2006 NFC West Preview

In 2005, the Seahawks won the NFC West by an astounding seven games, cruising to their second consecutive NFC West title, while their three division rivals combined to go an ugly 15-33. The biggest question for Seattle is whether they can overcome the traditional jinx of Super Bowl losers, or whether St. Louis or Arizona can step up and deny them another NFC West crown. Even with the loss of LG Steve Hutchinson, the Seahawks should be able to hold off the improved Cardinals and Rams units.

(2005 Regular Season Records in Parentheses)

Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

Super Bowl losers have been doomed to failure in recent years; the last five runners-up have gone a combined 31-49 the following season, with zero playoff appearances. Seattle looks to break that streak this season, and they should.

For starters, Seattle plays in what could be the league’s weakest division, again. Both St. Louis and Arizona have talent, but neither has proven to be a legitimate threat, while San Francisco continues to rebuild. Outside the division, the Seahawks get four games against the similarly weak NFC North. The Seahawks do play the AFC West, along with the Giants and Buccaneers, but all told Seattle will play just six games against winning teams from a year ago – a huge break from the traditional post-Super Bowl schedule.

On the field, Seattle retains essentially the same personnel from a year ago, a team that led the NFL in scoring while finishing seventh in points allowed. The loss of LG Steve Hutchinson will hurt, but the addition of former 49er LB Julian Peterson adds another impact player to a defense that led the league with 50 sacks in 2005.

In short, the Seahawks are well-positioned for another playoff run; unless St. Louis or Arizona can step up big, Seattle will cruise to a third consecutive NFC West title.

2006 Prediction: 11-5, NFC West Champions, loss in Divisional Playoffs

Arizona Cardinals (5-11)

Everyone’s favorite “sleeper” team in 2006 was, well, everyone’s favorite “sleeper” team in 2005. We all know how that turned out.

Truth be told, the Cardinals weren’t a bad team in 2005. They ranked seventh in yards allowed and eighth in yards gained. Despite those stats, they finished 26th in points allowed and 18th in points scored. Some of the blame lies with a minus-11 turnover differential. Some of the blame goes to red zone difficulties (kicker Neil Rackers set an NFL record with 40 field goals). Some of the blame may be placed on simple bad luck.

On paper, the Cardinals look solid. The addition of RB Edgerrin James creates a potent offensive attack; the defense played decently a year ago, and if second-year CB Antrell Rolle can stay healthy and play to form, the Arizona defense should improve.

That said, these are the Cardinals, and that is Kurt Warner. Warner hasn’t started more than ten games in a season since 2001, and neither John Navarre nor rookie Matt Leinart is a capable backup right now. The Cardinals should win some games, but they are still a distant second to the Seahawks in the NFC West.

2006 Prediction: 7-9

St. Louis Rams (6-10)

The Rams’ tradition of high-powered offenses should continue in 2006, as Marc Bulger returns from injury to guide an offense still built around the speed of wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. With Steven Jackson in the backfield, and a veteran offensive line anchored by Pro Bowlers Orlando Pace and Adam Timmerman, the Rams’ offense will once again rank in the league’s top ten.

The problem for the Rams remains their defense, which ranked 30th in the NFL a year ago. The addition of DT La’Roi Glover will help up front, but a questionable secondary remains an Achilles heel. The Rams allowed 214 passing yards per game in 2005, and it seems unlikely they will improve in that area.

The Rams open with a relatively easy schedule; they get shots at Denver and Seattle, along with Detroit, at home, with trips to San Francisco, Arizona, and Green Bay. After a Week 7 bye, the Rams face a difficult, season-defining stretch: at San Diego, against Kansas City, and then at Seattle and at Carolina. It seems unlikely the Rams’ defense can carry them through that stretch, and thoughts of a 2006 NFC West title should be over by Week 11.

2006 Prediction: 6-10

San Francisco 49ers (4-12)

The glory days are long gone for the 49ers, who struggled through a 4-12 season a year ago, notable only for a Week 17 win over the Texans, which gave Houston the opportunity to screw up royally by passing over Reggie Bush in the draft. In return, the 49ers got Vernon Davis instead, a tight end who likely won’t even start this season, as incumbent Eric Johnson returns from injury.

It’s still pretty dim for the Niners, who lack weapons on offense. Kevan Barlow is at best a serviceable running back, and the wide receiving corps is a mess, with Arnaz Battle and Antonio Bryant – neither of whom has defined himself as better than a slot receiver – as the top two options. The offensive line upgrades with the addition of LG Larry Allen and the return of T Jonas Jennings from injury, but the San Francisco offense – last in the NFL in 2005 – should continue to struggle.

The 49ers defense also ranked last in the NFL last year; the return of SS Tony Parrish is a boost, but rookie Manny Lawson will not replace Pro Bowl LB Julian Peterson, who headed to Seattle as a free agent. It won’t get much better for the 49ers this year; a weak schedule helps some, but not enough for 49ers fans to have much hope for 2006.

2006 Prediction: 4-12

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