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Tuesday, April 27, 2010
The Big Question: NFC West favorite?

By Mike Sando

NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Now that the draft has passed and free agency has slowed to a trickle, which NFC West team should be favored to win the division in 2010?

I like the 49ers' chances and consider them the early favorite even though writing off Arizona would make little sense. Overall, the division race should tighten as Seattle and St. Louis become more competitive.

Smith
Can Alex Smith lead the 49ers to the top of the NFC West?
The Cardinals still have good enough players to contend for the division. Beanie Wells should become a bigger factor. Quarterback Matt Leinart offered little in spot duty last season, but he played well enough to win the only game he started, losing at Tennessee when the Titans put together a 99-yard touchdown drive at the end. We shouldn't assume he'll be horrible.

Leinart or backup Derek Anderson could be better than anticipated, but they won't be as good as Kurt Warner over the course of the season. That has to cost the Cardinals. The 49ers beat Arizona twice last season even with Warner. Take away Warner and San Francisco's chances improve.

"I tend to agree," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "The loss of Warner is just so substantial, and without him there, I expect a drop-off pretty much across the board. Losing other prominent players doesn't help, either. As for the Niners, they are up-and-coming and certainly have fewer holes than Arizona at this point. They are my pick as well."

The 49ers still have the best defense in the division. Their offense should improve as Michael Crabtree gains experience and rookie first-round linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati get more comfortable.

"They should be more physical," Williamson said. "I like their defense better. And I think San Francisco's passing game should be every bit as potent as the Cards'. I'm on the fence about Alex Smith, but he could shine."

One question I have is whether the 49ers are ready to meet inflated expectations. Smith hasn't proven himself over a full season. The 49ers couldn't win the one game they had to have last season, inexplicably losing at Seattle when the division lead appeared within striking distance.

The 49ers will have to reassess if they can't finally break through and win the division without Warner running the Cardinals' offense.