Winning a division title for the first time since 1975 stands as progress, but the last few weeks have reminded the Cardinals that their work is only beginning. The Cardinals need to address their future at quarterback. They will have to navigate choppy waters once receiver Anquan Boldin inevitably renews complaints about his contract. They have a decision to make on franchise player Karlos Dansby. The coming offseason will be pivotal for the Cardinals. The organization has much to prove. Grade: B
Biggest surprise: Kurt Warner went from Matt Leinart's backup to legitimate MVP candidate in two months. Warner's production late last season went largely unnoticed because the Cardinals weren't winning regularly and they recommitted to Leinart entering camp. Warner surprised just about everyone by passing for more yards than during his 1999 MVP season.
Biggest disappointment: The Cardinals' inability to keep their focus after clinching the division title cost them momentum on and off the field. The schedule stiffened to the point that Arizona was going to lose some late-season games no matter what. But in collapsing so profoundly, the Cardinals invited self-doubt. They have raised questions about their ability to sustain success. Celebrating the NFC West championship with champagne and hats seemed justified given how long the organization had gone between division titles. In retrospect, a more serious approach might have been more appropriate.
Biggest need: Bolstering the ground game has to stand as a top priority. To do that, the Cardinals need to strengthen their offensive line from the inside out. They need to consider other options at running back, perhaps early in the draft. And they need to upgrade at tight end. The Cardinals also need to acknowledge that their ground game died partially from neglect. That should never happen with Russ Grimm coaching the offensive line. A stronger commitment to the ground game is essential.
Saying goodbye: Edgerrin James' diminished role this season suggests the Cardinals might release him during the offseason. While James wants to continue playing as part of a Hall of Fame push, Warner has yet to decide on his future beyond this season.
San Francisco 49ers (7-9)
The last several games proved the 49ers were wrong when they retained Mike Nolan and installed J.T. O'Sullivan as quarterback heading into the season. The 49ers appear closer to establishing a sustainable on-field identity with Mike Singletary and Shaun Hill in those roles. Singletary deserves credit for helping the 49ers match their personnel to their schemes. If offensive coordinator Mike Martz departs, the organization must hire a top-flight offensive staff. Grade: C
Biggest surprise: Isaac Bruce proved he can remain a productive receiver at age 36. His overall numbers aren't dramatically better than they were last season. But with 35 receptions in his last six games, and with seven touchdown receptions overall, Bruce showed staying power. He finished last season with 23 receptions in his final six games. Looking ahead, it's unclear how Bruce might adapt if the 49ers went away from a Martz-type offense.
Biggest disappointment: The 49ers appear likely to make another change at offensive coordinator, and they still cannot know if they have the right quarterback. It's hard to make progress when every forward step follows one or two steps backward. Frequent turnover at offensive coordinator has doomed the 49ers in recent seasons, diminishing their ability to develop Alex Smith or any other quarterback.
Biggest need: The 49ers need a starting right tackle to solidify their offensive line. Jonas Jennings, Barry Sims and Adam Snyder have taken turns at the spot this season. Jennings' release appears likely. Sims is a solid backup and swing tackle. Snyder is more guard than tackle. The 49ers appear solid at left tackle and center. Improved play at right tackle would give the 49ers more flexibility in using their tight ends as receivers. The 49ers also need another pass rusher, but those are harder to find and every team wants one.
Words of caution: "It says a lot about the direction of the team." That's what Nolan said after the 49ers closed the 2006 season with two upset road victories in their final three games. The team went 7-16 over the next 23 games before firing Nolan. The 49ers needed to hire Singletary because he's the right man for the job, not because the team won a few games and felt good about itself.
Seattle Seahawks (4-12)
Mike Holmgren's final season as Seahawks coach stands as a failure on almost every front. The team failed to learn the severity of Matt Hasselbeck's back injury until it was too late. The team failed to develop young receivers fast enough to compensate adequately once injuries wiped out the position. The defense failed to meet expectations, appearing exposed once the offense failed to do its part. While the Seahawks can accurately point to an unusual number of injuries, they could have fought through them better. Grade: F
Biggest surprise: The Seahawks knew rookie John Carlson would provide an upgrade at tight end. No one could be sure Carlson he would become this good so quickly, particularly with instability at quarterback. While Carlson has been a productive receiver since early in the season, he has become a more complete player in recent weeks. Carlson is catching the ball more consistently, getting his assignments correct more frequently and blocking effectively. He has Pro Bowl potential.
Biggest disappointment: With the exception of defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, the defensive line has fallen far short of expectations. The problems go beyond losing top pass rusher Patrick Kerney to a season-ending shoulder injury. Defensive tackle Rocky Bernard dropped off even though this was a contract year. Darryl Tapp and Lawrence Jackson produced only sporadically, if at all.
Biggest need: Wide receiver is the obvious answer after injuries wiped out the position, but the Seahawks also need help on their defensive line. Kerney's long-term health is in question. Bernard could leave in free agency. The Seahawks' weak pass rush too often exposed their linebackers and especially their secondary. Upgrading the defensive line would help Seattle realize more return on substantial investments in the back seven.
Transition watch: Incoming head coach Jim Mora will bring energy and a more aggressive approach to the defense. He also needs to bring more victories. Holmgren's larger-than-life presence and Super Bowl credentials allowed him to weather tough times better than other Seattle head coaches. Mora will have a harder time if the Seahawks start poorly next season.
St. Louis Rams (2-14)
The Rams' victories over the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys in consecutive weeks showed how badly they underperformed in the 14 remaining games. The team changed head coaches and briefly changed starting quarterbacks, but the Rams' problems ran deeper than they realized. New owner Chip Rosenbloom appears determined to shake up the organization, but will he put the right pieces in place? Grade: F
Biggest surprise: Rookie receivers from college programs with unsophisticated offensive schemes aren't supposed to flourish in coordinator Al Saunders' offense. Donnie Avery, the Rams' second-round choice from Houston, became one of the most productive rookie receivers in Rams history. Injuries slowed Avery at times, but he demonstrated starting-caliber talent and an ability to stretch defenses.
Biggest disappointment: It's hard to single out just one, but the Rams' offensive line failed to meet expectations even when Orlando Pace was in the lineup. Keeping Pace healthy stood as arguably the Rams' top priority heading into the season. By December, coach Jim Haslett was calling guard Richie Incognito his best offensive lineman. The Rams were overmatched at center. Right tackle Alex Barron proved unreliable. Left guard Jacob Bell failed to make the desired impact. As a result, quarterback Marc Bulger never got comfortable.
Biggest need: The Rams needs to become a tougher, more physical team on both sides of the ball. That means upgrading their offensive line and strengthening the middle of their defense. The Rams will once again hold the second overall pick in the draft. They could do worse than using that choice to find the next cornerstone for their offensive line, even if they think Pace has a couple more seasons.
Search time: The Rams' nosedive probably removes Haslett from serious consideration for the coaching job beyond this season. Newly appointed general manager Billy Devaney is leading the search. The sooner the Rams can name their next coach, the sooner they can move forward and out of their current mess.