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NFC West preview: NFL's reigning toughest division has new challengers

The NFL West has risen in recent years to become the league's best division. Will it maintain its perch in 2015?

The NFC West has served as the conference's representative at each of the past three Super Bowls, with Seattle winning it all two years ago and both the Seahawks and 49ers coming within mere yards of additional titles. The division's four teams averaged 9.25 wins last season and a whopping 10.5 during 2013, with only the 7–9 Rams failing to top the .500 mark.

By most measures, this has been the NFL's preeminent division of late. Can the NFC West maintain its perch in 2015?

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The answer lies not at the top, where Seattle again is positioned as the team to beat, nor even in second place—Arizona started 9–1 last season and should be formidable again, if Carson Palmer's knees hold up. No, the West's reputation will come down to St. Louis and San Francisco, two franchises with a wide spread of possible outcomes in 2015.

The Rams have been mired in a familiar rut all three years of Jeff Fisher's tenure as coach, in which they hit midseason all but out of the playoff race and then pull off a couple of “Hey, these guys are better than we thought” wins down the stretch. St. Louis has not qualified for the playoffs since 2004, and its last season above .500 came in 2003. A new starting quarterback (Nick Foles) and new offensive coordinator (Frank Cignetti) have to click early if those streaks are to end.

And then there is San Francisco, a franchise still looking to find its footing after one of the most tumultuous off-seasons in league history. The 2012 NFC champions lost their coach plus several key players to retirement, then released former top-10 pick Aldon Smith following his latest in a long line of off-field incidents.

Expectations surrounding the 49ers haven't been this low since the aftermath of the franchise's 2–14 season in 2004. This year's roster, though, is far from a complete wasteland of talent, whether that shows up in the final score or not.

Barring a breakthrough by the Rams or surprising resurgence from the 49ers, the NFC West figures to be a two-team race again. Arizona had a sizable lead last season before fading under the direction of Palmer's backups down the stretch.

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“[It's] as big of a feeling of unfinished business as you could have,” Palmer told The MMQB's Jenny Vrentas. “That’s the main thing. We were 9–1, and things ended for me, and we just didn’t finish the year strong, and it left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths—no more than mine.”

There is a line drawn in the sand separating Seattle and Arizona from St. Louis and San Francisco as Week 1 approaches. Should either the Rams or 49ers manage to cross the boundary and contend, the NFC West's claim to the title of the NFL's toughest division may continue.

Favorite: Seahawks

The Cardinals may have something to say about this, but there is no doubt Seattle deserves top billing. The Seahawks have won back-to-back NFC titles, fielded the league's No. 1 scoring defense in each of the past three seasons and welcomed superstar tight end Jimmy Graham into their offense this off-season.

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“The sky's the limit for us right now,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell told SI's Doug Farrar back in June. “[Graham's] size is tremendous. Obviously with how tall he is already he's got a great catch radius. He can leap up and catch the ball. He's flexible enough to ... if you throw back-shoulder throws he can get back there and get those kinds of throws as well. We're excited to kinda just keep playing with it and see what we have.”

Bevell already had a top-ranked rushing attack at his disposal, led by the enigmatic but ultra-consistent Marshawn Lynch. Graham should help push the passing game into a more featured role. The unit's main concern lies along the offensive line, as Seattle's preseason opener against Denver showed.

Still, the Seahawks' offense boasts quite a collection of weapons for a team that still stakes its reputation on defense. After a sluggish 3–3 start last year, the Seahawks did not allow more than 24 points in any game until their heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. Seven times during that stretch, including five in six games to close the regular season, their opponents failed to reach double digits.

There have been some defections, notably at cornerback—Byron Maxwell signed a huge deal with Philadelphia this off-season, one year after Brandon Browner left for New England. But the featured players like Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor (contract holdout pending) remain. Seattle has what it needs to go the distance again.

Dark horse: Rams

Arizona's impressive follow-up to its unexpected 2013 turnaround has pushed the Cardinals beyond “dark horse” designation. St. Louis holds the title this season, with a chance to make a statement with a Week 1 home game against Seattle.

