Quick shameless plug: I wrote how the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry is turning into the NFC’s answer to Steelers-Ravens, namely in terms of styles of play and the arms race between the NFC West rivals.
San Francisco 49ers (12-4). The 49ers came THIS close to winning last year’s Super Bowl (and tying my Steelers for the most Super Bowl wins in league history). I expect the 49ers to be the prohibitive favorite to represent the NFC in this season’s Super Bowl. I mean it’s not like the 49ers have lost a lot of players (Michael Crabtree notwithstanding). QB Colin Kaepernick, tight end Vernon Davis, and running back Frank Gore are primed to have great seasons statistically so they’ll be fine offensively. The Niners’ defense should be angrier after giving up all those points and yardage to the Ravens in last season’s Super Bowl. I wouldn’t want to face a pissed-off Patrick Willis and Co. as an opposing player.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh has been a godsend to the Niners’ organization and fans. It would be a HUGE disappointment if he doesn’t lead the Niners back to the Super Bowl.
Toughest Games: vs. Packers, vs. Colts, vs. Texans, at Saints, vs. Falcons, and both games against the Seahawks.
Seattle Seahawks (10-6). Talk about a team on the rise. The Seahawks (like the Colts) came out of nowhere last season to seriosuly challenge the 49ers before earning a wildcard spot. The Seahawks should be even better on defense, though they weren’t too shabby on defense (top 10 in the league). Richard Sherman wants to the world to know that he is better than Darrelle Revis. Chris Clemons and Bruce Irving are looking to collect more sacks and terrorize the living hell out of opposing QBs.
While a few people think that QB Russell Wilson will take a step (or two) back – most notably ESPN’s Skip Bayless – I think Wilson will continue to improve. The offense will still be led by stud RB Marshawn Lynch, who will have many more “beast Mode” games. The only thing holding the offense back will be the injury to Percy Harvin’s hip.
Toughest Games: at Texans, at Colts, at Falcons, vs. Vikings, vs. Saints, at Giants, and both games against the 49ers. The Seahawks have four cross-country road games next season (including the opener at Carolina). Those games may knock Seattle down a peg or two in the NFC.
St. Louis Rams (8-8).
Arizona Cardinals (7-9).
Both the Rams and Cardinals are not to be slept on this season. They may not be playoff teams this year, but those teams are led by successful coaches (the Rams’ Jeff Fisher and Cardinals’ Bruce Arians) who look to get the best out of their respective teams. The only thing holding those teams back are their offenses. I do not trust QB Sam Bradford to lead St. Louis to the playoffs. At least QB Carson Palmer has stud WR Larry Fitzgerald to throw to – then again, so did Kevin Kolb and Matt Leinart.