Watching out in the new-and-improved NFC West

The 49ers will be contenders this season in one of the strongest divisions in the newly-reconfigured NFL. Let's take a look at the teams they will have to topple in order to regain their rightful place as NFC West champions.

Only three teams have made the NFL playoffs in each of the last three seasons - the Rams, Buccaneers and Dolphins - and no team has been more successful than the Rams. They have won one world championship and been to two Super Bowls in the three-year span. Not to mention the fact that they currently own a six-game winning streak against the 49ers. In order to be the best the 49ers will truly have to beat the best.

The Rams are loaded with star players, led by the world's best football player, Marshall Faulk, and the Cinderella story of the decade, Kurt Warner. They are fast, they are aggressive, and they are darn good on offense. Perhaps the loss of Ryan Tucker will hurt the offense but when Fred Miller bolted for Tennessee a few years ago it was widely felt St. Louis would miss him and the Rams didn't. So odds are they will plug in John St. Clair and not skip a beat on offense. The loss of Az-Zahir Hakim may be more prominent as he had a sudden shiftiness that was hard to match, even by newcomer Terrence Wilkins. Still, his biggest impact was on the return teams so the offense looks potent once again with the only thing likely to stop them from being devastating in 2002 being a season-ending injury to Warner or Faulk.

Defensively, coordinator Lovie Smith turned the Rams around in 2001 by employing a scheme that called for athleticism and quickness and players such as Tommy Polley and Leonard Little really flourished. It will be tough for the Rams to match their success in 2002 unless they get some production from Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett as well as first-round pick Robert Thomas, a linebacker from UCLA. He will be counted on to replace the underrated Mark Fields. Aeneas Williams had a phenomenal season in 2001 and will need to match that in order to keep the secondary from slipping from overachieving into ordinary. The schedule indicates the Rams will likely win either 12 or 13 games.

Seattle made a late run and nearly made the playoffs in its final season in the AFC West. Many people felt the Seahawks would have been in if they didn't wait so long to yank Matt Hasselbeck and give Trent Dilfer the starting role at quarterback. In 2002, Seattle will count on several young prospects to fulfill their potential.

Players such as Jerramy Stevens, Koren Robinson and Chris McIntosh will need to step up their production for the offense to become more formidable.

On defense, it's pretty much the opposite as Seattle will count on veterans such as Chad Brown, John Randle, Marcus Robertson, Levon Kirkland and Doug Evans to help this team reach the playoffs. Last season, Seattle had the 20th-best defense in football and there is little reason to believe it will improve much. With all the age on the defense it is more likely to collapse than rise as the draft brought little help. Brandon Mitchell and Doug Evans may help, but probably not significantly. They really need a pass rusher to emerge.

The Seahawks may have to take a step back in 2002, however, as the schedule will be more difficult with the move to the NFC West. The schedule indicates they could be looking at an eight- or nine-win season but that probably won't be enough to get into the playoffs. They will have to learn to win on the road if they are to make the playoffs in 2002.

Things are finally looking up in Arizona as the Cardinals assembled a promising season in 2001 and, if what appears to be a solid draft pans out, and they can get a few players, such as Thomas Jones, Raynoch Thompson, and Michael Stone to step up, they look like a playoff contender as well. They could have been a very dangerous team had they remained in the NFC East in 2002, but will now have to hope that DT Wendell Bryant, LB LeVar Fisher, and DE Dennis Johnson can bolster a defense that finished 27th in the NFL in 2001. They must also hope that Jones finally emerges as a feature back now that Michael Pittman has left as a free agent to Tampa Bay. Even if Jones doesn't emerge, the Cardinals may have found a gem in Josh Scobey.

The big drawback for the Cardinals is the move to the NFC West, which could lead them to less wins despite being a better team. They need Jake Plummer to play to his 2001 level and not revert to his form of the previous few seasons just to match last season's win total. Their schedule indicates they could get off to a fast start, possibly winning four or, dare I say, five times in the first six games. But they are likely to fold down the stretch as the schedule over the last eight games appears too difficult for this team to overcome. They could win as many as seven or eight games ,however, provided they come out of the gates quickly.

The NFC West is going to be a tough division in 2002 and teams will have to hold their homefield when playing division rivals. The determining factor as to who wins this division is the ability to play on the road.

Seattle and San Francisco were strong at home last season but if either team wants to challenge St. Louis for the division title they will have to learn to beat playoff-caliber teams on the road. I can see all four of these teams being very solid home teams but Seattle and Arizona need to learn how to win on the road if they want to take that next step. The 49ers went 5-3 on the road in 2001 but they won't get to play Atlanta or Carolina, who have been replaced on the schedule by Arizona and Seattle. The only playoff team the 49ers beat on the road in 2001 were the Jets and the Jets appeared out of sync at that early point in the season under new coach Herman Edwards.

This will be a very interesting season for the NFC West. All four teams would likely contend for a first- or second-place finish if they were in any other division - other than maybe the AFC East - but someone has got to come in last. Let's just hope for our sake that coach Steve Mariucci brings the 49ers out firing on all cylinders week in and week out.

With the new, improved NFC West it is absolutely essential to put your best foot forward each week. If the 49ers can regain their Road Warrior mentality they had in the Walsh and Seifert eras, something they haven't had since Mariucci arrived, this team will be primed to knock off the Rams from their perch in 2002, but the Niners better keep an eye in their rearview mirror because the Seahawks and Cardinals are up-and-coming teams.


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