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NFL Preview ~ West

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By Senior Columnist
Nick Ferraro

It’s almost here! Football camps are open, and the countdown is officially underway. Jetnation is going to get you ready with our NFL 2005 Season Preview. Each week leading up to the season opener, we’ll breakdown one AFC and NFC division. This week we take a look at the AFC and NFC West. The NFC West will be a three-way dogfight while the AFC West may be the league’s best division top to bottom.

NFC West
Division Rank: 8th
Last Season:
Seattle 9-7
St. Louis 8-8
Arizona 6-10
San Fran 2-14

2005 Projection:
Seattle 9-7
Arizona 8-8
St. Louis 7-9
San Fran 2-14

The NFC West will not produce a true Super Bowl contender, but it does promise to be interesting as the Rams, Seahawks, and Cards will be tightly bunched at the top of the division. The Niners will be interesting if only to find out if Alex Smith is the real deal. A tight race to the wire will go Seattle’s way, but none of these teams will spend more than one week in the playoffs.

Arizona Cardinals

Off-season: A
Dennis Green has the Cards moving. They had a strong draft and picked up key free agents. Antrel Rolle, JJ. Arrington and Darryl Blackstock are as good as any first three picks in the league. Chike Okeafor will blend in nicely opposite Bert Berry. Kurt Warner will provide stability in the pocket and should play better with a more talented cast around him than he had in New York. Oliver Ross was underrated in Pittsburgh and was a nice pick up. The Cards will need to replace Emmitt Smith’s presence and leadership.

The season will go well if….
Warner can rekindle a bit of the magic he had in St. Louis. He has more talent at wide receiver than he had in New York. We don’t expect an MVP season, but he should best McCown’s 11 TDs from last year.

The season will go poorly if…
The Cards get of to a bad start. Three of the first four games are against division foes. The Cards need to convince themselves they can stay in the race. They opened 0-3 last year. That can’t happen again if they hope to play past December.

Key Game
SEATTLE –November 6th
If things go very well, the Cards could be 5-2 heading into the game against Seattle. If so, a win will build their confidence and set them up for a real run at the post-season. It will also help them turn around a 3-10 mark in November over the last three seasons.

Bottom Line:
9-7 is reachable, but it’s more likely the Cards will land at 8-8. That may be enough in a weak NFC West. If not, it will certainly have the Cards at least talking playoffs. That’s something that’s never happened before in the desert. The Cards need to be in good shape before the last two weeks of the season as they finish with Philadelphia and Indianapolis.

San Francisco 49ers

Off-season: B
The Niners are hoping Alex Smith is the franchise quarterback they have been looking for since Steve Young retired. Smith will get his chance early and will learn on the fly with the rebuilding Niners. David Baas was a solid selection in the second round. OT Jonas Jennings was a nice free-agent addition to the OL. Cap issues kept the Niners from plugging an abundance of roster holes.

The season will go well if….
The Niners can somehow squeeze three wins out the season. It will take new head coach Mike Nolan a year or two to bring the team back to respectability.

The season will go poorly if…
Well, it’s definitely going to go poorly. It will get real bad if the Niners can’t move the ball. The offense needs to be productive to keep the defense off the field. The Niners were last in the league at 16.2 points per game in 2004.

Key Game
ARIZONA – December 4th
The Niners two wins came against the Cards last season. The Niners can throw a wrench in the Cardinal’s post-season plans if they can pull a win off again in 2005.

Bottom Line:
The Niners will be on the clock again at the close of 2005. There are just too many holes to expect tangible improvement. A solid draft and a few key free agents will make 2006 a more respectable year.

Seattle Seahawks

Off-season: C
The focus appropriately was on defense as the team allowed 351 yards per game last season. The draft was nothing special. We like Lofa Tatupu despite his status as a “tweener� by NFL standards. Ken Lucas will be missed in the defensive backfield.

The season will go well if….
The defense can improve. This has been the mantra in Seattle since Holmgren took over. He will be out of work if the defense struggles again 2005.

The season will go poorly if…
The receivers continue to drop the ball. A porous defense and stone hands at WR are a dangerous combination. Continuing issues with Shaun Alexander’s contract would hamper things as well.

Key Game
INDIANAPOLIS – December 24th
Both teams figure to need the win for post-season positioning. The Colts will be a major test for the Seahawk defense.

Bottom Line:
The Seahawks appear set for a repeat of last year. They’ll squeak by in a close division race and post a quick playoff exit in what figures to be Holmgren’s last year in the great Northwest.

St. Louis Rams

Off-season: C
The Rams did well in the draft. Barron and Incognito will help rebuild the OL. Issues on the OL kept the Rams from landing a sorely needed defensive stud. Free agency failed to produce anything noteworthy.

The season will go well if….
The team can run the ball better. The Rams finished 26th in rushing yards in 2004. This used to be Marshall Faulk’s team. Stephen Jackson needs to be productive to keep the defense on the sideline.

