Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
New England notwithstanding, it’s very hard to remain an elite team year after year. Seattle is an exception. They’ve locked up most of the key cogs from their Super Bowl-contending run the past two seasons, and now Russell Wilson gets to throw to All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham. Even if Kam Chancellor holds out all year, their defense is top notch. Another NFC crown is within reach.
Arizona Cardinals (10-6)
If not for injuries ravaging their quarterbacks, maybe the Cardinals would have won a playoff game a year ago. The Cards’ success hinges on Carson Palmer staying healthy enough to find receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown because the running game isn’t strong enough to pick up the slack. Patrick Peterson and a skilled secondary lead a competent defense.
St. Louis Rams (8-8)
One of the league’s top defenses won’t be enough to carry the Rams into the playoffs. To get there, St. Louis needs its offensive line to take the next step. Nick Foles isn’t good enough to function under pressure. The X-factor is rookie running back Todd Gurley, who has the talent to take over games once he’s healthy.
San Francisco 49ers (3-13)
How the mighty have fallen. The Niners canned coach Jim Harbaugh after he went 44-19-1 over four seasons. Then a rash of unexpected retirements and Aldon Smith’s off-the-field trouble destroyed a top defense. The NFC West isn’t a forgiving group of teams, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco will struggle mightily.