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NFC West Outlook

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NFC East · NFC North · NFC South · NFC West
Division winner

There's clearly not a lot separating Seattle and San Francisco. Since Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh took over their respective teams, they've split a pair of NFC West titles. To be fair, Carroll's 2010 conquest came against Mike Singletary with a 7-9 record that won a brutal division, but he certainly got his licks in on Harbaugh and the 49ers last season. Not only did the Seahawks end their rival's two-year reign atop the division, they captured the first playoff duel between these star head coaches, earning a Super Bowl berth and trash-talking rights. That's history, though.

With both teams loaded, there isn't much between them again. Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick should continue their emergence and friendly rivalry. Both stables of running backs look tremendous and deep. The defenses are truly formidable. They should remain among the NFC's elite and may decide matters with another winner-take-all date in 2015. As for the division, the team that's healthiest for their showdowns on Thanksgiving night (November 27 in S.F.) and Dec. 14 will have an edge, but there is one variable worth remembering when the time comes. It's about the challenge sandwiched in between their meetings.

Seattle, while home for Game 2, will have played in Philadelphia the week prior. Meanwhile, San Francisco gets to hang in the Bay area for a road game against the Raiders, probably lightening the mental and physical load. Added to the revenge factor, that forces a slight nod to the hungrier 49ers, blessed by the schedule fairy.

Projected order of finish

1) San Francisco
2) Seattle
3) St. Louis
4) Arizona

Go over with

It's likely going to take at least 11 wins to take the NFC West, so I'd sign off on the 49ers, since Sportsbook.ag has their total available at 10.5, favoring the Seahawks (11). The best option, however, is counting on Jeff Fisher's rebuilding project in St. Louis to produce at least a .500 record for the first time. After going 7-9 in 2013, the Rams should be ready to make a serious at the playoffs in spite of their loaded division. Gregg Williams returns to a defensive coordinator role for the first time since Bountygate and knows what he's doing. He's got excellent weapons, particularly up front. If rookie Aaron Donald keeps developing fast, a unit already featuring First Team All-Pro Robert Quinn and fellow first-rounders Chris Long and Michael Brockers could become the NFL's top defensive line. QB Sam Bradford will need to be slightly more than a game manager without putting his team in bad spots with turnovers, but he's at the point where things should click, especially if he can make better use of Tavon Austin's game-changing speed. The Rams will surpass the 7.5 available at most shops.

Go under with

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This is definitely the strongest division in the sport, but someone has to bring up the rear and likely won't get to .500 in doing so. Looking at you, Arizona. Carson Palmer improved the offense in the first year of the Bruce Arians regime, completing over 63 percent of his passes for a career-high 4,274 yards. If he can do it again, it would merit applause but would be surprising. Andre Ellington, Jonathan Dwyer and Stepfan Taylor have to prove they can handle the load at tailback, while the addition of burner Ted Ginn must translate into a suitable replacement for reliable threat Andre Roberts. Defensively, suspended linebacker Daryl Washington will be greatly missed, while talented defensive back Tyrann Mathieu will spend at least the first month of the season getting back in a flow. After missing out on the playoffs despite 10 wins, the Cardinals are set to slip given their difficult schedule and likely regression in key spots.

Games to watch - September

Sept. 4 - Green Bay at Seattle: The Thursday night season opener sees these powers meet for the second time in three years at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks won on that awful "touchception" call that ended up helping to bring an end to the 2012 referee strike, but will be in a favorite role this time around, hoping to take care of business without the need for such a dramatic ending.

Sept. 8 - San Diego at Arizona: The second half of Week 1's now annual Monday night doubleheader header will decide pools and fantasy leagues, but will likely also be worth tuning into just for the actual game. Palmer vs. Philip Rivers slinging it around sounds like fun.

Sept. 14 - Arizona at N.Y. Giants: Palmer will likely continue in gunslinger mode against Eli Manning, hoping to capitalize against New York's vulnerable secondary. If the Cardinals are going to be a playoff contender again, they'll have to capture their share of winnable road games like this one, especially since NYG will be performing on a short week, too.

Sept 14 - Chicago at San Francisco: The Week 2 Sunday night game will be a massive hurdle for Jay Cutler and a Bears offensive line that returns intact after starting all 16 games together last season. If they keep making significant progress, they'll be a factor in the NFC. This will be a great opportunity to see where they stand.

Sept. 21 - Dallas at St. Louis: The Cowboys won last year's meeting 31-7 and need to capture winnable road games like these if they're going to truly contend. Of course, the Rams have their own aspirations and their fan base will view this as a marquee matchup whether the Cowboys stink or turn things around. Count on Gregg Williams sending a ton of pressure Tony Romo's way.

Sept. 21 - San Francisco at Arizona: The first intra division game of 2014 is vital to the confidence of both, since the Cardinals want to prove at home that they'll again be a factor and the 49ers want to stomp out their fire. Don't forget, last time these teams met, Phil Dawson snuffed out Arizona's postseason dreams with a Week 17 game-winning field goal as time expired.

Sept. 21- Denver at Seattle: The Broncos held off a Terrelle Pryor-led rally late in the preseason opener, riding top backup Brock Osweiler for the duration after he relieved Peyton Manning. That should tell you how much they wanted to wash the taste of the Super Bowl rout out of their mouths. Something tells me the Seahawks will be OK letting Denver end their nine-game winning streak in exhibition play if they can hold serve at home here.

Sept. 28 - Philadelphia at San Francisco: A truly difficult first month for the Eagles ends in the Bay area, bu they'll get no sympathy from the host 49ers. After a challenging month of their own, Harbaugh's team is the only NFC West team playing to close September. Chip Kelly's projected top 5 offense visits Vic Fangio's elite defense in Week 4's marquee matchup.

  
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