The season will go poorly if…
The OL struggles to run block and protect Bulger. The offense needs to compensate for a defense that allowed almost 25 points per game last year.

Key Game
SAN FRAN – December 24th
The Niners are the lone soft patch in a daunting final four weeks for the Rams. They finish at Minnesota, home for Philly and San Fran, and at Dallas. A slip up against the lowly Niners will doom any chance the Rams have at making the playoffs.

Bottom Line:
Like Seattle, there is no reason to expect the Rams to be much improved from last season. They’ll finish looking up at Arizona and Seattle and out of the playoffs.

AFC West
Division Rank: 2nd
Last Season:
San Diego 12-4
Denver 10-6
Kansas City 7-9
Oakland 5-11

2005 Projection:
Denver 11-5
San Diego 11-5
Kansas City 8-8
Oakland 8-8

The AFC West is the second toughest division to live in going into the season. It may prove to be the toughest if Kansas City and Oakland improve. The Chargers can’t sneak up on anyone this year, and they’ll face a stiff challenge from Denver. There will be no easy games with Kansas City and Oakland lighting up the scoreboards and making life difficult for everyone.

Denver Broncos

Off-season: I
The Broncos took some major risks this off-season. Adding Brown’s cast-offs Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, and Ebenezer Ekuban were the largest of the free agent gambles. Denver also tabbed the enigmatic Maurice Clarett in the third round of this year’s draft. Denver’s off-season grade hinges on how much the oft-injured Brown and rehabilitated Ekuban can produce. The draft was unimpressive, but we love they deal they made with Washington to land an extra 1st rounder next year.

The season will go well if….
Plummer can reduce his mistakes. The Snake had twenty-seven TDs last season, but notched twenty INTs in the process. If Trevor Pryce and Courtney Brown are healthy, and Gerrard Warren is motivated, Denver could have the league’s best DL.

The season will go poorly if…
Rod Smith can’t maintain his high level of play for a 12th year. Ashley Lelie hasn’t shown he can make the tough mid-range catch that Smith has made a career snaring.

Key Game
at Kansas City – December 4th
The Broncos were embarrassed last year in KC 45-17. A win in this year’s tilt will help get a brutal final month off to a good start.

Bottom Line:
A punishing schedule may leave Denver with the same record as last year even if they’ve improved. They should add a victory to last year’s total and make another post-season appearance.

Kansas City Chiefs

Off-season: A
The Chiefs added some big names to their defense through free agency. Patrick Surtain will be the best CB to line up for KC in quite a while. They were also fortunate that Derrick Johnson was still on the board when their turn came in the draft’s first round.

The season will go well if….
The Chiefs can generate a consistent pass rush. The Chiefs were last against the pass last season. That had as much to do with a poor rush as poor coverage.

The season will go poorly if…
The OL shows signs of age. Roaf and Shields enter their 14th seasons. The high octane Chiefs need them to maintain their level of play to have a chance.

Key Game
NY Jets – September 11th
The Chiefs opened 0-3 last season and were never a factor thereafter. They figure to do the same if they drop the opener as they make primetime visits to Oakland and Denver in weeks two and three.

Bottom Line:
The Chiefs pass rush still figures to leave them behind in the race for the division. There are worries at WR as well; although, the Chiefs always seem to compensate on offense. An 8-8 mark seems all the improved Chiefs can muster in a difficult division.

Oakland Raiders

Off-season: A
The Raiders were major movers this off-season. They’ll be the story of the league this year as Randy Moss and LaMont Jordan join what figures to be the NFL’s most prolific offense. We love their draft as well. Andrew Walter was a great pickup in round three.

The season will go well if….
The Raiders can stop anyone. The offense will produce. The defense can’t leave it with too much ground to make up.

The season will go poorly if…
The running game doesn’t improve. The OL needs to do better than 81 yards rushing per game.

Key Game
Kansas City – September 18th
The Raiders will open 0-3 if they drop the Chiefs game. The home opener against KC is sandwiched between road games against Super Bowl combatants New England and Philadelphia.

Bottom Line:
The Raiders should improve to 8-8 after a solid off-season. The defense will make them an also-ran in the division.

San Diego Chargers

Off-season: B-
The Chargers had a nice draft, but they were non-factors in the free agent market. If the issues with Antonio Gates contract continue into the season it will be a disaster for the Chargers.

The season will go well if….
If the Chargers find someone at WR to complement Gates. LaDainian Tomlinson caught more passes than any Charger wideout last year.

The season will go poorly if…
The new faces on defense, Merriman and Castillo, don’t help the pass rush. The Chargers were strong on defense last year, but they had to blitz too often in order to create pressure.

Key Game
DENVER – December 31st
The Chargers have two of their last three on the road. The closer is at home against Denver. It may be for the division title.

Bottom Line:
The Chargers grab a wild-card berth with an 11-5 mark. They are about to learn the difference between a last-place schedule and a first-place schedule. If Gates holds out for any significant length of time, the Chargers will fall out of the post-season.

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