A Totally Biased Way-Too-Big NFL Preview: The NFC West

It’s hard to get some story-lines for compelling than those that occupied the NFC West last season.

The Niners and Seahawks were defensive stalwarts, each using a young quarterback with some mobility to help lead things on the offensive end. The Cardinals opened the season 4-0, even downing the New England Patriots at home before spiraling out of control in a tail-spin that rivaled some of the worst collapses in recent memory. The Rams stuck by Sam Bradford, and will so again in 2013, with their 2012 season highlighted by their W and tie in their two games with the Niners.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg in this division that will look to go down to the wire once again this season. The Niners added some offensive pieces, but also will open the season without Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham. Seattle matched the San Fran moves by trading for Percy Harvin, who was promptly injured and placed on the PUP list, shelving him for at least six weeks. The Cardinals even made a splash, trading for Carson Palmer, who will look to provide a shot in the arm to a limp Arizona offense.

If this division is locked up any earlier than week 16, considered me surprised.

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Seattles Seahawks

2012 Recap: You’d think that Drew Brees killed dead the “He’s too short to play quarterback” thing a while ago. Russell Wilson’s size [5′-11”] caused an unfortunate slide in his draft stock, dropping him into the 3rd round, where the Seahawks swiped him up with the 76th pick. Paired with Marshawn “Skittles” Lynch, the Seahawks offense clicked almost immediately. Not only was Wilson dangerous with his legs, but his arm left no doubt just how dual-threat he really was. A top-notch defense helped Seattle earn a playoff berth where they were eventually defeated by the Atlanta Falcons. Seattle is primed to keep it going in 2013.

Biggest Off-season Move: Trading for Percy Harvin. Even with Harvin’s hip injury keeping him sidelined until further notice, it’s still hard to knock Seattle for their blockbuster deal with Minnesota. Harvin is a threat to score on virtually any play, and he can be used in an uncountable number of ways. Wilson made 2012 work with some shoddy receivers, and someone as versatile as Harvin could help Wilson spike his numbers as soon as he hits the playing field. If Harvin is able to return by December, he could be a big asset down the road for Seattle.

Breakout Player: Golden Tate. Perhaps the only person to “benefit” from Harvin’s surgery is Tate. Look at his numbers from the past three seasons, and you can see that Tate is on the rise.

2010: 21 rec. – 227 yds. – 0 TD’s
2011: 35 rec. – 382 yds. – 3 TD’s
2012: 45 rec. – 688 yds. – 7 TD’s
*If Packers fans want to just call that SIX TD’s in 2012, I’m ok with it.*

Tate is in line to continue his ascent. The Seahawks will no doubt still lean on Lynch to move the chains, but they know that Wilson is ready to take the next step. And with only a few “same face” players at WR, it looks like the Wilson-to-Tate combo can only continue to grow. Look for Tate to put up his first 1000 yard season, and hell, maybe he’ll even “catch” a Hail-Mary or two.

Crucial Match-up: @ Atlanta, Sunday, November 10th. I’ll admit, before I even looked up the Seattle schedule, I knew I was going with a match-up with the Niners. What could possibly be bigger? Kap vs Wilson, late in the season, the division possibly on the line? This, ladies and gents, could be bigger. You know Wilson has the schedule tucked in his locker, and when he first read it, a few dark circles went around this game with Atlanta. Time for Seattle to exact revenge for their young QB’s biggest loss.

San Francisco 49'ers

2012 Recap: A season that originally started with Alex Smith at the helm, and ended with Colin Kaepernick, could not have been more exciting for football fans. Smith dazzled before going down with an injury, even posting some crazy-good numbers on Monday Night Football against the Cardinals [18-for-19, 232 yards, 3 TD’s, 0 INT]. After suffering a concussion during a week nine game with the Rams, Kaepernick took over and didn’t look back. The season ended with a Super Bowl appearance against the Baltimore Ravens that went down to the wire. With Smith traded to the Chiefs in March, the team is Kaepernick’s, and he’ll look to build on an incredible 2012 campaign.

Biggest Off-season Move: Trading for Anquan Boldin. This move looked great even before Michael Crabtree went down with a torn ACL, but now it looked like it could be a game-changing move for the Niners. Kaepernick will of course be running a ton of draw-option plays this season, but for those times that he pulls the pigskin back and looks to throw, he’ll need at least a handful of healthy bodies to target. Something tells me Austin Collie and Marlon Moore just aren’t going to cut it. Expect Boldin and Vernon Davis to be Kap’s favorite receivers early. Coming off one of the best post-season runs ever for a wide-out, Boldin will look to keep it rolling.