Above all else, we know the Rams can rush the passer. The defense actually disappointed a bit in 2014 by producing 40 sacks, good for just 15th in the league. Its ability to disrupt the opposition was not adequately measured by that stat, however. There may not be a deeper front four in the league—Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and William Hayes all return, with Nick Fairley joining them via free agency.

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The Rams did take a hit last week, losing cornerback E.J. Gaines for the season to a foot injury. How well the remaining defensive backs cover for him could make or break the entire unit.

The offense is a wait-and-see case, too. There are several new faces up front, led by projected rookie starters Jamon Brown and Rob Havenstein. St. Louis's first-round pick, running back Todd Gurley, likely won't be available until at least late September. All this around new quarterback Nick Foles, who comes over from Philadelphia with critics keeping a close eye on the transition.

A lot has to go right for St. Louis to jump from six-win team to NFC West champ. The Rams believe it just might.

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There are a handful of potential MVP choices on the Seahawks alone. Thomas's fellow defensive back, Richard Sherman, tends to draw most of the headlines (not to mention the ire of opposing fan bases), but even he cannot match the impact Thomas has on this phenomenal defense.

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​The 26-year-old safety features an irreplaceable mix of speed and instincts, allowing him to cover incredible amounts of ground from his deep station. If he gets to the football, look out—Thomas has a knack for causing turnovers (four forced fumbles last season and 16 career picks) and is a lethal hitter.

Without his presence in the secondary, Seattle almost certainly would have to change its entire defensive game plan. His skill set makes all that happens in front of him possible.

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Breakout player: Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers

The 49ers' offensive line did not dodge the turmoil of the past few months. Starting tackle Anthony Davis “retired” (though he plans to return next year) and dominant run-blocking guard Mike Iupati left for Arizona. The reworked group still has to prove its capabilities under new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst, but Hyde is in line for a huge season if that happens.

Chryst wants to reestablish San Francisco as a potent power-running team, and Frank Gore's exit in free agency leaves a ton of carries for Hyde and his fellow backs. Hyde rushed for 333 yards and four touchdowns on 83 attempts last season. Extrapolate that out to the 250 or so carries Gore averaged per year, and Hyde would be in the 1,000-yard, 12-touchdown range.

Rookie to watch: Tyler Lockett, WR/KR, Seahawks

The Seahawks' depth chart may be too crowded for Lockett to earn many targets this season, but he is talented enough to make an impact somewhere. Case in point: his 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the preseason opener against the Broncos. If Seattle cannot find a way to get the undersized but polished rookie receiver involved on offense, Lockett will have to settle for emerging as a dangerous special-teams player.

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Coach with most to prove: Jeff Fisher, Rams

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When it comes to Fisher's career, the whole may be greater the sum of its parts. He does have 162 wins to his credit, good for 14th all-time, plus six trips to the playoffs and a conference championship. The problem is that it has been a very long time—at least by NFL standards—since Fisher really pushed a team over the top.

In his last five seasons as a head coach (2009–10 with Tennessee, then 2012–14 with St. Louis), Fisher is 34-45-1; he has not won a playoff game since the 2003 season.

The Rams had ample work to do in fixing their roster when Fisher arrived, but when does the rope run out? This is his fourth year with St. Louis, and the franchise might be on the move to Los Angeles in the near future. Sooner rather than later, Fisher has to prove he deserves a long-term commitment.

Must-watch divisional game: Cardinals at Seahawks, Nov. 15

The wheels began to wobble for Arizona last year when Palmer went down with his knee injury. They started falling off when Seattle handed the Cardinals a 19–3 defeat in Week 12. The Seahawks completed the season sweep less than a month later, hammering the Cardinals by 29 in Glendale.

This is pretty simple: If the Cardinals have any hope of overtaking the Seahawks in the NFC West, they have to win at least one of their two regular-season meetings. The Sunday night matchup in Week 10 will be Arizona's first shot; the second comes in Week 17.

There's a lot of football between now and Nov. 15, but for the time being, circle this clash as a possible swing game in the NFC West. The winner very well could take the driver's seat in the division race.