Guest Post by Niles Pender of NFL Fan Appeal
With that said, there's no mystery as to what the 2012 season will bring. The division belongs to San Francisco for the foreseeable future, and there's really no need to explain beyond that. First-year head coach Jim Harbaugh immediately made his mark on San Francisco. Not only did he and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio turn the defense into one of the top-performing units in the NFL, but he also might have saved Alex Smith's career. Smith was on the verge of being completely written off by fans and critics as a total bust, but put together a very solid campaign in 2011.
Not only is every core piece returning to the team, but the addition of Randy Moss is expected to bolster the offense even further. Whether Moss can play or not is irrelevant; he's formed a close relationship with Michael Crabtree and should be able to help him improve his game. Crabtree has been an average receiver so far in his career. If he turns it around in 2012, the 49ers could be contending for a Super Bowl by the time the playoffs come around.
No one is going to be challenging the 49ers for the division crown, but one team in the NFC West that might make some noise is the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals went 8-8 last year, although the team has become a shell of the squad that made the Super Bowl just three years ago. There are a few issues from last season that are going to have to be resolved in 2012.
Arizona's biggest need is to figure out a resolution for the quarterback situation. The Cardinals have went through a few quarterbacks since Kurt Warner retired, and right now the job is expected to go to Kevin Kolb or John Skelton. If the team can find stability at quarterback, they just might surprise the league. They'll have Ryan Williams for the first time after missing the 2011 season, as well as Michael Floyd, the 13th overall pick in the draft. He should be able to take some of the defensive pressure away from Larry Fitzgerald. The team as a whole is still at least a season away from being able to make significant noise in the playoffs.
After San Francisco and Arizona, there is a fairly large dip to the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams. The story for the Seahawks might have a more optimistic outlook, at least in the near future. Despite whiffing on Peyton Manning in free agency, Seattle did manage to acquire Matt Flynn. Flynn has looked impressive in his two career starts, and he's also impressed in the offseason. The return of Sydney Rice to the receiving corps should give Flynn some cushion to develop, as will the anticipated play of Marshawn Lynch at a continued high level.
The picture is a little bit more bleak in St. Louis, at least as far as 2012 is concerned. Sam Bradford had an excellent rookie campaign, propelling the team toward a 7-9 record. 2011 saw the team nosedive and finish with a 2-14 record, though, so it will be interesting to see if they can rebound. Part of the weak finish had to do with injuries, as Donnie Avery and Mark Bradley both went down with season-ending injuries. Any team that has Danny Amendola as a key weapon is going to be in trouble, no matter how talented everyone else is.
Looking into 2012 and beyond, the main issue that the Rams will need to address is Steven Jackson. Although he's been a terrific running back over the years, injuries are becoming a problem and he's inching closer to turning 30. The Rams will need to find his replacement in the next few seasons. They might have their man in Isaiah Pead, but only the 2012 season will let fans know for sure.
Fans of the AFC West won't want to watch the division so much for competition as they will for intrigue. Every team aside from the 49ers has gaping holes to address, but one of them seems like they will surprise the NFL world. With that said, this division already belongs to San Francisco in 2012.