Breakout Player: Alex Boone. Most would say that Boone had his coming-out party last season, but the best is yet to come. Boone helped soldify an-already-great offensive line after sliding over to the guard position to help fill a hole. With Mike Iupati and Boone in the trenches, the Niners have one of the best guard duo’s in the game, which is especially important in the option system that the Niners will look to dominate with.

Crucial Match-up: vs Atlanta, Monday Night Football, December 23rd. Sick of reading about Atlanta yet? I can’t help it that this game could be carrying a crazy amount of weight. The Falcons could be fending off the Saints with only one game remaining. The Niners could be pushing to catch, or keep away from, the Seahawks. Hell, this game could decide the #1 seed in the NFC. One of the best MNF match-ups of the year, what better way to welcome Christmas Eve?

St. Louis Rams

2012 Recap: The Rams defense really came on strong in 2012, while the offense continued to sputter, against almost every opponent except the Niners. This year proves to be a big upswing for St. Louis, adding West Virginia stand-out Tavon Austin, and the Titan’s super-talented Jared Cook. The defense also should prove problems, with two strong defensive ends in Chris Long and Robert Quinn. The secondary is also primed for a breakout, with Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins proving to be a deadly duo. The Rams missed out on the post-season last year, and with the Seahawks and Niners focused squarely on, well, each other, the Rams could be sneaky wild-card pick.

Biggest Off-season Move: Tavon Austin. If you’ve caught any of the Rams preseason games, my first question is, why? Could you really not find anything better to do? However, YOUR first question might be, where the hell is Tavon Austin? Well, valid question, my dear reader. I now direct you to a Grantland bit that covers just that topic exactly, with a nice video as well. Basically, the Rams haven’t tipped their hands yet as to how they plan on utilizing Austin’s wide array of talents. This kid is the real deal, just wait and see.

Breakout Player: Jared CookWhen famed NFL columnnist Peter King tabs you as his most impressive player at training camp, it’s time to step up and let your presence be known. Fantasy football fans, if you can’t lock up Jimmy Graham in the middle of the 3rd round, just wait on selecting your TE and do your best to end up with Cook in your starting roster. With a mildly competent quarterback finally tossing Cook the ball, it’s time for him to finally tap into his wealth of potential.

Crucial Match-up: vs Seattle Seahawks, Monday Night Football, October 28th. Three days before Halloween, Palmer and the Cards will look to spook the Seahawks and prove that they are for real, or at least mildly better, than they were in 2012. If Arizona wants any chance at having meaningful games late in the season, they need to win the early division contests.

Arizona Cardinals

2012 Recap: Man, did the Cardinals look good when they beat the New England Patriots in Gillette or WHAT?! I know, I know, it was also the last time they looked good, but still. I’m trying to find some positives here! With a new Head Coach in town [Bruce Arians], and a new man under center [Above: Carson Palmer], the Cardinals have made some changes and hope to get back on the winning track, a road they haven’t driven on since Kurt Warner retired.

Biggest Off-season Move: Trading for Carson Palmer. The Cardinals have apparently dropped the mantra of waiting for a QB to break out for one game, and then give him boatload’s of cash. Nice move for the franchise, I didn’t see much upside in that style of management. Instead, the Cardinals have instead invested in Palmer, a seasoned veteran who is primed for a minimum 4,250 yards, and 25 TD’s in the desert this fall. The last time the Cardinals turned to an older vet, they got a Super Bowl appearance out of it. Palmer will set the bar high for this team, which looks to rebound from their 5-11 season in 2012.

Breakout Player: Andre Roberts. If you’re in a PPR fantasy league, make Roberts a late target for your squad. I know that Larry Fitzgerald is still the king in Arizona, but I don’t think it would turn many heads if Roberts vaulted over Michael Floyd and started to make a strong case for himself as a nice option in Arizona. Really just a gut-call, but I think Roberts is primed for a nice, strong season.

Crucial Match-up: @ St. Louis, Sunday, September 8th. The first game of the season, the Cardinals will look to get a foothold in the division by taking down the Rams in their house. Not the be-all-end-all for Arizona, by any means, but if Palmer can get his first win in the red and white, it could help spark some confidence in Arizona.

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