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Running back Marshawn Lynch powers a strong Seattle running game. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
The turnaround of the San Francisco 49ers was one of the better tales of the 2011 season in the NFL, and included remarkable performances from everyone from head coach Jim Harbaugh to quarterback Alex Smith to a defense that was a force.
Also playing a role was the NFC West.
The Niners could bully the rest of the teams in the division because, as a group, the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams were among the weakest in the league.
This season, however, it’s going to be much more difficult to push over the former pushovers. Going into the start of the 2012 season – the 49ers open against the Packers in Green Bay Sunday – the NFC West appears to have added some muscle.
Last season, San Francisco went a combined 5-1 vs. its NFC West brethren, the only loss coming late in the season at Arizona, 21-19 to the Cardinals.
That may be difficult to replicate in 2012.
First, as division champions, the Niners have a target painted on them. Every team will be extra motivated to beat San Francisco this season. The 49ers won’t be overlooked in 2012.
And second, the Seattle Seahawks have made a number of moves in the offseason to make them the favorites of some to not only compete for a playoff spot this season, but to challenge the 49ers for the division.
Also, the Cardinals – an up-and-down team under quarterback Kevin Kolb last season – are going with John Skelton this season, a backup last year who stepped in to lead them to a 6-2 record when Kolb was hurt in 2011. Ken Whisenhunt’s team finished 8-8 last season, so it’s not out of reach to believe Arizona could be a winning team.
St. Louis, meanwhile, has a new, proven coach in Jeff Fisher, a strong, young defense and a top young quarterback in Sam Bradford, who seemed to regress last season. The Rams were woeful at 2-14 in 2011, but could be a few wins better this year.
It’s the Seahawks, however, who pose the biggest threat.
Seattle’s passing game last season was ineffective with quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, but Jackson is gone now, replaced by rookie Russell Wilson who won the job from free-agent Matt Flynn. The running game, meanwhile, is solid with Marshawn Lynch. Last season Seattle went 7-9, but coach Pete Carroll’s team could be much, much better in 2012.
Recently, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. predicted the Seahawks would win the NFC West because he believes the 49ers should regress from their 13-3 season; Wilson is the real deal; and the defense can be “really good if it can find a consistent pass rush.”
Kiper believes Wilson could be this year’s Andy Dalton, the rookie who led the Bengals’ turnaround in 2011.
Former Colts and Bills GM Bill Polian also is a believer in the Seahawks and calls Seattle “a sleeper” because they have “a defense capable of keeping the score close and a rushing attack that will keep the chains moving forward.”
That sounds a bit like the formula the Niners used last season.
In a strange twist, the 49ers won’t play an NFC West team until the seventh week of the season, so by the time the Niners face the Seahawks that week – Oct. 18 at Candlestick Park – we’ll have an indication how good (or bad) the NFC West will be this season.
After six straight non-division foes, the 49ers play all three in consecutive weeks, with the Cardinals (Oct. 29) and Rams (Nov. 11, after a bye week) next up.