- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

NFC WEST

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Last season: 9-7 (lost in divisional round)

Coach: Mike Holmgren (147-93, 75-61 with Seahawks), ninth season

Story line: A sometimes great, sometimes average player in Atlanta, free-agent acquisition Patrick Kerney is expected to be an elite pass rusher for Seattle.

Power game: On offense, QB Matt Hasselbeck, running back Shaun Alexander and left tackle Walter Jones are dependable performers. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu is a star in the making.

Achilles” heel: Little wideout talent after Deion Branch. Combination of young (Kelly Jennings) and new (Deon Grant) in the secondary.

On the hot seat: QB Matt Hasselbeck. Granted, it”s not like a bad season will result in his departure from Seattle, but he needs to be better than last year (18 TDs, 15 INTs, 76.0 passer rating).

Bottom line: The rest of the NFC West is catching up with the Seahawks, who still have just enough to win a fourth straight division title.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Last season: 7-9

Coach: Mike Nolan (11-21), third season

Story line: An also-ran since they defeated the Giants in the 2002 playoffs, the 49ers hold high hopes after a strong finish last year and an offseason free-agent spending spree.

Power game: Third-year QB Alex Smith is coming into his own. Cornerback Nate Clements is a physical corner. Running back Frank Gore is a fantasy football dream.

Achilles” heel: Some question marks at receiver, despite offseason additions. A defensive line that might not be very productive.

On the hot seat: CB Nate Clements. He signed the richest-ever contract for a defensive player (8 years, $80 million, $22 million guaranteed). With that comes the obvious pressure to intercept a lot of passes.

Bottom line: The 49ers jumped from two wins to four to seven. But they”re probably still a year away from making the playoffs.

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Last season: 5-11

Coach: Ken Whisenhunt, first season

Story line: Whisenhunt comes from Pittsburgh with an offense that he hopes will speed up Matt Leinart”s development and improve a dormant running game.

Power game: Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin are Pro Bowl-caliber receivers. The linebackers corps has ball-hawking ability.

Achilles” heel: Running back Edgerrin James may be finished. Leinart”s blind-side protection will be rookie right tackle Levi Brown.

On the hot seat: James. Signed to a big contract, he produced only three 100-yard games — all when the Cardinals were out of playoff contention.

Bottom line: Hiring Whisenhunt was the right move, but Dennis Green left the non-skilled position part of the cabinet empty. Rebuilding is necessary.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Last season: 8-8

Coach: Scott Linehan (8-8), second season

Story line: Like a lot of teams, the Rams are in good shape on offense but still have concerns about a defense that was awful last season.

Power game: Armed with a new contract, QB Marc Bulger is quietly one of the league”s best. Running back Steven Jackson is a threat to run it and catch it. Wideouts Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt can still go get the deep ball.

Achilles” heel: Defense, defense, defense. The addition of tackle Adam Carriker helps, but this team won”t stop anybody.

On the hot seat: Jim Haslett. The second-year defensive coordinator must get better play from his unit, which allowed 30 or more points six times last year.

Bottom line: Like Arizona and Detroit, the Rams will be a fun team to watch offensively. But they won”t be improved enough defensively to make much noise.

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Seattle

2. San Francisco

3. St. Louis

4.Arizona

MVP candidate: Running back Frank Gore, 49ers

Best coach: Mike Holmgren, Seahawks

Top newcomer: Cornerback Nate Clements, 49ers

Most missed: Wide receiver Darrell Jackson, Seahawks

Top rookie: Defensive tackle Adam Carriker, Rams

Best stadium: Qwest Field, Seattle

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