SEATTLE (AP) — Forget about the NFC Worst. Last year proved the NFC West is the deepest division in the NFL.
Whether it was San Francisco and Seattle, the league’s best rivalry, meeting in the NFC championship game, or the Seahawks posting the most lopsided Super Bowl victory in two decades by routing Denver, the profile of the NFC West is drastically different from a few years ago.
NFC West depth goes beyond just the Seahawks. The four teams combined to go 42-22 a year ago, the best of any division, and could be that good again.
There are concerns for each team entering 2014. St. Louis must discover if Sam Bradford can stay healthy. Arizona must replace linebackers Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby, and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. San Francisco will play at least half the season without All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
And Seattle must deal with the attention and scrutiny that comes with being the defending champ.
“They’re good, they’re the defending champs. They’re in our division, there’s a lot of motivation there,” San Francisco’s Justin Smith said.
Here are some things to watch in the NFC West:
CROWN OF THORNS: Seattle has never been a champion. But Pete Carroll has.
His blueprint for keeping the Seahawks elite involved locking up All-Pros cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas, plus receiver Doug Baldwin to contract extensions, re-signing DE Michael Bennett, and never resting on what happened last season. The Seahawks also avoided a contract dispute with RB Marshawn Lynch and have seen glimpses of the punch a healthy WR Percy Harvin could add to their offense.
Their defense might not match the suffocating numbers posted a year ago, but if quarterback Russell Wilson and the offense continues to evolve the Seahawks might not need the best defense to remain atop the division.
“If you’re going to have a good team you’re going to have to deal with these guys and these good teams, so that’s what we’re faced with,” Carroll said. “Whoever comes out on top of the division is really going to be ready to play anybody.”
LAST EXIT: Just off Highway 101, the 49ers move into their new palatial home this season — Levi’s Stadium — replacing the outdated Candlestick Park, and trying to regain their perch atop the division.
QB Colin Kaepernick is locked up long-term and he will have tight end Vernon Davis, WRs Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson as targets all season. Frank Gore and rookie Carlos Hyde will be the featured backs of an offense that again will rely heavily on the run.
Defensively there are more concerns. The secondary has been completely remodeled since the Niners’ Super Bowl appearance two seasons ago. Bowman likely won’t be back until at least midseason after a gruesome knee injury in the NFC championship game and there is no clarity on any discipline LB Aldon Smith may face for off-field troubles.
“For us, we have been close. We did go one year. That’s not good enough, we want to bring it home,” linebacker Patrick Willis said.
MAN OF THE HOUR: The defense Jeff Fisher has built in St. Louis is impressive. Whether the Rams can jump into contention will fall onto the arm of Bradford.
His status as the franchise quarterback for St. Louis continues to be debated as Bradford enters the final year of his rookie contract. He flourished early last season, completing 61 percent of his passes and 14 touchdown throws before a knee injury ended his year after seven games. The Rams added Kenny Britt as another target for Bradford, and the addition of rookie Greg Robinson should solidify the left side of the offensive line.
“Every year is a ‘make it or break it” year according to someone,” Bradford said.
St. Louis has a dominant front four on defense with Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers and the addition of rookie Aaron Donald. But the secondary must improve.
BIG WAVE: Arizona was one of the hottest teams at the end of last season after finally clicking under coach Bruce Arians, winning seven of its final nine. The Cardinals also hold the distinction of being the only team to win in Seattle since 2011 after knocking off the Seahawks in Week 16.
Quarterback Carson Palmer has another year in Arians’ system and Larry Fitzgerald remains an elite pass catcher. Andre Ellington established himself as Arizona’s leading rusher with 652 yards and three touchdowns his rookie season.
But the Cardinals are struggling to replace Dansby and Washington, and Dockett tearing his ACL is another significant loss. The secondary could be second best in the NFC behind Seattle thanks to incumbent CB Patrick Peterson and the additions of Antonio Cromartie and rookie Deone Bucannon.
“I really like the way our team battled through the second half of the season,” Arians said. “It makes this one more important and easier to get started.”
Predicted order of finish: Seahawks; 49ers; Rams; Cardinals.
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this story.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.