Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL Nation [Print without images]

Tuesday, December 9, 2008
An early read on the 2009 division winner


 
 Chris Morrison/US Presswire
  Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (90) and fullback Terrelle Smith (45) dump Gatorade on head coach Ken Whisenhunt late in the fourth quarter against the St. Louis Rams. The Cardinals won the game, 34-10, to clinch the NFC West division title.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Arizona Cardinals appear poised to dominate the NFC West for years to come -- unless their MVP-caliber quarterback retires, leaves in free agency or suddenly starts acting his age.

The San Francisco 49ers are an absolute mess with no hope for a successful future.

Wait, that was last month. After three victories in four games, the 49ers appear primed for a reversal with fiery head coach Mike Singletary and cool quarterback Shaun Hill.

The Seattle Seahawks, 2-11 after six consecutive defeats, appear headed for a couple of rebuilding seasons after four years atop the division -- unless quarterback Matt Hasselbeck gets healthy and coach-in-waiting Jim Mora gets more from the defense.

The St. Louis Rams, also 2-11, face an even steeper climb than the Seahawks -- unless they fix their offensive line, thereby freeing up quarterback Marc Bulger, running back Steven Jackson, tight end Randy McMichael and receivers Torry Holt and Donnie Avery.

This predicting stuff can be a little unpredictable.

"The Cardinals won it this year; congratulations to them," Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney said. "It's great winning divisions and difficult in the NFL, but next year is a different year and all four teams will expect to win it."

For good reason.

Kerney, standing in the Seattle locker room following a Week 14 defeat to the New England Patriots, was speaking while the Cardinals were celebrating their first division title since 1975.

If the Cardinals can win a division title, every team can dare to dream.

The subject, raised through our most recent Hot Topic item, generated a spirited conversation.

"I would say that it will either be Arizona or San Fran," CowboyP893 wrote. "The Cardinals need to either re-sign Warner, or get [Matt] Leinart ready quick. The Niners are headed in the right direction as well. The Rams could be a team to reckon with, also, depending on off-season moves, and they still have Bulger, Holt, and Jackson to move the ball.

"The Seahawks are the only team that I would completely rule out from winning the division."

CowboyP389 blamed the Seahawks' troubles on poor personnel decisions stemming from a lack of cohesion between general manager Tim Ruskell and outgoing coach Mike Holmgren.

"How soon they forget the Seahawks," DiLune2 countered. "It's been a down year, but they aren't done yet. The Cardinals are not a team that can sustain excellence. They're a one-and-done champ."

And your precedent would be?

"It takes an incredible amount of incompetence to lose for as long and as much as the Cardinals have," dagon9 wrote. "They have moved coaches and personal thru the Cardinals, but the one constant is the ownership structure. We will see if this new stadium and all the money it has brought the Bidwills will give Cardinal fans the opportunity to actually see two PROFESSIONAL football teams in Arizona play every week instead of just the visiting one."

The schedule suggests that mission has been accomplished. Arizona is 5-1 at home this season and 11-3 in the two years under coach Ken Whisenhunt. A victory over the visiting Seahawks in Week 17 would give the Cardinals a 6-0 record against division opponents this season. It's tough to be more dominant within a division.

"They are a very good team," Seahawks safety Brian Russell said after the New England game. "They are the division champs this year. We can't say anything about that. But we have a chance going forward to improve and give ourselves a lot better chances to not go through days like this."

The offseason will bring its usual areas of uncertainty.

Warner isn't the only prominent player in Arizona with potential contract issues. Teammate Anquan Boldin, the Cardinals' emotional leader, remains unhappy with his deal after asking for a trade last offseason. Franchise player Karlos Dansby, one of the NFL's better linebackers without a Pro Bowl on his resume, remains without a deal for 2009.

Other potential free agents for Arizona include role players J.J. Arrington, Terrelle Smith, Bert Berry, Antonio Smith and Clark Haggans.

Few high-profile contract situations appear likely around the rest of the division.

Linebacker Leroy Hill leads a Seattle list that could include Bobby Engram, Maurice Morris, Leonard Weaver, Will Heller, Floyd Womack, Rocky Bernard, Howard Green and D.D. Lewis.

Pass rusher Roderick Green and receiver Bryant Johnson are part of a 49ers list that could include DeShaun Foster, Billy Bajema, Tony Wragge, Donald Strickland and J.T. O'Sullivan.

Ball-hawking safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, defensive tackle La'Roi Glover and emerging cornerback Ron Bartell lead a Rams list that could include Dante Hall, Brett Romberg, Nick Leckey, Adam Goldberg and Eric Moore.

Warner's fate in Arizona stands above all.

"Given all these unknowns, I think making any kind of statement on next year is fruitless," Ninersphan wrote. "I mean, three of the teams could have new coaches at the start of the season. I'll give Arizona the nod for the division crown if they bring back Warner -- if only because of stability in the franchise (who would've thunk that a few years ago?)"

Predictions tend to have short shelf lives. Only two of 16 ESPN.com panelists foresaw the Cardinals' division title this season. I thought Seattle would hold on for one more season before the Cardinals made a push in 2009. Of course, that was before the Cardinals named Warner their starter, before Warner proved he could protect the football and before the Seahawks knew quarterback Matt Hasselbeck would struggle to recover from a back injury.

"I'm sure people had the Patriots as a layup to win the AFC East this year," Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney said. "Every game is a new season and you take that circumstance and multiply it by 16 and that's just how random this business seems."

Indeed, all 16 ESPN.com panelists picked the Patriots to win their division. That was before MVP quarterback Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury.

At least one qualified analyst thinks the Cardinals will be tough to unseat in 2009.

"Whisenhunt has brought an attitude there, a winning attitude, and you gotta have it," Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu said. "It's a mindset. They are finishing games.

"They were always competitive, they were always giving you a game," Tatupu said. "For a while now, we haven't been able to beat them down there. Even in the Super Bowl year (2005), it was a tough game down there. Eventually, we got to pull away, but they just don't seem like they have in the past and that's a good thing. They've kind of grown accustomed to making it happen in the end. Congrats to them and I hope they represent our [division] well."