Campbell is flanked by two above average ends upfront in the 3-4 scheme new coordinator Todd Bowles favours. Arizona’s best player is linebacker Daryl Washington but he misses the first four games through suspension, three of which are on the road. Rookie Kevin Minter and free agent signing Jaspar Brinkley will audition for one job when Washington returns. Outside linebackers Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield are average talents but with so much overhaul get another chance with age at least on their side. The athleticism of corner Patrick Peterson is unmatched and he reminds you of Deion Sanders with the ball in his hands. Long time San Diego Charger and talented but frail Jerraud Powers were signed to fight for the second and third spots. Free safety Yeremiah Bell enters his eleventh season in the league but will be replaced soon by talented but troubled rookie Tyrann Matthieu if the latter can stay out of trouble. Rashad Johnson is a decent starter at free safety to complete the unit. This unit is strong upfront and deep at corner, when Washington returns they will look quite strong but could be 0-4 by then. Finishing in the top 10 however looks beyond them given their schedule.
2013 Predicted wins– 2-3
Playoff Prediction– More chance of them winning the FA cup