If the Seattle Seahawks become the first team to win three straight NFC titles, they’ll likely do so as champions of their division yet again.
But the reigning conference champs see a challenge waiting in the NFC West.
“When I first got here Arizona wasn’t so good, but now they’re starting to become good. I think San Francisco is still strong and St. Louis is trying to find their way,” Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “I still think we have the best division in football.”
The Seahawks are again clear favorites in their division, with Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and the addition of Jimmy Graham to their offense, and a defense that’s still expected to be among the best in the NFL.
Seattle’s closest rival is now likely in the desert, with Carson Palmer returning to an Arizona roster that made the playoffs last season with 11 wins despite Palmer missing the final seven games with a knee injury.
St. Louis has one of the best defensive fronts in football with Chris Long, Aaron Donald, Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers, but quarterback is still unsettled after giving up on Sam Bradford and bringing in Nick Foles.
And no team has faced as much change as San Francisco. Jim Harbaugh is now coaching at Michigan. Frank Gore is running the ball in Indianapolis. And Patrick Willis and Justin Smith are retired.
Here’s a look at the NFC West:
STILL ON TOP: For a change, most of the talk is about the potential in Seattle’s offense.
The addition of Graham gives the Seahawks a target they’ve never had for Wilson. Graham understands he won’t be getting as many receptions as he did in New Orleans, but the ones he gets from Wilson will be important.
How will Graham’s addition help Seattle’s wide receivers and even Lynch in the running game in trying to build on an offense that was good enough to win two straight conference titles?
“I know when the ball comes there are going to be big moments. And I know when the ball comes I’m going to have to do something with that ball,” Graham said.
Defensively, the Seahawks should be just as stout, but have questions in the secondary with strong safety Kam Chancellor holding out and the addition of cornerback Cary Williams playing opposite Richard Sherman.
DESERT RISING: The Cardinals believe they have the talent to dethrone the Seahawks. They won 10 and 11 games in coach Bruce Arians’ first two seasons. They were 9-1 when injuries, especially at quarterback, helped lead to a 2-6 finish, including a wild-card playoff loss at Carolina.
The key to the Cardinals’ fortunes is the health of Palmer, coming off surgery to repair a torn ACL. The 35-year-old quarterback has looked exceedingly sharp in training camp and has an array of targets, including veteran Larry Fitzgerald, second-year speedster John Brown, and rookie J.J. Nelson.
James Bettcher replaces Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator, and both cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Tyrann Mathieu are healthy. There are questions at linebacker.
“For us to reach where we want to go, we can’t be potential,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. “We have to be damn good.”
ARCH MADNESS: Could this be the year St. Louis jumps into contention in the division?
Could it be the Rams last year in St. Louis?
Those questions will hang all season. On the field, the debate will be about the addition of Foles and if he can improve an offense that has yet to catch up with the defense under coach Jeff Fisher. Foles will get the majority of the attention after coming over from Philadelphia, but there will be a lot of eyes on rookie running back Todd Gurley and — when he gets healthy — what he can bring to the offense.
Defensively, St. Louis’ front-seven is among the best in the NFL. The secondary remains the concern.
“I anticipate us contending for the West,” St. Louis general manager Les Snead said. “I’m planning on it, expecting it, and not scared.”
REBUILDING TIME?: Many familiar faces that helped San Francisco reach the Super Bowl are gone.
The retirements of Willis, Justin Smith and young Chris Borland, combined with off-field problems that led to the departure of Aldon Smith, leave significant holes on defense. The return of linebacker NaVorro Bowman is a huge boost and the addition of Darnell Dockett should help with depth up front.
Offensively, there are changes around quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Two skill positions to watch will be running back, where Carlos Hyde takes over for Gore, and wide receiver, where Torrey Smith arrives to replace Michael Crabtree.
They’ll all be playing for new coach Jim Tomsula.
“We still have a lot of talent, so I don’t see why this year will be any different than what we’ve expected in the past,” San Francisco wide receiver Anquan Boldin said.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Seahawks, Cardinals, Rams, 49ers.
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