Arizona could be best in NFC West

Only the 49ers are expected to be out of this race this season.
The fashionable pick in the NFC West these days seems to be Arizona. The Cardinals are improved and should reach the .500 mark for the first time since 1998, when they were 9-7.
And an 8-8 record could sneak off with this weak division, where only the 49ers aren't good enough to contend.
Still, the Rams should have plenty of offense and just enough defense to overcome any challenges -- and overcome coach Mike Martz's sometimes strange sideline decisions.
Seattle seems too fragile and must prove it can beat the Rams, who swept three meetings with the Seahawks last year.
Faulk now backup
These are not the Rams who dominated the early decade with a scintillating passing attack and the magical Marshall Faulk. Steven Jackson has usurped Faulk as the starting running back, and Marc Bulger long ago took over for Kurt Warner, who is now with the Cardinals.
"When he has that adrenaline going, he's tough to bring down," Bulger says of Jackson, in his second pro season. "You give him a little bit of a crease, his legs are so big and he's so strong that he's tough to bring down."
The receiving corps remains dynamic as long as Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are around, and Rams fans are excited about Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald. Bulger could have more options than Warner did --if Jackson is as good as advertised and Faulk still has some of his touch -- and the line is one of the NFL's best.
For St. Louis to do better than the 8-8 that got it into the playoffs as a wild card, it needs a less-charitable defense. The Rams yielded 392 points last season, 12th in the NFC.
That prompted a bunch of moves, particularly at linebacker (Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne) and in the secondary, where starting cornerback Jerametrius Butler already is gone with a wrecked knee. If the Rams can cover people and get the usual pass rush from end Leonard Little, plus improved performances from the linebackers, they should be the class of the division.
Watch for defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy and end Anthony Hargrove to support Little, which should help the so-so secondary.
"We played pretty well on the defensive line last year and I felt like our linebacker play wasn't what it needed to be," Martz said. "We've made the personnel changes, and it was significant. This is as excited as I've been about a defense here."
Cardinals' defense rugged
They're excited about defense in the desert, too. Indeed, the Cardinals are showing more signs of life in all areas than at any time recently, and if the Rams remain a .500 team, Arizona could steal the division.
Only the Eagles and Redskins in the NFC gave up fewer points than the Cardinals last year, and Arizona's unit is young and growing quickly. Top draftee Antrel Rolle is the best cover cornerback on the team, and he hasn't even played a real game yet, which says something about the secondary. But the rest of the aggressive D is very promising, led by tackle Darnell Dockett, ends Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor and linebacker Karlos Dansby.
Seattle need not worry about its running game, unless Shaun Alexander gets hurt -- or is still stung by losing the rushing title to Curtis Martin by a yard. Alexander not only is a prime rusher, but he gets into the end zone (20 TDs).
He'll work behind two Pro Bowl blockers, Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson, and with streaky quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. If Hasselbeck gets back to the level of his 2003 performance, the passing game might be noteworthy. But the receivers are so-so, unless newcomers Joe Jurevicius and Jerome Pathon provide a boost.
49ers rebuilding
There's weakness all over the place for the rebuilding 49ers, who won only two times last year and could be hard-pressed to surpass that in 2005.
Already, top overall draftee Alex Smith has lost the quarterbacking spot to Tim Rattay, which says a lot about Smith's development so far. The Niners, for the first time in memory, have no standout receivers, though Brandon Lloyd shows promise, and an unreliable running game if Kevan Barlow can't stay interested.
The defense under new coach Mike Nolan and with linebacker Julian Peterson returning to anchor a 3-4 setup, seems slightly more promising. The Niners actually might have one of the conference's better units, but it could be under siege with such a struggling offense.

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