If not for the San Francisco 49ers, the NFC West might have been forced to enter another year as the doormat division of the NFL. With no team from its division boasting a winning record from 2011, the AFC West earns that dubious distinction this season.
Looking ahead to the Week 1 action, Russell Wilson kicks off his NFL career with a trip to the desert to face the division-rival Cardinals in a battle of the NFC West birdies. The Rams and 49ers take to the Midwest in an attempt to tackle two of the league's premiere passing attacks.
Let's look at the division's five most delicious storylines for Week 1, but not before delving into my NFC West over/under projections—in case you missed them.
1. Alex Smith Against the Packers Secondary
Let me guess, you were probably expecting the headline to read "Aaron Rodgers vs. Alex Smith". Sorry, but I'm not about to beat that worn out drum.
Of course, we will highlight the NFL's most efficient offense (Green Bay) against the league's top defense (San Fran)—but not before tackling this tasty topic first.
The Pack have led the NFL in interceptions each of the last four seasons, including 31 in 2011 (the most since the Super Bowl-winning Bucs posted an equal amount in 2002). Led by seven-time All-Pro Charles Woodson, Green Bay's secondary consistently produces game-changing turnovers by living the ball-hawking lifestyle that other team's secondaries envy.
Smith, however, helped direct the 49ers to the NFC Championship game with a unique ability to protect the pigskin. Most credit this to head coach Jim Harbaugh and the invisible restrictor plate he supposedly attached to Smith's arm, but ball-protection has always been in the Utah alum's nature.
It's a style that suits the 49ers well, but will the additions of WR's Randy Moss and Mario Manningham prove too tempting for the team's conservative nature and help create opportunities for the hungry Pack defensive backs to pounce?
All I can say is, this one's going to be fun.
2. Battle of the Quarterback Conundrums
The main focus of both the Seahawks and the Cardinals in their Week 1 matchup at The University of Phoenix Stadium is going to be squarely on making the opposing coach look worse about the QB he decided to start for the season opener.
Pete Carroll made the decision to start Russell Wilson over the signal-caller they just doled out $19.5 million (Matt Flynn) to. Ken Whisenhunt gave the less-than-impressive John Skelton the nod over a QB (Kevin Kolb) his front office egregiously overpaid a year before.
Okay, so maybe the main focus for each team will be to actually win the game, but good luck convincing me these coaches wouldn't love to take the pressure off of their own QB dilemma by placing a little extra heat on the other's.
Skelton was able to pile up a 7-2 record in nine games as the Cards' starter in 2011, but did so featuring a lowly passer rating of 68.9, in addition to an atrocious completion rate of 54.9%. In other words, the defense made him look much better than his individual play suggests. Odds are he won't fare any different in this matchup, the Hawks do boast one of the league's top secondaries.
3. Scoreability Kings vs. Bendability Kings
Back to the 49ers-Packers heavyweight matchup, as promised.
In Scoreability and Bendability, we have two of CHFF's Quality Stats which feature a striking correlation to wins and losses. The 49ers finished second in the NFL in Scoreability (obtained by dividing a team's total yards by points scored) and tops in Bendability (obtained by dividing a team's total yards allowed by total points allowed).
The Packers owned Scoreability (11.57) by averaging more than 1.5 PPY less than the 49ers, while San Fran finished a whopping 2.3 PPY over the second-ranked Patriots in Bendability.
So, what gives?
The 49ers are basically returning all 11 starters from last year's D, and it'd be difficult to fathom the Packers' O regressing much from last year's performance.
Conventional thinking would give Green Bay the edge at home, but Harbaugh's bunch proved last year winning on the road was no insurmountable challenge.
4. Rams vs. Lions Features Battle of Former No. 1 Overall Draft Picks
St. Louis has lost seven straight dating back to last year and will look to overcome a season decimated by injuries by starting strong in 2012.
The Rams have stocked the offense with young skill players to help get Sam Bradford back on the right path, but he won't stand a chance in Week 1 if his defense doesn't keep the game close early.
Matthew Stafford and the Lions offense looked to be in mid-season form this preseason, and though that usually doesn't account for much, there's no reason to believe they won't come out firing at Ford Field on Sunday.
Detroit wants to put a forgettable offseason behind them, and what better way to do that than going balls out against a team coming off a 2-14 season that was ranked at or near the bottom of nearly every one of our Quality Stats.
The Lions' running game is typically a non-factor, and without Jahvid Best (Physically Unable to Perform list) or Mikel Leshoure (serving two-game suspension), this game will be all about how newcoming CB's Cortland Finnegan (free agency) and Janoris Jenkins (draft) will handle Calvin Johnson and the Lions' potent passing game. How will Bradford react if (and likely when) facing an early deficit in this contest?
5. The Seahawks Could Get A Leg Up On The Division Early
I believe the 49ers are very capable of going into Lambeau and stealing a W, but we know the odds are not in their favor. St. Louis' chances of toppling Detroit at Ford Field are even more of a long shot.
So, whoever emerges victorious in the Seahawks-Cardinals matchup may very well find themselves a game ahead of everyone else in the NFC West. It really wouldn't take much.
But is Arizona capable of defending their turf against the division-rival Seahawks? Zona' closed out 2011 by winning their final five home games, but needed an overtime field goal to finish off this Seattle squad in the season finale.
The OT win was made possible because of two spectacular grabs by All-Pro WR Larry Fitzgerald. It'll take an equal amount of greatness from Fitz or stud cornerback/return man Patrick Peterson for a repeat victory to occur.
The Cards have a much more talented group of pass-catchers, but Skelton won't make life easy for them and Seattle overmatches Arizona in just about every other facet of the game outside of special teams.
This is a huge game right out of the gate for two teams looking to contend with the 49ers in 2012, and Seattle is more equipped to capitalize, even on the road.