- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot on?
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: The 49ers return just about all the key players from the squad that went 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game last season. They appear stronger on paper after adding to their offensive weaponry through the draft and free agency. Having a full offseason should also let the 49ers more fully implement and grasp schemes that were new to the team when the lockout ended a year ago.
While all signs point to another strong season for the 49ers, it's tough to win 13 games once, let alone again. Sixty-one teams went 13-3 or better from 1978 through 2010. Five won as many games the next season. Zero won more games.
San Francisco was unusually healthy on defense last season. Quarterback Alex Smith started every game despite taking 44 sacks in the regular season and seven more in the playoffs. A plus-28 turnover differential will be difficult to duplicate. The NFC West appears to be getting more competitive.
More or less? Clayton's projection seems reasonable. Ten or 11 victories feels about right. That would give the 49ers back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2000-2001.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: After ranking 23rd in points scored and seventh in points allowed last season, Seattle surprisingly used eight 2012 draft choices for defense. No team used more picks for defensive players this year. Seattle has added most of its key skill players through free agency (Zach Miller, Sidney Rice, Kellen Winslow, Matt Flynn) and trade (Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington) over the last couple seasons.
The Seahawks were a quarterback upgrade away from reaching and probably surpassing .500 last season. They upgraded their depth at the position without question. Their as-yet-unnamed starter will probably fare better than incumbent Tarvaris Jackson, who played much of the 2011 season with a torn right pectoral muscle. The team has reason for optimism as a result, but there are still question marks surrounding the position.
The running game should remain strong with Tom Cable coaching the line and Lynch pounding away. Seattle will not ask its quarterback to carry the team. A strong defense will keep the Seahawks competitive. Taking that next step will require better play at quarterback, most likely from Flynn.
More or less? Clayton's expectations match my own. Seattle has been stuck at 7-9 over the past two seasons. The 2011 team did improve, however. I'd expect to see that reflected in the record.
ARIZONA CARDINALS: Nothing has come easy for the Cardinals since quarterback Kurt Warner retired following the 2009 season. The starting job remains open until Kevin Kolb or John Skelton wins it. Their race is critical for the team, of course, but an improved defense figures to keep the Cardinals competitive.
All but one key defender (Richard Marshall) returns after Arizona's defense allowed 12 touchdowns over its final nine games last season. The team needs increased contributions from young outside linebackers Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield to ensure continued improvement on that side of the ball.
Arizona won seven of its final nine games last season after a 1-6 start. The Cardinals' eight total victories came by 4.25 points on average. No team since at least 1970 has won as many games in a season by so few points on average, another reminder that nothing has come easy for this team lately.
Like Seattle, Arizona is banking on improved quarterback play. Kolb is in better position to succeed now that he knows the offense. But he has to win the job, first. Skelton played well enough in fourth quarters and overtime to earn the team's trust. Kolb has ground to make up.
More or less? Kolb's disappointing first season in Arizona gives skeptics an easy reason to discount the Cardinals. There's a risk in discounting them too much. I'll project more than seven victories for Arizona.
ST. LOUIS RAMS: Coach Jeff Fisher faces the biggest rebuilding project of his career. While his Houston Oilers improved from 2-14 to 7-9 in Fisher's first full season as head coach (1995), that organization had posted seven consecutive winning seasons before its big fall. The Rams are 15-65 over their previous five seasons. They haven't finished a season .500 or better since 2004.
The last time the Rams went 2-14, in 2008, they followed it up with a 1-15 record in 2009. The other three teams to finish 2-14 from 2008-2010 improved their records. One went 4-12 the next year. Two went 6-10.
St. Louis should benefit from improved health. The team finished last season with 16 players on injured reserve, including six cornerbacks, three offensive linemen and three wide receivers. The Rams lacked sufficient depth to weather that many injuries, especially with quarterback Sam Bradford missing games or playing hurt.
Bradford, Jason Smith and Robert Quinn are three pivotal players for the Rams this season. All three are young and highly drafted. Bradford is more important than the others, but the team needs more from all three.
More or less? The projections I made last month set the Rams' over-under at 5.5 victories, behind those for San Francisco (10), Seattle (8.5) and Arizona (7.5). I'll say Clayton's figure is on the low side, but I won't say it very loudly.
1mEric D. Williams