NFC West 2013 Preview: San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks Ready For War
Experts have been enamored with the NFC West ever since the so called "arms race" between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks began in the off-season. Much of it was spurred by the growing rivalry between the two teams last season that almost resulted in third meeting for the NFC championship. Both are viewed as playoff favorites, which means their war for the division title will take center stage from week one on. What nobody may have told them is that while they stare at each other across the west coast demilitarized zone, their fellow division member quietly got better too.
Arizona Cardinals - Bruce Arians anxious to help Larry Fitzgerald
Ken Whisenhunt had a great run for the Arizona Cardinals but his time was clearly up. The team needed a new direction, and they got the reigning Coach of the Year to bring it. Bruce Arians has had widespread success as an assistant coach and coordinator in the NFL. Yet his impromptu substitution with the Indianapolis Colts for the cancer-ridden Chuck Pagano captured the imagination of football fans everywhere. Together with rookie Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck, the Colts went from a 2-14 season in 2011 to 11-5 and in the playoffs. That success marked the first ever head coaching experience for Arians, and he intended to use it.
Arizona hired him to fix their beleaguered offense and rediscover the magic that got them to their first Super Bowl back in 2008. A big part of that is helping star receiver Larry Fitzgerald reclaim his spot as the best in football. To do that Arians and the front office went out and traded for veteran quarterback Carson Palmer, then drafted highly touted guard Jonathan Cooper to bolster a league-worst offensive line. The roster is deeper than a year ago, as well as stable in key areas. If Arians continues to show the same abilities he did in Indy, the Cardinals can surprise a lot of doubters.
St. Louis Rams - Tavon Austin hoping to open up offense
Losing running back Steven Jackson was a tough pill to swallow for the St. Louis Rams, but the team knew their future depended on getting the most out of quarterback Sam Bradford. That meant protection and weapons. They made that crystal clear when they traded up in the first round of the draft to take speedy playmaking receiver Tavon Austin. Together with promising tight end Jared Cook it seems the Rams finally have enough firepower in the passing game to help Bradford take the next step. Everyone knows the defense is fine. St. Louis has one of the best young cores in football with Chris Long, Michael Brockers and Janoris Jenkins. So when the team added hyper athletic linebacker Alec Ogletree to the mix, it started rumors that the best defense in the NFC West, and perhaps the league, had settled in St. Louis. Jeff Fisher certainly hopes. He also hopes they can have a repeat of last season when they went through the schedule 5-0-1 against the rest of the division. Given how much better they are, it isn't hard to fathom.
Seattle Seahawks - Russell Wilson to Percy Harvin eager to fly
Aside from the Miami Dolphins, no team was more aggressive in the off-season to improve than the Seattle Seahawks. They added to their already formidable defense with Cliff Avril, Antoine Winfield and Michael Bennett. The biggest move though was a blockbuster trade for Vikings receiver Percy Harvin. His union with Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson has the Pacific Northwest buzzing like crazy. Seattle now boasts, on paper, one of the most dangerous, balanced offensive attacks in the league. Pete Carroll believes Super Bowl aspirations are a little premature but he believes in his team. There is good reason to. The talent is certainly there. Whether it can stay together long enough to get over the hump is what fans will watch for.
San Francisco 49ers - Colin Kaepernick suddenly thin on weapons
The rich get richer is the prevailing quote going around the San Francisco 49ers camp. After coming within seconds of a Super Bowl title, the NFC champions quickly worked to load up on as much talent as they could find. They traded to get wide receiver Anquan Boldin from Baltimore, signed former All-Pro corner Nnamdi Asomugha and upgraded at kicker with current Pro Bowler Phil Dawson. Then they topped that with a flurry of draft activity that included highly rated players like safety Eric Reid, defensive end Tank Carradine, tight end Vance McDonald, and receiver Quinton Patton. Somehow though the mood by the Bay is sober.
Star quarterback Colin Kaepernick has high expectations for 2013 but he may have to do it without two of his key targets. Mario Manningham is still battling back from a late season knee injury last year while top receiver Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles during off-season practice. This has forced the coaches to become creative in the passing game, including moving tight end Vernon Davis to wide receiver. Whether that sticks going into the season remains to be seen, but it is a problem. San Francisco is plenty talented to work through it, but even they aren't invincible.