Teams in predicted order of finish
1. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Biggest, baddest team around
- How they did in 2012: 11-4-1 (3-2-1 vs. West); in playoffs, beat Packers 45-31 in Divisional round, beat Falcons 28-24 in NFC Championship, lost to Ravens 34-31 in Super Bowl.
- 2012 top performer: OLB Aldon Smith (Pro Bowl, 19.5 sacks)
- Key losses: TE Delanie Walker, S Dashon Goldson
- Key additions: S Eric Reid, WR Anquan Boldin
- Why we picked them here: There’s plenty of talk about the Seattle Seahawks and the all-of-a-sudden top notch NFC West, and it is deserved. The reigning NFC champion 49ers will not have it easy in 2013. But if any team is built to withstand ever-increasing competition, it’s this collection of beasts. From stud pass rusher Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks in 2012) to Pro Bowl LB Patrick Willis to the big uglies on an OL that sprung runners for 5.1 yards per carry in 2012 to starting QB Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers remain the team to beat in the NFC.
2. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: New approach doesn’t mean soft
- How they did in 2012: 11-5 (3-3 vs. West); in playoffs, beat Redskins 24-14 in Wild Card round, lost to Falcons 30-28 in Divisional round.
- 2012 top performer: RB Marshawn Lynch (Pro Bowl, 1,590 yards, 12 total TDs)
- Key losses: DE/DT Jason Jones, KR Leon Washington
- Key additions: DE Michael Bennett, CB Marcus Trufant
- Why we picked them here: Much has been made lately in the media of coach Pete Carroll’s always-positive, psychologically-boosting approach to team building. But don’t think that yoga and family-friendly language from the coaches means this team isn’t tough as nails. Behind RB Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks ran it nearly as well as the 49ers in 2012 (4.8 yards per carry). And with the smarts, accuracy and running ability of QB Russell Wilson, the offense should continue to move the ball.
3. ST. LOUIS RAMS: Fisher’s under-the-radar group
- How they did in 2012: 7-8-1 (4-1-1 vs. West); missed playoffs.
- 2012 top performer: RB Steven Jackson (1,042 yards, 4 TDs)
- Key losses: RB Steven Jackson, S Quintin Mikell
- Key additions: WR Tavon Austin, TE Jared Cook
- Why we picked them here: You probably didn’t know that the team that won the intradivision schedule last year was Jeff Fisher’s Rams squad. They went 4-1-1, with a loss to Seattle and a tie with the 49ers. They’re not as big on defense as either of the two teams ahead of them, but the Rams feature a trio of sackmasters, Chris Long (11.5 sacks), Robert Quinn (10.5) and Williams Hayes (7), who make life difficult on quarterbacks. quietly, QB Sam Bradford started to live up to his No. 1 pick status by slinging it for 3,702 yards and 21 TDs.
4. ARIZONA CARDINALS: Tough being decent in a great division
- How they did in 2012: 5-11 (1-5 vs. West); missed playoffs.
- 2012 top performer: CB Patrick Peterson (Pro Bowl, 7 INTs, 51 punt returns, 426 punt return yards )
- Key losses: RB Beanie Wells, S Adrian Wilson
- Key additions: QB Carson Palmer, CB Antoine Cason
- Why we picked them here: Praise the football gods — there is a real QB once again in Glendale! By bringing in coach Bruce Arians and QB Carson Palmer, the front office is doing everything it can to make fans forget the John Skeltons of the world. Before anyone claims Palmer is washed up, consider that he threw for 4,018 yards and 22 TDs last season with the Raiders. Now he has good WRs, including future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. Now, the bad news. The offensive line is still a disaster.
FANTASY FRIENDLY NFC WEST SLEEPER: Jared Cook, TE, Rams
- Why we like him: The 6-5, 250-pound beast runs a sub-4.5-second 40-yard dash, and QB Sam Bradford has already built decent chemistry with the former Titan. On the fast track in St. Louis, he could catch 10-plus TDs.